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With Apologies to the Hungarian Cafe


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I think a lot of us who suppressed artistic pursuits for years are revisiting the possibilities now that we’ve lost our “real” jobs. Among my own circle of friends and acquaintances, I’ve seen a sales rep become a photographer, a realtor start up a home-grown theater program, and a downsized tech guru switch to consulting and focusing on his music career.

A couple weeks ago, I traveled back to New York City, the place where I nurtured my dreams as a young adult. As a teen in Long Island, I’d occasionally catch the commuter train in the early morning and spend the day in the Village, maybe take in a Woody Allen retrospective at a theater, drink coffee and smoke Camels, all without any awareness of the irony such cliches deserve. I left the area for college but moved back in my twenties, lived in a fifth-floor tenement walk-up and worked at a bookstore. I went to cafes as a pretension, sitting there and making a half-hearted attempt to write, or at least to pretend to write. “Look at me, won’t you? I’m writing in a cafe. Regard my thrift-store hipster clothing.” (I’m sorry, Hungarian Cafe near St. John the Divine, I don’t think I ever covered the rent on my chair all those hours.)

In college I majored in journalism. That was the compromise I made with my parents, who were, after all, fronting the bill for my tuition. There was one thing I was sure I could do, and that was write. In fourth grade I began announcing that I wanted to be an “author,” but despite years of trying, I couldn’t seem to translate that desire into the role of “journalist.” I wanted to write about emotions and memories. I didn’t want to chase after reality and chronicle it, I wanted to create my own, or at least poetically interpret what I saw, and I didn’t see how to do that in media.

I’m sorry now for my shortsightedness, and for the fact that I didn’t explore my options more fully. When I was asked (which I was, often, throughout my life,) “why didn’t you ever ‘do anything’ with your writing?” my pat answer was something along the lines of, “But I have. Everything I’ve done professionally and personally has benefited from it.” That’s a load of crap, and I know that now. I could turn a phrase in a thread of business emails, and express myself decently when I needed to put my best face forward. Resumes and cover letters came easily. I also wooed my fair share of lovers through my written sentiments and wordy rhapsodies.

When Facebook entered into the picture, I started to rediscover old college friends I’d been either too drunk or too careless to maintain contact with. Interestingly, many of them had become editors, were working in publishing, or were authors of books. I felt fleeting bitterness: I could have done this! Why didn’t I do this? After awhile, one or two of those friends began to quietly mentor me, and then I had a blog, and then a few more writing assignments came here and there.

I had to have the bud of a writing career lain blatantly in my lap, on the heels of professional ruin. Thank goodness for confessional blogs.

My professional experience as an independently-contracted sales rep became, ’round about 2008, an extraneous luxury for the companies I represented. If they didn’t completely change their business model to eliminate that position, at the very least the commissions dried up to nearly nothing. But now, years later, I’m sitting at a cafe around the corner from my house, writing long and hard for the few places that pay me to do so. It’s my work and I love it. And you know what? I’m noticing a lot more people writing here. It’s become difficult to score one of the good tables with an electrical outlet, now.

I think a lot of us who suppressed artistic pursuits for years are revisiting the possibilities now that we’ve lost our “real” jobs. Among my own circle of friends and acquaintances, I’ve seen a sales rep become a photographer, a realtor start up a home-grown theater program, and a downsized tech guru switch to consulting and focusing on his music career. I will never downplay the struggles of our poverty, but I greet this artistic revolution with gratitude.

So I had my short trip to New York, in order to meet with some people who have been instrumental in my fledgling writing career. I got to sit on the subway not as a bitter and unfulfilled bookstore employee, but as a writer. I got to look at those long avenues with their rivers of taxicab yellow as a (very lightly) employed “creative,” and I felt younger than I ever felt when I was a resident of that great city, several long lifetimes ago. It was so good to come full circle with those lost dreams; to walk up to the brownstone building of My. Literary. Agent! I’m not embarrassed to say I cried.

I’m a person who is prone to crushing sadness. It’s a thread that has remained constant throughout everything I’ve done and written. As cornball as it sounds–and I’m actually cringing as I write this–I take comfort in what was my first spoken word: “light.”

That said, I am overdue to honor my mentors: Robert Feinstein, Jeremy Smith, Neal Gorenflo, Lisa Belkin, Candace Walsh, Brian Doherty, and Laura Jackson among the many who’ve shown me The Light, and other unnamed benefactors who let me have my moment. I finally get to be a writer now.

What Led Me to Having Thanksgiving with Tyranni-Sue at a Mental Hospital


Prologue: I was prepared to post this four days ago, until I got some truly horrible, absolutely devastating and completely unexpected news in the mail, which put me into such a cycle of hopelessness that I . . . forced, I guess?–through a bereft text to someone I thought was a trusted confidante–my psychiatrist of dubious professional judgment (okay, he had a half-star on Yelp, which should have been a red flag, but I have always had a thing for the underdog) to 5150 me to the local psych ward, which led to a transport to a Mental Facility. So I spent Thanksgiving Day–and the three days following–in a psychiatric hospital, acknowledged to be misplaced and thoroughly unjustly admitted by any of the few qualified experts who actually spoke to me. The rest of the time, I tried sleeping (pillow-free) while tears pooled on a bolted-down vinyl bed, all my personal belongings removed from me, prohibited from anything pleasure-giving including exposure to outdoors, touching or being touched by anyone with loving reassurance on the shoulder, reading (until my husband delivered one paperback book and some magazines,) or even using my own toiletries. I watched a young man gouge bloody chunks from his arm with a plastic spoon until he was given enough Norco and Valium that he became a tree, swaying slightly, a fixture on the perimeter of the short hallway that I paced tearfully for hours. I watched one woman go down into a prostrate pose–unresponsive for two hours–as I cried and called out “Sue! Tyranni-sue!”–her name for herself,) and tried to get help from any source, frantically alerting the nurses and ultimately the custodial staff, (who never in the days I was there cleaned the feces-smeared, solitary water fountain.) They finally pulled her away when her bladder let loose. We never found out what happened to her, but she did make off with pieces of all of our clothing. Tyranni-Sue loved to take people’s clothes, even Clarissa’s, who outweighed her four-fold.

Never in three days did I see anything therapeutic occur. I was never told anything but NO, never responded to with anything but “that’s our procedure,” and when I asked for a library, there was none. Music? No. A visit outdoors? Absolutely not. It was the darkest and most soul-murdering three-plus days of my life. I am so glad to be home. I wonder if that’s part of their therapy: show you hell, so that no matter how bad things get well, hell, you’ve seen worse. Following, the piece I had been about to publish before my slow-motion tour through a psychiatric hospital. It is my deepest hope none of you ever find yourself at a similar institution. If you do, we’re pulling a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

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I was earning five figures a month in sales commissions when the economy melted down in 2008. With shocking suddenness, my retail clients stopped ordering, and the checks stopped coming. My husband couldn’t readily help. He left the IT field when our two younger children were born in order to be a stay-at-home father, and of course found his skills had become too outmoded for him to jump back in. If we had only bought a house outside our income bracket and had been forced to foreclose, it would have been a complete cliché. Either way, my family and I were now at least one version of poster children for the Great Recession.

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For about a year, we spun our wheels, trying to adjust to our new reality. I began a much-lower paying job in my industry while concurrently starting an upbeat blog about downsizing and simplifying after living comfortably and well during the boom times, and at first I got lots of hits. Our survival decisions were often dramatic and made for good reading: superficially-speaking, we notably downgraded our lives. We gave up our tame and tidy suburban comfort and sold our only car. At the time, and for a while after, it seemed that people were paying attention and respected our choices. But eventually our story got old enough that it felt like a caricature of itself: what I dourly called, “Chicken Soup for the Recessionista’s Soul.” “The New Poor” is no longer at the top of every news feed—even though in our greater metropolitan area, Sacramento, the number of unemployed now exceeds all previous records. 

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When I was a child, the one unforgivable crime in our house was laziness. In the family’s oral history, my ancestors’ work ethic was granted near-mythological status. They were solid Midwesterners and Southern Protestants, of Scottish and Scandinavian background, and like most Oklahomans, they had a bit of Cherokee blood—but above all, they were stalwart and duty bound. My grandparents were of the generation that soldiered through the Great Depression as children, and through World War II as young adults. They planted victory gardens. They doubled-up and doubled-down in hard times, bunking with relatives and reducing their quality of life in order to Do The Right Thing while it was required of them. Through everything, they worked. And worked. And when he retired, my grandfather left behind a job he had held for 40 years, but he kept working. Every morning he put on a pair of coveralls and looked for Something To Do. Idle hands? No such thing, not in our family. There was no room for the sort of chair-sittin’ and atrophy that marked the retirement years of other types of people.

My parents had sternly warned me on occasion as I was growing up that my chosen profession, to write, to be an “author,” I said, (actually, the profession that chose me . . . the one that came most naturally, fed me at someplace deep in the dark good roots of nerves and sinew, and rolled out through my fingertips as surely and easily as crayons in that factory montage we all saw on Sesame Street, the answer I gave to anyone who asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” from as early as I can remember, the one that led to teachers nominating me for school-wide awards year after year) was not a realistic career path. So I reluctantly set that wish on a shelf, and, after years of foundering in one college, and then night school after failing the first go ‘round, doing things I didn’t want to be doing, I earned my degree at twenty-five. This led to years of a stunning study of mediocrity, progressing on through the decades through menial jobs of varying levels of enjoyment, until I eventually got plucked out of the crowd by some keen-eyed corporate executives and became their traveling salesperson. An “independent sales rep.” Quite like my father had been—perhaps not coincidentally—and finally making very good money in a job that I was at least competent in doing. I had done the right thing by denying myself the creative path, I thought, despite decades lost and friends rediscovered always asking first of me: “What did you ever do with your writing?”

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That’s partly why the first months of the recession left me dumbstruck, blinking slowly and wondering what would come next. I had done the right thing. I had pushed aside my creative aspirations and joined the flock of coffee achievers. I was a business traveler. My family wanted for nothing. Everything around me was beige and new and safe, plush and hushed by the wall-to-wall carpeting and the hum of the ice-maker and the central heat and air.

Now we find ourselves heading into our fifth year of living at less than half of the the poverty line for our family size, and I’m sitting at a café, writing with the vague hope of being paid for my work sometime in the future. It has happened before, sometimes consistently—we have been on national TV for our lack of car in suburbia (because that is worthy of note, and gets shocked reactions still, I’ve found, which shocks me, as it has become normalized in our lives.) My husband is at home with our three kids; we’ve been taking turns since he started a full-time job doing the shipping and receiving at a women’s clothing store—a job beneath his intellect that he was lucky to get. So today he is making lunch and picking up Legos while I do my best to shake money from trees. I know that my extended family would respect me more if I stopped doing my freelance writing and social media management and started taking a bus to an overnight fast-food job an hour away. Do I owe it to our children to put away the laptop and take the most grueling, menial job I can get? Is that the highest moral decision? Does that match the ethics of “the best I can do?” And could I survive it, and how would it work with biking the kids to and from school, do their homework with them? How do I act in my greatest good, for my family, without obliterating myself and my sanity in the meantime? The answer was: I didn’t maintain. I didn’t keep my sanity. 

I’d been encouraged by several sources to pursue Social Security Insurance for at least a while  based on what has become a lifestyle I can’t maintain while concurrently operating the happily functioning part of my brain. I had some sort of nervous breakdown, and a lifetime of dysthymia and depression did the Tasmanian Devil spiral dance, transporting me into fully-flowered Nutsville. So being that I’ve had the kids for much of the day, I’m legit bonkers, I have no car and can’t work full-time anyway, I’ve turned a lesser-version of what used to be my fantasy career into the only logistical way for me to earn money right now. Combine the writing with social media management for small businesses, and I can scrape quarters into the trough like in that arcade game that always looks so promising. Not the kind of money I earned in my sales job. But if I stay awake late enough, scour enough content mills for writing gigs, I can get small assignments that pay $15 or $20, and if I manage to amass enough of them in a month, it can mean paying the electricity bill on time instead of chasing the city worker down the street after he’s just shut off the power. And sometimes I get an ongoing client for a few weeks, and that’s like having a bouquet of fresh flowers on the dining table . . . until that client’s needs have dried up, and with it, their steady payment. Then it’s like brackish water in a vase with a drooping Gerbera Daisy and peonies dropping browned petals.

One week in a winter past my husband, the kids and I rode our bikes in the cold, eleven miles roundtrip, to enjoy a rare, cheap meal out at a favorite restaurant we had loved in Austin that opened a location out here in Northern California. We don’t make things easy for ourselves, and the self-flagellator in me likes that. Our resources are always stretched dangerously thin, though, and the $45,000 we salted away in plummier days is long gone. We’re not the only ones, and I know that and don’t pity myself for the destruction 2008 wrought. All around us (neighbors as well as relatives living farther away)—for years—people have been losing their extended unemployment, living in houses where renovations were begun and then abandoned, walls just spackled and left to be finished in better times, kitchen floors exposed boards. Some have abandoned previous professions and followed artistic paths, handiwork, humbler tasks. It’s a different sort of support when everyone is on the same sinking ship. They can’t help, they can only bear witness, grab elbows, barter resources, skid backwards as the tilt becomes more acute.

I’ve done some undignified things I never thought I would do and asked for help from people I never thought I would ask, after the bottom of the barrel we were scraping became well and truly bare. Not long ago, I made such a comfortable living that we never had to scrimp. It’s at this time of year I am forced to remember when I had to leave our Thanksgiving groceries behind on the checkout belt because my debit card was declined. I feel humiliated when I think about how my children are not at all surprised when utilities are shut off, or when they ask, “can we get donuts? Does that cost money, or card?”

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We have learned to be creative to get by. We have kept chickens, we have a large vegetable garden that did better when working didn’t occupy my “free time,” we barter those aforementioned resources and my social media skills for needed goods and services. One year, a few days before Christmas, I went online to sell a bicycle that my oldest had outgrown. Craigslist is strange and wonderful. It’s like this complicated and nuanced recession marketplace, and sometimes we’re one another’s saviors there. A woman wanted a not-too-expensive Christmas present for her school-age daughter, and I needed money to buy for my own kids. It was painful to remember that in past years we’d always received fat Christmas catalogs in our mailbox—and no wonder, since every marketer probably had us pegged as big spenders. It wasn’t unusual for us to drop over a thousand dollars on gifts. Now, we don’t get the J.Crew catalog, or Hearthsong, or Hanna Andersson, Sundance, or Williams-Sonoma. Just as well. Looking back, I feel stupid for not heading first to thrift, consignment, DIY, swap-meets, garage sales. Garnet Hill has not yet given up on us, but I’m not biting. It’s a game of chicken, and I guarantee I will win.

The potential bike buyer and I met on my porch. It was only 7 pm or so, but dark enough that the dangling strand of half-lit Christmas lights hanging from the leaf gutter provided the only illumination. I was glad for the forgiving darkness; maybe she wouldn’t see the slight scratches on the bike’s frame. I doubted her daughter would notice, and I knew the marks would buff out with minimal effort if she did. But then my words stumbled over themselves, and I heard myself trying to give this stranger an excuse not to buy it. “It’s not perfect, but I could come down on the price,” I said, trying not to think about what the $125 would mean to us.

She bought the bike, hurriedly handing me some folded bills. I thanked her and put the money in my pocket without counting it. It was a business transaction, but so intimate that it felt like a social one as well. We worked together to fit the bike into the backseat of her sedan, negotiating its position by micro-amounts to allow both doors to close. It was the kind of thing you do with family when you’re wedging an oversized purchase from Ikea into your car in the parking lot. Very few words, body language conveying the small adjustments that need to be made. I was struck with the urge to hug her good-bye and made a darting movement in that direction before thinking better of it. My already loose boundaries are becoming even looser as these emotionally challenging times continue.

The other day at the park, I spent hours chatting with another mom from the kindergarten, an affluent woman wearing yoga pants and driving a Lincoln Navigator. She had funny things to say about her twins. She expressed respect at seeing us on our bicycles in the rain, explained in too many words spoken too quickly about how even though they live very close to the school, there is this reason and that for why they don’t take bikes but drive instead, and I said, “Oh, if I still had a car, I would likely find any excuse, every day. I’m not holier than thou.” She complimented me on my thrift shop dress. It was only later, when talking about the vacation house her family rents in Tahoe and the ski boots she bought for the boys, that she stopped short. It was awkward. She ceased speaking as if I had poked her with a stick. The silence hung for a few beats, and then she continued but haltingly, as if embarrassed. She talked about scouring Groupon for deals, and about her religious Sunday coupon clipping. She mentioned having been poor as a child and how that’s not what matters, that it’s not what she remembers and that it’s not what my children will remember. I would like to believe her. I was taken aback that knowledge of my family’s economic situation is something that preceded us, that was such a part of our identity that it stopped our conversation cold. (And no, she doesn’t read this blog.)

I can be abrasive (who, moi?), and when younger, I wore my convictions like a blazing cloak of righteousness. I hope that now, at this vulnerable time in my life, I have become less judgmental and more approachable. I had not wanted this other woman, this mother like me, to feel anything but at ease. Still, there was this chasm between us, of needs and not-needs, and she filled it with her own embarrassed rationales. I smiled and nodded, full of sympathetic head tilts and raised eyebrows. I touched her arm, reassured her with dismissive noises. That would have been me had the recession not hit us so hard and so relentlessly.

So I’m writing this in the dark on the front porch swing, as brutally cold as it is, because I just need to get out of the house. There’s been a lot of rain, and I’ve felt uniquely trapped and what with the kids all being home from school and nothing to get them out of doors. (We did take an afternoon to adventure along the creek where the salmon are making their journey to spawn. Although it’s very much against the law, it was fascinating to watch a young boy—he couldn’t have been older than ten—trudge upstream in nothing but cut off blue jeans carrying a fish as large as his torso: “I done wrassled it and knifed its haid,” he shouted proudly to his waif-like mother. “Good work, boy, that’s dinner for tonight and then some!” It’s been a few weeks since our monthly food stamp card was re-upped. Armed with $340 for our family of five, we can just barely fill some gaps on our refrigerator and pantry shelves. No, there’s nothing romantic about being poor—but there is joy in small things. This morning, as I slept for the last precious hour or so before waking, I dreamed of eating bacon. I could get bacon, maybe. Soon, even, I think. And there’s a waffle-maker somewhere in our house of too-much-stuff, which I’ve been slowly but surely selling on these buy/sell/trade groups on Facebook. But I won’t sell the waffle-maker: because dang it, one of these weekend mornings, I hope my future holds a plate with a waffle soaked in butter and good, real maple syrup, and bacon on the side.

And that leads me to this admission: The color and clatter of our chaotic existence now gives me more pleasure, (when I’m able to claw with un-manicured fingernails and raise my tear-weary eyes just high enough to see beyond the edge of my dark and cavernous hole of paralyzing guilt, fear, and worry—insert sardonic laugh,) than my corporate affluence ever did. There is a joyous, delicious jangle and pop to this sort of freedom, (when I’m not deep in depression and anxiety—more sardonic laughter.) My northern European ancestors populated Oklahoma Territory, and my Cherokee relatives, having been relocated against their will, endured the Trail of Tears and joined them. That land, that time, and the people who embraced those challenges mark those aforementioned sinews and synapses deep at the heart of me. Maybe it is those ancestors who made me a writer and a survivor, although of late, I feel like I’m not doing the “surviving” part very well. But each day my children feel loved and go to bed with full bellies is a successful day, and those keep happening, so I’m going to call that “survival.” Can I get a group agreement on that? At any rate, it feels like an evolutionary imperative: I just need to concentrate on the map inscribed at a cellular level and summon the strength and capability to lift us up and carry us through these hard years. Then I can see the sparks of light that illuminate and inspire me, more than any empty material successes ever had. And days come when I get an email through Facebook or somewhere that says, “Hey, I’m with such-and-such company. We’re very impressed with your writing, and we’d like to pay you to do some for us. May we trouble you for your phone number?”

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Today was a day like any other. The children emerged from their beds, as pink and helpless as mewling kittens, and skittered downstairs where they could cocoon themselves in blankets and cluster near our one wall-heater against the early-morning chill. Regardless of the weather, my plan is to straddle my colorfully-festooned bicycle and head out the door to the food bank, as we are so close to the only holiday that isn’t commercially commodified to death, but one in which I hope my family will add to the neighbors’ feast we’ve been invited to join, and have abundance in the weeks that follow. (If I’m lucky, I’ll get a ride. We’ll see.) Later, I will purge some of the soil from the neglected garden and use it to fill the pots on the porch that have been holding plants donated by a friend, but remain root-bound in their plastic shop containers. Maybe I’ll fill the empty slow cooker with simple soup components . . . or maybe I’ll rely on my husband’s far-superior culinary abilities. Yes, that. I might wield the pick axe and continue my work on the side yard, cut down the dead branches from the pear tree, and check on the ripeness of our obscenely overloaded orange tree (our traditional Christmas offering to neighbors and loved ones or anyone who wants oranges, they’re ready right around Dec. 22, consider yourself notified. I deliver,) because the instinct for hard physical labor is built into me, too, and just like my elderly grandfather who kept dragging brush and cleaning leaf gutters into his nineties, it flat-out feels good. And feeling good has been hard to come by for me, as late. (I’ve not been doing well in the state-of-mind aspect of surviving. Molly says, “I love my crying mom.”) Then I will open my laptop and do the work I was meant to do, which sometimes pays well but, for a long time, has not. Throughout, I will keep my knees (metaphorically) slightly bent so I am ready for movement, my back strong and locked straight, my eyes cast forward, ever forward.


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Sleep for the weary/And dreams for us all/Rest your head on a pillow /And I’ll tell you a tale


412508_3138324459150_354613367_oSleep for the weary/And dreams for us all/Rest your head on a pillow /And I’ll tell you a tale

Oh! An oldie but a goodie. I remember then-kindergartener Zeke walking around slowly on Back to School Night with the magazine in which this appeared, solemnly holding it open to my article.

I was looking for something to cheer me, as I just lost a sah-weet summer writing gig that would have covered my part financially. <pfft.>  Steering the schooner a different direction, avoiding rocky waters.

 

We Are Totally Not Supposed To Talk About This AT ALL


I go back to work in a few days after psychiatric disability leave. I’ve been going to the strange little Indian psychiatrist in the broken-down office with the half-star on Yelp where I sometimes wait in the waiting room for three, four, five hours . . . who mutters to me about things unknowable, because I sense good in his heart, and because his small smile pleases me, and because he lets the tears roll down my cheeks and says, “Yes, Corbyn, SSRI meds might have blocked your ability for orgasms, for sneezing, for easy laughter or anger, even for crying. You’re doing all the grieving you’ve been prevented from doing for . . . what, a decade? Two decades? Likely more! For as long as you’ve taken them, your emotions have been on pause.” We talk about why the newer generation of medications I take now let me emotions break through, and that’s why I’m crying.

And even though he speaks of “the homosexuals” with something of a sad (but compassionate) shake of his head, I choose to forgive that (and please forgive me for that, as an active, “out,” bisexual woman with so many gay friends and family, because he is trying to love and to be professional, and follow the guidelines of his profession . . . and because his culture is unknowable to me, and his generation is also older and less-enlightened at times.) And even though my insurance pays for 45 minutes once a month for me to see him, he often sees me for two- to three hours every week or so, and he lets me cry in all sorts of ways. Deep wracking sobs, gentle tears rolling down my cheeks while we talk about the science of the brain. And I don’t know if I am getting this right because he speaks in heavily accented English . . . and so quietly . . . and I am partially deaf in one ear . . . but he speaks to me over and over of the chemicals that cause us to build neural pathways that are like broken Plinko boards that cause us to repeat patterns that don’t serve us. How we can rebuild and redirect those pathways through proper medication, rewriting our stories through new versions of old experiences with new and better outcomes, and through simple things like long walks, regular sleep habits, and charitable acts. Today he made me cry in a happy way (I do that, too, because what the hell? why not CRY,) while we chatted (yet again, because it’s his favorite story these days) about the teenage scientist who is busy perfecting a way to diagnose pancreatic cancer through a simple blood test.

I’ve lost fifty pounds since I’ve been going to him, because I guess crying out my pain and eating to stuff it away cancel each other out, once you get the pesky nutrition part taken care of–at least in my case. Food has become a tedious chore that I get out of the way, minimally. Then I get on with this work I am doing.

 A couple weeks ago, he said if I lose my job and/or my insurance, he will never stop seeing me–for free, and he will make sure I continue to get my medications even if he has to pay for them himself. That the wait is long at his office because he does this for others who cannot pay. After having lost so many friends to this illness I have and the person it turns me into sometimes, this made my body crumble in on itself and broke me down into a big ugly cry. To feel that protection, that devotion. Oh, and did I mention? My doctor has rheumatoid arthritis and his body is breaking down quickly. He confided to me he worries about leaving all of us behind.

I’m good at losing people. I can tick them off on my fingers: one hand, two hands, and where’s that other hand? I am able to disappoint dear and valued friends in ways that surprise even me, as I’m in the process of doing it . . . and even the most cool-headed and steady have bunted me over the highest, pointiest barriers. I’m good at breaking people down until they kick me the out of their lives.

 Today I told my doctor I’d been “pretending” to kill myself at my darkest moments this year. That I have asked my husband to just to let me drag the knife along my arms–and that I promise not to “really” do it, because oddly, for me (for most people?) my children are insurance against that; I shan’t leave that grief and that legacy for them to painfully process until they, themselves, finally die. They are reason enough to be here, and I won’t leave them, even though what they get right now is a broken version of a mother. I wonder how it feels for them to see me cry so much.

And to my comfortably-atheist self, he brought up “God” yet again: “you see, Corbyn, there are things that are the domain of God. God has given you a gift bringing life into this world! You had no control over that, that was from Him. And your departure from this life is His decision, too.” And I don’t know if I’m getting all of his words right . . . I often just kind of let his soft, Eastern lilt flow over me like an embroidered silk blanket. But the message was received. It is a sort of gift that I won’t leave this world of my own hand, and yes, that gift comes from my children, who came through me but are not of me. It just so happens I call that a scientific miracle, but in the end, it’s the same thing. 

Ironically, he says there’s no way the company that permits or denies these sorts of claims would never extend my leave beyond this point, for Major Depressive Episode with Suicidal Ideation and Generalized  Anxiety Disorder. That diagnosis merits 42 days. 42 days is what you get. That’s how long Noah dealt with the flood, about. That’s how long he had to reckon with a vengeful God who wanted to fuck shit up on a global scale, so I guess I should be able to get my act together enough to sit at my laptop and click “Delete. Publish. Pass,” on behalf of the news website that employs me.

And my doctor’s wife (who helps in the office) said reassuringly, “well, Corbyn, you work from home. You can do this,” but the isolation is what kills a depressive. On this leave of absence, I’ve left this dark living room and gone out to my community. I’ve tried to be more of use. I’ve helped. I’ve socialized. I’ve connected. I’ve shared laundry-folding times with lonely new moms. I’ve spent time on the porch at night, drinking wine and laughing with people I’ve ignored for too long. I’ve steam-cleaned dog poop from a friend’s carpet.

 So in a few days, I need to figure out a way to bring my job out there into my world. It’s always about something stupid like the WiFi connection is too slow at the library, or I don’t want to spend money unnecessarily at the cafe. But that’s my medicine, I think–my town and the people in it. Just to be near them, to look at their faces and maybe smile and get a smile back. And if I get too skinny, someone please tell me, and maybe I’ll stop crying and start eating a little more food. For now, there’s still more crying to do. And climbing, and climbing. I’m partway up this rock wall and I look down to my small doctor, standing in a half-crouch in pain due to failing knees and shout, “belay?” And I see a grin through his beard and a raised arm holding a rope and a hear a faint, cheerful, “belay on!”

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I’ll Take Your Halloween and Raise You a Thanksgiving


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I’m grateful for garden gnomes, cuckoo clocks, climbing trees with gnarled branches, and moss. For coffee and chai, nutmeg and cinnamon. For citron yellow,  magenta, map water blue, chartreuse, and a bright orange shag rug in the living room. For oatmeal, bananas, green smoothies, my husband’s Magic Meals, and enchiladas. For kids finding fennel and chewing the stems all day like Huck Finn. For lanterns hanging in trees. For all the libraries I have known and loved, which became my hiding spots and my fantasy corners and the places where I built myself. For Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers singing “Islands in the Stream.” I’m thankful for vintage lamps. For the freshly-brushed teeth. I’m thankful for tall glasses of cold water, and Mason jars of whiskey sipped with friends on the porch in the nighttime. I’m thankful for the pleasure of walking aimlessly. For thrift store velvet. For striped socks, picture books about witches, and for snow-capped mountains I can see from certain vantage points in my neighborhood. For the remarkable cities I have called home. For fireflies. For my chickens: Mary, Rhoda, Phyllis, Chamomile, Clover, and Hilda. For stacks of books on the nightstand. For Jitterbug Perfume and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. For low-watt incandescent bulbs. For patches on old embroidered denim. For star-printed fabric and pictures of the moon in all its phases. And I’m thankful for our wall heater that’s like a fireplace and a gathering spot for our family when we hear its click-whoosh. We meet there. I’m so thankful for them–my four, my loves. And our heat, and our home, which is strung with lights and filled with magic.

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What it Feels Like to Sell Your Family’s Only Car


When the cable and Internet got shut off, I could hide my shame and embarrassment from the kids, who were oblivious to the threatening collection letters. None of us had to face the person sent out to sever our connection to the world, since they can do it all externally without having to enter the house. I knew scrappy Molly would be okay. Molly takes everything in stride, and embraces change. I worried about Rainer and Zeke, who take such comfort in things reliable, familiar, and stable. Having access to TV shows and the Web was something they’d never been without. But still, I could reassure myself it was not a forever thing, that we would eventually breach that financial stranglehold and it would all be turned on again, as though nothing had happened.

But selling the car meant no turning back. Our Honda SUV was only three years old. It was the first new car I had ever owned. I traveled from city to city to earn money for my family when I worked at my sales job, and this was the capsule that carried me along to the accompaniment of satellite radio and my own self-important chatter on the Bluetooth. The leather seats smelled like the expensive purses I had started to carry as my commission checks swelled. I spent more time in that car than I spent anywhere other than home, and I made sure it reflected my success. Twice a year, I got it detailed to shining perfection. I remember once grabbing the worker’s red towel and buffing off a small spot of road grime I spied on an edge of the license plate, with an apologetic smile.

Because we didn’t yet own a house, this was our most visible claim to the comforts of our income level. Emerging from the frosty air conditioning of my stalwart Honda I would arrive at meetings in the morale-sapping endless Texas summers as pristine as when I had left home. Having a nice, new, big car made me feel like an adult. It made me feel like I deserved my job. Like putting on a power suit, it made me act differently. I felt more in-control, businesslike, and competent. Walking to my car with my keyless-entry fob in hand made me feel cared for. My car looked handsome in the parking lot. I liked that it was luxurious while also being (relatively) fuel-efficient for an SUV. I sometimes congratulated myself at having made a good choice. On the rare occasions when I had to get it serviced, the sybaritic dealership had employees who called me ma’am, and brought me coffee in a china cup and a copy of the Wall Street Journal while I waited.

It was also our family vehicle, and when I wasn’t working, we clicked the children into the fanciest and safest car seats money could buy. We idly visited big box stores under any pretext. We took long drives to the rolling wooded hills outside town, often just meandering leisurely, filling the gas tank without concern. Of course those long days of driving without a specific destination would involve eating dinner out, as well. It just seemed a fitting end after the hours spent acquiring. None of this seemed indulgent; it seemed more just what families did on long unplanned weekend days. Nothing we were doing felt extravagant at the time.

I identified with my car. I felt peaceful knowing my children saw it, dent-free and shining, when I pulled up to the curb to pick them up. When I was growing up, my mother drove a station wagon and when I waited to be picked up from somewhere—school, ballet class—I would feel comfort at the sight of the burgundy Pontiac with its blandly reassuring stare. It offered the sort of comfort I associated with my mother.

The Honda was completely paid-off, but the costs associated with insuring, maintaining, and fueling it were taking us over the edge. A few times we had considered driving out to the coast, or maybe into San Francisco for the day . . . but the money required to fill the gas tank was galling. It got about twenty miles per gallon, but with gas prices increasing, it was getting closer and closer to a hundred dollars to fill it up. We were $500 to $750 in the hole every month, and we couldn’t see where else to cut. We figured selling the car would cover that margin for at least eighteen months, if we could sell it for the $15-20K that it was worth. Accomplishing that would, we hoped, give us time to establish new income streams. We analyzed the numbers and seeing them in black-and-white made the choice a clear one. Larry had always indulged me by calling the Honda Corbyn’s car, the car I paid for with my sales job, the car I lovingly shined and kept vacuumed, and the car that it would ultimately be my own decision to sell. In the end, though, this wasn’t a decision I needed to make or we needed to make. The decision was being made for us.

As I posted my ad on Craigslist I felt a combined anger and sadness. (“Excellent condition 2006 Honda Pilot with leather interior. Silver. Seats seven, or eight in a pinch. Clean title, impeccably maintained . . .”) And then, a breaking sort of goddamn it, we don’t need this car, this car doesn’t define me and it doesn’t define my family. The safety it represented was an illusion. Or rather, the safety it offered now was in what it could give us financially. Once I had accepted that this was the best (only) solution, I felt like a pressure had released and, in its place, I felt more-or-less peaceful resignation. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t afraid I would change my mind. Here it was: I could let go (all at once!) of the stresses of not making ends meet for the past year. I could know we’d have enough to survive on for the next eighteen months or so. I cried after I wrote the ad, not because I was grieving. Mostly I was regretting having waited so long. The release of tension felt like a balloon popping—not a slow realization of growing relief but an instant, dramatic one.

It turned out that even after we’d made up our minds, we had to suffer through a panicky few days worrying about whether we were even going to have any takers. Alarmist news outlets had been talking about how previously easily-liquidated assets were not getting bought, leaving the downwardly-mobile class sitting on a pile of luxury items that no longer fit within their means. Eventually we got a serious offer from a young family. We played phone tag, traded banter, and became friendly. In a nod to safety-consciousness, I arranged to meet them at the parking lot of a nearby office building, empty after-hours. I stood next to the car in a way I hoped looked casual. I thought better of it and decided to sit in the passenger seat, door open. I opened the glove box and pulled out the thickly-rolled stack of onion-thin paper, pink and yellow and white, marked with the faint hieroglyphs in duplicate and triplicate that formed my car’s journal entries. I flipped through them and re-stacked them, arranging them in a way that was far too fastidious, like a new mom slicking her son’s bangs down as he prepares to board the school bus for the first time. I put them back in the glove box and gently pushed it until the hardware made that satisfying “chink” of connection.

I recognized the handsome dark family in their gleaming white sedan as soon as they drove up; we made eye contact and shared smiles of greeting. In the awkward giddiness that comes over me when I’m nervous, I pretended I was one of those airport employees with the short orange lightsabers, guiding them into the parking spot. We introduced ourselves—mother Rhonda, father Andrew, and their son, Joseph, who was surely not even two years old yet. I suggested there were probably more kids in their future, and they agreeably let me pry in this small way. “Yes,” Andrew said, “and it would be hard to fit more than just the one car seat in ours,” he gestured.

He walked around the Honda, feeling for tell-tale body repair work. “By the way, it didn’t come up at all on CarFax, which was weird.”

“That’s because it’s a ghost car.” Andrew and his wife looked at each other and barked quick, appreciative laughs. I had put them at ease, which had been my skill in sales. I knew I wasn’t selling them a lemon, but rather a great car at a good price—and I could see them slowly concluding that as the minutes passed, and our smiles became genuine.

I suggested we ferry the cars over the couple blocks to where we lived, so we could go through the paperwork and make the necessary transactions. I turned the key in the ignition and buckled myself in to my first new car for the last time, and still felt nothing but relief. My sentimentality is so rarely eclipsed by my practicality; I kept waiting for the inevitable tears. I was at peace with this decision, and I was excited about the dramatic change and how it might alter our family’s life story.

But still, that evening, they handed us a cashier’s check for the deposit. They would be coming back with the difference and trading that for the pink slip of ownership, but for now they were preparing to drive off in our last real asset. Rainer and Molly gave exuberant hugs farewell to them before they left, as if this little family were long-lost friends we had finally made the time to see. The sky had a green-gray cast to it, and everything looked and felt just a little different when I walked slowly up the porch steps. I was sad, and yes, I was a little jealous of this successful young couple that had weathered these tough years better than we had. Zeke was quiet. He watched from a small window that overlooks the driveway. He saw Joseph try to heave himself up into this high vehicle, and ultimately get efficiently carried up and into the car seat and buckled in. He looked out the tinted window and in at Zeke, watching him. And with no notice, Zeke hopped from his vantage point and ran outside to the front porch as they made their way down the street, Andrew following the Honda in their smaller sedan. I kept gently herding him into the house, trying to discourage him from that moment of loss, but he wanted to see it. He needed to see it and say it out loud: “They’re taking our car. They’re going to have it now. That’s not our car anymore.”

Some quiet reflection and then, “Are they bringing it back later?”

No, Zeke, they’re not bringing it back.

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My Husband Had a Vasectomy and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt


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My husband is the introverted type, so out of respect for his privacy, I’d like to talk to you about his vasectomy.

We put it off longer than we should have. I guess the ideal time might have been between baby no. 2 and baby no. 3, but we’re super happy with the one that slid underneath the closing door, all Indiana Jones-style: “Waaaaiiiiit you have one moooore!” But at some point you have to just make the arbitrary decision that you’re done meeting new offspring.

So we finally made the call that it was time to turn the spigot off. An informal survey revealed that getting a vasectomy was the birth control method of choice among the vast majority of older parents in our circle. It’s minimally-invasive, complications are rare, and (who knew?) our insurance covered it. Seemed as though the only prerequisite was a few days’ freedom to convalesce on the couch and several bags of frozen peas.

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We described the procedure to our children, the youngest of whom is five, figuring they’d naturally wonder what was going to make Daddy walk around the house in a half-crouch in a Vicodin-created fugue state. We spent some time describing the vas deferens, and the special seeds that help Mama’s egg become a baby, carefully playing up the benefits (no additional sibling rivalry!) and downplaying the discomfort (it won’t hurt more than getting a shot).

Yet still, the very next time I brought my youngest, Molly (who’s five) out in public, she announced to any and all within earshot: “My daddy’s getting his penis cut off.” I protested with nervous giggles the first few times, but after awhile took great satisfaction in merely raising my eyebrows and glaring silently.

In honor of the procedure, my husband’s coworkers served two types of cheese balls with carrots and celery sticks, artfully arranged. Oh: and mixed nuts.

I kind of assumed I’d be on The Pill until menopause rendered my womb a windswept desert nurturing nothing but a bleached rock outcropping and occasional tumbleweed, but lo! Verdant and lavishly fertile, and already relieved of the threat of childbearing. It’s a medical miracle.

I’d like to chalk up the following unsuspected side effect to the array of painkillers my husband was on when he came home from the surgery: when I arrived from taking our Molly to her first dance class, I sat next to him, all propped with pillows and sipping water through a straw, and flipped through the photos I’d snapped on my phone. Molly’s leotard and tutu are far from new — like all of her clothes, they’re hand-me-downs several times over. So the crotch hangs to mid-thigh and the tutu is torn and hanging low on one side. There’s a small rip in one knee of the black tights. At first glance there is nothing pathetic about this picture; she’s a happy girl, hands on hips, looking off to the side. She has the sort of hardscrabble disposition you would expect from the youngest of three. But of our children, she is the only dancer. Music moves her physically. My husband slid past this picture and then slid back and regarded it silently for a moment. I felt the wonder and grief behind his simple words: “That’s my last baby.”

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And in a flash: my own times of bed confinement, postponing early labor. Cups of crushed ice and marshmallows, surer signs of pregnancy than a positive test for me. Vernix-covered little red crying faces, one after the other, lain against my chest. There was the cutting of the umbilical cord, always a bittersweet moment, giving that baby over to the world and all its variables, the concept of protection an illusion. And then there is this last cut. A “relatively pain-free procedure.” And just like that, we say goodbye to all of it, say with certainty that we are done, we are parents to these three and no more, no longer getting to rewind the tape with each newborn, to relive that particular kind of falling in love.

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epilogue:

The things we have LOST, oh the things we’ve lost. Big, important things. But you know what we STILL have? The most interesting accessory that was ever made for a Barbie doll: the dog turd that was made to be pooped out, scooped up by Barbie’s fancy dog-poop-picker-upper, and then fed to Barbie’s coprophagia-having kinkster dog to go through the process again. And on and on. The same little Tic-Tac sized/shaped little doodoo-dad that Molly pushed as far up her wee nostril as she could a couple years ago, and Larry, parenting alone, was panicking trying to squeeze her sinus and get it out, pull it out with various tiny tools, etc., until I texted, “do the cartoon pepper thing!” And sure enough, she sniffed a good toot of it, sneezed, and BLAST! The tiny plastic turd flew through the air, and now we find it everywhere, all the time, and can’t bear to throw it away.

The Worst Kind of Fool


Earlier this week I wrote a self-pitying blog post for shareable.net. I’m happy to say that it didn’t get published before I had a chance to review it and revise it. Below are excerpts, which I’m embarrassed to share, but shame is sometimes an important emotion to feel, I think. It’s corrective, like guilt. The key is not to let the guilt and shame overwhelm your ability to improve yourself and your behavior. Let’s call this an exorcism:

I keep forgetting we didn’t do this last winter. We lost our car in March, and even though the dual-season monsoon climate of California still held us in its wet weather grips at that point, were nearing the end of that onslaught. Every week was a little drier, a little sunnier, a little more forgiving than the week before. Now there’s the relentless moving toward darker, colder, wetter days, and even at two p.m. the shadows are long . . .

It’s hard to engage in my sanity-savers, so my sanity is not being saved. My alone time used to be in the jealously-guarded evening hours, when I would put on my earplugs and listen to music on my long bike ride to the gym, through the rough neighborhood near the rail yard, where families sit on couches on the front porch, and there is shouting and tricycles and the smell of dinner cooking. Afterward I might find any excuse to wander through some store or other, maybe on a banana-obtaining excursion to Trader Joe’s . . .

What do I do, now? It’s dark, and it’s cold. It’s often raining, that wind-driven sideways kind of rain. I’m supposed to be bearing up, but I’m not bearing up. There’s not enough French toast in the world for this kind of bone chill and boredom. I can’t remember what I might have done back when we had disposable income and a vehicle or two. Did I find a reason to go to Target? Or Bed, Bath, and Beyond? Were there maybe more purchasing expeditions, outings that were diverting enough to alleviate the tendency to flop around the house in frustration, sighing, while the kids bicker and the dirty dishes accumulate in the sink? Is that why they invented Christmas—to give us all something to DO?

Pity me! Pity me!—right? Woe is me, I can’t go to the gym or idly shop at big box stores. I will say that the mood had a legitimate genesis though, and I can trace it back to a couple of events that happened over the past week.

One evening, my oldest, Rainer, had a choir performance and it was cold and raining hard. In order to be there to see her and support her, we had to bundle three little children (our two younger kids, plus a sweet little guy whose parents were paying us to babysit,) hitch up the bikes to the trailers, attempt to create waterproof cocoons for them, and bicycle hard against the clock, mostly uphill about 2.5 miles (not far by our usual standards) in freezing rain and wind. By the time we arrived, my skirt was clinging to my legs, soaked, my cold ears throbbing painfully in time with my heartbeat. The babies were warm and calm, so I left my husband to deal with finding shelter for the bikes and offloading everyone while I ran full bore to where the choir was supposed to perform in a minute or so. After shouldering through the crowd, all carrying umbrellas and posing for pictures in front of a giant outdoor Christmas tree, I finally found the choir director. They had already performed. They were trying to beat the worst of the weather, so they had started earlier than planned.

I kept calling and texting my ex to try and track Rainer down. Finally, I was told they were having dinner with a group of friends in a restaurant nearby. At that point, bitter disappointment and grief led to tears that I couldn’t seem to stop. I was soaked, freezing cold, and so ashamed that I didn’t have the resources or ability to get to where I was supposed to be, for my daughter. I couldn’t go into the restaurant like that. Instead, I stood outside the restaurant window while my ex sent Rainer out so I could hug her, at least. And apologize. The thing that hurt the most was her confusion and concern; I don’t think she understood my visceral sadness. I had to leave her behind to return to that warm, golden room, and go back and pick up the pieces so we could make our way home in the storm.

At this point, my self pity was getting a nice, running start.

Credit: In Her Image Photography

A few days later, I went to a grocery store to buy our Thanksgiving dinner ingredients. Things were going to be slim this year for sure, but we would be together in our house, relatively healthy, safe, intact and grateful for it. I spent a lot of time in the crowded market, making small talk with other shoppers, joking about my skills in the kitchen, getting advice from store employees, and planning our first home-cooked Thanksgiving meal. I went to the checkout with a cart full of groceries. When it came time to pay, my card didn’t work. That’s when I lost it.

We weren’t going to be able to pay. I didn’t know how, but I had miscalculated everything. There’d be no taking home these groceries, and it looked like we weren’t going to have any sort of traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Now let me be clear: we always have enough, and with the dried beans and grains, canned soups, tomato sauce and pasta, and assorted nuts and seeds in the larder, our family will not go hungry in the near future. It was just that this was going to be the first year that we couldn’t provide the traditional trappings, and that was the just last brick on a pile that was sitting on my chest. I cried right there at the checkout. Hard. I think I might have begged a little, telling them to please try the card again, and again. I remember making quite a spectacle of myself, and things progressed from there, involving getting escorted out by a man in a uniform, but I’ll just leave it at that. Hours later, I had been driven home by a friend, and my head was aching from the crying. No one in the family was able to sleep until the wee hours of the morning. It had been a hard night with lessons learned about expectations, and humility, and gratitude.

I am writing these words on Thanksgiving. Unexpectedly, a friend picked me up this morning, and drove me to the one grocery store that was open today. We had some money left on a food stamp card after all. Now I can smell turkey cooking, and along with the other most fortunate Americans we’ll be having the canned cranberry gel, the mashed potatoes and stuffing, some corn and peas, some pumpkin pie. About the only complaint today is that I forgot the whipped cream.

Fall and winter are always a time of reckoning, not just for me but for lots of people, I think. Short days mean long hours spent at home with your thoughts. The sun encourages extroversion; the lack of it turns your thoughts inward. Holidays bring joy to many, but for lots of us they are emotionally complicated, full of memories and some sadness. It’s a time of extraordinary parental pressures to provide abundance and tradition to the children.

This holiday season had a rocky start for me. This is the first time we’re doing it without a car, and without any money to provide the kind of comforts that the long, dark cold time takes away. But we have a pink Christmas tree, and if you have that, you can’t be hurting too much. A single strand of multicolored lights turns our porch into a warm welcome home in the darkness, and you don’t even need to squint to make it look beautiful. I was the worst kind of fool for not realizing we have absolutely everything we need.

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