Monday, July 25, 2016


I am not a do-it-yourself gal. The first piece of some-assembly-required furniture I ever bought—a simple shelving unit—was so massively frustrating that I decided instantly on the minimalist look. Who needs furniture? That’s just clutter. In my defense, the shelving unit was a cheaply manufactured particle board affair, so who can blame me for getting frustrated when the screws would not fit into the predrilled screwholes, then putting down the screwdriver, picking up a hammer, and brute-forcing them in there.
It’s a little odd that I ended up so completely unhandy. My parents were big believers in DIY, and I mean DI all Y, every bit.  My mother sewed our clothes. My father built our furniture. Granted, a lot of what he made was bulky and awkward and could not be mistaken even for something out of Ikea much less anything higher-end, but it mostly did was it was supposed to—a flat surface for meals, a few lower flat surfaces for butts around the flat surface for meals, a bigger flat surface for sleeping; what more could you want? Me, I can’t get past threading a needle without ending up in tears. I wish it were otherwise, but the fact remains that other than cooking—I love to eat too much not to have learned at least a modicum of passable culinary skills—any project that involves hand-eye coordination will almost certainly provoke an anxiety attack in me.
Because of this, when the husband told me he wanted to buy an old moving truck and turn it into a camper, I felt like screws were being hammered into my psyche. Good Lord, why the hell would he want to do that? But of course he had good reason to want to do that. We wanted to take road trips, long yet economical ones involving camping, running, hiking, kayaking, and all other manner of outdoorsy activities. Plenty of people do this without tricking out an old moving truck, of course, but the thing is, it wasn’t just going to be us in it.
Many people travel with dogs. I do not know anyone who travels with macaws. Nobody I know knows anyone who travels with macaws. As with any strange idea, this could be because nobody thought to try it yet and we are those free-thinking few who dare to be different—or because it’s a really, really stupid idea. And as with every strange idea that either caught on or didn’t, it had to be tried by somebody for the first time. In the case of an extended road trip on a moving-truck-turned-camper with two parrots, that somebody would be us.
            A really horrifying thought occurred to me at some point in the camper creation process: Good lord, had I married my father? Our typical Friday evening date nights had become a ritual of getting burritos, wolfing them down (we both are incredibly fast eaters, the husband because he grew up in a family of 14 and if you didn’t eat fast you didn’t eat; me because, well, I just like food), and then heading over to the Menard’s for truck stuff. Just as I remember from my childhood, DIY projects entailed many, many things going wrong. Something was leaking. Something else kept falling off. The electrical system in particular was endlessly irksome, to him because things kept not working and to me because I had no idea what to do about it. There were inverters and converters, and apparently AC/DC would be there to test the system with their guitars, or something, I had no idea (though “Highway to Hell” was the likeliest choice, I’d say).
            Eventually stuff got fixed, and the camper was camp-ready. No, it wasn’t pretty, but this was meant for camping; it didn’t need to be pretty, or even all that comfy. It was supposed to be functional, and it was, for the most part. However you did it, in a fancy RV or with just a pack on your back, I think camping has to make you realize your relationship to stuff—how much of it we think we need, how much we actually need, how well or poorly we adapt when what we need isn’t quite what we get. What’s more, to me the goal of camping is not necessarily ease or relaxation. The idea is to do something different, and to do it with less stuff. Yes, I full well appreciate the irony of buying new stuff in the effort to use less stuff on your camping trip; nevertheless, it is still a different experience from what you do at home.
And this would definitely be different.
            In the summer of 2016, teardrop campers saw a surge of popularity. Several of my friends bought these babies, which were mildly retro and utterly adorable. Compare that to our road trip vehicle, which had no cuteness factor whatsoever—in fact pretty much sucked away all the cuteness like a mobile black hole. It wasn’t ugly, per se—once the graffiti had been removed, it didn’t quite stick out eyesore-like so much—but something about its characterless bulk still made you look, then look sharply away so as not to be caught staring. In the campgrounds where we first tested it out, there were no cute teardrop campers to be found, but there were a lot of massive, expensive-looking RVs, with all the RV bells and whistles, all with names painted on this side as if this were a yacht harbor. Nearby us, the “Montana” was so huge and tricked out, it expanded to create several whole separate rooms, one of which might well have been a bowling alley, it was that big. (Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean savvier about camping. The Montana put its trash in a standard trashcan overnight and predictably the raccoons got into it. We kept ours inside, and those bandit-masked critters never bothered us, though perhaps they figured we didn’t have any good garbage given our lame-looking lodgings.)
Ours was unquestionably the only converted moving truck in the park, and, because these things went together, ours would likely be the only parrots. I had the strong feeling many of the families in the park knew each other, did this kind of thing all summer long so their kids could play together, and suddenly here comes the suspicious-looking plain white truck in their midst, its occupants clearly not your typical upscale-RV-park family. In short, we had already called attention to ourselves as an unwanted element even before we had a chance to become a truly unwanted element.
The first thing anyone asks when they see you have parrots is, “Do they talk?” The husband always answered them honestly and patiently, though to him this was like asking a dog owner if Fido could walk on his hind legs. It’s possible, sure, but you don’t get a dog so that they’ll walk like a human. Likewise, to him macaws were not about talking—they’re not great talkers anyway, as it turns out—but about flying. People can talk, and in his mind I suspect this was not one of their more endearing qualities; they can’t fly, and flying was what he wanted to experience, if vicariously. In fact, Boston and Phoenix were slow to pick up speech. They mastered “hi,” “hello,” and “step up,” the command for getting the bird on your hand or on a perch, and that was about it. (Boston from time to time said something that sounded like “algorithm,” though I have no idea what it really might have been given that, believe it or not, it’s not something the husband and I say regularly. Perhaps the bird breeder was into S&M and that was her safe word.) What they lacked in vocabulary they made up for in volume. We were lucky our dog was deaf; many times when Boston and Phoenix were screeching at us, the dog would look at us ponderously, appearing to wonder why we were gritting our teeth and covering our ears. Perhaps she thought we’d both spontaneously developed migraines. In any case, this volume was what gave me most of my anxiety as we settled into our campsite.
As soon as we arrived we set up a pop-up canopy tent near the truck, though we might as well have made it a circus tent and charged admission. Word soon spread, and pretty soon people began walking by our campsite on purpose to get a look at us. Surprisingly, Boston and Phoenix were on their best behavior, playing quietly with their toys and preening each other. If anything, the dog was more troublesome, though it wasn’t her fault. People kept coming up to the tent to see the parrots, and because she was in an enclosed space, Cayenne saw the tent as her territory to defend. She’s a sweet, slightly goofy-looking dog but she has a deep, impressive bark, and when she gets defensive she can be fairly intimidating. Problem is, a lot of the people who approached us refused to be intimidated. At one point two boys who stopped to talk to the husband and watch the macaws looked like they might be spending the rest of the day with us, completely oblivious to the fact that Cayenne was barking her fool head off and lunging at them while I tried to keep hold of her collar. They didn’t seem like they were ever going to leave, and it got to the point where I wanted to start barking at them myself. “Wow, parrots!” “GRRRRRRRRR!” “Do they talk?” “WOOOF WOOFWOOFWOOF WOOOOOF!” “I’ve never seen a parrot before!” “ARRRRARRRRARRRRR!” I don’t know, maybe they were used to barky dogs, or maybe it was a tough guy thing, refusing to show fear or even acknowledgement, but in any case it was annoying the hell out of me. A dog that behaves this way is clearly agitated, so unless you’re the kind of person who enjoys torturing animals (and their very annoyed owners), you’d best move on. Eventually they moved on and the dog settled down, but they were two of a great many.
Though the birds’ public behavior was fine that first day, in private the first night in the truck it was a different story. They were restless. They would not settle down. And unfortunately, their unsettledness meant that they would clamber all over the cage—rattling the bars as if with a tin cup, like prisoners—all night long. And I mean all night. I didn’t think it could be possible to get worse sleep camping in a truck on a real mattress than in a tent on the hard ground, but it was a bit like trying to sleep next to a clothes drier in which you had put a pair of pants and forgotten to take the coins out the pockets. Even the husband couldn’t stand it, and he’s normally one of those annoying people who falls asleep within a minute of closing his eyes and stays that way for six hours, at which point he rises immediately and energetically (whereas I need eight hours and never get it because a good half or more of my night is spent thinking about all the terrible things that have happened and still could happen in the world). No one in the truck slept well that night, and when morning finally came we looked at each other through bleary eyes and wondered for the billionth time in this process if the whole thing had been a colossal mistake.
I admit that like many people, I had idealized camping. It was supposed to set you free, or something. At the very least there was supposed to be a certain freedom from everyday constraints. You couldn’t easily shower, so you didn’t have to shower. That was no longer a necessity, and guess what? You didn’t die. You got used to being just a little dirty all the time, you got used to layers of bugspray and sunscreen and sweat. And you easily got used to being offline. Trust me. Yet that was all standard camp stuff; this was decidedly a non-standard experience, and while we may have been freed from the quotidian constraints of proper hygiene and social media, we had taken on some others in the form of our animals. I had no idea what this day would bring—would they escape? Would they bite someone? Would they drive us crazy a second night and, sleep deprived, the husband would drive the whole truck into the lake? And even if none of that happened this trip, what about when we undertook a much longer trip, as we were planning? Of course we had no idea, and because of this, as it turns out, we did gain a freedom of sorts—freedom from knowing what might happen next. And as tired as we were after that first night, there wasn’t much doubt that we would continue to pursue that freedom, and do it ourselves, in our own particular way.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Taking steps

The husband’s oldest daughter went to my book launch party a few months back, and as I introduced her to a friend also in attendance, the friend looked at us and said, “Oh! This is his daughter? So that means you’ll be her step…” In unison she and I held up our hands and shrieked Don’t say it! Neither of us wanted our relationship defined that way—who would? The evil of the fairy tale stepmother has long been established. She’s a vain, selfish gold-digger, and those are her good qualities; she’s also cruel, tyrannical, and devoid of maternal instincts. She eats men for breakfast, children for lunch, and small, cute, fuzzy animals for dinner, often posting pictures of her cringing, terrified meals right before they are devoured alive. So, no, there will be no “stepping” here. Maybe I can make “slightly older female friend-like person” a thing.

Because it’s not yet a thing, his daughters call me, and introduce me to others, by my name. That works. They come over Thursdays for dinner and we go out Sundays for brunch. They are funny and smart and they frequently make me laugh so hard I forget there was a time these meetings were awkward and uncomfortable. After one of the first Thursday nights a couple years back, I remember turning to him once they’d left and mumbling an apology. “I don’t know how to be a mother.”

Of course he said that didn’t matter, but the question remained in my mind, just what could I be to them? 

What they are to me is a lot easier to understand, though it still churns up some complicated stuff for me. They are, in so many ways, a lot of things I wish I could have been at their age. I didn’t act in school plays, didn’t run track or cross country, didn’t sing, didn’t create show-worthy works of art, didn’t play musical instruments (other than my half-assed plinking at the piano every once in a while), wasn’t an especially noteworthy student and certainly wasn’t a star. They are also already a lot of things it has taken me this long to be right now. Like princesses in a fairy tale, they have gifts: they can be brave in the face of daunting obstacles, they can be driven to exceed all limits, they can shrug off misfortune with a smile and keep moving forward. 

This is good, because there’s a lot of bad shit out there, worse than in the fairy tales, and the world can be harder on a young woman than any fairy tale stepmother could be. But they have a lot going for them, including each other. I was never really close to my sister until about six years ago, after the point when both our lives started to implode and we finally could bond over how fucked-up things had gotten for us. My three slightly (OK, very much) younger female friend-like persons are close, so close they were aghast when they heard their father recently say he hadn’t spoken to one of his brothers in 15 years. “You are my best friend,” they said to one another over brunch pancakes; “I’ll kill you if you go 15 years without speaking to me!” 

So they have each other, and a mother and father, and friends, and their own selves; they do not need me for anything. They certainly do not need my approval, and therein perhaps lies the answer. They don’t need my approval and hopefully they will never need it. So much of the lives of girls and women seems to be spent seeking approval, acceptance, validation. We are pushed to believe that the way the world sees us is far more important than the way we see the world. That gets to be exhausting. So maybe the one thing I can do for them is say just this: you do not need me at all; you are strong enough without me; you have done things all your lives without me, and you will continue to do so just fine—and so, though you don’t need me to tell you this, I will tell you anyway: I am so glad I get to witness this in the time that lies ahead.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Vive le différence et la même chose

I bumped into a former colleague of mine at the grocery store a couple weeks back and as we were chatting I mentioned that I was getting married. “It’s going to be pretty non-traditional,” I told him. “The ceremony is going to be out in a park by the woods.” He looked dubious. “That actually sounds pretty traditional these days,” he said. “I’ll be wearing running shoes,” I added quickly. “And so will he. So will most of the guests. Except for the dogs. Dogs will be there too.” He blinked a couple of times and nodded his head, and it occurred to me that describing your wedding to someone is like describing the dream you had last night: nobody in the world cares even remotely as much as about it as you do.

I’m not sure why it was so necessary for me to tell him all that, particularly the details that were meant to show the non-traditionalness of it all. After all, the goal of our wedding wasn’t to be defiantly, flamboyantly, over-the-toppedly unique; it was to get married, and to do so in a way we and our guests would find enjoyable. As our idea of enjoyment does not generally entail getting dressed up and going to a large formal event, we decided on something more fitting: a trail run and a picnic. There isn’t anything especially original about running and picnicking—people do those things all the time; we just happened to do ours following a short legal ceremony and the signing of official documents.

Maybe it was the fact that the former colleague I chatted with exudes an air of nontraditionality himself—he strongly resembles an aging ’70s rockstar and pretty much acts accordingly despite being a tenured English professor with a specialization in 19th century American literature—that I felt I had to emphasize my rejection of conformist activities. Maybe it’s just that I’m part of a culture whose members are endlessly desperate to show how different they are from everyone else. All those TV commercials depicting quirky, rebellious, spectacularly gorgeous people asserting that you, too, could join this awesome group if you purchase said product (irony!); all those facebook memes insisting that the poster—and all who like this post—be their own selves, blaze their own trails, and march to the beat of their own kazoo (more irony!); all those people claiming “The Road Not Taken” as their own personal anthem, never mind that the poem is far more complex—and possibly far less flattering—than you might imagine (so much irony my head’s about to explode!). 

It has got to be exhausting pushing so hard to prove your rejection of sameness, but it’s not nearly as exhausting as having to witness the push on an everyday basis as anyone who is the least bit connected to the world must do. You know about Tiny Houses? See, if you’re “different from everybody else” and you’d rather spend your money on “experiences” instead of “material objects” like everybody else does, then you get a Tiny House. It will be smaller than most walk-in closets but it will have granite countertops and a clawfoot tub. You will be on a TV show that lauds your classiness as well as your free-spiritedness. If you’re poor, you get a trailer. If you’re on a TV show at all, it will be one that makes fun of your accent, your penchant for pork rinds, and the names you chose for your children. Iron makes you strong; irony makes you tired.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the truly unique people of the world are for the most part unsuitable for depiction in TV ads and shows—in fact, they’re probably not people most of us would find at all likable, much less worthy of emulation. What’s more, it’s a privilege to be able to choose uniqueness. I remained unmarried throughout my 20s, 30s, and most of my 40s by choice, which makes me very different from much of the world indeed, yet I was able to do that in part because I had good financial stability and zero maternal instincts. Historically women haven’t always been able to possess the former or admit the latter, but I came of age in a time and place where the gains of feminism have been such that women are starting to think we no longer need feminism. (Get real. We do.) All of this suggests that my “radical” lifestyle and my “nontraditional” wedding are less tributes to my coolness and noncomformity (since those two things tend to be equated, for no logical reason) and more simply something I was lucky enough to experience.

Indeed, I am lucky. After a crazy-quick ceremony (I’d estimated 3 minutes when wrote the script; it ended up being maybe 2 tops), we and our friends took to the trails on a blue-skied, blazing-sunned day. It was hot; I had a hard time keeping up with the rest of the runners, and the husband was a little worried about our dog, whom he let off leash and who promptly disappeared into the trees. There was no need for concern; the dog made it back to the trailhead on her own just fine, and as for me, the husband carried me across-the-threshold-style the last 50 yards of the run. Yes, I realize that this ritual harkens back to a sick, violent time when grooms basically stole their brides from a rival family and so carried them into their new home because they weren’t going in willingly, but come on, you got to admit it’s pretty freakin’ cute. After that we ate barbecue on the lawn while the husband’s daughters regaled us with Aerosmith’s “Dream On”; I got to sing back-up on the chorus. OK, so I chickened out and didn’t go for the high notes, but still, tell me that’s not a perfect day.

And if the idea of a trail-running wedding still seems strange to you, consider that we went to the Grand Canyon as part of our honeymoon. A lot of people have been to the Grand Canyon; this may be one of the least original travel ideas in America, but because I had never been, and I had never heard anyone who had been say anything but “it’s totally worth it,” two days after the wedding we packed up our stuff and headed to the southwest. I suppose if I’d wanted to be original, I’d have picked Madagascar or the Galapagos or Antarctica—it’s winter there, you know, and the cool-and-nonconformist points for that would be astronomical—but I didn’t want to be original; I wanted to see some pretty scenery. That said, we chose the North Rim instead of the far more popular South Rim, and while this meant a very long day of driving it also meant the availability of parking spaces and picnic tables and the ability to walk right up to a railing before a vista and go holy wow without having waited an hour to get there. We also eschewed much-raved-about Zion and Bryce for Canyonlands, which might be one of the least visited National Parks ever and easily the only one of the four NPs we went to where I genuinely felt like I’d left civilization—possibly even left the planet. The quiet was almost as stunning as the view. On every hike we did, we saw more lizards than people (and given that it was scorching hot, even the lizards mostly stayed hidden). Sometimes being “different” is really just being a cranky curmudgeon who hates standing in lines. Moreover, it was all quite magnificent—just as everyone says it is—so sometimes doing what everyone else does ends up being a really good time.

I won’t say that I’m never concerned about proving my originality; obviously there are times, as in that exchange at the grocery store, when for whatever reason it becomes important for me to do things not just differently but deliberately differently—that is, to make sure my defiance of conventions is flaunted far and wide. At the same time, I suppose I’ve come to a point where I make my choices based on a whole lot of other criteria besides whether everyone else is doing it and whether that means I should definitely do the same or loudly announce my rejection thereof. After all, I got married in large part because I wanted to share the same experiences with someone else, and most of those experiences likely will matter only to us, so it’s rather beside the point whether they make us worthy of other people’s admiration at our uniqueness. That said, we were the only people in the RV park in an old moving truck the husband is converting into a camper, and I’m almost certain ours were the only two parrots in said park. Even if the camper lacks granite countertops, it’s worth at least a couple of uniqueness points, wouldn’t you say?