Category Archives: Stories

Ten Things About Me & Bob Dylan

I don’t know that much about Bob Dylan, except he’s always been there. He’s been hanging around in my brain for almost as long as I can remember. And he’s not a quiet guy. I mean, he goes on and on sometimes. Standing over by the left wall of my skull, smoking and spewing brilliant, insane poetry. Sometimes he has a band with him, but more often he’s alone, with his big hair and his sunglasses. This is a partial catalogue of some of our more memorable times together.

1. I met my ex-husband for the first time, standing in line for “Don’t Look Back” at the Oak Street Cinema in about 1996. Everyone standing around in the classic Minnesota posture: hands stuffed straight-armed into pockets, shoulders hunched, shivering. I looked at all the characters in line; dudes in leather jackets, messy hair, scowls and their breath visible in the cold night air. Dave said he didn’t really like Bob Dylan, despite his similar disposition, he just wanted to see the film. He was a friend of a friend. It was a fantastic film. Dylan was such an asshole, and so beautiful. Joan Baez walking around with that apple like some freaking Goddess. Ubiquitous Robbie Robertson. Afterwards we went and drank Mextaca at a dive bar in St Paul. Much later, we got married.

2. My uncle Billy claims to have met Bob Dylan, in the sixties, in Madison, Wisconsin. Apparently, everyone was bummed out on Bob, because he was a pain, always bumming smokes and money. My uncle gave him a ride somewhere and told him he was never going to make it, “You’re from the wrong end of the Mississippi to be playing the blues” he said.  Allegedly. I want to believe this tale, along with what I knew as a companion story. That my Uncle also met Alex Haley, who told him about plans for writing Roots, and Billy said, “That’s preposterous! You’ll never be able to trace your roots to Africa.” I always hoped he would condemn me to failure so I would be wildly successful.

3. My first was The Greatest Hits album, of-course, because you had to have Rainy Day Women for parties. My older brother and sisters had taken most of the good albums when they moved out and left me with Saved and Slow Train Coming. Hours sitting cross-legged at the turntable and I walked away with “Gotta Serve Somebody” and that was about it. Then Oh Mercy, because it came out when I was in high-school. That had “Most of The Time” on it, which I listened to lying down on my bedroom floor, secretly smoking out the window and wishing someone thought about me most of the time. Which was either an acute understanding, or misunderstanding, of the lyrics. Then Blood on the Tracks (freshman dorms), Desire (duplex, red wine), and then Another Side of Bob Dylan and Hwy 61 Revisited (Mike Knudson’s apartment, after bar time) in college. Then in St Paul, it was Freewheelin Bob Dylan and Bringing it All Back Home. Those were Sarah’s records, and we would listen to them on a huge suitcase record player with surprisingly good sound, while we cooked in the little kitchen with sloped ceilings and filthy checkerboard floor. Now I’m back to Desire and Blood on the Tracks, fittingly I guess.

4. In the dream, I was at a party. Very mod setting, lots of white. A cat came up to me and began to rub against my leg. It seemed lost, so I picked it up. Then another cat started to rub my leg, but to my disgust, it had two heads. Not two side-by-side heads, but one one each end, like a push-me-pull-me. I felt like I had to find someone to take ownership of it – it was mangy and its eyes bulged out and oozed with puss. I tried to attach it to a leash (of-course, which end?) and I was juggling one cat in my arms and trying to wrangle the other (who I did not want to pick up) when along came Bob Dylan, circa 1964. I was speechless, and preoccupied, when he spoke first in his trademark nasal drawl, “I see you have a two headed cat. A two-headed cat bodes well for your future.” The two-headed cat mewled and tugged at the leash and I shrugged my shoulders and walked away. Then I woke up.

5. If anyone knows Kevin who worked at Hungry Mind/Ruminator Books… he has my copy of a Bob Dylan songbook for piano and guitar and I fucking want it back. Oh, and Jerry, I have that paperback biography you loaned me. Sorry. Julie, I still have the Complete Lyrics 1962 – 1985. Thank you, it was a perfect graduation gift.

6. A boyfriend broke up with me using the lyrics to “Don’t Think Twice Its Alright”. He wrote them on a piece of paper and added, “I’ll throw this to your side of the kidney shaped pool”. Wha? I asked my brother if he knew the song, and had a copy. “Yeah, there’s this pretty weird version on Live at Budokan, but you can have it.”  The record has scary Bob Dylan on the front, white face make-up and eyeliner. It’s the last song on side one, right after Ballad of a Thin Man, which is a scary song. But then it launches into this reggae beat, with a flute trilling along side the bitterly acerbic lyrics, served up by a merry Bob. I had to admit, the song was apt. “I aint saying, you treated me unkind, you coulda done better, but I don’t mind. You just kinda wasted, my precious time, but don’t think twice it’s alright.” Ok, yeah, it was kind of mean, but it was also fucking great, I knew that much. I never felt bad about that break-up, at least he’d given me that song.

7. You should not go see Bob Dylan on acid. Even if Santana is involved. Bad move.

8. I went to Auschwitz and Birkenau when I was in Poland. It is a nearly silent place, except for the crunch of gravel and low murmur of people whispering in collective horror. You read plaques about the empty room in front of you, where hundreds of people were killed, and you want to scream, or shout, and you might cry, but you mostly feel speechless. I wanted to listen to “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, because I thought it would make me feel better, but I didn’t have the cassette with me, so I just went to bed feeling sick and exhausted and lucky to be alive. I think of that place when I hear that song, though. You might think a rock song incapable of adequately reflecting the gravity of such a place, or event. But really, what can?

9. I memorized all seven verses to Tangled Up in Blue when I was about 15, riding the Badger Bus to Madison. Play, rewind, play. Over and over. It seemed important that I know it. In college, it was a late-night, pass-the-whiskey, murder-the-guitar favorite. Once the guitarist figured it out, I just had to keep singing it forever. It’s an easy song to sing, and not hard to sing better than Dylan. (sorry, true) Later, I lived on the East Side of Milwaukee for a summer, and I struggled to learn, or decipher, the chords on guitar. Absolute lack of skill did not deter me, nor did the exasperation of my room mates. Later, I had a peak experience accompanied by my friend on guitar, backed up by twin sisters who happened to be the mothers of my friends. I sang in my normal voice, and they, skilled and gifted, lifted my voice with harmonies like folkie angles. It was more than worth it to have learned all those verses.

10. Right now, as I write, I’m listening to Greatest Hits Volume II.  I got my heart a tiny bit broken up recently, and I’ve got a dull hangover from disrespecting a bottle of white wine, so I’m gonna listen to Bob for hours. With all the relentless strumming, the shrill harmonica, incessant nasal whine – you’d think I might send him packing. But I’m so grateful he’s here, with all his words, plainspoken or abstruse. Listening to his music comforts me like leaning against a very old, gnarled tree. Scratchy and sometimes uncomfortable, but big enough to support whatever worry I pitch against it. There hasn’t been a heartache in my life that Bob hasn’t helped see me through. Me and him keep on keeping on just fine.


Emergency Contacts

We leave St Cloud via 9th Avenue, past our old house. The kids crane their necks, as if looking harder at it will enable them to see more, see through the walls, see the past. I slow the car down enough to note plastic shopping bags, several, snagged amongst the Dogwood hedge in the front. How can I help but sigh? It was a beautiful house. It was another life.

I moved to St Cloud six months pregnant, after I quit my job at the bookstore and threw my lot in with a stand-up guy named Dave. He bought us a neat little rambler on a cul de sac and I spent the remainder of my pregnancy painting the house, sewing curtains and swimming. I burned up minutes on a long distance card with my old friends in the cities. I knew no one, and with no job, had no means of meeting anyone new.

Veronica was born in spring, and I walked her in the stroller all over our deserted neighborhood. Every other house I passed had a swing-set in back, and every one was eerily empty. As were the parks. As were the streets. I returned to our empty house and fretted over baby. We made daily errands of dubious necessity. My house was very clean. I baked bread for goddsakes. When Dave came home I lunged at him and talked without stopping until he invented some yardwork or errand to escape my cloying presence.

I am not a joiner, but I arrived at the Le Leche League meeting early and sat, sweating, with Veronica in my lap. I checked out every new mom and baby couple with the wide-eyed wonder of a tourist. I participated enthusiastically and quite possibly cried more than once. In gratitude. I sensed a slight evangelical undertone in the attitudes towards breastfeeding, but didn’t really care. I had found women, and at least a few seemed like they might be friendly. They told me about a play group at a local park next week. I couldn’t wait.

The play group was utter chaos. Toddlers and infants all knocking around while seven mothers with too much to say fought for the conversation. I sat at the picnic table across from Peggy while she nursed Wren. She too had moved from the cities, when her son Tennessee was born, three years ago. I didn’t track many details, but I knew two things: she knew who Lifter Puller was, and she had hung out on the West Bank. She was literally probably the only person in Saint Cloud who could claim this. Over the course of the next months, we lingered late after play-group, and talked until we were hoarse and our kids were screaming.

I picked up Artemis a bit later. She would bring over Wyatt, who was four months younger than Veronica. He began chasing her at birth and will, I predict, until she either marries him or someone else. Artemis confided she wasn’t married to Wyatt’s father, and I confessed that Dave and I weren’t married. We admitted we smoked. We admitted to many things. We met in the afternoons at parks, or in our living rooms, or walking around the mall where people mistook the babies for twins, and we assumed that meant they took us for lesbian partners.

Dave and I moved out of the cul de sac and across the street from Artemis and Jeff. Peggy bought a house near the hospital. I got a job. We met other moms. We formed and broke circles of friends. I had another baby, my father died. We fought with our husbands. Artemis and Peggy finished school. We drank too much. Our kids went to the same Montessorri School together, where we volunteered cleaning the classroom and gossiping about the teachers and fellow students. They were my emergency contacts on all my paperwork. We watched each other’s kids. We watched them grow. We grew.

The night I told David I was leaving him, I left the kids with Peggy. After that dread talk, I walked across the street to Artemis’ house. Peggy left the kids with Steve and drove over. We sat on the back patio, mostly quiet, with me uncharacteristically dry-eyed and shell shocked. I had a duffel-bag of toiletries inside, and I would be staying up-stairs in the extra apartment for the time being. From there I would move three more times before leaving town for good. Artemis was in Brooklyn Park within the year. Peggy was teaching full-time and pregnant when I left.

We keep in touch. Peggy’s voice is like a balm to me, she validates my feelings and behavior with such skill I will believe anything she tells me about myself. Once I called her, hung over and groaning, “Ohhh, I had too much to drink last night… ” She interrupted me before I could go any further to say, “You didn’t do anything wrong. You were fine. you were fun. You were just drunk.” A friend that can sense and dispel self-loathing that fast is truly indispensable.

Artemis and I talk often. She has a way of distracting me away from my narcissism, where in I will talk on and on about some imaginary crisis at length and after a long pause she says, “I need a good cheese cake recipe. What have you got?” It’s really quite effective.

As for why they keep in touch with me, I can only assume they like to feel needed.

Now, our St Cloud visits make me melancholy. As soon as we get there, the kids evaporate. They fall in with the gaggle of kids they know like cousins. The adults take their place around the familiar kitchen at Peg and Steve’s. There will be soup, Peg will do the dishes every fifteen minutes or so. We circulate, we catch up, we pass the baby Cedar around. We used to drink wine, but now it’s coffee. We fall into conversation easily, we are still friends, but it all makes me homesick for the time when we were inseparable.

Later, alone at the glass patio table in back, I will remember a summer of Friday nights spent in that very chair. The kids ran wild until twilight while we drank wine. Neighbors and husbands would come and go, but we moms held court until long after the kids went down. We spilled our guts those nights. We ranted about politics, we confessed our regrets, we compared our marriages. Shit went down. It was the summer before everything changed. Like the summer between high-school and college, we were in limbo. Setting the stage for the next chapter, only we didn’t know it then. We just let it pass in the manner of teenagers, high on the ease of friendship and smell of the garden at night.

Inappropriate and Notorious

Wednesday night, two weeks ago, Ivan was hell-bent on finding the album “Green” by REM. It had been a long night, punctuated by bouts of hysteria from all corners, and we really wanted, needed, to find the CD. I dragged out every CD file I have and we began to flip through them.”Here it is!” he cried. And indeed, my 1988 original compact disc of REM’s commercial breakthrough still exists.

I put it in and Ivan skibbled around the living room. “Orange Crush!” he yelled. He air guitared and bounced around while I did the dishes. I cannot complain about my son’s musical taste or habits. I have heard children’s music.

Suddenly he was at my side, tugging at my sleeve, “Mom! I know! I can bring this for show and tell! “Orange Crush”! It starts with ‘C!'” Hmmm. Are children allowed to bring music for show-and-tell? Why not? And further, I reasoned, it is a compact disc, which also starts with ‘C’. Very clever, mom.

On the way to school the next morning, Ivan wondered aloud in the back seat, “Mom, I don’t think my classmates know very much about music.” Oh, sweet Ivan, if I had a nickel for every time I have thought that very thing! With conviction he added, “I think I have to help them.” I agreed, it was a noble pursuit.

Last Thursday, I picked up Ivan from school. “How was your day?” He held up an empty jewel case and pouted, “I forgot to bring my Duran Duran CD for ‘D’ show-and-tell day.” Sigh. “But, Ms Mary says I can bring it tomorrow.” Okay kiddo. Ruffle the hair, get in the car.

I had to call my ex-husband to procure the CD. It may surprise you to know that he owns a copy of their greatest hits and I do not. Ahem: we are unconstrained by gender stereotypes. “Oh brother.” he said, “is he going on about that again? I was going to send it along, but I thought it was kind of inappropriate.” I tell this to Ivan and he says earnestly, “I know almost every song on that and they are ALL appropriate!” Okay kiddo. Ruffle hair. We’ll see in the morning.

Inappropriate. The word has become positively insidious since my children have been old enough to, well, be inappropriate. For those of you who do not have children under the age of ten, I will explain. Inappropriate is a morally bland term to describe everything which our parents told us was wrong, naughty, or a sin. So instead of, “We don’t hit our brother, it’s wrong!” It’s “Please stop hitting your brother, it’s inappropriate”. Peeing in front of strangers at the park? Completely inappropriate! Peeing on another person? That is so inappropriate my head is going to explode!!

I have problems with the word’s vagueness, but I do employ it constantly, because it is code for “Don’t do that.” It also smooths over specifics that frankly, I am in no hurry to explain. Like when Veronica asked me the meaning of the word sexy. “Well, it’s like ‘pretty’ but more grown-up-like.” Blank stare. “You know how you feel embarrassed when people kiss in movies?” “Uh-huh. Gross” “Well, that’s kind of sexy.” More staring. “It’s inappropriate?” she offers. I nod furiously, “For an eight year old yes, absolutely. Sexy is inappropriate.”

And this is is how I find myself driving to school this morning reviewing the “greatest” of Duran Duran hits to determine which are appropriate to play for pre-schoolers. (Taste notwithstanding.)

“The first song has a naughty word,” says Ivan ominously, “nuclear war.” I’m trying to place it in the lyrics and start sussing out the melody aloud, “Yeah, it’s like “your something something something as a nuclear waaarrr…”

Ivan pipes up, “He says you’re about AS EASY as a nuclear war.” Gulp. Yep, inappropriate!

“Why can’t we do ‘Hungry Like the Wolf?‘” he asks.

“I think the panting sounds the woman makes in that song might scare your friends.” Also an immediate no: “Girls on Film“. “The Reflex” he doesn’t like, and I don’t blame him.

“What about Rio?'” I enthuse, “Everyone loves Rio’. It’s a classic. You can’t go wrong with ‘Rio’.” We listen together for a minute: ‘Cherry ice-cream smile, I suppose it’s very nice!‘ I start to protest.

“But mom! Every single one is going to be inappropriate! Why?”

“Well, Ivan. These songs are fine for you, because you don’t understand the meanings of most of the words, or the reason they are saying them. But if one of your classmates goes home, and sings something inappropriate, even if they don’t understand it, your school would be in trouble.”

“But I DO know what they mean!”

“Oh yeah, well, what does Notorious mean?”

Without missing a beat he says, “It’s just a woman’s name.”

“Ha!” I say, “Ha ha!! It means being famous for being bad! Like the Joker or Lex Luther!” I sure showed him, that precocious kindergardner! Whose the boss now?

Through his silence, my son concedes there may be hidden inappropriate messages in Duran Duran’s music – which, I assure you, there are legion. We agreed on “New Moon on Monday”, “Union of the Snake” and “Wild Boys”.

I picked him up from school and asked him how it went. He twisted his mouth up in consideration, “We just listened to half of two songs.”

“What do you do while you are listening? Dance?”

“Yeah. Until then Ms. Mary asked us to sit down.” He hung his head, slightly dejected. Okay kiddo, get in the car. I put in “Hungry Like the Wolf” for the ride home. I am not bothered by the woman panting, as I have explained to my son, she just has a stomach ache. And Robert Plant always has to sneeze.

Yes, my boy, ’tis a hard road – delivering the gospel of 1980’s rock and pop music. Next week it will be “E” show-and-tell week. I’ll be looking for my copy of Elvis Costello’s “My Aim Is True” this weekend. Do you think “Watching the Detectives” is inappropriate? Borderline, I think.

Aches & Pains

The howling starts just an hour after I’ve put the kids to bed. I race upstairs to see what is happening, stop to peek in Veronica’s room, but quickly realize it’s Ivan. He’s awake but sleepy, tossing in his bed, tangled in his quilt. Between gulping sobs he cries, “My ear. Hurts.”

I comfort him for a minute and check his forehead – cool, good – and leave to run the water for a hot washcloth. I ask him to press it to his ear and go to get some ibuprofin. After a half hour, he is still weeping, so I give him a second pill. I offer to tell him a story to help him fall asleep.

“Jack and the Beanstalk.” he says, “No, Pinocchio.”

I try to cobble together the details I know: Gepeto, wishing star, candy store, Lampwick – and add details and flourishes to compensate for what I’ve forgotten. The whimpering subsides. Once Pinocchio has become a real boy, I turn out the lights and soothe Ivan to sleep, and finally drift off next to him.

Two hours later at 12:30 he wakes me with restless kicking and arm waving, which turns to crying. Once he can stop crying long enough to speak, he says through trembling lips,

“I want to go to Dad’s.”

Six words that sink my heart like a stone. As I’m helplessly wiping my son’s tears, I’m also batting away doubts and regrets that swoop into my head like so many birds.

“Oh honey, we can’t go to daddy’s. It’s the middle of the night.”

“But I really want to go! I miss dad!”

Truth be told, I wouldn’t mind taking him to my ex-husband’s house, if it would help. But it won’t help, and it would breach our tacit parenting agreement regarding such things. Almost exactly a year ago, Ivan had the croup, and I called Dave in the middle of night. I was still newly single, and scared shitless by Ivan’s small chest heaving as he gasped for air. The net result was a small bout of hysteria (mine), a passive aggressive stand-off (ours) and an ER bill I’m still paying off (mine again). This time I’ll handle it on my own thanks.

Ivan continues to plead to go to this dad’s, and then to the doctor.

“I know your dad would do the same things I am doing now. There is nothing else he, or a doctor even, can do. It stinks, but it’s true.”

I know that kids show parental preferences, and when they were toddlers and Dave and I were married, we actually joked about it. “Looks like your the favorite!” we’d remark with a grin as we passed off a screaming child, “she wants you!” and then go back to bed. It was cyclical, and I never took their preference for their father that seriously. Because at the time I was the go-to parent, when the dog bit and the bee stung. Times have changed.

I crush a tab of Sudafed and put it in a spoon full of sugar in desperation. “I just want to be in my high bed, that’s why I want to go to dad’s.” he says, still trying. I tell him it wouldn’t help his ear, while I stack pillows behind him in bed so he’s sitting up, to help the fluid drain. I’m calm, and kind, but my heart is heavy. I know it’s not the bed he wants, but  his father’s deep voice, slow cadence. Probably his smell, and the scratch of his cheek. But, I’m the mother. Aren’t I supposed to be the one who he calls out for at night? Shouldn’t I be able to deliver my own baby from pain?

And that, more than a fear of being the lesser parent, is what kills me. I can’t cure it. When my son asks for his father in the middle of the night, I cannot grant his request. And that this circumstance, this life of cold comfort and co-parenting, was my choice. Like everything that results from the divorce, it’s my fault. And while I can acknowledge in the light of day that the failure of our marriage was a group effort, at two in the morning it very clearly registers as mine alone.

After a long hour of efforts to distract and comfort, the decongestant takes effect, and Ivan begins to calm down. I bring him back into my bed, and offer a second story.

“Jack and the Beanstalk?” I ask.

“No, we always do that one.”

“How about Hansel and Gretel? Too scary?”

“No. I like it.” This one I know well. The stepmother shakes them awake while it is still dark. They wake shivering on the forest floor. The pebbles shine like stars in the night sky as they guide the children home. Breadcrumbs, birds. The walls are made of gingerbread and the windows of colored candy glass. Gretel gives Hansel a chicken bone. When the children return, their pockets are stuffed with emeralds and the woodcutter embraces them.

I hold Ivan’s tiny hand until his breathing slows and he is out. Another ear ache, another long night, endured. I lie awake and wish for sleep. I wish for happy endings and stars that lead the way to them. I wish for my children to have a life I cannot give them. I wish for medicine to chase away the ache that rises up from my chest when I feel the full weight of the choices I’ve made. And I fall asleep, telling myself stories.

72 Hours

72 HOURSIn the first 72 hours of smoking cessation: Symptoms of chemical withdrawal have peaked in intensity, including restlessness. The number of cue induced crave episodes experienced during any quitting day will peak for the “average” ex-user.

Day 1

Hour 8: Before I am out of bed, I slide open the bedside drawer and pull a patch from the box. The cashier at Target forgot to charge me for them, so I feel karmically indebted to quit smoking. On top of a lot of other reasons. (it’s stupid, causes cancer, et cetera) Coffee_vs._no_coffee

I descend into the pre-dawn light of the downstairs and quietly begin the morning rituals of coffee brewing. CAREFUL! COFFEE MIGHT BE A TRIGGER! says my brain. SHUT UP! also says my brain. I predict many future brain-to-brain conversations. The patch is shiny and transparent and my bicep itches.

The kids wake and within minutes they remember I have told them they can destroy what is left of my cigarettes. I film it with my camera, because I believe in making a public spectacle of my life. They are purposeful in their destruction. It seems like a waste of money, until I remind myself that cigarettes in and of themselves are a waste of money.

Hour 12 When my oldest friend unexpectedly calls, I tell her I am quitting today, and she tells me she is so proud of me. “Thanks.” I say, and my voice cracks. “It’s only noon!” she says despairingly, which makes me laugh and cry a little. I think it will be a long day. But these little patches are cunning and I feel resolved to stick it out. Plus, I don’t have any cigarettes. Damn.

Hour 17 I only lose my temper once, dramatically, in the Holiday parking lot. It has something to do with boots and dawdling I guess, but more to do with nicotine withdrawl and cabin fever. I say to Veronica, “You know, I am quitting smoking and it is really, really hard! Can you just give me a break today and cooperate?” She says, “well I don’t see what is so hard about it!” and I say, “Well, have you ever withdrawn from a chemically addictive substance VERONICA? HAVE YOU?” Yes I actually said that out loud to my 7 year old.  I thought to remind her of how she acted when I weaned her from breast milk – tantrums I tell you! – but thought better of it.

Hour 22 I carefully sew a bird patch on the knee of Veronica’s pants while I watch the Oscars, which are a total yawn. During every commercial break, I think for a split second that I should go have a cigarette before I go to bed. But I don’t have any. Damn.

Day 2

Hour 34 My first real test comes as I run the gauntlet after dropping Ivan at Montessori; my first time alone in my car. A time I typically savor, free from parental obligations, window down letting in the arctic midwinter air, radio turned up loud and smoking my first cigarette of the day. This morning, as the car warms up, the smell of stale smoke is overwhelming and I feel nauseous. I grab a bottle of Rose Geranium I keep in the ashtray and inhale deeply. I look at the label on the side: BALANCING. COMFORTING. Indeed.

Hour 35 I have a lunch date in Minneapolis. I have a minor wardrobe crisis and begin a mantra that goes: Not smoking makes me pretty which I absolutely do not feel, but repeat nonetheless. Again with the car thing. But the sun is high, and I have gum. I turn up Florence and the Machine (from an album unironically entitled Lungs) and sing, well, scream actually, all the way to the restaurant.

Hour 37 – 39 I take breaks in the afternoon to play the trumpet happily along with Mission of Burma when I feel like smoking. That’s when I reach for my revolver!! BLAT BLAT BLAT BLAT!!! It tires my lungs and amuses me. A friend texts me to remind me I have to bowl tonight, which is great, because I was dreading the night alone without the kids and my cigarettes. I have the second wardrobe crisis du jour and spontaneously cut my hair. If you have ever cut your own hair, you know that once you start, it is hard to stop. Luckily, I am running late, so I put the scissors down before it becomes tragic.

Hours 40-42 I bowl for shit, but this is not unusual. A woman in lane two sets a half smoked Marlboro next to her pack while she bowls. She is a thin Northeast Minneapolis spectre with a grey, wrinkled face and caved in cheeks. Not smoking makes me pretty. Thanks lady!

Hours 43 – 46 I had grand plans for writing and sewing and cooking tonight,  but when I get home I see the pile of hair next to the sink, the trumpet next to my desk, and the couch in front of the TV. I feel scared, so I lay down and watch terrible broadcast television. I call my friend who is also quitting and he makes me laugh so hard I choke, for which I am extremely grateful. I climb in bed and wait for my new age book to put me to sleep.

Day 3

Hour 56 I realize that smoking has become the punctuation of my days, and it is for this reason that I miss it. Finish breakfast; comma smoke. Write proposal; period smoke. I’m bored; question mark smoke. When I’m drinking, it’s like: beer, comma, beer, question mark, beer, did I just smoke? Oh well, comma, comma, beer, beer.

I figure I need to find a new activity to punctuate the pivotal transitions in my day. Besides eating, which has become a long stream of consciousness monologue with my kitchen. I try sun salutations, and my friend suggested I run the stairs to get my chi going. Mostly though, I stand up and circle the apartment aimlessly every hour or so.

Hour 60 I find myself at Whole Foods around the noon hour buying ridiculously healthy foods (rainbow cale?). I feel ecstatic that I have driven here without losing my mind, and impulsively buy St. John’s Wort just in case. Just in case it gets harder. Just in case it might actually help. Just in case I forget for one minute that I am on day three of quitting smoking, I tell the cashier. She is nice about it.

The sun is shining and it is about forty degrees. I roll down the windows and drive half lost around St Paul, not entirely by accident. I sing along with Kate Pierson and imagine that my voice is already dramatically improved in range, and test this theory with abandon. Then, darkness falls.

Hour 64 Impulsively, I bake banana bread. Impulsively, I decide to go to Artemis’ house for American Idol and to gawk shamelessly at the Charlie Sheen debacle. I have to stop at my ex-husband’s house TRIGGER! to pick up school enrollment forms and my yoga mat. Veronica is having a meltdown for unclear, but surely not proportional, reasons. TRIGGER! I keep it short and civil (just like I learned in my court-ordered divorce class!) and get back in the car. TRIGGER!

At each possible point I make a wrong turn TRIGGER! but instead of telling me to backtrack, the GPS calmly urges me forward onto ever more unfamiliar roads. Cruising on my odd cocktail of nicotine patch and St Johns Wort, I calmly consider I would have likely smoked at least 3 cigarettes since leaving the house.  I pull into a gas station to pee.

I walk into the belly of the beast: convenience store. TRIGGER TRIGGER TRIGGER It would be convenient to buy a pack of cigarettes, smoke one, and throw the rest out the window. It would be super convenient to buy a pack, smoke three in quick succession and hide the rest under my seat. But it would also be incredibly disappointing and lame. So, instead I buy butterscotch discs and something approximating green tea. Back in the car, I pop in a butterscotch disc and think that it is the very best thing I have ever put in my mouth. I can’t believe they are legal, that is how good they are. Buttery warm nectar slides down my throat. I moan audibly and put the car in gear.

Hour 66 Artemis gives me pizza and offers me wine. I decline, because well: TRIGGER! Everyone says it will make you cave. But then I think I might as well face this demon as well, and have a glass. It’s a juicy little chianti and it goes great with butterscotch discs. Someone sings Judas Priest on American Idol and it is fucking fantastic.  Charlie Sheen is painful to watch but the best part is a shot of his girlfriend on a Cali Chronic magazine cover holding a bong and wearing a girl scout uniform (really!).

Jeff comes home and I am nervous because I know he has cigarettes. But  when he comes in it smells dusty and wrong. I feel pious and high on trash tv and several glasses of chianti. It is good to be with my friends and not think about when I can go outside and smoke. I drink water and pound wasabi peas and get ready to leave.

Hour 72 On the way to the car there is a sizable butt in the driveway I know Jeff has just left there. I consider picking it up. Twice. Then my brain says GROSS! and my brain agrees SUPER GROSS and I drive home without getting lost once.

I was inspired to keep this record by my good friend who also inspired me to quit, simply by deciding to do it himself. You can read his account here. I also did the illustrations, because at it turns out, drawing is a great pastime for your hands. At the time of typing this, I haven’t had a cig in 216 hours. Yay me.


They look like they like each other. It is late February on Mars, and the atmosphere around here is tense, at best. The children are bored with their Christmas toys, mommy is broke and crabby, and the regular onslaught of snow and bitter cold continues. Worst of all, Ivan and Veronica alternate between fighting and fits of giggly hysteria, both of which drive me crazy.

Time for a playdate.

I do not like arranging for these meetings, because it is too much like real dating in that I tend towards becoming an insecure, anxious mess. So far, Ivan has been stood up twice by Jack, his friend from Montessori school. In both cases, Jack was sick, and in both cases, Ivan was absolutely heartbroken. This week it looks hopeful.

I am nervous because the playdate is here. Jack lives in Arden Hills (which sounds like a women’s perfume) or Falcon Heights (which sounds like a men’s cologne). We live in Frogtown (which if it were a perfume, you would not want to smell) in an “artist’s co-operative.” Our neighbors are the Hmong marketplace, and a crumbing green house with a very suspicious looking trailer parked on the lawn. I find these details delightful, but I worry that Jack’s mother, wreathed in the fragrant aura of the suburbs, will not. I can only hope that Jack returns home to say, “And they have a bike in the living room.” and not, “Ivan’s mom only smokes outside and only when she gets really upset.”

As for Veronica, I tried to make a playdate with her friend from school who, like all of my daughter’s school friends, has a name I can neither spell nor pronounce. It sounded to me like Ellipses, but that can’t be right. Veronica brought home a post-it note with her friend’s phone number, written in her seven-year old scrawl. I left a tentative message,

“Hello, this is Jennifer, Veronica’s mom, and I was calling to see if Ellipses would like to play this weekend. If this is, in fact, Elleepsies mom (and here I change the pronunciation slightly, in hopes I will eventually nail it), which I hope it is (nervous laugh). Okay, then, just call me, Veronica would love to see Ulllisspes.” Following this call, Veronica by turns harassed me and checked my phone for messages until I called and left another message, and finally, another on Saturday morning.

Elipses mom called me back around eleven on the Saturday of the would-be playdate.

“Hi!” Elipses mom brightly said, “Obviously a playdate isn’t going to work out today!!” Obviously? I wonder if she understands the meaning of the word, “Oh? That’s too bad.”

“Yes, well, we volunteer on weekends, so that’s probably not going to work out.” I’m impressed by this information, particularly that she cajoles a seven year old to spend all weekend volunteering.

“Weeknights are a little too hectic, I suppose.” I say, thinking of V’s wriggly little handwriting and hand-wringing.

“No, it will probably have to wait til summer.” Ellipses mom says definitively. “But we both really appreciate the offer!” I am pretty sure I am being snubbed, but can’t fathom why. How can my reputation preceed me at this school? How can anyone snub my adorable girl? I mouth the words ‘fuck off’ into the receiver, “Hmmkay, let’s touch base then.” I hang up and yell to Veronica, “You need to find a different friend at school for your playdate. Ellipses isn’t going to work out!”

I decide to plan a playdate for her and I while Jack is visiting. We will make cookies so the house will smell like vanilla when Jack’s mom comes to pick him up, and he will tell his mom, “Ivan’s mom makes the best cookies!” Volunteer that.

Now I get It

First gig: Groovy Hipsters, backing vocals.

I spent years dating musicians. Not on purpose. But my first love – or more accurately, my first obsessive infatuation – was a guitar player. He was in a wedding band called “The Unexpected!” (punctuation mine) that played mostly 50-60’s classic rock. He was the lone teenager in the band, the rest were in their twenties. I used to go see him play and wait for The Kinks so I could go and dance like Molly Ringwold and gaze up at him, playing expressionless except for the odd, taut smile. I thought this was because he was cool, but now, I wonder if he was just concentrating really hard.

Anyway, our courtship consisted primarily of me gloomily smoking cigarettes and him playing the opening to Ceremony on an acoustic guitar, which never ceased to thrill me. Sometimes we had to walk to the gas station for more cigarettes, and sometimes we made out, but mostly, I think, I gazed at the ceiling and listened to him plink-a-plink. Then I would go home and dash out poems on my electric typewriter about our difficult and doomed love.

Stella, camping, 1995
It will comfort those who knew me then, I no longer play guitar.

One thing quickly became clear. Band practice comes first, girlfriend comes second. The guitar was his object of obsession, as he was mine. This fueled a resentment I harbored gleefully for all of my twenties, as I dated one musician after another. Then I married a painter, and moved to St Cloud and stopped thinking about rock and roll because I had babies and worked in advertising. Rest for eight measures.

When I met Doug, I thought he might be my boyfriend, but it turned out he was going to be my band-mate. This happened when he shoved a microphone in front of my face and said, “let’s see what you can do”. Then he put me in front of a keyboard and said “write a part” and I did. I think I surprised him a little, and nobody more than myself. Douglas does nearly all the hard work; drum parts, rhythm tracks, guitar, bass, mixing, producing and writing lyrics. I was – I am – a rank amateur. But I really, really love making music, and when I show up in his living room studio, I’m ready to work, and ridiculously serious about it.

I played a Chintzeys’ Christmas song for my mom, and she was utterly bemused. “So what now, you’re going to be a rock and roll star?” No mom, I’m not. But I don’t know, is this what it is like for some people who start golfing and just can’t get enough of it? Other people play softball, or build model trains or watch football, and I guess I make weird art-rock, new-wave music with my friend who graciously allows me to do so.

So, the actual recording is much less glamorous than you might have imagined.

So now I get it. Now I know why it was guitar first, girlfriend second. It’s just really fucking fun. To start the day with nothing and end it with a song is just short of alchemy. Like a secret I’ve just been told, and now I can’t help but blurt out to anyone who’ll listen. It’s not my life’s work, it’s not as important as parenting, or as natural as putting words down on paper, and it certainly doesn’t pay the rent. But it’s better than any high-school boyfriend I ever had. It’s not personal, it’s just I’d rather be doing this.

(Oh, and if you want to hear what happened when that microphone got shoved in my face, it was this.


Veronica, second grader

My daughter Veronica, second grader, is telling me what she wants to be when she grows up.

“I’m going to be an artist.” I nod knowingly. I think of Patti Smith whose memoir I just finished. “Well,” I tell her, “you’ll have to work very hard.” I check the rearview. She registers all this with an intense look out the window. She is, I think, well on her way. Then she pipes up,

“Jerry is going to be an artist too.” Jerry. I have heard this name before. When I asked her why she was lugging The Invention Of Hugo Cabret (544 pages, 2.7 lbs) around in her backpack. “Jerry and I like to read it.” I smiled and looked away. Veronica is extremely squeamish about romantic relations, a state I wish to preserve until… adulthood, I guess. I tread lightly.

“So tell me more about this Jerry. What does he look like?”

“Well, he’s Jewish.” Pause. “But he doesn’t wear one of those little hats on his head. He just can’t eat certain foods.”

“Like pork?” I offer.

” No. Like kiwis becuase Jews don’t eat kiwis because they aren’t grown around here. So like if we eat kiwi in class, he just has a little.” This sentence is so densely packed with mind-blowing information, I’m not sure where to start.

“Are you sure his parents aren’t locavores?”

She sighs. “No they are Jewish. And he is, like, partially bald.” What?

“Is Jerry an adult?” I ask, startled.

“No mom. He’s a kid. He sits next to me”

“Then why is he partially bald? Do you mean he has very short hair?”

“Yeah his hair is really short.” Despite her concession, I still picture a seven year old with male pattern baldness, maybe a comb-over.

“He and I draw together.” I recall a stack of baby animal drawings she showed me yesterday, and mention them. “Yeah, but Jerry draws  mostly superheroes.”

“Hmm. So did you make him a special valentine?”

“No. I just wrote ‘you’re funny’ because sometimes he is. And I also said ‘you’re cool’. I’m probably going to make a book about baby animals when I grow up.”

I look back at her again, her thin blonde hair parted in the center, glasses, one adult tooth descending slowly from her upper gum. If she and this prematurely balding Jerry kid grow up to be funny and cool artists, and read books and make books about baby animals and superheroes, I think I can live with that. As much as I can stand her growing up at all.