A Cool 100

April 2, 2017

Today we celebrate my wife’s grandmother’s 100th birthday.

Try to imagine–seeing all those years, weeks, days. Living. Outliving.

Hours before the reception I am tying off helium balloons. The playing cards attached to strings aren’t heavy enough to weigh the balloons down, so we drape them in groups of five around coat hangers and the necks of unopened wine bottles. The young cousin in charge of the helium can’t quite master the art of tying balloons, but he fills them with aplomb. He is territorial about the tanks and demanding when a balloon is ready. “Who’s going to take this pink? WHO’S GOING TO TAKE THIS PURPLE?”

A woman who works for the church tells us the security alarm goes on before midnight. “There’s a motion sensor,” she tells us. Our eyes involuntarily drift upward to the half dozen loose balloons, some stringless, swaying ever so gently in the circulating air. One of them hugs a light fixture.

We unload cases of beer and start emptying bags of ice into clear tubs. I want to break up the ice more, smash it like we used to in bathtubs before parties, but I’m worried about scuffing the floor. I accidentally send chunks flying when I try to use my keys as an icepick. I remember to set out a cup to save bottle caps for an aunt, though I know I’ll find at least two when I empty my pockets later.

I can’t remember the last time I was inside a church. Probably the service for my grandmother’s memorial. The sanctuary was dark and close and stifling hot. At one point I swayed, caught myself, wondered if I might actually pass out.

This one is lighter, bigger. The stained glass almost seems new. We hear the quartet practicing in the choir loft. Balloon boy prowls behind the altar, tests a microphone.

In the hymns and prayers I find myself mute. I’m rusty with the call and response, but more than that I feel strange going along with the motions. My lips don’t move until Hail Holy Queen. “How does everyone know these lyrics?” my brother-in-law whispers. He doesn’t remember this song from Sister Act.

The hassocks fascinate me.

After family photos–“That was perfect! Now just three more!”–we walk back to the assembly hall and find ourselves partly locked out. We sneak in through the church offices.

It is quickly apparent that there are more bodies than chairs. “We figured there’d be about 250 people,” one cousin tells me. “There are 200 chairs.” I resolve to stand for the duration.

On this side of the hallway, with all the tables and throngs of people behind glass, we are like a small zoo exhibit. Younger cousins drift in and out, eating and adding sugar to their lemonade. I try twice to hold a baby so that his mother can use both hands. Twice he decides against it.

I keep catching flashes of my wife from across the room. Relatives and old family friends recognize her. Sometimes she waves in my direction. At certain moments–once during the homily, once while I’m watching the endless slideshow of photographs–I am struck by how naturally, how easily this family welcomed me. How even Grandma tells me she’s glad to see me.

As the reception winds down we’re herded outside, handed balloons. The playing cards have special backs, informing the reader that Marietta Gesenhues turned 100, and that she would love a card or note sent to her address. Surely most of the balloons will return to the ground not far from here, but I like to imagine some of them setting off for parts unknown. Crossing state boundaries. Delivering themselves at the feet of children just beginning their own centuries.

We sing happy birthday and release our strings. The sun reflects off the playing cards as they rise, a glittering array winking out of view.

Try to imagine–seeing all those balloons. Seeing all those days. Living. Outliving.


Food porn

December 11, 2013
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But What’s Your REAL Name?

October 9, 2013

At least once a week someone asks me what my initials stand for. My stock answer is “My first and middle name,” which usually gets a chuckle, but almost never deters the questioner. When they realize I’m not going to tell them, a lot of people just start guessing. Curiosity is persistent, it seems.

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And Behind Door #1…

August 1, 2013

I know I’ve written about this before, but I have a thing about public bathrooms. It’s not a phobia, it’s not an irrational fear, it’s a reasonable (I think) reaction to years of problems in public bathrooms. I’ve spent my entire adult life knowing that every time I step into a multiple occupancy women’s restroom, I run the risk of any number of outcomes that have happened to me time and time again: a woman enters, sees me, exits, and re-enters sheepishly. Someone tells me, “This is the ladies room.” A woman does a double-take. A woman laughs at me. Someone calls security on me. A woman stares me down like I’m wearing a t-shirt that says I’m here to molest your daughters.

I’ve had trans* women tell me I have more problems in bathrooms than they ever have.

A place that should be so simple, so basic, so available to me whether I just need to pee or check my hair or change my tampon has turned into a place I loathe. I will go out of my way to patronize bars and restaurants with gender-neutral (or just single-occupancy) bathrooms, but there are a lot of other things I do hoping to avoid all my favorite worst case scenarios. So, in no particular order,

Things I Do in Public Bathrooms (That You Probably Don’t Even Notice)

1. Send in an advance scout.
When I’m in a new bar or restaurant, I’ll often wait until another woman in my party visits the little girls room so that I can get a little recon. Is it multiple stall? Single stall? Gender-neutral? (Be still, my heart!) One of my favorite new bathroom configurations is at Publican in Chicago. Stalls are labeled M or W but they’re all single stalls and everyone uses the same big fountain sink, so nobody’s weirded out by washing their hands next to someone they think is a dude.

2. Bring an escort.
Especially in big, multi-stall situations (think airport or movie theater) I’m prone to going in with reinforcements. I’ve never really bought into the omg we have to go to the bathroom togetherrrrr! mentality, but I feel a lot safer walking into a bathroom, casually chatting with someone who is quite obviously a woman (or at least more obviously a woman than I am). I figure other women are going to know that a lady isn’t just going to waltz into a bathroom with her dude friend, so I must be safe.

3. Emphasize the goods.
I’m not the breastiest (and I know that apparently women use other cues, like haircut and wardrobe, when they’re deciding who does and doesn’t belong in a public bathroom) but I do have a pair of boobs, and I tend to try to accentuate them when I’m walking into a restroom. My whole posture changes, I’ll pretend to adjust my bra strap, or I’ll reposition the strap(s) of a bag to accentuate the boobs.

4. Accessorize.
Aside from wearing things to draw attention to certain parts of my anatomy, I’ll also momentarily ditch my baseball cap or throw a canvas bag on my shoulder. I’ve also been known to gesticulate with a tampon.

5. Get outta dodge.
The point at which I’m most likely to have a bad run-in is when I’m washing my hands. Most public bathrooms are laid out so that you walk in and immediately see the sink(s), or else come upon them from around a corner. Surprise! So I have a tendency to rush the whole hand-washing procedure–sometimes ditching it completely if I think it’ll get me out of a bathroom without running into another woman. Sadly, the very things that mark most women as la di da, just a lady here, like checking your hair or your outfit in the mirror, are the things that take too much time–I just don’t risk it.

Here’s the thing I don’t get. I’ve spent over a decade getting called out by strangers (some women, some not) for being in the “wrong” bathroom, but I have never–not once–found myself in a bathroom with someone whose appearance was so objectionable that I felt the need to say something. I’ve never felt unsafe in a public bathroom because I thought there was a dude in there with me–just tormented by other women.

Things That Are Different

December 22, 2011

I kept meaning to write some kind of anniversary post last month, since mid-November was the time I came home from the hospital a year ago, but for whatever reason I never got around to it. In some ways last year seems ages ago, but there are other times when it feels like last week. I think part of my problem was that I was trying a little too hard to make a post like that Feel Significant. Instead, here are a few things that are different in my life since being hospitalized.

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Abby… Normal?

November 29, 2010

I probably needed glasses long before I finally got them. Like so many nearsighted kids before me, I had perfected the fine art of squinting. I didn’t exactly cheat on those regular eye tests at school, but I certainly did my darndest to pass them. I think it was a math teacher who favored red dry-erase markers that finally did me in–I had to see a real eye doctor.

I didn’t have any particular fear of glasses. I was already solidly unpopular, so the threat of being called four-eyes didn’t have much bite for me. I do remember hoping I would still see light sources in the same way. (I did.) I also didn’t see anything particularly “wrong” with my vision. I was having some trouble seeing algebra equations, sure, but things were supposed to get a little fuzzy in the distance, right?

The first time I looked at a lawn with my new glasses, I was stunned. There were individual blades of grass! Did other people see details like that all the time?

I have corrected-to-normal vision.

I also have corrected-to-normal emotions.
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How do you do it?

October 21, 2009

I’ve done my share of dating, which means I’ve also had my share of breakups. For the vast majority of these, I’ve been the dumped party. Over and over again. I’ve then had to see those women go on with their lives, go to classes, go to work, walk around and live and breathe–and I’ve always wondered, how do you do it? Because when you’re the dumped party, it is sometimes unfathomable that the world should go on in the wake of your pain. How do you do it? How do you laugh, and smile, and go on with your life when you’ve done this to me?

And now that I’ve done the breaking, I finally know the answer.

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