Monday, September 16, 2019

Birthdays Last Forever

This post is six in one. I'm one of those rare people who, as she ages, appreciates her birthdays more and more. They are a happy, motivating force. So, I've been writing short essays for my Birthday Week on Facebook the last few years. Here's the 2019 set. Enjoy!

Not Sucking

The day she removed the note from her refrigerator door reminding her not to suck—a note that met her each morning as she pulled the creamer carton from the clear plastic shelf knowing she would feed the cats first—she decided that “not sucking” was far too low a bar to set. The opportunities for an employed American woman with a low mortgage interest rate and a high credit score afforded her options much sweeter and exotic than surviving the day without feeling like she owed someone something or had screwed up that one important Thing-I-Will-Do.

No. She was not sucking. Not anymore. She was ! so ! not sucking that the conceit of the idea suggested a need for pity. Sure, she’d had her challenges: a dead husband, a steep learning curve into single parenthood, a stuttering career that had placed her in late middle age skating along the edge of under-employment. And her lovelife. Yes, the men. Sigh. How could she truly discern which of them didn’t suck, the few who had brought a minor twinkle to her eye. Hell, all she wanted was to be held and told “It’s not all going to suck.”

She was going to have to give the not-sucking pep talk to herself. No one else would do it less-sucky. It needed to come before her coffee. Before the cats. Before the shower for work. Before she dealt with the kids. Before she kissed the next man. Before she wrote yet another essay in third person. Before she opened the chapter to another year of not sucking. “No, my dear, you’re not sucking. Everything that could possibly suck, has. Now, get on with it. You’re fabulous.”

Dear Hands

Dear Hands:
Where have you been all my life? In front of me, that’s where, like a guiding, driving force. Can you remember holding anything for the first time? My mother’s finger in your tiny baby palm? And what about a Cheerio or your first ice cream cone? Mouth loved those so much.

Did you think holding Dad’s hand was special when you needed to get up and walk for the first time? Feet were always one step behind you. They would never hold a Crayon or shuffle a deck of cards.

And, then, one day, you wrote! It was you and Brain from then on—attached at the hip (haha). You were Brain’s tool. He told you what to write and when and how, and in your wish to comply, you wrote all those long handwritten letters to your great-great long lost aunt whom you never met and to your Gramma Mimi and to your cousin, whose letters you stuffed into small white envelopes and sent with God knows what inside.

You learned to write a lot of big words and to erase a few, too. No one was really looking at you or the rest of us either. It didn’t matter much whether we got any attention, and it didn’t make any sense to complain. It was easier to go to the cupboard for a cookie.

But, then, the typewriter!

Who was our first typing teacher? Maybe Mrs. Lane, a large Nordic-looking woman who gave us spiral-bound practice books to complete mindless exercises. Ff, Jj, Kk, Ss, and did you know there were so many other sentences that used the entire alphabet other than “The quick brown fox …”? Me neither.

You really were a showoff, Hands. You knew how to fly across those typewriter keys and kick the hell outta QWERTY. The IBM Selectric was a goddess of a machine. Maybe after her we just didn’t care for pencils anymore.

And then you got really snotty in college as the typesetter for the student newspaper. But Brain wouldn’t have it. He wanted YOU to write, not just decode everyone else’s writing for the weekly rag. Did typesetting feel like second-class citizenry? Never mind, because you turned into a journalist. Yet, come to find out, you weren’t quite fast enough at note-taking. The tape recorder took over your scribbling job. You spent years afterward as a glorified transcriptionist. Don't worry, we appreciated the effort.

Your dexterity came in handy later. When the smartphone showed up. Lord, what would we do without Thumb?! The master of all texting. A savior. A god.

Let me say, all that transcribing and gophering for Brain hasn’t quite been the pinnacle of your life. In fact, those things you wrote were third-string compared to the important stuff.

You held my babies and never failed.
Cuddled their precious new skin.
Nestled hunger against my breast.
Stroked tufts of hair freshly washed with Johnson & Johnson.
Delivered electric love with a fingertip on a teary cheek.

And wasn’t THAT something?
Something worth writing about.

(Thank you, Nina Hart, for inspiring Dear Hands!)

This Lil Monster Love

(Last year, after posting some of my Birthday Week essays, several friends commented that the pieces seemed kinda sad. That wasn’t my intention when I wrote any of them, and I assure you I’m not sad writing any this year. So, please don’t worry. I’m okay. I am. If anything, I’m 100% human. Always agitating for more. 😎)

The word—get—is not my favorite. It’s guttural and sounds like it’s picking a fight: Get XYZ. I need to get XYZ. If I don’t get XYZ, I’m coming to get you.

But, we don’t always get what we want, thanks Rolling Stones. Beyond food, clothing, shelter, the necessities, getting what we want all the time, all the way, just doesn’t happen. Let’s call those our Lil Monster Needs.
Lil Monster Needs will keep you up at night.
These Lil Monster Needs could fill a garbage bag a week. If you believe in religion, you might advise us, the keepers of the Lil Monsters, to go in peace. Peace be with you .. and your bagful of Lil Monsters. Drop them off along the street corners, maybe, in black Hefty garbage bags where they can slump next to the other bags o’ Lil Monsters in the neighborhood, forming rows of holes to be filled. Then, the garbageman might come along on his Monday route and find that he can’t fit all the Lil Monsters in the back of his dumpster. Where will they all go, still calling out to their owners, who can hear them quite crystally clear from their dining room tables next to the picture windows with the blinds closed?

One need in my bag calls out particularly strong from its pre-final-resting-place at the bottom of my driveway when I place it there each week. Its voice could travel a hundred-thousand miles or from a dirty ditch three counties over and be flattened by bulldozers five times a day and covered by a layer of dirt, but still I’d hear.

‘Feed me love,’ it says. And not just any kind of love, but an expansive, immortal love for which there may be no source. It is a hungry, greedy need—this Lil Monster Love—whose teeth have some mighty sharp ends. It knows how to get me. And maybe you, too.

Bury it where you’d like. It’ll find you anywhere you go.

Ghost Riders

Two years ago this week, I decided to reaquaint myself with bicycling. I’d been off my bike for about 15 years. Bicycling had become something I’d do at the beach or on a special outing. When I lived in Portland, the biking capital of the U.S.A., even then, I hadn’t been a serious rider. But I wanted to make a lifestyle change and contribute to Asheville’s shift toward becoming more bicycle-friendly.

It took a leap of faith to overcome my fears of biking in a hilly town where there aren’t a lot of bike lanes. Asheville’s population is about 91K and is surrounded by the Smoky Mountains, so it still has a lazy feel to it compared to Portland or Austin, Texas, cities that are often considered its contemporaries. Biking has been slowly taking hold here, and I’ve started riding at a time when a small but growing band of others are, too. In many respects, I see this as my effort to “be the change you want to see in the world.”

What I didn’t anticipate when this adventure started was how biking is both a solo venture and a ride-along. Not that I’m commuting with a bunch of folks or organizing group rides to promote the culture here. My companion riders aren’t really real. They’re all people—living and dead—and memories, just a few ghosts that tag-along in my head.

I’ll admit, the number of streets I’ve been on continues to expand and so do my ghost riders. Here’s one: my 12-year-old self, who used to ride from Franklin Street in Clinton all the way to Artesian Park for swim team practice. My old high school friend (now a ghost rider), Maria, and I made those trips together, and once I ran into the back of her bike and flattened her back tire. Her dad called me Crash Fulford after that. Thank goodness I haven’t lived up to that name. But pre-teen me is frequently on my rides.

One of my first ghost riders, obviously, was Daryl. He’s most vividly with me when I’m on a trail. There’s a short urban trail about a mile from my house, and almost every time I’m on it, I think of his last ride. He was mountain biking near Portland when he passed away. He became short of breath and stopped to rest. He sat down at a wooded spot and lost consciousness from heart failure. A friend, Ethan, was with him. He rides with me, too. For Daryl’s funeral, friends marked the spot on the trail by nailing a bracelet that Daryl had made to the tree he was near. It’s simply engraved “LIVE.”

A man I never knew, Ray, rides with me because I inherited his bike. He was a friend of a friend and a rider in Asheville, way before me, and he died not too long ago. I’d been searching for a commuter bike when I was told his family wanted to re-home his. I met his grown daughters shortly after his death. They had that look about them that I had when Daryl passed, stunned resignation. I was thankful for the affordable option their dad’s Diamondback gave me, and it’s been a solid bike on the street and gravel. Thank you, Ray. I appreciate the loaner.

Another tag-along, my daredevil side, also rides along. Darn it if I can’t shake the desire to speed. I always do my best to stay safe, but the thrill-seeker in me can get a little itchy. I ALWAYS wear a helmet and almost always a safety vest and carry lights in case the sun goes down. So, there’s that.

My teenage kids ride with me, too, in spirit, as do many friends, co-workers, and acquaintances who often want to know about my riding adventures. Riding a bike is an adventure for people who don’t. I always see something I wouldn’t if I were in my car. Just a few days ago, I saw a public mural I’d never noticed on a building in the middle of town. How could I miss it? Because driving just does.

I’ve been on hills and trails and sidewalks and bike lanes and neighborhoods and parks. When I’m in my car for other commutes, almost always I’ll drive down roads that I’ve now cycled on. My cycling has criss-crossed the city and its bumps.

One street in north Asheville passes by the location where Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, spent time in a home for mental health patients. It’s a scenic and hilly spot and not a place that anyone would necessarily say, “Let’s ride there.” It’s off the beaten path. And I always think: Wow, she lived here. She slept and ate and maybe wrote here. Though her husband earned the notoriety, she was also a tremendous writer and, from what I’ve seen of her work, had an incredible knack for words and story. Unfortunately, she also died in the institution during an accidental fire in 1948. I can’t help but wonder if maybe her ghost is sweeping across the grounds when I ride by. Out of deference, I nod my head occasionally. One free-thinking woman writer to another.

A Master

It's late and dark out, and I owe myself an essay. Not you, me. I want to write Birthday Week Essay #5 because it compounds the doing. Here’s where a self-reminder helps. The product of this week is not in the numbers—the word count or the days in a row that I can dash off something worth reading. I tend to become wrapped up in the product, the outcome. What do I have at the end? Something I can sell? Something I can point to of publishable quality in the competitive world of literary works? Something that drives my friends, family (you!) to buy one of my books? I’m not writing any of these essays for those reasons. I’m writing because of the love of the doing. I celebrate my life by doing this thing I love.

I’ve taken enough writing classes and practiced to a degree that I understand doing is good in and of itself. This is not the same as mastery. At one class years ago, with a best-selling memoirist (I may have the details wrong), the message she drove home was: the only way to become a master writer was to write for 10,000 hours. Where she got that figure, I don’t know. That comes out to be about 20 years of 40-hour work weeks. At that rate, I’ll never be a master writer. I’ll always be a doer.

In retrospect, what do we ever master when the bar is so high? For me? Naturally, there are a few things. Some good, some unfortunate:
Worrying, that evil energy-suck.
Breathing, thank God.
Eating, the great necessary indulgence.
Sleeping, though losing the skill to age.
Failing, this essay, perhaps.
Wanting, always always.
Caring, about my family, friends, the planet.
Hoping, never caving to the dark.
Learning, by the doing.

I’ll keep doing this, if you promise to keep doing the thing you love. What do you love? Go do it.


Remember that craze in the 1990s that had millions wearing rubbery bracelets marked with WWJD? The What Would Jesus Do? message essentially was: do good works and act morally as a demonstration of Jesus. I never quite caught the fever. But in the last few years, as I’ve navigated solo-mom duties and faced a lot of consequential decisions alone, I’ve come up with my own coping mantra: What Would Jack Fulford Do? Or, for short, WWJFD.

Jack Fulford, my father, happens to be salt-of-the-Earth stock whose moral and intellectual compass closely matches mine. I guess that shouldn’t be any surprise. All bias aside, I’ve come to understand that practicality and common courtesies are a little scarce these days. The world isn’t such a nice place on the other side of my front door. Now, you’re probably thinking: ‘She’s paying tribute to her father because that’s what a grateful daughter would do in some fashion once they meet a certain age.’ True, to some degree, and as I celebrate another birthday, my age does instill a smidgen of perspective.

Yes, I love my father. He’s a decent man with decent morals and a sense of wonder and a little bit of compassion that hasn’t been killed off by cynicism. But, he is human. He’s got his faults, too. He’s sometimes slow to motivate, more of a plodder than a sprinter on decisions and actions. He deliberates occasionally with the speed of Chicago rush-hour traffic. You just gotta wait it out. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t have his share of bright ideas that, when executed, tend to look a little impetuous to an outsider.
For instance, on a recent flight of mine into KC International Airport, he showed up in an old Honda Acura, having just bought it for the visit. It was an impulse buy, by most standards, out of convenience. Rather than haul me and his grandchild around Missouri in the cramped cab of his Chevy pickup with our baggage thrown in the truckbed, he’d opted for second-hand luxury. Family required a trunk and a backseat, so we piled in (albeit, after we stood for a good five minutes in the parking garage trying to figure out how to turn off the car alarm).

A year ago in July, Dad and I went on a two-day, two-night excursion on an Amtrak train across the West. We’d cooked up the idea after my first train trip earlier in the year. We both reserved sleeping berths that included meal service in the dining car. And from Denver to San Francisco, we basically spent the entire time talking. It was an unbelievably precious 48 hours. In those two days, we commiserated about the past, about politics, about books, about people, and the funny and tragic circumstances that glued our family together. We watched incredible scenery roll by and passed through historic locations (site of the Donner Party) and natural wonders (the Salt Flats). Pauses in our conversation, when we had any, were always a segue to a new subject. We smiled and laughed a lot and wondered with grave concern what the future would bring, for us, for our families, for our country. We met some interesting characters on the train, people we would have never encountered elsewhere (a young man who sang in the San Fran Opera and his artist girlfriend), and left each other with new stories to tell. Storytelling is a good skill to hand down. It centers you to your people.

Obviously, my gratitude for that trip is immense. For those of you who’ve lost your father, I am so incredibly sorry. This includes my own children, who will not have the opportunity to spend time with their dad in adulthood. For those of you who do not have a relationship with your father or parents, my well of sympathy runs deep. I am fortunate. Looking ahead, there are still plenty of blindspots. There’ll be more days of decisions that are tough and that I’ll feel ill-equipped to handle. But, I’ve got my backup. WWJFD.


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