Tell Them You Understand It’s Difficult


What it is about my cousin Janet is this – she isn’t a chicken shit, in a nice way I mean.  She is free of the retarding hang-ups and fears that prevent me from saying things that desperately need saying, and from getting off my ass when it needs some air.  Who knows, maybe she’s got a Mr. Hyde side that I’ve failed to see for fear of spoiling the image I have of her.

I don’t remember how it came up but during a visit a few years ago she mentioned that she had recently seen a woman with a facial deformity at the grocery store.  The deformity was severe and the woman kept her head down to hide herself as much as she could.  Janet continued her shopping but made her way over to the woman and gently began a conversation. They spoke for a few moments, and then Janet told her she understood it must be difficult for her, and that she just wanted the woman to know this.  The woman paused for a moment, and then began to cry.  But through her tears she managed to say that Yes, it was very hard. And she thanked Janet for her words.

“I would never do that,” I thought.  It was too far into someone else’s business.  I was afraid even at hearing story though I had never bothered to define what I was afraid of.

A year or so later my daughter was born.  She was born with a cleft lip and palate, which in the first six months alone required two surgeries plus she had to wear a NAM device (below) to keep her nose from sinking down into her mouth.  Even a small change from “normal,” a line on the lip or mild tilt in the nose, makes the human face look so different.

For parents the time goes particularly fast and before I knew it she was three and in preschool.  Three, despite its tantrums, is an amazing age.  At this age kids speak their minds.  Her classmates would often walk up to me or my daughter an ask “what is that on her face?” sometimes pointing to her cleft scar.  When the child’s parent was present they were horrified.  They’d begin to apologize to which I’d say there was no need.  Their child was doing what they were supposed to do.  They saw what everyone else saw – a scar and a tilted nose.  And they wondered what others wondered – Why is that? What is that? So they asked a question.  Unfortunately, older kids and adults don’t ask questions or talk about, let alone to, people that look different because we’ve been taught that it is intrusive and inappropriate.

Last year I finally got up the nerve.

One of my daughter’s preschool classmates was developmentally delayed.  For most of the two years they were in class together I never took the time to ask this girl’s mom anything about her condition, let alone acknowledge that there was one.  So at a playground birthday party one weekend I saw the mom sitting on a wall at the edge of the park as her daughter played on a swing.  I took a deep breath and went over and sat down next to her.

I prefaced that I hoped what I was about to say would not offend her.  I told her I thought that parenting for her must be difficult, and noted how much progress I thought her daughter had made that last year in preschool. Truly, this girl was now talking and interacting with a personality that I didn’t see at the year’s beginning.

She nodded her head, and the corners of her lips began to quiver as she fought back tears.  I started to apologize just like other parents had done when their kids asked about my daughter’s cleft.  And much like I had done to those parents, this mom held up her hand to refuse my apology.  She told me that indeed it was difficult, and she thanked me for what I had said.  I saw her again the next week at daycare and she stopped me in the parking lot and told me again how grateful she was for what I had said.  That brief discard of my fearful sensibilities allowed a moment for a few simple words, and they were still ringing in her ears days later.



The Dental Spa

While in the waiting room before my daughter’s dental check-up this morning, she played with another girl about her age while I sat in a strange and squeaky chair that appeared to be made entirely of rubber, and defended my knees from a little boy who apparently believed my right knee was a punching bag.  After the boy was called for what I hoped was a root canal, I picked up my backpack and began searching through it for something to read.  As for any healthcare visit, I take somewhere between six and ten books.  I suppose I like to hedge my bet, not knowing what mood I’ll be in or how much time I’ll have to read.  I usually take at least one from each of the major fiction genres (mass market, literature, classic, short fiction, young adult, and anything by a Fox News contributor) as well as a decent selection of nonfiction (memoir, essay collections, etc.).  I guess you could classify my mood at such times as “indecisive.”

None of the books I brought this morning were of any interest so I picked up the magazine from the side table next to me.  It was a lifestyle magazine for one of the upscale neighborhoods in town, and as typical, the first few pages were dedicated to pictures of recent high society events and the face and/or breast renovations of its attendees.  But more than these cleaves of flesh, it was a two-page advertisement for a “dental spa” that caught my eye.

First of all, from the picture in the ad, each of the professionals that make up this practice appear to be perfect human specimens. This is a picture I would expect to find in a futuristic press release notifying the people of earth who among us had been selected to propagate our species in the upcoming colonization of Mars, since, you know, our stewardship of earth turned out to be a complete failure.

The ad also describes their services. The “general and family dentistry” and other typical services, of course, but they also provide:

  • Hot Paraffin Hand Baths
  • Light-Reducing Eyewear, and
  • a Professional Relaxation Specialist on staff, and No-Fear Dentistry

And although this sounded very pleasant, the ad also noted features, such as Mercury-Free Dentistry and Preventative Saliva Screenings that got me a little worried.  Granted, I had never heard of a “dental spa” before, so it was natural that some of their services would be unknown to me.  But I now had to wonder what my normal dentist was doing to me.  Was I being exposed to mercury? And what the hell is wrong with my saliva that they might need to screen it for?  I just assumed it was natural for it to taste like rat poop in the morning.

So I finished reading the ad and flipped through a few more pages, feeling worse and worse, me and my crooked teeth and wounded knee, as compared to the perfect smiles and tanned bodies on those glossy pages.   Well, at least then I knew which of my books to pull out – the collection of depressing short stories.

Sometimes, Their Casa Ain’t Su Casa

This morning I visited my normal diner after dropping off my daughter at school.  For me, it was to be a celebration of sorts, a reward for successfully delivering her to class still wearing at least something, even if only underwear and one sock.  Today they were taking pictures with Santa, so, of course, the outfit lovingly chosen by her mother felt, to her, like they were woven from burlap and barbed wire.  And these are the mornings that I treat as would a person holding a tarantula.

As I entered the diner, I noticed the stools at the counter were either taken or were blocked by a ladder that the owner was hastily setting up, as if about to replace a light in the ceiling although they all appeared to be working.  He gave me a look, sparking the memory of an off-color remark I’d made in a recent visit, and suddenly I felt not quite as celebratory.  Thinking about whether to leave, I knew I didn’t want to go home where there awaited a list of overdue tasks, and a keyboard that I had promised some attention.  And the only other breakfast place I could think of was a nearby Waffle House.

Before I continue, know that I’ve probably eaten at Waffle House, or as my old crew called it Casa de Wafflé, or just plain Casa, hundreds of times.  Most of these encounters occurred years ago at a location near the now-closed County Cork Pub.  And from those late-night experiences, a lifelong fascination was born, despite the fact that they were drunken ones.   

The primary nature of my Waffle House fascination was how orders were processed.  The servers, tired as hell of drunk twenty-somethings who couldn’t decide between grits or hashbrowns, would yell the orders – Pull two sausage! Drop two hashbrown scattered smothered!  And how did the cooks keep it all straight without a paper trail?  It was one of the wonders of my world. 

Eventually, I decided to seek answers and I learned that the very first Waffle House was only a half mile from my house.  It was no longer an active restaurant but had recently been converted into the Waffle House Museum, so I went in for a visit.    

Once inside, I noticed that it looked just like a Waffle House.  “Wow,” I said, perhaps a little too sarcastically. “This looks just like a Waffle House.”   

At this point I heard a cell phone snap shut and noticed a woman sitting in the corner.  She got up and as she approached me I hoped the look on her face was the dour residue from the conversation she’d just ended.        

She introduced herself and explained the history of the building – Unit #1 was built in 1955 and yada yada yada.  And as she started showing me around, behind the counter, the same griddle as is used today, and the plastic replicas of T-bone steaks that look exactly as they do in a real Waffle House, I interrupted her, not knowing when I might have this opportunity again since the museum is only open about 14 hours per year. 

“Why do servers yell at the cooks?” I asked. ”What do they mean when they say ‘Pull’ and ‘Drop’ and ‘Mark?’ How do the cooks keep all the orders straight?”  

She looked a little surprised. “We don’t give out that information.  It’s proprietary.”

“Proprietary?  But they yell it out loud, every time I’m there.”

No matter which way I rephrased the question, she wouldn’t tell me, but she did mention that the adjacent building had some memorabilia that might be of interest.  Sure enough, in the next building were displays of uniforms, buttons, pins, and other brick-a-brack worn by associates over the years.  There was also a special section dedicated to restaurant equipment that had survived hurricane Katrina, and another for customers who survived Bert’s Chili, a substance that looks as if it might occur naturally around the floor bolts of 40-year old toilets.

I walked around and listened to a young employee there talking to a family of tourists who had driven from Alabama just for this.  Perhaps they should be put on display, I thought.  Finally the family left and I gave my question another try.            

“Well, they don’t—“

“Lemme guess, you can’t tell me. Whats-her-face over there said the same thing.”

“Well, I can tell you a little,” she said, uncomfortably.  “The server gives the pull order first, such as ’pull one sausage,’ meaning they’d pull it from the freezer.  This comes first because it takes longer.  Then may come the drop, like ‘drop two eggs, scrambled’ because that takes less time than the meat. And so on.”

“How do the cooks keep the orders straight?” I pressed.

“They mark the plates to indicate what goes where.  A jelly pack might mean toast.  A pickle might mean something else.”  A pickle might mean something else!  This was really good stuff.    

I pulled out my Moleskine notebook, the same kind Hemingway might’ve used in the Great War, but she clammed up.  I would have to figure out the rest on my own. 

I visited the local Waffle House many times in the coming weeks, ordering things I had previously sworn never to touch, let alone put in my mouth.  I finally met my match in ordering the hashbrowns “all the way,” a dish featuring jalapeno slices pulled from a jar of Barbicide, chunks of “purple,” and a thick toupee of gravy that looked suspiciously like the sluice that was occasionally scraped off the griddle. 

And I noticed myself becoming prohibitively fat.  What the hell is in this stuff, I asked myself.  I expected to find at least basic nutritional information on their website, as is typical for chain restaurants.  But as with my other quest, the Casa wouldn’t tell me that either.

In the end, despite feeling less at home than I once did, I decided to stay at the diner.  I took a booth by the window next to two women that looked overly tired from staying up watching last night’s election returns.  Maybe I should just learn to keep my big mouth shut.

You’re Wrong, Mr. Sedaris. But Who Cares!

Until a few years ago, I paid an exterminator to do my killing.  A gentleman of about sixty, came every few months and moved quickly through the house, squirting liquid death in corners and along baseboards.  And during these visits his voice was constant.  It began innocently enough.

“What kind of bugs you been having?”

“Roaches.  Ants.  And spiders. Lots of spiders,” I told him.

I expected him to pause while compiling my response then go back to his truck to blend a cocktail of insecticides just for me, but he went on about his business, speed-walking around the kitchen with the metal can he came in with, noting how carefully he serviced homes with children.

“And I can’t do anything about ants. Not really spiders even.  They’re harmless anyway.”

I know they’re harmless, I thought.  But I want them dead!

“Do you like having a boy and a girl?” he asked, lunging to the top of the stairs.

I had a boy and a girl, it was true.  But I never thought of it as a choice, either in regards to their sex or in my liking them.  “I guess so!” I shouted back.

I mean, what would I do, what could I do, if I stopped liking them?  Could I trade them in for newer models?  Did they have reset buttons?  I’d always assumed that liking my children was required.  Suddenly, I didn’t like thinking about my kids anymore.  And it would go on like this.  He’d ask me what I thought about an upcoming football game, while I made a list of orphanages and adoption services in the metro area.

After a few more visits he began adding personal, and sometimes sordid, bits of intelligence gathered from other customers in the area.  One family had an ongoing dispute with a neighbor about the toxicity of the mosquito service he provided.  And another woman had part of her bottom removed.  For a few weeks after this, I couldn’t stop staring at neighborhood fannies, consumed by a curiosity to know who this poor woman was.  And even though I wasn’t inviting him to share any of this, I still felt guilty, as if I should have crammed toilet paper into my ears when I saw him pull in the driveway.

And presumably by mistaking my usual silence for agreement, he soon began vomiting out his political views.   This candidate or party would save us from the moral and economic decay we faced.  The other candidate or party was the antichrist.

So here was a man, who, although a little odd, was otherwise pleasant, and appeared to be able to hold down a job.  He also knew how to drive a truck and was good at lacquering cabinetry and toys with poison.  But at the same time, he had assembled a collection of political opinions with the care that a three year-old takes in wiping his ass after a shit.  Honestly, if there is process that turns a human into a pile of feces on a bathroom floor more quickly or completely than politics, I don’t know of it.

I get that there is competition for this honor, so let me address a few of them.  Atheists might argue that religion is such a process, but, although not a true believer myself, I can see how some religious writings are rather practical.  Take, for instance, if you were seeking a wife, the Bible tells you to find an attractive prisoner of war, bring her home, shave her head, trim her nails, and give her new clothes.  Voila, you have a wife (Deuteronomy 21:11-13).  And also guidance in labor relations – it is okay to beat a slave to a temporary crippling as long as you don’t damage his teeth, in which case you must set him free (Exodus 21:26-27).

Or perhaps some women feel that sexual urges have this impact on men.  But from my 40+ years with a penis, it seems perfectly logical that closing a box of cereal (slipping tab A into slot B) can divert blood from one head to the other.  And anyway, according to Ephesians 5:21-25, it is my right to do so with my good lady wife.

No.  When I see Ann Coulter and Keith Olberman at the front of their respective lines for the shit buffet, I’m sticking with politics.

So what does this have to do with David Sedaris?  Well, this past weekend my wife and I went to hear him speak.  Sitting behind us was a “girls night out” gaggle who, to express their free-spiritedness, removed their shoes, put them on the backs of our seats, and began moaning about politics before the reading began.  How awful things would be, they said, if Romney became President.  And they made a pact, then and there, with their toes on my collar, to move overseas if Romney won.  Unlike the same pact they made before Bush’s re-election, this time they were serious.  They were really going to leave!

After his readings, Sedaris took some questions, one of which was about his essay “Undecided” published in The New Yorker before the 2008 presidential election.  He briefly said how odd such political indecision was, likening it to confusion over two choices of entree – chicken, or a “platter of shit with bits of broken glass.”

I understand that Sedaris is a humorist, and one of the best at that, who probably couldn’t resist the temptation to comment on politics and poke fun at the same time.  And I must admit that I am decidedly decided in the upcoming election.  I have an opinion, so I, too, am subject to the following criticism.

Who cares what your political opinion is!  And why is it so important to have a political opinion anyway?  Isn’t it possible for a person to listen to crapstorms over betrothing, buggery, and bullets and say “Okay, I’m not sure how these effect me.  I’m already married.  My wife doesn’t allow deliveries through the back door, if you know what I mean.  And I don’t enjoy shooting people in the face.”

So, for the politcally-minded who believed Obama would close Guantanamo and substantially pull us out of wars and economic sludge, and for the people who believed this country would go to hell within months because of “socialism,” maybe you made the right, obvious, and noble choice – chicken.  Too bad you’ve been eating shit with broken glass all along.

Prepare To Be Mounted – Part 1

I am going hiking and camping with two friends this Saturday.  That is the plan, at least.  The three of us rarely get together anymore and the years of empty promises that “yeah, we’ll definitely do that some time” finally chapped one of them bad enough to insist that we go this weekend.

So last Thursday at 4:18 a.m., the one I’ll call Friend #1 who got all this together, sent an e-mail (something unusual in itself) entitled “hello keep sending incomplete sorry.” In this e-mail was a list of 37 items, many of which were multi-part or paragraph-long explanations of alternatives, of what he felt we should bring.  The list included:

  • locator beacon, etc.
  • Purell sanitizer
  • sunglasses
  • bear spray
  • earplugs
  • “a lil rope”
  • “I have a whistle for me and you” (meaning me and himself, Friend #1.  Not sure why Friend #2 was not allowed to have a whistle), and
  • bathing suits “for the way up” (for a mid-October hike in the North Georgia mountains)

Like pretty much everyone else raised in ITP Atlanta (inside the perimeter, which refers to Interstate 285 that encircles and protects Atlanta from the rural hordes), I have little experience hiking or camping.  This is because metro school systems limit the education of students about “the rest of Georgia” to only what is included in James Dickey’s Deliverance and the movie based on it.  This is to dissuade us from ever traveling OTP (outside the perimeter) or, god forbid, if we ever went WOTP (way outside the perimeter) we would at least know how, when commanded, to “squeal like a pig.”

In truth, the list also included necessities like tents and backpacks, socks and shoes, and lots of toilet paper, but nonetheless it seemed a bit over-enthusiastic.

In the e-mail, he also encouraged me to come over to his house to try on an arctic jacket that he wanted to sell me for $50.  The jacket would have been too large for Andre the Giant and I imagined myself tripping over the sleeves dragging along the ground and falling off the side of a mountain, so I turned him down.  Next, he showed me his own backpack that he insisted I borrow, refusing to consider my comment that I’d be fine using my son’s Spiderman backpack.  He had, in fact, already packed it for me and gave me the tour of where all the essentials from the e-mail were.

“What’s this Christmas ornament for?” I said pointing to what looked like the lost bell on Santa’s sleigh.

“That’s a bear bell,” he said, getting annoyed.

“Why do we want them to know we’re coming? Aren’t we supposed to avoid bears?”

He went right on showing me all the other special pockets and their contents – one for the bear spray, another for the headlamp that I would need in order to look for bears while getting up for late-night pee, and which I would have to wear while sleeping. etc.

On the way home I called Friend #2, hoping to get some confirmation about what to bring.  Maybe #1 was right, that we really did need all this stuff.  How the hell would I know.

“I’m not taking all that.  Just a tent that we can all sleep in, a small stove, and some socks,” he said.

Hopefully I will have an entry Part 2 after the trip.  If not, it’s been real, y’all!