No Cavities

I went to the dentist today. This was a new dentist for me, because my former dentist retired. She (my former dentist) is about my same age, and I thought it was genius of her to retire while she still had lots of life and energy and, probably, therapy time in her flex-spending account to use up, and what a bold and smart move to just step out while you’ve still got the testicles to do so. And then imagine my dismay when, sitting in the chair in the new dentist’s office (who happens to be married to the former dentist, which I also think is genius because, come on, if the two of them met in dentist school and got married, guess who probably did the lion’s share of household chores and raising children and keeping things spicy in the sack and paying the bills and hiring the contractors and hiring the marriage counselor and hiring the child psychologist? She did, that’s who. Probably. So it’s about time she got to sit back and have her weekly mani-pedis and watch soap operas and say, “Take THAT, Motherfucker!” I do not think this is personal projection in any way, shape, or form.), the dental hygienist (a mousy girl who actually waved as a greeting to me from two feet away, instead of shaking my hand like a grown-up–waved at me just like the preschoolers at my child care centers do) began telling me the “real” reason my former dentist had retired. It was due to [OH MY GOD, HAVEN’T YOU HEARD OF HIPAA, OR CONFIDENTIALITY, OR COMMON DECENCY, YOU NINCOMPOOP, WHY ON EARTH ARE YOU TELLING ME THIS?!]. From that point on, I kept my mouth shut. So to speak. I did not answer truthfully when she asked me the small-talk questions while she prepared her instruments of torture, and so she thinks I am a parole officer with the Michigan Department of Corrections and we are just going to leave it at that.

There are TVs in each of the patient cubicles at this new dentist office. I don’t really care for TV in general, but I didn’t think it would be a problem, I just thought it was odd because I’m accustomed to some ridiculous radio station playing over the speaker system, as though we all want to listen to advertisements for Sundance auto sales and classic rock while we have our oral cavities excavated by timid wavers who may not actually know what to do in the event that they pierce your uvula asking you to answer some inane question about the recession of your gums. The Dr. Phil show was on the TV. I didn’t know that the Dr. Phil show was still a thing. I find it hard to believe that prurient voyeurism disguised as public education on mental health treatment is still rating high enough to play in afternoon broadcast dayparts. But there it was.

Dr. Phil had a young couple on the show to “explore” whether and how he ghosted her after they went on a few dates. The TV’s volume was, thankfully, low, but I found myself tracking the show despite it. They plumbed the communication methods and contents that the two of them shared during their brief interlude, going so far as to display their text messages in multi-media for all to see.

Okay, y’all know where I’m headed here. Communication between men and women is–and always has been–doomed. We just don’t speak the same language, people! It’s like communicating with your dog. You speak to the dog in lilting tones, you provide food, you throw the disgusting saliva-coated ball for him to fetch, you scratch him in all the right places. The dog wags his tail, grins as he pants at you, brings back whatever you throw, sits down with you on the couch and puts his head (or whole body, depending on his size) in your lap. The human portion of this relationship perceives that the dog portion is happy and loving and grateful and generally satisfied; the human portion feels pretty good about things, all in all. The dog portion of this relationship perceives that the human portion is controlling and vindictive and miserly and generally uncomfortable with the concept of trust; the dog feels trapped and secretly wishes for aliens to come and whisk away the human, thereby freeing the dog from having to follow through on its genetic instinct to sink its jaws into the neck of the human with such strength and precision that the carotid artery will expel all six pints of the human’s blood before she has time to grab her smart-phone and dial 911–which would be futile because that damn phone is always about to exhaust its battery, even after you’ve changed all your settings so that nothing runs in the background. Who makes these phones? Men do. Who do the dogs represent? Men. It’s a pretty basic setup, and us girls are always gonna come out looking like the bad guy. Girl. YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN, ASSHOLE.

So this gal tries to explain to Dr. Phil and this fella how she’s simply trying to get clarity on what happened after these great dates they had. He’s not texting her like he used to, he’s not calling, he’s saying that “something’s come up,” and she’s all, “Do you have a girlfriend?” and he’s all, I’m not even responding to that because it’s a sign that she’s controlling and insecure. (He never does reveal whether he has a girlfriend, and Dr. Phil never presses him on it. It’s a pretty basic defensive tactic, Your Honor.) So then she is compelled (sisters, we have GOT to get a handle on this, we CANNOT keep going out there with our freshmen offensive team; we are NOT Michigan State’s football team. We’ve got to chill out and let the senior defensive team block and punish for a while, to wear down their offense) to seek evidence that he has a girlfriend or is possibly gay. At this point, and without the backing of Dr. Phil, we might as well turn in our jerseys and hitch a ride to Ann Arbor, because Michigan seems ready to go on some dates. This beautiful girl was trying to keep her composure while Dr. Phil and Mr. Douche-Nugget smirked knowingly. They even Skyped in some former boyfriend to testify on behalf of the Nugget that this girl asked too many questions. Some heroic fella in the audience actually piped up on her behalf, appealing to a more evolved sense of presence and empathy that might bring the couple to a point of consensus for the sake of humanity. I’m pretty sure that guy got his ass kicked out in the parking lot after the show.

I tried not to pay attention. My options were few, given that the mousy waving hygienist was inches from my face and I like to keep my eyes closed during dental cleanings so as not to form an accidental emotional bond from the sheer proximity of our optical nerves. I’ve been studying meditation and mindfulness lately, and for a second I considered focusing on my breath to remove the bluster and bother of Dr. Phil’s pageantry. But then I started hearing Donald Trump’s voice as he was doing some press conference and it completely destroyed my efforts toward inner peace and worldly compassion. At that point I shifted my thinking to the consolation of knowing I was wearing my skinny jeans for the first time since February–demonstrating that I still have the capacity for shallowness and vanity. This can be a pretty comforting thought when you’ve begun to consider that even dogs don’t want to sleep in your bed unless they have leeway to kill you.

When the exam was over, I took my complimentary toothbrush and dental floss (you shouldn’t neglect your gums) up to the front desk to check out. Miss Waver never even checked my bite splint to make sure I wasn’t night-clenching in a way that was going to give me a stroke or perhaps prostate cancer. I stared at the dilapidated plastic case containing the bite splint as the receptionist processed my appointment. “Can I get a new case for this?” I asked, determined that the visit wouldn’t be a total emotional loss. The receptionist went to the back room and returned with a shiny, new, purple-swirl case for me. I took it as a sign that things would work out for that girl on the Dr. Phil show; that she would move on and find some fella who would stay in touch with her of his own volition, while the Douche-Nugget would get fat and bald by the age of thirty, when the women he meets will be conveniently unavailable to invest in his personal stock. At that point, he will have to get a dog.

Happy Birthday!

Dear [Helen’s former boyfriend],

Belated happy birthday! Helen came home last weekend (well, she came to Lansing to see friends and go to a worship thing, but she also slept at my house and allowed me to do her laundry and go to church with her—so I’m counting it as “coming home”) and reminded me it was your birthday. 20? Turning 20 in NYC while going to college and meeting new people and experiencing new things sounds like… well, it sounds like a fucking drag, to be honest, I mean, come on, who are we trying to kid? But I hope something made you chuckle on your day; in NYC, there’s always some “person” standing on a corner dressed in skimpy clothing and a cowboy hat, playing a guitar with an open case and hoping you’ll throw in a dollar but who also won’t let you take his/her picture to document that you really had cause to chuckle. Because by “person” I mean a scrawny, old, wig-wearing, painted-face, optional-gendered human who, by his/her very existence, just dares you to imagine that you won’t ever make something of yourself. “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere,” he/she seems to be conveying. That’s the kind of chuckle I’m going for here.

And if your birthday was just another shitty day, well, welcome to life, son.

With love,

Mrs. Weston

(I should probably let you call me Lis by now, I mean, come on, you’re a 20-year-old New Yorker, you barely have reason to acknowledge me, I should at least make it simple.)

P.S. I will never be hired to write birthday cards.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Fond Memories of Trampolines, Swimming Pools, and Public Masturbation

When I was in second grade, my sisters and I went to Catholic school. Much to my mother’s chagrin (“I already pay for school! It’s called taxes!”), my father was making a last-ditch effort to win the favor of his East Coast Italian mother–which was ridiculous, considering he was already wrapped so tightly around her finger that he invented interstate hemorrhoids–so he sent us to St. Ann’s. It was awesome–no lie! Second grade was when I received speech services to get rid of my lisp; received my first kiss from a boy; and learned what it meant to flip the bird at someone. It was also where I first learned to make excuses for a man’s bad behavior, since it was a boy who teased me by flipping me off, and when he wouldn’t tell me what it meant I asked Sister Mary Theresa. I didn’t need my keen ability to read the emotions of other people to know that Sister Mary Theresa did not at all take kindly to my flipping her off while I asked her what it meant; she grabbed my sinful hand in both of hers, pulled me close, and seethed, “WHO SHOWED YOU THAT?” I knew better than to turn in this boy, because he already spent a not-insignificant amount of time in the office, mostly for trying to see my answers during math tests. Thinking quickly, I whispered back, “There’s a man across the street who was doing it while we were playing Kimba the White Lion at recess.” I’m pretty sure Sister Mary Theresa made the sign of the cross over me and directed me toward my classroom, and then proceeded to call the police and maybe the Pope to report the public indecency. Meanwhile, my boy was safe because of my lack of integrity, and it earned me a kiss on the cheek under the monkey bars after school. “My dad is going to kill you,” I told him. (Later, when I told my father–expecting him to be furious and determined to defend my honor–he merely laughed. No anger, no vengeance, just amusement that a seven-year-old boy would display such brazen entitlement. The fuck, Dude??)

My father left town at the end of second grade, and even though I returned to public school afterwards, I remained friends with the few kids from St. Ann’s who lived near me. One of them lived just up the street from me, and I remember walking to her house many times during the school year. She had a trampoline in her back yard, which was quite a rare and awesome thing in those days, and we spent hours jumping on, then laying on, then hiding under it. Other friends came too, and it was so much fun and camaraderie and normalcy and fit-in-edness. At some point in the summer after second grade, however, she started turning me down when I called to ask if I could come over to play. She stopped inviting me, even when I knew others in our friend-group were going. I finally asked her why I couldn’t come over anymore, and she told me her dad forbid it. She said it had something to do with something my father had said or done–which, even at that age, made a certain sense to me. Even an eight-year-old knows, instinctively, if her dad’s an asshole. Later, I learned that my father had written nasty editorials about my friend’s father in the newspaper that my father operated. I’m sure it was probably some rant against capitalist progress; her dad was a prominent, well-respected businessman in the community, and my dad was… well… not. Still, a word to the prominent, well-respected business man dad: not allowing your kid to be friends with the daughter of an asshole is a bit of a douche bag move, in my opinion.

So I lost the trampoline access. It was one of my first experiences with shame, associating myself with a disgrace that limited my opportunities for fun, for pleasure. It made me aware, for the first time, of stereotypes and discrimination and judgment and guilt by association. It also made me aware of just how big a motherfucker my father must have been.

I remember querying my mother on the details behind our parents’ separation. My mother is, and always has been, a thoroughly decent human being. She is kind. She is smart. She is thoughtful and considerate. She is not what you would call “emotional,” and she has never been one to cast aspersions upon others for ill-fated circumstances. Consequently, it took years for me to learn the details of my father’s motherfuck-edness (spell-check doesn’t sanction that word, but I don’t care, it’s motherfucking apropos). So all I knew to do in those early separation/divorce years was not ask people for what I wanted; rather, I was supposed to wait for an invitation to whatever it was I wanted. Don’t ask to go jump on the trampoline; let them invite you. Don’t call the neighbors to see if I could swim in their pool; wait for them to call you. (Note to those of you with swimming pools: please spare the humiliation of all the repressed kids from dysfunctional families and post a fucking invitation to swim on social media, for crying out loud.) I learned it was too risky to make your needs known; better to sit stoically alone than to risk the embarrassment of being told “no” because someone in your lineage was once an asshole.

In my mother’s defense, she came by her stoicism honestly. She hails from a long line of Northern European stoics–“stiff upper lip” and all that rubbish. By today’s standards, her own childhood was sorely lacking in emotional connection, physical affection, and fresh vegetables, so it’s no wonder that, during my formative years, she was the embodiment of how to tolerate and transcend personal rejection, social indifference, and occasional constipation. She did not spend much (any) time or energy cultivating my resilience in situations where my expectations and desires were unmet, because that was simply not a “thing” in the world she had come to know. Also because she had to raise three young girls with no support on a teacher’s salary and she was fucking exhausted. “Cultivating resilience” was somewhere below “keep the lights on” and “split the atom” on her list of priorities.

Of course, for the imaginative among us, sitting stoically alone was not bereft of creative exploration. Saturday nights were devoted to “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” on television, and I’m pretty sure that’s where my vast understanding and keen interest of love and sex were born (notwithstanding the discovery of my best friend’s brother’s stash of Playboy magazines). Except you really don’t want to be developing your understanding of love and sex watching television with your stoic mother; I mean, there is no way to navigate that shit with Captain Stubing at the helm and Tattoo screaming at airplanes and your mother snoring in the Laz-y-Boy–not without the assistance of Sigmund Freud and Jack Daniels, anyway. Still, if you cover yourself with the afghan and slump down low on the couch and keep your heavy breathing quiet, you can figure out a good many things that will come in handy (pun intended) later in life–except they really won’t, because you have been conditioned NOT to ask for what you want. Dammit. You’re fucked even when you’re not.

Which is kinda the story of my life. Starting with second grade.

We (Don’t) Care About Children Here

Dear Angry Parent,

Thank you so much for contacting me about the horrendous injury sustained by your child in the gym today, when he tripped while wearing Crocs, playing and running with a friend. I sincerely hope the four stitches required to sew up his chin will serve as a gentle reminder that footwear ought to be selected more for function than for fashion.

I understand your aggravation at the complete negligence of my staff. I, too, am disappointed in their performance. I have been working diligently with them, training them to stay at the far reaches of any child-filled space and look anywhere other than where the children are; when I learned that your son tripped while in arms-reach of his teacher, it was a crushing blow to my professional development program. Additionally, her concern for your son was alarmingly higher than I am comfortable with; I even asked if perhaps her proximity was intended only to perform a ninja leg-sweep that would take out several children at once, but reluctantly she reported that, no, she simply felt drawn by love and concern to stand near the play area. I agree with your assessment that they need much more training in child supervision, and I will immediately institute a mandatory training where I will personally deliver the curriculum I designed in my own home. I have dubbed it the Gallo method, consisting of heavy drinking on the part of the adult personnel while the children are plied with bags of broken glass and used needles and sent into the streets, naked, to play. It is my personal mission that we level the center’s standards to parent expectations, and you have my solemn word that I will not rest until every one of my teachers is criminally intoxicated throughout the work day from now on.

With respect to your concern about the future safety of your son: I must say, I was gravely concerned that you brought him back to the center less than twenty-four hours after we nearly maimed him here. MY concern is that you aren’t clear on the nature of accident and injury. What we specialize in here is the INJURY of children. This is our primary goal and our most valued achievement. I recommend that you consider keeping him home with you, where anything untoward that happens to him could only be categorized as a mere ACCIDENT. I would truly hate to see you subjected to the inquiry of Child Protective Services by willingly bringing him to our torture chambers.

You mention paying “top dollar” to have your child at our fancy center. This reminds me that you are still in arrears on your tuition bill, and I’m wondering whether and when your financial aid will be finalized or whether you will want me to once again subsidize your account.

It was amusing to note your comment about the possibility of my going to jail over your son’s injury. Although you clearly have no understanding of the bureaucratic scaffold and regulatory processes of early learning in Michigan, I am touched by your recognition that I am in desperate need of a vacation. “Three hots and a cot” sound really tempting to me at times.

Again, I am grateful to you for your commitment to partnering with us to make this the worst job ever for tender-hearted teachers who love young children. They come into this field only to get rich, and I’m delighted to have support converting them into cynical, addicted victims of strident, unrealistic, and abusive parents; the last thing we need in this world is a bunch of hopeful educators ridiculously trying to support at-risk children and their families.

Warm, brown wishes,

Lis Weston

Meetings: Part 1

I attend a lot of meetings–gatherings, working sessions, study groups, vacations, sporting events, church, happy hour. Basically, any time I am required to be with more than one other person in any area in my life, it’s a meeting in my book. I’m at a meeting right now, in fact. It is obviously not a meeting that I’m leading–although I’m fairly confident that I could be leading and writing color commentary at the same time. I’m really good at meetings.

This particular meeting incorporated one of those (stupid) ice-breaker activities at the beginning, designed to move everyone out of their self-assigned cocoon groups and into the morass of everybody else, under the guise of helping us meet new people but actually making us all really eager to get back to our cocoons and away from strangers who we weren’t really going to be able to truly connect with in the three minutes allocated to the activity–I mean, come on. Without the benefit of more time or alcohol or scandalous news about somebody we all know, nobody is going to step out of their comfort zone and try to see the real person behind the name tag holding a paper cup of weak coffee and a stale donut. Still, I know how to play. I refrain from talking about my abject boredom or my ideas about what would be more interesting or how the main speaker had something in his teeth that prevented me from hearing anything he said and can you really expect us to learn anything from someone with such poor oral hygiene. I put a smug smile on my face, bemused by my own observations and the restraint I have managed, and I cheerfully inquire of my forced partner what she is looking forward to the most this fall. “I really hope we have warm weather,” she quipped. I feel as though I have seen into her soul.

Another “team-building” activity at this meeting had us forming a “high-five!” group of three (the fuck??) and do a tally of all sorts of critical data points, including how many buttons we were wearing, how many pets we have, and how many musical instruments we play. (I named piano, guitar, saxophone, recorder, triangle, rhythm sticks, maracas, bongo drum, autoharp, tambourine, and cowbell. I was angling to include my breathtaking ability to make a wine glass whistle, but it was not met with my high-five-team’s approval. So eleven. I play eleven musical instruments. Winner, winner, chicken dinner.) Seriously, people. Is this really the way humans get to know one another? Because if it is, I can understand why I have such trouble dating. Here I am, asking my prospective fella about his family relationships and whether he cried watching A Star is Born and how does he feel about the designated hitter rule, and telling him about my failed marriage and how I struggle to reconcile my need for physical intimacy with my need for physical space and that I would rather have the superpower of flight instead invisibility, when I should really be checking his button inventory and sharing my facility with the kazoo.

I will be single for the rest of my life.

But no matter. I’m fine with meetings. Meetings seem to be the hallmark of “working.” I work; therefore, I meet. I can put a check mark in my “contribute in some way toward the collective of humanity” box and then go home and sip a beer on the porch with self-satisfaction. Not right now, of course; I mean, it’s the middle of the day, I’m not going home to sip beer right NOW. Come on.

Observations on Adaptation

From a very early age, I learned to assess my circumstances and those around me, and to adapt myself–my behavior, my demeanor–to suit the situation. The legend in my family of origin is that when I was barely a toddler, I shared a bedroom with my older sister (a toddler herself). We were each in our cribs, doing whatever it is that toddlers do–you would think I’d know by now what that is, for heaven’s sake; I’ve been the CEO of a child care center for almost a decade–and she would be making noises or pitching a fit, and our dad would stomp into our room and bellow at her to be quiet or to stop fiddling or to somehow just soothe herself already, for the love of God. Sometimes he would smack her; there was always an abundance of smacking and spanking and shaking going on in those early years when our dad was around. So I would sit quietly in my crib, a silent witness to all of it, and that’s how I learned that as long as I was near anyone who was more unruly or disagreeable or needy than me, I could position myself as “better than” and therefore avoid whatever harm or trouble or annoyance or unpopularity that befell my counterpart. I learned how to read his “tells” and could make myself into the good girl that all manic-depressive angry controlling Italian mama’s-boys wanted. It was a great lesson.

All of this is not to say that I never suffered the wrath of my dad, who could accelerate from charming and funny to animated and outraged in the blink of an eye. He despised having to get up in the night to tend to me and my two sisters. If we were sick and had a coughing fit, he would yell from the master bedroom, “Cough into your pillow!” I can remember crawling under the covers head-first, with my pillow, to try to muffle the sounds of what was probably pediatric tuberculosis so that it wouldn’t arouse him–because if you kept it up, you could be damn sure that he would get out of bed and stomp into the room, turn on the overhead lights, and start yelling and smacking (physical abuse being such an excellent cure for the common cold). Another time, I remember feeling REALLY nauseous after I went to bed. I called out, “Mommy, my tummy hurts,” hoping that my mother would come in our room and tend to me–but my father barked, “Roll over and sleep on your stomach!” in such a menacing tone that it almost scared the sick right out of me.

Almost.

When the nausea reached its summit, I whispered to my sisters asking what I should do. My older sister hissed back, “Go to the bathroom!” I quietly got out of bed to go, and no sooner was I upright than I began vomiting. I puked my way into the bathroom; there was no way you couldn’t know what route I took. It was like a solid path of undigested dinner from my bed to the toilet. From their bedroom, I heard my mother say, “Bob, I think one of the girls is sick,” to which he hollered, “Who’s throwing up?” My older sister hollered back, “Elisabeth!” I’m sure she was eager to point his anger in any direction other than hers for a change. My mother and father both emerged from their bedroom, and I remember my mother tending to me in the bathroom, leaving my father to clean up my regurgitated yellow brick road. Take THAT, Motherfucker!

There were good times too. My parents would sometimes have dinner parties and would parade me and my sisters downstairs to model our pristine bathed-and-pajama’d selves in front of the guests. Had we been upstairs the whole evening? Who bathed us? Did we even get to eat dinner? All I remember was that any event that didn’t involve one of my father’s tirades was a “good” event. I’d like to think that I had early lessons in establishing low expectations, because when I think that, it puts the entire scope of my love life into perspective.

When I was eight, and my sisters were seven and nine (c’mon, Mom, haven’t you figured out how this works?), our father drove us to the Frosty Cup–a classically dumpy little 1970s restaurant between Cadillac’s two lakes–and told us that he would be leaving town the next morning to go live in Vermont. (I certainly hope one of us asked, “What’s Vermont?” but I can’t confirm we were brave enough at that age to ask him anything, ever, lest it launch him into one of his fitful lectures. If they ever make a movie of my life, I will insist that one of us–okay, that I–ask the question. I will make sure that the actor playing the child-me has big brown innocent eyes and an almost-perfect bowl-cut head of straight, black hair to accentuate the misery of always being mistaken for a boy. The actor will have have tears welling in her eyes as she asks the question, which is a serious embellishment because our father had little patience for crying–but fuck it, this is my story, I can craft it whatever way I like. Which means you can count on the adolescent-me having REAL BOOBS that require a bra, rather than the feeble pancakes that barely emerged in the fourth grade.) I don’t think our father even bought us ice cream that night. Asshole. Serves him right that he hit a deer the next morning while driving to this foreign Vermont place, totaling his car and forcing him to come back for another day of ICK while he got something to take its place.

The moral of this story is: Always buy ice cream for people before you shit on them, or risk the epic humiliation of not being able to carry out the shitting you had planned. Simple.

Also, there’s the lesson of being able to adapt to your circumstances in such a way as to preserve your safety, your pride, your mental health, and your chances of either (1) having successful, fulfilling, lasting, and meaningful relationships; or (2) having ice cream. Personally, I think it would be better to just build your life and your career in such a way as to be able to maximize the chance of ice cream, and then have a successful, fulfilling, lasting, and meaningful relationship with IT. Efficiency, Bitches!

Be the Best That You Can Be

The thing that’s hard to miss about me is that I have an incredible gift for encouragement. I have been derided by both employees and prospective love interests as a hard-ass slave-driving bully with a heinous tendency to shame my subjects toward some goal they have set (usually with my unequivocal support).

Au contraire. I’m a teaser and an autocrat with obnoxiously unachievable expectations who lords over people the nightmares of their most dreaded deliverables with a haughty laugh and a flip of my nonexistent shoulder-length hair as I explain, “I’m just encouraging you.” Just ask Peggy Smith*, one of my childhood playmates, about how I “encouraged” her to play Kimba the White Lion at whatever stupid summer daycare house we both attended when I was about six. I’m pretty sure she reached THAT goal, and others, including the one of sitting mute in a psych ward, endlessly staring at the penny that had somehow gotten glazed into the terrazzo on the floor at the foot of her bed.

So yeah. Not heinous. Just encouraging.

*This is not her real name–what am I, CRAZY? Come on. I don’t use the real names of people I write about here. Unless they are dead now, then I use their real names. And some of them are. Dead, that is. But don’t even think about digging up my back yard because I had nothing to do with any sudden or prolonged disappearance of people I was once acquainted with.