(from a Katrina writing prompt, The Frost)
The frost is here, and I want to park in my garage. I have rarely, if ever parked in my garage. Let’s take a look at why.
When my then-husband and I bought the house in 1988, my father broke a sliding screen, and his father immediately broke the lock on the garage door. I’m not exactly sure how. He manhandled something. After that the bolt never worked right. Rather than throwing ourselves against the stubborn thing, or paying someone to repair it, we mostly kept it bolted. The door is an old one, made of wood, and very heavy.
I could have parked in the garage, but I was a young mother with young children. Imagine a young mother pulling up to that garage in her minivan. I wasn’t going to get out of my car, walk around to the back of the freestanding garage, make my way through it, use an enormous amount of strength to unbolt the door, then get back in, drive in, pull the door down, bolt it, get the kids out of their car seats and shepherd them through the garage and up some steps and over to the front door.
This meant my car windows were often frosty on wintry mornings. But the nice thing about being a stay-at-home mother whose kids ride the school bus was that the sun took care of it for me. Frost melted away before I ever started up my minivan.
My ex did sometimes park in the garage, but once he moved out, that didn’t mean it was empty. It was stuffed full of his possessions for a good seven years after he left. Once I sold all of his remaining items at a garage sale, my sister sensed an opportunity. I wouldn’t call her a hoarder, but given a chance, she would completely fill up other people’s storage; my garage, her friend’s basement, wherever she lived, and of course, she also had two storage spaces. My sister had quite a longstanding love affair with my garage. I was always trying to get her stuff out of there.
During the ten or so years she monopolized the garage, I became an expert at scraping my windshield. I was working an office job, so I would go out and scrape, scrape, scrape my windows, and run the defroster, and curse my life and grumble about my sister at 6am on a cold Oregon morning.
I had good scrapers and bad scrapers. The best was a thin blue tool about the size of my palm and not much thicker than a business card. It was a freebie from my health insurance company during a benefits fair at the office. I almost didn’t take it because it looked flimsy. But during the three years I used it, it peeled off the frost with a scalpel’s precision and a blowtorch’s efficacy. Then it snapped in half.
After some rather dire threats, my sister finally removed her belongings from my garage. This was a difficult time in our relationship, but she rode the bus out and got to work, and she hauled and donated and finally, my garage was empty enough to park in. If I’d wanted to bother with that heavy, malfunctioning garage door, I could have started each day with clear car windows and saved myself all that bother. But I didn’t, so I still parked outside.
While I was dating [Redacted], he found it upsetting that I didn’t park in my garage. I’d go so far as to say it was an affront to him. But once he’d lifted that heavy door a few times, he understood why I didn’t want to. So for my birthday, he helped me clear out my garage and then bought and installed a garage door opener for me.
This was truly a halcyon time in that relationship. Together, we enjoyed cleaning out that garage, getting rid of an old wooden bed frame I’ve written about (but not posted), clearing shelves of the many many things left by the man who built the house in 1984 ([redacted] took a lot of that, to squirrel away in his own stuffed-full garage), and rooting out the last of my sister’s belongings, because they haunted the corners.
The opener was a real gift. It made parking in the garage so easy. I loved it. I enjoyed frost-free car windows for five years. Five years of not having to scrape a windshield. It was heaven, I tell you. And then, my guy moved in. We began to commute together. In his car. Which was parked in the driveway. Where the windows frosted in the winter.
I spoke the words of self-sacrifice. “You should park in the garage. That way, your windows won’t be frosty.” That was mutually beneficial until 2020. We both worked from home that year. But in 2021, he began working somewhere else and I had to commute in my own car again. Which was parked in the driveway. With frosty windows, in the wintertime. But I still worked from home half the time the time. He had to go to the office every morning, so it only seemed fair to spare him the scraping.
Why didn’t we both park in the garage? Well, one daughter put a big ass desk in there. She just dumped it in my garage one day, and she left it. It was there for one year. And then it was there for two years. “Honey, will you get that desk out of there?” “Sure. But I don’t have anywhere to put it.” “Well can you come get it?” “No, you should sell it.” We finally hauled it to the curb and gave it away. This cleared a lot of space, but not quite enough. With a little compression, donation, and rearrangement, we were almost there.
I could practically taste those frost-free windows.
Three weeks later, my youngest daughter and her son moved in with us. Guess where her stuff landed? Yes. That’s right. In the garage, where my car would be parked.
I work in the office three days a week. Most of the time, I’m fine parking in the driveway. But on mornings when it’s dark and cold, I approach my car with trepidation. Will there be frost? I replaced my nimble blue ice scraper with an orange behemoth of a tool that looks like I could use it to strip paint off a submarine. It is almost useless on a curved surface.
Another winter of frosty windows. But it’s so fun to have my daughter and grandson here that I really don’t mind at all.
Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale is on streaming, now. It is supposedly a moving look at one man’s extreme obesity, caused by self-loathing over the abandonment of his family for a male lover. He’s killing himself with food out of grief and guilt. Sounds like a real feel-good flick.
Since I’m fat, I should probably watch it, but I was angry at this movie before I ever read a review for it. On Rotten Tomatoes, the critical consensus was pun-heavy: “Held together by a killer Brendan Fraser, The Whale sings a song of empathy that will leave most viewers blubbering.” Really?
Based on my sole experience with his work (Mother!) I assumed Aronofsky would handle this plot with a deft mixture of bombast, grotesquerie, and mental decay. My psyche still hasn’t recovered from Mother!, but the story here was not about how much psychological torture the director could inflict on his lead female character. No, the big story here was Brendan Fraser’s comeback.
Brendan Fraser had a decent Hollywood career, but gained a lot of weight after being groped by a producer type at a Hollywood party. I read his account of this assault. It was invasive and traumatic. It’s also familiar. I could rattle off a string of events like this in my own life, both verbal and physical. So could any other woman reading this.
It may or may not be true, but it’s a common observation that traumatized women hurt themselves, and traumatized men hurt others. Fraser hurt himself. I wish he’d sued the guy instead, like Taylor Swift when that old DJ went under her dress to fondle her butt. She filed suit, testified, and publicly refused to take any blame whatsoever for his ruin, insisting that everything that happened to him was his own fault for taking it upon himself to grope her.
Fraser hasn’t even named the man who assaulted him. Instead, he withdrew and got fat, but apparently not fat enough. Aronofsky outfitted him with a prosthetic suit to approximate weighing 600 pounds. The weight was set by the source material, a play by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay. Still, I wonder if this amount of obesity was really necessary. It doesn’t take 450 pounds of extra weight to crush a person’s self esteem.
Sometimes it only takes ten pounds to convince a person that she must starve her body into submission. Just ask Britney Spears, who was publicly humiliated for showing off a five pound weight gain after her second child. I mean, how dare she. A modest weight gain is enough to sabotage self-esteem, and it’s also enough to end a career.
That’s a movie right there. A restrained but interesting story to tell about how a gentle softening of your chiseled edges can ruin your name in Hollywood.
However, Aronofsky is not known for cinematic restraint. Of course he was more drawn to a story that involved a quarter ton of fat caused by binge eating. And that’s another problem. Binge eating is far from the only cause of obesity, but of course it is the most cinematic. It ties in well with a general perception of fat people as moribund monsters, their stomachs distended by joyless stuffing.
I take this way too personally. I have never been a binge eater—I don’t see the allure—and resent this being assumed as a “why” for my weight. Will people see this movie and think I sit at home with the often cited “whole pizzas and gallons of ice cream”? Because I don’t. I haven’t. I physically couldn’t.
I also worried The Whale would kick off a wave of “fat people suffering” cinema. Would these movies resemble the “Black people suffering” movies made by White people for other White people? Well-meaning White people who always identify with the one decent White character, so they can walk out of the theater feeling reassured that they are not the problem? Would there be movies about thin saviors? Magical fatties who have no lives of their own but just exist to solve thin people problems?
How far would this thing go? Would there be marches and demonstrations? Would there be obesity reparations? Could I punch anyone who offered them to me?
As I have said before, this new appreciation for the fact that fat people are human beings is annoying to me. I don’t want a bunch of thin people offering me their heartfelt sympathy for how terrible my life has been. I will punch anyone who tells me I’m brave for lumbering along under the crushing weight of my despair (and my fat). Jesus Christ, it’s not ideal to be fat but I’ve certainly managed to have a decent life.
I shouldn’t have worried, because since that movie came out, Ozempic and Wegovy and all the other injectable semaglutides hit the public consciousness. These new drugs will apparently cure fat forever. Whew! No need for a wave of Fat Cinema.
I had kind of a moment about Wegovy with an online book group. No one else in the group is fat, I am the only fatty there. And someone started tsking and tutting about how famous people are all taking these injections to get thin, so vain, so shallow.
I pointed out that we live in a culture that turns a microscope on famous people and penalizes them for every physical flaw, every line, every pound. And we also denounce them for anything they do to remedy those physical flaws. We can’t have it both ways, can we? We can’t condemn them for being human and then condemn them for trying not to be.
Then I spoke up about my own experience; how years ago I had talked with my gastroenterologist about what to do about my weight, how calorie cutting doesn’t work for me because I don’t eat all that much so I have to eat under a thousand calories to budge the scale and I can’t sustain that. I have a messed-up heart for which I take a possibly lethal prescription drug twice a day, so heavy exercise is not an option. My older brother died from complications from weight-loss surgery, his organs failing one by one, so I have zero interest in that.
I asked my doctor, what should I do?
And he said, “Karen, don’t worry about it. There’s something coming, a shot or a pill, and it’s going to change everything about weight loss.” He told me to wait for it. He retired before it hit the market, but once it did, I went right to my PCP and requested a prescription. She wrote one, but insurance wouldn’t cover it and that stuff was wildly expensive, so I didn’t pick it up.
Well, now these drugs have been approved for weight loss, so insurance will cover them. Did you all know that Weight Watchers immediately bought a medical company that can prescribe these drugs? They are changing their model from portion and calorie control to injectables. WEIGHT WATCHERS. But of course, the drugs carry side effects for some people, mostly nausea. And now I’m reading that these drugs can paralyze your stomach. So you’re nauseous all the time, and then you can’t actually digest food anymore, so I suppose you get really thin.
On second thought, I probably shouldn’t watch The Whale.
I’ve enjoyed finding Creepy Valentines and sharing them with you, because who doesn’t want a murderous or suicidal Valentine greeting, am I right? So recently, I came across a feature on antique Halloween postcards from the “Golden Age of Postcards.” I think this is the same era as the Christmas cards that feature dead bugs and homely suffragettes. Anyway, among the witches, I was surprised to see so many postcards featuring amorous pumpkins. I guess even way back when in the days of yore (just like now), nothing says loving like a squash (though wasn’t an eggplant in the olden days). So, here we go. Also, all these cards are in the public domain, so right click to your heart’s content.
Please note the handwritten note: “I send you a kiss-” And what a kiss it is. Two hirsute and swarthy orange globes, all puckered up. I can’t tell if this is a gendered osculation, but one squash has some mighty impressive sideburns. I mean, how romantic! Wouldn’t you be all a-flutter if you received this postcard? Romance galore! However, the cat doesn’t seem to agree. The cat actually looks a little freaked out. Shouldn’t we all be a little freaked out?
A more genteel take on the kissing pumpkins. Here, the pumpkins are a bit less androgynous, what with the breeches and skirts and whatnot. And look, he presented her with a posy of carrots, so that’s romantic, yes? I mean, a little on the phallic side, but at least they’re not eggplants. Also, the apparently male pumpkin is green, which is a nice variation. I like how their little stems perch on their heads like tiny hats. But again, the cat is really freaked out. Perhaps the black cats are a kind of Greek chorus, providing the audience reaction when seeing pumpkins kiss?
Okay, I’m a little more comfortable here because despite the clothes, these are actual Jack-o-Lanterns. I have to say, I like the carved pumpkins better than the smooching anthropomorphized pumpkins. These country pumpkins have a down home lovin’ kind of air about them, like scarecrows come to life. Even though the kiss isn’t shown, Jackie is pointing to the place where she wants Jack to plant a big ol’ pumpkin smackeroo. The cat appears a little wistful, instead of aghast. And it seems the moon approves…
Okay, now, hold up. What in the Sam Hain is going on here? There’s a pretty girl sitting on a huge Moon squash, and a serpentine parade of pumpkin creatures with zucchini limbs and vacant eyes coming to…do what exactly? Take turns looking at her foot? Or are they going to bow? Pay Halloween homage of some sort? Or is it something more interesting than that? What are the pumpkin zombies up to? “Strange things will happen” for sure! If only there were a black cat to provide reaction and commentary on the action.
Okay, speaking of strange things…
“On Halloween your slightest wish
is likely to come true,
so be careful, or the gobelins
will spoil your wish for you.”
I’d like to know who is wishing for what, here. It seems like the pumpkin person is the most likely to be making the wish, what with the googly eyes and goofy smile. But there’s a chance it’s this Diana Moon Goddess person whose wish is the subject. Is she supposed to be a witch? She has moons on her shoes. Perhaps she’s hoping to animate the pumpkin man (though he looks quite animated to me) (all he needs is an eggplant at this point). The “Gobelins” give me no clue. I would hope they’d interrupt this pairing, but they look delighted by the budding romance between Moon Goddess and Squash Man. The little weirdos. What’s going on? Again, without a black cat to react, I am lost.
Okay, even though this witch is making advances on a member of the vegetable kingdom, this still strikes me as relatively tame compared to the other cards. This Jack O’Lantern isn’t aggressively amorous. It’s just a nice Jack O’Lantern that seems completely amenable to being kissed. It probably helps that this pumpkin doesn’t have a body. Or sideburns. And the witch is pretty. There’s nothing overtly aggressive about her little closed-mouth peck, which almost seems innocent. Overall, there’s no foot worship, no weird leering going on. And we don’t have a black cat, but we do have an intense little bat speeding over like a traffic cop to break this up. Come on, little bat. This looks harmless.
Happy Halloween, and may all your pumpkins be normal.
It was Bozeman, Montana, in 1975. I was driving my boyfriend’s Plymouth Duster, bright yellow with a sexy black racing stripe that followed the curve of its bodylines. He’d taught me to drive in that car, and I loved it. Not bad for a girl who had just finished ninth grade.
I stayed with my older brother at the time. My parents had moved to Missoula, leaving me behind with Brother Steve. I had no idea what the future held, but when does that matter to a ninth grader? The sun shone, my stoned friends laughed, and David Bowie sang from the 8track. I was living my best life.
I’ve never understood what happened next. Suddenly the car fishtailed, brakes screaming, tires smoking until my foot remembered how the brakes worked. The only evidence was a trail of four S-shaped black skids on the west end of Bozeman’s Main Street.
Driving ever-so-slowly, I crept down Main to the gas station where my boyfriend worked, and parked the Duster. My friends left the car, swearing it wasn’t my fault, it couldn’t have been my fault, no way was that my fault. I was shaking all over as I solemnly returned the Duster’s ignition key to my boyfriend, the key he’d presented with more flourish than the ring I wore to signify our togetherness.
I didn’t drive again for months. It was time to pump the brakes.
I’ve taught three daughters how to drive. Each had her own set of challenges behind the wheel. One was too anxious, so she rode the brakes. Another wanted to be told what to do long past the point when she should have been making her own driving decisions. She ignored the brakes until I told her to apply them.
The other daughter was emotional behind the wheel, speeding up and weaving through lanes when she was happy, jerking the steering wheel and jamming her foot on the brake pedal when frustrated.
After a particularly dangerous display, I yelled at her to pull over. I delivered my judgment in a cold, harsh voice. “You are not allowed to have emotions behind the wheel. It’s dangerous.”
“What am I supposed to do with them?” she cried.
“Whatever you have to,” I said. “Just don’t drive with them.”
We paused driving lessons for a week. It was time to pump the brakes.
There was a heat wave in my city that week, and everything was overloaded, including me. I was out with friends after a writing class, in an actual bistro, in person. All this felt new, precious, as had all social events since the spring of 2020. After recent bout with Covid-19, I was recovered, out and about again, basking in my temporary immunities.
We ordered fancy cocktails and delicious small plates. My expensive cocktail was absolutely delicious, but it hit me hard and I felt a little embarrassed. I drink so little that my tolerance is always low. Covid had only made it worse. Was I going to talk too much?
Our food hadn’t yet arrived when the server came by and asked if we were ready for another round. My friend raised her hands, palms out, and gently gestured. “I think I’d better pump the brakes.”
It wasn’t just me who found the cocktail potent. This pleased me, reassured me. I was even more pleased with her gentle miming of the metaphor.
Not long after, the power went out on the entire block. We sat in the darkened bistro, suspended in waiting, but our food arrived. We ate and talked, soaking up the drinks and each other’s company. No more cocktails came to our table. Thankfully we all had enough cash to settle our bills, since the registers were down. Two of us had to drive home.
We were relieved to pump the brakes.
Back in the 1980s, my family had many intense conversations in restaurants. We were younger and more alive in both a metaphorical and literal sense. We were tall, smart people with the resonant voices of singers. If you put some or all of us around a table with cups of coffee, those voices rose up to discuss politics or history or music or real estate, loudly and at length.
At times, our conversations were spirited enough to invite participation from the wait staff. “I couldn’t help overhearing,” a server might say. “Excuse me, I heard you talking about…” a server would shyly offer. Of course, we listened politely, but I didn’t really care how the waiter voted, or what neighborhood the waitress grew up in. Backpacking in Italy was probably an adventure, but excuse me. I was talking to my mom.
Once, way back in the eighties at a Mexican restaurant, a young server stood at our table and recited a poem he’d written. It was a lengthy, worshipful ode to Oliver North. He may have been an actor, but he clearly did not know his audience. We never returned to that restaurant. Now it is long gone. Decades later, most of the places we used to go are gone.
The family has also suffered some attrition. Our most recent all-family restaurant gathering was after my father’s memorial service, when we filled a long table at his favorite restaurant–Bannings–for one last meal on Dad.
Bannings is one of those places we all hope to find in our neighborhoods–a family diner with good food and comfortable booths and the most attentive servers on Earth. All the servers at Bannings knew Dad. They vied to have him in their sections. They made him welcome, brought him sides of sausage gravy at no charge, and kept his coffee hot. He always tipped well.
At this post-service-last meal, with all the family and some friends ranged around a long table, meal, many of the servers came by to say they were sorry. They hadn’t seen him because Dad was housebound for months before he died, but they certainly remembered him. “I’d wondered when we didn’t see you.” “We’ll sure miss him.”
You forget, or at least I did, that his decline was pretty obvious from the outside. He changed rapidly from a relatively hale man who took smoking breaks after a meal, to a frail man wearing an oxygen tank. Of course they noticed when he stopped coming.
After that last meal, I couldn’t go to Bannings without Dad. It was just too sad to sit there and think about all the years we’d met there for breakfast, all our conversations about everything in the world. Dad knew so much about the mechanics of the world, and how our government actually worked. We met there nearly every week for fifteen years.
So I left Bannings alone. A year and two months after Dad died, Covid hit and everything shut down. It was 2021 before I started going there again. One August day, I was having lunch with my friend Sarah and realized it was my dad’s birthday. Our server, who I remembered, didn’t remember Dad when I asked her. It had been almost two years, after all. But she asked me what his favorite dessert and brought me a piece of strawberry shortcake as a gift.
This was so human of her. So kind. And yes, I cried.
My husband and I were at a company Christmas party on the Portland Spirit years ago, and a young woman who looked so familiar came up to me on the dance floor and said, “Karen!” and hugged me. I knew her but I couldn’t place her, so I bluffed my way through the encounter, smiling and laughing and wondering where the hell I knew her from.
As I walked back to our table, it hit me. She was a server at Bannings. She was a doll. And I knew she was going to school, and she was bright and kind and funny, but I absolutely couldn’t place her out of context.
This made me feel like a real jerk.
In my home city, almost no one who waits tables does it for love. They do it while preparing for something better; a new job, an upcoming move, a leading role, or a paying gig. The people who wait on me are human beings with opinions and passions. I know that. I grant them privacy for that part of their lives. I think this is more dignified.
If you are a server or a waiter and you’re reading this, I probably owe you an apology for the fact that your dreams don’t concern me. I know you’re a real person who has tied on the apron. I appreciate you. But I only want your attention when I want it.
Swoop in with more coffee, more water. Bring me extra napkins. Don’t make me wait forever for my check, but reassure me there’s “no hurry” when you lay it on the table. I know some days it takes everything to show up, put on your apron, and tend to your tables. I admire the seemingly effortless ballet of your service, a dance that is actually a great deal of work. I like that you perform it with the invisible grace of a professional.
For what it’s worth, I always tip well, too.
I have a few regrets in this life, and not recording some songs in harmony with my siblings is absolutely one of them. I’m speaking of the original three siblings: myself (youngest), my sister (middle) and my Brother Steve (oldest). At my mother’s parties in Aberdeen, South Dakota, my sister and I used to bring down the house with our childish rendition of “Those Were the Days, My Friend.” The three of us together graduated from car-trip singalongs to rousing a crowd with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in 1971 at a political rally in Booneville, Arkansas. Despite the heights of our harmonic glory during the refrain, we remained staunchly liberal, like our parents, and we did not become the next Von Trapps, though my sister and brother were in a band together in the 80s (it wasn’t particularly harmonious).
Harmony came easier to my brother and me. We dueted constantly from about 1974 on, at home and at parties. It was our thing. Somehow, we never got a moment of it on tape. I regret that.
The way sibling voices blend moves me. Even when the voices are very different from each other, there’s alchemy in how they come together, constant infinitesimal adjustments to smooth the harmonies. I believe this is done by instinct rather than decision. Here are a few of my favorites, almost all of which fall into the country category. And please note, even though these are sister acts, I sang far more with my older brother than with anyone else. I miss you, Brother Steve.
I’m all for the rename. But in the Dixie days, the harmonies of sisters Martie and Emily provided a soft grounding for Natalie Maines’ forceful lead vocals. This band has been through the wringer both professionally and personally, andthey are still together. Gaslighter is a BRILLIANT record/song/video, but I like these earlier songs. Also, that fiddle, and the banjo. I mean…
Talk about country! I first learned about the Browns while reading Nashville Chrome by Rick Bass. I had no memory of the Browns, and thought I was reading a not-so-good novel with real characters like Elvis Presley dropped in. At some point I began to understand that, yes, this was a not-so-good novel, but the Browns were real. At one time, they were one of the most popular musical acts in the country world. Bass described how they twanged and arced and hung in the air, blending and bending together like the tones of a bandsaw. I wanted to hear their voices. I ordered a CD, which took months to reach me. When it finally arrived, I played it obsessively.
These sisters have intense, rich voices. Shelby’s is full of emotional punch and power, and Allison’s is low and heartfelt, as big as the sky. I couldn’t prefer one over the other. Each sister has a record that sits on my all-time favorites list (Shelby’s Temptation, Allison’s The Hardest Part). They join each other onstage now and then, and have one joint project, Not Dark Yet. Individually, they are powerhouses. Together, they are sublime. The video below gives me constant shivers from beginning to end.
That’s pretty much perfection, in my book. Lest you think these sisters do not rock, here you go:
I have one CD by SheDAISY, their debut “The Whole SheBang”, and that appears to be enough. I have never bought or even listened to another. I’ve been playing this record on car trips since the year 2000 and still love it. It’s straightforward commercial country done right. I have no idea if they’re still performing together, but the harmonies these three sisters create are grand, swooping, impossible to tease apart. I’m going to post two examples and I hope you listen more than watch.
The first one, “Little Goodbyes” is such a funny song, very country pop, but the video is of the “beautiful women make sultry faces while singing” variety. It distracts, then gets old.
“This Woman Needs” is a HEARTBREAKER ballad and has hair-raising shivery harmonies. It’s also an oddly crappy video with too many jump cuts. But it’s a gorgeous song.
Okay, finally, a sister act that is not country at all. My kids told me about these three sisters long before I actually heard them. “Mom, you’d love Haim.” “Mom, have you ever heard Haim?” “Mom, I think you’d like Haim.” I finally encountered them as actors in Licorice Pizza. This led to watching the video below and while watching it, I fell hard. Este, Danielle, and Alana (who starred in the movie) are so…talented, striking, odd, fascinating. They have quite different voices but listen to them blend into something special! And watch the whole thing because it builds in a wonderfully strange and subtle way. When did they film this, and how did they do it, and could they be any more cool?
I played this for my five year-old grandson and he was transfixed. He remarked, “They all have the same shoes.” He’s right. They sure do.
Did I miss anyone besides the Jacksons (can’t/won’t talk about them, it makes me too sad)? Because I’m sure I missed some people. Let me know in comments.
Catachresis: The use of a word in a way that is not correct — for example, the use of “mitigate” for “militate.”
I describe it like this. I reach for a word and grab the one beside it on the shelf. I want to say “cerebral,” and I say “cereal.” “Mutual” instead of “mutable.” Almost immediately, I catch myself and correct. But we both notice.
“I did it again,” I say to my husband. “You did,” my husband affirms.
I’ll do this like four times over two days. Then it subsides for weeks, even months. But I know it will come back, especially when I’m exhausted. You know how Autocorrect will plug in the wrong word, even when you’ve carefully typed out the word you want to use? That’s what my brain is doing to me right now. It’s AutoIncorrecting.
Sometimes it’s not the word right next to it on the shelf, but more kittycorner to it. I might mean to say the doctor prescribed something, but I say she subscribed something. Almost there but not quite. It reminds me of my grandson, with his “consplosions” and “conspiraments,” his use of “extract” rather than “distract.” Except I don’t find it charming when I do it, because I’m not five.
It’s been a couple of months since I mixed up my words, so I’m probably due for a run of stumbles. It only happens while speaking, never while writing. Since I make my living at the latter, I’m grateful for this, but still embarrassed. I have an expansive vocabulary that can also be a bit cumbersome. I’ve been teased about my wordiness my entire life, but I love words. I’m particular with them. This catachresis overrides my careful choices.
Please don’t come at me with advice about having my brain checked out for early senility, because I know where this came from. This started after I had COVID-19 in January of 2020. I’ve been struggling with this particular piece of neurological fallout ever since.
I believe that most of us who’ve had it are struggling with at least some damage from the virus. Catachresis one of three symptoms of long COVID that I try to ignore. I get a little wheezy some evenings. Occasionally, something will taste completely wrong to where I couldn’t identify what’s in my mouth without visual cues. I deal with these other lingering guests as small inconveniences, but I hate it when the wrong word comes out.
I whine about getting sick quite enough on here, but since I had “the birthday flu” this spring, my daughter and five-year-old grandson have moved into our house, where we hope they’ll stay for the school year. My grandson arrived with a cold, so I promptly caught that. It was horrible. We got over it. Then he picked up another cold in swim lessons. I came down with it on a weekend getaway to Yakima with friends.
The bad news is, I’m going to get all his kindergarten colds. The good news is, my immune system seems to be working again. Yes, I had a cold, but my body seems to know what to do with it. I was tired over the weekend, blew my nose now and then, had some cough drops. But I was functional and even able to taste all the fine food we sampled on a weekend of restaurants, antiquing, and talking about our lives.
A week later, I seem to be over it with no secondary infections, sleepless nights, or hacking. I haven’t even had a flare-up of the catachresis.
I try to stay calm. I’ve had COVID twice and I can’t do anything about that. I don’t think this is the last time, either. But as I was coming down with the cold on Friday night, I was terrified that it might be COVID again.
Both of my weekend traveling companions are recently retired frontline workers. One has had COVID three times, but the other has not had it, not even once. She worked with the actual virus for years, and she did it on the daily. She’s either the most cautious person in the state, or she’s immune. Maybe both? I did NOT want to be the person who gave it to her.
This friend is a scientist. She has patiently listened to my crackpot theories about the virus, and read the Vanity Fair/ProPublica article at my urging. She might not buy the lab leak theory (and please don’t assume that I do, here’s a rebuttal), but she was the first person to explain to me that Covid is not actually a respiratory virus. It uses the respiratory system to hitch a ride to its actual target; the heart, lungs, or brain. No one knows exactly what it does in there, but she fears what it has done to the population as a whole.
As I told her, “Well, we’re all just going to be a little more stupid from now on.” My stupid is Catachresis. But I don’t say the word out loud. I’m afraid it will come out as “catechism.”
(I’m still stuck in the past, and stuck in the kitchen. This was from a Katrina prompt, “The Napkin”.)
My grown daughters don’t use cloth napkins, or paper napkins, or any napkins. I’ll be served a beautiful, even elegant meal at one of their homes, then handed a small section of paper towel to use as a napkin. I’m not much on formal table settings, but it feels wrong to me, a mistake, as wrong as if I’ve been handed a wad of toilet paper with which to dab my mouth while eating.
Where are the napkins in my daughters’ homes?
I’m not sure, and I want to trot out that old saw, “They weren’t raised like that.” But really, they weren’t. We had a basket of paper napkins on the counter for breakfast and lunch. At dinner, each place was set with a cloth napkin.
I didn’t encounter cloth napkins until I was a nanny, working in the aforementioned Vandor Country Kitchen home where I learned to roast a chicken, bake a fish, and use cloth napkins. I wanted to incorporate them in my own home. It made me feel fancy.
Proof of this is that I only use them now when company is here. So take note. If you come to dinner at my home and I’ve set the table with cloth napkins, I’m being fancy on your behalf.
I was considering that idea, the cloth napkin as fancy, so I did a little research, which means I Googled it and clicked on the first promising link that popped up in my results. I found this blog post while trying to find out when paper napkins arrived on America’s tables: The History of Paper Napkins (this is a blog for a store that sells paper napkins). Here is an excerpt:
Paper napkins themselves originate from ancient China, when paper was invented in the 2nd century. Chih Pha, folded paper square napkins, were used for serving tea. The historical accuracy of this is backed up by documents describing the possessions of the Yu family from the city of Hangzhou.
And when did North America start getting in on using paper napkins? They arrived in the late 1800s, but didn’t pick up in popularity until 1948 – because Emily Post proclaimed that “It’s far better form to use paper napkins than linen napkins that were used at breakfast.”
Emily Post approved!
My mother had adopted so many markers of class and taste reminiscent of the 1950s, but for all my mother’s airs, we always used paper napkins. Perhaps Emily Post is why. We still had to use our napkins correctly. She trained me to always keep my napkin in my lap, or if I rose from the table, my chair. A used napkin on the table was a definite manners misstep.
My mother wouldn’t have dreamed of using a paper towel next to a plate. Is that why I’m so horrified by that idea?
Mom liked to imitate how her sister, my aunt Elaine, carefully and firmly pressed a napkin to the edges and corners of her mouth. “It was like she was staunching blood,” Mom explained. I try to imagine handing my Aunt Elaine a scant section of paper towel for this act. What would she say? How would she adjust?
WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO NAPKINS, I ASK YOU?!
(Yes, “napery” is a word I discovered while working on my latest project, which is a novel narrated by a somewhat fussy man. Anyway.)
As I’ve explained before, I’m an inveterate thrifter. I also go to antique stores, which is less satisfying because everything needs to be looked at, and I find it exhausting. Anyway, I think, as a secondhand shopping wizard, that I’ve seen everything. But in this thrifting group I belong to on Facebook, someone posted one of these and I had no idea what the heck it was. It was something like this:
Does this confuse you? Good. It certainly confused me.
This is a serviette lady. A very fancy example, with salt and pepper shakers, and a tray to hold toothpicks, and something (a candle?) sticking out of her head. Less fancy models just have the skirt with all the slots in it. The idea is, you fold your napkins (clearly cocktail napkins for this one, which were a thing) and arrange them in the slots so that they make a bouffant skirt of sorts. Then you put her out with your lady luncheon or bridge club spread, and people take their napkins out of her skirt.
I probably don’t need to explain that my mother would not have had such an item in her home. She was gifted a ceramic frog scrubber holder by a neighbor that she grudgingly used for years, but that was the extent of Mom’s tacky ceramics. The woman had taste (unlike me, who has a full shelf of ceramic honey servers).
But I don’t have any lady serviette holders. That is a bridge too far, even for me.
My husband and I both have big noses that drip constantly as we eat. I have no idea when this started to happen but it’s annoying and makes the use of cloth napkins problematic. So we use paper. Big, fluffy white paper napkins, the costly kind.
He has a whole system where he folds down the top edge of the napkin, creating a demarcation between the part used for his nose and the part used for his mouth. I admire this while also thinking it’s kind of weird. He also sets his napkin on the chair next to him, as opposed to his lap. Whatever works, at least he’s using one.
Over at my plate, I’m working my napkins like someone trying to clean up after a flood. I use more napkins than anyone I know. Sometimes I’m eating in a restaurant with a friend, and I’m on my third while theirs is untouched. How do they do that, I wonder?
Alternately, is there something wrong with me? Even if my nose weren’t drippy, I’m wiping my hands and mouth constantly while I eat. Am I leaky and strange? Unduly repelled by food juice? Why am I such a mess?
The last time I ate dinner at my oldest daughter’s home, her in-laws were there. As she set the table, my daughter let me know that her mother-in-law had made this beautiful set of cloth napkins for her. I smiled and complimented her MOL on the beautiful fabric and workmanship. Did I only imagine that we shared a swift but knowing glance?
Acknowledged or not, I’m not the only person who believes in napkins.
It’s Saturday. I just started a load of clothes and took a hot shower, and had to sit down for a minute before I dried my hair. I’m going to make myself a good breakfast because I’m 13 pounds lighter than I was a month ago, and I haven’t been trying.
I thought I’d take a moment–a very long moment with many, many words–and describe how I got to such a state.
Five weeks ago, my husband and I had colds. Bad colds. In fact, we had three week colds, the ones that drag on and on, and had us sleeping in separate rooms so we didn’t wake each other up with our strangling coughing fits (which we did anyway). It was one of those colds with the cough that is so harsh, I started to feel like I was going to cough an internal part of my body right out of my body. The kind where my stomach muscles and ribs start to ache from the exertion of coughing.
Even worse than the coughing was the nose blowing. My nasal congestion (like my nose) is extraordinary. In fact it can be spectacular (again, like my nose). I have very large nostrils and very small sinus passages. This combination means I blow my nose every thirty seconds when I have a bad cold.
I was constantly coughing but mentally functional. I signed in and worked from home every day, and was thanked by my manager for not coming in and exposing anyone else to my crud. I would have sickened my team, not only with my germs, but with the sound of going through eight or ten large boxes of tissues in three weeks.
Then, miraculously, I felt better. I had an entire week of feeling better. Wearing real clothes, going to a play, working a full day in the office (where I moved into the small office, if you were wondering). I like my new small office so much, I thought, I will be in here at least twice a week now! Because I felt so good!
We were all looking forward to this past Saturday morning, when we would gather to celebrate a pair of birthdays: my grandson turning four, and my granddaughter turning one. Various aunties, uncles, grandparents and cousins were gathering for brunch and cake and presents.
And it was everything I could have hoped. I wondered if I would ever share birthdays with my NYC grandkids, but now they are my Portland grandkids, and I was there for my granddaughter’s very first birthday! Baby S was a little overwhelmed by having so many people she knew in one place, but she consoled herself by making a beeline for my arms. Whenever she felt overwhelmed, she came right back to my arms. There was cake and presents and games and paleontology kits for the three older kids. A terrific time was had by all.
I mean, it just tore through us. And of course it did, because there were five small children there who go to daycare, and everyone knows a daycare child is a germ vector, an adorable zone of contagion.
So on Monday, after a round of texts to establish that yes, we were all either sick or expecting to be very soon, I worked from home. That evening, I entered a fugue state of high fever and running sinuses so intense that on Tuesday, I actually took a sick day. I called in. And that was a good thing, because I couldn’t get out of bed. I had spent the night somewhere else, somewhere strange, a land of fever dreams and body aches, rolling around trying to get comfortable, getting up for a few wrenching and violent sessions over the toilet, unsure of where I was and maybe who I was.
I eventually got myself up, took my heart pill, and made a cup of coffee, which I consumed with a view to taking a coffee nap. Here’s an explanation of what that is and why you should try to take one when you’re exhausted: Coffee Napping.
After I woke up from said coffee nap, I felt well enough to collapse on the sofa in front of HGTV. There, for approximately 14 hours, I stared at reruns of Fixer to Fabulous. This show features Dave and Jenny Marrs, who fix up homes for people in the Bentonville, Arkansas area. So, lots of Wal-Mart and Tyson money. The home price is usually in the 600K-700K range, and the Marrs often have budgets of 200K to work with. They do very nice things within that budget.
You can learn a lot while staring at the same people for hours on end in a semi-conscious state. Things like, Dave Marrs is faster with a tape measure than any other person on TV. The instant Jenny has an idea, he magically has a tape measure extended up walls and into corners and across windows, just instantaneously. He also has an enormous barn that is actually his workshop, where he has every tool, saw, press, torch, clamp that exists. You name it, he has it and will use it to cut or fabricate or conjoin any given material in any given way to make any sort of thing.
I thought these people were Christians, but no, Dave Marrs is a Wizard.
One thing I enjoyed through my haze of fever and illness is how much the Marrs seem to like each other. Sure, they love each other, whatever, but they also like each other. If you’ve ever tried to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t like you, you understand how nice it is when your partner does. The Marrs are respectful but playful, and there is laughter and collaboration.
This seems to inspire the same from the clients they work with. There is no bickering or contentiousness among these Southern couples with money. In fact, a man might say, “It’s important to my wife that…” or the woman might say, “My husband has always loved…” and go on to describe a feature they’d like to see in the remodel to make the spouse happy. This seems sincere. It’s nice break from the manufactured marital conflicts of “House Hunters” and “Love it or List It.”
This show is also a good place to go to understand some particular Southern values. Like, homes will be fancier, as in a little fussier. And if a family is racially mixed, that will have happened through adoption. There will be expensive plantation shutters indoors a lot of the time that should never be removed (I agree). And all women will be very well presented, and often blonde. Very blonde. Sometimes platinum blonde. And almost always barrel rolled.
I understood this a little better when the Marrs did a home for Jenny’s hairdresser, who is a blonde of the platinum and barrel rolled variety. When they showed a photo of this pretty woman and her daughter, the daughter was similarly coiffed. Then Jenny talked about how her own blonde, barrel-rolled hair, as well as the hair of all her friends and family was at stake, so could they please get this remodel done right. I saw how one woman’s aesthetic could influence my impression of an entire town.
Such deep thoughts, that day on the couch.
Gosh, I saw a lot of commercials, collapsed on the couch with my late mother’s comforter piled on top of me, comforting me.
There were mattress commercials, which ranged from the bespoke and cloud-like to the supremely technological. I’m obsessed with my own sleep and comfort. The simple act of lying down for a night’s sleep is so fraught, and has been since my forties, that I watch these commercials eagerly, hoping to see the magic bed that will cure all my sleep ills. I have no idea what would work, but I would try anything at this point.
Speaking of high tech applied to simple things, I also saw technological water commercials. I’m put off by these. I watch them with puzzlement because water is not a fraught topic for me—we drink water from the tap. We are on the Bull Run water system, and it’s as good as it gets.
Sleep and water, so basic, and yet, so complex.
I am made intensely uncomfortable by two advertisers on HGTV. One is LL Flooring. They do the commercials where people writhe around on their LVP floors. I thought the first of these commercials I saw was stupid, and weird, and made me think about how dirty you’d get if you writhed around on my own floor. I expected these commercials to go away, bad idea, call the agency, next. But LL Flooring unveiled these are part of a rebrand, so I think they doubled down. The floor writhing continues, and now it’s all I think of when it comes to LL Flooring, instead of “I wonder why they changed their name from LUMBER LIQUIDATORS?”
I’m also really uncomfortable with Home Goods ads. People sliding down streets and dancing with lamps. It’s all strange and uncanny and I actually like going to Home Goods, but these commercials unsettle me.
Predominantly I saw commercials for prescription medicines with names like Kelvida and Sylvestri and Contrisa and Bellatrix. I have no idea what the drugs actually do. I just watched a lot of normal looking people doing pleasant activities at a slightly reduced pace while the sun was shining. Over these lovely images, a disembodied voice listed possible side effects, like suffocation via swelling airways, pulmonary blood clots, heart attacks, severe edema, colitis, kidney failure, strokes, paralysis, and other symptoms that were severe enough to make me wonder, if those are the side effects, what the heck are these drugs treating, and isn’t this worse than the original condition?
I also saw many commercials for pet products. I was worried that pet commercials would make me want to have another pet, especially in my weakened state. I always loved how my little dogs would tuck themselves around me when I was sick, so seriously and carefully, like it was part of a canine plan to nurse me back to health.
But I had a revelation about the function of these ads. They are not there to make us want pets. They are there to inspire severe anxiety in people who already have pets.
Is my cat eating right? Is my dog happy with his food? Will my cat get fleas? Will my dog get heartworm? Will my cat find her litter box sufficiently pleasing enough to use it? Will my dog be lonely and destroy the house while I’m at work? And so on.
It turns out I had nothing to fear from the HGTV pet products commercials. Nothing about those commercials made me want a pet. They just stressed me out.
All the cruise lines have ads on HGTV. All of them. From the Viking river cruises I’d love to take but can’t afford, to the Carnival cruises I am too old and fussy to endure, to the Holland cruises I am still too young to take, to the Princess cruises that use the song from the old Love Boat show so I will never take a Princess cruise, to the Norwegian cruises I happily will take because we have rewards there! I watched them all.
I considered my options. One of those commercials had the best reason to take a cruise I’ve ever heard. “Unpack once!” Ah, you’re playing my song. I smiled as the happy silver haired couples had the onboard times of their lives—looking at glaciers in Alaska, watching shows, and then best of all, she’s coming down a stairway wearing a wrap dress and carrying her special little evening purse! What a great combo, the wrap dress and little purse! Do I need to pack one of those? I think I will!
I thought a lot about what I might pack for our next cruise while sitting on the couch in my spotty purple bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, shivering under my mother’s comforter.
I decided, while breathing through my mouth and blowing my nose, that some of those same silver fox cruise couples were on ads for ReBath. This is a cheap way for older people who know their bathrooms are dated to get them updated without a lot of money or fuss.
Dated bathrooms are now a form of social leprosy, one from which I suffer myself. After the fire, when the house was rebuilt in 2006, I didn’t realize I was supposed to choose luxury finishes for the rooms where we take showers, brush our teeth, and use the toilet. I mean, I was never expecting a spa-like experience in the crowded little bathroom off the main bedroom in my house. I just wanted a shower, so I went cheap and common and serviceable.
As a result, the rooms were rebuilt in a dated way. My bathrooms look like 1996, but I cannot bring myself to care deeply. So be warned that if you step into my half-bath, you should be ready to travel back into the nineties. Think of it as a time hop. (and by the way, I’m thinking of all the bathrooms I’ve used in all my friends’ homes over the decades, and most of them were dated. Some drastically. And I never cared. I was happy for toilet paper, a functional soap dispenser, and clean hand towels. We’ve been fed a bill of goods by HGTV. It’s just a BATHROOM.)
I resisted the allure of ReBath, but I was just about ready to sign up for Balance of Nature vitamins by the end of the day. Which shows you how far gone I was. Because I honestly couldn’t relate to a single spokesperson for those vitamins. Not the doctor with the sculpted hair, not the recovering stroke victim who seems to be manipulated by her caretaker and/or her small dog, not the the wrestling coach doing handstand pushups, and especially not the 51-year-old doctor who announces her age to the camera with a smug expression of “Can you believe it?!?!?!” because she doesn’t think she looks 51 (she does), but she’s so deluded about that, so incredibly pleased with her self-perception that I just want to pat her and say something like, “Honey! You look 35!” (she doesn’t).
I watched so many commercials, staring blankly at the screen while ads for exterminators and hardware stores and paint brands and other HGTV shows attempted to penetrate the fog of my illness. The only show that got through was Renovation 911. This is a new one, and I have to avert my eyes from this commercial because it shows homes that have been gutted by fire, hit by cars, struck by lightning, and flooded. If you’ve ever had the experience of seeing your home after a fire, the trauma doesn’t go away. Ever.
But then I would have to peek, because the sisters who host this show have hair that seems to sympathetically echo the state of the devastated buildings they enter. It’s up and down and sideways and twisted. It’s tornado hair. Jenny Marrs’ hairdresser has never been anywhere near these women, and it shows. I could not look away.
One of my daughters went to the doctor and had a swab, because she is new to her job and needed a doctor’s note to be gone for three days. The test confirmed that we all had Influenza A, whatever that might be. The disease was truly awful for me on one day, but I’ve been able to work from home the other days. I have stayed productive and away from the TV for the rest of the week.
Evenings, my fever kept spiking, so I spent them reading Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson. A wonderful book to read when you’re feverish, I mean it’s a perfect read for a fever, like a combo of “The Gilded Age” and “Peaky Blinders,” with seamy nightclubs, secret liaisons, double crossings, shocking setbacks and big reveals. 10/10.
My nose is almost clear, I slept last night, I have no fever. The disease is ebbing from the family. Some have completely recovered. Some of us are getting there. The party continues.
And you know what? The birthday party was so fun. We gathered, and drank coffee and ate brunch, we watched the kids play, there was cake and candles and two rounds of singing, one happy birthday song for each birthday child. Presents and games and cousins having fun together. And the memory of this flu will fade, but I will always remember those kids in the front yard, intently working on their paleontology kits (“I got a TOOF!”), and the babies in the grass, and the sun shining on everyone’s faces.
It plays in my head like a prescription medicine advertisement, one with a voice over that said, “This birthday party may cause high fever, vomiting, nasal congestion, and a lingering cough. Consult your doctor for more information.”
In this case, the side effects were definitely worth it.
I haven’t seen one of my dear friends for over six years. I’m not sure of all the reasons, but none of them have a thing to do with how much we value each other.
She lives in Tacoma. I met her when she started dating a friend of mine. She enchanted me. Yes, she was intelligent and beautiful but there was something else about her. Something deep and dark, a resonance that is difficult to put into words without sounding a little ridiculous. She had a calm, low speaking voice, the kind that has rivers running in it. Even her laugh was gorgeous.
When I first stepped into her subterranean living space, it was full of treasures. Ornate screens hung with jewelry, candles in sconces, bead-trimmed satin pillows. The walls were hung with framed prints of fantasy and pre-Raphaelite art.
They were all mermaids.
I was a senior in high school in Yakima, Washington, in what passed for an advanced Spanish class. We were playing a game called “Loteria,” like Bingo played with picture cards. My teacher would display the card and enunciate the name of whatever it showed. El Diablito. La Dama. El Borracho. La Sirena.
I looked up, my interest piqued. I had always loved a mermaid.
Ah, the mermaid. She was singing, as mermaids were once thought to do, luring sex-starved sailors to their deaths with her breasts, her siren song. Odysseus lashed himself to the mast to resist the songs that lured his sailors to their deaths, navigating between Scylla and Charybdis.
Those songs were sung by mermaids.
Growing up, I had a children’s edition of The Little Mermaid illustrated with photographs of posed dolls. To my young eyes, the dolls were beautiful, as were the props around them, especially the sea-witch’s undersea lair. The coral, the cauldron…the photos were wonderful enough, but the book also featured a lenticular panel on the cover. It gave a 3D quality to a photo of the mermaid herself, swimming underwater.
The photo pages alternated with text pages, some of which had line drawings in black and white. One of those showed the mermaid right after she’d traded her voice for a pair of legs, lying on the beach unconscious, her hair flowing down around her naked body so discreetly.
As a child I was fascinated by this drawing. I remember so clearly taking my colored pencils and with a few adjustments, moving her hair to reveal a little of her derriere, giving her blonde hair, peach skin. I promise, it was tastefully done.
After I started writing about mermaids, I went on a hunt for my old book, the one with the posed dolls. I saved all my childhood books so it had to be around here somewhere. It took some looking but I found it. I turned to the page with that drawing I’d changed and found it untouched. Had I simply longed to change the drawing so much that I thought I had?
Memory is a strange thing. As mutable and misleading as a mermaid. And this isn’t the first time a mermaid led me astray in my memory. It happened with a present I gave to my mother, who was notoriously hard to please with gifts. If the gift was wrong somehow, it disappeared, or sometimes she just handed it back.
This isn’t as bad as it seems, not to me, because I get it. When someone gives me a “wrong” gift, I feel like they don’t know me. I don’t feel seen. So with Mom, I never took it personally, but a correct gift felt like a triumph.
One birthday, I gave Mom this Danish plate with a line drawing of the Little Mermaid statue. “Oh!” she exclaimed with tears of delight. “I’ve always loved her, sitting in the bay, her eyes out to sea.” She hung it on a wall, so touched.
That plate was a hunch, a six dollar Goodwill gamble. It’s a beauty, but it’s a collector’s plate, and not the kind of item my mother gravitated towards at all.
I wondered why my mother loved it so much. I wondered what she saw when she looked at that statue. I wondered how this particular mermaid made my mother feel seen.
In my memory of the plate, the girl has legs. So I thought she was in her human form, looking out at the ocean, missing her sisters and her life in the underwater kingdom. She’d traded away her tail and gills along with her voice. She was stranded on land.
But I have the plate now, and photos of the statue like the one above make it clear that I was wrong. Look at her lower half. She does have legs and feet, but she also has fins of some kind. And she’s bare-breasted, so she’s definitely in her mermaid form. This means she’s watching the waves, pining for her prince.
Mermaids are supposed to be dangerous, but once they’re lovesick, they’re only dangerous to themselves.
Sometimes, mermaids are less woman and more fish. They are scaly creatures of the deep. I’m okay with that. Last year, I read a scathing book by Lydia Millet called Mermaids in Paradise. Imagine you were on your honeymoon at an inclusive resort taking some silly snorkeling excursion and you saw mermaids. Real ones. Imagine what might go on. The collision of greed and conservationism. The danger and collusion. This is a strange and hilarious book, a book like no other.
But there are mermaids. And they are real. And they are creatures.
I found Something About a Mermaid in a thrift store back in the 1990s. It was published in 1978. My oldest daughter has our copy, treasured and worn and hopefully to be read to my children’s children.
Like many books from the seventies, the book tries to teach a lesson about harsh life events a child might encounter. This was new in the seventies, writing books about bullying or divorce or other painful realities. Historically, books for children were didactic, but more instructive. Like, eat wisely and be obedient and clean, versus, how to deal with the fact that your parents don’t love each other anymore.
It’s difficult to strike the balance between fanciful and didactic, but this book does it. This little mermaid is wild. What a sweet, otter-like face she has. She doesn’t talk, or sing love songs. Her song is one of yearning to be set free. She is a creature. A wild thing. This book asks children to accept that wild things should be left wild.
It’s absolutely heartbreaking.
I moved to Yakima, Washington with my boyfriend in the fall of 1975. We stayed at the Motel 6 until we could find an apartment. There was a pool and he had nothing to swim in. “Let’s go to a thrift store!” I suggested. Despite his rough hippie exterior, he’d never been to one—he came from a prosperous family—but he was game.
We went to the Salvation Army thrift store on Main to hunt for a pair of jeans he could cut off. I scanned the shelves, as I always did, and saw a rough little clay statue of a mermaid. She lay on her stomach in the waves, faceless and crude, a student effort at best.
It is hard to believe that once, representations of mermaids were so rare that I paid a quarter for my little clay mermaid, just to own one. What’s even more difficult to believe? I still have her. Especially since mermaids are common, now. They are used as a motif in children’s rooms. They adorn shower curtains and word art.
The decor mermaid is sweet and cartoonish. She has no teeth, her breasts are modestly obscured by clam shells. She holds no threat. Once, on a cruise, I saw a grown woman wearing a t-shirt, claiming to be a mermaid.
I know my mermaids. And you, madam, are no mermaid.
I’d read my childhood version of the tale to my oldest daughter many times before I took her to see Disney’s “Little Mermaid” with its charming and goofy Ariel. I sat in that darkened theater and I was terrified. I knew how it ended for the Little Mermaid. Voiceless, endangered, flinging herself at the groom’s feet, begging him to understand that she saved him, and now he must choose her or she will die. Her sisters arrive with a sword and a choice.
This didn’t happen in the movie. The happy ending was a surprise. Wrong, mind you. But a relief. Speaking of Disney movies, I didn’t like the mermaids in “On Stranger Tides.” They were underwater vampires. I do love a vampire, but this mermaid seems to take the masculine fear of seductive women and make it justified. I suppose that started back with Odysseus, didn’t it.
It shouldn’t surprise me that female creatures born of male sexual longing have the capacity for destruction. I didn’t see that capacity for destruction in “Splash.” That sweet, hapless mermaid had no teeth. “Splash” set The Little Mermaid fairy tale on its ear. They could never be happy on land, so he leaves it behind and becomes her companion under the sea, completely dependent on her.
We had to wait for a merman in “The Shape of Water,” to show us how powerful and dangerous a mer-creature born of romantic longing could be. Maybe because women know men are dangerous, whereas men only fear that women are dangerous. Del Toro’s creature was far from toothless. He was a god, after all.
I forgave him for eating the cat.
Most children today know the Disney version of the Little Mermaid. They are unaware of the old version with the sword and the choice. I wonder if my daughters remember the original at all. I still wonder about the sword. Shouldn’t we tell our daughters about the sword? I’m still asking myself that, though my daughters are grown. They have already fallen on it.
One of my first published poems is called “Ariel.” It was published by Goblin Fruit, a fantastical and defunct online magazine. Here it is:
I settled for so little, for so long,
rotting muslin instead of a wedding dress,
wet pebbles he bestowed like pearls.
He kept me as a pet, and I let him,
my hair gone seaweed round my shoulders,
my voice bartered away, leaving me
with half-mad shrieks, porcine grunts and
clumsy gestures that amused him
until I performed my frantic pantomime
at the feet of his new bride,
flopping and heaving as if I still possessed
that column of scaly muscle I traded
for the legs I’d hoped to part for him.
Certainly it mattered that he was killing me?
While my secret gills closed in pink-edged grief,
the priest cried demon and the horrified court stood by,
wheezing with scandal, faces puffed and popping
like those furtive, skimming creatures
on the darkest floors of my father’s house.
My three sisters came to save me, and
they wore the shorn heads of disgraced daughters.
They handed me a sword. The story says
I had a choice, to cleave him as I was cleft,
to find within his sundered trunk
my own salvation.
I ran myself through instead,
but not for love.