Author’s note: The following are annotated highlights from the morning show playlist on WTMD 89.7 out of Towson, Maryland on the morning of Wed. April 13, 2011. I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the DJ Erik Deatherage, who has unknowingly nursed me through many a difficult morning.

Last night, I went to a Phish concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion. I’d never been to a Phish show before, and frankly, I expected more hippies. You know, older people with weathered skin and tie-died clothes sitting around nodding slowly as the band plays into the 12th minute of a song, the title of which we have all forgotten because they’ve wandered so far from any recognizable melody. But there were fewer hippies than college kids, and many of those appeared to be frat boys.

The lawn before the show and the bros.

I can’t save the world, but I want to save the world. This has always been the case. Many times as a child, I thought I could save the world or otherwise do the impossible. Many times, I was proven wrong.

I got naked while writing this essay. It was not sexy. Or it might have been, in a desperate, drunk kindof way. From waist to hips, from bust to thighs, I poured myself an obscene serving of sake and went to town with a measuring tape.

Enough Grows

By Mary Hendrie

Opinion

This post is excerpted from my blog Not an Activist, which I started in response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this summer. Please visit the blog to learn more. Thanks!

I’m beginning to wonder if it’s really possible to “do enough.”

Yesterday, I realized that to some folks I may look like a real hippy-dippy, granola weirdo, which was a funny thought for me since lately I seem unable to shake the feeling that I’m simply not doing enough. I’m not living quite the eco-friendly lifestyle I thought I could. True, I’m working toward some major changes, but they all happen slowly. One doesn’t just become a yoga teacher and quit commuting over night. Rather, there is money to be saved, training to be endured, and a clientele to be built before teaching yoga is really a viable career option. And yes, that’s where I’m headed, but who knows when I’ll get there.

Meanwhile, I usually eat lunch near my office at one of the three places that are close enough to walk to during my break. But I get sick of the repetition, and yesterday I wanted Subway, which is a little further than I can reasonably walk in the amount of time I have. I joked somewhat lamely that I was really living on the edge by going to Subway for a change. The office administrator was kind enough to laugh unconvincingly, but truthfully, I felt pretty conflicted about going.

At Subway, I pulled up in my Prius, walked in and ordered a veggie patty on wheat bread, piled high with lettuce and spinach. I declined the use of a plastic bag to carry out my order and gently placed the paper-wrapped sandwich in my oversize purse instead. I did accept the combo deal … because I love Sun Chips. But I didn’t use a lid or a straw for my soda cup.

On the way out, I thought I felt the eyes of the other patrons on my back. It could’ve been because I was exceptionally well dressed, or they might have been thinking I was a real eco-douchebag (I promise you will love this article by J.B. MacKinnon, who is not a douchebag). But the funny thing to me was that while on the surface, perhaps to the uninitiated, I might have looked like a real do-gooder, I didn’t feel like one.

I still drove to get the food. I still used their waxy paper. I still used the paper cup. I still ate the chips from the weird composite bag.

Once you become aware of the materials you use on a regular basis, it’s hard to justify using them even once in a while. If they are non-recyclable, or if they are made from non-renewable resources every single use feels like a transgression. Yes, I was enjoying a vegetarian lunch, driving a hybrid and avoiding plastic waste, but the fact that I drove there at all felt like I was doing something wrong. It was a little like sneaking out of the house in high school, only without the devilish thrill.

So, as I was having what might have looked like a very green lunch break yesterday, I realized that there is a massive disparity between what most people probably consider “green living” and what I think is “doing enough.” And the truth is, I don’t think it’s possible for very many people to do enough. I think most of us are capable of making these surface changes like what I’ve made so far, but many people aren’t even doing that.

But how much of a difference could we make if all of us just did the very basics? Recycle, avoid plastics, drive less, eat less meat.

MacKinnon notes in his article that switching to power-saving light bulbs hasn’t had quite the impact on our electricity consumption that we hoped, which makes me wonder if what I’m doing is a waste of time or worse — hypocritical. Still, I can’t help feeling that not trying at all would be a far greater waste.

There are two questions for me now:

  1. How do I continue to make small changes that will add up to something meaningful?
  2. How do I (or can I) reach those folks who aren’t yet doing anything? After all, it will take much more than just myself to make a difference.


No one likes alligators, really. Most people appreciate them fried or turned into boots, but when they are real, alive, and sidling up to your fishing boat, they are less enjoyable. When you see an alligator in the water, you keep your distance. You don’t entice or antagonize it. You sure as hell don’t cast your fishing line thatway. In Louisiana, you grow up with a healthy respect for your toothy reptilian cousins. I fear no human being, but an alligator is one force I will not test.


This is where I grew up. I know it doesn’t mean anything to you. It matters to me, though, and all the reasons I can think of for you to care are insufficient. There’s seafood, alligators, oil, and the economy. But then there’s my home.  That blue-brown swirl spilling out of a little wet crack in the earth? Yes, that. That’s where I’m from.

It’s not really a spill. It’s more like a gusher. A deep wound. It’s like being stabbed in the belly while wearing your Sunday best, something your grandmother made for you, something irreplaceable.

It’s like hearing your first love got hit by a train and seeing photos of his mangled body on the news while the broadcasters banter about how this is going to be some awful PR for the railroad business, and there you are at home, sitting in the glow of your TV, screaming inside and unable to act. There you are – watching part of your life die on the evening news while everyone feels sorry for the killer. The murderer. Sick.

Sulphur is the dot where I lived for my first 18 years. From where I grew up, the gulf is about an hour’s drive. You put your boat in the water at Cameron, the grey stone jetties guide you out, until the floor of the Gulf drops off and finally it’s just you and that fine line of a horizon, bobbing along together. Only you don’t really get that kind of intimacy with the sky because it’s interrupted by oil rigs unless you go out pretty far.


When fishing, you may find the rigs useful, as you can tie your boat up to one — they keep you from drifting off aimlessly. And at the end of the day, a pod of porpoises may join you on your way back to shore. They’d swim right at the bow of your boat, just riding along, jumping, escorting you. They’re in the dolphin family, but they’re not the same as the widely loved bottlenose dolphin. Maybe they’re not as cute or as open to being domesticated. Maybe they’re too damn Cajun for that showbiz nonsense. But they, like everything else that makes its home in the Gulf, are threatened by this oil spill.

Every dark dot in the water is an oil rig.  You can see how close they are to the mainland. Close enough that if any one of them sprung a leak, the nearby shoreline would be destroyed.


The rig that actually collapsed was 50 miles from shore, near
Venice, LAThe oil has been drifting away from my hometown and toward Florida instead, and for that we feel lucky. Lucky, but far from thrilled. It’s like feeling grateful when a hurricane turns the other way or when the flood waters rise in someone else’s neighborhood. We can always say that wasn’t our fault. We can call it a natural disaster and say prayers and collect canned food to donate to those whose homes were destroyed in one of nature’s mood swings. This is the kind of thing you’re used to if you grew up on the Gulf Coast.

An oil rig, on the other hand? That’s our fault. That’s straight up, undeniable, human stupidity.

Even the canal in the woods, where my best friend and I used to trek on summer afternoons to feel like explorers, is connected to the oil-vulnerable Calcasieu River. There are so many waterways in Louisiana that some of them don’t even have names. They’re just “the canal” or “that little inlet,” but they are all connected. Every last one of them. Every little blue line on the map goes somewhere.

We human beings have become too sure of ourselves, and we need alligators. We need some animals left that scare the daylights out of us. Do you know what happens when an alligator gets its teeth around you? In Louisiana, we call it a death roll. When an alligator has you in a death roll, there is no escape unless something juicier strolls by. But I’m afraid an alligator has no defense against oil spills.

*Please note: I had help editing this essay from my amazing editor friend Ellie Di. She can be found on Twitter @Ellie_Di. She’s also the founder of The Wholestyle Network.


kurt suicide scene

A despairing friend called late one night to say that he was looking at a photo of himself as a toddler holding his father’s rifle.

“I have an appointment with that rifle,” he told me. “I’ve always known I was going to end my life with it.”

He’s fine now, thank God, but his remark brought to mind a journal entry I made as a teenager, in which I said that I was sure I was going to kill myself one day; it was only a matter of how and when.

Remember when we listened to punk rock, rolled the windows down and drove to the gas station with the blue roof because a guy there was known for selling cigarettes to kids like us and we figured this was a pretty good deal? When he stopped working there, we never even asked what happened. He was just gone and we found an unsupervised cigarette machine in a coffee shop to replace him. It was in full view of the public, cops sitting at the bar and all, but no one was going to turn around and ask you for ID if you had the balls to just walk up and buy a pack.

Remember how that trip to the gas station took forever, like what the hell could we be doing? Well, we had to stop at so-and-so’s house and pop in to say hi to her mom so we wouldn’t look suspicious like that one time she knew I was going to be getting a ring, and she asked why I wasn’t wearing it and I said, “I let him keep it because we were going to, um, I mean, it was too big and it has to be re-sized, and I didn’t want to lose it.” What I almost said was “We were going to get high, and I was afraid I’d lose it.” It was my first time, and I was sure I couldn’t be trusted. We ended up just sitting in that coffee shop all day, staring at our cups. I tried so many times to explain something, some insight offering itself from the folds of my slow motion rush, and I’d start but my mouth couldn’t keep up, and I’d flounder till finally I muttered, “Ah, fuckit.” And that became my signature phrase for the next year. This is the sound of me falling short.

Remember when we left school to go swimming in some lake somewhere? We dragged our legs, thick with drugs, through muddy water and contemplated whether we could swim to the other side. We got water in our mouths. It was the first time I heard the word brackish, and it was delightful the way you said it. Brackish. We swam in our clothes so we wouldn’t have to go naked, but then there we were hiding behind the car putting on god knows what, a t-shirt I guess, and a towel maybe, something from the trunk of this boy’s car. I told myself to remember the image of you with the sweet purple smoke swirling around your face, the light sifting in through the barn window as you sat back on this old couch and someone finally declared, “It’s burnt.” I told myself to remember how goddamned beautiful you were because it couldn’t have lasted forever, but I had this one taste of it, this one photo in my mind — you sealed in the amber of time.

Remember when I was laying on your bed in my panties, and you sang that stupid song about me being on your bed in my panties? I couldn’t figure out why it was such a big deal, and I just felt lucky that you weren’t laughing or anything, and I felt like a bit of an asshole for smoking your pot but I realize now that you got the better end of that deal since you kept the remainder of the bag, too.

Remember when my eyes felt like sugar water? And my teeth, sugar cubes? And my heart, sugar, too?

Remember when we went to the park and climbed on the jungle gym and hung upside down by our knees and wondered what THC stood for anyway? It sounded like a college, like some kind of private school, like The Hard College. We talked about how girls only wanted to date shitty guys, and how good guys always get stuck being just friends, and then one night you kissed me on the sidewalk. It was an ambush of teenage hormones and then there were the long rambling love letters written in pencil, and the phone calls where you told me about your dreams until it got to be too much and I knew you were making things up.

Remember when I believed there were things good girls didn’t do? Remember when I was in love with you and tried that weird role reversal of deer perusing the hunter? And remember when you finally took me up on it and I shrank back from your hands because no one told me that was part of the deal?  Remember when the best thing I could think of was you thinking of me? Remember when I would whisper your name until I fell asleep? Do you remember me?

Before we discuss if we have a “right to be happy” or “how can we be happy,” we must first decide what we mean by ‘happiness.’

The word “happiness,” today, is used too ubiquitously to really mean much.There is a happy life, a happy moment, a happy accident.In etymological terms, the word’s origin is actually more closely related to “happen-stance” or “haphazard” where the root “hap” has to do with something being accidental or as a matter of fortune, rather than a result of purposeful action.  In most European languages, happy meant lucky.  Further, happiness’ connotation, its common usage rather than its definitive definition, has evolved from one of generality over a lifetime to one of one’s current state of being.Saying, “I am happy,” used to mean that your life was going well.Now it means, “This cake in my mouth is really something.”So, what was once a description of goals, direction and prudence, is now a full-mouthed reply to a bit of frosting.

Happy is the new skinny. Being happy is cool. Being sad, unsatisfied, depressed, lonely, moody or anxious is totally unattractive. Being bubbly, funny, enthusiastic, imaginative and wild is hot. Everyone wants to be happy, and everyone believes they deserve to be happy. We read books, listen to podcasts and subscribe to blogs all about how to be happy. I’ve listened and re-listened to Gala Darling’s podcast on happiness, and I find it inspiring. I’m even following some of her advice, and I’m starting to believe that it may actually be as simple as choosing to be happy. But it strikes me as odd that as a culture, we Americans claim to believe happiness is a natural right. We even wrote it into the Declaration of Independence. We are pretty dedicated to happiness, and yet, we have an awful time finding it.

Of course, there are the naysayers. There are people who believe we have become happiness addicts. There are people who believe that our obsession with being happy is naive, childish, and a waste of time. I wonder if they are happy.

They have a point, though. Our obsession with being happy can make us unhappy. Perhaps you’ve had a period of depression in which the realization that you are depressed actually makes it worse. It goes from depression to despair. “Oh God,” you find yourself sobbing into your pillow. “I’m a lost cause! I’m a mess. I’m going to end up killing myself one day!” The really nuts thing about it is that you never had any real intention of killing yourself, but the despair over your mental state, and the thought that you might be capable of committing suicide, actually drives you toward it. You start to think things like, “How will I know if I’m really suicidal?” And that thought doesn’t even make any sense. If you actually did want to die, you’d probably know it, Yet, you’ve seen those commercials with people sitting on the couch looking sad as the voice over says, “If you experience sleeplessness, loss of appetite, lack of interest in things you once enjoyed or thoughts of suicide … “

You begin to evaluate yourself as you watch the commercial. You tick off the list: You are, in fact, sitting on the couch looking sad about a sad looking person sitting on a couch. You sometimes have trouble sleeping. You once loved baking, finger painting, paper dolls and anything involving Elmer’s glue, all of which you have lost interest in. Are thoughts of suicide next? And then you realize you’re thinking of suicide right now.

“In fact, I think of suicide all the time: when I’m watching commercials for anti-depressants, when I’m stuck in traffic on a rainy night and no one will let me merge, when I don’t want to pay a bill or when I think about losing all my teeth in old age. Also, sometimes when driving on an empty road late at night, I wonder what would happen if I ran my car off the road. I don’t particularly want to die at that moment, but I’m sort of OK with the fact that it’s possible; so I probe the possibility with my imagination, but I have not yet intentionally swerved off the road. Not even just out of curiosity. So I guess I have no real death drive at the moment. But I could. And for that, I might need Wellbutrin or Lexapro or Zoloft or Prozac. Maybe I should ask my doctor, just in case.”

No one wants to be unhappy. If you’ve ever experienced true unhappiness, you know it’s not only miserable but sometimes terrifying. You feel alienated from yourself and everything that matters to you. Something always seems to be missing. You become insecure. It is not fun times. But the kind of happiness pushed on the public in the form of products, services and medications is not the kind of happiness that treats these wounds. Well, ok, for some, the medications help. But not for everyone. Drug companies know that deep down all of us have a bit of unhappiness, and that’s exactly why they invest in TV commercials. We see the sad person getting happy on TV thanks to some miracle drug, and we identify with that and think “Maybe they can make me happy, too.”

Just like the drug commercials that promise to change you from a sad little blob to a happy little blob (both mostly mindless but one clearly preferable), beauty product manufacturers promise to enrich your life by bringing out your natural beauty. I laugh when they end with faux fierceness: “You’re worth it!” Right. Worth what? An hour and a half of bleaching your scalp, poking yourself in the eye with a stick, and razor burn? Oh, those tricksy advertisers, trying to tell me I am worth the trouble of going out and buying their products and maiming myself with them. Oh yes, that is how I express my value.

We have our suffering and our insecurities, and we keep them quiet so that when advertisers at them, we’re ready to buy whatever they’re selling to medicate or mask our secret shame. No one talks about their weaknesses; that would leave them exposed to scrutiny. You don’t tell your boss, “I don’t feel good about my work, and I’m deeply concerned about the direction of my career.” That doesn’t usually lead to a promotion, and a promotion is what we want, right?

A promotion would make us happy … maybe. It’s the kind of happiness toward which we clamor when we come up short on ways to soothe that deep soul ache. If not a promotion, then at least a good bikini body, and if we can’t have that, then at least we can milk all the pleasure there is to be had from a cupcake. But is there a happiness that lasts longer than a cupcake? Something that can stick with us when we no longer want to be ogled on the beach? Is there anything in the world that, unlike that promotion, will ask nothing in return? I want the kind of happiness that doesn’t cost money, doesn’t go away when I age, and doesn’t require me to be on call to answer to come corporate jerk who cares not a whit for my personal time. And I want the kind of happiness that doesn’t cost sixty bucks a month because the drug is so new that there’s no generic alternative. Where can I find that kind of happiness?

What do I even mean when I say I want to be happy? I want to be healthy. I want to be skinny and pretty and smile a lot. I want to make enough money. I already make enough money, but I would really like to make a little more money. Or a lot more money. Enough money to buy a bigger house and not have to DIY all the renovations. That would be enough. Oh, and enough money for a new car because mine is getting old, and a pair of diamond earrings because every girl needs a pair of those, and one pair of really good expensive shoes. And a job that’s closer to my house so I don’t have to drive so far, but it should still pay me well and involve doing cool stuff with cool people. I want to spend more time with my family and friends, but not too much because most people annoy me after a while. And I want another drink, but I don’t want a hangover, and I don’t want to cross that line into being an alcoholic, although I’m not sure where that line is, and I’m not sure anyone else is either.

We seem to think we can’t live without happiness, but we’re not even sure what it is, so how would we know? Was Mother Theresa happy? What about Michael Jackson? George Washington? Your grandmother? My grandmother was extremely poor. She dropped out of school after the seventh grade, married young, had six children, and raised them all in a house the size of my first apartment with one bathroom. Her husband died 20 years before her, and she never dated again. She didn’t have a dishwasher or an air conditioner. Was she happy? Did anyone ever ask? I think it’s a safe bet that “happiness” was not the priority for her that it is for me, and for this, I feel rather foolish and selfish. Her life is anathema to me — tiny house, no money, no education, a boatload of kids — but perhaps in avoiding what I view as her pitfalls, I am denying myself a certain organic kind of happiness. After all, her kids grew up to be good people, each successful in their own way. All of them married and had children. She became matriarch to an ever-growing family who loved her. But I don’t know what that meant to her or if she was happy.

In a recent interview with Oprah, Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hahn said, “It is possible to live happily in the here and the now. So many conditions of happiness are available—more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.” That thought is profound and genius, but a bit over my head. I instinctively reach back to the experience of my day and think, “Is he trying to say I can be happy even with a full time job? Even without my new running shoes? Even stuck in traffic?”

When Oprah asked him to define happiness, he said “Happiness is the cessation of suffering. Well-being. For instance, when I practice this exercise of breathing in, I’m aware of my eyes; breathing out, I smile to my eyes and realize that they are still in good condition. There is a paradise of form and colors in the world. And because you have eyes still in good condition, you can get in touch with the paradise. So when I become aware of my eyes, I touch one of the conditions of happiness. And when I touch it, happiness comes.”

Reading his words stops me in my tracks. It makes me forget what I thought I knew. It pours the thoughts right out of my head and leaves me sitting in my skull like a lightening bug in an empty jar. I’m just blinking around in the emptiness.

And then I remember this: I was searching for happiness, and I was motivated by fear. The fear of unhappiness. The fear of unhappiness causes unhappiness and sends me on a wild search for that which is not my fear, but because I don’t know what it is, I can’t see it even when it surrounds me. The search is dizzying and distracting, fun and frustrating, and thoroughly intoxicating. The search is elating because it sometimes leads us to art and orgasm. Other times, the search is a bad trip and leads to sobbing into pillows, terrified at the thought of what we might do to ourselves if we had the courage (and we are quite glad we don’t have the courage).

Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet on Flickr

Recess

By Mary Hendrie

Writing

A couple weeks ago, I decided to try writing fiction, something I have told myself for a very long time that I simply couldn’t do. I started by putting on my headphones and opening a blank text file and typing away. Then I did it again. And again. Until a character started to emerge, and I started to learn about her life. It started out boring and difficult. It was very slow going, but it was also rewarding work. Like all writers (and perhaps all human beings), I live with some people I call my inner critics. They are noisy, rude, condescending, and generally counter-productive. But when the work is exciting enough, it’s possible to shut them up long enough to get something done.

So, for the past couple weeks, I managed to keep my inner critics hushed up long enough to write a first draft of a short story. As soon as the draft was complete, I handed it off to a couple trusted readers, and immediately the critics began chomping at the bit to get out and make some noise. Tempting as it is to stuff the critics further down into my already crowded psyche or to submit to feeling tortured and insane while they engage in a psychological prison riot, I believe that even my inner critics are part of myself, so today, I let them out to breathe.

The scene was like this.

It was the first warm day in a very long time, and the third graders at the local Catholic elementary school were going absolutely stir crazy to get outside. The first couple hours of the day felt interminable. They dragged their feet through every work sheet, math problem, and sentence diagram. Lunch gave them a glimmer of hope despite the bland so-called “spaghetti.” They ate in a hurry, guzzled down their milk, then dashed outside for recess. That’s when the screaming started, along with the face-making, booger flicking, and creative name calling. Some of them spun in circles while counting to thirty, then attempted to run full bore across the school yard. Some of them puked. But that’s all rather predictable for kids who have been cooped up too long.

But then something truly strange happened. Once the kids worked out all their unruly energy, they came back to me, formed a circle around me, and then proceeded to hold some kind of intervention. It was awful. It was like the “the cheese stands alone” verse of “The Farmer and the Dale.” And the worst part was that they all appeared to have an absurd, kind, over-protective concern for me. They said stuff like, “Sweetheart, this fiction thing you’re trying … we understand that you want to branch out and expand your creative abilities, but … maybe you should stick to poetry and nonfiction.”

“Yeah,” another piped up. “Poetry doesn’t even require a plot. You don’t even really have to make things up. You can just play with pretty words. It’s easy.”

A grumpy one off to the side said, “Well, poetry’s not exactly easy, but at least you’re good at it … sortof. I mean, you’ve done it before. So, technically you know how to do it. You’re not that good, but …”

“Well, what about nonfiction? The story and the characters are already there, so all you have to do is write them down …”

“Yeah, but it’s hard to get that stuff right. Real, believable people on the page? I think you’re asking too much of her.”

“All we’re saying is maybe you’ve set your sights too high.”

“Maybe work more on what you know already.”

“Maybe take a break from writing for a while.”

At this, the crowd lost focus and began to murmur among themselves. First in whispers, and then in shouts. They gave contradictory advice of all kinds but they did agree on one thing: I should probably give up because I’m not really as good as I’d hoped. Finally, I spoke up.

“Um. Guys? ” They continued to talk over me. “Guys!” Finally, silence. “The draft is written. It’s out of my hands now. I’ve given it to some people who will read it, and I hope they will do so kindly. They will probably give me some suggestions. And then I can decide to go on with the piece or not.”

“You GAVE someone your DRAFT?” Someone shouted.

“Oh sweet Jesus. We’re really in for it now. I mean, I saw that draft with my own eyes, and it was not pretty.”

“The typos!”

“The awkward dialogue!”

“The plot holes!”

“They’re going to think you’re an idiot! Seriously. Who would write something like that and call it a story?”

“Of course, WE know you’re not an idiot. We know it’s just a first draft. We know it’s a work in progress. But why would you go showing anyone something in that state?”

I cringed but held my ground. The piece was out there in the world now, incomplete and flawed as it may be. It’s out there. So be it. Luckily the recess bell rang just as the kiddos were looking too exasperated to go on. They got up from where they had been seated on the grass. Some of them had little twigs stuck to the backs of their chubby thighs. Their cow licks were going wild. They smelled of people who were too young to use deodorant but old enough to start needing it. They were sticky around their mouths and fingers. Some of them gave me mournful looks and kicked the dirt as they shuffled past me and back toward their classrooms.

It’s an odd sort of victory, but it seems I won, simply by outlasting them.

Of course, a victory of this kind is also temporary. Every day, every time I sit down to write, and every time I send off a story, poem or essay, they begin to chime in. I do my best to lull them to sleep with music or lure them away with candy or otherwise shut them up long enough to write a few thousand words. Luckily, having seen them for who they really are, I find them much more bearable. They’re not the grumpy old men who used to hang out at the coffee shop where I worked, because deep down, I never cared what those assholes thought. They’re not my junior high school English teacher who shamed me to no end when she found a note I’d written containing lots of foul words regarding the boys in my class. They’re not my boss because I don’t even care if he understands my creative endeavors, and that ain’t what he pays me for anyway. They’re not even my husband because luckily, he loves me even if my first draft sucks, and even if my second, third and fourth drafts don’t get any better. They are just kids. Sticky, smelly, ignorant yet opinionated children who need a chance to scream and shout and act immature yet condescending before they have to go back to class, sit in their desk and learn something.

Dear Real Bigfoot,

I super love you. I want to hug you. You might not like that. I wonder what you smell like. Like a wild animal, I guess, but you’re not a wild animal. You’re different. You’re a freak of nature, and I mean that in the most outstanding way. You are electric and organic and everything the rest of us wish we were. You are what e.e. cummings wanted us to be. You are everything we’ve lost touch with: Nature, body hair, animal instincts, and the sheer size of life. You’re a hunter-gatherer, baby, and that is hot.

When I saw the photo of you last week, I was skeptical, of course. All photos of Bigfoot or other legendary creatures are subject to skepticism because, as reasonable, mature, working adults, we can’t be always buying into fantastical stories then finding out we were duped. The whole Santa Claus thing was embarrassing enough. Do you know about Santa Claus? Do you even concern yourself with this stuff?

Anyway, I was skeptical, but the thought of you stirred such strong feelings in me that I felt compelled to write to you. I hope you can read, or I hope someone reads this to you, maybe some very lucky liaison of the hairless world who brings you snacks and cookies in the woods and shows you how to read and stuff. But you are such a savvy woodsman you probably don’t need that kind of help, and in fact, the cookies would be an interference with your natural, healthy diet. Look how strong you are, how tall, how stealthy and smart, how luxurious your hair! You don’t need anything from us soft, bald, squishy, oil-addicted, technology-dependent folks, and that is what I love about you. I dare say that’s what all of us love about you — you are so not us in all the right ways, even if you are exactly like us in some other ways.

My first instinct was to say that photo was a hoax because people are always claiming to have seen, found, caught or even killed you. I know, it’s awful. Last year, some guys even produced a frozen corpse, which I was so grateful to discover was only an ape suit, and not even a very good one. I was completely offended by that hoax and didn’t want to be fooled again, but I can’t help it. I want to believe in you more than I want to believe in God.

Honestly, I shouldn’t be calling you “Bigfoot.” It’s like if you called me “Squishythighs.” I wouldn’t appreciate that very much. I’d like to give you a name. I’d like to call you Francis. It’s a good name, gender neutral, and has a bit of a rock-n-roll twist while being quite classic. If you don’t like it, I can call you something else, OK? But for now, I’m going to call you Francis.

So, Francis, sometimes I day dream about the life you must live. So many of us supposedly civilized people have drifted so far away from what matters most — and I’m not just talking about family and love — we’ve lost touch with our real survival needs, our health, our basic nature. I’m talking about eating, breeding and staying warm. You’ve got that down.

Is your life hard? Do you like it? Is it worth living? The rest of us tend to think we couldn’t cope with life if we didn’t have our houses, our jobs, and our cars, and yet those are the very things that make our lives so complicated. I don’t want to lose my job, and yet, in any given day, the hardest thing I have to deal with is most likely related to my job. Most of us are in codependent relationships with our jobs, wanting to be free of the responsibilities of work, yet feeling that without the money we earn from work, we couldn’t be happy. What kind of sense does that make?

I wish you could tell me about your days, Francis. Do you spend a lot of time looking for food? Do you cook your food over a fire, admiring the warm glow on the faces of your family? Or do you eat it alone, satisfied by your natural ability to provide for yourself? Are you tired at the end of the day? Do you wonder if there is more to life than eating, breeding and staying warm? I wonder, too.

I love you, Francis Bigfoot.

Sincerely,
Mary Squishythighs

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

From "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop


So, I had this toothache. It was in a tooth that I knew had a cavity. I knew there was a cavity because the last time I went to a dentist, which was about eight years ago, I had noticed a dark spot on my lower right molar. I noticed it because I am the type of person who compulsively looks in mirrors and inspects everything. Everything. I opened my mouth wide to check out the fillings in the back teeth, and I noticed a spot on one tooth, and I mentioned it to the dentist and he goes, “What, this?”* And at the time, it wasn’t even enough of a spot to call it a cavity, so he just said be sure you brush good, and it’ll be fine, and he suggested that perhaps I should tone down the self-inspections.

Which would’ve been fine, right? Except that this was my last dental checkup before going off to college, and though I’m ashamed to admit it, there were many nights when I drunkenly went to bed without brushing, and many mornings when I stumbled out of bed just barely in time to make it to class, and several other times when I mostly just failed to care because I was 18 or 19 and figured my teeth weren’t going anywhere. And for a while, they weren’t, until I was long past my college partying days, making a sincere effort to brush at least once a day, and getting regular medical checkups. The little spot on that back tooth had grown. I was still in the habit of checking out those back teeth. It had developed into the habit of looking mournfully in the mirror, knowing that eventually I’d have to make a dental appointment to get that filled, and wondering how complicated the insurance was going to be. Foolishly, I waited. It didn’t hurt. No need to go to a doctor for something that doesn’t hurt, right?

But then, one day it did hurt. Something was stuck in it. I gave it a good brushing, rinsed with salt water, and it stopped hurting for a couple days, but it started again. I went through this cycle for a few days until it became clear that I would need to see a dentist.

Appointment One:

After calling my insurance company to verify that I did indeed have dental coverage with a $5 copay for office visits, I had the company fax my insurance information over to the only dental office in town that (a) had openings and (b) accepted the particular insurance plan I had. Obviously, when everyone else in town is telling you they can’t get you an appointment until the end of next month and this office says, “Well, I have several openings this week,” you should consider whether you could stand to wait a month. But when there’s a crater in your molar and you find yourself compulsively picking things out of it with the aid of various improvised tools (tooth pick, paper clip, safety pin, earring hook), waiting a solid month just doesn’t feel like an option.

But when I arrived for my appointment, it wasn’t to get a filling or even have a tooth pulled. Since the tooth was not actively hurting at that moment (I had successfully rinsed all the food bits out of it for several days in a row), they gave me a cleaning. A good, 45 minute scrubbing, a painful scrubbing, too. And when I told the hygienist I hadn’t seen a dentist in eight years, she said she’d have to split my cleaning into two visits because there was “so much tartar build up that we won’t be able to get it all in one visit.” Oh, but your insurance will only pay for this type of visit once every six months, and we really can’t wait six months for this, so lets try and get you back in a couple weeks. That’ll be $75 today (you get the discounted rate), and you just pay your $5 copay next time. Oh, yes, I know it’s an unexpected expense and everyone is under pressure in this economy, but this is an investment in your health. You really need this, and you’ll be glad once you’re done. Granted, it’s completely your call. We could just do everything we can for now and then see you back for another regular cleaning in six months, but you will look sortof pathetic if you admit to being bothered by this unexpected yet entirely manageable expense. No pressure, of course.

All this was explained to me as I sat in the dentist’s chair, feet in the air, with what amounted to a small, sharp-edged, dual-action, vibrator-sprinkler jammed into the crevices between my teeth. This went on for 30 minutes before I found myself very briefly the object of attention of one Dr. B, who looked and sounded frighteningly like Ben Stein but with whiter hair and an eerily younger face. He glanced at me, then at my x-ray, made scraping noises with metal objects in my mouth, and told me I would need a root canal. Oh, and those wisdom teeth? They’ll probably need to come out (even though your dentist back home said to leave them alone as long as they’re not bothering you, and they aren’t). But we can talk about that later. After the root canal. For now, give her a treatment plan and schedule a root canal, and I’m out of here because I am a busy man, and it’s not my fault you didn’t brush your teeth enough in college, ya floozy.

Appointment Two:

My tooth started to hurt again, even when I brushed, and using my improvised cleaning tools didn’t help, either. I was rinsing with Listerine several times a day. When the small bottle I carried in my purse ran out, I stopped by Walgreens on the way home from work one day and couldn’t stop myself from taking a swig in the parking lot. Immediately I was confronted with the problem: Where to spit? I couldn’t just lean out the window in rush hour traffic and spit on a neighboring vehicle. I couldn’t open the door and spit on the ground and risk looking like a drunk or a tobacco chewer or both. So, I wedged the full Listerine bottle between my thighs, removed the cup/cap, and spit into it. I drove very carefully the rest of the way home, breaking gently, slowing to a crawl to go over the speed bumps, and merging ever-so-politely in order to avoid upsetting the shot glass of spit and mouthwash that was threatening to ruin my pride and the upholstery of my car.

I called the dentist the next day.

“I have an appointment for a root canal, but I want to know if I can come in sooner. My tooth is really hurting.”

“You don’t have an appointment for a root canal. Your appointment is for a cleaning. You have to go to the other side of the office to make an appointment with the doctor.”

“No one told me that. I thought I was making an appointment for my root canal.”

“Nope. But I can get you in for a root canal … next week?”

“Well, no one told me that was an option. I really need to think about this, but let me make the appointment now, and I’ll at least get to talk to the doctor when I go in.”

I made a lunch time appointment because I don’t like to take time off work when I can avoid it, and they didn’t have any evening appointments available soon enough. In the interim, I sought advice from people I knew who’d had root canals. Everyone seemed to think it’s best to save the tooth if you can, I chose to proceed with the root canal rather than extract the tooth. I arrived early for my 11 a.m. appointment but sat in the waiting room until 11:15 anyway. By the time I reached the dentist’s chair,  I had made up my mind that I was there to have a root canal. I told Dr. B as much, he administered anesthesia, and began drilling away. The procedure was painless, Dr. B put a temporary filling in my tooth and told me to schedule the second half of the root canal at the front desk.

At the front desk, the receptionist told me I didn’t owe anything since the procedure wasn’t finished yet, however the total cost would be $580 at the end of the next appointment. What happened to the $5 copay? my inner voice screamed, but all I could say was, “They didn’t tell me that.” Then the tears began to flow. An old man who had been sitting the waiting room across from me earlier appeared to smirk at my tears as the receptionist said something about a treatment plan — the treatment plan, yes, that was supposed to explain what was involved in this root canal business. That was supposed to explain all the costs. What happened to the treatment plan? I never got a copy.

I put down $50 that day, left the office sobbing, and left my husband a voice mail in which I could only choke out the words, “Hey, it’s me. I need you to call me, okay?” He called me 30 minutes later, afraid I’d been too drugged to drive back to the office. I did drive, though. I stopped off at Smoothie King to get a liquid lunch, and as I sat in my car, in the rain, in the parking lot,  I struggled to get it together enough to go inside and order a medium Angel Food. I stopped crying and heaving hysterical sighs long enough to get inside, but before I could order, I realized my wallet was missing. I ran out to the car, got the wallet, and came back. The other customers applauded, but one woman looked at me and saw how distressed I was.

“You have too much going on,” she said. “You just need to slow down.” I took a deep breath, nodded, and tried not to cry.

“Are you ok?” She said.

I nodded.

“Do you want a hug?”

I nodded again.

She walked right up and hugged me.

“Ah jeeze,” I said. “I’m really going crazy. I’m hugging a complete stranger … but that’s OK.”

“I’m not a stranger. My name is Tanya.”

Tanya was amazing. She gave me hope. She told me to take care of myself. Don’t make myself sick. She had been a victim of sickness, she said. She was diagnosed with breast cancer just a few months before losing her job. She was living off savings, and she would have her last radiation treatment in a few more days.

“You’re amazing,” I sobbed. “I want you to get better.”

“I am better,” she said. “I have claimed my healing.”

I couldn’t believe I was crying over a root canal. I didn’t tell her. I thanked her profusely and went back to work with a sinus headache (the inevitable result of crying). I tried to tough it out through the day but ended up going home at 4 p.m., at which point I slept, whined, and apologized to my husband for being a burden. The only food I managed to stomach that evening was about four spoonfulls of some kind of mediocre soup and a slice of a baguette.

Appointments Three and Four:

At appointment three, I received the second half of my cleaning, which was far less painful than the first. It was unremarkable.

By appointment four, I had figured out that my extreme emotional reaction was more likely due to the anesthesia than being told the cost of the root canal. I knew I could afford the procedure, even though it was an unexpected an inconvenient expense, so it had to be the drugs. Not to mention that loss of appetite is not at all how I normally cope with bad news. I asked to be treated with a different type of anesthesia if possible. The doctor’s assistant explained that the usual anesthesia actually contains adrenaline, which causes some people to have nervous reactions. Only then did I realize exactly how bad for me that particular anesthesia had been — we’re talking about someone with an anxiety problem, panic attacks, and trouble spending extended periods in groups of people — even if those people are close friends and family. Giving me an extra dose of adrenaline before telling me I owe nearly $600 just doesn’t go over well.

As I sat in the chair pondering all this, the doctor and his assistant prepared and administered a different kind of anesthesia, one which they said was slightly less potent and might wear off more quickly (not a problem, I figured, since the last one had left me numb for much of the day). I few needles to the jaw later, I was numb and just waiting to get the drilling done. Perhaps they didn’t realize how quickly the drugs took effect because Dr. B walked away for a good ten minutes, and in the mean time, my face got droopy, and his assistant remembered something.

“Oh, has anyone given you one of these yet? She said, handing me a form.”

“No, what’s this?”

“This is just a release form giving us permission to do the root canal.”

Should I have stopped her at this point? Should I have protested? Should I have said, “What the hell? You already started the root canal last time I was here. You didn’t give me a treatment plan, didn’t tell me what was involved, didn’t tell me how much it would cost, gave me drugs I wasn’t prepared to cope with, drilled the center out of my tooth and suckered me into a long, drawn-out, multi-visit process, and NOW you’re giving me a release form?” Yeah. I probably should’ve said that. But I didn’t. I signed the form and let them drill into my tooth again because realistically, what dentist would take a patient who was half way through a root canal someone else started? Then they strapped a humiliating device on my mouth. It involved a rubber sheet and something like an old-fashioned head-gear, and I couldn’t stop the mental images of disturbing pseudo-medical porn from flooding my brain. I stared into the blindingly bright light overhead, and decided I would need to see a different dentist as soon as humanly possible.

As the anesthesia wore off, I began to twitch and squirm, and eventually even to moan and jerk away from Dr. B, who administered more anesthesia and soldiered on. Still, he was unable to finish the root canal. I learned later that it was at least in part due to the fact that the root of my tooth formed a 90 degree angle at the bottom, which made it particularly hard to drill. Had I known this earlier, I might have chosen to save myself the pain and extract the tooth right off the bat. But there I was: tooth drilled, root canal nearly finished, thinking if I could just finish this mess, I would reward myself at the end by finding a better dentist. Knowing that at least another $700 in dental fees lay ahead, I paid what was left of my nearly $600 root canal bill although the procedure wasn’t finished. This would allow me to space out the payments and make the $700 seem slightly less painful when it came due.

Appointment Five:

I made my appointment to finish the root canal and to start to post-core and crown process, and in the mean time, I sought out recommendations of dentists. I explored every possible option, and I even considered flying home to Louisiana to see a dentist I trust so I could end this charade with the local dental office once and for all. But within a week, the tooth broke. I swear to God, I was following all the rules, but there you go. The side chipped right off while I was eating French fries, and I must’ve swallowed it by accident. It left the temporary filling exposed. I called the dental office, which was closed. The answering service woman explained that the dentist on call doesn’t respond to anything after 11 p.m., and as it was 11:15, I could choose to either go to the emergency room or just wait until the following morning. I wasn’t bleeding out, so I chose to wait. As I lay in bed that night, I coached myself on what to say the next day. I would tell them to pull the tooth. I would never go back. I would find a new dentist. And if anyone tried to make me feel bad about removing the tooth, I would tell them, “I’ve lost more important things than this tooth.” Silently, I enumerated the many things I’ve lost.

It was the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, and I got a 9:15 appointment with a Dr. M. I was expecting another Ben Stein look alike but was surprised to meet a young female dentist not much older than myself. She had a brunette bob with near-blond highlights. It was apparent that she put some effort into her make up that morning. She looked like someone my age who I wouldn’t be likely to be friends with because we had nothing in common even though she was, by all accounts, a really nice person. She didn’t look like a dentist. She didn’t look like Ben Stein. I had a brief feminist experience in which I came face-to-face with my own ingrained sexism as I realized I wasn’t 100% confident in this young, attractive, friendly and well made-up female dentist. I made a conscious decision to trust her because (a) at least she was nicer than Dr. B, (b) she was my only hope to get rid of this damned tooth, and (c) I needed to get over that sexist bullshit because I wouldn’t have let anyone else get away with saying the same things I was thinking. Be the change you want to see and all that.

Dr. M took a look at my tooth and noted that the break looked rather superficial and she could probably still cap it, and I’d be able to go ahead with the post-core and crown. She took an x ray to make sure the break wasn’t worse than it appeared. She offered to cap the tooth for me, but — and this was my moment of triumph, strange as it may seem — I looked her in the eye, willing my tears back into their ducts, and said, “I really just want to pull the tooth. I want to be done with this. I’ve been round and round with this tooth. I can’t keep taking time off work for this, and I honestly can’t afford it, and I just want you to pull it.” She patted my cheek and said she would do it. She conferred with another doctor about that 90 degree root. She numbed me up with my preferred anesthesia. She worked quickly with her assistant, who happened to be the same person who dealt with me sobbing embarrassingly at the receptionists’ desk a few weeks before. She warned me before doing things that might hurt, “You’re going to feel a lot of pressure here.” And she stopped when I raised my hand to ask for a break. he was everything I wished my first boyfriend would be. It crossed my mind to stay at that dental office as long as I could only make appointments with her. I was in love with Dr. M.

After much pushing, prodding and pulling, I heard and felt a crack somewhere beneath my gum line, and Dr. M produced a tooth.

“Cah ah heee?”

“Huh? Oh, sure, just let me get this cleaned up quick. Once we get the root tips out, you can get a look at this.”

There was more digging around in my mouth, then the application of a suction tube to remove the blood, then Dr. M and her assistant left my side briefly. They wanted to take an x ray to be sure all the bits of root had been removed. While they were gone, I lifted my head just enough to see the paper napkin on my chest. It was stained with blood. I felt a little sick and a little proud. Dr. M came back with good news. The x ray showed no pieces of the tooth remained. Dr. M put stitches in my gum; told me how well I’d done; gave me instructions for caring for the wound, 800 mg of Ibuprofen and a prescription for Percoset, which I ended up never taking. She sent me off with a firm warning to eat something before taking any medications. I didn’t get to look at the tooth. I really wanted to see that 90 degree root.

Through the next few days, I poured over the instructions for caring for the extraction site. I meticulously avoided acidic foods and beverages. I did not eat turkey or cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving but stuck to stuffing and other foods soft enough to be mashed with my tongue or chewed on one side. I texted a friend in a tizzy when I found a piece of noodle slouched in the hole where my tooth once was. The noodle did not respond to the “gentle rinsing” described by the dental assistant. My friend texted her mother, who was also a dental assistant. Word came back: I could rinse, but no spitting, sucking, or sneezing was allowed. The noodle was defeated. On Friday, I sneezed. By Saturday night, I allowed myself beer, the effects of which were heightened by several days of a mostly liquid diet. We had a party, and at 1 a.m., we went to the Double T Diner, where I had baklava.

Nearly a week after the extraction, I sat dully tonguing the stitches in my gums, trying not to interfere with the healing yet unable to resist my compulsion to fidget. I suckled my beer gently. The stitches were coming loose, and the thread dangled in the back of my mouth like the lose yarn on an of an old sweater. I ached to pull on that thread, to unravel it just to see what would happen. In two days, I would have an appointment to get the stitches removed, but I worried about the loose thread. I simply couldn’t cope with the prospect of complications — infection, abscess, dry socket, which I nearly had panic attacks avoiding — I had been cautious for a week, and I didn’t need a reason to spend even more time and money on my floozy teeth. But that night,  I pictured all the beer I’d had over the weekend, how I’d heard the effervescence from soda could dissolve or dislodge the blood clot and cause dry socket — how much worse could beer be? I lay in bed imagining my stitches coming undone and my precious blood clot washing away in rivers of beer until I fell asleep. In the morning, I worried that the final checkup would result in the doctor conjuring up some other issue for which I would require some other expensive treatment. I considered cutting the last remaining stitch with nail scissors and skipping bail.

Appointment Six:

On the day my stitches were to be removed, the husband and I had to carpool because his car was in the shop. Despite a frantic day at the office, I spent much of the day imagining finally being free of my unraveling stitches. I tried not to fidget, and while standing in line at the Indian buffet where I went to lunch with my coworkers, I had just enough self-control not to say, “Today,  I’m getting the stitches out of my gums from that tooth extraction I had last week.” After work, my husband dropped me off at the dentist’s office and went across the street to get himself a cup of coffee. I warned him: They always run at least 15 minutes late, so even if we get there on time, they won’t see me till 5:30. He planned to be back by six. I walked up stairs, signed in at the front desk, and by the time I finished hanging my jacket, a dental assistant was there to call me back. She sat me down, snipped the one remaining stitch from my gum, and rinsed the wound with salt water. It didn’t hurt at all. It felt instantly better, in fact, as the temptation to fidget was removed. When she went to get the dentist, she left the little wad of thread on the tray beside me. It looked like a small dead bug with a bit of mush (probably rice pudding) caked on the wings. Or like something you might find in the bathtub drain.

Then my Dr. M returned.

“How are you?” She said cheerfully.

“A thousand times better than I was last time!”

“How about the day of the extraction? That was one hell of an extraction, huh? Did you have a lot of pain?”

“Not really. I turned in the prescription you gave me but I never ended up taking it. I just took Ibuprofen for a couple days.”

She was enthusiastic about this news. I gazed into her green eyes (enhanced by colored contacts, but beautiful nonetheless) and noticed how much she resembled one of my heroes, Carlin Ross.

Dr. M leaned me back in the chair one last time. She swiped her finger along my gum line, looking for swelling and irritation, commenting that the healing seemed to be coming along fine. She said it would heal even faster now that the sutures were out of the way. Sutures, I thought. Yes. I had forgotten that word. She reviewed my chart, saw that I had no need to come in for any appointments any time soon, and encouraged me to take a break, rest up, and enjoy the holidays. And that was that. On the way out the door, I checked in with the receptionist about my refund for the root canal. In the car on the drive home, I took a photo for posterity. I wondered if I would ever see Dr. M again. Then we went out for hamburgers.



*Please note that all dialogue in this piece is paraphrased. I wasn’t taking notes in the dentists’ chair as I was hoping all along that this would not be the type of medical experience that merited an essay, especially one of this length. If I had known it was going to be so dramatic, I would’ve brought a tape recorder.