Lush: For a Day or a Lifetime

December 14th, 2014

A couple of nights ago on the bus I was at the nadir or apogee of being completely out of it (considering how you rate these things), I’d just started my period and my brain felt soft and soupy. One of those nights where I came home and took my thermos out of my bag and put it on the counter, and then tried to do it again a few minutes later, and wondered how I’d forgotten my thermos at work.

I didn’t expect to be alone on the bus; I’d forgotten that P. had a haircut so I left my book and mp3 player at home. As always it was crowded at first, and as it lurched on to my hinterlands, we were all able to disperse and get a proper amount of West Coast space bubble between everyone.

I moved to one of the high seats in the very back and center and stopped focusing on my cramps and tiredness. I stopped being cross that there was nothing to do but think, and remembered that’s a thing I like to do, even if I’m not always great at it. It was cooler in the back. The windows were closed, but the vent in the back was ruffling my hair slightly. I looked straight ahead out the front window and pretended I was traveling on some kind of crappy, noisy litter or flying carpet. I wondered where I (and my teeth) would end up if we stopped suddenly.

It made me think of all the time I spent riding the bus back and forth downtown six years ago, when I was working holiday retail. I had come to the hard decision of picking up some kind of retail work after a few months of looking for a 9-5 contract. I’d been freelance editing and writing, working for our preschool to cover tuition, and I had my tiny writing gig at Blogher, but it wasn’t really the same as 40 hours a week at a tech gig, or even something like retail or coffee, which is at least steady.

No one in the tech world was biting, and I was getting increasingly desperate. I got home from a trip to Fred Meyer and flipped over the receipt and glanced at it without thinking about it. “WE’RE HIRING FOR THE HOLIDAYS!” it announced, among the ads and coupons for local restaurants. I could do that, I thought. I hadn’t worked retail for over ten years, but it comes right back, I figured. Like a herpes outbreak.

I tried to be sensible about it and apply to places where I actually would appreciate a discount, which is why a department store like Fred Meyer made sense. Of course I was scouring craigslist at the time, and widened my net to include the retail help wanted section.

I saw Lush was hiring for Christmas. They noted they were having an open house in the store, bring resume. I quickly scrubbed my master’s degree off my resume and put on something kooky–loud jewelry, red Fluevogs, blue velvet blazer. I had been a customer there for over ten years, when I could afford it, way back to when they were Canada-only. This would be perfect. At least I could be surrounded by smells I enjoyed, and maybe score some discounted lotion and some free broken bath bombs.

I went downtown, clutching my resume, not expecting much. I figured I was five or ten years out of the age range they were looking for. I walked in and got verbally accosted by the shrill and peppy woman who was the assistant manager, Janelle. She was in full-bore weekend mode, which I would get to know well. This involved, in part, shouting at everyone who walked in, and smearing stuff on people. I’m pretty sure she was smearing a cocoa butter bar on a hapless customer when I met her, a popular trick she used to brighten up aged tattoos.

Janelle was one of those people with no volume control, which helps in a shouty profession like Lush’s desired brand of pushy, in-your-face retail. She had a hooked beak of a nose and no real chin to speak of, giving not only the obvious first impression of a bird, but after working for her for a while and seeing how she would go for days without washing her greasy hair, she looked more like a heron who had been caught in an oil spill.

I also met the top dog: the store manager, Lisa, who was able to carry on a conversation in a normal tone of voice, much to my relief. As a company, Lush is known for its sometimes extreme activist stances and funding fringe groups, like people who chain themselves to whales and whatnot. As a dabbler in nihilism, I knew my philosophy didn’t really line up with that face of the corporation, but I knew we had capitalism in common, so the marriage could probably stick. Lisa lavishly complimented my leather shoes when we met, so I was a little surprised later that she had somehow decided I was a fellow vegan, and amused when I found out it affected her decision to hire me.

I got a call back later from Janelle that was so loud I remember holding the phone away from my head. I forced myself to match her level of enthusiasm to accept the job loudly and gleefully. It’s just for Christmas, I told myself. Christmas, downtown. At one of the busiest malls in the city. It was better than wearing a Fred Meyer polo and nametag, if not as practical.

We were told to report somewhere for orientation, for which we would be paid. Janelle gave me the time, and the date, and a name: “The Moore.” I knew it as a music venue, which I thought was an odd place to hold an orientation, but the economy was in the pooper and maybe they were renting space during the day? I met another girl there, Gina, hanging around outside the door, and guessed she was a Lush temp as well because of her confused look and adherence to the dress code of black and/or white, which was already being enforced. She and I conferred and were both confused, and tried knocking on various doors and looking for signs.

A few minutes later I got a phone call. It was Janelle. “WHERE ARE YOU?” I cringed in pain and held the phone away from my ear, so it was effectively a conference call.

“I’m outside the Moore Theatre,” I said.

“Me too!” my new friend said.

“Gina is too,” I added.

“WELL GET OVER TO THE MOORE HOTEL, YOU SILLYS! GEEZ! WE’RE WAITING FOR YOU TO START!”

Having rarely stayed in a hotel in my own city, I actually had never noticed the Moore Hotel existed and was relieved to see it was catty corner from the theatre. As Gina and I were hurrying across the street, I realized was one of those moments, when, if I was younger I would have felt stupid for days and probably would have fallen all over myself trying to apologize, but I knew this wasn’t really my mistake. I think it also set up how I felt about the job in my time there, and set up my attitude about jobs like this in the future: I was going to hit the due diligence mark, but I wasn’t going to get too wrapped up in the job itself, either.

I walked into a room of about 15 women, as I recall, all in the proscribed black or white clothes. Mostly black, because what kind of moron wears white to work retail, let alone in a shop that is full of brightly-colored hunks of beauty potions that would explode when dropped or stared at too hard, or melt if exposed to the sun? I vaguely recall Janelle saying something awkward and shamey to we derelicts when we walked in, and Gina looked chagrined, but I thought that if Janelle could manage her way out of a tatty, repurposed bath bomb bag, she probably would have just started the orientation. I noted that Lisa the store manager was nowhere in sight, so we were at the mercy of Janelle.

We were informed about the structure of our day. For the first part, we would learn about the many products Lush offers, with an emphasis on limited edition Christmas product and gift boxes. We were hired right after Halloween, so we were to learn the theme for that year which tied back to Halloween (and moving leftover Halloween product). This year’s theme was: SUUUUPERNATURAL, Janelle intoned dramatically, writing it on the white board in the room.

It somehow reminded me of what I imagined summer camp was like when the crappy counselor was left in charge for the evening while the cool teens went off and got drunk: “Ghost stories, kids. SPOOOOOKY!” There is nothing like a watching a power-mad person finally getting that juicy leadership opportunity they so desperately crave, and then being captive audience to an entire day of their grandiose over confidence. I knew that we could expect a day of watching lines Janelle had practiced in the shower falling flat.

Of course I had worked Christmas retail in the past (Best Buy, Tower) as well as at Safeway as a checker during the holiday rush. I knew little enraged customers more than clueless holiday help who cannot answer basic questions about products or know where anything is, so I tried to really commit what Janelle was emphasizing to memory. The top enragers for customers were 1. waiting. For anything and 2. being told that something was out of stock. Dealing with bumbling holiday temps was often a precursor to a full-blown customer tantrum, because first they had to deal with a 19-year-old girl going, “Do we have face lotions…ummm…” before being told that the lotion they want is out of stock and then being made to wait in line to buy a second or third choice.

Once I got the basic product lines breakdown, it was pretty easy to think about how to sell the product. Lush follows the typical conventions of the world of product fragrancing, and you could chuck all the products into bins in your mind. The olfactory experience of walking past or into a Lush store is a lot like that of a perfume truck crashing into a whorehouse, but there are distinct categories. There’s my favorite world, which is citrus anything, especially bergamot. There’s kind of weird-fruity beyond citrus, like blackberry or apple. I thought of these products as being targeted at children and someone who never met a Katy Perry perfume they didn’t like. There’s the floral categories–rose, jasmine. There’s the foodie/vanilla/chocolate/honey products. Then there were “green” or herby-spicy concoctions that were meant to smell like you’d been rolling around in the woods making out with Stevie Nicks (SPOOOOOKY). These herby scents were especially emphasized in my Supernatural holiday season.

You can break all these categories down into further patterns. If rose is involved, you can be pretty sure that they are going to add some citrus or carnation to it, too. If there is jasmine, either vetiver or or ylang ylang will probably be involved. And so on. In spite of their we’re-so-wacky image, Lush usually sticks with the tried and true combinations, which is just good business sense. It’s incredibly convenient for me, too, because after working there and smelling, and smelling, and SMELLING vials of essential oils and all the products over and over again, it’s pretty easy for me to eyeball a “new” product via the site and immediately know whether or not I will like it.

This was just one facet of how we were expected to sell products. The other major facet was the benefits of the healthy and natural ingredients. It was distasteful to witness some of the regular staff selling products with purported anti-aging benefits with a touch of the “let us save you from disfiguring wrinkles” fear-mongering. I believe that sunscreens (which Lush products do not contain) delay the aging process and do cool things like reduce skin cancer, but beyond that wrinkles are inevitable, of course.

I avoided this tack all together, and even had some women try to suss out my beliefs about “anti-aging creams,” which I thought was interesting. I never once had anyone walk off in a huff after I said things like, “aging is inevitable, but this cream could make your skin type feel nicest on the long, drying march to the grave.” It always seemed like a test, and as soon as these rare individuals twigged to the fact that I wasn’t going to try to scare them into buying something with a bunch of anti-feminist claptrap they warmed to me and seemed to trust my opinions and recommendations more. It was a funny dance.

There was also a lot of beneficial factoid stuff we were supposed to spout about the ingredients of every product. Janelle recommended we memorize three facts about every product. A tall order in a store with dozens of product lines, with anywhere from two to thirty products in each line! But I had always been interested in fragrances and perfumes, and was actually looking forward to learning about essential oils and principles of fragrance composition, thereby sewing another badge on my World’s Dilettante-iest Dilettante sash.

The afternoon after lunch was spent focusing on gift boxes, roleplaying various customer needs scenarios, and being quizzed on products, scent families, etc. Then we were all given our individual first week schedules. There is no commission at Lush, but it was strongly implied that capable (meaning high-selling) and flexible workers would get more hours as the season wore on. Then it hit us, as we looked around the room at the new colleagues were had gotten to know that day: theoretically, there were slots available for all of us to work, but some of us would get more hours than others.

In the weeks before Thanksgiving, we lost some girls right away. I say “girls” because that is what most of us were: very young, and we were working in such a feminine environment. We pedaled flowery products that looked like cakes and hearts or bears or what have you. 99.9% of customers who walked in were women. We were always addressed as “girls” by Janelle, who was twenty-five to my thirty-one. I think the only people in their 30s were me and one other woman who thought everything was pretty much bullshit as well, but wanted to make a little extra cash over the holiday and score some cheaper Christmas presents. I rarely worked with her, because unlike me, she had a real-deal day job and was only available at night.

So, as I said, we began losing some girls right away. They couldn’t handle the high-pressure sales tactic style that was expected of us, or the kooky singing or dancing or yelling or endless product demo offers. We were constantly pushed by management to offer little impromptu hand treatments to anyone and everyone who walked in the store, and some girls shied away from that. There were some who had bad attitudes or problems or could not hide their contempt for Janelle, which was the death knell for any temporary clerk there.

Lush was at the end of the mall, sticking out into the public plaza adjoining the mall, and was always full of shoppers, protesters, proselytizers, hobos, criminals, police on horses and bikes, horse-drawn carriages, nut vendors, and assorted other rabble. The store really did jut far out like some kind of verruca of a weird architectural afterthought on the building itself, and was basically a glass-walled box on three sides and was nicknamed “the fishbowl.”

Occasionally men were attracted by the display of girls in tanktops and aprons, dancing around in the fishbowl like fools to Off the Wall or Lady Gaga. The ladies’ club atmosphere in the store would change very abruptly and clerks would try to dodge men who we all knew had no interest in actually buying anything. They used us as a captive audience to mack on. There was one guy who claimed to have xray glasses and could see us naked, and would chortle over the bath bombs and how they looked like “tittays.” Other men who showed up, thankfully, were either gay, and so were part of our clubhouse vibe since they were just there to smell good and feel nice, or they were husbands/partners and had been indoctrinated or resigned to coming along.

We were told over and over again than men were repelled by Lush because they had a stronger sense of smell than women, which never sounded right to me, and seems isn’t true anyway. I always thought it was, to oversimplify things, that women are socialized to fragrance their person, their home, their clothes, and have been sold things via fragrance for many years. Imagine these stock photos/ads with all men. Oh, I did that. Here’s men enjoying smells. Women enjoy the smell of cleanliness (which should really be the absence of smells but that is a rant for another day), fruit, flowers, food, babies. I think men are supposed to enjoy smelling meat, brandy, and pussy. Lush does not sell those things, and is indeed very PETA-friendly, so I think meat is out and maybe even pussy unless it’s being humanely sourced.

One night when we were closed, doors locked, I realized were were still a captive display even after hours when a man walked up to our doors that opened to the plaza and exhaled the most enormous lungful of pot smoke that I think I have ever known to come out of a human into the crack where the doors met. Was that harassment? Intended as a gift? A response to the fumes that were emanating from the store? I was irritated and hoped it wouldn’t make me sleepy, since I still had about an hour before I could even make for the bus.

There was a barista who worked across the way who liked to come in when the youngest, bosomy-iest girls on staff were working. He had what seemed to be a legitimate phobia of glitter, which is an ingredient in many Lush products. When we were slammed and I found myself alone on the floor, while watching him attempt to cadge an arm massage from one of the other clerks, I would approach them both, slathering a shimmer bar on my forearms casually. He always fled with a nauseated look on his face. I got to know him better when I picked up hours at his shop as well, in an attempt to patch together forty hours, and he confessed that glitter really made him feel like he was going to vomit.

The mall itself was a funny community, and I missed it when I left. There was a Waldo who walked through the mall regularly. There were bomb threats and fights and shoplifters being hauled out by bike cops. My barista friend would keep me in the loop about who was sleeping with whom, and what a creep the Rosetta Stone kiosk guy was. Sometimes he would take me to spend my paltry barista tips drinking at PF Changs, or I would stop at the Buckaroo on the way home, my children long asleep after my late hours, and spend my money on one beer.

In the food court, the bubble tea people got to know me because I would come for half price, day old banh mi on Sundays, which I also loved, because I would treat myself to free street parking instead of the horrors of the bus. They knew me at McDonald’s, too, because this was the only time in my adult life where I was that desperately in need of cheap quick calories. At first I often packed a healthy and thrifty lunch, but it would sit in the jumbled morass of the one closet in the store where we were allowed to keep our coats and bags, and by the time my break rolled around, everything tasted like perfume, which made it really hard to choke down. Far better to spend a dollar on a burger, which my body would rip through after standing for eight hours. Like the kids I worked with, sometimes I just said “fuck it” and had a bubble tea for lunch.

When I was really getting into the groove of working there, I remember being in the aisle popping and locking to Justin Timberlake or something when a group of ladies walked in. That thing happened where you are glancing at someone right before the moment of recognition and it happens slowly, because you are both out of context for each other. Then we had it, at the same time: library school. She had tried to help me get into the PhD program a few years before, and I knew she had dropped out of it herself since then, but was working as an information professional somewhere. People who did not think I was a chucklehead assbiscuit in library school seemed to think I had some kind of bright future somewhere (still waiting on that one, ha ha) so I wasn’t to surprised to see her look of total confusion as she took in my apron and my sick dance moves.

“SJ…what are you DOING here?” This was said politely but with a sense of genuine bewilderment, as if she had caught me clandestinely smearing myself with feces.

“I’m working,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. She literally turned kind of red and did sort of an awkward lurch-step backwards out of the store again, without so much as a “goodbye” or “I’m sorry.” Her friends followed her. It was like a Victorian novel, and not only was I smearing myself with feces, but I was doing that while being a disgraced heiress who was now a three-penny upright in an alley.

In order to avoid reminders like these that I once had had a promising future as a corporate drone, I aggressively lobbied for day shifts. A side benefit of this was that I now had ample opportunity to work with the regular, non-seasonal staff. I was known as a go-getter who could connect with people, was a hard worker, and could move a lot of product. All of the clerks liked me and a few decided to take me under their wing, which of course involved talking much smack about the other regular clerks.

My favorite clerk quickly became Aoife, who confounded some things I thought I knew about people. First, she was an African-American woman with an Irish name that was challenging for many Americans to spell, let alone pronounce. She was a single mother who spoke in a particular accent that I had previously associated with African Americans from the South. If I had to guess, I would have assumed she was from Georgia. Nope–Alaska. Something else unexpected, since a common American stereotype/belief is that there are no black people in Alaska. When I met her and she told me she was from Alaska, she said, “Yes, that Alaska. The state.”

Janelle and Aoife hated each other. Janelle told me Aoife kept a gun in her bag in the terror pit that was our personal belongs closet. Somehow I managed to tactfully ask Janelle what her opinion was on why Aoife carried a gun and Janelle looked at me meaningfully and said something like, “You know–ALAAASKA.” (Spoooky.) Whoever came in to work would stack their coat and bag in the closet, and by the time your shift had ended, of course a bunch of ladies had put their stuff on top of yours, so you had to fish your stuff out from the bottom, which would send everyone else’s belongings flying and shifting! Woe betide you if you’d forgotten to zip your bag all the way. Every time I had to get my things after clocking out, I thought of Aoife’s alleged gun shifting around in there and I hoped the alleged safety was on.

Aoife told me that Janelle had bipolar, and was on and off her meds, which she said explained a lot of her erratic moodiness and various states of hygiene competence. “That girl just smell sometimes,” she told me flatly, and I could not disagree with her. Janelle usually stank of old pot smoke or hair grease, which seemed to conflict with her forcing me to listen in great detail what bath she had indulged in the night before, using about seven different products. If only she would dunk her head. Janelle would prescribe me various baths and send me away with homework and a promise to give her a full report about exactly what bathing with an Avobath bomb AND a Sunny Side bubble bar was like.

The mall was a clusterfuck and my bus stop and bus was downright dangerous sometimes, but there was something that was working for me about the job, and it had one huge advantage over other, theoretical future jobs: I actually had it and knew how to perform my duties. I was surrounded by mostly women and the two delightful gay men on staff all day. I had whole weeks where I rarely interacted with any men at all, beyond P., which was exactly what I needed then. I would come home and rub balms and face masks all over myself and just relax and smell good, which was nice.

But the downsides (besides the customers, ho ho)…I took a LOT of inappropriate boundary crossing from Janelle, from hearing about her sex life and her finances. She touched me a lot, too. She was fascinated by my breasts too, and asked if she could touch them. They are fine boobs, but really, they are just boobs, not made out of powdered unicorn horn or anything. Aoife told me out of the blue that she thought Janelle “had a thing” for me. I prayed that “the thing” was a raise and some defective product. I don’t think she was into me.

One day I was working the register and she was admiring my chest tattoos, which, fine. “YOU NEED MORE!” she declared, and began drawing on me with a Sharpie to create a piece in the middle of my breastbone that would link the two flowers. It sort of looked like a constipated sun. I couldn’t really run off the floor and scrub this off in the bathroom, so I endured questions from customers about why I had let an uncoordinated child draw on my body with magic markers. It was ironic to me because I knew she fancied herself an artist and had previously worked as a sign painter, which I didn’t know was even an actual job anymore.

Janelle took credit for this masterpiece every time, and I think the customers saw the “dear god, help me” look in my eyes, but Janelle thought we were bonding, I think. She implied that the young girls were twits (they weren’t really twits, just young) and the older girls were trying to backstab her for her job (they were) and I was the only one who “got her.” It takes me a ridiculously long time to tell a person I like what I am thinking or feeling, or anything beyond the barest thumbnail of what my life is like (I think a nicer way to put this is to say I am a bit “guarded”) so it occurred to me that she, a real freakazoid, probably knew next to nothing about me, really. I just spent hours listening to her ramble inappropriately while keeping a poker face, something I learned from dealing with my mother.

I was still relentlessly applying for jobs anywhere, everywhere else. I had a promising phone interview for a taxonomy contract at Nordstrom that went nowhere, and a few other false starts. Christmas was right around the corner and I knew that we remaining clerks (there were fewer than half of us left) would be cut loose and let out to wander the world looking for the next horrible retail gig, unmoisturized and no longer smelling of ginger or lilies. I had heard a rumor that sometimes really good temp clerks would be invited to stay on and convert to permanent, but I have had my dick pulled with that one in almost every temp job I’ve ever had. It’s usually just something they tell you to entice you to behave, like “Santa is watching” or “the IRS still has enough funding to do audits.”

One night shortly after Christmas I closed with Janelle and after the last of the earlier-shift clerks had left (it was usually just two of us after seven or so, a key holder and a little minion like me, who was expected to do most of the stocking and cleaning). It seemed that most of my compatriots had been given their last week of shifts and would be cut loose before New Year’s Day. I had not been given mine. Janelle locked the doors and turned up the music. She seemed a little shakier than usual, but I knew she routinely stayed up for days at a time, so I figured she and her boyfriend had just been up on another one of their sprees, which would involve another horrifying story about his Burner friends or insinuations about polyamory while I just swept the floor going, “Uh hah. Interesting.” (Not pictured: My soul dying just a tiny bit more while the outside of me earns $9.25 an hour.)

But no! Tonight she was excited! She had very exciting news!! “WE’D LIKE YOU TO STAY ON AFTER CHRISTMAS!” All I had to do was sign the paperwork. I knew in my heart of hearts that this was not the end, that I could find a different job that paid better and didn’t involve doing the electric slide while wearing a blueberry face mask, but I still felt my chest collapsing a little. The store manager would discuss it with me during my next day shift and would have the papers.

Sign away I did. Later that day, I kid you not, I was cornered by two dogs, one off leash while I was jogging through Greenlake, and the other in the store itself, and I had a panic attack. This was when I developed my temporary dog phobia: the day I signed on at Lush. Of course I think it was more complex than that, and would not have developed if I also wasn’t experiencing escalating health problems (anxiety related to malnutrition, etc.), but it was interesting timing.

Things got very rote after the holiday madness died down, and there was surprisingly low turnover at that store, so I was the new kid for the rest of my tenure there. The other clerks were very welcoming, and even the ones I couldn’t read well confessed that they were very happy I’d been picked and voted for me. I stayed three more months at the standard 30 or so hours a week so they didn’t have to provide benefits, and then in March I found a tech contract that more than doubled what I’d been making at Lush. I hung on to a few evening shifts, just to keep my hand in and keep in touch with a group that had been a mini, temporary, very dysfunctional family during a very difficult period, but eventually it was all too much, working more than forty hours a week, and I gave my notice.

Every time I go into a Lush store and am assaulted by the rabid employees and I see the trepidation and desperation in their eyes I am reminded of my time there, as I gently tell them, “It’s okay, I used to work here. I know the deal.” The really jesusy ones push on anyway, “WELL DO YOU KNOW ABOUT OUR NEW SPRING LINE?” and remind me of the “pep talks” from the managers (“WE NEED TO MOVE 6K BY NOON LADIES!!!!”). The normal ones look relieved and say, “Oh, okay, have fun then” and leave me be. And I am relieved that I get to leave without clocking out, covered in stale sweat and glitter and regretting all my choices that led up to this point.

Weeping Vagina Noises Pick a Mix

December 10th, 2014

What, exactly, is happening? A: FUCK ALL, but I am writing you anyway. I have two current obsessions, and a third on the back burner.

Noir festival: in real life (downtown at the art museum) it is almost over. At my house, it was cruelly interrupted by a bad case of The Novembers, sickness, and Work. I would call this my backburnered obsession. I would like to finish, though it got increasingly depressing to try to find subs for the dairy that I had allowed into the recipes before I realized that was not a good idea. Perhaps 1950s French cuisine is not for me at this moment in history. (YA THINK, SJ?)

SPEAKING OF WORK, I am on the countdown to being let out of my contract. As I bleated about previously, I am really short on work in any given day and things get boring after 10:30 a.m. or so. However, I am seated smack in the center of the room with the permanent team, prime real estate for being hit in the head or cleavage with Nerf gun bullets, and drooled on by a really cute lab puppy, but not so good for really sinking into writing. This morning I have turned my patio into a conservatory with a banana, fig, and lemon tree using only the powers of my mind palace, Pinterest, and Houzz.

So bored that I asked myself “Can a conservatory be made to look period on a 1950s rambler?” and even considered bothering the nice people at Retro Renovation about this. And then I didn’t, because that would take this insane, stupid notion out of my head and a tick closer into reality.

Second obsession: really good Thai food at home. Thai food was my very favorite food for many years, and I would say a big plate of phad thai was definitely go-to comfort food at times. I got pickier as time went on and has I have lost most of my sweet tooth in the last few years. Catsup-y or too sweet phad thai started seeming pretty gross, if not inedible.

Sadly, I’ve pretty much crossed Thai restaurants off my list for now, on the principle that the more ingredients any given dish in a cuisine has, the more likely I am to get into trouble by some hidden reagent. I’ve been cooking Thai food at home intermittently since college, but it barely seemed worth it since you cannot throw a wedge of lime without hitting a Thai restaurant here, including really good and “authentic” ones. So I decided to dig in here and do it by scratch. And if I am bothering to do it by scratch, why not do it right?

I found this blog, which I love love love. I have gleaned that her husband helps her edit her writing, so I am not sure if it is she who is very amusing, or if he is being liberal. I suspect it’s the former and it’s pretty true to her spirit, since the tone of the blog seems pretty even. I love a chef who is willing to say, “here are some optional ingredients, but get the fuck out with your substitutes.”

I’ve made her authentic phad thai three times now, and it is delicious, and reminds me of my favorite phad thais in town–tangier, not soupy, with pickles in the base and garlic chives. However, all three times it’s made us sick. The fresh ingredients were perfect, so I strongly suspect that it’s the dried shrimp or the preserved turnip. There’s nothing on the label that says it should be making any of us ill (the turnips read “turnips, salt”) but these are imported items and I don’t know if something was lost in translation, or if there was cross-contamination at the factories. I suppose it could be the sauce, but I got bonkers bobo kind.

I think I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on this recipe, and I still love the dish, but next time I’m going to go bananas and pickle my own radishes or turnips and just use little panfried bay shrimps. And make my own sauce. From tamarinds I have picked myself.

PLEASE SOMEONE INVENT FOOD PILLS I AM SO TIRED.

I made her phad see ew (High Heel Gourmet’s note: “It’s so SIMPLE. It’s beyond simple. To me it’s like posting a recipe for a hotdog!”) It was simple. And it made us feel GREAT. We were not sick one little bit. Again with the simplicity and quantity of the ingredients in a dish. (Of course all bets would be off if I ate a giant bowl of polenta or Cream of Wheat or something.)

As an aside (I think we are about balls-deep in asides by now) it is so awesome to make a dish like that and eat really, obscene amounts of it and lay on the floor after and feel kind of stuffed but not look five months pregnant and have heartburn and the stupids. It’s still novel.

Okay THING THREE is the only thing that is saving my sanity at work right now: Answer Me This! As usual I am about six years behind on everything, but I heard them mentioned on 99% Invisible and I was ripe for some new entertainment.

And entertaining it is. I love the premise, too. Three Brits answering questions about anything they are asked. There’s something charming about answering questions in the age where most people just google it, but of course the actual-factual answers are completely besides the point. I have been listening to 4-6 a day, so it is REALLY permeating my consciousness right now, to the point where I have the theme songs and jingles from the show in my head.

One of my favorite things about the show is how often they are willing to answer questions about American culture, and how they are frequently wrong! I have long suspected that there is a thing with Brits that they disingenuously pretend not to know certain things about America, much the way cool theatre kids in the lunchroom pretend not to even know the names of the dumbest, most popular jocks. And sometimes I think it is true ignorance.

I am also delighted about how ungeeky it can be. One of the hosts unabashedly struggled to remember basic plot points of Star Wars on one I listened to recently, and then decided that she really didn’t care that much. There is also a little casual racism on the part of one of the hosts, to which the other two always reply in unison with a horrified “OLLIE!!”

But what makes it really hooky for me, clunkers and blunders aside and forgiven, is the consideration of fine points of etiquette in human relation matters, attention to proper grammar (which I need more of in my life), and of course, a zillion throwaway references to British culture. For those of you who know I kept a Victorian culture blog for a year, it’s probably no surprise I am a huge and unashamed Anglophile, which I make every effort to keep under my hat. There is little that’s worse or more pretentious than an American slinging around uncommon British slang in conversation like it’s nothing.

…Even though sometimes “bellend” is ABSOLUTELY the perfect word for a person. Whooo could I even say this to? At my last job I worked with a completely delightful Brit who I would get into IMs with and found myself translating temps to Celsius like a knob and talking about things like “boot sales.”

Anyway, everyone needs a hobby, right? I have those in spades. I think what I need now is a PAYING hobby, because I have to confess I am so, so weary of the corporate world. I am not weary of cashing the paychecks, though. This isn’t “boo hoo, poor me I have excruciatingly boring marketable skills” (or maybe it is, click away, baby, click away). I just don’t know what to do for the next…40 years. (A: NOT build a conservatory.) I don’t want to wait tables. I don’t want to go back into a sales job. I don’t want to be unemployed. I do want to go back to school, but just to faff around, not to take anything practical.

Last night I sang stupid xmas carols in the car, which normally I am stubborn about and hate, but then I realized that Franny was having a nice time doing it too, and it seemed like a good idea. Family togetherness and all that, since she has finally hit her hermiting from family phase of being in her room 90% of the time (she sent 2000 texts last week; two of those were to me).

P. commented on it in the morning, that he was surprised by the sight of me singing along to Rudolph and never thought he’d live to see me do that. I thought for a moment.

“I just don’t give a shit anymore,” I said. Not enough energy to hate Xmas anymore, and still not enough lifelong ingrained habit to care about it either. Xmas love is not going to just grow in, unless some kind of Saul-to-Paul Donkeybonk Shenanigans occur. P. said something about people caring less about things as they get older, but I don’t think that’s it.

I am having angst–I think I’m back to my midlife crisis again. I feel like I got pulled/pulled myself back from the brink of something after being sick, and now I don’t know what to do with the first day of the rest of my life. Maybe I should start painting again. JUST WHAT I NEED, ANOTHER HOBBY. What color is my parachute? Whining! Argh.

“I don’t always take damage…but when I do, I drink a potion.”

December 5th, 2014

Let’s get this out of the way: I’ve been sick for almost two weeks now. It’s NBD, just a really annoying cold. I’m excited to say that, perversely. My hands aren’t falling asleep and I’m not covered in lesions or anything. Just a cold! Ha ha! *clicks heels together*

Anyway. Like 99.9% of all people on the planet, being sick makes me less creative, even along the blogways. I haven’t been working on my awesome bullshit writing project either. It’s SUCH a shame too, because my job is RIFE with opportunities for time theft. I am to the point where I am often out of work by 10:30 in the morning, and everyone knows it. What can you do? A: read a lot of blogs and sigh a lot.

However, something jogged the writing impulse today. Over the loudspeaker as we neared downtown, our morning bus driver made a very stilted announcement about the potential of protests blocking roads or delaying traffic this afternoon. In part he informed us that “Metro would do its best today to transport people even if those people [protesters] decided to…uhhh…exercise their constitutional rights today.” Please don’t let him say something crackery racist, I said to myself. I felt like he was teetering on the edge of something awkward and was not used to making impromptu, required announcements like this. He did okay, though.

“What if he is transporting protesters downtown RIGHT NOW?” I asked P. “He keeps calling protesters ‘they’ but what if they are right here?”

“Are you planning something today I don’t know about?” P. asked.

I was planning to go to work and waste space and oxygen at my hourly job. But WHAT IF I thought, looking around at all the white people on my bus in their North Face jackets reading their Kindles. Maybe not.

I didn’t think about it again, really. After work, P. and I were walking to the bus together when a man darted out from a bus stop shelter, away from two other people, and made a beeline for me. He started giving me that kind of hostile patter designed to harass and get a reaction. And when you do react, the person often acts indignant and/or swears at you.

One of my tattoos was barely visible above the neckline of my shirt and he began rapid-firing about that. I darted ahead, instinctively moving faster and leaving P. behind, in part because there was a clump of people waiting for the bus at the stop the man emerged from.

“That’s a nice tattoo girl can I see it I got tattoos on my neck what is that tattoo of…”

I decided the best course of action was just to keep walking, quickly, as I always do and not react at all. I assumed P. was right behind me and would pop up next to me as soon as we left the crush of people.

I was wrong. The man started yelling.

“Man, get your HANDS off me, DON’T TOUCH ME!”

I was shocked to turn and see that he was addressing P. with this. I didn’t see what happened. The next thing I knew, the man lunged at P., grappling him and taking him down with an arm slung around his neck. P. fell on his backpack. They tussled on the ground and I froze for a second: go for phone? Start yelling? The man’s ribs were exposed and I considered kicking him with my rainboot to get him off.

Several thoughts flashed through my mind, layered on top of the “what to do?” thoughts. Did P. hit his head? He went down so gracefully. He has this incredible dexterity and he used to salsa and ballet dance. He even fell beautifully when attacked in the street by a random miscreant. It reminded me of seeing Patrick Swayze jumping over the fence in The Outsiders. Swayze was not capable of doing anything but jumping gracefully, like a gazelle. Was P. going to die? Were the man’s friends he was with at the bus stop going to jump in? HOW WAS I THINKING ALL OF THESE THOUGHTS IN THE SPACE OF ABOUT FIVE SECONDS? I settled on yelling.

“GET OFF HIM! LEAVE HIM ALONE!”

After a few more moments they broke apart. The man turned himself over on the ground like an upended turtle. I realized he was cupping a joint in his hand and it was still smoking. It seemed so absurd, launching into a fight with a joint in your hand!

A few more words were exchanged, and the man called P. a fucking asshole, and taunted him, gloating about taking him down. In the next breath he told us to call the cops, and that he would tell them that we started it. None of it made any sense, but when do these things make sense? In addition to the weed, he smelled like alcohol and like he didn’t have much else to lose.

“What is WRONG with you?” I said, standing over him. He just stared at me. We turned and started walking away quickly. By some incredible luck, a bus we could get home on was loading passengers. “Let’s take that one,” we decided, immediately.

Once I ascertained that P. was okay, and that he hadn’t hit his head, I had to ask him. “Did you touch that guy?” It seemed really wrong and super out of character. P. is NOT any kind of fight-picker.

“He went after you,” he said.

“Yeah, okay, but you could have kept walking with me, it would be okay…”

“No, I mean, when you walked away, he lunged and hit his head on your shoulder. You didn’t feel it, did you? I just put my hand on his shoulder and pulled him back away from you.”

“He tried to…headbutt me?” I asked. This was getting weirder. “I guess he got what he wanted–a fight.”

Obviously it could have turned out much worse, but it was very troubling. The man was African American, and once I calmed down I felt afraid for him, especially considering the political climate and the sad current events in the U.S. As one anonymous, unnotable white lady I don’t think I have all the power in the world, nor do I want it, but sometimes I say a little atheist prayer to myself both that I won’t get hurt and that other people, especially black men, won’t get hurt on my account. I had just listened to Jay Smooth’s latest at my desk the day before and cried a little. These issues were on my mind.

A couple of years ago, well before things came to a boil in Ferguson, I was gassing up in one of Seattle’s dodgier neighborhoods in the late afternoon, well before sunset. I was standing behind the car, as is my custom ever since I had a gas tank overflow on me once years ago, while I stood right near the tank. The girls were in the backseat, facing forward.

A young black man, probably midteens, cut through the gas station parking lot towards a bus stop, a fairly common occurrence with pedestrians in that intersection. I didn’t think much of it. He passed very close to me and muttered at me loudly, as I was probably studying a tree or a cloud or something: “Fucking white-ass bitch, I could beat your fucking ass.” He kept moving and I kept my eye on him, and he crossed the street to the bus.

I wasn’t scared or mad. I didn’t really react at all; I recognized impotent rage when I heard it. I’ve experienced it many, many times myself. That was the first time I had that guilty, unpleasant thought: if you laid a hand on me, there would probably be a special serving of trouble coming your way since I’m a middle-class, white mother gassing up my Honda, and you are a young black man in America. I don’t know how to speak or write about this, and I am aware I am klunking all over the place. I know I keep this blog pretty apolitical, save the occasional feminist screed. So I am going to sound vomitrociously sanctimonious saying this, but the awareness of my privilege made me feel sick to my stomach. Not the fear of him. Fear for him.

In a weird way I admired his brashness, since I had been young-angry once, not understanding targets or consequences. Was I the right target for his rage against white ladies and what they represent sometimes? Maybe not. It made me think a lot though. I hope the kid finds peace and an outlet, but I am also weirdly grateful to him for kicking my bubble like that.

When I said “What is wrong with you” to the man on the ground today I meant “why would you attack someone in the street like that?”, since I have apparently become the cliche of the scoldy, middle-aged white lady, someone’s future grandmother, smacking mashers with her handbag and waving her umbrella and being SHOCKED, SHOCKED that anyone would behave without at least modicum of decorum. But also, I meant please don’t let this end badly at all, for you or for us, but especially not because of the color of my skin and the color of your skin.

Fangs for the memories

November 27th, 2014

Here it is FAAAANGSGIVING again and I have decided to let myself off the hook some this year. I was plotting and planning how to make an exact replica of Thanksgiving, but gluten- and dairy- and corn-free and I said you know what? I am just going to do what I’ve been doing here and play to my strengths. I bought a nice rib roast and it has been sitting in the refrigerator for almost 24 hours coated in salt.

I was that asshole at the store last night who was going “Sooo do you have any more oxtails or what?” No, they have TURKEY. I’m basically doing a very nice Sunday dinner, and I did a half-assed clean, and I feel very good about that. I enjoyed doing the big ten person thing last year, and this year I like the idea of having Morgan and her boyfriend and that’s it! It’s noon and I’m basically done.

This gives me time to recount the horror that was parent-teacher conferences on Tuesday. I am VERY VERY excited about Strudel’s teacher this year. She’s really pushing Strudel to do well. We were expecting to hear that there were behavior issues–the usual thing, talking, not finishing homework, but what we got was pretty over the top.

First there were the coffee cups. I’ve been enjoying a cup or two in the morning before I jump on the bus, or I even take some with me. I even program it to be ready by the time I wake up–such luxury! I can smell it in my dreams. Every day is a fucking coffee commercial. We have three travel mugs and a thermos, but generally the thermos gets used for soup. Two of the travel mugs are kind of crap, but we keep them because one is from a contract agency that P. was indentured to some time ago when we had a tiny baby and barely had two sticks to rub together. The other one has the name of the student org I was VP for in grad school. Memories.

My go-to, non-crap mug was dirty, so I opened the cabinet for a backup mug. There was nothing–the two old crap cups were gone.

“Why did you take the travel mugs to school?” I asked Strudel.

There is no “did you” or “what happened to” needed. I know what happened, and that yes, she did, and I don’t even want to know why. She started making mouth noises about what she was doing with them and that she knew where they both were–probably–and…I cut her off.

We are pretty fatigued by her elaborate stories lately. We had another talk about asking to borrow things, and even if objects appear to be sitting around for years the adults probably still want them. I so did not get that when I was a kid. My sense of time was so short and impatient. I didn’t understand that tools, etc, that sat around collecting dust were still wanted by their owners. So I kind of get where she’s coming from on this. I borrowed things if I thought I could get away with it. After about a week of nagging, both mugs came back home again, were cleaned, and went back to residing in the cupboard, waiting for a road trip or to be called upon as backup.

The mug issue reared its head again in our conference.

“She came in one morning,” her teacher said, “and she had a coffee mug, and was drinking out of it. Of course all of the other kids were shocked that she would be drinking coffee. I figured it was water.” (I knew it was coffee.) “I decided to just ignore it.”

“A sound plan,” I said. I spend a lot of time ignoring small stuff as well.

“Then the next day she brought in another mug. She left it on a table and went out to recess and I smelled it. It was coffee!”

I was completely unsurprised by this one, and to be honest, the biggest issue I had with it was borrowing things without permission, and causing a disruption in the classroom, because it’s a bunch of ten-year olds, not a tech start up. She drinks coffee at home sometimes–it’s not a big deal.

But her teacher wasn’t done.

“And then there was the day she came in with a ring in her nose.”

That one got me. “WHAT?”

“Yes, she had this ring attached to her nose somehow.” Her teacher pointed to one nostril. “Everyone was talking about it, of course. There was a rumor that people were saying: ‘Her mom MADE her pierce her nose.” My jaw dropped. “The other teachers were all talking about it, asking me about it. I just ignored it.”

“Oh jesus. Well that’s good,” I managed. P. was turning crimson and looked like he wanted to die. So basically he looked exactly how I felt.

“By lunchtime it was gone,” her teacher said.

The teacher had some nice things to say that were pretty much in line with what we already knew. She’s a good reader and a good writer and mather…but also has this unfortunate tendency to spontaneously fall out of her chair, which I’m sure is a big hit with her peers. She says she wants to be an engineer, but I am worried she’s going to grow up to be Amy Sedaris.

He and I were pretty subdued on the way home. “That wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” P. said. I thought someone was really enjoying having the watchful eyes of her older sister at another school across town.

As we parked the car, we decided not to bring up the nose ring, and the coffee cups had been dealt with to our satisfaction. I made dinner and the three of us and Franny sat down. I couldn’t resist–I had to tease her a little.

“Your teacher told us EVERYTHING you’ve been up to, you know,” I said, shaking some hot sauce onto my food.

“Everything?” Strudel said in a small voice. “Like what?”

“I don’t want to embarrass you in front of your sister, but let’s say it had the RING of truth. Some of her observations were RIGHT ON THE NOSE.”

Strudel turned a crimson shade and grimaced like her father had been doing hour or so before.

“PLEASE don’t tell Franny what you’re talking about!” she begged.

“I won’t,” I promised. “If you can be good for the REST OF THE YEAR.” She agreed eagerly.

“I have no idea what’s going on here,” Franny said.

Amen, sister.

“I like the pole and the hole, and right now I’m as moist as a snack cake down there.”

November 24th, 2014

“The best doctors in the world are Doctor Diet, Doctor Quiet, and Doctor Merryman.”
–Jonathan Swift,
Polite Conversation

I’m wearing my Jerri Blank pants of “I GOT SOMETHIN TO SAY” but whether or not it’s of any interest is an exercise for the reader. I’m doing better, with some fine-tuning. I was thinking this weekend that I am kind of like a fussy sports car in that everything has to go exactly right, but really I’m more like a broken-down jalopy. So we’re immediately back to Jerri Blank.

What this jalopy needed was MOAR magnesium and potassium. I had slacked off on it since I’m in a shiny modern office building all day again, but yep, I need to be sippin on it all day like orange chalky drank. Whatever works.

I doubt anyone who is reading this reads xojane, which is Jane Pratt’s web manifestation, but you never know. I think I have a nostalgia for Jane Pratt product, she of Sassy-inventing fame. I loved Sassy, and I know lots of women my age have said things like it caused them to be feminist/green-haired/political/whatever but I don’t know if it changed my life.

That’s not entirely true. It did introduce me to the concept of the reusable menstrual cup at an impressionable age. I think you do have to be at some kind of impressionable age to think that toting your own blood barge is a groovy idea. Also the idea that some women don’t shave. Ever. That was amazing, and I cravenly experimented with this bohemian lifestyle choice one winter. Unfortunately it led to a conversation on my one and only ski trip when my pant leg accidentally slid up and two inches of my offensive unshaven leg was on view for ten seconds that basically went like this:

Footballer: Do you think you’re like, a guy or something?

Me: No?

GENDER SHAMED! Also, this was freshman year, so it took a couple more years of rigorous Veronica Mars-sized trauma to go straight to the “FUCK OFF” or “I’LL CUT YOU BITCH” buttons. It is also important to note that I owned this PJ Harvey shirt and wore it well into my twenties until it smelled funny and become less a shirt and more a collection of holes. That was an important thing to do then.

Ultimately, I was kind of sad when I realized that Sassy was meant to have a clubby, inclusive, get-over-here-to-our-table-freak vibe that somehow felt exclusive to me. I imagined these writers were all sitting around braiding each other’s hair and drinking chamomile tea, and well, I knew I wasn’t there. They referenced each other by name in articles and I knew that they were talking to each other, not really to me. It was like reading a really nice slam book, but someone else’s slam book.

I picked up Jane Pratt’s next magazine, Jane, which in hindsight felt like the print version of xojane (albeit more milquetoast because of the nature of print vs. click mongering). I wanted a glossy estrojam but I couldn’t lower myself to buy the dominant, blatant paeans to capitalism and Pleasin Yr Man ™. I’ve done a total 180 on that one. I keep my ISSUES and GENDER and SEXUALITY and POLITICS out of my capitalism peanut butter. I haven’t set foot in a salon in months, sadly, but whenever I went I would go straight for Lucky or In Style. I want my lady mags STRAIGHT UP TRANSACTIONAL nowadays.

So sometimes when I am bored I will fuck off to xojane to see what Jane Pratt and her current stable of Manson Girls employees are up to. The site is being sold off, and it appears to be transitioning somehow, some say dying a rapid death due to commenter/click loss. I tried to comment for the first time the other day and was told my Disqus login was banned. Very weird! I had always entertained fantasies of writing one of their old-school-meets-new-school “It Happened to Me” confessionals, which was a hold over from the print days. Before, you know, those kind of tawdry confessionals were just a click of a publish button away. *cough*

But I dunno now, if I am randobanned, and it looks like the site is kind of dying. I think I’ll keep my eye on Jane Pratt, the way you do a batty old aunt. I still have the IHTM, I just want to give it the time it deserves, since I have to make dinner. It’s times like these I often think of Grace Metalious, so determined to write that she locked her children out. I don’t want to do that, but I would like to buy more time somehow.

In the meantime I guess I’ll just DEAL WITH IT.

“Life, love, stress, setbacks”

November 18th, 2014

FrannyNewPhone 10:06 AM: jmpjtm?tjtpwpwg

FrannyNewPhone 10:10 AM: Bloop bleep mgmp9jamdadwpw0egd-THEOWLSARENOTWHATTHEYSEEM-ngdjsme89fnhsh

FrannyNewPhone 10:11 AM: gojdamjwt67gdj2mjwtmgdje-COOPER-ngskjdfnhkjdsaghksfj.dcd.cd

Out Damned Spot etc

November 17th, 2014

SO. Great morning, really great. What I like to follow up a weekend of intense gastrointestinal distress with is a Monday morning of it. I have called off work and felt kind of wimpy about it until I went back to the bathroom. Again. I could not even make the hour commute to downtown at this rate. The other bus commuters have low tolerance to people shitting themselves, I hear.

I was putting on my work trousers this morning and feeling grateful that my brain is about back to 80%, maybe. Saturday was all derp derp march to fuzz. This morning I noticed my custom cut shirt that fit me perfectly a year ago now hangs funny and the darts stick out. I’d been a D-cup for…over 15 years? I am now officially a C-cup, which I can’t remember happening since high school. Also they don’t hurt MOST OF THE TIME. Or at all really. I’m going to tell you something, because that’s what I do: sometimes I will be sitting on the couch and I will think of my boobs and I will squeeze them REALLY HARD. Not to the point of damage or bruising or anything. Just much, much harder than I have ever been able to for like 1,000 years.

I demonstrated this to Franny recently, who was amazed. She thinks I am going insane (short trip). We are working on stamping out (bad visual) her breast pain as well. We’re getting there. She is not as consistent with vitamins as I am, but she notices that she feels MUCH better now on them.

P. came in while I was thinking these deep booby thoughts, standing in my bra and trousers, before I put my shirt on.

“Yeah, you’re looking poofy today.”

THE MAGICAL WORDS EVERY WOMAN LONGS TO HEAR. It’s like the honeymoon never ended in this house.

(Seriously though, it was true. I was wearing pants I needed a belt for last week and they were not tight but they were snug on the waist. I wasn’t really offended. It was just a fact. He is very frank about these things. On Friday night he said, “You’ve shrunk a little again.”)

I think there’s probably stages of Celiac for some people, and the one I think I am on is that I lose my mind a little bit if I get “glutened.” I become Detective Obsesso until I figure out what happened. And guess what? Most of the time it is not certain or clear at all.

I usually have effects fast, within an hour or two, so it’s pretty easy to chain back to when it happened. If I feel HULK SMASH ANGRY, have lesions on my scalp or upper back, and itch and fidget like I am a cartoon character with the DT’s, I know it’s corn. If I am pooping myself, have joint pain, and feel confused, it is probably dairy or wheat.

How did I get through life like this for so many years? I had severe joint pain on Saturday night, the kind I remember happening back to ’09 or so, and I used to just blame that on my quality of sleep. Which was poor, because, you know, wheat etc. I was running 5Ks 2-3 times a week then (in addition to other stuff like push ups, pull ups, and lots of walking everywhere), and eating healthy food (so I thought) and I felt terrible most of the time and could not lose “that last fifteen pounds” to save my life in spite of a rigorous training schedule.

So Saturday night I just sat on the couch, folded laundry, and bingewatched three Parenthoods to catch up, my guilty semi-pleasure show. I am on deathwatch with every single character on that show. ESPECIALLY the character of Ray Romano’s daughter (wishful thinking). Also am mad that I actually enjoy watching Ray Romano now. WHAT KIND OF UPSIDE DOWN WORLD IS THIS.

Strudel was home alone with me since Frannie was off with her dad and P. was at his bimonthly game night. “These people are SO NICE,” she kept exclaiming. It seems like there’s much less yelling and crosstalking than in previous seasons.

“Do you like them?” I said.

“They’re kind of boring,” she concluded.

Word.

Speaking of boring, let me tell you what my life is like now. I will say first that I really like it! It’s working most of the time. 98% of what goes into my mouth, I have made myself from single components. Example: salad dressing. Sometimes salad dressing has gluten of some kind. Many, many products are now going gluten free. THAT’S GREAT! Problem: they are “manufactured in a facility where someone once whispered the word ‘wheat’ on the factory floor under a blanket at midnight.” (Cross contamination.) If this is not the case, sauces often contain dairy. Or corn. Or xanthan gum.

Well, fuck that shit. I make my own salad dressings now. I would often bang a vinaigrette together in the past, but now, I make a jar of something once a week, and that’s what we eat that week. Most dressings I make have about five ingredients, give or take. I make a riff on Annie’s shiitake sesame dressing, because we used to love that. I make classic French vinaigrettes. I made a great “Russian” for a noir night.

I am HUGE into sauces. Dressings, hot sauces, bizarro catsups (so good on hash browns). I have been introducing sauces slowly, at the rate of one per week, tops. On Friday I brought home some safe looking Thai sweet chili sauce (made with cane sugar, no thickeners), and that is the only thing I did different. I made one of my comfort food meals, which sounded great on a Friday night–rice and stir-fried broccoli and marinaded chicken thighs to make quick Thai barbecue. By Saturday morning, Strudel and I were both ill. I immediately thought of that new chili sauce, but then, P. hates sweet sauces, so he didn’t have any at all. WHAT WAS IT???

Okay so anyway. I am trying to figure out what happened. I think it went back to Friday night, since Strudel and I were sick by Saturday morning, and P. was sick by Sunday. But I cannot crack it. And the reality is, I will not be able to figure this out.

This is the part where I do the little dance of “I am so lucky that there are so many things I can still eat, and at least I don’t have crotch rot/ass horns/veganism.” And I am glad I am not trying to just jam my square peg into the round hole of most of the food that is available outside my doorstep. I’m aware that I’m probably going to live longer, and I am definitely living better. But it’s weird. I’m very aware that most of the social/leisure part of the world is now out of my grasp without moderate to extensive planning. I’m aware that I’m going to have sick days where I cannot leave the radius of my bathroom.

I’d like to write today (real creative writing, not this blathering) but I am still pretty unfocused. However, this flash fiction I started to keep myself busy this summer when I was working 15 hours a week is shaping up into something, and I am working on an outline for another novel, so that’s good. I’m trying to accept that I am 98% transmogrified into Kilgore Trout at this point and I will never write Serious Important Fiction ever. Because Donkey Surgeon.

HAPPY MONDAY!

Advice Thursday: February 3, 2007

November 13th, 2014

DEAR ABBY: My son recently got in touch with me after almost four years of absolutely no contact. We had a falling-out years back, and neither of us could seem to put things behind us at the time and move on.

His mother (my wife) died 3 1/2 years ago, and he barely made it back for the funeral.

He called after all this time to ask me for money. It seems he has fallen on hard times and needs my support. I am not sure I am in a position financially to help him, as I am nearing retirement and concerned about my own expenses. I also feel a little resentful that after all this time, the only reason he called was for money.

I’m afraid if I don’t help him, I will lose him forever. But should I give him money as a way to keep him in my life? I am torn about the situation. I want to be a good father and help my son, but what does that mean? – UNSURE IN NEW YORK

DEAR UNSURE: If your son is without a job, help him find one if you can. But do not jeopardize your retirement. Much as one might wish it, money can’t buy love. Until you and your son iron out what went wrong in your relationship, such an investment would not bring you the return you are looking for.

Malcolm woke up, as he did most mornings, to the sound of braying. Drunken braying, if there was such a thing. An experienced person could always tell the difference between a respectable donkey and one that was in his cups. And at this hour! The birds were just warming up, broadcasting their calls out to indifferent or sleeping ears. Grey light was just beginning to ooze through the skylights. It must be–

“Four-thirty,” a voice chirped from the speaker hanging out of his kitchen wall, delicately tethered by only a few wires.

“Are you still here, asshole?” Malcolm asked, staring at the ceiling.

“I’m always here,” came the response, followed by a particularly juicy hiccup. He heard a bottle skitter across the floor, kicked by that klutz, no doubt.

Malcolm rose from the warm spot his body had made on the plastic floor, and held on to the edge of the Formica counter to steady himself. He was relieved to see there was no wet spot of any kind under or on his person this morning. He looked across the clutter on his counter–ignored paperwork, magazines, dirty mugs, food wrappers–into the living room at his visitor.

“Do you ever wonder what it’s like to sleep in your own bed, Herman?” he asked.

“I hear it’s overrated.” An annoyed ear flick, a shuffling of feet, a twiddling of the thumbs of his creepy hands. Malcolm knew what came next. “Are you giving out refills, or what?” Herman picked up last night’s mug and jiggled it at his host, who lurched forward automatically to take it.

Malcolm hunted through a few of his flimsy particle board cabinets. They were filled with mostly empty boxes of stale crackers that he didn’t remember acquiring and odds and ends like wrenches and a dented party hat from some mandatory fun.

And a stock boy vest. Malcolm could not bring himself to think of it as his stock boy vest anymore than he could think of himself as a stock boy.

The last cabinet door he opened came off in his hands. He stared at for a moment, noticing the still-attached hinges with their protruding, stripped screws, before sliding it carefully into the gap between the stove and the counter.

“Coffee,” he said. That’s what was needed here. He remembered that he’d last seen it under the sink.

“Vodka!” Herman countered from where he slumped on Malcolm’s inflatable sofa.

“Did I ever tell you that my father made coffins?” Malcolm asked. A distraction: Herman was always up for one of those. Malcolm fished the can of coffee out. The lid was gone. He wondered where the lid had gotten to. It was important for some reason…

“No, you never did,” Herman said, rolling his eyes. He grunted and rolled around on the sofa, making its rubbery surfaces squeak lewdly.

Malcolm took a deep breath. He felt the story, often told, spinning up from a deep, old place. Sometimes he wondered that he could remember events that happened more than 30 years ago better than what happened last week.

“My father learned how to make coffins from his father. He would retrieve the wood himself from the distrohub, choosing the highest grade of wood for each one. He made coffins for rich men with custom inlays and would do the carving himself. It took so long that they were often paid for years in advance.”

“And you almost took up the trade yourself….”

“I almost took up the trade myself, but Mother had other plans. ‘I see something in you, Malcolm. You’re special.” He aped a mother’s voice, but realized it wasn’t what his mother sounded like. It was more like a television mother. A nice one. Herman liked it when he did voices. It was, at one time, one of Malcolm’s talents. He’d had a few good years giving voices to animated bears and whatnot. It was easy work with a script in front of you and no need to comb your hair, if you didn’t feel like it that day.

“I hired a coffin from your father but I don’t know where it is anymore,” Herman said.

I do, Malcolm thought. He made a non-committal reply and put the coffee pot on.

“I think you should just skip to the part where you met me,” Herman said. Malcolm made for the living room to do his customary pacing while he was waiting for his coffee to finish, but was pushed back by an appalling smell Herman had made. He opened the front door instead.

Malcolm looked out his door at the courtyard before him, morning sunlight streaming through the ficuses, and saw that the streetlights beginning to snap off. The small birds that always managed to get in sang feebly in the bushes, their chirps bouncing off pillars and walls. He heard the sounds of his part of the Village waking up: bottles clanging in collection bins, whoop-whoops rolling around keeping an eye on things. Mrs. Thomson across the way yelling at her poor deaf boyfriend.

The hologram in the center of the courtyard flicked off news and onto a pop singer, shirt hanging open, wailing into a microphone. They kept fixing the imaging base and Mrs. Thomson’s boyfriend kept smashing it again. Malcolm sighed and retreated from his doorway.

Coffee. Yes, that was the thing. Malcolm poured himself a cup and waited for it to cool. It seemed like all his life was now was waiting, just like when he was a kid, before he’d had his big break.

“Something almost happened,” he said.

“Eh?” Herman said, his eyes still closed. Malcolm watched as Herman’s hands ran over his pelt and crawled over his legs, hooves kicking. He hoped that Herman had not brought fleas in again, but it was pointless to say anything. Better just to roll him out of here and have the property management fumigate.

“So Mother took me to the big city for an audition. Bright-eyed children wanted, background in tumbling ideal. That was a big week for me. Father had just decided he could trust me with the planer.” He looked at his trembling hands, untouched by manual labor. He remembered his father’s–the scarred, enlarged knuckles, palms that felt like the sandpaper he worked with.

“Then you met me,” Herman said.

“Not for a couple of years. There were the commercials, and then the Children’s Mystery Hour–”

“Friday nights, seven o’clock.”

“–And then you came as a guest star, a crossover from your medical drama–”

“Donkey Surgeon,” Herman finished. “The start of our friendship.”

“I wanted to talk about Father,” Malcolm said, picking up his coffee.

“He was a good man, which is why I had him make my coffin when I had money. The only man in the whole Southeast who made specialty coffins.”

“Final repose for unique personages.”

Malcolm sensed movement outside. A skinny fellow, barely more than a boy, framed himself in the open door.

“Mr. McKee?” He edged into Malcolm’s doorway, a darker shadow with the glow of sunrise outlining him. He hadn’t seen this boy before. He had bad teeth and those fat modern sneakers that look more like medical devices than footwear, probably provided by management if he was to run errands and messages like this.

“What is it?”

“They want you at 3 p.m. today.”

“Just me?”

The boy hesitated, raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”

“Okay.” Malcolm nodded. The boy wasn’t moving and Malcolm stared at him, waiting.

“Mr. McKee? I saw you on Sky History. Your old show?”

“Oh yes?” Malcolm stood up a bit straighter and tugged his shirt down. He wished then he wasn’t wearing yesterday’s clothes, though the boy had no way of knowing he was.
“It was good, sir. You murdered every line.” Before Malcolm could reply, the boy retreated, leaving a streak of shadow, footfalls muffled from the lurid plastic booties he wore, and then nothing.

“Do you want to run lines?” Herman asked him, snapping him back to the room.

“For what?”

“Your appearance today.”

Malcolm shrugged. “It’s just remarks. Not lines. ‘Savings that aren’t a mystery.’ Some claptrap like that and then cut a ribbon, or pretend to cut a virtual one. What time is it?”

“The time is four fifty-three,” the dangling wall speaker said.

“I’m going to be late,” Malcolm said.

He took a large swig of his hot coffee. He felt it all the way to his stomach and he imagined it traveling in one burning bubble like some elevator down to hell. His jaw clicked as he recoiled from the pain of it. He’d be feeling that later. He pulled the stock boy vest out of the open cabinet and remembered then it had something sticky on the front, just below where his nametag was meant to go–cough syrup? No matter, on it went.

“Do you remember–”

“I don’t have time, Herman.”

“The last day of the shoot. You kids were supposed to ride me down by the river.” Malcolm stopped just outside of his doorway, impatient, not wanting to cut him off, but not wanting to swipe in late and lose some of his privileges for the week.

“Which was outside of your contract,” Malcolm said.

“It was outside of my contract, but I needed the go away money for my first wife. Ugh.”

“Do we have to do this now?” Malcolm felt himself shifting from foot to foot, antsy.

“And you slipped! You slipped off the back. Do you remember, Malcolm? And then I slipped, I guess. I panicked. I had a little bit of what they called a–”

“Drinking problem,” Malcolm said. He sat down on the small plastic square that signified what would be a foyer in a more reasonably-sized residence and stared at the cracks and ground-in dirt. He looked out to see Mrs. Thomson watering her plants as she did every morning, humming loudly and tunelessly. He often thought it was a blessing her boyfriend couldn’t hear her, ever. “I landed on my feet,” he prompted.

“And I kicked. Very humiliating. They thought they had zapped that kind of behavior right out of me. But that day I was tight as a tick. I went back to the time before–”

“When you had just one name.”

“The time is now four fifty-seven in the a.m.,” the wall speaker interrupted. Malcolm felt certain it had developed a testy tone, or was at least speaking louder.

“When I was just Pancho, Malcolm! It felt so good to kick.” He stopped then, and looked as mortified as was possible with a face that could only approximate human expressions. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t say that.” He sat up partway then, leveling his head, attempting to make eye contact with Malcolm for as long as he could keep his eyes focussed.

“It’s okay,” Malcolm said.

“But then I connected with something.” Herman ran his hands over his muzzle. His horrible, crawling, superfluous hands that were a mistake, that science should never have given to him, regardless of how much the people didn’t know they badly wanted to see a donkey perform surgery on live television.

“My face. You connected with my face.” Malcolm felt his jaw begin to click involuntarily, as it did when he thought back to that day.

Eleven years old. Episode four. Jaw shattered and then rewired. He had been intervened with and then rebuilt just as Herman had, the difference being that Herman went from being a dumb animal to a star, and Malcolm went from being a rising star to being a trivia question on a quiz show. Herman was given human flesh and he was given metal plates and pins. His father out of his reach, after his mother had taken him to live in the big city to be near the television studios. Why did he never go back? He didn’t remember.

Work–he had to go to work. He stood, making himself dizzy. It was going to be a long day.

“Do you ever think about that? That was so long ago,” Herman said.

“Every day,” Malcolm said to himself, closing his door on his empty apartment behind him.

Last Name Ever First Name Dumbest

November 10th, 2014

My first week at work was uneventful, EXCEPT! On Thursday I managed to pull a boner and completely mangle myself. I once had a conversation with someone about how you know you’re not a little kid anymore when you can unknowingly cut yourself and find the blood all scabbed up much later with a, “Huh, how did that happen?” I thought of that conversation on Thursday.

I had one of those mystery cuts on the tip of my right pointer finger, I noticed, as I stood waiting for my evening bus. “Weird,” I thought. “I must have dragged it across something sharp.” It was pretty shallow and obviously hadn’t bled much. My bus came and I forgot about it. I felt my bag vibrate and fished around in my pockets for my phone–it was probably the big kid saying she had gotten on her bus as well.

I felt something on my middle finger of my right hand that felt like an itchy shock. Another tiny slice! It was bleeding a little as well. I began gingerly feeling around the new bag The Man had issued me to hold my laptop. My phone buzzed again and I went for it: ZAP! I fully gashed open my left middle finger.

I stupidly watched blood drip down my middle finger and begin pooling in my left palm. I had–nothing. Not a tissue, napkin, sock, or even a sweater. I was contemplating using my coat when the lady across the aisle handed me a big wad of tissues.

“Thanks!” I said. “I think there’s a sharp zipper or something…”

“There’s a knife sticking out of your pocket,” she said.

Oh god. I brought a paring knife in my bag on Wednesday and completely forgot about it, and it came loose from the pocket it was in, or maybe cut through the pocket, and I was repeatedly cutting myself with it. I was officially the dumbest person on the bus, and a creep to boot, because only creeps bleed profusely on the bus without even realizing it. Was I on the PCP? Did my elevator not go all the way to the penthouse? I imagined people were edging away from me.

I applied pressure by clenching a fist and noticed that I had blood between every single one of my fingers of my left hand, as if I had just ripped out my enemy’s still-beating heart and was about to take a juicy bite out of it. A lady in the back corner told me to apply pressure to my wrist.

My face was hot and I tried to make myself invisible. I accidentally made eye contact with the teenaged boy sitting across from me who finally looked up from his phone. He took one look at me and went right back to his phone. “Crazy old lady on the bus bleeding from hand” I imagined him snappchatting at his friends. I had to stifle the urge to flee the bus and get out into the cold air and cry a little, because your first week is always a long week and I was tired as well as embarrassed.

I could have a fresh start on a new bus, the next bus, I reasoned. But then it would take me much longer to get home because it wouldn’t be an express bus and what if I needed stitches or something? Or a brain transplant, at least.

So I got home and sat on the couch and felt sorry for myself. Nothing tires me out like embarrassment, I think. And now I have a Zorro “z” on my middle finger and something to cringe about when I remember it.

Here’s me and my sister with The Tigerlillies from last Wednesday. She got the DJ Morgan discount. It is fun to go out with my sister, especially when it involves an early evening!

Advice Wednesdays: December 17, 1991

November 5th, 2014

DEAR ABBY: I’ve waited almost a year after my mother died to write this letter. I am one of five children, and obviously the only one who even cares if the date gets put on our mother’s tombstone.

Is there a polite way of mentioning this to my brothers and sisters? I make minimum wage and can’t afford to do this myself or I would. Any advice would be helpful.– NO NAME, CITY OR STATE

I’m going to do something which simply doesn’t happen very often, which is recommend one of my esteemed counterparts: Cary Tennis. Just kidding! That shrublet couldn’t advise his way out of a three-foot-high noodle forest. And it’s important to keep in mind that in this scenario the noodles are cooked (al dente).

Who I really meant was Miss Manners. Miss Manners says it is rude to point out the rudeness of others. This can lead to quite a pickle, sometimes! But it’s important to remember that breaking this rule by both sides led to the Third Punic War. Carthage sent a fruit basket and Rome didn’t respond! Carthage really should have left well enough alone. But no! Elephants. Always with the elephants.

This, of course, reminds me of when I was an older girl, almost a woman, when they passed the first phase of all the proper burial laws like you have today. My parents were up in arms then. In the old days, you could just lay a body to rest almost anywhere, really. As long as it was far enough away from the water supply.

The morning of the last truly grand funeral I was to attend, I am ashamed to tell you I was actually excited. It was my Great-Great Uncle Kilgore. I didn’t know him well and he lived in another territory, so none of us really knew him. It was set to be more of a catch-up than an occasion of deep sadness. Mother met him once when she was a girl, during some kind of trip to hand off a cousin for a wedding, but all she remembers is that he smelled like gin and wore a ushanka, even in the house. What man over twenty-four doesn’t, though?

Uncle Killy had made it to the other side of 100. How far in he was, we are not certain, because this was when they routinely burned down orphanages during quarantines and outbreaks. Mother’s best guess was 104, based on some signatures from a moldy old Bible she found in our attic.

We traveled for four days. I’ve forgotten most of the trip, which was uneventful, except for passing through two towns that had the painted sign of cat-on-HVAC on barns and garages, which meant that everyone was down with the gollywompers. In the second town the painting was only half finished, and Father said the sign painter must’ve died mid-brushstroke. How my younger brothers and sisters screamed with laughter as Father mimed clutching his throat and keeling over like the painter did! We didn’t want to catch what he had, not while we were on the road, let me tell you!

We made a pretty good guess then that this was why our neighbors never came back last summer. And that was all right with us, because we took over their garage to dry our weed in (the Andersons had already gotten to the house).

We got to Uncle Killy’s town and found it out of quarantine, which was a relief. Though if you ask me, the younger ones were just glad to take a trip anywhere, even if we would have turned back immediately. Mother marveled at the fact that the old gallows were in place, and that the townsfolk still clung to the tradition of decorating them with flower garlands every week the ground wasn’t frozen. It was the only detail she seemed to remember from her last visit as a girl.

We met our people out by one of the big barns that was nearly emptied of grain, since winter had just ended. There was a marvelous feast that night. Father told us to savor every bite since the canned meat, a delicacy, was hard earned by slaying some folk in another territory and digging it up from a secret underground cache. We children reflected on this as we surveyed the display of empty gold cans the meat was stored in, arranged into a pyramid, their labels long destroyed with time. The younger ones had never had MSG and it was a real treat. Mother reminded us that we should profusely thank our distant relatives for serving us like this. What showoffs!

A breeze blew through the barn, first announced by the flickering of the tiki torches outside the door. We children looked up from our dinners as the ropes creaked against the old rafters. My smallest brother said he was worried that Uncle Killy’s body would come down on us while we were eating.

“It’s lashed up good, dummy,” I said. This was no sibling rivalry. Sput really was dumb as a bag of hammers. The summer after that we think he fell down an old mine shaft or into a ravine. No one was certain and I’m pretty sure Mother and Father didn’t bother looking too hard.

“Was he really a bear?” Sput asked quietly. He blinked his beady eyes and paused with a bite halfway to his mouth. From where he was sitting, Uncle Killy looked like a dead bear on its back hanging from a net of ropes. I understood his confusion, but it didn’t stop me from wanting to smack him on the back of his head and take his meat.

“No,” Mother said. “They cut a bear open and sewed Uncle Killy up inside of the bear.”

“Why?”

“No one knows, Sweetheart,” she said. Liar.

We were put to bed in a different barn that night, thank goodness. I didn’t want to sleep with that creaking above me, especially since I was pretty sure I had seen something drip from the bear’s carcass onto the dessert table. The adults stayed up and caught up, doing whatever they needed to do to reconnect as a family–drinking, fucking, hammerfighting, and so forth. I think Mother was hoping to be knocked up by one of our distant cousins with bright green eyes. We were told if we woke up early to go play by the creek and not wake up any adults, as they were sure to have hangovers and/or concussions.

Sput was up first, and shook me awake. I was assigned to him and always had to help him when Mother or Father weren’t available or were working. I did have a pang when he disappeared later, because I knew that would put me in line to take over the care of Mother’s next baby and I didn’t relish raising another one. Sput was a screamer and a barfer when he was small.

“I have to go,” he said.

“Bye,” I said.

“Aaaaabby I will wake up Mother!” His whining was making the other kids stir, and I knew they would all need something too.

“If you wake up Mother you’ll be strung up next to Uncle Killy,” I warned.

His eyes went wide and he shut his stupid mouth for a minute.

“I’m scared of this place,” he said, barely above a whisper.

I wouldn’t admit it, but I was too. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and we walked out into the morning, his sticky hand in mine. I hadn’t gotten a good look at the meadow surrounding the barns yesterday evening, since we were quickly ushered inside for dinner. I could hear birds and enjoyed the sight of dew glistening on the new-sprouted hay.

I took Sput to the creek, downstream from the barns.

“Go here,” I told him. “I’ll be over there.” I pointed to a stand of pricker bushes that were thick enough to shield me from view, though they hadn’t entirely leafed out yet.

I had my skirt hiked up around my hips and was letting it rip when I heard the scream–a woman’s. It felt too good to stop so I gave it a few seconds more before I cut my stream off. I figured whatever it was, I probably couldn’t help anyway. I heard a crunching nearby and saw that Sput had run over to where I was, dinger flapping in the breeze, piss dribbling down the front of his pants.

“Abby! I see your butt!” he laughed.

“So what? Put your pecker away, dumbass.”

We rushed back to the big feast barn, where the adults now gathered, and I saw some kids were being held back or shooed. At twelve I thought I was too old to shoo. I was right–Mother let me come forward and stand next to her. Uncle Killy’s young widow wept, surrounded by some of our cousins.

“This is not going to end well,” Mother said, sotto voce. I remember focusing on her fresh black eye as she spoke. “Gather up the kids.”

The breeze from last night had stuck around, still licking its way through the barn, playing at the ropes, which had been cut and freed from their burden. Their frayed edges yielded no clue as to the location of Uncle Killy’s body or the bear that contained him: vanished.

My advice to you, NO NAME, CITY OR STATE, is to buy a Sharpie and decorate your mother’s tombstone any way you damn like. Future date it, see if she walks again. There’s a reason your other four sibs don’t give a rat’s rannuculus about your mother’s final resting place. It’s all you.