Where’s the hook? It’s just my story. But I’m sick of the fantastical; sick of distance.
My essay on circus dandruff is up at Thought Catalog.
Fine, sorry, I misled you with that title. Trust me, you would’ve been disappointed anyway — it’s the nature of clickbait. But you’re already here, killing time at work or counting down hours at home, so just hang on a second. See, I’m frustrated too, in my own, impotent way. What I need is for you to read my words, cut through the flesh and boil down the blubber, oil the lamps and illuminate these crevices inside my brain, inside all our brains.
No, I didn’t secretly work my way through college as a high-class call girl, nor am I here to bestow the 18 Rules to a Happy Marriage. What I want to tell you is that once, driving in the car with my daughter, she scratched her head, examined her fingernails, and said more to the air than me, “I like the smell of my own dandruff. I know it’s weird, but I do. It smells good to me.” I want to shake you and scream that this is the fascinating stuff — not the dandruff, precisely, but the weird little secrets we tote around inside to keep life manageable. Because I understand what she meant, even if my specifics are a little different, and yours too.
When I submit a personal essay, hoping for publication, I’m aware as often as not that I may as well be hollering down a well. Where’s the hook? It’s just my story. But I’m sick of the fantastical; sick of distance. I’m sick of oxfords and rolled-up jeans, of hands proffering field-fresh flowers; I’m sick of inspirational quotes and do-or-don’t lists; sick of dreamworld photo shoots and filtered Instagrams. I’m sick of you, and god knows, sick of me, too.
In our crush to share everything, we’ve moved awfully close to sharing nothing, or at least nothing real. A personal story is no longer enough; we now require outsized versions of ourselves to entice an oversaturated, unimpressed, easily distracted audience. The quest for relatability has become something to sneer at, a sign of weakness. But while a story about someone’s date with a porn star may titillate, will it resonate beyond an initial read? I doubt it.
I remember a Granta short story I read years ago, before children, before social media became standard fare. The author, the title, the details, all irretrievably submerged, but still I carry this scene in my mind: a father, an ill-fitting diaper, a miraculous, one-handed dive to catch baby poop as it spirals toward the ground. What strikes me now is what struck me then: the utter believability of the internal dialogue, how, even as the excrement steams in one open palm, the father begins reformulating the story for later, how he’ll tell it, how his friends will receive it, the teary-eyed laughter over beers as he reenacts the save.
For me, this is all there is. What interests me is the intensely personal, the things we don’t talk about, the strange sense of accomplishment I get cleaning my youngest son’s face in the morning. How do you say, why would you ever say you’ll miss picking dried boogers out of another person’s nose? But there it is: “Blow — that’s not a blow! GOOD, that’s it! Here, look up. Now go eat.” The squeeze of the bottom, the kiss on the nose, the claim to another, dis-missed! The remarkable in the mundane. The remarkable is the mundane.
Take a look at Roger Angell’s “This Old Man: Life in the Nineties” for a recent, stunning example of the power of the personal. You won’t find any shocking revelations, no grand plot twists, only a life, but you will see your own reflection in the remembrances of a 93-year-old man. And you will click on this link, literally or figuratively, for years to come.
I keep circling back to basics — the shedding, secreting, excreting of all that’s unnecessary — how necessary the unnecessary is to my life. The sweaty neck of an 8-year-old boy, on tiptoe at the kitchen faucet before dinner; the stench of a teenage fart, trapped amid hysterical laughter inside a closed car; the oily hair and morning breath, the musky pits and oozing zits of careless youth; the dog’s fish breath, the slightly sour smell clinging to my fingers as I wipe eye gunk from his open, whitening face. I know it’s weird, but it all smells good to me.
Yesterday, cleaning up the back yard, I found a piece of perfectly patterned dog poop. I imagined tiny, overalled workmen, shouting over one another, “‘Behind you! On your right!” in Floyd’s bowels, engineering my daughter’s missing sock into an impromptu sausage casing, an intestinal assembly line charged with keeping flower, stripes, and colors intact.
It made me chuckle, and for a second I thought about taking a picture. But who wants to hear about the poop in your own backyard? I guess not most of us. So I scooped it into a bag, scoured the lawn for landmines, and moved on to the next pile.
Name one thing gay marriage could possibly open the door to that would be more depraved than thrice-wed, craven-mouthed Charlie Sheen down on one rickety knee, proposing to “best friend and soulmate,” 24-yr-old porn star Someone Something-or-Other.
I am worried. Worried about the Olympics, the possibility of a terrorist attack. Worried about Philip Seymour Hoffman, already dead, I know. Worried about Dylan Farrow, and worried that it doesn’t undo Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. Worried at my desk, pausing instinctively as I hear too many sirens, an animal frozen by scent, imagining my children hidden in a school broom closet just down the hill, just out of reach.
Yet I’m oddly unworried, floating backward on this conveyer belt into what I’m told will be a “very loud” machine, an MRI for these headaches that plague me each day. The sounds are loud, unbelievably so, but I feel good, safe in a moment where all I can do is surrender to stillness, close my eyes and breathe.
On the drive to this antiseptic office complex, miles up the highway, I peek at my phone and see that my daughter has left a trembly, breathy voicemail, then a panicky, all-caps text (the teenage equivalent of screaming “MOMMY!”), about a group video project she’s accidentally left at home, “in the computer, or somewhere around there.” It’s due next period.
I realize I’ve taken the wrong exit, distracted, in rush hour traffic, and my underarms begin to sweat. I worry that my daughter’s grade will be docked, worry more that her partner’s grade will be docked. I worry that I can’t bail her out this time, worry that saving her so many times before is the reason for this latest irresponsibility. I worry that I’m beginning to stink, that I forgot to bring cash for the pay lot, that I’ll be late for my appointment window. And then it hits me: I am actually looking forward to this MRI.
I’m not being flippant. I don’t want anything to be wrong with me, I don’t think MRIs are funny, and I would never discount the experiences of those who’ve undergone diagnostic procedures with devastating results. But right now, I relish the idea of relinquishing control, abdicating responsibility, being temporarily out of commission.
When the kids were little (the oldest was six when our fourth was born), I used to fantasize about being hospitalized. Not for anything serious, just a minor accident, maybe the painless removal of some obscure, unnecessary organ — anything to get away, somewhere I couldn’t conceivably be expected to look after anyone else — vacation, minus the guilt.
Things have changed a lot since those days. For new stay-at-home moms, there’s still the Sisyphean monotony of feeding, dressing, changing, bathing, soothing, and bedding an infant, but for all of us, it’s not so isolating now, with smartphones and Facebook, Twitter and mom blogs connecting frustrated, flabbergasted, fawning mothers the world over. It’s never been the sort of job you would telephone about anyway: “Hey! What’s up? I’m goo— look, here’s the thing: I’d rather chop off my own head than spoon one more bite of clumpy rice cereal into a slobbering maw.” But you can say exactly that on the internet, as its sole basis for existence is connection, assuring us with the tap of a screen and the prayer of anonymity that we are not alone.
This has opened up the world in ways that are sometimes wonderful — I helped fund surgery for a child I previously would never have known existed — but often not so great — I learned about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, the bathroom floor and the needle in his arm, before half his relatives had been notified.
It’s tough to know what’s worth passing on, things that would normally exist in the realm of personal triumphs or tragedies. I was moved yesterday, clicking on an image from Anne Frank’s rediscovered toys, a simple tin of colorful marbles. It felt significant, a poignant stand-in for innocence lost then regained through the power of prose. But do I feel a similar need to leaf through the details of Paul Walker’s will, discover what Hoffman ate for lunch the day he died, or watch a viral clip of a hotel maid, surprised by a generous tip, bills splayed beneath a lifted top sheet for maximum titillation? Sometimes even the good things I don’t want to know.
I try to breathe evenly through my nose, and I think of my husband, how the atonal droning of the MRI sounds like the avant garde music he loves and I loathe, how I could make him a mixed tape of my brain scan for Valentine’s, how years of heated art-or-noise arguments resurface here, in a tube, where I’m fighting only the urge to laugh. Would it show up on a technician’s screen, my amusement, this history inside my head? So many things that can never be known, about Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Walker, about Anne Frank and me, no matter how much we choose to share or who pores over images of our brains.
My right ear mimics the machine’s bleeps and grinds, echoing in staticky feedback; my hearing on this side is distorted, like a dial stuck between radio stations, but this doesn’t concern me. Instead, I remember the ugly yellow polka-dot glider stationed in the upstairs hall, the hardened, curdy spitup I cleaned from its blond wood slats the day before we set it on the curb, relieved and ready to move on to the next phase. How an inconsolable baby, in the endless black of a newborn night, squawked with such force and determination that my right ear turned to fuzz and I cried, exhausted, convinced of a brain tumor that would leave my children motherless.
I worried then, shushing and rubbing this tiny infant’s back, how I’d ever pump enough milk to sustain her after I’d gone. I worried she’d go hungry even as she spewed chalky milk over my shoulder, down the unseen back of the glider. I worried, sniffing her skull, aching for the things I’d miss, until we both fell asleep, upright. And I dreamed of a nurse pull cord, just down the bed, just out of reach.
Mom, I love you so,
you do so much,
and know one seems to no.
But for every chore and every sweep,
I will give you my love in one big heap.
Mom, I know I need a lot
so I will give you my love,
because that’s what I got.
"I’m just now getting in the Christmas spirit, Mom — you know? I feel like it should be Christmas now."
It’s mid-January, in the car, and I nod at my oldest daughter — I do know. She starts singing a Christmas song, willing time backwards, and I try to join in, but it’s a Justin Bieber song I know nothing about except that he says “shawty” a lot. She gives me a look as I trail off, and I can’t tell if she’s mad or making fun of me. The teenage years have dropped over us like a heavy blanket, insular and suffocating, and I’d like to kick them off, screaming.
"So what does ‘shawty’ mean, anyway?" I say, to prove I’m still participating. I’m familiar now with this daily log walk between riverbanks, between nosy and not listening, caring too much and not caring enough. "Um, I don’t know. It’s just like saying ‘honey’ or something, like he likes her or whatever." Aud leans over, pulling the tangled fishing line of headphones from her new bag, a Christmas gift with a print of a black cat and the word "noir" stamped above it. She toted it around for nearly a month before asking what the word meant, another weird characteristic of the age, curious about everything and nothing. I see that we’re done, so I try the backseat.
"Hey Sadie, I saw they’re making a new show about ‘The Wizard of Oz’, a series, like about Dorothy? But it’s supposed to be kind of dark…probably not for you anyway." She’s 11, and still interested. "Who plays Dorothy again? I forget her name." "You mean the movie? Judy Garland! She’s great — isn’t she great? Don’t you like her?"
Too polite yet to roll her eyes, she offers a noncommittal, “Yeah, I guess. Is she dead?” ”Oh, yeah,” I say, “dead for a long time. She tried so hard, though, worked really hard to please, but she had kind of a rough life — lots of drugs and alcohol, studio people always telling her she was too fat, not pretty enough, gross stuff like that.” I glance sideways at Aud, who harbors acting ambitions, to see if my cautions register, but she’s staring at herself in the sideview mirror and mouthing lyrics to some unheard song, the star of her own mind video.
"How old was she, though? Like old?" asks Sadie. I tell her I’m not sure, maybe late 50s, so she seizes my phone with that strange modern fervor for instantly proving people wrong, and discovers that Garland died just 12 days after her 47th birthday. She does some calculations and raises an eyebrow, laughing: "So Mommy, that makes her just 18 days older than you when she died!”
This stings more than it should, and I feel a ridiculous kinship with the deceased, as Sadie goes on to report that Ray Bolger, Scarecrow to Garland’s Dorothy, shook his head and sighed at her funeral: “She just plain wore out.” I consider this for my tombstone, and immediately begin to cheer up.
"Oh, Mommy! You used to sing that song to me all the time when we were little. Remember? You used to sing it all the time!" Fudge is nodding in the very back, pleased by his contribution to the conversation. He’s eight, the baby, and used to being left out. "Oh yeah!" I say. “You mean ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’? I did used to sing that a lot — I’d forgotten!”
And I had. The little one always gets the shaft in a big family. I hardly read to him anymore, much less sing to him every night as I tuck him in. I feel the usual twist of guilt in my chest — I’ll do better! — but I already know it’s a lie. Our life is jam-packed, and songs will always be the first to go.
"Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", as sung by Judy Garland, is one of the clearest-eyed songs around, nothing like the cheery pop versions you’ll hear today, the difference between Joni MItchell and Amy Grant singing "Paved Paradise". Garland sings about loss and longing, change and inevitability, and if you watch her, she wears an almost flat expression, resigned but not dejected. She’s comforting a child, but they both know it’s fantasy. There’s not a smile in sight.
And that’s the way it is, kids. Fast, difficult, special even when it’s not. The myth of a trouble-free future is no more real than the myth of an untroubled past. It’s all slightly out of key, misremembered lyrics, a soothing hand in the dark.
So give me one more second before you go, shawties. Because I thought I was plain wore out, but it turns out I’m just now getting in the spirit.