Cue Christmas Music (and no, I don’t care if it’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” or if you’re holding a Starbuck’s red cup or WHATEVER): Every year, there’s people who struggle to get their kids a little something at the holidays. And each year, Jenny Lawson, The Bloggess, tries to pitch in and help with her annual JGXM. The comments contain lists to links to gift wish lists and like she says, use your best judgment. Is someone asking for a few kids’ books or a cheap pair of sneakers? Then it’s more legit than a super long list of luxury items. The point is, FIND the ones who need it and be their Santa. THIS is supposed to be what it’s about, folks! https://thebloggess.com/2018/12/10/the-ninth-annual-james-garfield-miracle/
When I opened my mailbox this evening, the word “BIBLE” leaped out at me from a flier shoved in the back of the box. I took it out and at first couldn’t decipher if this was a pro-Christian, anti-Christian, or worse, some white power meeting being slyly advertised.
I scanned all four pages quickly to try and determine what exactly this was, but things just got more confusing when I read this:
“Christians believed…The world was flat. The earth was the center of the univere. Is there something you believe that the Bible does not say?”
Ummm, sure. I believe lots of stuff that’s not in the Bible. Like, that Peanut Butter M&Ms pair well with just about anything and AMC’s The Walking Dead just plain isn’t interesting anymore. So….what point was trying to be made? Is the speaker saying that Christians were wrong about a lot of things? That’s no shocker. Or are they saying the Bible can clarify confusing topics like gravity and the shape of the earth? Well, I wondered, WTF does the Bible really say? Passing time on the elevator, I glanced at the bottom of the first page of the flier, which advertised that “this fascinating seminar” was coming to my area next week.
I don’t know about you, but when I see the words “Christian” and “seminar” in the same flier, I imagine those “parties” that Landmark (not the indie film distributing company — the OTHER Landmark) and Scientologists hold. You know, the kind where they don’t let you pee or eat for more than six hours and separate you from the now-hated friend who dragged you here? The kind where they try and get you to sign over all your worldly possessions and promise you guaranteed fame and success?
This made me wonder if the word “seminar” was supposed to lull my liberal left-coast brain into a false sense of security. “Seminar” means education, right? Secular education. Oh, wait… As I read on, I pick up that yeah, this is pretty Christian stuff, although the words “God” and “Christ” only pop up once in the whole pamphlet. But I am too distracted by the illustration on page 2 to really think about it.
AWWWWWWW YEAAAAAHHHHHH! Sweet! Sign me the hell up! So whatever the Bible really says, it apparently has something to do with sea monsters, bears with either scrolls or bones in their mouths, Aslan from Narnia, and a four-headed leopard. With wings. Maybe this is all in Revelations or something, but I grew up Catholic and I SWEAR I would remember Aslan being in the Bible. I mean, I know C.S. Lewis was Catholic and Aslan was a Christ figure and all, but…I digress.
Let me take a moment here to say: I mean no offense to Christians *in general*. I know many and in a sense, I guess I am one since I try to live by the Golden Rule. I especially don’t mean offense to the ones who live good, simple lives and help their communities in a sincere effort to help and learn. In particular, I am not wishing to offend the Christians who are contentedly NOT mailing fliers to me.
Page 3 socks it to us with the topics or rather, the “answers” that will be presented over a 4-day period (not sure if they let you go home in between seminars, but let’s assume they do):
It reads like a Biblical Cosmo cover. I expected to see “7 Ways to Tell if Your Man is on the Prowl” underneath “Evidence The Bible has not been Changed”. What does that even mean, anyway? Changed via bad translation, or conspiracy or aliens or something? Because that would explain a lot. Anyway, presented using words like “Evidence” and “Proof”, the implication is: And we’re totally not evangelical Christians. Srsly. Because would Evangelists have topics using these words? These must be scientific people if they are offering proof that the Bible is God’s word. **Disclaimer: “as Compared to Other Holy Books” may refer to that tattered copy of The Thorn Birds that’s still on your parents’ bookshelf**
At last, we come to the back cover, which recaps that this seminar is indeed a deal at Absolutely Free. But once again, I am distracted by the picture in the lower left-hand corner – yup, this is the sampling of whom this congregation welcomes: the ethnically diverse, heterosexual family (although the white folks have no kids – does this mean something??). Oh well, best not to over-analyze. But then, what would I do on a Thursday night?
But who is the Speaker at this seminar? It’s this guy:
It took some time on Google, but I found out he either is or was a pastor at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in San Francisco. It was kind of a let-down to realize that there was no big secret agenda going on – just a bunch of churchgoers. I did get a little excited (“Wow! I’m breaking a big story!) when I stumbled across a guy on Google with the same name (different spelling) who is a screaming revisionist and racist. You know, the kind of people who refer to Jewish people as “Zionists” and who are convinced that the Holocaust didn’t exist? Yeah, those guys. But as I said — different guy.
As I wrap this up, I’m feeling a little bad because technically, I live essentially a “Christian” life, albeit in the non-Jesus worshiping, pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, Wiccan/pretty much agnostic sense. So who am I to make fun of Christians just for trying to win over a few new members to their SDA team?
I think it’s really more the brochure that I find offensive. It reminds me of political propaganda, no matter how pure and equality-loving the message is. Having an open meeting at your church? Then just say so. Don’t call it a seminar and use phrases that you hope will appeal to a non-believer in some ploy to trick them into showing up. Just invite us. Sure, it’ll be pretty quiet, but at least it’s an honest quiet.
Okay, so getting back to my very first RPG experience… In Part 1, I told you about how online text-based RPGs work, and that my first game ever was an ER RPG back in 2000. My memory of it was that I played enthusiastically for a while before eventually losing interest and inclination and exiting the game in early 2002. That was all I really remembered, apart from vague plotlines and my characters.
Until….Recently, I took two weeks off of work to get my shit in order. My husband and I were seriously considering buying a house in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and selling my business. Basically – uprooting everything. I needed to give everything some serious thought and also try and get into some better writing habits for the new book I’m working on.
In looking through old writings, I found an ancient document with a few posts from the ER RPG – the very first game I played online. I honestly had not even THOUGHT of it for at least a decade. I remembered very little at first – not even what the game was named – but I remembered how it saved my sanity during a transitional period in my life by giving me something creative to obsess about. So I turned to my old stand-by for all things RPG – Yahoo Groups – and did a search for it. Two hours later, after shuffling through many, many dead groups, abandoned and now only posted on by purveyors of pornography – I FOUND IT. My heart was pounding, as I slowly began to remember the characters and other players whom I once knew by name and email address.
Lucky for me, it was unmoderated, so anyone could join and then read back posts. So I did…and did not come up for air for at least a week.
I selected October 2000 as a good place to start, locating the moment I joined and began playing. I found my first-ever post, which was stilted and decent enough, but not terribly interesting (just like most firsts). As I got the swing of things, though, the characters took over and I just let them drive, taking a back seat as first person narrator.
I didn’t know why at first, but I was ecstatic when I first starting reading through all these forgotten posts. It was sort of like going back in time as a fly on the wall at a really fun party you attended with your best pals twenty years ago. I couldn’t interact with any of these people anymore, but I could read the old posts.And read I did!
It wasn’t just looking back at my writing, either – it was looking back at the writing of an entire group of people who all got together when they could to write and play. Some of them lived as far away as the UK and Australia. Late 2000 was trapped in the amber of Yahoo Groups, and I devoured all the posts pertaining to my favorite characters and plotlines. I remembered now, reading through them – I remembered them all. Michelle (playing Kerry Weaver) and Vanessa (playing Carol Hathaway), the game moderators who always wrote their canon characters so perfectly that I could practically hear the actors and actresses portraying them speak their words; Shelley (playing Elizabeth Corday and Abby Lockhart), who really grew into her characters and gave them deeper backstories than we ever got to see on TV; Joni (Lucy Knight) and Barry (Peter Benton), who stayed perfectly in character but kept posts brief and didn’t really delve too deeply; and Cathy (John Carter), who was the game’s Mary Sue. Like most Mary Sues, she was a good writer but had only a tenuous grasp of the character aside from what she wanted him to be. She would be so hurt when our characters reacted IN CHARACTER to the insane things she had Carter do (he tried to kill himself multiple times and often ran from rooms in tears – clearly the most unstable doc in the ER and not fit for such a high-pressure job). But she did keep the game intensely active – I’ll at least give her that.
I, like many others, played two characters who were polar opposites in personality: Dr. Robert Romano, the talented asshole Chief of Surgery *and* Chief of Staff and Dr. Mark Greene, the quintessential nice guy ER attending doc. My not-so-secret favorite of the two was Romano, because (a) his thoughts and words were often hilarious and (b) I used him to vent my frustrations with real life idiots. What I could not say out loud, Romano had no problem saying. Just an example of Romano’s personality: on the show, he once remarked, “I’m beginning to think that ‘ER’ stands for ‘Everyone’s Retarded’.” Beyond that, though, I could also dig a bit deeper to see: was he really an asshole through and through, or was that just the persona he projected to get what he wanted/needed? (Spoiler Alert: A little bit of both. Kind of like Yours Truly.) And Mark Greene? He was fun to write, but in a totally different way. He’d shoot hoops with Doug Ross, he’d get in snowball fights at Christmastime during a slow moment outside the ER. He and Lizzie once got into a hilarious food fight in their kitchen when a whipped cream cannister misfired. And he was the guy all the characters went to with their problems. When Abby had problems with an abusive ex-husband, Mark looked out for her and listened to her. When Lizzie had to have emergency heart surgery, he was right there by her side. He was the angel to Romano’s devil. The devil is still more fun, though.
Characters aside, I’d forgotten a lot of the minutiae of early RPGs, such as our OOC (out-of-character) comments about things that were happening in real life at the time. If you wanted to make a comment as yourself and not the character, you’d put “OOC:” in the header or in brackets to avoid confusion. And as time went on, our OOCs divulged more and more. Many players were college students, and tended to post things like “OOC: Midterms next week, so I’ll be scarce” or “OOC: Going on Spring Break in Mexico”. And then there was me, who posted about my cat spilling water on my modem and that I would soon be selling her to gypsys. And in the days before emoticons, we used <g> instead of a smiley face. So many <g>s! I think I might bring that one back.
We even had all the characters who worked in the ER take part in a Secret Santa, which is something no other game I’ve played in has done (mainly because the settings don’t really lend themselves to it). The RPG moderators set up a separate email account that you could email to enter your character in the Secret Santa, and they would assign who your character was “buying” for. Naturally, Romano had zero interest in participating in such frivolity (he had way bigger fish to fry), but you can bet Mark Greene was up for it. You would write an anonymous scene in which your character’s present is delivered to the its recipient, outlining what the gift was. That scene would then post from the Secret Santa email address to keep it anonymous, but appear on the game. So gifts appeared for characters without giving away who the gifter was. Then, at the ER Christmas party (which started on December 23 for the players and went on for several days), each character guessed who had given them their gift. I was in total suspense; I couldn’t tell from reading the posts which one I had written! Kerry Weaver, however, correctly guessed that Mark Greene was responsible for her gift (a black t-shirt with stark white lettering reading RESIDENTS BEWARE and a Relaxing Sounds of the Ocean CD). “Only an attending physician would be so bold!” she laughed in-scene. Meanwhile, Peter Benton had been Mark’s Secret Santa, gifting him a limited edition Chicago Bulls basketball (I guess surgeons make more money than attendings). So there was a comraderie among the players and their characters that carried over in these playful threads.
I began furiously cutting and pasting all these old posts into a Word document, knowing that one day, even the forgotten corpse of this game would vanish into the ether, along with everything else on Yahoo Groups and television. I’d found my old words, written with a confidence I’d lost long ago, and I didn’t want to lose them again. I’m too embarassed to confess how many hours of my vacation was spent doing this when I should have been working on my book. You know, the story that I haven’t written yet?
But like all good times, these too must come to an end. I first started feeling the tug of melancholy when I kept feeling the urge to respond to posts written 17 years ago. It would be pointless – there was nobody from the old group left to read them. They were all old email addresses, and for all we knew, even our on-screen names could have been made up. I wanted to reach through time and the internet and somehow reach them, if only to say, thanks for playing! How are you? Remember this? It was fun!
And then…the inevitable. My posts started to trail off somewhere in late July, 2001. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but looking back on the dates, I remembered that was around the time I was sort-of dating someone who was not as into being a couple as I was. Plus, I was having problems with a friend who was starting to spiral downwards with drug abuse. I’d resurface in the game every now and then for a quick but unfocused post, followed by an OOC comment of “Sorry so short – things are nuts right now!” It got much worse in August, when my roommate turned out to be a crackhead. I felt very unsafe in my own home and at a loss for how to get her out. I moved my cats out of the home and started couch-surfing at friends’ homes. Plus, the sort-of boyfriend was playing hot-and-cold with me. All of which makes for very distracted writing habits.
As I read the clues, I remembered everything that was happening in a visceral way that I hadn’t experienced in many years. I remembered the fear, the near-desperation for normalcy and love and acceptance. But on the game, there were no longer any posts. Romano would only make an appearance when tagged by another character, and he was far from his usual snappy self. I’d given Mark Greene away to another player since I didn’t want to leave Lizzie’s player stuck in the mud.
I could feel my stomach begin to knot up as Romano faded into the background, knowing what was coming in real life as we moved through late August and into early September 2001. I was filled with a weird sense of dread, as if I was watching the events of my life play out on a screen, unable to reach out and change any of it. I wanted my characters to come back and show me more, and ignore the terrors of real life. I wanted to read more of the fun instead of remembering the angst.
I spotted a very promising post I wrote on September 10, 2001. I had just returned to my home after my roommate got thrown in jail and I finally felt like it was safe. I worked on getting a stay-away order that I could serve her with while she was still in jail, and could sleep without worry, although not entirely without nightmares. Giddy with the prospect of a carefree future, I’d felt inspired and wrote a fun post.
Now-Me knew what the next day was, but I kept on reading, despite the deep-seated dread inside. The first few posts on September 11. 2001 were normal, as I guessed they’d gone up closer to midnight. Then, an OOC from Joni, our Lucy: “I just want to say I hope you’re all safe and that your families and loved ones are okay. Be safe!”
We all chimed in with OOC comments. Our overseas players let us know they were thinking of us in the States. Jaime, a player in New Jersey who worked in Fire-Rescue, wrote that he was headed out the next day to aid in rescue efforts at Ground Zero. We all wished him luck and thanked him and commiserated with him about the loss of his fellow firefighters. Reading back on it all now, I found myself tearing up. Was Jaime okay? Did he end up getting that lung disease that many of the 9/11 rescuers developed? Then Cathy/Carter posted the lyrics to “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and I really did cry.
It’s hard to explain what exactly I was crying for. It wasn’t nostalgia, really. It was more like a visitation from the ghost of days gone by, complete with all accompanying trauma and emotional fallout. The stories in the game I was reading weren’t making me sad, but in reading the dates on the page, the OOC comments and tracking my lack of participation, I was retracing the steps I took during difficult days. I remembered everything: the neighbor bringing a paper American flag to put in my window. Work saying stay home. Worrying about my non-boyfriend whose plane had been grounded. Serving the stay-away order to my roommate in jail. Driving home from the jail in my disintegrating old VW Bug, the driver’s seat propped up only by a giant salad bowl I had bracing the back of it.Watching the tiny TV in my bedroom because I’d brought the living room TV to my non-boyfriend’s house so my crackhead roommate wouldn’t sell it. I remember fear. I remember uncertainty. I remember watching televised shots of endless walls plastered with pictures of the missing and the dead on that tiny TV screen. I remember heartache. I remember every. Little. Bit of it.
But until I remembered it and felt it again, I wouldn’t be able to move on and read the rest. I needed to know that things went on, even though I knew they did. I did read on, finding what I’d expected: not much else from my characters. Other things in real life took precedence, and this would not be the last time a game would serve as marker in time for me. The Ghost of Games Gone By often takes me by the hand and reminds me of what has passed, if only to make me appreciate the present that much more.
After having processed all of this, I tried to listen to whatever it was Now-Me wanted to tell Then-Me so desperately: Wait! I wanted to tell her. Come back! Keep writing! It’s way better than worrying about bullshit. Keep writing! Show me more!
Then-Me looks back over her shoulder at Now-Me. “No,” she says. “YOU keep writing.” And she’s right. It’s my turn now.
And it hit me: I have it all, right here and now. Do I really want to uproot it all with a move and put myself in massive debt for the rest of my life? Why would I want to change what I have? I have a husband I love with all my heart, who loves me and has my back no matter what. We live in a rent-controlled apartment in a beautiful city, and I have a thriving business. In fact, it’s doing so well and our rent is so cheap that I could probably take Fridays off from now on. So why not grab onto that? Enjoy what I have. Write. It’s my turn now.
So, thanks Then-Me. You had a message for me, and you delivered it. Godspeed.
Ah, well. I’ll always have my inner Dr. Romano, who still tries really hard to override me when I don’t say the snarky comments I want to say. Sometimes, he gets the better of me and blurts out something I shouldn’t, like the former client I called a douchebag or the time I flipped off the guy at the deli for saying something stupid. Most of the time, I let Dr. Greene do the talking, but Romano? He’s making all kinds of wise-cracks in the background. And when I’m not strong enough, he stands up and speaks for me.
(Note: This post got lonnnng! So I’m breaking it up into 2 or maybe 3 parts. Godspeed!)
First of all, let’s get one thing straight: I do not worship Satan. I do not play Dungeons & Dragons with the kids from Stranger Things on Friday nights (I would actually LOVE to but I could never figure out the rules on my own back in high school, and none of my friends were quite at my level of nerdiness…that I am aware of anyway). I don’t get so obsessed with plotlines and characters from fantasy movies that I feel the need to sacrifice unsuspecting strangers in ritualistic bloodbaths (see the part above about not worshipping Satan). In short, I’m not what most people imagine when they hear the phrase “role play gamer”.
But what I am – and what I have always been – is a writer. Ever since I was old enough to daydream, I much preferred the worlds I imagined to the one I was actually living in (which, incidentally, wasn’t bad – just ordinary). And when I figured out that I could write about these other realities in, say, every spare moment of my waking life not spent at school or watching TV, I did it, often with the enthusiasm I probably should have been applying to my schoolwork.
This love of imagined realities led to a tendency to really throw myself into whatever movie/tv show/book I was obsessing on, from childhood onwards. When I found a movie or show I liked, I would dedicate my heart and soul to finding out more about (a) the film and how it was made, (b) all the backstories I could get my pre-internet hands on, and (c) making up possible backstories in my head and occasionally, putting pen to paper in what can only be described as very early fanfic. And even though I loved doing it, some part of me was very aware that I SHOULD NEVER SHOW IT TO ANYONE or risk being forever labelled Dorkus Giganticus.
As time went on, I began to shift away from established characters, and began to write my own plots featuring characters I created, although many of them were certainly inspired by characters (and the actors who portrayed them) I’d seen in films or television shows. Hey, we all have our influences, right? None of what I’d written back then was remotely publishable – hey, I was a kid! – but it was practice and kept me entertained.
It was the Fall of 2000 when I first found out about online RPGs (which in this instance refers to Role Playing Games, not Rocket Propelled Grenades). Let me set the stage for you: I was in the process of breaking up with a live-in boyfriend who was just not a great match. I could not WAIT for him to move out, and I’m sure the feeling was mutual. I worked the 3-10pm shift at a law office in downtown San Francisco as a word processor (remember those?) and this meant that I had a lot of mental downtime on my hands, and not too much money. So I spent a LOT of time watching reruns of a long-running medical drama which may or may not rhyme with “Me Far”. (What the hell – I’ll admit it. It was ER.) By 2000 standards, ER was action-packed and filled with diverse characters, medspeak, hospital politics and the occasional knife-wielding lunatic. In short, it was an excellent distraction from real life. So to keep myself from thinking too hard about anything, I watched this show, first-run and repeats, fairly obsessively for much of 2000. It kind of became part of my daily routine: get up, brew coffee, watch two or three episodes on TNT, go online, go to work. And when watching the first run episodes, I would immediately call my friend Sara (a fellow fan) to speculate wildly/commiserate about it. I’m still getting over Lucy Knight’s untimely demise.
And when I say “go online”, I’m talking about the Days of Dial-Up, when modems were external and you had to plug them into your home phone’s landline (remember landlines?) and be okay with no one being able to reach you by phone while you were logged into your shitty AOL account or whatever you were using. Netscape? Earthlink? Hotmail? Yeah. All of those.
I had already discovered fandoms on the internet, and one of the ER fanlists (remember fanlists?) posted about several online ER-based play-by-email roleplay game. Wait…what’s this, now? I could barely contain myself. You mean, I could take on the persona of one of my favorite characters and write their innermost thoughts, words and actions in a game? With other players playing their favorite characters? And we all take part in playing out plots that we made up? OH, SHIT YEAH.
I immediately subscribed to it via eGroups (later becoming Yahoo Groups) and began a journey which still continues to this day. The games have changed over the years, but the three that I’m still with have all been in play for over ten years. And they’re not all fan-based; some are worlds and plots that we’ve entirely created based on an agreed-upon premise (i.e., the apocalypse has happened – now what?). You create characters, choose avatars (basically, who would you choose to play this part in a movie), and begin interacting with other characters.
I should take a moment to clarify that there are many kinds of online RPGs. World of Warcraft is probably the one most people have heard of, but paid RPGs are different from play-by-email (PBEM) RPGs in the sense that PBEM RPGs are entirely based on text written by players, while visual RPGs tend to have animation and basic action directions. I’ve honestly never tried playing WoW, mainly because I am way more into words than playing out a visual battle. That’s just me, though – personal preference.
So, while it may make me a Dorkus Giganticus, I love my RPGs. I often skirt around the nerd angle by just calling them “writing games”, because that’s what they are, right? We either create an original character (OC) or take a “canon” character (a pre-existing character from whatever world you’re writing about), and try to write for that character, in-character (IC). And that’s the challenge: You don’t get to take a canon character and have them do what you would do, or even what you wish they would do. You have to stay IC. You must stay true to who they are in your writing, not just make them do what you’d like.
Trust me, it’s a lot harder than it sounds, and makes for excellent writing exercise. I could tell you many a story about people who made strong, stoic canon characters into hysterical, injury-prone basket cases simply because they wanted to make the character be like THEM. Their characters would plow right into and through every other player’s plotlines. Incidentally, those sorts of players are called Mary Sues. I found a whole Wikipedia page on Mary Sues, which is aptly described as: “A Mary Sue is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character. Often, this character is recognized as an author insert or wish fulfillment.” IS IT EVER! And let me tell you, these players are DEATH to any RPG, just as any real-life drama queen will suck the life out of everyone around them. I once wrote up a Mary Sue Test for my games, with questions like “Does your character have a wild animal as a pet?” and “Are your character’s eyes an unusual color, such as violet or multi-colored.” There’s a limit to how “special” a character can be, is what I’m saying. I wanted to make sure that potential Mary Sues are stopped at the border, before they can start crying from their cat-like violet eyes all over their pet wolf.
To Be Continued in Part 2….
A Short Story by Diane CorsoAuthor’s Note: This is a fictional short story I wrote 17 years ago. Inspired by true events, maybe, but really, what isn’t? So take it at face value, and don’t expect much.
Picking Through the Rubble, September, 2001:
It’s almost eight on that Sunday night in July before I finally pick up the phone and call my not-quite-boyfriend Patrick. He answers with his usual untroubled, “Hello?”
“It’s me,” I say. “I got back from Tammi’s wedding a little while ago.”
The joy in my voice must really carry. “You sound . . . less than enthused. Was it everything you hoped it would be, and more?”
“Oh… so much more,” I reply. I light a clove cigarette—it’s a special occasion, after all. It’s the beginning of the end of everything, even though I don’t know it yet. The first of so many bombs to fall has fallen. Next month, my roommate will start drinking heavily, and I will think this is the worst of her problems; this is before she gets tossed in the can and I find out about her crack addiction. And in a few months, Patrick will be stuck in Dallas, his plane grounded on September 11, 2001, and when I send a frantic e-mail to him, I’ll get a reassuring reply addressed to someone named Renee.
Lighting up my clove though, I don’t know any of this. Right now, this wedding seems like a big deal. I don’t know Big Deal from Adam.
* * *
Okay, unfair. I’ll back up.
We had all assumed that the worst thing that could happen would be Tammi would have too much to drink and maybe make an ass of herself. Looking back on this now, I see how foolish it was. What was I thinking? Was I imagining that Tammi would just get a little tipsy and become a frowzy, amusing bride who perhaps giggled too loudly, and maybe say something she shouldn’t, leaving the rest of us to suppress smiles, roll our eyes and pat her on the arm as we wished her well? This was Tammi, for crying out loud! Tammi Westerhaven, who never did anything without the maximum amount of drama and damage, and who always, always dragged at least one – preferably three or four – unwilling participants down into the sewage with her.
My pals and fellow music journalists, Victoria and Kay, headed for the bar immediately. They were younger than I but had been on the scene a lot longer, and I often felt like a tourist in that strange world of San Francisco Music Scenesters. I shrugged, took a drink and went along for the ride.
We certainly weren’t here to cover this sham of a wedding. Nope – we were here as guests of bride Tammi Westerhaven, former lead singer of the solid retro-sounding garage band, The Model Ts. I’d been in awe of her then, with her amazing long blond ’60s ’do and larger-than-life gutsy girl persona. In retrospect, I think she’d cast herself as the Original Manic Pixie. And that was part of the problem – who could live that lifestyle without doing major damage to your psyche?
As Tammi’s dependence on booze, prescribed Paxil and Xanax became heavier, we’d all started avoiding Tammi, because there was nothing any of us could really do for her anymore. Hoping to save ourselves, we’d all backed off over the past month.
What compelled us to show up? Some misguided sense of duty? Morbid curiosity? Looking around at the time, I saw that the only people who showed up to this event were either music scene freeloaders—curious onlookers who hadn’t spoken to her in months—or people like us: those who had once been her friends, and felt we ought to be there to help cover the body when the time came. Kay saw me looking around the room and pointed to one couple at a table who were reading the newspaper while they drank their champagne, as if they were just there for Sunday brunch. “I want a picture of that,” she commented wryly.
Naturally, Tammi had chosen everyone’s favorite bar – The Dresden Fire Pit – for the setting of her green-card wedding to her ex-boyfriend, Hansi, a German concert photographer with whom she still lived. He was like her sugar daddy, only without the sugar. She had a vested interest in him being able to stay in the country, and he had a vested interest in her.
The Dresden Fire Pit was located on a windy corner on San Francisco’s Market Street, with plate glass windows making up most of the walls. It was a summer’s day, but this didn’t change the fact that we were still in San Francisco, and even if it was nearing 1 p.m. in late July, it was cold, foggy, and windy as fuck. I wrapped my jacket closer around me and watched as Victoria began documenting the day with her digital camera. “For when the police arrive later!” she grinned.
That was when we all decided to check out the pornographic wedding cake.
I wondered what Patrick would think of this scene; it was times like this when I mentally referred to him as Professor Patrick the Anthropologist. He never came with me to any of these places, but seemed to enjoy hearing the details. I was mentally taking notes for him, ready to report back on Music Hipsters in their Natural Habitat.
As the Dresden Fire Pit was brought to some kind of inner order, a hush fell over the crowd and those who had decided to show up fell into their appropriate places along the sides of the room. I guessed that Elvis was in the building, so to speak.
In came Tammi.
She had pre-arranged for “The Girl Can’t Help It” to be played over the stereo system as her wedding march, and this was the one thing that was definitely appropriate. Tammi’s wedding dress was a black vinyl mini with matching black elbow-length vinyl gloves. She matched those with black fishnets and black go-go boots, with a blood-red feather boa. The coup de grace was the lime green bobbed-cut wig. She looked like a Dominatrix Christmas Tree.
Have you ever seen that Brady Bunch episode where Jan, unhappy with her self-perceived mediocrity, decides that she needs a new look, and purchases a brunette wig that looks like it belongs on a middle-aged mom? For her grand re-introduction at a party, she has her brother Peter introduce her as “The new Jan Brady!” and her confused friends simply laugh it off as a joke, thus making her humiliation total and complete. God help me, I could practically hear Peter Brady’s voice squeak out, “The new Tammi Westerhaven!” I mean, the poor woman looked so scared, so nervous, yet so pleased to be in the spotlight, all at the same time! I wanted to go over and pat her hand, tell her it was okay, that she didn’t have to do it, that it didn’t matter, and why, why was she putting herself—and us, for fuck’s sake—through all this?
Now, it’s not that I’m opposed to unconventional weddings in vinyl and with dick-shaped wedding cakes. I’m not even opposed to green card weddings. If you’re willing and able, go for it. But a mentally unstable person should not be doing it, and further, they should not be doing it “for security”. Further still, she should not be blowing a wad of cash (probably Hansi’s) to make a spectacle of herself in front of a lot people who don’t give a shit but who show up so they can eat and drink on her dime. I mentally buckled myself in.
Smiling a jittery, uncertain smile, Tammi teetered in her go-go boots to the nearest friendly face—someone I didn’t know—and gave them a little hug as she walked past, repeating this for a few others as she worked her way towards Hansi and the minister in the back of the room. She finally got to me, and I stepped forward, giving her a hug. “Good luck,” I whispered, smiling lightly. “You look fabulous.” She looked happy and gratified, in a caged rabbit sort of way, before moving on.
It was, of course, one of those hey-it’s-a-bar-fer-Chrissakes non-denominational ceremonies that lasts maybe three minutes, during which the bartender politely refrained from serving drinks. I looked into the gaping maw of my empty glass, becoming increasingly aware of my growing desire for vodka madras number two.
Everyone cheered politely as Tammi gave Hansi a friendly peck on the cheek to seal their strange deal, and I found myself wondering if the German job market was really so awful, when the music started up again and Hansi announced that food was available, “So be sure for to eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die, no? Or, get married.” Nobody needed to be asked twice.
“Tammi’s already kind of fucked up,” Victoria told me in a low voice. “She completely blew me off when I went to say congratulations. Know what she said? ‘I thought I wasn’t cool enough for your iceberg!’”
“Huh?” I ask, suddenly realizing I’d sucked down most of my second drink in about thirty seconds. “What, has she been composing that one all month?”
“Yeah, I know!” she hissed. “She’s the one who’s been acting like a crazy pillhead from Valley of the Dolls. Then she loosened up when I said I’d been swamped at work, you know the drill. Anyway, she said she took Paxil earlier at home, then some Xanax in the car. And now she’s going through the champagne. Look, for Christ’s sake, she can barely stand on her own.”
Why the hell couldn’t Tammi just take speed like a normal scenester diva so we’d know what to expect? Initially, I’d thought her unsteadiness was due to the high heels on the boots, but now I could see she was pretty fucked up. She’d needed something to calm her nerves, and now that she had the artificial confidence, she wanted to raise some Hell . . . and then some.
I could see the train wreck wobbling towards us all, but horrified, I was unable to either look away, or call for help. It was simply too late.
As the party progressed, so did Tammi’s slurred speech. At first, she had been fairly coherent. When I first went over to congratulate her, she said, “I’m glad you came. I thought you were mad at me.”
“No,” I said, feigning shock. I had been avoiding her, it was true, because of her strange behavior and constant bitching about our friends. The pill-popping didn’t help, either. “I was on vacation. I talked to you what, a month ago, about the wedding?” I hoped that sounded convincing. It sure sounded better than, No, I just didn’t want to get sucked into your whirling vortex of pain.
The dancing to ‘60s garage band classics continued for another half hour or so, until a clamoring sound at the bar distracted everyone. It was Tammi—she had taken the runway, and was wobbling her way along the bar. The bartender was speechless.
I was standing over by a window and looked around for Hansi. He was off drinking in a corner, still convincing himself that Tammi was beautiful, daring, and secretly in love with him. He looked proudly up at her and applauded her efforts, a sad-looking carnation wilting in his lapel.
Tammi looked down towards Hansi. She was dazed from the pills and the booze, which apparently were working together as a team to make her emotional, agitated, sleepy and unsteady all at once. This, incidentally, is great when you’re walking on a bar in heels. Of course, she lost her balance and fell. Luckily, a barstool broke her fall, but no one nearby came to her aid. Instead, they mostly just moved away. One dude even yelled out an enthusiastic “YEAH! WOOO!” What did the Hipster’s Guide have to say about this particular situation? Even Tammi tried to laugh at herself, along with the others, but still, no one helped her stand while she twisted around, wig sliding off, stumbling again and again as she tried and failed to get her heels and ankles to cooperate with the floor.
What was wrong with these people? If someone had been hit by a fucking car outside, would they stand around and point and laugh? Probably. I tossed my cigarette through the window and hurried over to help Tammi, even though my mind was screaming at me to keep running, run for the door and don’t look back. Her wig had all but fallen off by now and as her sweat caused her makeup to start running, she looked like an escapee from some Fellini killer clown movie.
“Here, let me help you fix that up.” I suspected that I had just wandered into a Nathaniel West novel, but continued anyway.
I sat Tammi down in a nearby chair and straightened out the wig, and in the process I realized as a knot tied up in my stomach that there was a funny substance drying in the wig. A funny, yet strangely familiar substance. A sticky clear yellowish substance with a copper smell which most women will recognize in about .04 seconds, especially if it’s drying on their friend’s face and wig. Suddenly, things went from kind of pathetic and sad to fucking freaky, as in get-me-some-drugs-and-a-dark-room freaky.
There is no real ladies’ room at the Dresden; there is one unisex bathroom. It has one toilet, so I knew we needed to be relatively quick about this. I rushed her in there, closed the lid on the toilet and set Tammi down, filling an empty glass with water from the sink. I silently handed the glass of water to Tammi to drink from, running the tainted strands of wig under the hot water, avoiding touching it at all costs. “Tammi, what the fuck, girl?” I asked softly, not really wanting to know, but needing to. I was a journalist, after all, and questions like these were expected of me.
“I don’t know,” Tammi sniffled, stray blonde hairs poking sadly from the net cap covering her bleach-blond hair. “That guy Jim from that band The Zodiacs and I were dancing—you saw, and I kind of followed him back here, and I grabbed him and asked him if he wanted me to, you know, do him.” Subtle little minx, I thought, but said nothing. She looked up at me then, wavering between crying and becoming defensive, a sniveling tactic she’d recently developed. Though the crowd out there was not exactly peopled with winners, myself included, the scene before me was beyond old. “I just love to do it, it’s something I want to do, you know?”
No, I really don’t get it, but okay. “Mmmm. Here, have some more water. You’re okay.” The wig was at least no longer a biohazard, so I moistened a paper towel and turned to clean crusty bits off of Tammi’s face. I wondered if anyone else noticed this before me. Kind of hard not to, but then what do you do? Point it out?
I couldn’t help but wonder why it was always me – me, in particular – that ended up in this role, giving the bathroom pep talk to the sad lush and “sort of” dating the Patricks of the world.
Tammi sighed. “And I just, I just started to cry. I don’t know what happened, but I just started to cry,” Tammi said, her sniffles escalating into sobs.
“Okay, okay. Here, drink this.” I handed her the water again, and while she was crying and trying to drink water at the same, I took advantage of the opportunity to clean off her face more thoroughly. My mind had all but shut down, repeating the mantra, does it get more awful than this? What I didn’t know then was: Yes. Yes, it does.
I knew not to preach, or give advice. Tammi was too fucked-up right then for it to matter, anyway. “Here, just have more water, and you’ll feel better. Just, no more champagne, okay?” I held out the ridiculous lime-green wig, now slick from the water on one part, but at least relatively jizz-free. I dig into the antibacterial soap and hot water, realizing I’d probably just exposed myself to someone else’s excretions. “Here, your wig’s okay. Do you want it back on, or do you want to give your real hair a shot?”
A strange calm settled over Tammi as stood before the mirror. It was like she was channeling Bette Davis or something. “The wig. My hair’s been under this cap all day and looks like shit.” Well, sure, I thought. Who wouldn’t choose jizz over hat-hair? Tammi pulled her wig on firm and straight. “Al, could you hand me my purse? I’d like to fix my make-up.” She sighed, and for just a second, the old Tammi that I met and knew and loved resurfaced. She gave me a sad look and a half-smile. “Man, I look like a goddam drag queen, don’t I?”
After that, I called myself a cab. They said it would be half an hour. This really is becoming a surrealist film, I thought. I’d call it No Escape.
Nearly half an hour later, I was beginning to kid myself that I might escape soon without further mishap. That is, until there was a commotion near the bathroom. I looked up from my smoking spot by the window, the spot upon which I had begun to sprout roots, and saw Victoria hurrying out of the alcove where the bathroom was, a hand cartoonishly held to her cheek. Kay and I pulled her aside and she stuttered, as if not knowing whether to laugh or yell, “I think the f-fucking bride just s-s-slapped me!” She removed her own hand from her face, and sure enough, there was the red smack-mark imprinted on her pale cheek.
I gave a low whistle. “Huh. Hostess gifts are getting kind of extreme these days.”
“What happened?” Kay asked. I wanted to tell her not to ask that question, that she would regret it, but it was too late.
Victoria began her story breathlessly. “I knocked on the bathroom door while she was in there—I mean, there’s a sign outside the door that says, ‘Knock Before Entering’, so I did. And I heard this voice from inside say, ‘Bitch, I’m the fucking bride, you knock one more time and I’ll kick your ass!’”
“You’re fucking kidding me,” sighed Kay.
Victoria shook her head. “No! And I thought, well, she’s kidding. Like I totally thought she was just kidding around—who talks like that for real, outside of The Jerry Springer Show?”
“So, I was joking around too, and I knocked again. So she flings the door open, comes out, and pops me one,” Victoria continued. She looked nervously over her shoulder.
I wanted to go home. But my roommate was on a downward spiral and now my home wasn’t even mine.
I wanted Patrick. But that was just not happening.
Fuck Me and My Actual Life.
My cab pulled up then. I left without bidding farewell and good luck to the beautiful bride, who had bolted herself back in the bathroom.
* * *
December 2001, the Ashes Washed Away:
So back in early October, I had my crack-addict roommate evicted. She was Part Three in the Horrible Stuff Saga that Tammi’s wedding kicked off, and man, did it ever take a long time to get rid of her. I did it by myself, too. Well, Patrick helped, in a friend sort of way. We stopped not-really-dating back in September, after he returned from Dallas, just after the Renee Incident of 9/11. Strangely, he’s been there for me now a hell of a lot more than he used to. I think it’s the clarity. He likes being my friend; I just wish he’d said that earlier. In any event, I’ve had the house to myself for nearly two months now, nearly insanity-free and without major catastrophes for a few months. I’m quite pleased.
It has been a long time since I’ve felt safe enough in my own home to leave the doors open, and let the music play loudly while I have a beer on the front porch. It used to be my favorite thing to do, long ago. When I first came home from a trip in October, I was too scared to do it. I would lock the doors behind me as soon as I got home, and even set the coat rack in front of the front door so I would hear if any crazy ex-roommates or drug addicted freaks tried to break in.
Now, I’m not afraid anymore. It’s just a process that happens slowly over time. For now, what I really want is to be on my porch despite the chill and have a beer and listen to Radiohead playing on the stereo. And as I sit here, I realize it’s awfully cloudy, the sky, but it feels good. And when it starts to rain, that feels good, too, and I don’t move, not a muscle. Because I’m afraid to scare away the feeling of new that’s coming over me. If I move during this process, I may have to start the whole thing over again, and that might just make me crazy. And the rain is confirming it all, making it real, proving that I am here.
So I sit there in the rain, drinking my beer and listening to the music. Eventually, my cigarette goes out because it really starts coming down. I mean, really pouring.
Doctor to little kid: There, there, that didn’t hurt so bad, did it?
Little kid: Are you fucking kidding me?!?
Okay, it sucked. It sucked a giant bag of dicks. In a few short months, one of my friends went batshit crazy at her Fisher-Price Pretend Wedding, my roommate spiraled into a world of drug abuse costing me almost a thousand dollars in damages and a significant portion of my peace of mind, and my not-really-a boyfriend decided he would rather just be my friend without telling me. And in the midst of all of it, four planes crashed into the east coast and changed the way we live forever.
But that’s okay. It’s all okay. Because one thing I have learned out here in the rain is that the ashes eventually wash away.
So this weekend, one of my very best besties, Pam (AKA Adventure Pam) came up from LA to visit Michael and I, and we all headed to Napa for an overnight at the Meritage Resort and Spa, including a trip on the wine train. Pam hadn’t heard about the incident from a year or two back where a group of African-American women (a book club!) were kicked off the Napa Wine Train for allegedly being “too loud.” Absolute bullshit, right? So we told her about it just so she could share in our shame for patronizing it.
But a wine train is a wine train, and ride it I must. #dontjudgeme To make myself feel better, I did make a few jokes about how I was excited to go on the “white train” or just “the racist wine train”. Because you know…WINE.
So we got tickets for the Vista Dome Lunch which is about the nicest lunch you will ever have on a train travelling about ten miles an hour through wine country. They encourage you to kick things off with a mimosa before boarding, so we did. Then eventually it was time to board. You walk up a boarding ramp lined with cyclone fencing that has a shit ton of padlocks with people’s names scrawled on them. Apparently, these are all placed there by couples who are in love as a symbol of how trapped or locked into their lives they feel. Oh wait, that’s not right. Could it be they feel imprisoned by love? I know it’s intended to be romantic but honestly, nothing says “love” like a giant padlock.
So we get to our beautiful Vista Dome car, which is vintage and has a dome window for maximum viewing ability (as one might expect from the name). I made a joke about Trip to Bountiful because HOW CAN YOU NOT, and the rest is pretty hazy. Six drinks and four courses later, you roll back into the station, ready to check into the Meritage and take a nap, which we totally did.
Because this is who we are, we read every pamphlet in our room, including the note warning occupants about Cliff Swallows. Pam was reading it aloud to us and paused here, noting that this would be an awesome name for a gay porn star. And from there it was just pure hilarity, since Cliff Swallows is/are endangered and therefore allowed to build nests wherever he/they feel like…including on guests’ balconies. Apparently, Cliff Swallows is also a total slob because the hotel adds that should Cliff Swallows leave a lot of unwanted debris on the balcony, guests should feel free to notify Housekeeping, who will happily clean up after this presumably aging messy ex-porn star/endangered creature. I kept imagining a dude in a ratty bathrobe and cowboy boots smoking on the balcony and leaving crumpled up cans of MGD and American Spirits everywhere.
Listen, we are easily amused. But not by normal things, it seems. We headed to the Crush Lounge, which houses a bowling alley and pool tables as well as really outstanding bar food. We liked the food and the fireplace, and while I wanted to play pool, it was super loud and honestly, we just wanted to find a fire pit to sit near and talk. But all the fire pits were turned off! I think we probably could have turned one on and if not, we could have asked one of the really awesome and attentive staff to turn one on, but at that point, we were ready to call it a night.
The three of us watched a cool little sci-fi flick called “The Passengers” with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence about people travelling in suspended animation for 120 years to get to a new earth-type planet. Only one guy is woken up about 90 years too early and can’t go back to sleep, so he decides to totally ruin some hot smart chick’s life by waking her up, too. They fall in love, until she finds out he’s essentially killed her and then she’s mad and goes swimming in a really cool space pool a lot. Oh, and the British Wesley Snipes from 30 Rock is there playing a robot bartender. And later Laurence Fishburne wakes up, explains some shit, then dies. Bonus Unnecessarily Big Name Cameo by Andy Garcia as the ship’s captain, who is in like 10 seconds of this movie. And not even a good ten seconds! It’s a ten seconds that makes you realize you just watched a movie with way too many plot holes and a stupid ending.
We slept really well despite the disappointing ending of the film, and awoke to the magic that is BRUNCH BUFFET! And it truly was magical. Trust me, I’ve been to a lot of mediocre buffets in my nearly 50 years of life, and this one was really amazing. Not only was there the usual breakfast fare, there were cheese blintzes, chicken and waffles, brioche french toast, more charcuterie and cheese than I have EVER witnessed in one place before, a sort of coat-rack thing with donuts hanging on it, and a Made-to-Order omelet bar. Oh, and mimosas for Pam! Coffee for me.
We checked out but stuck around because we had barely scratched the surface of what else was going on at the Meritage. We had a dip in the hot tub, then went to a wine tasting (after which I spent an embarassing amount of money on eight bottles of wine), then went to a coffee shop for a cuppa joe and then lunch back at the Crush Lounge.
I have to take a moment here to share this awesome book that Michael found. I still don’t know if he was buying it ironically but I don’t think it was. I think he sincerely needs cheering up sometimes and thinks this will help, gods bless his adorable heart.
Feeling desparate? Suicidal? THIS BOOK MAY HELP. Or not. Hard to tell. It’s full of pages that have abstract blotchy drawings on them with simple statements about how things will get better and life won’t always suck. It’s so simple, it’s genius. I honestly would have chosen a different title, such as “Please Don’t Kill Yourself” or “I Think You May Need Help”. But that’s just me.
From the little note at the bottom of the cover page, I think this book is assuming an awful lot about what’s going on in my life, but generally speaking, it IS a hard time to be a human being right now. And it’s nice to know that this book is here for me when I need it. Interestingly, it was published in 2016, which as we all know was a real stinker of a year.
Anyway, that was our awesome visit with Pam/weekend getaway to Napa. I hope we can make this an annual thing and somehow not become alcoholics. I heart my Pammie. And remember – Don’t Kill Yourself, Because You Might Miss a Hilarious Blog Post.
“How about this tree?” Fran asked, pointing to the pine tree that was currently throwing shade our way.
I set down my can of Diet Coke beside my beach towel and shrugged, standing up. I approached the tree, giving it a quick once-over. “I guess it’s okay,” I said, but upon closer inspection, I realized it wouldn’t do. I pointed at the base of the tree. “Someone left a bag of dog poop. So…maybe not.”
Fran laughed, seeing it now. “Yeah, I guess not.”
I spotted another, smaller tree, right at the end of the rocky outcropping we always just called “Cantwell Rock.” I imagine every other family that went there called it after their own family, but to us, it was Cantwell Rock, where we had at least one family picnic each summer at Pinecrest Lake. “What about that one?”
Fran nodded. “Looks good. As long as there’s no bags of dog shit under it.”
“So we’ve agreed on the minimum requirements for a final resting place.” I picked up the two jars containing my share of our Mom and Dad’s ashes and we walked over towards the little tree.
“Keeping the bar low is always a good idea,” he nodded. My brother was like that: keep it light. Don’t expect too much. Actually, that could have been the family motto: Don’t be too serious and don’t expect too much. You might end up pleasantly surprised. Okay, so it’s not as cool-sounding as the Stark family’s “Winter is coming,” but on the plus side, at least we’re all still alive, unlike the Starks.
It was a cute little tree. It was easy to spot if you were approaching by boat, and therefore easy to remember for future visits. “Yeah, it’s a good tree.”
My original plan for Pinecrest this summer was to spread Mom and Dad’s ashes with the whole family there, like some faintly creepy family reunion. I’d imagined all eight of my brothers and sisters there at the cabin on the lake, each of us holding our unmarked pickle relish jars filled with each of our shares of Mom and Dad’s cremains, sitting on the porch with cocktails and telling the old stories for the millionth time.
We’ve told the stories so many times that the actual telling of the tales is more ritualistic than informative; it’s not like there’s someone new who hasn’t heard about the time Cathy and John wandered off onto the fire trail and got lost until Cathy made John go up to strangers and cry pathetically until they asked what was wrong. Or the time that Fran was ten and got left behind at the gas station in Oakdale, and the old man who worked there gave him an ice cream cone and patiently waited for the Cantwell family station wagon to return. Or when Dad packed the luggage on top of the car so high that he couldn’t back it out of the garage. Or the year that we had a reunion and someone came up with the awesomely inappropriate idea of printing up t-shirts for everyone reading (unironically!) CANTWELL CLAN. Yeah, there was a reason I never wore that shirt outside of the cabin that year – CLAN is definitely not something you want to have plastered across your chest. It’s just wrong. I couldn’t even donate the shirt to Goodwill; the homeless have enough problems without associating themselves with a clan.
In retrospect, I guess it was kind of ridiculous of me to think that all of us could actually clear our calendars for the same three days in August. Only my brother Fran showed up, sporting his awesome Brad-Dourif-as-Doc-Cochrane-in-Deadwood ‘stache. I hadn’t really known Fran too well growing up, since he’s about 12 years older than me and had already moved out of the house by the time I was able to retain memories. And for a while, he’d been the black sheep of the family, a motorcycle-riding hippie with a genius IQ, the fourth child in a family of nine, while I was the baby of the family, the good kid who craved everyone’s quiet approval. But as it turns out, we probably have the most in common of any of us.
Anyway, there we were: only two of the remaining nine Cantwell kids, looking for a proper place at Cantwell Rock to spread my parents’ ashes. Oh, sorry – my share of my parents’ ashes. Fran didn’t have any because he never collected his from my sister Gail, who somehow ended up with the job of Parental Ash Distributor. Gail and Chuck somehow always get stuck with the jobs like that, although I have no idea how that happened. And Fran probably just thought that someone else would want them more than he did. I could see his point: it’s kind of a weird feeling to just carry home two unmarked jars of your parents’ ashes after having Thanksgiving dinner at your sister’s house. Leftover turkey and stuffing? Sure. Ashes…not so much.
“So…who’s who?” Fran asked, nodding to the jars I’m holding.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I used to know. Um, I think this one is Mom.” I held up the jar filled with lots of white ash. “I remember thinking it was odd because there were more ashes of her than there were of Dad.”
“Yeah. That is odd.” He squinted at the jar that I suspected held our mom’s ashes. “Oh, maybe Pauline got half of Dad’s ashes, and so there was less to split up?”
“Oh, yeah!” Why hadn’t that occurred to me? Of course our stepmom would have taken half the ashes for the Naval Ceremony they had back in New York. Yeah – the one that nobody told anyone about. I didn’t really mind, since that was typical for our family and not something done out of spite. It just doesn’t occur to us, when we hear about things like weddings or funerals, that someone else might actually give a shit. It’s honestly like we’re a whole family full of absent-minded professors, bumbling our way through other people’s emotions.
Without asking my brother if he had parting words, I unceremoniously dumped the ashes at the base of the tree, careful to wait for the breeze to stop. “We don’t want to pull a Big Lebowski, do we?” I add, tapping out the ashes first from one jar, and then the other. I knew he would get the reference, and he laughed.
I stood up once I was finished and the ashes were settled, already mixing with the dirt at the base of the tree. I placed some pine needles over them, as if that would keep them from blowing away. “Um, so yeah,” I said finally. Neither of us were religious. A prayer would mean nothing. So instead, I said, “Sorry, guys. I guess you’re stuck with each other, now. But you’ll like it here, I think. Thanks for giving us Pinecrest. And Cantwell Rock.”
It felt weird saying those words instead of an Our Father or a Hail Mary. Or even a “Peace be with you,” like at the end of all those visits to church as a kid. But by the same token, as a family, we had never done funerals for anyone in our family. We’d do kind of a memorial party; I guess you could call them “celebrations of life”, but no funerals. So it made sense that we’d not really know what to say when dumping the ashes of our divorced parents who’d just happened to pass away six months months apart from one another, at the ripe old ages of 91 and 93.
“Want me to take your picture?” I asked, putting away the empty jars and coming back with my iPhone. Fran was instantly game, and immediately took up a pose. He made imaginary guns with his hands and pointed towards the tree, grinning broadly under his straw hat. “What is that supposed to be?” I snapped a few photos even though I had no idea what his pose was.
“Isn’t this the pose from those photos at Abu Ghraib?”
I rolled my eyes and had to laugh. Leave it to a Cantwell to hilariously send up your parents’ ash-disposal with a touching recreation of infamous torture photos. “Oh my God, Fran!” It really was perfect. I loved my big brother more in that moment than I ever had before. It felt really good to laugh just then, and he joined me. We’d never actually say we loved each other, but we didn’t need to. We were forever unified in finding the inappropriate hilarity in horror and the macabre. We were Cantwells; that’s just what we did. It was in our DNA. It was what made us who we were.
We packed up our picnic things, including the empty jars that were now lined with the ashy residue of human cremains. Later, I put them in the recycling bin. I understood that to some people, this may seem uncaring or harsh. But the thing I think both I and my brother understood was that it didn’t matter how a thing might seem. What mattered was the take-away. And that day, we exorcised the gravity of death from the beauty of the life. Who needed empty jars? Who needed prayers and words, when we had love and laughter?
Not us. Not the Cantwells. And definitely not me.