Dial S for Salazar

Strudel is getting old enough now to reflect on my parenting. To my face. I would have rather died than do this with my mother, in part because that way I could choose my own death instead of waiting for her to execute me.

Last night, Strudel had me trapped on the way to the grocery store. She had just finished telling me about how she managed to acquire a whole year’s worth of guest logins for the computer lab of the university she attends on Wednesdays. The adults were too slow in getting them permanent access so she found a workaround. Then the subject turned to me somehow.

“I don’t think you were a bad parent in a normal way,” she said.

“What does that mean?” I said, trying not to laugh.

“Other parents say ‘no’ to everything, or are smothering. You were more like… letting me do things, even if they had a bad outcome.”

“Like what?”

“Like letting me drink coffee.”

“Coffee is life,” I said.

“Yes but. Sometimes you would let me do things, even if you knew what was going to happen.”

What I don’t say is, I never let you do anything seriously dangerous. I don’t have to, because she knows that. We have this game where she thinks I let her do things and I pretend it was possible to stop her.

“Well, I didn’t want to fight you over stupid stuff. You know, your worst enemy is–”


I nod sagely as if I know anything at all before continuing.

“And your best friend is–”


“–Your mother,” I finish.


“I don’t think you should get a job now,” I say, wondering if I have a window here where she might actually listen to me.


“Work is terrible, and you should put it off as long as possible.”

“But I want money,” she says.

That’s how they get you, I tell her.

Where is Blitzen Baby

Last night Strudel and I got into a humdinger. Her face was red, and she was yelling at me and crying. Naturally it was over something completely stupid: dinner and the dishes. Also naturally, as these domestic squabbles go, it was not really about dinner and the dishes. She’s been cooking, because she wants to learn, and we’ve been planning menus together. The government has been smashed and we’re trying to figure out what this banana republic looks like now. I am wearing a fake mustache and we are pretending that I’m the long-lost twin of the old president.

So things went pretty wrong last night. She made dinner, and I arrived late, because I got sucked into a phone call. My fault.

“I think the sauce is ruined,” she said. The arrowroot had relaxed after holding the sauce for too long, and had become watery.

“Let’s rethicken it,” I said. I pulled out my current favorite, which is potato starch, and sprinkled too much in. “Oops.” It might be more like gravy, but it would probably be fine. I turned around to get plates.

“MOM.” It had completely seized up into a solid.

“Fuck,” I said. First I was late to dinner, then I ruined the sauce.

We ate buttered, salted rice for dinner and decided not to worry about it too much. We continued our Office rewatch. Before bedtime I asked her to wash the dishes in the morning before she went out, since I have a class Saturday mornings and had been doing the dishes all week.

Strike three.


I tried to defend myself, lamely, by saying I had done dishes all week. I tried to say that we didn’t really eat the dinner, which is definitely the worst excuse I could possibly come up with. She let me know that I had ruined it. We went back and forth like this a couple of times. She had been having mast cell fallout from stress for part of the week, I had been sick from a day I welded all day.

I looked at her face: flushed, determined, upset, angry. I flipped through the deck of All the Parenting in my head. This would not be an argument in my parents’ house. You must be this high to have agency at all. I wouldn’t have even argued. I thought her response was disproportionate in a teenaged way, but there was something else underneath it as well.

I think she’s trying to find her levels right now, just like I am. She has experienced two parents with various reserves of strength and empathy at any given moment. She has experienced inappropriate emotional responses to her distress. Many times I was just flattened and exhausted by caretaking, or angry myself. If she got into it with her father and things got heated, he would often laugh in her face in his discomfort and not knowing how to respond appropriately. Even though it is not his fault, I know firsthand how devastating this is.

One of the most depressing events in the past couple of years is the degree to which she took on caretaking with me. She was pretty small when she started managing her four-years-older sister, who would attempt to pull rank on her and get them both into trouble. She was starting to take that role on with her dad as well, to absorb his stress and anxiety and make sure he took the right freeway exits. She and I were stage managing and yet unacknowledged, and even disregarded. I tried my best to leave her out of it but she figured out when I wasn’t there, it was in her best interests to make sure things didn’t go wrong.

In different ways, she and I are melting and reforming. It is strange and dangerous territory to suddenly have a major emotional obstacle to an open and trusting relationship removed. If you can’t hide behind a common struggle anymore, what do you have? My instincts are often to flee what I perceive as danger that can result in trauma. In a lot of ways my gauge has been very skewed over the years, but I’m trying to hang in there and face her.

The other day she told me, “I hated you until I was eight, and then I realized you were making the best of a bad situation.” That was one of the hardest things I’d ever heard. My heart broke a little, that such a small person had to figure this out. That someone so young could begin to make sense of the mistakes I had made. I wanted her love, but I see why she felt the way she did.

I attempted to present a united parenting front with someone who was uncomfortable with using the words “we” and “our,” and who always referred to me by my first name to the children. Strudel thought I was some kind of bombed-out Stepford wife because I couldn’t see what was right in front of me, and she was right. As a small example, all the times something went missing or was broken, and I assumed the children did it, because my husband, with his severe memory impairments, told me he absolutely had not. Strudel knew she hadn’t done it, and was looking around like, what the actual fuck is the gaslit nightmare?

“I guess a ghost did it,” I would say, exasperated that no one would just fess up for once. What a fucking idiot I was. I thought if I could find the right words or get the right task minder app I could fix everything.

Sometimes it is hard for me to stay with her when she is livid and screaming at me. The toxic parenting voices whisper in my ear. “Are you going to let her get away with this? She is so disrespectful.” She’s not, though. She doesn’t call me names, swear at me. I believe she is overcorrecting. It hasn’t been that long since this became just a lady house (sorry Horace) but I already see her becoming calmer and our conflicts are less fraught and severe. I take her anger and try to hear what’s underneath it. Being heard gives us comfort and a place to think about what the real issues are instead of just reacting, and always running like a scared deer.

I think, just like a toddler punching and kicking at you because you’re that safe person, or to see if you’re that safe person, she needs to lash out right now. I think this isn’t unique to her as a teenager. She needs to be heard, and considered, and not laughed at. I am being very careful to hear her and respect her, which isn’t hard, because I do have a lot of respect for her.

I don’t want her to be my co-conspirator in caretaking another adult. I don’t want her as my roommate, and she doesn’t want to be mine. She is too wise and too old for me to time travel and pretend it’s the beginning again and she’s a new baby. But we are working on her staying in her lane, which is high school, and her friends and clubs and volunteer activities. And some fun with me, but also some arguments and talking about hard stuff.

I relented. “Ok, I will do the dishes.”

She wasn’t ready to let it go at first. Her hackles were still up. She had a few more jabs to get in. I took them, and saw her anger deflate. We didn’t go to bed on great terms but I think things will look better when she wakes up. I do not get a gold star for doing the bare minimum as an adult and parent. I am not the bigger person. This is not the story of ha ha, teenagers man, what are you gonna do?

Last night was just a tiny brick in a bigger road. Maybe she will reflect on what happened and think we were both wrong, that she was right, or that I was, or maybe she won’t remember it at all. For me right now, the important thing is that she was heard and believed about her feelings. She needs to hear that sometimes things are disappointing and she can be apologized to, but it is not all about who was right and who was wrong.

This is not “fixed” and this is not even close to fixed right now. I am making mistakes daily, as easily as taking a breath, but I am trying to do the right thing. The other day I learned that the Latin root for “imperfect” is “imperfectus,” which means “unfinished.” I am trying to take that attitude: things will continue to be imperfect, but that means that we keep trying instead of saying it’s just fucked up. I feel like I’ve given myself another chance to have a different kind of relationship with Strudel, without as many obstacles, and with more acceptable imperfections. We are trying together.

I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree

I can tell it has become winter when everything makes me cry. Today I cried because this might be the last time Strudel trick-or-treats and she looked really cute in her costume. I cried about a TV show where it was basically the trolley problem except everyone dies, and THEN, the next scene was comedic. That was either a bad directorial choice or I was taking a show for boys too seriously and don’t I know that sometimes a whole plane full of people have to die for man show tough choices reasons? Then I tried to sleep and I listened to LeVar Burton read a Nisi Shawl story where a cat got mutilated and a dog could speak but was still misunderstood and lonely and is there anything else worse than the thought of dog loneliness? And I knew I took the story wrong also because everyone was clapping at the end instead of running out and collapsing on the stinky lobby carpet in weeping heaps.

Even Alexa (Gryffindor) is out to get me because I told her to play “Misty” for me and I was ready to do some fancy twirling and arm modeling a la Janice during the Showcase Showdown while feeding the animals breakfast and that bitch chose the JOHNNY MATHIS (Hufflepuff) version. That is the saddest one!

(Jesus, get a grip, SJ.)

Crying is also how I can tell it’s summer.

This is my fat divorce. The first time I just stopped eating for most of the day, and then would come home (worst) and think that I should consume at least one nutritional unit. Then I would stay up until two a.m. looking at the walls with my eyes swinging back and forth like one of those creepy cat clocks. I bought cropped jackets and made out with a doctoral candidate who was teaching my class and kept going, “Oh no I can’t possibly this is unethical” which I took as foreplay at first but then realized he was just tedious and a little bitch.

Do you feel your second marriage the same way you do your first? I remember coming to terms with this a few years ago talking to a superintendent I liked, even though one time he saw me with channel locks and asked me if I wanted to twist some guy’s dick off with it. I acted offended but really I was impressed he could see into my heart.

“What’s your husband like, is he cool?” he asked.

“He’s ok.”

“Just ok?”

“You know, this is your second marriage too.”

“Oh. Yeah,” he said.

“Back through the revolving door.”

I made the mistake of being too near my foreman during this exchange, who was still on his first marriage and looked at us as if we were monsters (correct).

This divorce I was derelict a lot, avoiding what had to be done, telling myself I was gathering strength. I was mental with PTSD after remembering (again) that I’d been baby raped until my uterus tried to jump out of my body and run away. I was hiding in my car eating cheeseburgers. I tried to limit it to once a week, because I got sick every time, like a dog cruelly left alone with a stick of Oleo. For a long while after Franny left I was thin from stress, steeling myself like I was in the last leg of my marathon. I did that thing where you tell yourself you’re magic now and cannot actually gain weight, in part because I thought I had several years of unhungry misery left.

If one cheeseburger was good, two would be better. I would responsibly eat before CAD class so I wouldn’t be hungry, and then I would eat after class anyway, because I couldn’t think of any place better to go and I didn’t want to talk to or look at anyone.

Fifteen pounds: just enough to be moderately uncomfortable in some of your pants. Just enough so that your bras go from practical breast-cuppers to comically small cartoon legs you draw on a pig. Except instead of cavorting across the page distractingly, half the pig winds up in your armpit. And not enough weight for your friends to ask if you’re finally on antidepressants.

“Jesus Christ I cannot wait to get out of these pants! They’re too tight!” Strudel follows me. Right now she alternates between scolding me for not being woke enough and being a mess about the politics of her own friendships.

“Mom, I wish you knew that you look great right now,” she says, thudding down the stairs after me.

“I don’t care how I look, I just wish I didn’t feel like an overstuffed sausage all the time. What am I going to do when I go back to work? If only I could wave a wand and make all my pants a size bigger.”

“Oh. I thought you were doing negative self-talk.”


I am making noise and it’s nice, like Johnny Mathis in the kitchen at 6 a.m. I am having full conversations with the dog. I used to talk to him briefly, mostly using words he knows, or baby talk. Now instead of “NUM NUMS” I say, “You ready for some breakfast MOTHERFUCKER?” He gets my meaning. I think I am still dumbing it down for his dog, the dick biter, though.

When I had a family and too much purpose I was known to be the quietest walker. “Haha, I got screamed at if my feet made any noise when I was a kid.” They loved hearing these little tableaus from my childhood. Now I am trying to walk louder. I would always make my hair pink, and accessorize like I was giving Cruella de Vil (Slytherin) a run for her money, but then I went around like I was on wheels. Maybe now I will go the other way.

Anyway, I am still a mess like I always was, but for much shorter periods of time now, like minutes. What has changed is also how I talk to myself. I still mostly have the feeling of existential dread lifted off my chest now that I know what was wrong with me this whole time. If I am stressed about money, I ask myself what I can do. I ask myself if worrying about it all day will make more unemployment accumulate in my account. I tell myself that things will probably work out, and if they don’t, I will probably figure something else out, because I always have.

I tell myself that if I’m crying about a story where a cat gets tortured it’s probably because I needed to cry, and also animal abuse is sad. It doesn’t mean anything and I am not losing my mind. If it happens every day, I will rethink it. It’s true, what they say. Caring about stupid things less is giving me room to care about important stuff more.

My first divorce was crawling on broken glass every day for a year and a half. When I moved out, I lost things, I forgot things. This one is much easier. I was unfocused, spinning out all the time, looking over my shoulder, Golluming over burgers that would give me stomach cramps, hives, headaches. Now I feel like my edge is sharpened. I don’t want to do every chore, but I get through my errands and my house is clean. Things are not being broken, knocked about, stained, inadvertently hidden. I am not finding trash and food scraps around my house and my bug problem has vanished. The animals are calmer with not being kicked or stomped at.

It feels easier to undo the same mistake the second time. My hands remember how to untie the knots.

SJ is having quite a good time and keeping stress down

Of course, abdicating made me think I would finally be by myself. I wistfully imagined myself walking up and down my hall alone, with my little dogs trailing me. About not having to be quiet, considerate, accommodate the other people in my walled compound. All without those accommodations ever happening for me!

I catered, I bent, I changed, I revised, I allowed. All these people racing up and down my corridors, attached to the castle, on the payroll in some way. Doing some unspecified task that I couldn’t see the results of. I called for my meal and none came, so I waved my hand over my table and did it myself. Cereal for dinner again, while the nine ovens in the kitchen remained cold. I looked in on my harem and they were all napping. I poked one of the concubines in the pile and he turned over, snoring. I started finding dicks and pussies in the hallway, wrinkled and dried out, or taut and bloated like fresh wee corpses. Genitals were shed like autumn leaves, and, I learned, never to grow back.

Also, if you’ve ever had the experience of stepping on a dick in the middle of the night on the way to the WC and having it burst like a dead toad? Well. It kind of puts you off sex for a minute or a thousand. Eventually I went to the rumpus room and built a gollum that was just for doing sex. (The secret is that the heartscroll has to be written in that dumb font that looks like people sixty-nining.)

Often, my retinue made the compound worse somehow. I am certain there used to be crenulation on the parapets, before I accidentally went into a meditative sleep for two weeks. (And can I say that when I woke up, I could barely open my eyes because my face was covered in black flies. My pants were so full of crap I had to literally roll out of bed. Thanks, guys!) We used to refer to this place as a castle. Now, it’s smooth up there like I imagine the brains of my attendants. No one remembered that this is a castle except me.

“Oh,” they said, when I rose. “We thought you were out of town. We cleaned the parapets!”

I was unattended, yet I felt suffocated. I ran my own part of the kingdom for seventy years like a lonely god. Everything was my way because the other way was inertia leading to destruction. Then I started to tilt towards destruction myself; every reign must end. I knocked on doors in the village for aid, screaming at the top of my lungs. I left a trail of blood and shit and black vomit that I could turn around and actually see, so I knew I was real, it was really happening. I was in a real goddam pickle. The villagers knelt in their huts, hands over their ears, shaking their heads, and waited for me to go away so they could go back to clipping coupons and betting on fantasy football leagues.

“I can see you in there!” I shouted through their greasy curtains. I projectile vomited on the wall of the carpenter’s house. GOOD, I thought. Throw your wood chips on that.

I crawled back to the castle, unnoticed, unaided. I slept for another two weeks. While I slept, I saw a huge flood coming through the village, destroying all the houses and carrying away the people, the animals, the volleyball court, everything.

I was so upset I ran through the town square wearing only a cape, trying to get their attention by beating on a pot with a stick and they said, “Did you hear something? Something like the sound of saggy tits flapping around?”

They did not recognize I sent the elk running through their woods each fall so they could fell them. They didn’t know I sent the bent old man into their square every spring with his cart full of seeds, needles, bolts of cloth. I knew what they were missing and I whispered it into his ear. They did not know I set the holidays on their calendars. I was a benevolent god. Someday, I prayed, they would not need me at all.

We still observed the old rituals. There was one day a year that I took an audience and I kept that appointment even if I was half-dead from flu. One year I was in the middle of laboring with my first child and I still walked down the path through the woods to the village slowly, arriving late as I was stopping for contractions.

“She is looking super fat,” I heard the town midwife whisper, too loudly. I hear everything.

One year I came to the meeting as a man. (Long story, but don’t drink a bunch of crabapple wine and then scry your ex, especially if they’re a lich.) That year they said, “She is wearing really unflattering pants.”

The last year I went, I was unencumbered with child but still walked slowly, appreciating how the trees, in full vibrant leaf, rustled with birds popcorning around inside them. The air smelled warm and flowery. A thought came into my head, surprising and unbidden: “I hope this is the last time I take this walk.” I suddenly stopped and thought. What did I want? Oblivion? Death? An heir? To be a villager myself? This village always had a wizard, but now I wanted to be something else. I wanted to do something entirely different.

I stood before them, my villagers, my creations. Without me they would be eating their own poop in lean-tos, and fashioning clothes out of grocery bags, probably.

I knew I had the attention of some of them, but others looked off in odd directions, whittled, or worked on their fishing nets while they listened. They looked put upon and annoyed as they usually did on this day. I gave my short speech about how I felt the previous year had gone and they said nothing back, which was also usual. I told them I was happy to serve the Kingdom of Ecrovid and its subjects. I felt a little guilty about this part since, as you know, I was secretly considering a career change.

“Finally,” I said, hoping to wrap up early, “I’d like one of you to report how the dam is coming. As you recall, this project is so important we even named the year after it: Damteen.”

A murmur rippled through the clump of villagers, but no one came forward. I heard the gravedigger say to the woman who ran the inn, “…thought she was just naming the year a dirty word again.”

The villagers looked at the clear blue sky, which gave no hint that in about two weeks there would be an unseasonable amount of rain. They looked at the ground. The murmuring died out. I was losing my patience. I turned towards a man who wore the same dumb floppy hat all the villagers favored, except his had silver stars on it.

“Mr. Mayor! Can you report on the dam’s progress?”

The Mayor hemmed and hawed and tugged on his beard but it finally came out. The village did not think I was serious about the dam building, even though I had supplied blueprints, detailed instructions for regrading the ground by the river, tools, and a building schedule.

“I think we just kind of forgot?” he concluded.

“So you did nothing?” I asked. Unbelievable!

The gravedigger chimed in: “You didn’t tell us how to do it!”

This riled up the villagers, who were getting angier and more defensive. I heard some people say they didn’t remember me telling them to do this at all. Some people had forgotten what the big pile of materials were even for.

I held my staff up for silence. This was especially effectual because it was smoking a little, something I cannot control when I get good and pissed off. I heard it whispering to me, the ten thousand souls I’d captured and mercilessly stuffed into it: “Smite them, smite them all. It’ll feel like taking a shit and sneezing at the same time.”

I took a deep breath and shook my head to clear it. I reminded my audience that I had fully supplied them with everything they’d need to accomplish the dam project, and plenty of time to do it in.

“Did you think you couldn’t do it?” I asked. No, they said. They said they’d built plenty of dams and were probably the regional expert village in all of Ecrovid when it came to dam building. I had never seen evidence of this and decided to ignore this claim.

The stone mason stepped forward. “Why didn’t YOU do it, with all your wizardy power? You never do anything! You just sit up there all day, in your compound–”

“Castle!” I shouted, banging the end of my staff on the ground. Sparks and small lightning bolts spat out of the ground where it made contact. They stepped back a little then. “Do you know what I’ve been doing for the past two months? Making sure the rivers run with fish. Look at it,” I said, pointing down the hill to where the river would soon swell, rising halfway up the path to the castle. “It’s practically more fish than water at this point. You could just open your mouth and one would swim in and down your throat!”

“Oh, about that…” the Mayor said. “I know you haven’t opened the floor for questions officially yet, but we wanted to say that last Thursday there weren’t any fish at all.”

“And?” I said.

“What’s up with that?”

This was the end. It broke me. I turned around, just fast enough so my robe would twirl out behind me dramatically, but slowly enough so it wouldn’t whip and tangle around my legs again. That takes practice.

The villagers didn’t stop me from leaving. They didn’t ask me what to do. They didn’t apologize.

I leaned heavily on the staff as I walked back up the hill. I knew this would be my last walk down this path, because this path would be wiped away, erased by the floodwaters.

When I returned to the castle, I gathered all my attendants. This was easy to do, since they were all in the courtyard playing a fierce game of ga-ga ball. I lined up the idle kitchen staff, the cleaners in their spotless outfits, which they patted down with soft clean hands. I called out the snoozing concubines, some of whom still clutched their pillows and yawned.

“It’s a holiday,” I announced.

Yaaaaay, they said.

“Go down to the village and be with your friends and families. I’m going to tell you to have a fish feast, and later you will think it was your idea.”

Yaaaaay, they said.

I told them to leave now, and I would send word about when they should come back. They filed out, chattering noisily and arguing about who would have won that ga-ga match had I not interrupted them.

I waited until they were out of sight down the path and their voices were faint. I took hold of the large crank that operated the portcullis and turned it with my own hands, my staff resting against the inner walls. I threw the bolts on the door and stepped back, satisfied, breath heavy. Now I could be really alone, instead of pretending to myself that I wasn’t all along. Now the real work would begin.

As an exercise to the reader imagine this story with all the genders binarily flipped

Hi. I’m taking a memoir writing class now. Before I started, I did that before school excitement thing. Would I like the teacher? Who would be there? Would they be nice? CAN I HAVE A FRIEND is my eternal yawning void, we-all-die-alone question I ask myself in any new situation. I predicted it would be mostly women, and probably older ones who had Done Some Shit and wanted to write it down. Interesting women!

I was pretty much correct. There’s a couple of younger women, but mostly it’s 40s and up. When I look around and see just women in a room a nice word floats across the marquee of my brain just like Vonnegut’s Wayne Hoobler and his “fairyland”: LADYSPACE.

Then there was one dude, maybe late 20s, who walked in kind of last-minute and it was fine. I don’t care, I thought. I will allow this, gavel bang. But! I am not going to censor myself, I said.

I hate that I have to tell myself not to censor myself, but I really didn’t care that he was there. On the first day we had to introduce ourselves and say something about why we took this class or what we wanted to write about if we knew.

“I used to be in tech and now I’m in construction,” I said. “So I’ve gone from microaggressions to macroaggressions.” I cannot say anything about myself without self-protective attempts at humor. “I’ve mostly worked with men throughout my career and now I work with, like, ninety-nine percent men.”

One of the older women interrupted me to remind me there was a man in the room. Caution.

“Well, he knows how men are, he is one,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said, and laughed.

“There’s good ones and bad ones everywhere, just like women,” I said and I moved on.

Later I was in my friend’s kitchen while her husband cooked us dinner and I told them about my first day of class.

“In conclusion,” I said, waggling my negroni for emphasis, “it is important to consider the feelings of men in the room, even if there is just one man,” I said. “I’m allowed to say these things, though.” I pointed at my friend’s husband, who was seasoning chicken. “You can take it, right? You guys are always telling us how tough you are.” He sighed and my friend and I laughed.

The next week there was a late arrival: another man. LADYSPACE was looking a little more like dude jetsam in a ladysea. This one was a sixty-something white guy. I did an ability check and decided to rely on my +2 alienating pink hair and sat down next to a woman I found interesting last week.

“Hey I’m SJ,” I said. “Remind me of your name please?”

Since there was only the three of us in this room, it was quiet and he decided to insert himself.

“I’m Greg! I wasn’t here last week.” We said our hellos. I managed to ask her if she’d been writing a lot in the last week before class started but not much else.

Today I was early again and new friend was there along with Greg. My people, the earlybird club.

Greg told a story related to our reading on memory, scene, and place about working in Germany when he was younger and romanticizing it later, but then returning and remembering all the bad things, like how he was worked like a slave and how hard it was.

“Hmm, that reminds me of childbirth,” I said. “I love to think about the good parts of when my girls were little but if I suddenly landed in a maternity ward I’d probably start screaming and never stop.”

“I can’t relate to that at all!” Greg said.

Later in class we did a little quick writing on scene setting and I volunteered to read the few paragraphs I’d barfed out. I got some good feedback and questions from the teacher and other people in class. We heard a couple more pieces and then class was over.

It was one of those little moments that I love–that moment when you know you’re starting to like the teacher and she’s not in a huge hurry to leave, and the other students who have somewhere to be start filtering out. The talk slides from class mode into conversation, just people who have been sharing ideas and have their creative pumps primed.

There was a small break in the discussion and I slipped out, conscious of not being that person who goes from some some last-minute pleasantries to trapping the teacher there while she glances at the clock, realizing that she is now doing unpaid work.

Greg tagged along after me on the way out. “I wanted to say something about when you were reading,” he said. “Oh shoot, I forgot my coat.” I waited for him, even though I didn’t really want to. Maybe something I can use will come out of this. It’s good to be open to other perspectives, I told myself.

He had remained silent after I read, which surprised me a little, because I was prepared to hear his opinion then. He has an opinion on everything we discuss in class. Here it comes, I thought, as I held the door for him.

“I was thinking to myself that I was getting distracted because I was thinking about everything else we had talked about in class,” he said.

“Oh,” I said. “There’s a lot going on.”

“Yeah, I actually didn’t hear anything you read at all. I was thinking I probably should have paid attention. But I didn’t hear one word!”

[What color is this lampshade? I am not sure but it’s…covered in something viscous and dark:]

Did. Did this motherfucker just stop me from leaving class and going on my merry way to tell me he hadn’t listen to what I’d read at all? OF COURSE HE HAD.

“Oh well,” I said. “I have children so I’m pretty used to being ignored when I speak. Have a good week!”

I slipped into the bathroom before he could say another word.

Always a dull moment

I’m working with a guy who has decided to tell me his entire life story, in between smoke breaks and trying to convince me the moon is hollow and that the earth’s gravitational pull is not enough to retain such a proportionally large satellite. Apparently his wife cut him off from sex a long time ago, and it caused the part of his brain that discerns facts to atrophy. He feels trapped in the marriage for pretty legitimate reasons, so neither of them are going anywhere. Bear in mind that this is the BEST journeyman I could be working with right now, and I picked him on purpose to protect myself from the other one, who has the communication skills of an angry badger on mescaline.

“I worked out on the peninsula for this one outfit, and the daughter of the owner, she’s was CRAZY. Do you know about the hot/crazy scale?”

“Yes,” I said, tightening a nut onto some all thread. This was not easy because the lift was jiggling around as he was exclaiming about this hot/crazy lady.

“We ran away for 72 hours together. We spent the whole time making out. And then I went home to my wife again.” He sighed.

The funny thing is, when I started, he was acting more restrained and the other journeyman, the badger, told the boss that Mr. Creepy was hitting on me and I had complained. None of that was true. Sometimes in a weird dynamic it is best if the journeymen use all their ammo taking potshots at each other, because then they’re not gunning for you.

“It’s just not fair,” Mr. Creepy complained, in front of several young electricians who looked more uncomfortable than I felt. “It’s so much easier for you women to just get a, you know, thing that can replace men.”

“Uh, you guys have Fleshlights?” I said. This is all happening while I was cutting down a piece of duct with a portaband and he was watching me work.

“Yes, but that doesn’t have BOOBS. I got this realistic doll thing…”

“A Real Doll or just a torso?”

“The Real Dolls are too expensive! And this thing was great until it broke. I had to call the company and tell them that it was, you know, too small.” Somehow, as this motherfucker was telling me about his limbless sex torso, he was also working in that he was too well-endowed for it to contain his massive logjam of +17 to masculinity. “They offered to just replace the, uh…”

“The vagina,” I said. So many questions I didn’t want to ask were not coming to my mind.

“Yeah! So they wanted to replace it, but I said, ‘What’s the point if the same thing’s going to happen again?”

“What indeed.”

“And it was kind of a pain in the ass because I had to use this tool to like, douche it out with this tool that went into the top of the head and through the bottom of the thing…”

“Like a plunger thing?” I asked.


I shrugged. “Yeah I have to do the same thing after sex. I have a little hole back here–” I said, indicating the back of my neck.

“But YOU GALS. You can replace US for like, six dollars.” Mr. Creepy waved his drill around and looked very triumphant at this point.

“You’re not making a great argument for the continued existence of your gender.”

“I KNOW! And you can go to like, China, and adopt babies there…”

“And raise them and have sex with THEM,” I finished, pointing at him.


Footsteps that you hear down the hall

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” –Anne Lamott

“If you find yourself in the wrong story, leave.” –Mo Willems


I had just come out of my new psychiatrist’s office with a prescription for Lexapro. I was tired of battling down anxiety constantly, for forever. What used to make me function, write, tick, clean like a motherfucker, and overachieve was now making me exhausted and dulled my edges. Anxiety would also make me explode or collapse, turning on myself. I felt new and clean after describing how it felt to her, like I had the chance to step out of a trap. Side effects, which I had always feared given my health, seemed worth risking. I told her briefly I had a pretty crappy childhood, and not much family or support.

As I walked to my car, I thought about having Strudel, being in labor for a long time, and then being given an opiate when I was at the hospital and physically at my weakest. It’s nearly impossible to see anything a few feet beyond your face when you’re in heavy labor. The pain lifted and I looked out the window. The moon was a tiny little sliver in the darkening sky and it was beautiful. I told my midwife an embarrassing story about the time I had accidentally smoked opium in high school and it felt like this. Then it was time to push and I forgot about the moon.

Maybe if I tried an antidepressant, I reasoned, I would see things that were a few feet beyond my face. I could turn down the hypervigilant klaxons that were usually going off, whether it was dangerous or not.

She told me it sounded like I had PTSD. As we were wrapping up, she said, “Is there anything else I should know about?”

“No,” I lied.


A few weeks earlier I had met with a different therapist in hopes of being prescribed medication. I called the front office and asked for someone who could diagnose and prescribe. They told me there was an opening with someone with a man’s name. I never wanted to see any male providers for anything. I have a cyst on my nose and I am waiting months until a woman dermatologist is available.

I told myself it didn’t matter, since I knew the check up visits would be short. Plus my anxiety was on sabbatical, since depression was taking up too much room. I didn’t really care who I saw. I would have said, “Am sad, give pill now” to a moderately friendly tapir at that point.

I talked to him for an hour and I really clicked with him, and felt a little bummed that we would only have short appointments. I’m going to call him Ted. Ted had the same kind of ping-ping crazy word association ADD brain that I have when I’m feeling more normal. I was so deep in depressive brain sludge I didn’t really try to keep up with him, but I felt more comfortable with him than the therapist I’d seen for a year and a half until quitting recently.

At the end he told me he’d like to see me for therapy and I said “but pills now?” We looked at each other in a moment of silent confusion. He told me he was just a talk therapist and couldn’t prescribe. I figured out the wires had gotten crossed at the front desk.

“Can I come back anyway?” I asked. We made another appointment, and gave me the name of the psychiatrist I ended up seeing. Ted said he used to work with her and thought we would get along.

I didn’t get what I’d come for, but it didn’t panic me. I felt better just talking about the deep situational depression I’d been in since something sad happened in May. Like many people with depression, I’m a great actor and can fake my way through my workday, or through other stuff. I’m genuinely on when I’m talking with Strudel, because I’m interested in her and care about her. I wanted to be more resilient for her. When I was at home alone I felt hollow and powered down. Battery low.

The next day I woke up feeling un-depressed. I started thinking about my day. Tick tick tick, anxiety immediately came back. There it was. It looked tanned and rested.


The third time I was driving to Ted’s office, I was having the normal “my-brain-is-trying-to-murder-me” internal chatter that I was trying to block out with a podcast. Suddenly my brain got even louder than usual. MAYBE YOU CAN TELL TED ABOUT THE THING, it said. HE SEEMS NICE.

–Ha ha, no one wants to talk about that. Let’s start slowly, like with my fear of voicemails and Crocs.

In response, I felt pain rip through my head–one of those flashing, searing headaches that I get when I’m having insomnia or am under a lot of stress. It’s like a little lightning strike on one side of my head, and sometimes I even feel nerve twitches that make my skin or eyelid jump.

It passed and I looked in the rearview mirror. I saw my kindergarten teacher in the backseat. She was beautiful, though her makeup was a little too early-1980s frosty to just be a fun retro take. She was wearing beads and a brown tweed skirt. I had forgotten she had nice freckles.

“Oh hey…this is awkward. I don’t actually remember your name.”

“Really? Who doesn’t remember their kindergarten teacher’s name?” she said. She looked cross for a minute and then the calm expression of a person who voluntarily herds five-year-olds for a living returned.

“You know I have memory problems,” I said.

“Who do you think I look like?” I looked at her hair, which was feathered in a way that would be out of date on the coasts at this point, but not in 1982 rural Michigan. She was so young! I thought she was so pretty. I bet she’s retired now.

“You’re definitely a Carol. Why are you here?”

I parked and turned around to face her. Carol played with a screwdriver that I’d forgotten was in the backseat.

“This is the last time you were happy,” she said, gesturing at herself.

“This is really bad writing,” I said. “Even for me.”


I left Carol in the car and went to talk to Ted about 2019. I’m his last appointment and he said he tends to go a little long if he knows no one is waiting afterwards. We were coming up on the end of the hour.


–Shut UP!

“Do you think it’s possible to forget sexual abuse for periods of time?” I asked.

Ted blinked, clocking the complete conversational one-eighty I’d just taken.

“Yes,” he said. He told me he believed the brain can suppress events to protect us.

“Hmm, that’s interesting. Wow, where does the time go, see you in a week!”

I left his office so fast I probably left little poofs of heel smoke like a cartoon character.


When I was 11 I stole a rowboat with a friend and ran away from home. The cop who drove me home asked me why I would do such a stupid thing.

“My parents are abusive,” I said.

“What!” she said. “A kid like you, out here in the suburbs? You don’t know what abuse is.”


Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Caravaggio, 1601

I was in a lift at work, 20 feet in the air, hanging six-foot long ceiling fan blades when I started having flashbacks. Carol was working with me, wiring a cord into a box overhead that was aimed at the wall of the gym I was working in. She had a safety vest over the blouse she was wearing, which had Lurex threads interspersed into the plaid pattern. She smelled like a fresh perm.

“We’re not sparkies,” I reminded her.

“Yes, I know that!” she snapped, rolling her eyes a little. “You’re not licensed to wire this projector.” She flipped a switch and it started.

“Oh,” I said. “The picture is very clear.” That was me, with my inane nattering to always change the subject.

“What do you see?”

I closed my eyes and tried to focus on the feeling of the wrench I was using to tighten the screws. It was hard to stay in 2019–my head felt like it was going to float off somewhere, or disappear. The wrench clicked like the old-fashioned projectors they would bring into our classes in grade school. I remembered the way the music or narration would occasionally distort if the filmstrip sped up or slowed down.

I saw my sheets from when I was nine. I had completely forgotten I had Garfield sheets. It literally made me gasp. I saw my bedframe–the color of the wood stain and the shape of it. I began to sweat profusely in the lift. I remembered the wall next to my bed–the paint had sand mixed into it and the walls were sharp and gritty and I was always scraping myself when I was in bed. I had a memory of being ground into the wall by something, someone. My hand started shaking and I dropped my wrench into the bottom of my lift.

“SJ!” My boss, who had been teasing me for dropping things all day.



Carol had already gone off to lunch. I didn’t know what company hired irritating, reality hell-demons, so I wasn’t sure which trailer she was in.


A few days later I was working by myself in a smaller lift, in a classroom with 9-foot ceilings. No one was around and it was extremely quiet, except for an earth compactor outside that was causing such strong vibrations it was making my lift rumble and sway. It was making me a little peaky but I ignored it. Then the sparkies started testing the fire and lockdown alarms. Lights were flashing and sirens were going off and a recording was saying there was an emergency in the building. I wanted to scream and run down the street. My shaking hand reached up to adjust a ceiling grille.

Carol walked in.

“Oh god,” I said, when I spotted her.

“Well, that’s just rude,” she said. Her heels clicked as she walked across the freshly linoleumed floor that was just waiting for an army of children to come and scuff it up. There would be teachers like her in this building soon, but probably with less aggressive rouge. “We need to talk.” The emergency lights strobed around her, shining on her moussed hair.

“Yes, we do,” I said. “Every time I’ve remembered this before, a door slams shut in my brain and I stop thinking about it. What is happening to me? It’s not going away.”

I had to raise my voice to be heard over the sounds of the alarm: “LOCKDOWN. LOCKDOWN. THERE IS A LOCKDOWN IN PLACE.”

I’ve stopped thinking about it for months or years at a time. It resurfaces as dreams or as a memory. I tell myself I’m being dramatic, that there is something wrong with me, that I am a crazy person, that I am a liar. These are things I was told repeatedly when I was a child. I’ve literally told myself I don’t have time to think about it. I started having vivid flashbacks a few years ago when I got very sick and stopped eating gluten. I don’t know if it was the trauma of being very sick and in a lot of pain, losing control, and being bedridden, or reducing inflammation by changing my diet, but there they were. Carol was there then, and I had neatly forgotten about her once more.

She handed me an envelope. Actually, it was shaped like a cootie catcher and looked like it had been riding around in someone’s pocket or purse for a long time.

“What’s this?” I said.

“I wrote down what’s wrong with you.”

I was starting to suspect that I knew what was wrong with me, but I hadn’t seen it played back on the projector yet, thank fuck. Here it was on a piece of paper. I could just read it and have the answer? Where was this paper when I was 19 and afraid to answer my door or phone? Where was it ten years ago? I felt myself shaking my head again, knocking images out of it. If this kept up I would probably concuss myself.

“I don’t know if I can open this. Can you give me a hint about what it says?”

Carol sighed. She was tired of my bullshit. That makes two of us, Carol! She pulled out a compact from somewhere and started looking at her teeth. She reapplied her mauve lipstick. She was making a real meal out of bothering me.

“I’ll tell you two things,” she said. “This paper will tell you exactly what’s wrong with you, but it’s going to make you feel much worse. The second thing is kind of a riddle. Ready?” I nodded. “You’ve been afraid of ropes and hoses your whole life, but what you’re actually afraid of is–” She trailed off and I couldn’t hear what she said.

“What?” I whispered.

“This is like a METAPHOR,” she explained, shouting. “You can’t remember what you’re actually afraid of so you couldn’t hear me!”

The lift rumbled under me and now a woman’s recorded voice was saying, “There is a fire or other emergency in the building. Please proceed calmly to the exit.” The lights were flickering on and off. I clung to the lift’s rails and looked down into Carol’s face.


“It’s snakes! You’re afraid of snakes!” she screamed.

The alarm tests stopped abruptly, though the rumbling continued. The lights came back on. She was right, I’d completely forgotten snakes existed. I took a deep breath and began to open the layers of the cootie catcher.


A “fun fact” about me is that I first started noticing that my uterus was prolapsing when I was in my late teens, before I had children. Uterine prolapse does not run in my family.


I’m spending a lot of time in closets lately. I spent a ton of time in my closet growing up. It had a light, so I could read secretly and never, ever sleep. I wrote a suicide note on the wall of my closet when I was ten, in black crayon. Boy, I was sure looking to get attention, wasn’t I? That was so crazy! So dramatic! What on earth was wrong with me that I went to that extreme?

“You know what’s fun?” Carol said. “Lying on the floor in the fetal position.”

“That’s not…oh.” I feel my knees buckle and I go down, curled up on the rug in my 2019 closet. My breathing starts to change and I hear a whistle coming from something, a wheezing. From far away. “This isn’t over. We’re not done talking, Carol.”

“We are for now,” she said. She loomed over me, running her nails down my arm as I shook. I pulled my knee up to protect my ribs. I didn’t know I could still make myself so small.

A man’s familiar face appeared over mine. He was dressed in a heavy, wet, reflective coat and pulled his face shield up to look at Carol. He was dripping on the carpet but I wasn’t worried. I was relieved and knew this would end soon.

“Hello, Walter,” Carol said. He nodded curtly.

He smelled like Chinese restaurants and furniture polish. I could see the lines around his eyes, from squinting against heat and fire and the horrors and sadness they bring. Walter’s collar dripped onto my face: alcohol, not water.

“Hey kid,” he said, kindly. I sniffled and put my head into his lap. He stroked my hair with his gloves on. “We’re going to get up, and we’re going to pour gin on Carol until she shuts the fuck up, ok?”

My shaking hand took his and he helped me off the floor.

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” she said, flipping through my tee shirts.

“I know,” I whispered.


I was up in the big lift again, this time with my kind, sweet, funny boss. There was no room for Carol. Regardless, my brain was zapping back and forth between timelines. I heard my parents fighting. I saw myself standing over my newborn sister’s bassinet and I remember saying: I’m going to protect you.

As an adult, I always thought that memory was so strange. Who sees their newborn sibling and makes a weird nigh-feudal vow to protect them?

If I stayed in 1987 for too long I would start shaking my head, as if it was an Etch-a-Sketch I could erase. Today my brain was telling me: I think my mother knew about THE THING, and did nothing. She had never been responsive any time I asked her for help or protection. I asked to go to therapy in high school (I was disassociating and cutting myself) and her response was to ground me.

Why is this happening now? I thought.

Look around you, Carol whispered. I looked down. There were a few women on the site, but as usual it was 98% men. They were everywhere. I was surrounded by them. Why did I go into construction to surround myself with one of things I was most afraid of? Then I realized: I wasn’t afraid of them anymore. They didn’t make me jump or startle. Most of them were nice, or at least inoffensive. I could deal with the few jerks with some snappy putdowns. I felt differently out in public, too–I wasn’t constantly monitoring my environment anymore. I didn’t make stupid choices like wandering down dark alleys now, but I could be comfortable and even relaxed. I had desensitized myself.

I could take just a little bit more now. It was opening the doors to the past in my mind.


There’s something else, too, and I need to talk about this really carefully. Someone encouraged me to see my attacker last summer. When we had the conversation about how it would be good for me, and that things were different now, I cried in public in the bar we were in. That’s a little extreme, I thought. I went to the bathroom to pull myself together.

I looked at myself in the mirror–is that really what I looked like? I felt like I was dreaming. I had no memories, only emotions. I splashed water on my face and cleaned up my trashed makeup and returned to my seat.

“You’re having a really hard time getting over your childhood,” they said.

“Yeah,” I heard myself say. That was mean, I thought. Walter poured me another glass of wine.

When I saw my attacker a month later, I immediately snapped outside of my body. Everything I said felt unreal, like I was dreaming and hearing my voice on a bad speaker from far away. I was getting the sparklies you get when you faint.


I breathed and the world came back, though I was still outside of my body. I held onto a nearby counter for support. The shell that was my body kept talking and smiling, and pretended to be happy. It made jokes. I don’t remember what happened for the rest of that day. I went home and went to bed. It was obvious a bunch of mast cells had exploded and all I could do was sleep.

We all spent more time together. The person who had instigated this meetup was pleased, and I tried really hard for them.

At the end of the day my attacker hugged me and kissed my cheek and it felt super super wrong and bad. I stiffened mentally but I think I made myself act normal.

This was the last piece of the puzzle that would blast the door off the hinges forever, but it would take almost another year.


I started taking Lexapro, and slept very fitfully. Sleep is my respite and has not usually been a problem for the past couple of years. I shit you not, within 48 hours I had no anxiety. Placebo effect? WHO CARES. I didn’t feel great, but it was weird to experience the absence of both anxiety and depression. I was drenched in sweat at work, and sweated all night long. That was not great. Also, Carol evaporated. I stopped having flashbacks.

Wow, solved, right? Happy ending tied up in a bow? No. What site do you think you’re reading, anyway?

I stopped Lexapro. I wasn’t ready to let go of Carol and her hateful projector. I read the truth that was on the piece of paper and it almost ripped me in half. I don’t want to tell you what I saw. I won’t. But I needed to see it. Every time I tried to stuff the abuse back behind the donkey door, I would see some innocuous detail of my room or remember a conversation and I completely knew my brain was finally showing me the truth.

I feel very weirdly calm now, deep down in my center someplace. I almost feel happy about it? I’ve found THE splinter and I’m not going to stop until I pull it out. I’m not going to stop until I put it back in 1987 where it belongs. I’m going to be one piece. A very chipped and wobbly piece, but one piece.

Decline and Fall

Two days after Christmas I showed up to my job site, a shitty job they call “commercidential” (residential with commercial on the street level). The roof hadn’t been sealed on time and it frequently rained indoors. These future $5K per month apartments were full of studs that were lousy with sinister black mold. My foreman was very surprised to see me that morning, which was confusing, because he’s a really sharp guy. I attempted to chitchat with him about how his Christmas was, and tried to jog his memory a little that I’d been in school the week before.

“I think you better call the Superintendent,” he said, finally.

I made the call and got sent home for the rest of the week for absenteeism. My Superintendent forgot I had school the week before Christmas and decided I had gone derelict. I repacked my tools and left, privately fuming since I would never go disappear quietly or in a half-assed fashion.

I tried not to be too upset, because the standards were so low and contradictory at this company that hoofbeats mean zebras and not horses, because they’re almost all zebras. Drunken, disorganized, half-assed zebras, sneaking a butt in the sanicans. As I loaded my tools back into my trunk, I internally huffed that WHEN I’M THE BOSS, I’d at least take the time to make a phone call to see what’s happening, if previously the apprentice had always arrived upright and sober. I went home and applied for unemployment for the week, since I was indeed available for work.

After New Year’s I was assigned to a new site, with a new foreman who had been with the company for a few months. I was told that this new boss was AWOL during New Year’s weekend so they weren’t sure if he was going to show up. I was out of the doghouse with my Super at this point since it quickly became too crowded with others to keep any one person in it for long.

There was another apprentice, Matt, who had loads of experience and was being illegally used as a foreman on various jobs, and a traveler journeyman who had some interesting ideas about how Hitler’s death was faked and how he was hidden in the aftermath of the war. He was really incensed they were wasting his Hitler Time on Discovery with programs about mermaids. MERMAIDS! What a ludicrous idea.

I was feeling burned out on the merry-go-round of moving from site to site, waiting for deliveries of parts and supplies that would never come. I had that apathetic January feeling. January, the longest, darkest month without holidays to alleviate it. Inevitably my work pants are tighter in January until I start racing up and down stairs again. I was tired of working with drunks and weirdos, and the constant, incorrect gossip that was being circulated about me at this company.

As a result I had made a resigned New Year’s resolution: stay out of it, whatever IT is. Finish the rotation and never return here again. We don’t need to talk about Hitler, what the Super told three people about me but did not address with me directly, the disastrous country-western song that is many journeymen’s lives, what does this rash look like to you, and so forth. I had lost some of my optimistic buoyancy, my tendency to joke to change the subject, even my ability to hear what was being said if it didn’t pertain directly to work. My headspace vacillated between fuzzy and pissed off.

The three of us (me, apprentice foreman Matt, and cuckoo Hitler guy) had ever been to the site before and shot the shit for ten minutes to see if the new AWOL boss, Seamus, would show. The job was another commercidential, but one that did not rain indoors. It was in a neighborhood that was doing that slow Seattle flip towards more reasonable density levels. We did that shuffle to decide who was going to call the shots for the day. I was leaning towards Matt since he was one of the only people I’d encountered at this company who had the 3 Ss: sane, sensible, and skilled.

Much to my relief a plan was forming, and I was looking for what seemed to be the most complete set of blueprints when someone clomped down the parking garage ramp towards us.

“Whoa,” he said, by way of greeting, dropping his tool bags on the ground. “I haven’t been here since before Thanksgiving.”

“Are you Seamus?” Matt asked.

He was. Our new boss smelled like a distillery and swayed slightly. This didn’t bother me. I generally give people a pass on Mondays or after holidays, because everyone has a crazy night sometimes. He was unshaven and his clothes looked more like a pile of rags than most journeymen’s. He looked like The Dude and a Hobbit had been Brundleflied together, and then used to clean the undercarriage of a farm pickup. His eyes were bloodshot to the point where they might have been burst blood vessels rather than just irritation, but they still had a little sparkle in them.

After a little flailing and consultation of some notes that looked like they were written in hobo code, he made a shocking announcement: “You guys, I can’t lie. I’m super hungover.” We shrugged and said some variation of, “It happens.”

“I had the craziest fucking weekend,” he went on, scratching his scruffy face with dirty fingernails. “I’d been on the wagon for months and then I fell off this weekend. I met this girl on Tinder, and we got a cabin up the in the mountains. She’s younger than my daughter. But then she just split on Monday! It was like REALLY crazy, like…well, I probably shouldn’t say any more than that because…” he trailed off, looking at me. I had been standing back and off a ways, since no one was really speaking to me anyway. The other two men swiveled their necks to look at me.

“It’s ok, I’m a grownup and have children. I know what sex is,” I said. They laughed. Matt gave me a little “oh jeez” cringe since he’s not an asshole.

Working with Seamus was challenging. He was determined to do everything the hardest or most disorganized way. Non-industrial sites are kind of shitshow in that the hallways are basically big enough for residents to walk through and carry a couch through and that’s about it. Every corridor is a a tangle of painter’s hoses and paint pumps, plastic or other protection that is ripping or otherwise becoming a hazard, spiderboxes, power cords, garbage, and so many fucking electricians that you can imagine if you turned on a bright enough light they would scurry like roaches.

“Let’s get my cart and bring it in,” Seamus said. Seriously? I thought. Due to all the obstacles, I imagined carrying the cart everywhere we went in the building instead of rolling it, completely defeating its purpose. Not even the electricians brought their carts in, and those motherfuckers always have about seventy carts.

“We’ll pull my van around,” he said. I took a deep breath and saw the dice roll in my head. On one hand, Seamus was still clearly drunk if he smelled that strong and was still slurring a little. On the other, we were probably going around the block, tops, and traffic hadn’t picked up yet. I snapped my seatbelt and tried to crack the window as the wave of liquor and tobacco fumes made me a little queasy.

We got to a street loading area and opened the back of his company-issued work van, which looked like a giant had reached down, turned it over, and shaken it before setting it upright again. I’ve seen many work vans that have hasty stacks or the unfortunate situation where a soggy box of bolts has given up and ruptured. This was less mess and more an indiscriminate hoarder’s drift of everything you could imagine: Caulk tubes, fasteners, random pieces of angle, various invoices and delivery receipts. Vintage, half-eaten sandwiches. Pieces of hi-vis clothing. Safety glasses. Beverage bottles and cans. Tangles of rope. Sheet metal screws of various functions, lengths and diameters. Jimmy Hoffa’s toe tag.

But there was a cart, and we retrieved it, along with some other tools. Of course we carried it everywhere we went, up the stairs and down the hallway like a palanquin.

“See how useful this cart is,” he insisted. I do not, I thought, but kept quiet.

I soon got a taste of his so-close-but-no-cigar style of work. A few days later he taught me how to make an escutcheon to act as a firestop when duct travels between floors. This is basically a frame that helps seal the hole that’s cut in wooden floors that can slow flames and smoke from jumping up or down a storey. I knew it should have been sealed with fire caulk, but he sealed it with something flammable instead since we didn’t have any. I’d be willing to bet he did have fire caulk somewhere, but wasn’t willing to risk hepatitis or getting lost diving through his van for it. When I did offer to really go looking for the correct part or material, or to clean something up, he invariably told me we didn’t have time for that.

As we worked, Seamus told me he was afraid to work with me.

“WHY!” I said, expecting to hear something stupid I usually hear, like “YUR A GURL.”

“I heard you got Pickles fired,” he said.

Pickles was a guy I heard accurately described as a “17-year-old in a 50-year-old’s body” by a foreman, Tom, who had watched him videoing women’s butts at a university job blatantly and mere feet from them. Pickles had the ~Aloha spirit~ and put hibiscuses on everything he decided belonged to him, which looked like shamrocks, especially as he used a green pen to make his Zorro mark. I was told he would work a few months until he got laid off for general uselessness, and then would go park his bare nutsack on Hawaiian nude beaches.

I had worked with Pickles in an attic for a couple days in September. It was one of those stupid jobs where you have to take two days to move an installed unit up two feet and over two feet because of some change in the drawings.

Tom (who later told me about the butt-videoing), was not our boss that day, but stuck his head up in the attic to say hello and see what we were doing. He eyeballed me and Pickles attempting to work together, with me hustling and Pickles mostly sitting and staring into space, trying to figure out how to reconnect something he had just disconnected about an hour ago. Tom and I said our “nice to meetchus” and as he descended the ladder I heard him loudly ask my boss, “Are you TRYING to get Pickles fired for sexual harassment?”

I had gotten Pickles’s number early. I would just push back hard and treat him like the little bitch he was. I had spent so much time verbally abusing Pickles that by the end of the job he was a huge fan of me, thought I was hilarious, and had nicknamed me “Five Star.” He had gotten increasingly disgusting as the job went on, in spite of the fact that I usually keep things PG-13 with guys (other than liberal use of the word “motherfucker”) so I don’t open the door to any sexual talk.

“I did not get Pickles fired,” I matter-of-factly told Seamus as we wrestled the cart down another clusterfucked hallway. “He told me I should suck his dick and it got back to the VP, and the VP fired him.”

Seamus looked surprised by this revelation and got thoughtful for a moment. Honestly I was more irritated by the fact that Pickles told me I should start going to the gym as he sat in the attic staring into space and changing the music while I made most of the reconnections after the unit was in place. Our boss told him he should spend less time “getting swole” since he obviously had no energy to work.

Thankfully, Seamus changed the subject after that. He told me a lot about his life. He enjoyed crabbing. He was in the middle of a divorce and his wife was in another state. His grown daughter lived in Oregon and was trying to set up therapy for him, since he was so wracked with anxiety he could barely function. I couldn’t think of much I wanted to tell him about my life, and deflected a lot of his questions. I was still in my New Year’s resolution coping mode. He tried to add me on facebook but I wasn’t there.

I felt like I was a ghost who existed only to hang spiral and mark off days on the calendar until I could leave.

A few days later Seamus arrived to work and said, “Seven days.”

“Sorry, what?”

“I haven’t had a drink for seven days.”

It was January 8th. I was a little surprised since his appearance, focus, and alertness had improved a little, but he still seemed to have new burst blood vessels in his eyes and I thought I still smelled alcohol on him most mornings, but shrugged it off. You get what you get with this company.

“How do you feel?” I asked.

“It’s nice to wake up without a headache.”

“Hang on to that feeling,” I said. Play the tape forward, I thought.

Another guy who had the 3 Ss as a worker, Jason, showed up on the site that morning to make electrical connections to the fans we’d installed. He was one of those calm, warm, together guys who I was always reassured to see and I wished I worked for him, but he was on the electrical side of things, not HVAC. He was tall and had a goatee and liked to tell stories about his little daughter.

Seamus and I were waiting for a delivery and were blocked with nothing to do until it arrived. Seamus barked at me to do some menial things in front of Jason, which seemed out of character, and I took the hint and beat it. I cottoned to the fact that Seamus didn’t want it to look like he wasn’t working his apprentice in front of a reliable old timer with the company who had the Super’s ear.

I went to the basement and dicked the dog for a while. Moved trash. Organized duct. A while later I circled back to the room where Seamus and Jason were. I walked in on that thick wave that said a serious conversation had been taking place that had nothing to do with work. They turned to look at me.

“Delivery’s here,” I said, feigning ignorance.

After Jason left, Seamus and I were on ten-foot ladders making connections in the entryway with the duct transitions that had finally been delivered.

“Sorry I made you do dumb stuff earlier,” he said from the other side of the duct. “I just wanted to look busy in front of Jason.”


“You want to hear something funny?” he asked me.

“Go for it,” I said, bracing myself for anything.

“I was at an AA meeting a few months ago by my house, and you know who was in charge of it? Jason! He’s been sober for like 15 years.”

“Oh no, Seamus, you can’t tell me that!”

“I can’t?”

“It’s anonymous!” I said.

“Oh no,” he said, coloring. “Oh no.” He dropped his wrench, which thankfully didn’t hit anyone below.

Later that day he showed me a text from a new Tinder prospect. He had moved on from New Year’s girl.

“Do you think I fucked this up?” he asked, waiting for me to read their light, getting-to-know-you conversation. She seemed sweet and I said so.

“I think it looks fine,” I said, truthfully.

He scratched his scruffy face with fingers that had lines so deep they looked more like cracks, with dirt ground into them and under his nails that he had brought to work with him. I tried to imagine him cleaned up and on a date. What would he talk about with a woman? When our crew joked around Seamus didn’t notice or catch it. He usually seemed to be in a hazy dreamstate.

We spent the next couple of weeks moving from site to site, wherever the fire was and wherever the general contractor was most pissed at our company that day. We had to decipher any notes that were left from other guys, find parts, get an earful of how and where we were holding up parts of the project. We had to figure out what we had on site and what was missing and needed to be ordered from the shop. This usually took most of the first day. By the time we were ready to receive an order and work on hanging duct we would move again.

The first day we were in Maple Leaf there was an electrician there kicking 80s music all day.

“That sounded like Oingo Boingo,” I said.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “My wife…my ex…dated Danny Elfman a long time ago. She’s from California.”

“Huh.” I had not expected that.

On our second day in Maple Leaf, Seamus gave me a run of spiral to hang, then holed up in an upstairs unit. I knew he was supposed to be drawing parts we needed but I figured he wasn’t. At some point I had to track him down and found him with a thick stack of bank statements and other financial papers. Like everything else in his possession, they looked wrinkled, ripped, like they’d been kept somewhere damp.

“I’m sorry, I just have to deal with this financial stuff…the divorce. Can you keep busy?”

“I get it,” I said. I watched his hands shake he pawed through the stacks, trying to put things in order.

He kept disappearing out to his company van, saying he needed to get some odd or end or paperwork. When he came back, he smelled more strongly of alcohol than he did in the mornings. I watched his mood change, too, and become steadier. He was less coherent by the afternoons but seemed calmer. His hands shook less.

On Friday we were moved again, back to the other site on our rotation to work on the sheet metal-lined shaft that pulled the exhaust out of the garage. I had been working on the shaft with an older journeyman who was relaxed, funny, decent, and appreciated my efforts. To finish we were supposed to line and waterproof the top of an exhaust shaft.

Tom, the foreman who told me about Pickles’s butt-videoing antics, greeted us on the site and let us know that Seamus had attempted to call in sick that morning, and said he had the flu. The superintendent had threatened him, basically saying get out there and get it done, or turn in your work van.

Seamus arrived about 45 minutes late and was in bad shape that morning. He seemed to have had a tiring and stressful week with all the pressure to finish these little projects that had a thousand loose ends and, as a bonus, me, a sullen third-year who was mostly in malicious compliance mode at this point. He looked drawn and was a weird color, and gave off the faint odor of alcohol as usual after his week of sobriety. He looked like it hurt to blink.

Open book that he was, Seamus immediately told us the Super had threatened him with being fired. I did my best attempt at receiving this news as if it was new information. He had wanted to take cold medication but only had “the sleepy kind” at home. Tom attempted to banter with him a little, and getting nothing back, took off to do his work. I had the feeling Tom was there to report back to the Super about how Seamus was looking and when he showed up.

Seamus’s plan that morning was to climb up to the icy roof immediately and get cracking.

The roof shaft, once uncovered, was an open hole, three by four feet with an 18” curb surrounding it, like a chimney with no terminal chimney stack. Eventually it would have a large fan set near it to suck fumes out of the garage. The shaft ran straight down seven storeys, to the parking garage. Naturally, with my company’s dedication to safety, there was only one harness and rope between the three of us.

“What if we wait until the sun comes up?” I asked. I imagined Seamus’s typical lack of coordination, scattershot attention, the darkness, and the ice all working against us.

“No,” he said. “The inspector’s supposed to be here Monday and we need to finish this pronto.” In addition to dealing with a man who was disorganized, forgetful, incoherent, and stumbling, he was now panicked about losing his job.

I carried my tools and other items up to the roof: fasteners, a rotohammer, the one harness that I knew I’d give to the funny journeyman who had to work inside the shaft and needed it more than I did.

Although the thing about a harness and rope is that either you need it or you don’t. You can’t predict the day you’re going to fall.

I put the tools and supplies I thought I’d need within reach so I could minimize walking around on the roof. Seamus got very serious for a moment.


“What?” I was putting handfuls of hit pins in one of my pouches, trying not to seem annoyed.

“SJ!” I stopped and looked up. “I’m going to need you to do something today.”


“I need you to NOT fall down this hole.”

I laughed a little. I couldn’t help it.

“I’m serious!” Seamus said. “I need you to NOT. FALL. DOWN. THIS. HOLE.” He looked like he was having trouble focusing his eyes.

“Ok, Seamus,” I said. I think he was trying be serious and give me a little safety peptalk, but it just sounded silly, like when someone tells you not to die. Great, why didn’t I think of that? I could see the small rectangle of light that was the garage floor at the bottom of the seven storeys.

Seamus was focused in for about 90 minutes, and then started losing it as the sun was coming up, sparkling on the sheets of ice that would be annoying puddles by the afternoon. I could tell he wanted to smoke. He began throwing tools, not at me, but in an uncoordinated manner in my general direction. I was leaning over part of the shaft hole when an extension bit hit me in the thigh.

“Ouch,” I said, more surprised than hurt. I mostly wanted him to know he was throwing things.


The typical trips to his van that had begun on the Maple Leaf site resumed. Tom called me from the other side of the roof and narrated. He told me he watched Seamus walk to his van, dig through the back, walk halfway back to the site, dig through the mess in the front, drink something, walk halfway back again, and resume digging.

“It’s been like this,” I said. “He doesn’t seem safe working around a hole.”

My phone rang and it was the Super. He wanted to know what I had been observing with Seamus and scolded me for not telling him sooner. I mentally shrugged this off since the standards of this company were arbitrarily enforced and people with more authority than me had seen Seamus in action.

“Do you think I should drug test him?” he asked me. I told him I didn’t feel comfortable making that kind of call; I could only tell him what I’d seen.

The Super told me they had a joke about Seamus at the office. One day Super had called Seamus and asked him what site he was currently on, and Seamus said he didn’t know and had to figure it out. The Super and the Owner would call to each other at the office: “What room are you in?” “I don’t know.” I didn’t think this was very funny and wondered out loud if something medical was going on with him.

Super enlisted Tom to come watch Seamus for a bit and get him away from the open hole. Tom was one of those guys who’d been working in his dad’s shop since he was about twelve, so whipped up some flashing quickly while sending Seamus to do something else.

“This shaft has been done all wrong,” Tom said, matter-of-factly. He had more conversations with the Super about Seamus and confirmed what I said: Seamus was acting confused, was uncoordinated, kept disappearing to his van and was drinking something.

In the afternoon, Super came out to deliver the drug testing paperwork. The idea is that the day you are handed paperwork, you go give a urine sample at a clinic on your way home. If there’s an accident or other immediate concern, you leave work and go get tested immediately.

It was Friday and I was glad a long, stressful week had ended. I was in the bathroom bleaching my hair when my phone started being pounded by texts. It was Seamus.

anyway don’t know everything yet but [Superintendent] rifled through my van looking for alcohol none there and said I needed to get a blood alcohol check. So I did and 0.0 is the results….I was sick today.

It’s 5:35 pm and finally made it home

They kept coming in. My hands were in gloves, covered with chemicals, and I was annoyed that he was texting me on a Friday night, so I ignored them. I needed to stay out of things for my own mental health. I figured I would see him Monday or not. Not my problem.

Seamus’s flu seemed to get worse the next week. He was exhausted and pissed off that he had been tested. I don’t think he understood how erratic he seemed. On Monday he still smelled like alcohol, which I found completely perplexing.

On Tuesday Seamus had an alarmingly different look. His face was swollen as if he was on steroids and his skin had taken on a yellowish cast. His eyes were still bloodshot. He was exhausted and made us break early so he could take a nap in one of the units. At the end of break, the other journeyman and I left the room quietly, leaving Seamus snoring slightly. Later that day he found me working alone. He looked upset.

“I gotta go…turn my van in,” he said. “The results came back and I guess they found weed from New Year’s. I’ve been clean since then.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah. Well, see ya around.” He limped out the door.

“Get some rest,” I said.

I was relieved that some action had finally been taken and hoped that Seamus would finally be able to sleep off whatever was going on with him.

Then it was just me and the other journeyman, and thankfully the job was wrapping up. The rest of the week was no drama, pretty boring. On Friday the Super came out to see how we were doing and said we were doing a good job. We chatted briefly about how surprising it was that Seamus had tested clean for alcohol when multiple people had smelled fumes on him.

I got sent to some low-income housing in south Seattle, and worked intermittently since it was still snowing on and off, shutting sites down for a day or two. I worked with another foreman who was the opposite of Seamus in many ways: manic, hyperfocused, super talkative. He took a shine to me immediately because I speak fluent weirdo, and he could install me somewhere and I would work continuously until the task was done and then look for more work. He had been having trouble with apprentices and even some journeymen at this company. As the snow melted I felt a tentative sense of hope that I might get 40 hour paychecks again and even learn something.

In late January I went back to school again for a week, and made sure that I reminded my Super multiple times that I was going, even though he had stopped replying to my emails and texts. One thing I really enjoy about Union work is that at my level there are very few grey areas, so communication tends to be really open. This was just another little piece of uncertainty with this company.

I was working in the school’s shop midweek when a text came in from Tom, the other foreman who was observing Seamus on the day we were finishing the shaft work.

SJ just thought you should know Seamus was found dead in his kitchen today

Later I found out Seamus went home after being fired and took a lot of pills and washed it down with a pint of something. The autopsy showed he was also very ill with an enlarged heart, which he didn’t seem to know about. I tried to find out where his memorial service was going to be, but my Super was still ignoring communications from me. I missed it.

I was really sad for a couple of weeks after that. I had a lot of regrets about being so frozen, and not being my usual busybody self and telling him to go see a doctor, about trying not to listen to the chatter and drama of his life, and not sharing anything about my own life. About assuming that he was just another lost drunk.

I blamed myself for a while. I cried secretly in the mornings before the sun came up while I made my coffee, and it thawed me out a little. I thought about how lonely I was. I thought I needed to get back into the land of the living, to engage with my life even if it sucked right then and I disliked or distrusted most of the people around me. I had been having a run of men saying disgusting things to me, of telling me I was incompetent, of being jerked around. I even worked for a guy who literally just yelled if I tried to talk to him until I would stop.

A couple of weeks later I found a piece of cardboard in my tool bag with some of his chicken scratch on it, an address from one of the many places he’d been sent to and some other notes. He’d probably handed it to me knowing I wouldn’t lose it. I stared at it, thinking about crumpling it up and letting go of it forever. I’m very good at forgetting, about burning letters unopened as a self-preservation technique. This letter arrived open; I could not look away. I put the cardboard in a small, zippered pocket of my tool bag I never use. Keep going, I thought. Wake up. Keep trying. Keep living.

AUB: Always Up Betimes

The only way to start again is to just start, right?

It’s been a while since I’ve written to you. It’s hard for me to write about my life with granularity right now like I used to. I’m just either shoving aside the mundane things that happen or barfing them out on twitter and then moving on.

I spent a long time being depressed after Franny moved out a year ago, and then what followed was dealing with CPS which sucked hairy ballsacks. The case is over now and it’s behind us but I still feel like I’m in a holding pattern of not knowing what to do regarding her. Do I reach out to her and contact her? I’ll be really honest with you and tell you there’s this really bad part of me that thinks that she’s just going through a thing where she’s becoming or has become like her dad. I kept touching that thought like a sore tooth and then backing away again, but every day I think about it less and the tooth hurts less. My relationship with her is becoming part of The Past, like a death, but unlike with her dad I am not closed off to the future.

Getty, October

Sometimes when I’m thinking about SeaFed and his genetic contribution, I think about one of the worst arguments Franny and I ever had, where I really think I hurt her. When she was 16 she went through a phase where she seemed completely convinced ghosts were real, and was obsessed with seeing them everywhere and watching videos or movies about them. She was talking about them constantly. She did this with fairies too, but she was six then. Our entire house lost patience for ghosts after a while, but I also wondered what was at the root of it. What need did it fulfill in her to believe in the supernatural? Or was she just finding a button and trolling all of us?

It did push a button in me. It reminded me of all the idiotic, illogical beliefs that SeaFed had and how it affected his world view. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how they interface with the world similarly and I have to wonder if it’s in part because they have similar barriers. They both struggle with dyslexia and dyscalculia, which is a pretty concrete barrier to knowledge, beyond any other fantastic ideas.

There’s a famous story about younger, 90s-flavor SeaFed that his friends would tell when we were first dating. He smoked American Spirits because he read the front of the package as “non-addictive” rather than “no additives.” I cannot understand what it’s like to live in a world where you personally have found the one brand of non-addictive cigarettes. Talk about beating the system.

I could see this kind of naiveté in Franny as well and it scared me. She got really pissed at me when I stopped humoring her ghost nonsense and asked her not to bring it up anymore. In the end there were a lot of topics like this that were outside of what I consider to be reality. I’ll be honest, when I first got together with SeaFed I found his weird system of beliefs quirky and charming, but over time I saw the obstacles and punishments he encountered because he was not really in step with the rest of the world. It made things hard on both of us.

One more: when he first learned to drive he spent time in Portland and amassed hundreds of dollars of parking tickets, because he didn’t really believe in paying for parking. I saw this behavior when we were dating, too. His solution to deal with the tickets was to shove them in his glove box and simply never set foot in Portland again. Seven years later, after we were already married, Oregon found him, and there were massive fines and credit dings to go along with the original fees.

Eventually I responded to these behaviors by trying to work around him. I always drove and/or paid for parking. I attempted to avert these “penny wise, pound foolish” disasters and was pretty successful until he became a cabbie and started doing things like driving on sidewalks.

SeaFed’s attempts at cheating systems and getting dinged did not really teach him the life lesson I was hoping for, which was hey, ACK RIGHT. It’s easier. He still lived in his fantasy world but got quieter about it over time.

I think his sister le Jaguar also tried to snap him out of this back in high school when he was stealing car stereos and hood ornaments. She tried to bust him to her parents by pulling all of his loot out and leaving it on his bed. It was unsuccessful as he came home first. It was striking to me that he was still pissed about the betrayal as he told me the story years later as an adult. I’m sure part of her was just being a bitchy older sister, but she did get the responsibility gene so what she saw probably worried her, too.

I wanted to cut this fantasyland behavior in Franny and encourage her to face reality when necessary. I sat her down at the beginning of her senior year last fall and drew a flow chart of what her life was going to look like in the next two years. What it boiled down to was, graduate somehow. Diploma or GED, either way. If not, get a job and pay some rent here. Go to school, your grandpa is paying. I asked her to think about it and what she wanted to do. I told her I would help her every step of the way as long as she was making some progress and real efforts. She did not like any of this.

She is repeating her senior year this year. There is a very harsh, cynical part of me that believes the CPS invocation was a hail Mary to get her over the graduation line last year. Why are you struggling in school? My mother is abusing me by telling me I’m sick and overmedicating me. I suspect stories about my parenting were first put out to garner sympathy and claim hardship, but they escalated to the point where the school was compelled to report it.

Anyway. I struggle with the lack of responsibility and escape into fantasy. It’s bizarre to me that a very specific set of behaviors seem to be a family trait, at least back to her shiftless great-grandfather. Her grandmother was lost in this world too (eventually permanently with her early descent into dementia and death), but she found someone in college to take care of her like she was a child: Franny’s grandfather. And he continues to care for SeaFed and now Franny.

As a VERY close second of what gives me pause about Franny, I think about what Strudel went through with the CPS thing. I don’t want to overstate this or make it more dramatic than it was, because while it was stressful, it didn’t seem like a huge threat to her from my eyes, on a practical level. I did not believe Strudel would be taken out of our home. As I’ve said before she had friends who have dealt with CPS and she knows what the possible outcomes are, so she worried and was pissed. That’s a level of betrayal for her from her sister that was hard to get over. And I think she’s still not over it.

Huntington, October


In June I tumbled into a work situation that was kind of out of the frying pan into the spilled milk. I was moved out of a good shop I was in where I was getting maybe 25 hours a week, which sucked, to a small company that would work me 40.

Putting it simply, the department I worked in consisted of one person who did not like people who are not like them. For the first time in my life I really felt the effects of nasty, condescending sexual discrimination on a daily basis. I didn’t really know what it was like before. I’ve dealt with a lot of assholes. I’ve dealt with a lot of one-off comments that were either disgusting or depressing. I’ve dealt with ongoing sexual harassment situations, but this was different.

This was my first experience with somebody who, on a daily basis, was trying to just grind me down into little bits. He was convinced I was incompetent in almost every way, in spite of the fact I was producing work and showing up on time ready to rumble every day. I felt like he was trying to run me off the trade, or at the very least, the jobsite. The only bright side to it (which is not a real bright side at all) was the fact that this boss was pretty equally awful to another apprentice who had come from Mexico originally. He mocked the other apprentice’s accent to his face. The boss told me I was going to have to be the one to issue orders to him, since he didn’t understand him, which is inappropriate. I found the apprentice to be easily intelligible and very fluent. He used American slang, metaphors, and cracked jokes.

In the end the situation disintegrated to the point where I literally couldn’t even speak to my boss. Any time I would try to talk to him let him know why I was doing something or ask him a question he would talk loudly at me and over me until I would be quiet. He told the other apprentices not to talk to me or ask me any questions.

There’s a lot more to this story and what I experienced (“So…are you going to quit sheet metal when you get pregnant?”) but not being able to even participate in two-way communication was the last straw for me. I did everything I could to get out of there, which is really my last resort in any situation while I’m an apprentice. There is a very real risk in any situation that you will be labeled as a complainer, as someone who cries wolf, or as a woman who is not fit to work in the trade. So I considered very carefully what I was doing before I did it and it took me about 3 months to arrive at the decision and get to the point where I couldn’t take anymore.

On my way out the owner of the company told me I was not used to the culture and working with men, since I had only been in the trades for three years. I told him I came from tech and mostly worked with men then, and that it wasn’t a men problem, it was an asshole problem.

It was taking a toll on me physically as well. When I’m unhappy I don’t have much of an appetite so I was definitely losing weight, including muscle mass since the shop work was easier overall than what I’d been doing in the field. I couldn’t sleep well, and I was losing more hair than my typical shedding, which I notice when I’m stressed out. I just felt very alone because I didn’t want to come home and tell stories about what was happening to me every night. The kid would politely ask me how work went and I would usually just be honest with her and say it was terrible again but it’s over and then we would move on quickly and talk about something else. Now I am back to telling her stories about a dumb thing I saw or did myself, or good things that happened.

Luke’s Diner and some rando tourists, October

So I had a crack in all of this gloominess and crap in July when I went out of town for the Twin Peaks festival. It was good as always to be surrounded by some like-minded friends who understand me and to be able to take a little mini vacation. When you’re in the middle of situational depression it’s nice to have a reminder what life feels like again. It’s like diving into a icy cold lake but maybe one that you can breathe in….or maybe it’s like getting out of a big ball of goo for the first time and having fresh air. I don’t know.

I’m thankful when things go right in these shit work situations. People above me in the union investigated was going on in my workplace. Eventually the boss I had was sentenced to 8 hours of sensitivity training. Eight hours for my four months of crap, but I think it’s a good thing. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately in the wake of the #metoo movement–this kind of general discussion and culture that’s bubbling up where white men (especially older ones) feel like they sort of don’t know what to do or how to act anymore. I appreciate the ones that are questioning their actions or having conversations with people and not just waving their hands and saying the world’s gone crazy.

When I was younger I think what I wanted was everyone to do the right thing for the right reasons but now that I’m older I just think if this bad boss gets this slap on the wrist, a mark on his record with the union, and sensitivity training and what he gets out of it is that he needs to just SHUT HIS FUCKING MOUTH AND DO HIS JOB I’m okay with that being the outcome.

So as I look back on 2018 it’s been another hard year emotionally. I feel like I’m more resilient now, though. I went through a lot of shit this year dealing with Franny’s absence and what that means for me and what it means for Strudel who still misses her sister even though they got along terribly most of the time.

Every year I keep thinking as I’m on the eve of a new year that it’s going to be MY YEAR, meaning it’s going to be a really good year and a lot of good things are going to happen. Like an idiot I keep trying to kick the football because what else can we do? I think I’ve been approaching life with some kind of weird lottery mentality that eventually I’m going to hit some kind of jackpot and have just an amazing year.

I know the rest of this year is just going to blink by and suddenly it’ll be 2019. I guess I’m making kind of a pre-resolution to say that I do want to write more next year. I miss recording the mundane details of my life. I miss recording the weird encounters that I have with other people. When I look back at them later I do they do trigger a memory for me, which is sometimes enjoyable, but I also feel like I learn something eventually. I can see patterns from a distance like flying over farm fields.

What I need to do is remember that every year that I work on some of my goals, that I’m nice to myself and keep my mother’s voice out of my head, that I surround myself with positive people who are in the struggle with me, I am making it my year, my life. And there’s going to be speedbumps constantly. Am I happier than I was before I got sick? Yes. Happier than I was a year ago? Certainly. Really bad things can happen and eventually you start living again.

No excuses cheeseball tourist selfie, October

Schrodinger’s Asshole

In May I got some unwelcome parental news, to say the least. It was pretty darn high up on the list of unwelcome parental news, and threw me into a state of shock, then panic, then depression. Depression’s been my good pal for most of the summer.

Let me make a disclaimer first: I am not in possession of all of the facts. I don’t know what the other major players in the story actually did, or said, or thought. Or are thinking now.

So: I had a week of school in May. I was nervous, and felt really unprepared. I had made a dog’s breakfast out of my final project during the previous week of school (about 3 weeks out from surgery, SO TIRED) and had been given a D grade. I knew that would be the first project we did when we returned. I meant to go back to the school shop and practice fabricating it, but life and continuing to recover from surgery took priority.

“Oh, well, I’ll do my best,” I said, and meant it. My grades are good overall and I’m in good standing as an apprentice. As it turned out, the day was not terrible. I did better on my project this time, and didn’t miss any questions on my written exam. Maybe this week wouldn’t be so bad. 2:30 and the end of school came quickly. I said goodbye to my classmates and then headed to my car.

I checked my phone and there was a message from Pete: Child Protective Services had been by the house to see us, and would be returning around 4 p.m. when we were all home together. I felt that familiar panic whoosh: my muscles went slack and my vision got a little sparkly. Take deep breaths, I told myself. Respond, don’t react. Then the next thought: gather information.

I called my sister to see if she’d heard anything or had seen anything odd since she has inroads in social media that I do not. “No!” she said. “NO! I don’t know anything! WHAT. THE. FUCK.” She was as baffled as I was. “Keep me posted!”

We regrouped at home. Strudel didn’t know anything. Pete said the CPS agent told him a complaint had been registered via Franny’s high school. I had noticed a couple of days before Franny had accessed a health record I’d kept for her on a cloud drive. I’d pull it up if I couldn’t remember something when we were at appointments. I’d recorded dates for her nasal ablation to slow her massive nosebleeds, as well as things she had told me about having heart palpitations and chest pain, dates she’d had joint dislocations (and which joints), other appointments we’d had, and a general list of her many symptoms.

I was a little puzzled that this was happening now, because she’d moved out months ago. However, I have heard law enforcement say that abuse victims often don’t report until they’re somewhere they feel safe, so a delayed report isn’t uncommon. I knew in the infrequent and brief communications Franny and Strudel had since November, Franny had expressed a desire to get her sister out of the apparent shitshow that is our house and parenting.

Then we waited for the agent to return to meet with us. I looked around the house as if to find incriminating things, things that I knew weren’t there. Our opium den corner? The slavering wolf hybrids we keep in the bathroom? Our collection of rusty switchblades? Nothing. The house was fairly tidy but the rug was a little furry. Like many dog owners, my living room rug serves as animal napkin, bath towel, brush, bed, race track, you name it. It was deliberately affordable.

“Should we vacuum? Should we NOT vacuum?” I asked. Do you set out snacks for the person who is going to help decide the disposition of your younger child? Coffee?

While we waited, I did something that was really tough, and probably mental, but I was feeling like it was absolutely the right thing to do. I knew I had to say one of the hardest things I’d ever said to Strudel. I touched her shoulder to make sure I had her focus and looked into her eyes. I felt tears coming.

“If you feel like we’re abusing you–” she shook her head. “You should tell someone, and they can get you someplace safe, ok? We can work on this.”

“I’m fine!” she said. This wasn’t out of the blue for her since Franny had spent some time in the past few months telling her sister she was being abused and how she should get away from us. Strudel had spoken to us about this since it upset and annoyed her.

“You tell him the truth, and whatever you need to tell him about, ok?”

The doorbell rang.

The agent seemed nice, and a little nervous, which was kind of a relief to see that he was just a human. He gave us his card and he explained he was with an offshoot program of CPS that does “pre-investigations” before they open an official case. He said their aim was to keep families together and provide in-home counseling or other services as needed. We nodded, dumbly. This didn’t sound too bad so far.

He explained the claims that had been made. This is the part where it gets a little telephone and I’m not sure who actually said what, but here’s what I got out of it: Franny had told teachers that I had been overmedicating her and there wasn’t really anything wrong with her health. She allegedly said I was doing the same for Strudel and would punish them if they didn’t take giant handfuls of pills multiple times a day. She said Strudel was made to practice her violin for up to four hours in one day if she missed a practice day. The school’s nurse declared that I had munchausen by proxy and that physical illness and reactions due to fragrance sensitivity wasn’t a real thing. I can’t remember exactly what the agent said regarding the house, but Franny said something like our house was always cluttered and dirty like a hoarder house.

I flashed back to the day last year that the school had called me to tell me Franny had collapsed due to breathing problems, and should they send her to Children’s in the ambulance that had come? Yes, I said. Had I gaslit and confused her to the point that she was having an attack at school? Had I caused all of it somehow? I’m not blaming SeaFed for any of this, but I thought about her years of frustration and anger when he wouldn’t listen to her about her health problems, couldn’t remember them, or take them seriously. I always took them seriously. This was quite a turnabout.

I remember her saying she started having dislocations at his house in the summer when she was about 12 and how painful they were and how he basically told her to “walk them off” but she would have to remain on the couch resting for a few days. I didn’t understand what was happening at first…I couldn’t fathom that she was having dislocations at all. She talked about the pain and described the sensations, and I thought she was having sprains or strains from bouncing around being a kid. I didn’t become aware of Ehlers-Danlos for another 2-3 years after that. I was unsurprised about her dad’s reactions to her problems because I knew he had a history of ignoring stuff that didn’t have to do with him and wasn’t in his face like a gushing wound or compound fracture. I thought of his “parenting style” as whatever the opposite of hypochondria is.

I gave the CPS agent a brief rundown of what Ehlers-Danlos and Mast Cell Disorder is, and that medical providers and I had seen obvious signs of it in her. She was always open to talking about what was bothering her physically and would tell me when she had incidents at school or at a bus stop. He asked to call our GP and I gave him that number, and the number of the specialist in Corvallis who had diagnosed Strudel and me with MCD and prescribed asthma meds and said to keep doing what we’re doing, AND the number of the naturopath. The agent asked for two people we knew who knew Strudel, so I gave them my sister and a good and long-time family friend, a librarian I met in tech world. He said he would follow up with everyone and this would be outstanding for 45 days, at which point they move forward with an actual CPS case and work it, or close it.

Finally we stepped out in the backyard and left Strudel alone at the table with the agent so they could speak privately. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, nor did I want to. I wanted her to be able to speak with him freely. I was in the first stages of having my parenting scrutinized by the county but all I could think was, “This is a strange man, don’t let them out of your sight completely.” The contradiction chafed.

This has given me a lot of time to think. I HAVE BEEN DOING A LOT OF THINKING. I have been feeling oceans of shame over this. I was scared this would disrupt Strudel’s life, a life that she seems ok with and to even enjoy most of the time. I was upset by the allegations, since they weren’t true, but they weren’t out of nowhere either.

Last year, under the guidance of a naturopath, the girls and I were on a lot of supplements to see what worked and could improve our overall health. The plan was to bump up the stores of some vitamins we were deficient in, try to use some vitamins as levers to knock out histamine, and more. Then we would taper down to whatever seemed to work as a daily regimen. Strudel was shockingly low on vitamin D, for example, which is not uncommon in the PNW or with mast cell people.

Strudel and I have gotten down to that taper point of what we can live with and what we want to take every day. Her list is a lot shorter than mine–mostly just a multivitamin and sometimes magnesium. She complains about having breathing problems or other issues, and sometimes I remind her that she could be taking her prescribed asthma medication daily, or other things, and sometimes I don’t remind her. She doesn’t seem to be in that category of masties who have life-threatening airway closures, so I don’t chew at it much. On the other hand, I like to feel as good as I possibly can, so I’m staying up on antihistamines and whatnot.

The good news is that we’re feeling pretty good most of the time. I think this intense concentration on our health has paid off. We don’t think about it like we used to. We’re carefully eating in Asian restaurants again (we had stopped all together over a year ago because Franny felt it was not worth the chance of getting sick, and we didn’t want to leave her home alone while we gobbled pho). When we have a reaction we bounce back much faster than we used to. Life just feels kind of normal most of the time.

Point being, we were taking a lot of pills for a little while, then we stopped (the girls stopped earlier than I did, which was a bummer because I was hoping to stick with it for the short trial period the naturopath recommended). I liked that the naturopath was sensitive to the amount of pills and would check in with the girls to see if they were feeling burned out of if they wanted to keep trialing for a while.

As another example, if Strudel missed a day of violin practice (30 minutes), I usually would have her make it up the next day, with a break in between. Doubling the time the next day would be an incentive not to blow off practice regularly. But there would never be four hours or practice in a day.

I could go through everything point by point, but let me say there are differences in how I saw things and what Franny told her school and CPS.

What it comes down to is that Franny didn’t like what was happening here in our house. I did not understand the extent of how unhappy she was. Strudel told me recently that some days when she was home ill with something and Franny was here skipping school, she was sometimes crying all day in her room.

This broke my heart to hear and made me wish I’d done everything more, or less, or different. I made a lot of mistakes. I could hear that some of them were mistakes as they left my mouth. One thing I tried to always do was apologize for doing bad parenting, or being rude, or losing my temper, which is something I wish I’d had when adults around me fucked up. I want my girls to know that adults should admit when they fuck up and that they are both worthy of respect and consideration.

Franny didn’t want me standing over her while she took her meds, which was understandable at 16, but then I would discover she hadn’t taken her antidepressants for several days and was roller coastering moodwise, likely because of that. I was worried, and in hindsight I was probably too worried, but I didn’t know what else to do. What do you do when you have a kid who has health problems, executive functioning issues, and definitely some garden variety teen angst issues?

I just kept plugging away. Trying to spend time with her. Asking her to eat dinner with us. Reminding her that I’d appreciate it if she went to school, finished her coursework, consider taking the SATs and finishing her driver training course, and would try to be consistent with taking care of her health.

Lately I’ve been taking a really hard look at myself. My default mode is to try to hear people, and believe them and their experiences. I have had many experiences in my life where I’ve tried to talk to people who are close to me about how I feel, and have been dismissed or argued with. They thought I was being unreasonable, dramatic, incorrect, confused, or just wrong. I knew how I felt, and what had happened, and I knew their response felt bad.

I thought about separating myself from my own mother, and what a hard decision that was. It took me three tries to make it really stick, and I am still deeply in recovery over being raised by someone who has borderline personality disorder. It’s not an easy decision to cut a close relative out of your life, and I don’t think children do it frivolously. I also know from experience that once you make that decision, you don’t want that person badgering you to make up, to forget, to convince you that you’re just being dramatic and that your abuser meant the best for you.

I’ve concluded what I need to do right now to keep my eyes peeled open the hardest and to take accountability for myself is to accept that I was abusive to Franny. Getting CPS involved in her sister’s life is a very loud cry. No matter what my intentions were, she interpreted my actions and behavior as abusive and I need to accept that.

No one in my life who I’m close to wants to hear this from me. I want to retreat into the comfort of the assurances of my sweet, well-meaning friends and relatives. Also in admitting that I was abusive, I am telling them they are friends with or related to a BAD PARENT and no one wants to hear that. People want to blame other factors, other people, other circumstances. What I keep coming back to is that she’s very upset with me. I may be an idiot parent, but I cannot be one of those particular idiot parents who just throws up their hands and says, “I did everything right and they turned on me anyway.”

I don’t think my friends or family are stupid, and that they don’t know what really happened. Strudel finds Franny’s behavior confusing and mysterious as well, and I don’t think she’s stupid either. But right now I need to keep my focus on my blind spots, what I did that didn’t work for her, and how I can be a better person. And how I can be better for Strudel, even though she’s a very different person, who seems to be experiencing a different childhood–both experiences are valid.

I made sure Strudel understood what CPS is after the agent left. She did know, unfortunately, because she had some school friends who had temporary relocations and other forms of interventions visited upon them. She was ANGRY.

“I’m so FUCKING ANGRY RIGHT NOW,” she said. I told her I was glad she was able to say how she was feeling, and that I thought that was a very valid emotion for this situation. “It’s not very nice, but I sent her a middle finger emoji,” she said.

The CPS agent closed the case a few days ago. He called my sister and my friend, as well as the medical people on the list. He told my friend there was no cause to move forward and none of the allegations seemed to be true.

But something happened regardless. So I’ve been doing The Work. Identifying the blind spots, seeing where they come from. Trying to break patterns. Letting myself just cry. Trying to question and smash my fleas. Walking up to my own Schrodinger’s box over and over again and asking myself the same question: “Was I abusive? Was I not abusive?” There is no answer. There are 12 answers.

The box has no lid and no writing. It doesn’t speak. So I have to assume the answer, without all the garbage justifications and qualification above, is “yes I was.”