In a class full of oversexed boys, Willie was one of the most bizarre incarnations. He was on the smaller side, like me, scrawny, and usually clad in ill-fitting sweaters and corduroy pants. He wore his hair in a small, unkempt Afro, a stark contrast to the other black kids’ tight box cuts and fades. Willie talked and joked about sex even more than most of the other boys, but his role was more court jester and class clown than king and confident braggart.

His main act was “juggling [his] titties.” He’d cup his dark, spindly fingers under his chest and bounce them up and down slowly, as if each contained a huge overflowing breast that he could barely contain in his hand. Laughing uncontrollably, he’d cry out: “I’m juggling my titties, I’m juggling titties! Watch out, I’m juggling my titties!” Then he’d pantomime one of his “titties” coming off in his hand and pretend to throw it at the nearest kid. “Watch out, I’m going to hit you with my titties!” he’d yell as people screamed and dived away from him in every direction.

This joke never seemed to get old, to him or his victims. At lunchtime and recess, kids were often heard dashing down the hallway, their feet sliding as they careened around the corner, calling out desperate and giddy warnings to the others up ahead: “Watch out! Watch out! Willie’s juggling his titties again!”

Today, however, Willie’s titties were dormant under his lumpy gray sweater, at least for the moment. He sidled up to me where I sat, alone, at the lunch table. “Hey,” he said, “I got a question for you.” His eyes were hungry, his mouth a wide white grin.

“Yeah?” I said. I didn’t trust Willie. He had two other boys with him, who were both already on the verge of laughter.

“You ever had pussy around your neck?”

I squirmed on my stool—a sickly pale-green disk connected by a metal arm to the lunch table—and picked at a small piece of crud next to my tray. These kinds of questions always made me feel terribly small and uncomfortable. Around us was utter chaos, as usual, boys whooping and burping and punching each other, food flying, screaming, laughter. A combination of burnt pizza and cleaning solution hung in the air. My eyes rested on a large cherry pie stain on the lunchroom wall, and I thought about the question.

Pussy. The word offended me, and certainly made me nervous. Things I don’t understand often make me uncomfortable, especially if I sense they are important. At 11 years old, I didn’t understand “pussy” at all, although I could already tell it was tremendously important. I barely even knew what it was, and I was deeply aware and ashamed of my ignorance. All I knew was that it was a crude term for a woman’s private parts, but I had never seen one, let alone had one around my neck!

It didn’t sound possible. I had the impression that tightness was a virtue in a pussy, at least that’s what all the other boys were always saying. But all things sexual were very mysterious to me. My parents were both shy types who apparently thought sex was something magical, certainly not to be discussed. I gleaned what little understanding I could from the conversations I overheard at school, while trying desperately not to reveal my own ignorance, which I usually ended up doing anyway.

Where pussy was concerned, I knew you could stick fingers in it, or a penis, and probably a lot of other things too. But your whole head? That sounded absurd. And yet … I had also heard that you could “eat” a pussy, though there was fierce debate among the boys about whether one ought to or not. Some boys decried pussy-eating as disgusting or even “gay,” while others claimed it was a source of great pleasure and delight. I struggled with the terminology—surely they didn’t literally mean eating, did they? But at the very least I knew that “eating” a pussy involved the mouth. Perhaps then, I thought, as I wrestled with Willie’s question, if a person were to “eat” a pussy that was too “loose” (as I’d heard many, if not most, of the ones belonging to the girls in our class were), one’s whole head could somehow become lodged in there and one would actually have “pussy around [his] neck.” Still, it seemed unlikely.

“Well …” I said slowly, not wanting to commit myself either way. A small group of onlookers had formed around us. This was agony. What was the answer Willie was looking for? How I hated to be wrong! “No,” I said, “I never have.” It seemed to me that to say I’d ever had pussy around my neck would have been to admit being involved in some bizarre sexual act that I couldn’t even fathom. Since I had no idea what that might be, I couldn’t risk it.

“You haven’t?” Willie said theatrically, with mock surprise. For the benefit of his delighted audience, he repeated the question: “You’ve never had pussy around your neck? Are you sure?”

“No, I never have,” I asserted again, trying to sound more confident about my answer this time. “That’s nasty,” I added, as if to bolster my claim.

“Then how were you born?” Willie said. “What are you an alien or something?”

I still didn’t understand.

“Dummy, you came out of a pussy. Everybody has had pussy around their neck.” He looked smug. His two cohorts snickered at my stupidity. I was flabbergasted. He was right. I hadn’t even thought of that. Then he broke into a smile, cupped his hands under his chest and started bouncing them up and down impishly.

“Watch out!” he yelled, suddenly whirling around and charging toward the group of onlookers that had assembled to hear the answer to his strange and unsettling riddle. “I’m juggling my titties! I’m juggling my titties!”

And then, at last, I was alone again.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized that wasn’t the whole story. When I was born, before I could be delivered, my umbilical cord had become twisted around my neck, and I’d actually been born by emergency C-section. I hate to think of my mother being sliced open like that, and part of me wishes Willie had been right, but he was wrong: In fact, I never have had pussy around my neck.


As I mentioned in my wildly popular first column (nine different Viagra spammers linked to it from southern China), my wife and I agreed that if I moved into her little yellow house on the edge of the Nordic floe known as Finland, she’d sort of support me while I kind of wrote my novel. Happily, we both fulfilled our contracts. Sadly, as many of you writer and reader types know, the publishing industry moves at the curmudgeonly tempo of a thawing mammoth. Which is another way of saying my Golden Ticket® has yet to arrive. Which is another way of saying I’m broke and desperate.

Thus I’ve come to an icy, vague, windswept crossroads of sorts. One path leads to some horrid, rend-your-soul-in-half corporate serfdom; the second leads to language school; the last one leads to a computer where I can sit and repeatedly email my agent to see if any editors have changed their minds.

While learning the native language of the country in which I’m living seems like a good idea, after seven years of higher education I’m not exactly itching to squeeze my aging skeleton into a kiddie desk for the next – not kidding – five hundred weekdays. For six to eight hours per day. Plus studying time.

Despite the rich, multi-textured dread that language school evokes, I’ve begrudgingly begun the enrollment process, which begins with an interview and some paperwork. That interview is then followed up by a meeting in which you fill out more paperwork discussing your most recent interview. That meeting is followed by an interview discussing the most recent paperwork. If all goes well, and the door to the office you’re in actually unlocks, you then return for another interview and a “language test” that can best be described as a “circle-the-word-that-is-spelled-identically-to-the-one above” test. It’s so easy that our Insane Russian Dogs could do it while gnawing on the underside of the sofa. It’s so easy you leave feeling deeply, truly stupid. I really hope I passed.

During these interviews and meetings and paperwork sessions I have been repeatedly asked what I do for a living. I won’t lie: I live for this question. Despite the fact that I rarely get paid to write, and despite the fact that my book doesn’t yet exist, and perhaps never will, I still like to give myself the cute little label of “writer –novelist.” (Some days I spend hours making these labels with my wife’s glitter pens and posing in the bathroom mirror. My author photo alone will win awards.)

So when an interviewer asks this question, my eyeballs start to shake and my heart hopscotches. I sit up straight, tilt my head eleven degrees to the northeast, and tell them exactly who I think I am.

Interviewer nods, types.

You might think such an inarguable testament of identity would be grounds for further discussion. You might think that in a country where the literacy rate is 100% – a country that reads more books per capita than anywhere else in the world – some might consider it interesting to find an aspiring semi-young American writer in their foggy midst. Fantasy and reality, however, rarely feed from the same trough. Outside of these bureaucratic settings – in two years of living in Finland – only a single person has asked me what I do, or don’t do, for a non-living. Family, friends, the children we hire to clean the polar bear’s cage – doesn’t matter. Instead we discuss: hockey, snow, snow-hockey, hockey pucks made from compacted snow, and hockey that is played on the pavement during the five summer days in which there is no snow. If I want to talk about my meta-career, I have to corner some reindeer in the back yard and bribe them with fried blueberries.

Making matters worse is the fact that my wife, who never dreamed of writing books, has not only published her first hugely successful cookbook, but has begun work on her follow-up. Instead of asking about my non-existent book, people ask me which of my wife’s dishes I am going to massacre tonight.

I am humbled by my inadequacy.

Most days it feels selfish and petty to complain about such problems when so many people are involved in much direr circumstances – revolutions, earthquakes, polar bear attacks. At the same time, writing is my own personal anarchy, a way to subsist outside of systems. Of course such a notion is purely illusion, as the only way my writing will make it to publication is via a series of systems – agent, publisher, retailer, etc. And yet again it’s a system I can abide by, one that is leaps and bounds beyond the systems I’ve spent my whole life trying to escape. Systems like the ones in which I’ve found myself entrenched since arriving in Finland.

Right now the Finnish Language System is on the horizon. Fortunately, since all of Finland remains encased in three meters of ice, I’ve got time to sit and fret and scheme. Unfortunately, Russia recently sent over a nuclear icebreaker to smash apart the ocean and bring with it the first rays of spring sunlight. In the process they’ll probably run across my career. I can only hope that when it thaws out, it isn’t already dead.

For my fellow misfits at The Nervous breakdown

 

To belong? What’s it mean? Is it creature of tense? Is it active or passive?
Is it cold set in bone, magma oozing to plate ocean floor, or explosive
Crackling reaction, plume clearing to flesh jacked into the massive?

My parents were wartime romance. “There was something in the air that night,
The stars were bright, Fernando…” For liberty indeed, and ten years prior, NOT
Fernando; to ditch the justice of the peace and priest’s decree of might makes names right;

They’d fought the Queen so that Gerald could be Uche, raised on Nigerian playgrounds
But when ancient wounds opened and national grass ran red, they fought for…Biafran greens.
Never thought that they could lose so they stitched their winnings into my ten birthweight pounds.

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.

I wasn’t sure how to categorise this little number – memoir or fiction? The people, places and background are all real enough, but I can state with certainty that the scene recounted here never happened and is therefore, technically, fiction.

stairs

Growing up working-class in a small Southern city, I early acquired a racist vocabulary. This was by no means encouraged by my parents, who were mortified when, at four or so, I referred to a fellow customer at Sears as a nigger. I have no memory of doing that — I was told about it years later — but I’m sure I was baffled by the punishment I received. The kids in my neighborhood used the word “nigger” as a matter of course. To them, it was an appropriate term for a person of color, and I followed suit, even after the Sears incident. Why punish someone for calling a bird a bird? And why would a bird object? So, I think, my reasoning went.

School is starting Thursday and for the first time in my life I’m watching from the other side of the proverbial school bus window. Yes, it’s true. I am about to be the mother of a school kid.

Over the next thirteen years I will watch as my child returns to me each day a little older and wiser.She will learn to skip rope, make fake lava, exhale the multiplication tables, spit out the capital of the 50 states on demand, discuss Hamlet in detail, and learn to calculate pi.

She will also learn to dress funny, hide gum in her mouth, text message her best friend without being detected by teachers, cuss, and spell the word “obfuscate” with first-hand knowledge of what it means.

The other day in the car she asked me what school would be like.

“Oh, you’ll learn a lot of really amazing things,” I told her sagely. “You’ll also make many great memories. Things you will want to tell your children about.”

“What do you remember about school?” She wanted to know.

I hesitated before spouting something lame about recess and how much I liked my friends and teachers. She’d caught me. What exactly were my memories? What did I think about when I remembered my school years?

I decided when I got home to make a list. I wanted to isolate the things that really stand out to me about each of the years that I was in school. The only rule I gave myself was that it had to be the first thing that popped into my head about that particular year. I wanted to see what really mattered to me in my pedagogic experience.

Here is what I came up with:

Kindergarten – We made stone soup. It was soup…from a stone. I believe we threw in other things like carrots and peas, but we were led to believe the stone provided the extra flavor. Like a Lipton dry soup pouch.

1st Grade – I farted really loud during story time. It was very embarrassing. I think I went home.

2nd Grade – I have this very clear memory of being at the top of the slide and somebody (I think it was one of the ‘bussed-in kids’ from the inner city) pointed out the word “fuck” scratched into the paint. I had no idea what it meant, but I was struck by the reverence with which the kid stared at it. I think the kid’s name was “Val”, but for a long time I thought he was saying “Vowel.”

3rd Grade – I was playing soccer with the boys at recess and looking across the field at the girls sitting by the swings playing with dolls. Even at the time I knew I was having way more fun than they were. Pansies.

4th Grade – My first kiss. It was with a boy named Cole. He and I had been surrounded by 40 or more kids at recess. They were all chanting, “Kiss her! Kiss her!” It was all very romantic.

5th Grade – I got teased for having hairy legs. I mean reeeeally hairy legs. I was quickly shamed into shaving.

6th Grade – Cole, my 4th grade love, had not only taught me how to kiss, he had also taught me how to cuss. Two years later, I could cuss with sailor-like proficiency. My girlfriends from church cornered me in the school bathroom this year and conducted an intervention. I would not cuss again until I was 23 years old. It was like riding a bicycle.

7th Grade – I joined the junior high band. We had this teacher whose breath reeked of Folgers-scented ashtray. This one time…in band class…he grabbed my flute and played it without asking. When he gave it back, it stank for days. I felt violated.

8th Grade – First day of school in a new town: I was handing papers back to the person behind me. I couldn’t reach her, so I tipped my chair back to get an extra inch or two in. I crashed backwards, taking my desk and all of the papers with me. Nobody. Said. A. Word. I changed schools the next week.

9th Grade – I have no clear memory of the 9th grade. Something about selling hotdogs.

10th Grade – I left the private Christian school I had been going to for 2 years to go to public school. My best friend there had an abortion that year. We used to speak to each other only in French.

11th Grade – I went back to the Christian school. My best friend from the previous year came to school with me one day. I told everyone she was a foreign exchange student and I translated for her all day. When my locker mate found out it was all a big lie, she cried. I don’t lie (much) anymore.

12th Grade – I was in a pageant, which I refuse to go into in any great detail here. Suffice it to say it was very embarrassing. My roommate (who ended up winning) left a douche box in the bathroom trashcan. I am still contemplating that douche box.

So that’s it. My list of the 13 most prominent memories of my school years. I think it explains a lot. I think it may also be the best argument for homeschooling my child I can possibly think of.

School starts Thursday.

Here we go.

The course actually begins with the words, “Location! Location! Location!”

Since teaching jobs are both hard-to-get and low paying, I’ve decided to think about pursuing a career in commercial real estate brokerage. The two classes you have to pass before you can take the salesperson license exam are “Real Estate Principles” and “Real Estate Practices.” You can take them online through Allied Schools.

The “Principles” class begins with a Welcome page featuring images of golden hills, redwood trees, rocky coastline, and flowers blooming in the desert. What follows is mind-numbing, soul-withering flapdoodle.

You read me right. Flap fucking doodle.

From “Location! Location! Location!” the text continues:

Most of you have seen this phrase in a real estate ad describing the perfect neighborhood. All of you reading this, no matter what city you live in, are experiencing the perfect location. No…we are not referring to your specific street, town or county…we are talking about California. California has everything, and usually it is the best! Whoever said, “Less is more” just never lived in California.

Oh, snap! Take that, hippies! And other 49 states!

Too bad, as my tax returns and spotty resume clearly demonstrate, I’m one of those people who think less is more.

After the introductory chapter, which is basically a commercial for California — diverse climates! varied geography! gargantuan economy! — there are chapters explaining property, estates, ownership, encumbrances, contracts, etc. This material is so soporific it needs to be read in the morning, with coffee and a hard chair. And someone holding that hard chair menacingly over your head, lest you start to nod off.

Though it took me a few weeks, with several breaks for unintentional naps, bathtub soul-searching, and applications to other jobs, I managed to make it through the first class and pass the (open-book) final exam. Now, in “Real Estate Practices,” I seem to have hit the wall.

In this class the authors tell you how to get started in your career. First, they offer this inspirational photo and caption:



Real Estate salespeople come from many different backgrounds.


[Interactive Feature: Can you find the black person?]

Then, the section “Dress for Success” suggests that the same qualities that made people popular in seventh grade will make you tons of money today:

The image you present helps you build rapport with prospective clients. When connecting with a client, if you remind them of someone they like or mirror their own taste, they are more likely to respond to you positively. When considering how to dress, the best strategy is to mirror the style of your clients.

Got that? Whatever you do, don’t, for the love of God, be yourself. Rather, study your client, and then mimic his/her speech and dress. People don’t think that’s weird at all!




These styles of dressing are not recommended if you want a successful career.

I can understand why head-to-toe denim isn’t recommended, but I’ve been a denim hater since 1986 when I woke up to the fact that my Ton Sur Ton jacket was totally lame. But the floral-print cowboy hat? That’s festive. That lady’s a closer, you can tell. And I’ve got no complaints about the Asian woman. I would totally buy a house from her, or at the very least take a tour and fantasize about impromptu kitchen sex.

(Me: “So… these granite countertops pretty durable?”

Hot, Inappropriately Dressed, Asian Real Estate Salesperson, hoisting self onto counter: “Come over here and find out.”

Boom chicka wah-wah...)

As for the punks in the bottom right corner, get real, Allied. No true punk would sell real estate. Anarchy and escrow don’t mix.

So how should we aspiring real estate salespeople dress?

Employees who dress appropriately leave a lasting impression of professionalism.

Ah, yes. I think I’ve seen these people before, hanging out at that bar I always walk past. You know, the one that sucks.

I’ve just about had it with “Real Estate Practices.” Life is hard enough without having to present a completely false exterior to the world. And I’ve always prided myself on my honesty and integrity.

This, according to Allied, is completely wrong:

You must always project a positive, professional attitude regardless of the circumstances. Everyone has good and bad days; however, real estate sales associates have to smile every day, no matter what is going on in their personal lives. The moment you allow your personal feelings to influence how you interact with clients, your undisciplined behavior will suggest an unprofessional sales associate.

They have a point. You won’t close any sales if you spend your time with clients bitching about your sciatica, but that seems like common sense. And that’s what bugs me most about this class. The authors obviously have no faith in their students.

And really, is their advice even good? When you, dear reader, are looking to buy or rent property, do you think, “I must find a broker who dresses impeccably and smiles all the time”?

You know who else smiled all the time?

This guy:


And this guy is still smiling:

I wonder if my reaction to this course material a sign that I should not pursue a career in real estate. That I’ll fail due to my inability to “project a positive, professional attitude” and wear my shirts tucked into my pants.

But would another job be any better? Am I not just clinging to a childish refusal to accept the world for what it is? Basically, a place where everyone’s a whore of one kind or another, and our discourse is spiraling ever downward into an abyss of stupidity?


Maybe I should quit and become a guidance counselor.