Admiralstrasse, Kreuzberg, Berlin… What’s conjured up by these words? Lou Reed… Nico… naked people with strapped-on plastic dildos dancing in underground nightclubs in the name of Brecht and Art? Yes, all these things. Oh, and something else. In this capital city of Germany they have now also evolved a hamburger known as the Suck-u-burger. Unintentional but weird…

Visceral

By Mary Hendrie

Essay

Visceral: Of or pertaining to the viscera.

Viscera: The organs in the cavities of the body, especially the abdominal cavity.

Viscus: Singular of viscera

Viscous: Of a glutinous nature or consistency; sticky; thick; adhesive

Vicious: Addicted to or characterized by vice; grossly immoral; depraved; profligate

I could go on looking up definitions of words all day. My vocabulary is so lacking. Visceral, though. That’s a good one.

This word keeps cropping up lately, mostly when people describe their reactions to dramatic events. A visceral reaction: instinctive, possibly even impulsive, wild, presumably a strong response. An animal moment. A moment in which we are not just in touch with our guts but ruled by them. One with them. We are intestines.

[Go ahead. Allow yourself to get strange. Maintaining normalcy is exhausting.]

Visceral is a car wreck, the way time slows down, the way we have no clue, no matter what we tell the police and the insurance adjustor and the other driver, no clue what we did in that split second that allowed us to live. We just remember spinning.

My theory, and I always have one, is that we use these words to reflect more of what we wish we were than what we actually are. We are so goddamned civilized, or at least on the surface, with all our methods and tools. With all our evolution, we are standing up straight, even at an unnatural incline in our shoes, and we are buttoned down and made up and watching the news and trying not to cry because it will damage the five-minute-makeup job we have perfected. I cannot cry over Iran because I will have to explain myself, and I didn’t bring the makeup to patch up, and there is nothing crazier than crying at your laptop because someone across the world got beat up by a cop.

Civilized people know these things happen and do not cry about it.


You might remember from an earlier story that I gave the go-ahead for my mom’s amputation. It wasn’t THAT big a deal. It was only ONE foot. (She had two, for heaven sakes. People use prostheses all the time. No one chooses to die instead of getting a single little foot removed, right?)

My mother was always changing her mind. There are hundreds of stories about her changing her mind. How was I to know she wasn’t going to change her mind for the first time in her entire life?

 

In the ten years she lived either with us or a block from us, I took her shopping frequently. First to buy something, then to return it, then to buy it again and to return it all over again and, believe it or not, to drive back to buy it yet again. My mother even returned FOOD to the grocery store. Who returns food to the grocery store?

Once she bought a pair of pants from Talbot’s. She had them for months but decided that she no longer liked them. I drove her to return the pants. The saleslady opened the box and looked at the pants. My mother had shortened them. The saleslady looked at the cuffs and didn’t bat an eye. Talbot’s still took them back. Who knew you could alter clothes and still return them? She had shrunken to way less than five feet. Who could ever use them? A midget?


My mother was supposed to get a prosthesis. She was all set to go to physical therapy and I had hoped that she could adapt to the new “foot” with time. But regardless of what the therapist or the doctor or the nurses or I did, she refused to even try.


When this was happening, we got a postcard in the mail with a painting on the front from an Art Gallery. It was a painting by Seth Michael Forman. I brought it in to show Mom.

 

“Irene Marie! This is Daddy and me in heaven! And look! My FOOT gets to come!”

 

 

“You have to buy this painting!” she exclaimed. So I did. It’s hanging on the wall right now.

I brought the bottom three, Timothy, Lenore and Benjamin, to visit her because I was under the ridiculous delusion that she cared about her grandchildren in spite of how she behaved around them and what she said about them over the years. (The top two were away at school and couldn’t visit as often.)

 

During one visit, NANA addressed Tim:

 

“You have access to sharp objects, don’t you, Tim? Bring me some sharp scissors or a sharp paring knife so I can slit my throat, okay Tim?”

 

“Mom. This is not the way you speak to your grandchildren. Ask them about their day. What they did in school.”

 

“I don’t give a shit what they did in school, Irene Marie.”

 

“Kiss your Nana and we have to go home now.”

 

The next day I brought the bottom three back in, since obviously I was delusional. We brought store-bought get-well cards and homemade ones every day.


“Lenore, go under the sink. There are lots of poisons under the sink. Put them all in a bag and bring them to me, like a good girl. I need poisons to drink and they won’t give me any here, the bastards.”


“Kiss your Nana goodnight. We’ll visit her again soon but it’s time to go home now.”

 

The next day the bottom three brought more flowers for her bedside stand.

 

“We love you, Nana.”

 

“Benjamin, you’re the smart one. Find out Dr. Kevorkian’s phone number, write it down and give it to me tomorrow.”

 

“Nana, I don’t want to be a party to that. I know that you want me to do this so that he will help you to commit suicide with his death machine. I am not comfortable with being your accomplice in this endeavor.”


(Seriously, ask anyone, this is EXACTLY how Benjamin spoke as a little kid. Ben was practically born speaking like William Buckley. )


“Time to go home, kids, lots of homework to do tonight.”

 

Here’s a picture of Lenore and Benjamin with NANA. Tim was there but there was no more room on the bed.

 

I decided, long overdue, I’ll admit, that bringing the children was:

1. Hurting my children

and

 

2. Not helping NANA one bit.

 

So. From then on I went by myself.

 

I brought her fresh fruit every day. She loved fresh fruit. I cooked foods that she liked and brought her small portions most days because she said the food in the nursing home was intolerable. I fed her. I changed her clothes. I took her to the bathroom with her one foot. I bathed her. I washed her hair. I put rollers in her hair. I combed out her hair into a hairdo she always hated, I washed her false teeth. I tweezed the hairs that sprouted from her chin.


She was having a lot of problems in the nursing home. Her Evil Roommate was spying on her. The Evil Roommate was telling tales and making up lies. She needed to get rid of the Evil Roommate.

 

NANA had trouble telling time because recently the hands of the clock kept spinning. She needed a better clock. I brought her another clock. Oddly, that clock had the same problem with spinning hands. The hands of the clocks didn’t spin while I watched, but perhaps they spun when I wasn’t there. It was impossible for her to tell the time. It was a conspiracy against her!

 

People were stealing her clothes. All the good clothes were missing. Someone knew which of her clothes were expensive. She blamed the laundry. So I did her laundry from then on. After that, people were stealing her clean clothes from her closet while she slept.

 

Insects were crawling up the wall and over her bed. She rang the call button to complain day and night. The room was checked thoroughly and frequently, but no actual insects were found. She continued to see insects swarming everywhere. She saw them when I was with her. I swatted the wall with a towel and told her they were dead, but she continued to see them.

 

One particularly bad day, I came in and she asked for her lunch.

 

I went to fetch it.

She told me to take the damn tray away.

I did.

She told me she didn’t want that lunch.

She wanted cereal.

I went out and asked the nurse if there was any cereal. There was and I brought it back with a spoon and a bowl. She said that she could not be expected to eat her cereal without a damn tray.

I went to fetch the damn tray again.

When I returned she was pouring milk into the box.

“You don’t want to do that, MOM. Here, let me help you.”

 

I put the cereal in the bowl and poured the milk in the bowl for her.

 

She wanted more napkins, so I went to fetch them.

Then I returned.

 

She had put her false teeth in her cereal.


She was drinking the water out of her false teeth cup.

 

I took a deep breath.

 

I said, “Mom, you don’t want to be drinking that!”

 

I took her teeth out of the cereal and took the teeth cup from her hands.

 

I ran to the bathroom and rinsed them both off.

 

I ran back and in that short time she had poured the entire bowl of cereal and milk all over the nice clean clothes she had on.

 

Right on her lap.

 

“Now look what I’ve done! And this is an historic document!”

 

“Don’t you worry, Mom, I can clean that document as good as new.”

 

“Are you blind, Sara? This document is ruined!”

 

(Try to keep in mind that I am still, and have always been, Irene, and, I’m going to go out on a limb here, [pardon the pun], but I question the existence of the historic document on my mother’s lap.)

 

When NANA’S birthday came, I made an exception and brought the bottom three again. (It is obvious that I am learning disabled.)

 

It didn’t really matter, because she didn’t know who they were, thinking that Lenore was her sister-in-law, Betty, and Timothy was Tushar and Benjamin she just couldn’t recognize. I’m not sure she even saw him, hovering there trying to be helpful.

 

Not too many days after that I was just finishing up making dinner before I picked the kids up from school, when I got a call.

 

“Is this Irene Zion? This is your mother’s nursing home and you must come immediately to escort her to the hospital by ambulance.”

 

“Uh, why??”

My mother had put a plastic bag over her head and taped it around her neck with scotch tape.

 

Her roommate called the nurse on her.

 

“We don’t keep suicides here.”

 

“You can throw people out of a nursing home?”

 

The answer was an unqualified yes. (Who knew?)

 

I said I would get there as soon as I could. I still had three kids to pick up from school.

 

I brought the kids home and left them there, thinking that this was the lesser of the child abuse, leaving them alone, rather than taking them to the scene of Nana’s attempted suicide. Victor would be home in a couple of hours to watch them.

 

I drove to the nursing home. It turns out that the plastic bag my mom had placed over her head and scotch taped around her neck was one in which I had brought her fresh fruit. This would later be a bone of contention with my brother, Woody. He claimed, and still does, that her suicide attempt was entirely my fault for bringing her fruit every day in a plastic bag. I could have mentioned that I didn’t bring her the scotch tape, but I don’t think it would have helped.

 

My mom complained emphatically about her turncoat, no-good, hateful, Evil Roommate.

 

“How dare that bitch interfere with my plans! Who does she think she is anyway? She should rot in hell! Bitch has been taking notes and telling the nurses on me from the beginning!”

 

Once you try to kill yourself, no matter how ineptly, you must leave and go to the Looney Bin. So. To the Looney Bin we went.

 

When we arrived, the doctor at the admitting desk asked her some questions.

 

“What day is it?”

 

“Tuesday.” (It was not Tuesday.)

 

“Who is the President?”

“Hoover.” (Duh.)

“How old are you?”

“52.”

 

“Who is this?” (Indicating me.)

 

“I have no idea.”

 

“Why do you think that you are here?”

 

“My Evil Roommate is a bitch.”

 

“How old are you again?”

 

“97.”

 

“Would you do something for me? Subtract 7 from 100.”

 

“3.”

 

“Can you try that again? Subtract 7 from 100.”

 

“60.”

 

“Where do you live?”

 

“Baltimore.” (We were in Champaign, Illinois at the time.)

 

“How old are you?”

 

“36.”

 

It went on like this interminably. She got not one single question correct. Finally, we were about to commit her to a short stay in the Looney Bin. It did seem that she required a bit of mental help.

 

My mother called me to her side.

 

“Here, you probably want this.”

 

She grinned a huge grin and pulled out a wadded-up fruit baggie from her pocket.

 

“You probably don’t want to leave this with me.”

 

She was giggling.

 

Giggling.

 

“I thought that they searched you when you came in, Mom.”

 

“Well I still have a few tricks up my sleeve.”

 

As we left her, NANA was giggling up a storm.

 

134 Comments »

Comment by Ben Loory |Edit This
2009-06-18 14:36:17

(

Comment by Ben Loory |Edit This
2009-06-18 14:36:56

it was not the best comment but it was the best i could do.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 15:06:39

Ben,
You sort of have to read two other stories first before this will make sense.
1. http://tiny.cc/gA1YR
and
2. http://tiny.cc/mkEdo
Then it will make sense.
You’re coming in late in the game here. Sort of playing with one blind eye, if you catch my drift.

Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-06-18 14:38:09

i hated nana.

thank you for publishing that awful photograph of me. thank you for providing evidence that i cannot behave appropriately in almost any situation.

i think i was high.

but ben’s dragon shirt is pretty sweet.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 15:10:49

Sweetheart,
I looked and looked and looked.
ALL of the photos of you with NANA are with you making horrible faces.
Every single one.
You were a teenager, so was Tim.
And later I was to learn that your, (and Tim’s) horrible behavior was due greatly to the massive use of drugs. I was a bit preoccupied at the time and totally failed at mothering.
I didn’t know you were stoned.
I thought you were reacting to a horrible situation with NANA.
I’m sorry.
I’ve tried to make up for it.
Ben’s dragon shirt was really great.

Comment by Marni Grossman |Edit This
2009-06-18 17:53:44

For a while I thought you were wearing a jean onesie in that photograph. And I was all set to laugh at you for it.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 16:12:00

Lenore has always had fashion sense. She did not get it from me. I humiliate her everywhere we appear together.

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Comment by Sara Zion |Edit This
2009-06-19 12:30:29

and btw,
lenore, you look vampire-ish in the photo. or like a cat hissing. i love it and don’t know why you’re complaining. ) really. you look fierce and surprising and, well, pretty cool.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 16:12:35

I agree, Sara!

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Comment by Tim |Edit This
2009-06-20 17:46:01

I thought that picture was pretty good. Matter of fact, I just turned to Ben and told him how much I liked it.

Lenore’s a jackass.

Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-06-18 14:42:32

also, that’s a nice new picture of you! i should know, i took it.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 15:12:04

You are a great photographer.
You are a great writer.
You are a great sister.
You are a great daughter.
Don’t be mad.
This one hurt.

Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-06-18 15:26:06

don’t worry, i’m not mad. i don’t even know what you’re worried i’d be mad about. uh, also, i don’t think that all the drugs i did make you a bad mom. they were fun. thanks for letting me do them.

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 15:30:58

Can we get ONE thing straight here?
I did NOT let you do them.
I was blind and stupid and so was your father.
We didn’t see what should have plain to us in front of our eyes.
Glad you had fun, but as in the scooter incident, you’re lucky to have come out alive.

Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-06-18 15:40:57

still, it was cool of you to give me the weekly allowance for my drugs. so thank you.

learn how to accept a compliment!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 16:57:49

You’re welcome, creepy daughter.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-06-19 08:46:13

I think Dostoievski is up on cloud 101, taking down every word of this exchange.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-06-19 08:47:49

Strindberg, dammit! I meant Strindberg!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 10:39:53

Uche,
I’m afraid my ignorance is apparent here. I had to look Strindberg up.
(mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!)
The write-up about him said he palled around with Soren Kierkegaard, whom I studied and loved like crazy when I got my BA in Literature of Religion. He also hung out with Hans Christian Anderson. I have probably a larger collection of fairy tales than the library here.
That pitiful thing said, I have no idea what or how he writes, so now he’s on my list so I won’t feel so ignorant next time I hear of him. What do you suggest I read first? (I need help here.)

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-06-20 09:11:18

Err, none of them, Irene. I still shudder at my own experience. My Dad had Strindberg’s _Inferno_ sitting around his study, and I think I was about 15 when I made the mistake of reading it. Later on, one of my friends at the University of Nigeria had the crackpot idea of staging a sort of Amos Tutuola re-interpretation of _A Ghost Sonata_. When I expressed my terror of Strindberg, he made me read it, anyway, to give him my opinion. I think after reading it (against my better judgment) I told him to go to hell and to take his damfool play with him.

I still have never seen an Ibsen play or movie adaptation because my Dad told me once that Ibsen reminds him a lot of Strindberg.

Maybe the Cliffs Notes of Strindberg would be less bleak? This might be the only time in my life I’ve suggested to anyone the Cliffs Notes version of anything, to give you an indication.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-20 13:36:49

Thanks for the honesty, Uche, I might have toiled valiantly and yet failed at reading his work.
It feels really lightening to get off the hook!

Comment by keiko |Edit This
2009-06-18 14:44:42

I always wondered about that picture in the sitting room.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 15:13:11

Yeah, Keiko,

It’s the painting of my dad and my mom and her foot in heaven.
For real.

Comment by lonny |Edit This
2009-06-18 14:46:28

happy ending!

nana giggling – that is nice

you see everyone nana was all right – she was just misunderstood

i wonder where she was hiding the baggie?
such a trickster our nana …..

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 15:17:38

I saw where she was hiding it, Lonny.
She was literally hiding it up her sleeve!
Remember how she used to tuck kleenexes up her sleeve?
Like that.
This is something that old people do. I can’t begin to understand why, but it is a fact.
I see it every Wednesday when I take Brooklyn to the Old Folks Home.
All the women have stuff tucked up their sleeves.

She was nuts, Lonny.
This was NOT a happy ending.
Besides, it’s not the ending.
It will be some time before I can tackle the rest.
I’ll give you that she certainly was a trickster, though.
Oh, yes she was.

Comment by Sara Zion |Edit This
2009-06-18 15:57:32

Nana was also always warding off our overly-enthusiastic dogs with plastic baggies squirreled up her sleeves.

Boy, she was a weirdo, wasn’t she?

I remember having one visit in the NH. I remember she was confused and surprisingly toilet-mouthed (so to speak: see “hungry sara”), considering she wasn’t the cursing kind… I do remember her using the “c” word towards an orderly. A lot of times we medical folks describe patients as “pleasantly demented” when they’re confused but really nice and sort of goofy. Nana was not a pleasantly demented lady.

As an aside, remember when you told her that Tushar and I were engaged and she said to you, “Well, it’s about time he made an honest woman out of her!” I love that story. To me, that encapsulates my image of Nana right there! ) Hee hee hee… Good thing Tushar came along to *stop my lyin’!*

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 17:09:35

Oh, Sara,
I had totally forgotten her “dog-away.” She’d pull that plastic bag out and shake it in front of the dogs and they just hated the noise it made and backed off. She was an all-around hater, hated kids, dogs, cats, and the list goes on.
When NANA got demented she used truly HATEFUL words. Right out in the open. No holding back.
When I was growing up she was two people. When others were around, she was the image of respectability. When it was just me there, she vented every epithet imaginable. The neighbors were spying. My friends were just after my stuff or my homework, etc. It was exhausting.
She didn’t just become demented, you see. She just suddenly started showing her crazy to everyone instead of just to me. Funnily enough, I don’t think she did this turn-about in front of my Dad or my brother. Damn, I was SO special!
Remember Marcia’s Mom? When she got Alzheimers, she just got even sweeter. Everyone loved to be around her. I sure envied Marcia her mother.

Comment by Sara Zion |Edit This
2009-06-19 12:39:10

yup, marcia’s mom was pleasantly demented. )

on the other hand, talk about aiming low: if you’re gonna be envious of someone, why not be envious of someone with a NOT demented mom?

Comment by Marybear |Edit This
2009-06-18 14:51:21

Hey, I’ve been that cat !

when my brother was crazed on crack =)

I wish I was joking =(

*hugs Lenore’s mom*

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 15:19:08

Thanks, Marybear,

I’m pretty sure that it would look quite similar, crack and crazy.

I hope your brother’s okay now. I really, really do.

Comment by Marybear |Edit This
2009-06-19 04:27:12

No worries Irene ,

He’s good ,that was a decade ago .
He is clean ,healthy ,and a daddy of a sweet little girl who’s name is tattooed over his heart =)

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 06:59:48

Marybear,
That is such wonderful news and a relief to boot!
How did he get alright? Certainly not an easy thing.

Comment by Melissa |Edit This
2009-06-18 14:55:47

I’ve got nothing. Except my mom does bring food back to Publix.

Melissa

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 15:20:25

G_D Almighty, Melissa!

You are always surprising me.
here you are looking all normal and you have weirdo family members that don’t fit with you at all.
I’m mystified.

Comment by melissa (irene’s friend) |Edit This
2009-06-19 03:30:45

Oh yeah, I am so not normal, have you not figured that out yet?

Melissa

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 03:38:05

An inkling, Melissa, just an inkling.

Comment by Melissa |Edit This
2009-06-19 17:14:20

One day I will tell you about Grandpa Harry. Ooooh boy.

Melissa

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-20 04:26:13

Don’t make me wait, Melissa!

Tell me now!

Comment by Melissa |Edit This
2009-06-21 10:28:36

Well you know he went to jail.

We would go to Miami Beach almost every Sunday to visit him. Most of the time his second wife would cook, she was a great cook. This one day however, he so wanted to try Swenson’s. For weeks he went on about it. Finally, we said ok. Grandpa was not too great in resturants. So we sit in a booth, my two oldest were very little at the time. We attemped to order. when Grandpa… says… THIS ICE CREAM IS MADE FROM PIG MILK… it is not kosher we need to leave NOW.
Shh.Shh. Grandpa no ice cream is made from pig milk.
YES IT IS
No Grandpa no it is not.
IT IS… I READ IT IN THE JEWISH FLORIDIAN. Which was the only paper he read.

We all know there was no such article. but we tore out of there.

One of the many things that he read in that paper. It was all there. Only thing is he was the only one that ever saw what he said he did.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-06-22 15:04:16

Melissa, That is so incredible!

Wonderful!

Pig milk ice cream. oh. sounds so Gooooood!

Now we hafta know why he went to jail!

Comment by Melissa |Edit This
2009-06-23 16:51:18

He did NOTHING, his brother set him up. They were in some sort of business together. No, no he did not embezzle any money. No one really knows for sure. No one remembers how long he was gone for, two months, six months, two year. You would think someone in the family would know.

melissa

Comment by Kate |Edit This
2009-06-18 14:58:54

Well. That’s unpleasant.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 15:22:34

Kate,
Have you not been paying attention when we talk about NANA?
Wait.
Maybe we NEVER talk about NANA.
Okay, you’re off the hook.
Yup. Unpleasant as hell.
Good call.

Comment by Kate |Edit This
2009-06-19 06:22:01

No, no, I’ve heard many of these stories before. But usually they’re told in short enough spurts to be funny. All together it was a little intense.

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-20 04:27:47

Kate,
Parts of it were told in the family, but I never told anyone about the whole Looney Bin part before. Kids didn’t know that.

Comment by Zara |Edit This
2009-06-18 15:02:40

God, Irene, Livia Soprano should have taken lessons from your mother. How did you grow up to be so caring and kind? How hard is it to write this? I cannot imagine. I think you are so brave for sharing this with us all and you are so clever for writing something so awful in such an entertaining way. Cannot wait for the next installment, but I think I need to pour myself a stiff drink before you begin…

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 15:26:35

Zara,
I’ve been writing about her about once every six months.
It takes that long to rearrange things enough to make SOMETHING funny in the horror.
Go up top to Ben Loory’s answer.
If you haven’t read the two before exclusively about NANA.
There are NANA parts in other stories, but these are full frontal NANA.
Go read.
It will be easier to understand.
I will never be finished telling it.
There will still be more I left out after I die.

Comment by Zara |Edit This
2009-06-18 15:50:39

I have read the other posts…and I cannot believe how terrible it must have been for you. The scissors and the cut finger story gives me nightmares…

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 17:12:17

Zara,
It is almost inconceivable how much more material I have on my mother alone.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 03:39:52

Zara,
I think Livia Soprano was my favorite character on the show. I identified so much with poor Tony in regards to his mother. She was pure evil.

Comment by Sara Zion |Edit This
2009-06-18 16:00:17

I gotta say, it might have been hard to write, but
I thought this was another funny one. You’re getting lots of doom and gloom reactions here, but if it were fiction, it’d *certainly* be funny–

Just sayin’…

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 17:14:47

Sara,
That’s what I’m after.
I have to work on it a long time.
I try to twist things around in my mind enough so that when I tell the story, even though it is true, I can laugh at it instead of wanting to crawl into the closet and close the door.

2009-06-18 16:07:00

*hug*

I’d say more than that, but this is yours.

my humblest admiration is yours, too.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 17:17:32

Thanks so much, Lance.

Ask my kids. That’s another thing she couldn’t do. Never hugged my dad. Never hugged my kids. Never hugged me.
Ever.
She recoiled at the idea of being touched.

Comment by jmb |Edit This
2009-06-18 16:42:34

“I don’t give a shit what they did in school, Irene Marie.”

One of my all-time favorite TNB lines.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 17:19:37

jmb,

It’s really funny. I kept on trying over and over, doing the same things. Isn’t that the sign of someone a bit nuts? Doing things over and over that obviously don’t work?

I KNEW she didn’t give a shit. I just WANTED her to give a shit.

Comment by jmb |Edit This
2009-06-18 16:43:50

I admire people who take traumatic situations and try to find some levity,
we have to laugh or else
we’d all have fruit bags over our heads.

I never worked geri psych but I hear
it was a hoot.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 17:22:36

Exactly, jmb,
laugh about it or you can just go ahead and get out the scotch tape and the fruit bag.

I volunteer with my therapy dog at a nursing home.
I have to say that I stay away from the mean ones.
It’s easy to do, cause the mean ones don’t want the dog around either.

Comment by jmb |Edit This
2009-06-19 08:11:03

Well you know what –
It wasnt a hoot.
It was incredibly sad and
scary
and it really
really made you re-think
euthanasia
because it scared the
hell out of you to
think you might
one day be in
their shoes.

shoe.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 11:03:47

jmb,
One of my old folks had really sore feet when I last saw him, before my trip to Africa and my broken ankle. When I went back he had two above the knee amputations.
My favorite blind lady up and died. The one who had me keep checking to see if the photos of her with Brooklyn were still up on her wall.
One of my ladies is totally lucid and brilliant, but her body has just given up and she spends her days in a reclining wheel chair in the hall.
Not hootful. Not hootful in the least.

Everything you say is exactly right.
I’m scared to death.

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2009-06-18 16:45:12

Wow, so much going on there. It’s all so sad. And I’m sure it must have been hard to write about, as well. Dementia is such an awful thing to cope with.

I’m with Lance on this one. Hugs and admiration.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 17:24:24

Thanks, Simon,
You and Lance will make great sons-in-law.
I’m only giving Lenore up to the nicest people.

Comment by Jayne VanderVelde |Edit This
2009-06-18 17:16:51

Irene,
I love your writing. You are so open and caring. What you have been through is amazing … you are amazing. Thank you so much for sharing your life with us.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 17:25:49

Hey, it’s nice to meet you, Jayne!
Welcome to my crazy world.
Come any time.

Comment by Mary Richert |Edit This
2009-06-18 17:29:58

What an incredible family. Irene, I really appreciate your willingness to lay it all out there. I love this story because even though it’s a hard one, it’s good, and you’re telling it beautifully. I love the honesty and everyone’s imperfections.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 17:46:05

We here at the Zion clan revel in our imperfections, Mary.
We have to, it’s where we excel.
No one’s more proud of our family lunacy than we!

2009-06-18 17:33:32

Your writing about NANA is like beautiful, perfect cotton candy…

… that’s spun from Owens-Corning Insulation.

My heart is all mangled and busted up about this one.

Boy howdy, I do love that painting, though.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-18 17:49:06

I KNOW! Right?

How in the world could that have arrived at our house just at that time?

I have NO idea what the painter had in mind, but the family knows what it really means.

(Damn, Kimberly,

“like beautiful, perfect cotton candy…

… that’s spun from Owens-Corning Insulation.”

That is great writing!)

Comment by Marni Grossman |Edit This
2009-06-18 17:58:37

Irene. It IS funny. In a gallows humor sort of way. But that’s the most effective writing, I think. Spinning tragedy into tragicomedy. It’s all the more poignant for it.

I appreciate tremendously the fact that you’re willing to share this with us! Much love-

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 03:50:12

Thanks, Marni,

Gallows humor is our specialty.
I imagine it couldn’t be any other way raised as I was by who I was.
My kids could have had 4 grandparents, but Victor’s dad died when Victor was 13 and his mom died before Lenore was born. My dad adored the kids, but he died more than ten years before my mother. My kids were dealt a bad hand in the grandparent department, left as they were with only NANA. Plus they had the added benefit of having her alternately living with us and living a block away, eating with us most nights and with us for every holiday.
I have to say that I resented every mother’s day because I wanted it to be MINE with MY kids, but it always about NANA. By the time she was finally gone, so were the kids, for the most part.
That still niggles at me. Mothers day was STOLEN from me by my mother.

(Seriously, Irene, suck up and let it go!) (Don’t listen, I’m lecturing myself here.)

Comment by Rachel Pollon |Edit This
2009-06-18 18:19:44

So much to say…

1) I thought this was very funny even though it was sad and horrifying underneath. I think you can and did make it funny because you had some time away from it. As they say — “tragedy plus time equals comedy.”

2) You are an inspiration. I, too, have many ick things to work with and to a large degree I shy away from them. I want my story to be funny, not sad! But only we can make them funny, right? So what the hell am I waiting for? Thanks for the inspiration!

3) Parents don’t know when their kids are doing drugs. Unless they’re doing drugs together. )

4) The whole getting old and yelling obscenities thing really freaks me out. I hope I don’t turn into that. It seems like a very scary, sad place to be.

5) The plastic bag up the sleeve, and then scaring dogs with it, cracks me up.

6) Lenore’s comment about the allowance money also does.

Okay, looking forward to more!
Rach

2009-06-18 18:27:54

Yeah – what the hell *are* you waiting for, Rachel? We haven’t seen anything from you in AGES!!!!!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 11:57:32

Your new picture is HOT, Kimberly!

Kimberly the STAR!!!!!

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 04:04:55

Thanks so much, Rachel!
I can write about most of the kids’ stuff without batting an eye. My mother is another story. I need to start thinking about a little portion and let it rumble around in my head for a very long time before I can actually see that it was ridiculously funny. Then I can write about it.

Old people don’t always get like that. They really don’t. Most of them just get sweet and want to talk about their old memories. My friend Marcia’s Mom was always a nice person, but after she got Alzheimers, she actually got more sweet. Marcia’s kids would sit around and make up stories and ask her if she remembered them and she always did. It’s as though they were giving her a whole new stack of life stories.

I have a cousin from the invisible side of the family who has a mother with Alzheimers. She doesn’t know her husband has died. Every day she asks about him and my cousin tells her he’s dead again. I want to throttle her. Poor woman has to relive the moment of his death over and over. All she had to do was say that he’s at the hardware store. He just left to get a bite to eat and he’ll be right back. I don’t mind if people are idiots about themselves, but when it hurts others it gets my goat.

Next time you have a plastic grocery bag in your hand shake it around. It really makes an annoying noise. She invented “Dog-away.”

As far as drugs and kids go, if you haven’t read it, please read the first story I wrote here: http://tiny.cc/gQBKH
Let me know what you think.

Comment by Rachel Pollon |Edit This
2009-06-18 18:21:12

OH — and I love that painting!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 04:08:22

You know, that painting gives me peace, Rachel.
I figure G_d has fixed up my mom so she’s not crazy and my dad finally gets to spent some time with someone nice for eternity.

Comment by Rachel Pollon |Edit This
2009-06-18 18:32:47

Thanks for the ass kicking, KMW!

2009-06-18 18:42:27

It’s only ’cause I luv ya… (and your writing…)

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 04:10:14

Being madly in love should make you want to write MORE! Get moving! I’m with Kimberly here.
(I’m sort of with Kimberly everywhere.)

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2009-06-19 08:35:26

And I can feel you with me, dear cyber-mameleh!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 11:05:38

I am hovering above you right now, Kimberly.

(To be read in a spooky voice.)

Comment by Ursula |Edit This
2009-06-18 21:19:33

This is one of your more disturbing stories, real life events that had to be dealt with. You wrote a great “dark” comedy describing your mothers torturing needs.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 04:14:46

Ursula,

Thanks for saying the dark comedy part. I worried over whether I’d told it correctly, which in my mind, is to make people laugh at something quite horrible.

NANA was a really unsettling influence in our lives, but damn good material.

Comment by Yamona |Edit This
2009-06-18 22:01:19

I loved your piece. I laughed my head off and was torn inside at the same time. Strange ways.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 04:16:33

Yamona,

I love you forever!!!

That was JUST what I was going for!
Please come back to visit often, you are obviously good for my fragile ego.

2009-06-19 01:01:03

Irene, you are are so strong to have survived this mother with so much grace, humor and love. It’s constantly amazing to me how some people survive and some people don’t. You are a survivor. Thank you for being so brave as to share your painful memories AND lend an air of humor about them as well. That must be difficult. I admire you.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 04:21:20

That is very kind of you, Colleen,

The funny thing is that my brother was the GOLDEN CHILD for my mother. She doted on him and adored everything about him. I do not exaggerate when I say that my mother never wanted me. I know this because she told me repeatedly throughout my life. And yet, here I am doing just fine and it is as though my poor brother was just crushed under her heel. You just never know.

Comment by Henning Koch |Edit This
2009-06-19 02:18:24

Hi Irene,

You write with converted rage, that’s a great achievement, I sense massive effort there… philosophical work… NOTHING ever works to plan… does it?
Hollywood could not make this story, because there is no great ending… the ending can only be what we (you) make it… although you haven’t got to the end of this one yet.

I saw your post as I logged on to post my own… a rambling piece on Berlin… wish I had something more important to write about…

Henning

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 04:28:32

Henning,
I do have to admit that some stories just flow right out without a hitch and some I feel as though I am pulling endless strands of silk directly from my eyes writing as though I were a spider person. That was pretty dense. I’ll have to see if I can word that in English sometime.

I so look forward to your pieces, Henning. You ALWAYS make me laugh. You have a handle on the human condition that is unlike anyone else. I’m going to read yours as soon as I finish answering my comments. I hope you wrote a funny one this time. I could use a bit of levity.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 12:00:58

I’ve been thinking about what you said, that I write with converted rage.
I know in my heart that this is true, and yet no one but you has ever said anything like this.
You’re a pretty perceptive guy, Henning.

What are you doing in Berlin?
I liked your Italian stories so much!
Are you some kind of gypsy, or what?

Comment by D.R. Haney |Edit This
2009-06-19 02:34:27

Will you hate me if I say I was laughing hysterically at the beginning?

I now have to go back and catch the beginning segments of this story.

Both of my maternal grandparents had dementia. My grandmother’s especially destroyed me. I couldn’t visit her at the nursing home without tearing up. My brother, too. We both adored her.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 04:32:40

Duke,
I LOVE you for saying you were laughing hysterically. I wish it were not just the beginning, though. I tried for funny all through it.
I’m sorry about your grandparents. It is by far more heartbreaking if you were loved by and you love the person who is vanishing before your eyes.
It’s all material, Duke. That’s how I look at it.

Comment by Irwin |Edit This
2009-06-19 05:32:09

I found it all hysterical. Sad too, but Irene, you are such an amazing storyteller, you pull of the tragedy and humour with an effortlessness that is pretty rare. I love your comic timing. Genius.

A friend of the family recently lost a parent to dementia. It strikes me as the most tragic disease. Death is final, there are goodbyes and usually its quick or you can prepare for it. Dementia slowly takes the person you love away from you leaving a confused shell that doesn’t know who you are, nor cares too much.

It’s all part of the experience, the ride. Ups and downs and all that… Irene is right, it is all material. All fiction is real, all life is fiction etc etc.

Dear lord, I hope this one lands…

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 06:18:39

You see, James,

You angered the ether in some way, but apparently now you have mollified it. Your comment appears!

Thanks for noticing the comic-tragic tone. That was what I was after, but sometimes you are too close to something to be able to see it clearly.

HBO just had a special on Dementia and Alzheimers. It was at least 5 hours long, but it scared the pants off me. The person you love disappears and is replaced by something else that you don’t know and yet you are still responsible to care for him. It can ruin the lives of the caretakers.

Thanks for hanging in there, james!

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Comment by Irwin |Edit This
2009-06-19 11:41:39

I’d never be able to write something like this, an inability to step back or strike a very fine balance.

Dementia terrifies me, the thought of it. I think my parents will be ok, my mum does all the things that are supposed to keep you mentally sharp.

Luckily its a disease that gets a lot of headlines over here, people are becoming aware of it and how you can try and keep yourself from succumbing.

I have immense respect for the people caring for their mentally diminished loved ones. I suspect I’d become angry, bitter and resentful after a time… I’m aware that its incredibly time consuming with and lacks all the rewarding that comes from physical caring.

It’s a bastard of a thing is dementia.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 12:06:17

James,
You think you can’t only because you are too young to have experienced it. I’m sorry, but you’ll get there, whether you want to or not.

Are you under the impression that I did not get angry and bitter and resentful?
No no no.
I USED it.
I worked it like clay.
I worked it and I worked it until it became something else.

Not for the feint of heart.
Nope.
Not for the feint of heart.

2009-06-19 05:19:08

wonderful post, irene.

and sure, lenore, go ahead and blame that photo on drugs. actually, i thought it was very sweet. if for no other reason, it further illustrates what a stone-cold fox you are these days.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 06:44:05

Thanks for reading, Rich.

As far as Lenore goes, that picture was the BEST one of her. She’s making even more horrible faces in the others.
“Stone-cold fox,” eh? Yup. That sounds about right.

Comment by Kate |Edit This
2009-06-19 06:24:14

Also, I do love that painting.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 06:44:45

For the same reason I do, Kate?

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-06-19 08:49:39

Rarely have I seen utter bathos told with such utter grace. The painting is a very affecting touch. I wonder with what meaning it invades you when your eyes unexpectedly fall on it.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 11:10:17

Wow, Uche, that really means a lot to me.
You are very kind.
When I see the painting, I choose to see my dad and my newly uncrazy mom and her foot all together in heaven.
Things don’t have to be true for me to believe them.

Comment by Marlene |Edit This
2009-06-19 09:10:21

Irene, should I conclude you don’t believe in assisted suicide? I do. At the end of life, the individual ought to have the possibility of choosing her ultimate destiny.
I’ll make sure Liam -my nine year old son- grants my death wishes if the time has come I feel Im not living a meaningful life. And celebrate my life in the process -if he chooses to.

Oops. here goes a picture from our trip to Cuba. Only in intention, don’t know how to attach it. It’s a mac.

Hugs,
marlene

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 11:13:55

Marlene,
I firmly believe in assisted suicide.
I will handle things myself if I am lucid enough to see that I am about to become a burden on my loved ones.
If not, I hope someone, anyone, slips me a mickey, so I can go down for the count.

(E mail me the photo. It’s impossible to get a photo to appear here in the comment section.)

Comment by Marcia (former next-door neighbor in Illinois and frequent visitor to Florida) |Edit This
2009-06-19 09:16:14

It must have taken a huge effort her whole life to try to keep the craziness somewhat under control until dementia took over and she couldn’t control it any more. I wonder why she chose you to reveal it to when you were growing up. I don’t understand why people do these things to their children.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 11:21:57

Marcia,
I don’t think my mother could hold herself together if she couldn’t vent her crazy somehow.
I was there. I was helpless. I thought everyone grew up like that.
My dad and brother knew she was sensitive and wanted to be left alone all the time and that she frequently lost her temper and threw things.
But, again. My brother thought that was what was normal.
My dad was barely ever there and when he was he just wanted peace at any cost.
When the crazy broke out of it’s boundaries, it was all over for her.

Comment by Megan DiLullo |Edit This
2009-06-19 09:51:59

Thanks for writing this Mama Zion. You are a great example of bravery and a extremely kind-hearted person.

Big love to you.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 11:25:22

Megan,
Don’t be fooled.
I kill ants with a vengeance.
I stomp on cockroaches.
I throw snails in the ocean.
I yell invectives at drivers who annoy me, from the safety of my closed car.
I’m not so good.

(But thanks for the love. I can always use love.)

Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
2009-06-19 10:29:06

First – great new pic. Love it.

Second – SUCH a sad story. I am so sorry you had to go through that.

Third – Why is it that old people think other people are stealing their clothes in those places? My grandma went through this exact same paranoia. Why would ANYONE want to steal clothes that smell of incontinence? It makes no sense whatsoever.

Fourth – Lenore was definitely high in that pic. No doubt in my mind.

( :

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 11:36:22

Erika Rae,

That picture was my life for a very long time. (shudders all around)
It’s not only my sad story. Thousands, (millions?) of people go through living with crazy all the time. It leaves a heaviness in your chest that never goes away.

I DON’T KNOW! She was adamant that her stupid size less than zero clothes were being stolen and sold on some black market.
She would complain to the nurses that I hadn’t visited in months when I had just left her room an hour before.
and on and on and on.
G_d will it be good to finally get this all out of my head and on paper, so to speak.

Yeah. I know. Tim was too. ALL the time. In school, during school, at home. Victor and I were total idiots. We can see it now, but except as a cautionary tale for other parents, what good does that do?

Thankfully, in spite of us, they turned out just fine.
Miracles happen.
My only explanation.

Comment by George |Edit This
2009-06-19 12:43:09

I was not a witness to all of this but to some of it, and it was true. Sadly, growing old is not for sissies.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-19 16:16:21

Taking care of a demented parent did not spare you, either, did it, George?
You did it with a grace I don’t think I could have managed.
You are a good guy.

Comment by Ben |Edit This
2009-06-20 17:27:44

I didn’t hate Nana, but I hated most of the time I spent with her.

She always had those horrid chocolates that looked like smashed, white or green, hersey’s kisses. Seeing as how candy was all that mattered, I judged people by the candy they provided. Nana wasn’t much good on that level.

I never knew hot nuts she was, though. I never paid much attention, though, so it is almost certainly my fault.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-21 04:33:45

Ben,
She DID have horrible taste in candy. I couldn’t eat it either.
I never thought about it before, but it makes total sense that you would have judged people by the candy they provided.
(And, that, kiddo, is a very strange thing.)
You mean to say that you didn’t know she was nuts because you didn’t pay any attention to her, right? If that’s what you meant, I’m really glad. You escaped the worst then.

Comment by Tim |Edit This
2009-06-20 18:15:13

I remember this being a creepy time. Having to visit as often as we did was not cool, Mom.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-21 04:50:08

In hindsight, Tim, I completely agree with you. It was creepy and it was not fair to subject you and Lenore and Ben to her craziness. I feel really bad about it.
I even felt bad about it at the time, but I was under the illusion that seeing you three would lift her spirits.
I was beside myself, virtually. I felt so much responsibility to make her want to live that I pulled out all the stops. You three were not stops I should have pulled out. I should have realized that it wouldn’t help her and would hurt you. I should have. I know that.
But I didn’t up to this point.
The part that follows this you know nothing about. At least you can allow me that. I’m a slow learner, but I did learn eventually.
I can only say I’m sorry.
I wish there were more I could offer.

Comment by josie |Edit This
2009-06-21 10:03:07

No regrets, mama…. no regrets.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-21 14:47:06

Oh Josie. How do you do the no regrets thing?

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Comment by josie |Edit This
2009-06-21 10:01:35

That was painful to read.
It really hurt to giggle.
But the raw truth is radiantly beautiful.

Thanks for writing these stories Irene. What you give here on the page is like a tonic for the souls of many…

And I like the grape flavor.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-21 14:50:06

Josie,

If it helps anyone I would be pleased.
It is certainly raw truth.
My soul has been coughing a dry burning cough for years.

Comment by ksw |Edit This
2009-06-22 02:46:10

midget is perjorative.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-22 05:36:23

ksw,

Don’t I know it.
I’ve given up on being politically correct. it’s too exhausting to keep up with the rules.

Comment by Amy |Edit This
2009-06-22 09:28:11

Life is usually more interesting than fiction. You have proven that over and over again with the stories you have shared about your life and family. Keep writting!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-06-22 12:31:11

Thanks, Amy.
Non-fiction rocks!

Comment by Yamona |Edit This
2009-06-22 21:01:27

I work for an Indian newspaper actually. I wish we had more writers like you. I guess the good ones here escape into writing novels and fiction. I’m quite enjoying the comments between your family, the conversations really. It feels like voyeurism though, snooping into your ‘family matters’. But then again, this is a public forum. I love the painting too. Somehow, the quirkiness makes me think this should be a short film. It scared me though, this short story. I’ll visit again, for sure, not just to fluff your fragile ego, but for my own amusement.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-06-23 02:47:49

Thanks, Yamona!

To really get a taste of the family chronicle you should read my stories from the first on, which, oddly, means the last one upwards.

I have to say that I really enjoy the comments also. They’re half the fun.
(And none of us would be writing if we didn’t want it to be read. Therefore not voyeurism.)

My grandhildren are half Indian. Maybe I can write for your newspaper.

Comment by Pat Gray |Edit This
2009-06-23 18:23:23

Irene
I always get such a kick out of your stories. I always thought my family was nuts but yours always seems to top any of our stories. Great story! Great writing! Great imagination – but I am not sure you imagined any of it (all true)! Keep it up! It is always so much fun to read!!

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-06-24 05:09:44

Well, Pat, although I think I do have a fair to middling imagination, this here stuff is 100% true.
Crazy-ass true.
Certifiable true.
My life in words.

Comment by the kayak lady |Edit This
2009-06-24 14:30:00

irene,

you are getting braver to write about NANA and all the craziness. it is an entertaining and disturbing story. makes me think my mother is way normal and that i am a fortunate girl to be born into the family i picked to be born into this time around.

keep me linked for more stories…..

mary )

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-06-24 15:47:49

Heck, Kayak lady,
How did you get to PICK?
That is totally not fair.
Plus you live to be a million years old and still lucid and feisty in your family.
I want some of that!

Comment by Aaron Dietz |Edit This
2009-06-24 18:15:33

Awesome stories / dialogue / everything!

I’m ready for round 2.

Also, I’m going to have some fresh fruit, sans baggie.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-06-25 06:55:22

Aaron,

The bags are good for lots of things though, like packaging up messy garbage and picking up poopy when you walk your dog, etc.

I think the danger lies in the scotch tape.

I think there should be a warning on scotch tape:

WARNING: Do not use scotch tape to tape a fruit baggie around your neck for the purpose of suicide. This could result in suicide.

Comment by Ruthie |Edit This
2009-06-30 12:29:37

I was exhausted just reading about all the care you gave your mother. It is too, too bad that she was too looney to appreciate any of it. And to have to hear such a mean comment from your brother, ugh! and double ugh! You get a gold star from me for being an incredible daughter.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-03 13:03:16

It is so easy to see why I love you, Ruthie!

For dinner we have masa harina corn cakes with herb sauce and a dilled potato salad. Johanna, though dejected at another day of meatlessness, eats voraciously. We all do really. She and I sit at a rust-painted picnic table with Lance, Crazy Jeff and Gloria, Hector, and Charlie the Mechanic. The field crew eats with hunched shoulders, cramped forearms, aching lower backs. Johanna sits abnormally straight, exhibiting her self-described “perfect body mechanics.” We all swat at the flies and mosquitoes as we eat with the exception of Charlie the Mechanic who seems oblivious to them. He is oblivious also to the mayonnaise in his beard.

Hector hates the insects the most. A short stocky man in his forties, he waves wildly at the bugs with both hands, dropping his plastic fork to the ground, retrieving it, and wiping it on his pants, only to begin the process again a moment later.

“These fuckin’ bugs eat more than we do,” he shouts, frustrated.

“It’s the truth, man,” Lance says. He speaks in a voice that forever sounds as if it’s about to drop off to a decades-long sleep; a voice that sounds at home. Or rather: at hoooooome…

“I’m serious,” Hector stresses, “When these fuckers bite us, think about the equivalent. I mean the food they eat compared to the size of their bodies, and the food we eat compared to the size of ours. It’s ridiculous.”

Hector’s hair, jet black and tightly curled wobbles as one contained unit as he speaks, swats at his ears, drops his fork, and picks it up again. I have previously encountered such a head of hair only on my late grandmother. I wonder if Hector spends his Saturdays in the beauty parlor, his hair liberally doused with hairspray and pulled at with a fuchsia teasing comb. If he, like she, will argue with his offspring for hours about the thermostat setting, will leave bed in the middle of the night in house-slippers and house-frock and, with hunchback catching the moonlight, raise the temperature a couple degrees while everyone, but the grandson, is sleeping.

“Yeah,” Lance snores, “The equivalent. It’s totally unfair.”

They both pronounce the word, equivalent, as if they had invented it, just moments ago. In their mouths it seems so new, deserving of endless repetition. Of course, they’re probably high. Of course, I may be too. Who remembers? When a brain cells falls into to the cerebral spinal fluid, and not a single of his compatriots is alive to hear it, does he, in attempting to recall the truth, make a sound?

We make up one table of about twenty. The conversation for such a crowd, and such a crowd of societal rebels, is surprisingly hushed. To generalize: much of the crew involves the type of folks who call their uncles, Unky, (as in: Unky Paul touched me), but not in some po-dunk toothless sort of way; more in some postmodern ironic self-aware hick-as-hipster sensibility, like the Rolling Stones in “Dead Flowers” and “Far Away Eyes,” et al.

During our meals, we are not making any large statements, not changing the world or subverting any governments. We are farm laborers, famished and tired, chewing more than we speak. At least at the meal’s beginning…

Charlie the Mechanic burps demurely, Crazy Jeff laughs to himself, Gloria rotates her head in a circle with an audible crack, and Johanna touches my leg under the table. We can’t see the stars beyond the white ceiling of the canvas tent, but, out here, tonight, I’d bet they’d be huge.

“Piece of shit bugs,” Hector says more calmly, “and they’re better than us, too.” He shoves another wedge of corn cake deep into his mouth.

Hector was born in Chiapas, Mexico and became an American citizen through, according to him, “some deal with the U.S. Army.” His military tattoos cover his thick arms with a sickly vein-green, as if he had some adverse and irreparable reaction to an intravenous medication. I remember, in our first few days here, he told us stories about how, as a child, he would stalk leopards through the Chiapas jungle, not far from the Guatemala border. I believe him. His military training, and perhaps his résumé as leopard stalker, earned him a place in the treetops. As a Treetop Sniper at Weckman Farm, he serves as an armed guard, keeping watch for trespassers, marijuana-poachers, and law enforcement.

Trust me: This whole sniper thing made Johanna and I, at the beginning of our stay, incredibly uneasy. Johanna, particularly has an aversion to guns. One of the reasons she fled her home country was the second attempted carjacking she faced, during which, like the first, she had a semi-automatic held to her temple at a stoplight. And, as during the first, she floored the gas pedal, narrowly averting cross-traffic, and ran over the guy’s foot. She told me this on our first real date, a breakfast in Key West (where we were both working in restaurants at the time), detailing the image that still plagues her at night of the perpetrator falling over into the street and she watched in the rear view mirror. And I have never, as Paul Hamby, Juneau, Alaska fireman, said as I served him his blueberry-pecan pancakes in the Channel Bowl Cafe (where I worked prior to meeting Johanna)discharged a weapon. But after having dined with Hector a few times, we soon grew accustomed to the notion of “sniper-as-sweetheart,” and other such anomalies unique to Weckman Farm, and this particular line of work.

Hector has an eight-person tent set up at the Residents’ Camp, though he rarely stays the night, and when he does, he sleeps in the large tent alone. Sometimes, the picking crew can become indignant regarding Hector’s clearance to leave the property, while we are bound to it. On his tent’s door, he has attached with a staple, a laminated postcard of the Virgen de Guadalupe, garlanded with pink carnations. I’m so glad that’s true. I’d feel like a stereotyping asshole if I made it up.

One night in our tent, before we went to sleep, Johanna asked me, “Do you think he comes from a family of eight? Do you think he gets to sleep imagining the seven other people? Or that the space reminds him of his family?”

Johanna has enough heart for the two of us, though, for the sake of tone here, I’m trying to keep mine at bay. (As my editor keeps telling me: brash sons-of-bitches sell, invoking, whenever possible, the spirit of Anthony Bourdain).

“We don’t even know if he has a family,” I said. (Hector, not Bourdain).

“We should ask him,” she said, fatigue pouring itself into her voice like motor oil.

I love it when her voice sounds like this—it’s so tired-sexy, but I’m too sore-hungover to do anything about it.

“If I catch him without his rifle, I’ll ask him,” I said.

Johanna said nothing. I paused, listening to the night-sounds—wind, frogs, insects, the breathing of the crew in their tents.

“I just wonder where he goes at night,” I said.

Johanna let out a dull, elongated violin snore.

Now, as Charlie the Mechanic burps at the dinner table again, this time flamboyantly, turning his head to the side and pursing his lips as if sipping from an imaginary, mid-air water fountain, Johanna touches my leg all the more mightily.

“Shiiiiiit,” Lance moans as if the word were four syllables.

“That’s it, brother,” Charlie rasps.

Lance taps me on the shoulder. When I look up from my paper plate, he says nothing, just sits there nodding with both his hands flat on the table.

Lance is only twenty-four, but this is his fifth season working at Weckman Farm. This makes him a Field Manager or Head Trimmer, both titles referring to the same set of duties: he tells, in his cat-before-a-nap sort of way, the Virgin Pickers (as they’re called) how to carefully trim the plants so as not to lose any of the “medicine. This is very, very important.” He takes his time with the “verys,” his shoulder-length blond hair swaying with his voice, calling to the oceanic Southern California rhythms that reportedly encompassed his formative years. This is Lance: slow tide in, slow tide out.

Like any good-looking young guy in a position of authority, Lance is a combination of annoying and enviable. As with at lot of the surfer interviews I’ve watched, I struggle between these two positions: wanting to be that surfer; wanting to punch him in the face. Lance probably never knew what is was like to be a nerd, favoring classic rock when all his cool classmates were listening to Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet.” In the junior high school gym class locker rooms, he probably never had to pretend to be familiar with lyrics that he had never heard (pleading: Shot through the heart! Shot through the heart!), just so Ricky Meyer wouldn’t throw wet wads of toilet paper at him and, potentially, bodyslam him onto the changing-bench. I heard that Ricky Meyer is now a millionaire. I hate it when bullies become successful. It’s so uncinematic. Except in Back to the Future II, I guess.

Lance belongs to one of two factions of the crew who choose to be paid in marijuana. The first is a group who tend not to spend the night at the Residents’ Camp, known at the farm as The Patients. The Patients, many of whom work as Pickers, use the marijuana to alleviate the effects of illness. (Despite her agony, I couldn’t have possibly convinced my mom to go this route, because “it’s illeeegal”).

In the Residents’ Camp, adjacent to the shower sheds, Lady Wanda supplies her crew with a sizable A-frame cabin known as the Sofa Room. Television-less, but stuffed with board games and lined with windows, the Sofa Room has become, either out of respect or necessity, the solarium lounge for many of the tired Patients in need of a cushioned respite at day’s end.

Into the Sofa Room, Pickers both past and present have placed various “healing” artifacts. The shelves are lined with miniaturized busts of the Venus of Willendorf, Buddha, Shiva, Ganesh; tin chickens and earthenware piggy banks, brass candle-less candlesticks and polished water-less river rocks; a salt-and-pepper shaker depicting a morose Roman-nosed planet Earth reclining in a celestial armchair; Kokopelli charcoal-drawn on a sliver of sandstone; rusty horseshoes and red sequined burlesque garters; coconut shells painted to look like fish, ceramic fish painted to look like gods. It’s a silver-haired new-age guru’s wet dream and a Midwestern cynic’s excuse to perfect his eye-roll, and then, because he feels guilty for being intolerant and judgmental (maybe this is where the Jewishness comes in), nods and smiles, and, overcompensating, accepts the fact that he has a lot to learn. Just as an aside: according to my computer, Jewishness is not a word. Some suggested alternatives for this “misspelling”: Jadishness, Juiciness, Jewfishes. (I’m thinking gefilte). Thank you, Jewish readers, for your token giggle there.

I first met Crazy Jeff and Gloria in the Sofa Room one night while searching for Pictionary. Johanna and I had long been fostering an addiction to the game, and it was in our characters to throw, on occasion, one of the drawing pencils across a room in a fit of excitement or frustration. We had convinced Lance to be the all-time drawer so Johanna and I could play one another.

Gloria was sleeping on an orange loveseat next to the board game closet, her head teetering between her own shoulder and Crazy Jeff’s. Crazy Jeff sat next to her staring at the exposed wood ceiling as if the beams were tea leaves.

At this point, somewhere into my first week at Weckman Farm, rumor had it that Crazy Jeff was a former cocaine addict who still had the occasional lapse and Gloria was a paranoid schizophrenic. The rumor went on to speculate, in nervous-excited whisper, that, although Crazy Jeff preferred men, he took Gloria as his lover in order to live off her social security checks.

Many of Weckman Farm’s crewmembers thrive on perpetuating and adding to the fictions of their co-workers. Perhaps the temptation to create legends of themselves to a pair of newbies is too much to resist. Perhaps the realities of farm work, when taken hour-by-hour, are just too mundane. Anyhow, I am their digestive system here, processing what they have to offer, adding some enzymes for flavor, and shitting it out, hoping the stench is, if nothing else, memorable. (You can’t imagine the restraint it took not to substitute nucleotidal for memorable there).

Crazy Jeff, we came to discover, was never a coke addict, though he did cop to a few dabblings. Gloria, while eccentric, does not have paranoid schizophrenia. They have become wonderful friends, but they are not lovers. Crazy Jeff and Gloria are both Patients, living with HIV, and numerous unnamed afflictions, for fifteen and ten years, respectively.

Without breaking his gaze from the ceiling, Crazy Jeff cleared his throat and said, “Only Scrabble’s left, ha, ha, ha, ha ha!”

Soon, while Gloria slept—her black hair stiff and straight, her nose wailing like a pennywhistle—Crazy Jeff and I began talking about how Lady Wanda paid him for his work.

Crazy Jeff (called Crazy, due to his frequent bouts of often-unprovoked maniacal laughter) had told me, “I get a little over three grams of the good stuff an hour. Like an ounce a day. For this stuff, that’s like five-hundred bucks! A day!”

Approximately, eighty-five to ninety-five percent of Lady Wanda’s seasonal yield will be sent on to medical marijuana hospices and dispensaries, sold at “retail prices” (about five-hundred dollars an ounce). The remaining five to fifteen percent goes to pay workers like Crazy Jeff on a collective basis. The rest of us, of course, are invited to toke from their joints.

“Can you believe that?!” Crazy Jeff cried, “There’s nothing more physical than physics!”

Of course, he descended into a disturbing bout of giggles which he staunched, as if hiccups, by meditatively rubbing the cysts that plague the undersides of his ears. Each cyst is about the size of a halved wine cork, and Crazy Jeff often keeps them covered with circular Band-Aids. For this reason, some of the less kind of the Pickers refer to him as Frankenstein, an insult Crazy Jeff is prone to dismiss with a wave of his hand and a sharp, singular, “Ha!” He’s in his upper forties and, though balding and unwell, he looks young for his age. I never amassed the courage to ask him about his laughing, the reasons behind it, but Johanna theorized that he took the “laughter is the best medicine” advice far too literally. He aggravated her far more than he did me.

He shifted in the orange loveseat as his laughter subsided. Gloria woke up, disheveled, blinking like Olive Oyl after unusually good sex with Popeye. She looked at me, then Crazy Jeff.

“Whaaaaat?” she demanded.

Lance is part of the second group who chooses to be paid in pot, a group Charlie the Mechanic affectionately dubs, “The Bud-Fuckers.”

“That’s all they do. They fuck bud. The sons a-bitches love their weed more than I do,” Charlie would say, his voice struggling through an electronic-sounding rasp. Lance would often counter by accusing Charlie, being a mechanic, of reconstructing his own throat with a series of screws. Charlie would counter back.

“You got it, little man. And fuck yourself.”

Lance and his fellow marijuana enthusiasts, ranging in age from eighteen to seventy, choose to be paid solely in pot for the sheer enjoyment of smoking some “really exotic stuff. Connoisseur stuff, man. Real delicacies.”

So as I said, in not so many words, Lance is a beautiful man, blessed with feminine features, a jaw-line so sharp it could double as a letter opener. I think most of us on Weckman Farm were drawn to him in one way or another. His draw, for me, was one of the lustily platonic, if I can get away with that. Ogled by crewmembers male and female, gay and straight, Lance is the fun-loving target of equally fun-loving harassment. He is the blonde-haired, blue-eyed demigod of countless teen idol pin-up magazines, his lazy pot-fueled speech easily mistaken for a confident drawl. Like a photo, his face is glossy and permanent. Like the often-photographed, he’s come to depend on the attention.

Lance claims to have grown up in Southern California, near Pasadena, but these claims are often mumbled and unspecific, and Charlie the Mechanic routinely dismisses them as bullshit.

“The boy’s a surfer wannabe,” Charlie would say, “but he ain’t never lived in Southern California. He’s always been here.”

Lance would counter this with a stunning silence, during which he swayed all listeners to his side.

It was by means of Charlie the Mechanic’s ridiculing (ridiculing that I’d like to believe was good-natured) that Lance earned his third title, one which he wore like a badge and bragged about. Lance the Field Manager. Lance the Head Trimmer. And Lance, King of the Bud-Fuckers. This was how he introduced himself to Johanna and me—yet another crewmember stoking his legendary status, earned or unearned, I couldn’t yet tell.

At the dinner table, Crazy Jeff is holding up a baggie that must contain twenty freshly rolled joints.

“Whoo-hoo! Whoo-hoo-hoo!” he cackles to no one in particular, “funny cigarettes!”

Charlie the Mechanic is in the middle of telling Johanna, “Boutros Boutros-Ghali is the Antichrist.”

Sadly, I didn’t hear how this conversation got started. As a matter of fact, most of this dialogue is half-remembered by a half-stoned guy who wrote many of his notes in the Coleman Cimarron tent after dark, without turning on the lantern and risking disturbing his slumbering wife (pardon all theing words there—I promise I won’t mention ping-pong, maybe for the remainder of this manuscript).

“Uh-huh,” Johanna musters.

“And I am the Sun-God!” Charlie follows, to the delight of Lance.

In my notebook, in crooked blue Papermate, after-dark handwriting, my note of Charlie’s strange claim borders on the illegible. I am the Sun-God could easily be I am So Good, but why would I have made it a point to write that down? Plus: Charlie would say things like that all the time, situating himself in the realm of mythology. According to my notebook, he also once said, unprovoked, “I got lightnin’ in me!” but I’m not certain how to work that into the story.

Lance high-fives Charlie and I finally chime in, “I don’t know what the fuck any of you are talking about.”

If I had to guess, I was a little stoned, and Johanna was too. Maybe that’s the reason behind our attraction. We both saw, early on, the potential in the other to one day become an unreliable narrator.

Hector smashes a mosquito against the side of his face with an audible slap. He laughs at me, “Dude, it’s the end of the day. Who does?”

“Well…” Gloria says.

“So. So,” Crazy Jeff interrupts, trying to get my and Johanna’s attention, “I’m sitting in Trax [a Haight-Ashbury bar] and the bartender puts down three drinks in front of me. And I look around…”

Here, Crazy Jeff looks around Lady Wanda’s carnival dinner tent with eyes and mouth agape. The twenty tables surrounding ours are holding their own courts, filled with their own din, and the soothing sound of plastic silverware clicking against a chorus of teeth. At one table, an unseen male voice, with a slightly Germanic accent, bellows to his giggling audience “I am a doctor!”

“…and I say to the bartender,” Crazy Jeff continues, staring wide-eyed at the center of our rust-painted picnic table, surely envisioning those three glorious drinks, his voice growing louder, “I say, ‘I didn’t order these.’ And the bartender points to three different guys in the bar and I think: This is the curse! This is what my father was telling me about!”

As if on cue, Crazy Jeff falls into laughter and begins rubbing his cysts. Then, he points with one hand to three different tables under the tent, mimicking the bartender’s long-ago indication of Crazy Jeff’s triple appeal. He’s smiling like a boy. We all laugh with him. I feel shell-shocked and look to Johanna to see if she feels the same. She shrugs with her eyes, but she is laughing. I feel the urge to hold her hand with my right and Crazy Jeff’s with my left. Instead, I use my hands to slap my legs, hoping that this gesture will allow me to laugh harder than I am. I think it actually works.

Hector shakes his head, a tiny explosion of blood holding to his cheek where he smashed the mosquito. I wonder if Hector is thinking about “the equivalent.”

When Crazy Jeff ends his crazy laughter with an exasperated, “hoooooo,” the table goes quiet for a moment. In this time, the night temperature seems to drop ten degrees. Johanna kisses my ear in a way that’s pleasurable in its wetness, and painful in its loudness.

“Well,” Gloria says.

She had my thing in her hand when the monkey swung in.

Like the monkey, I wish to make a dramatic entrance.

But what constitutes a great dramatic entrance?  Is it some thing or some act that rises above ordinary by its very existence or action?  Or is it an invitation for one’s imagination to go someplace it hasn’t been lately — or someplace it has never been?

The great dramatic entrance — whether it’s an opening sentence, an architectural feature or a theatrical introduction — has a come-hither quality, I think.   It startles one pleasurably with certain unspoken possibilities.

Some people’s flair for the dramatic goes way back.  Take the du Pont family, for instance.  They fled the French Revolution, it is said, and landed on these shores on New Year’s Day 1800 — kissing the still-new world on the first day of a new century.

I call that a dramatic entrance, and I raise it here because we live in a big old house with a history.  It sits on a rise above the Brandywine River.  And, although you mostly can’t see the river because of intervening woods, the water below, slowly gouging the valley, lends a mystical quality to our environs.

The presence of the river is not incidental.  In 1802, Eleuthere Irenee du Pont settled on the side opposite our house, on the site of an old cotton mill.  While the original mill had burned, the millrace remained intact, enabling du Pont to get a jump on his project.  He soon constructed the first high-quality gunpowder mills in America and thereby founded one of the oldest and most successful American enterprises in the history of capitalism.  The mansion he built on a hill above his mills stands today.  If not for the trees, in fact, my family would look daily upon it.

And — here’s the crucial thing — were it not for the trees, du Pont’s house would also look upon us.

E.I. du Pont had an older brother named Victor, who built our house between 1807 and 1811.  On his side of the river, Victor constructed woolen mills to manufacture cotton cloth.  His company — known, after Victor’s partner, as Du Pont, Bauday & Co. — functioned for decades into the Nineteenth Century.  Nice little business, I suppose, but his brother bet on a better future.  Du Pont de Nemours & Company diversified and went public and made many members of an old family very rich.

But before that there were two well-connected brothers living at a time when shopkeepers resided over the store and manufacturers lived next to their mills.  The brothers had social stature.  There’s reason to believe, for example, that the boots of Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette trod the old floorboards that we often now walk in bare feet.

Over time, however, the house known as Louviers apparently passed into abandonment and disrepair, sitting vacant for some time and serving as a temporary hospital during World War I.  Then, in the 1930s, one du Pont descendent took up residence, renovating the house, raising his family, and eventually living out his days there.

The place hasn’t changed much since, and when we study the renovations we often wonder what the old man and his wife may have been thinking.  In the master bath, for instance, the sinks don’t match, one being six inches shorter than  the other.  It seems obvious that she was short in stature, but the lack of symmetry is startling in a house that is so well balanced in other ways.

Also, they added a kitchen far away from the living quarters.  This stood to reason, because — as the relics of a paging system attest — wealthy folks had servants in those days.  The kitchen needn’t be close to things when family members ventured there neither for dinner nor cleanup.

There were other changes, too numerous to mention here, the reasons for which we attempt to infer now and then — an old walk-in basement safe (for silver?), janitorial closets in the halls (to keep the bathrooms pristine?), built-in fire hoses by the bedrooms (because the du Ponts historically feared fire?).

Curious, but I promised an essay about entrances, didn’t I?

Here’s a funny thing about the house that matters to the subject.  There is a small paneled library with built-ins from the Thirties.  It’s barely ten by ten, yet in addition to bookshelves it features a fireplace, a large window, and three doors.  Three.  One of those doors comes in from the hall and another goes out to the back porch.  It’s the third door that presents the puzzle.

This door, much to my daughter’s delight, is a secret door.  Sandwiched between the fireplace and an outside wall and hidden behind rolling bookcases, it leads to the living room.

What’s odd about that is the following.  If you’re going to the dining room or the entry foyer on the way from the library, you pass right by the main door to the living room anyway.  You needn’t pass through servant’s quarters or walk out of your way.  It’s right there.  So the hidden door is not at all required.

Furthermore, it’s only hidden on the library side.  On the living room side it’s plainly a door, albeit one without a proper knob.  So this unnecessary secret door readily gives up its secret to the close observer.  What’s going on here?

I think I know.  I think the man who installed it understood something about old-fashioned dramatic entrances.

Picture Scarlett O’Hara descending the grand stairs of Tara.

Picture Mary Poppins floating down on her umbrella.

Picture an injured Willis Reed, not expected to play Game 7 against the Los Angeles Lakers, jogging onto the court at Madison Square Garden in 1970 to an electrified crowd.  The game is won before the first shot is taken.

Now think of the man who built that secret library door.  The maid ushers his guests into the living room and offers them cocktails.  Sipping their drinks, they peer expectantly through the open doorway into the front hall, awaiting their host.

Instead, a door opens behind, where they least expected, and there he is among them — suddenly, dramatically.

If he were a modern author, he might have written: “She had my thing in her hand when the monkey swung in.”  If he were a sports legend at game time, he may have been the last one out of the locker room and into the arena.

Beginning journalists learn that a lead paragraph must include the Who, What and When of the story.  Yet many seasoned journalists will tell you that the best newspaper lead paragraph ever is simply this:

Bang bang bang.

Why?  Because its draw is irresistible.  Plus: in the beginning is the end.  In other words, great story beginnings often also contain the ending.

Therefore, maybe my beginning — the thing and the monkey — is not so great.  It intrigues, perhaps, but doesn’t complete.

But picture those once grand stairs of Tara, falling into ruins.

Picture the magical nanny, for the last time lifted by umbrella over the rooftops of London.

Finally, once more, picture the man who built that hidden door.  The party is concluding.  He could walk down the hall and use the main door to his library.  But he doesn’t.  He waits until no one’s looking.  And then he disappears.

Although I am loath to admit it, I am a prude.  I never would have thought myself to be uptight before now but being faced with the Freikörper Kultur has brought me up to speed.  I am 100% American prude.  What is the Free Body Culture, you might ask?  Why it’s the Society of Naked Germans, of course!  And with the advent of summer, the parks and lakes are overflowing with frolicking, happy nudists.

I have never before been even slightly weirded out by the thought that anyone would want to lie naked in the sun.  It sounds rather naughty and delicious, actually.  That being said, I have rarely been faced with an entire city of people who can’t wait to publicly shed their clothing at the slightest opportunity.  Summer is here or at least June is and even though it hasn’t been anything even approaching warm enough to be called bathing suit weather, anything above 60 degrees Fahrenheit is apparently warm enough to bare it all.  Nobody worries about shrinkage.  One day I was happily cruising around Berlin admiring the greenery and suddenly the next, the view had changed entirely.  One might have fancied oneself in a veritable Garden of Eden were it not for the tattoos and lack of strategically placed fig leaves.

In truth, this year I was well prepared.  Last summer on a visit the boyfriend took me to a lake to replenish our vitamin D deficiency.  He had warned me that everyone would be nude and that was fine, I’d said, but it wasn’t going to be me.  I’m not sure what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t what was.  We were surrounded by everyone and anyone you could imagine, as long as you could imagine they were all white; Germany not being the most color diverse country in the world.  There were tall, short, fat, thin, old, young, beautiful, those not traditionally considered good looking, some obese folks, someone going through chemo, someone who’d undergone a double mastectomy, someone who was clearly anorexic, spider veins abounded, cellulite glistened in the sunshine, waxed and unwaxed, shaved and unshaved, if you can think of it, it was there.

As I looked around I was overcome with admiration for the group of people so comfortable in their own skin.  So unashamed of their bodies as they existed; a foreign concept for most Americans, let alone New Yorkers who are constantly under pressure to stay at the forefront of the fashion and body beautiful trends.  And I realized I was more conspicuous as the only one with clothes on than I would be if I just let go of my Puritanism and freed my body from its spandex confines.  It was elating to lie naked and unnoticed in a park full of people doing the same.  But I didn’t kid myself either.  The only reason I could do this at all was because other than my equally naked boyfriend, I didn’t know a soul.  There is courage in anonymity.

This year for my birthday, he took me to a spa to relax a little.  Once again I was prepared ahead of time for the lack of clothing.  Given the park experience, I no longer felt the need to take a suit.  But when we got to the spa and into the co-ed dressing room I found I was a little bugged out.  I mean, yeah it makes sense.  We’re all about to be naked together anyway, why separate us for the donning and removal phase?  But regardless of the rationality, I somehow felt more exposed fully undressing that close to strange men.  Then in walked the Swedish bombshells who parked themselves directly next to my boyfriend and proceeded to disrobe.  Wait, what happened to all the every-bodies I saw at the lake?  Where were they?  Why was I wobbling my sizable nether parts next to Sweden’s Next Top Model?  This wasn’t what I’d signed up for.

But we wandered down to the sauna anyway.  Walking through the rooms filled with spa-goers, I felt awkward and uncomfortable.  I couldn’t understand why at first.  It shouldn’t feel so much different than it had the last time, after all I didn’t know anyone there.  But as I took a seat in the very crowded sauna, I began to be conscious of the people around me.  These weren’t the naked folks I’d been at the lake with.  Nearly everyone there was under 40, somewhat toned or put together and were all painfully, horribly, nakedly close together.

I am a natural voyeur, a people watcher.  I love to openly gaze and wonder at the happenings around me.  But when you’re sweating together in a small room packed full of fellow nudists, you somehow lose the freedom to do that.  If you spend too much time looking at someone, you could be quickly labeled a sicko letch and excommunicated.  So there we all sat, carefully avoiding each other’s eyes, peeking out of the corners of our own to somehow get the bearings of our surroundings and not talking.  It was awful.

Today I went to a beach with some friends and was shocked to see the sand bursting with colorful bikinis and trunks.

“Where are all the naked Berliners?” I asked.

A fellow sunbather indicated a sign that said in big, black lettering, Freikörper Kultur, and pointed down the beach.  In that moment I knew.  I knew I was a prude because I was relieved.  I was so relieved not to be faced with the pressure to be naked with my friends.  I knew I couldn’t do it.  As they say, some things are better left unsaid, but there are an equal number of things better left dressed on my body and I decided to agree with my friend Juan’s assessment.  There’s something sexy about a little guesswork, even if it is just a little.  So although I may again lie naked in the sun it won’t be anywhere I might run into someone I know and you can rest assured my blanket will be far enough away from the next guy so I can take in the beauty of a park full of everyone basking in their own glory.  Just don’t tell my mother.

Yes, OK. I admit it. I, in my foolhardy youth, was in the cast of the Australian production of Playing It Straight. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, well, first of all, you can be justly proud of your life choices. Second, for the purposes of this piece you need to know that Playing It Straight, originally developed and screened in the US, was, for all intents, exactly the same as The Bachelorette, with the added twist that six of the twelve men present as potential partners for the Bachelorette equivalent were gay, and six were straight.

When Marisa Tomei won her Oscar in 1993, a sizable contingent of industry types agreed that the award was largely undeserved.My Cousin Vinny” had none of the prestige of that year’s best picture nominees, “Unforgiven” and “The Crying Game”. The cast boasted no Serious Actors. Tellingly, Tomei’s was the film’s only nomination. And the marquee name? Joe-fucking-Pesci.

But, against all odds, Marisa beat out Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson. That’s—count ’em—three Brits.

Tomei’s win was such an upset that, for years, rumors persisted that she hadn’t really won. That presenter Jack Palance had called her name by accident. That the true winner was Vanessa Redgrave.

It’s not true though.

And I for one never believed it was.

* * *

I’ve always had something of a soft spot for Marisa.

Back in 1994, I performed in a talent show at Jewish sleepaway camp. Because I was 9 and it was the early ’90s, I sang “Hero” by Mariah Carey.

In fact, I knew all the songs on Dreambox by heart. “Hero” and “Dreamlover” and “Music Box” and all the rest. I used to listen to the tape on my Sony walkman. I alternated between Dreambox and Forever Your Girl. Later, I’d move on to Jewel and then the Wallflowers and Third Eye Blind. At the time though, it was all about Mariah. (And, when no one was watching, Celine Dion.)

I sang “Hero” because I knew all the words and it’s with no small amount of pride that I tell you I received a standing ovation for my performance.

My stage fright was so bad that, when I sat down, I was still shaking.

“You know who you look like?” a male counselor asked.

“Who?” I responded, catching my breath.

“That actress, Marisa Tomei.”

I had no idea who Marisa Tomei was in 1994.My Cousin Vinny” was rated R and the only R-rated movie I’d seen was a snippet of “Pretty Woman” in a limo after my third cousin’s bat mitzvah. But even though I didn’t know who she was, I knew enough to be flattered. I watched Tomei’s career with interest and was pleased to see that, in time, she proved her critics wrong, garnering another two Oscar nominations.

* * *

The thing is, I don’t look much like her. I’m not nearly so pretty. I feel certain that no one would cast me as a stripper or ask me to dance coquettishly in a Hanes commercial.

Like most girls, I wanted the gamine looks of Audrey Hepburn or the smoldering sensuality of Liz Taylor. To be a cat on a hot tin roof. Holly Golightly. To be dark and delicate. To be desired.

But I don’t really look like celebrities at all. More than anything else, I look like those sepia-toned snapshots of refugees in line at Ellis Island. Or like those photos you see in “The Shoah”: somber-faced and sad-eyed, clutching a suitcase, a tattered yellow star affixed to my best wool coat.

I don’t look like celebrities. I look an understudy in a dinner theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof”.

When I was nine, I dressed up as Louisa May Alcott for Famous Person’s Day.My mother was heartbroken. She’d begged me to go as Anne Frank. “Think of how easy it would be!” she said. “We cut out a yellow magen david, tape it to your jacket and, voila!”

I held firm, though. Little Women was my favorite book and, more than anything, I was bound and determined to pay homage to its author.

I’ve come to regret that decision. After all, I look a hell of a lot more like Anne Frank than Louisa May Alcott.

* * *

When I was 15 or 16, my grandmother told me I looked just like Liza Minelli.

From her perspective, this was high praise.

She pictured “Cabaret”-era Liza—all big eyes and jazz hands.

I, however, pictured David Gest-era Liza—all drug addiction and wrinkles and encephalitis.

This well-meaning comment did little for my already-plummeting self-esteem. It’s no coincidence that in the year that followed, I stopped eating and assiduously avoided all things Fosse.

* * *

My sister once told me that an ex-boyfriend of hers said she was prettier than Natalie Portman. They’d had a class together in college, she said, and he assured her that she was, like, way hotter.

* * *

“You look just like Alexa Ray Joel!’ the waitress told me emphatically. “Just like her.”

“You know who she is, right? Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley’s daughter!”

She paused and then, after a beat: “She didn’t get her mother’s looks at all.”

Great. Just what every girl dreams of: being compared to the paunchy, sad-eyed Piano Man.

Anybody looking for a downtown man?

* * *

A friend of mine used to go around informing anyone who would listen how often she was mistaken for Keira Knightley. For a time, she had a glamour shot of Keira as her Facebook picture.

* * *

My second cousin, Ellen, weighed 67 pounds and was 42-years-old when she died in 2006. We scattered her ashes in a man-made lake at the park where she used to go jogging. For the last two decades of her life, that was all she had. Jogging and books and years of empty dinner plates.

It was hard to look at her.

But Ellen was sweet. She was sweet and she was sad.

She gave tight, hard hugs. Hugs so forceful you could feel her ribcage, her pelvic bone. Hugs so fierce you worried that her brittle little body might break.

Ellen preferred to skip family events as they often centered around meals. But when she did come, she would talk enthusiastically about the latest book she’d read or a foreign film she’d seen. She was nice to me.

She once told me that I looked like Isabella Rossellini.

“Just like her.”

 

Whenever I do something utterly stupid, my standby retort used to be: “I’m not your average dumb blonde, I’m above average.”

Blonde jokes have been as much a part of my upbringing as bad (read: fabulous) 80’s music, sunblock and weight issues.

A blonde and a redhead went to the bar after work for a drink, and sat on stools watching the 6 o’clock news. A man was shown threatening to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge, and the blonde bet the redhead $50 that he wouldn’t jump. Sure enough, he jumped, so the blonde gave the redhead $50. However, as friends, the two went back and forth about it; the redhead just couldn’t take the blonde’s money. Finally, the redhead confessed: “Listen, I have to tell you that I saw this on the 5 o’clock news, so I can’t take your money.”

The blonde replied: “Well, so did I, but I didn’t think he would jump again!”

Patrick Swayze’s not dead…or is he? He could be. I don’t know him personally, so I can’t risk a guess. There is a rumor creeping around the tabloids that, indeed, Patrick Swayze has passed on. And furthermore that his death is a secret kept by friends and family and his agent, I suppose.

BOULDER, CO-

I’ve studied martial arts most of my life, but I don’t enjoy watching fistfights. Sure, I sometimes watch MMA bouts, mostly as an exercise in making sense of techniques I learned in my Jujutsu days. But I am a salacious voyeur of one class of fights, one that weighs more in murderous intent than in mere blood. When it comes to fights over language, I’m part Don King, part corner, part cut man, part ringside rat, but never referee nor pugilist. This is the first of a few pieces about linguistic rage. First up, the real powder-keg: words of social distinction.


“Passport?” At 3 am I jolt upright in bed. “Where’s my passport?” In 12 hours I’m to get on a plane on an international flight back to the US–to move back after living her for six years–and at that instant a something massive and visceral smacks me awake. I hadn’t seen my passport in a few days. Inés wakes up, asks what’s wrong, says she’ll always lucky at finding things and that she’ll help me look for it. From 3 to 4 am we search all three pieces of luggage and every corner, shelf and nook throughout the apartment. Nowhere. It’s gone. A numbness covers me, because as I think about when I last saw it and where it should be, I can only deduce that I most likely threw it away, inadvertently. Because this final move consisted of giving away, disposing of or recycling all the surplus, I conclude that I either tossed it in the trash, gave it to a friend in some heap of a donation, or it went in the paper recycling bin along with hundreds of other papers that didn’t make the cut.

That’s right, I threw away my passport and realize it 13 hours before my flight.

Inés falls asleep around 4:30 while I pine away with my eyes open in the dark until 6:30, futilely trying to locate my damned passport.

9:30 comes, which brings alarms and open eyes after only three hours of sleep. I call Lena, the assistant director at the school where I studied here; she tells me to call the American embassy. I do and the man says I should wait until Monday to get another passport. As soon as I hang up the phone, Lena calls me back and says that normally they don’t allow people to fly without a passport but if I have a direct flight to the US and no stopover elsewhere in Europe, then there’s a chance they might let me on. She says go for it.

I print out a copy of my passport (which was scanned and saved in my laptop earlier in the year), take my driver’s license and my Spanish student ID card and off the airport go Inés and I.

We get to Iberia’s customer service desk and, after explaining to the smiling lady that my contact told me to go and see the Intermediario de inmigración y aduenas, she tells me to go to La Policia. Inés and I walk over to the young police officer and, after explaining that I have no passport, he responds (paraphrased and translated), “We’re you from? The States? And you want to go back? Well then we really don’t care about you. We’re concerned about people coming into our country, not leaving it.” So back at the Iberia check-in line, which seems languid and excessively long, the clock reads that my flight leaves in two hours.

One hour later we approach the counter and a young brunette asks to see my passport. I explain the situation with Inés sometimes joining in to aid in the communication. The lady is extremely helpful: she talks to her supervisor, she calls security to notify them that an American without a passport is coming their way. Then she hands over a printed boarding pass, explains that the flight is overbooked but since I’m the first one on the list, she’s pretty sure I’ll get on the flight.

“Phew,” I say,  incredulous, and thank her effusively.

Inés and I walk over to the smoking point. It’ll be the last time I see her for a long time, maybe ever. We don’t say this out loud, but we know it. I roll a cigarette and she pulls out a Nobel and we light up in unison. She puts on her sunglasses, and it’s not the least bit bright or squint-inducing, at least not for me with my highly sensitive eyes. It’s a quick cigarette, with few words to accompany. We crash them out and start walking, holding each others’ hands. I look over and think I see moist eyes. Her face is being pulled down by lack of sleep and the weight of the present moment. I can’t imagine what I look like at this point.

When we reach the entry point to go through security, we begin to kiss rather madly. I wrap my arms around her, hug her tightly and whisper something into her ear which causes me almost to choke with emotion. I say it on the verge of tears; she is too. We let go, I walk into the turnstiles. She’s smiling widely and waving each time I look back to see her with her sunglasses on. Behind them there are tears, I know, and I’m fighting to hold back my own. But there is hardly time for them, because my flight leaves the ground in 40 minutes and I’m 20 minutes away from the gate. I am supposed to be boarding at the present moment.

Once passed security I turn around for one last wave and a hand-to-the-mouth kiss throw and off I go to catch the plane without a passport. The train takes seven minutes to get to the satellite terminal.

After the train there is another passport control checkpoint.

“Uhm, yes, I don’t have a passport, but I have a copy of it as well as a driver’s license and some other form of–”
“Yes yes we know, they called us. Did you bring the report?” he asks me.
“Report? What report?”
“From the police?”
“No, they didn’t give me a report.”
“You have to get a report.”
“Well they didn’t offer to give me one. They said that if I was leaving the country it didn’t matter to them who the hell I was.”
“Okay, go on.”

That’s how impervious the passport control checkpoints are in Spain.

I run to gate U67. The gate looks like this (but populated with people):

On the left sign reads BOSTON2 pmFinal boarding call.

The right one reads New York CityDelayed.

There’s a short line waiting to board. Since I’m quitting smoking for good for the 20th time since I moved to Spain, I decide that there’s time to choke down one last grit. I do and return to a now line-less gate with a small group of people gathered around the adjacent desk. All of these people are on standby, I assume. We huddle around it while a fat Spaniard sitting down calls out a bunch of names, and finally mine. I raise my hand, hand him the boarding pass, he takes it and writes down a seat number. To his immediate right and directly in front of me is a female employee who’s head is cocked up and trying to speak with a someone on the second floor above who is behind a wall of glass. She says (in Spanish), “Huh? What are you saying?” then says to everyone of us in the immediate area, “I can’t hear her. I don’t think she speaks Spanish”.

(All apologies for the stick figures inserted into the picture, but I really thought they would help to visualize this crucial element to the electrifying conclusion, as well as my confusion.)

Since the woman is directly in front of me and obstructing my entrance into the door behind the sign marked Boston, I decide to back out, double around and go through the door straight on. As soon as I take one step back, someone says, Dejalo pasar (”let him through”), which she does. I walk through the door to Boston, begin an ascent up a wheelchair-enabled walkway. It’s a smooth, gradual incline and I’m following a group of  about 50 people who are staggered and strolling. Along the way, I notice there’s a woman talking to a security guard walking in the opposite direction. We pass each other. At the time I don’t recognize it but it is the woman on the second floor who was trying to communicate with the female employee who was obstructing my path in the above picture.

I keep walking and texting a somewhat poetic, emotive final text message to Inés. As I get to the second floor, I begin to wonder where I’m going, because usually you descend into a plane and not ascend onto a horizontal escalator that looks like it goes on for about a mile. Before I get on the first one, I ask a woman in front of me if this is the plane to Boston. She pauses, nods her head and says, . I keep walking and walking and about halfway I wonder where the hell this airplane is, and why I’m backtracking through the airport. I ask another guy if this plane’s for Boston and, again, I get a pause and a nod.

Eventually I start jogging. Following the crowd I see the passport control that is re-entering the country.

I then realize that I’ve walked about half a kilometer following dimwitted and haggard passengers who just got off the plane from Boston. Their answers were true, they were on the plane from Boston, but not to it.

I am the jackass who hadn’t the cognizance to stop and say, “Wait a minute, maybe I walked through the wrong door.”

And sure enough, I did. I walked through the door marked Boston — which was supposed to be my flight — instead of the door under the sign that read New York City/Delayed, which is actually where the Boston flight was boarding from.

The door behind the Boston sign should have been closed, or the signs should have been switched, or some sort of obstacle should have been placed in front of it.

Or someone should have said, “Sir, that’s the wrong door.”

I should’ve realized that the woman who was confused on the second floor and trying to communicate with the employee below did the same thing I was doing, and that when I passed her walking in the opposite direction, that should’ve triggered a realization that would’ve saved me about 450€ and the most surreal subsequent 24 hours I’ve had in my adult life.

But, I didn’t. I ran back to the gate and the fat Spaniard just looked at me in disbelief and said that the plane was already gone, that the door was closed. I was huffing and sweating and explaining that that was my plane, that I was misguided, that I walked through the door marked Boston, not NYC and before I realized it, I was de-embarking. I show him the boarding pass and he shakes his head and points me to customer service.

Everything was perfectly and tenuously held together just enough for me to get on that plane. Without a passport, I got through about four security points where said documentation is required. I had the impassioned and teary goodbye with Inés. I smoked the final cigarette. They put my luggage on that plane as the very last passenger and, as I was fully ready to turn a rather symbolic and important page in my life and finally leave Madrid once and for all, I walked through the wrong door.

Sunday June 1st, 2009 was the most absent day of my life.

My mind and spirit were on a plane headed to Boston while my body lingered around a quiet neighborhood where I had just finished a large chunk of my thirties.

I was there, and I wasn’t.

Numb, vacuous and bitter.

Some people since have said, “Well, everything happens for a reason, and there must be a reason you didn’t get on that plane.”

Some have said that it means that it’s my destiny to stay in Spain and not move back to the states.

It could also just as easily mean, “Nice work, deadbeat. Lost your passport and somehow get through the airport, catch the plane in time but walk through the wrong door. I’d say that Madrid was giving you a swift kick in the sweetbreads on your way out, just so you’ll never forget her.  Maybe she’s saying: HIT THE ROAD JACK.”

I tend to think that everything just happens, and then we ascribe a reason to it.

I’ve been back in the USA for two weeks now, and I still have yet to be able to apply one to this aberration other than I was highly stressed, emotionally brimming and not thinking fluidly.  Also, arriving late, not having a passport, not seeing people board through the gate door and their lack of proper signs to point me in the right direction were certainly reasons that aided in helping me walk through the wrong door.

Regardless of the meaning or non-meaning central to the metaphysics behind my failure to get on that plane, I will never forget the day that my luggage boarded a plane and my body stayed behind, that my mind left for America and my self remained in Spain, that I somehow existed in two places at once, that I became my own ghost while alive, that I stayed in Madrid one day too long…

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Pee Shy

By Kristen Elde

Humor

The other day I swung by Quest Diagnostics for some routine diabetes-related testing. First up: the blood draw. Ridiculous, but I near-hyperventilate just thinking about this procedure. I always make it a point to inform the phlebotomist of my irrational fear well before he/she does his/her thing, just in case doing so guarantees me a really great draw courtesy some extra care. This woman, pleasant and chatty, laughed and said, “Oh, you’re too much.” Word.

Anyway, it was fine. Fast, painless. Great story, huh? Stay with me.

After blood came urine. Ah, everyone’s favorite: the ol’ pee-in-a-cup trick. Because I’m a decent human being, I’ll skip to the end—to that part when you’re left standing in the middle of a private bathroom, one hand warmed by the golden specimen it’s wrapped around. Generally, this rude sensation need not last long. Following instruction, you simply set your cup, capped tightly and marked with a personal identifier, on a designated shelf. With a thorough scrub of the hands, you’re on your merry way.

Today, though, things went a bit differently for me. For starters, at the point that I was ready to hand off to the shelf, I realized the bathroom was not furnished with one. The words of the friendly phlebotomist came back to me: “Just bring your sample back here [bloodletting room] when you’re finished.” I then realized there was no lid to go with my cup, nor was there a strip with my name on it. Wha? But it could be anyone’s! What if there’s a mix-up? What if someone else gets my diabetic pee? What if I end up with a meth addict’s pee? Highly unprofessional! Gingerly setting my cup on the floor, I washed my—wait, no water? And none of that deliciously foamy soap to go with it? Nothing! Remembering that I’d be handling the cup again anyway, I let it drop (the issue, not the pee).

More than a little freaked, I nudged the door open. There were several people—staff, patients—filling the small hallway, and while I knew my room was close, anxiety was clouding my ability to recall details. Is it that room two doors left or the one just right? By now I had completely cleared the bathroom, putting me and my pee in full view of passersby. I took a left that should’ve, turned out, been a right, and when I went to correct myself, I felt the pee slosh in its cup. Whoa! This was followed by visions of dampened pant hems, disgusted faces, injurious slips… Oh, to hell with it. I walked into the nearest empty room and placed my cup, its contents exposed to plenty of airborne bacteria by now, on the handiest surface I could find (probably too close to the computer, but hey) and aimed to jet. On my way down the hall, I caught sight of my phlebotomist. Muttering and pointing, I made it clear where my pee was resting. Then I realized I was without wallet. Which meant I still needed to locate my room. Thankfully, without that cup in hand, my brain function restored itself and things fast settled out.

If ever I could’ve benefited from an open container law…