Make Tracks

I am on the train. There is a big lipped Russian (this is disputed. He may be Latvian or something.) man with his face in a perpetual fuss across the aisle from Aaron and I. I am turned towards the window with the laptop generally in his direction and I hope he doesn’t read this and either get his feelings hurt or cut me dead from here to Chicago.

  The land is dead-grass yellow, flat for two miles around until it rumples into hills. Everything is lion coloured. We move again then into woods, poor naked trees kept warm by their brotherly huddle. There’s water here too, in shapes to please every eye. Lakes, cow ponds, flooded forest where the density of the trees is eerily doubled, rivers that come popping out so quickly that by the time you have jostled the person next to you for them to see, it’s already gone, man made canals that are so flat and sweet that they make me think of nothing but Wind In The Willows. Then back to the lion plains and shaved corn fields.

  I don’t know where in Wisconsin they came on, but there is a whole passel of Mennonites on this train. They may be Amish, not Mennonite. Or some other bonneted people I’ve never heard of. I was sitting in the observation car next to a young lady in a blue dress, my age or a little younger. She’s reading a book about Christ and has a thin pale face and glasses and blond brown hair up under her bonnet. She looks like Scholastica posing for Prudence. I feel a bit like a painted trollop (I only have lipstick on, but it’s very red and shiny.) I am wearing my rose boots and a blue wrap dress that is not terribly flattering but very clingy. I have long silver earrings that I shall need to learn to put on after I have brushed my teeth because I will spit toothpaste on them, they are so long. I have a cluster of blue plastic hibisci pinned to the side of my head. I am most picturesque and feel quite sinful sitting next to her.

  I’ve just seen a Catholic priest come out of the snack car. He’s in his full get-up, collar and coat and black robes. He has good teeth and the smile of someone in a conversionary religion, but he looks nice enough. A bumptious part of me hopes he and the Amish get into it, but I think they are all too well bred and Midwestern.

  The Russian has left. I hope it is the call of nature and not a broken heart.

  I want very very much for the Amish girl to like me and be my friend, because I hate to think that I’m outside of any ingroup by anything other than my own will. This is very egotistical of me, I know. I want to ask her if she’s Amish or Mennonite but I am afraid that she will look at me blankly and then one of the older ladies will snap something throat-clearing in Pennsylvania Dutch and they will all look at me and sweep like a blue flock of offended birds out of the observation car. I have no idea if this would happen but it is a painful daydream.

I’ve just realised. You don’t know where we are because I haven’t told you. We have been in Minneapolis for two weeks finishing the recording of my father’s album of original music. We officially recorded for six days, the first four of which were complete agony, the last two of which were only mild discomfort sprinkled with hysteria. It was fun in a horrible way. I took rum in my tea, whiskey in my coffee. It didn’t help.

  This is not because there is anything wrong with the music, or my family as individuals (apart from the obvious things, like a tendency to punning), but because we started playing music as a family band when I was about thirteen and Garek fifteen. I was at my most cruel and cutting, hopefully a lifetime peak, Garek was at his most sugar-addled and absent-minded, Dad was tyrannical and sarcastic and Mom was inclined to weeping and/or shouting if someone took her harmony too many times. In other words, we’ve set a bad precedent. All of us are much kinder, gentler and more effective than we were in those frontier days, but stick the four of us in one room with instruments in our hands and certain old brain pathways light up.

  But we did alright for all that. We were helped in this by the direction of Joe, a sound engineer and producer from Chicago with wizardly powers and slightly spooky diffidence, a quality he has admitted he cultivates to curb his natural demanding obsessiveness. He kneaded us very nicely into doing all the things he wanted us to do (I think. Diffident.) and no one hates him at the end, or has anything but good to speak of him. We might need to make him a plaque of some kind.

  The Russian is back. He has orange shoes.

  We’re on our way to Chicago by train, where we will wait for four urban hours until we can get on our next train to New Orleans. I’m waiting for Peaceful Brain to descend on me, as it did on my last long train ride, but I think having both a computer and a companion might make it harder to allow that. If you misspell allow as aloow it looks like a Somali word. It might even be a Somali word.

  Have you seen Milo and Otis? Wisconsin looks like Milo and Otis. I wish there was a caboose we could go sit on the edge of and kick our feet out over the tracks, but sure everyone would be out there kicking their feet and then someone would take it into their heads that death by caboose was a romantic exit and then would posthumously sue Amtrak and then what would we do?

Make Tracks


I’ll get back to France, but o it has been a lovely day and I want to tell you about it.

I wrote that thirty four minutes ago and fell asleep in the meantime and am now chivvying myself into writing this post. I’m also watching a video of peacocks and roses and women clutching their pearls in a disturbing and possibly Freudian fashion. So don’t expect too much from this one.

It was a nice day. Pah. Days. Being nice. What business is it of a day to determine itself? That is very forward and bold of it. We shall have to put it in the basement and feed it nothing but gruel and shrimp droppings and see how nice it is then.

What happened today, hmm, hmm.

I sent my young (a full three years younger than me, practically a neonate) Texan friend back to Texas this morning. He’d never been in the state of Louisiana, which is definitely an altered state, and he went home a bit bedazzled. That may have more to do with the raucous company I keep (that keeps me) than with New Orleans.

What else? I have recently been afflicted with head lice. A child’s problem. The internet tells me not to be ashamed and downtrodden by this fact, but to fling up my lousy head proudly. I believe I got them from that purple wig I picked up off the street on Mardi Gras. Rookie mistake. I’ve washed my hair with some horrible poison, but my hair is wiry and tricksy and prone to black mischief. I talked to my kind wee Daddy on the phone and he made a sad sound and recommended that I shave my head. I leaked around the eyes a little and thought about doing it that night, in a frenzy and as a punishment, as is my usual fashion, but for the first time I waited. I waited past frenzy into gentleness and today Aaron and I went out onto the back porch, between the empty lot and the vine-eaten house next door, where he cut my hair over stages, none of them attractive except this last one. I look like a hip and modern but decently conventional lesbian.

My friend Perlita’s car broke down outside Check Point Charlie’s, a bar and laundromat of dubious cleanliness. We bicycled up to her with tools in Aaron’s basket and pulled the battery out. Only at that point did I recall that I was supposed to bring the car in order to drive us the hallowed halls of Autozone. They charged the battery, but it took a couple of hours so in the meantime we went on down to the corner bar and eased through the time on a bloody mary. We ate a huge hard plastic plate of crawfish and boilt potatoes outside the bar at a picnic table with a drunk and intermittently weeping stunt double. There was a first generation American Jamaican medical resident sitting next to me, and next to him a tin tub of water with a single live and paranoid crawfish drifting in it. There’s a mutant-y looking English bulldog molesting everyone’s legs. The stunt double has dried his eyes in order to ogle someone. This scene is not the set-up to a joke, and if it were it would be way too convoluted. But I see why you thought that. This place feels like Cheers would actually feel if it weren’t cleansed for television, that is to say, friendly and familiar but alcoholic and dysfunctional.

We waited rather longer than the allotted time and made our slow way back to Autozone. Battery was oh kay, so we brought it back to the other, original bar and stuck it back in the van as rapidly as possible, but still not fast enough to avoid the mechanically minded and sloshed gentleman who thought he could hold a wrench better than me. He pulled his shirt up, screeching, “I’m Scary Jerry!” The words Scary Jerry were tattooed above and below his belly button, forming a kind of belly button sandwich. He swayed into me confidingly. “My mommy called me that.” I was nice to him, in a mean way.

Now I’m back home, writing to you and on the verge of consuming a tuna fish sandwich handmade with tender care by himself.

See? It was a good day.






France: Part One

One time, I went to France as an exchange student. I was fifteen when I decided to do this and initiated the process. It basically started as braggadocio to my ninth grade French teacher. I always wanted my teachers to think that I was grown up and on an equal footing with them, so sometimes, I did things that I thought were grown up for which I had no foundation. The worst thing about that policy was that it was effective, leading the sensible adults (Hah!) in my life to think that I had my poo together, when in reality I was carefully imitating arbitrary arcs of motion that I had observed without knowing their source or their destination. This may in part explain why I have no idea why I ended up where I am, lifewise.

So anyway, I was mentally leaning on my teacher’s desk and waving my hands in a Gallic way, physically I was probably standing with my whole body clenched and my fists curled up in my hoodie. I told her I would go to France as an exchange student and she took it at face value and so I drifted gently towards getting registered and signing up and then, I awoke to discover that I had agreed, via my own little signature, to go to France for a year.

I didn’t think anything could hurt me at that point. When I hit puberty, a pit of lava broke ground in my belly and kind of acted like a 24/7 caffeine drip and invincibility cloak. Someone trying to start a problem with me? No worries, I have the ultimate weapon which is my face and words. And zero compassion for my fellow man, so almost totally untempered words. I used to worry (hah. Worry. Be slightly concerned that-) I was a sociopath, but I wasn’t, just a solipsist. My total lack of fear vis a vis mankind and my total faith in my own powers (based partly on the respect, support and semi-dependence of my immediate family) said, “Yes, I think you SHOULD go to a foreign country and live among strangers with little to no recourse.”

I did.

They told us over and over again, “There will be culture shock. You will be sad, homesick, unhappy. Don’t give up. Don’t give in. It’ll get better.” Except, in my case, it didn’t. But I believed. I tried. I strove. I came as a supplicant to my program manager and tried to describe why home felt so unhappy.  I failed, rather badly. I didn’t find out until everything had collapsed and she was driving me to the train station that my program manager was a personal friend of my host mother. I have rarely been the recipient of so much venom. She told me that they had found pills in my drawer and sent them off “to the lab. It was vitamin B that Dad sent with me at the beginning, and a good thing too because I had a cold for the first month. But in France you don’t find pills just rattling around in bottles, they are always in foil, and so as well as being the very worst kind of American, I was a drug addict. I never heard back about the pills. I was done, finally, in that car. Words are so important, aren’t they? I can hardly tell you this very well, imagine the same again in a foreign language from a spiky teenager. My contact with my family and friends was limited and so, necessarily, was my perspective. At the time, I was not the sort of person who is open about feelings, especially negative ones. I can handle it, right? To share unhappiness, to be unhappy, is public weakness, and it must be buried.

I still can’t express what exactly was wrong in my first host family, except that I was misliked. I’ve thought about it over the years and come to some conclusions, one of which is that I was so used to love and existing in an atmosphere of love, that I began to starve without knowing why. Fish misses its water.

My host mother thought I would be younger than I was. She also thought I would be teaching English to her children, who were not terribly interested. She did not expect me to be sleeping so much. It is exhausting to learn another language, especially when you exist in it constantly and have little grounding. My brain was tired. My body was tired. I read often and stayed in my room more than I should have, being shy and unable to charm with my typical, English-language-based, off the cuff bullpuckey. I made friends with one of the girls in my class, another shy one. She was sweet and I would go to her house and be confused about why I felt so different, so light and open-chested. I did not analyse.

I am hesitant to speak ill of my host mother. I don’t understand what went wrong, or when it started, or why it happened. All I know is that I lost 15 lbs in a month, cried often and silently, stopped having my period, and gloried in my weekends out with the other exchange students, where I was liked. Such a contrast. I talked myself down every other day from leaving. I took endless walks in the country and murmured to the cows. I remember a weekend with the other students, crazy time, fun and merriment. I said to myself, “See, you are happy. This is working. It’s okay.” They came to pick me up and as I got into the car my ribs seemed to squeeze in around my heart. I was silent, watching my poor heart try and tell me we were dying. I told myself I had to get out and I committed to it in my head. That lasted, oh, two days, when the shine of the weekend wore off and I convinced myself again to stick it out, bear with. I’ve read accounts since of women staying with abusive partners, hoping that enough time, like a cumulative bandage, will make everything okay. Like beating egg whites by hand. All you have to do is put in the time and then everything will come right.

Nope. I truly don’t know how the animosity came out from under the bed, how that started. All I know is that now we, Isabelle and I, were having screaming fights. The air in the house was thick, like trying to breathe oatmeal. And not fun oatmeal that is kind to your bowels. Vicious oatmeal. EEEVIL OATMEAL. I walked into town after school to buy food for myself (Isabelle had body image issues and so we did not eat very much) and did not answer when I was asked where I’d been. I spent more time with my friend. I spent more time in the library at school, and in phone boxes across town having expensive conversations with Americans.

I came home one night and we fought, I don’t know why. I haven’t had the spirit to go back and read the emails and letters. I will, soon. One day soon. The fight ended in her telling me, in a conversational sort of way, that I should shut up or I’d end up with this (gestures with knife) in the face. That was it, that was the concrete thing that I could say, that I could tell people and finally have them listen. I knew it. I seized it. She saw it in my face, as I backed away to shut myself in my room, and she yelled to me not to be dramatic. I called Claire, she picked me up, I stayed with her for the next week while arrangements were made for me to leave.

On to phase two.

France: Part One

Mental Health

I stopped taking antidepressants, not because of considered thought, introspection, or deep planning, but because it was too much of a pain in the ass to find a doctor down here and by the time it had sunk in that I was really going to need those special handwriting services that only a doctor can provide, it was the day after Mardi Gras and my lovely little orange bottle did not even have the sad rattle of a couple a’ half pills.

I can a little bit blame Mardi Gras for this, the season of Mardi Gras that is, because it sucks you into a whirl of events that everyone around you seems to take very seriously even though these events are totally ridiculous. Hundreds and hundreds of dogs in costumes. The queen of the dog parade was called NeeNee Sprang. I ask you. Nerd parades. Unsanctioned-by-the-city parades. Political parades. Sexually excessive parades. Just darn unsettling parades. I suppose being down here for very long distorts your perspective. I know what’s really important. Taxes. Christmas. The library. Being a productive member of society. But nooooo, down here it’s all, “WE’RE PARTYING FOR THE WORLD AND WE HAVE A SACRED DUTY SO YOU GET THAT DRINK DOWN YOU, BY GOD.”

It’s a strain though. The lack of sleep. The worries about sufficient feathers and glitter. Marching. So much marching. And of course the consumption of legal and a-legal substances. Everybody has their preferences, some taking the high and well traveled road of liver abuse, some preferring anything that might take them into a public bathroom for three minutes with four other business-like yet giggly people. I can’t actually imagine anyone getting arrested on Mardi Gras for anything short of murder, but I’m sure it happens. But it don’t feel like it does. The prevailing environment is one of total freedom of choice, as long as it is done joyfully and for the sake of fun.

I’ve forgotten what I was talking about.

Pills! Yes. So. Between hosting, four? Possibly four people, could be a bigger number, in our house of six people and the constant cry of “There’s a parade tonight!” it can be hard to make sure your health is covered. I ran out.

I managed to cull a doctor from the vast internet herds within a relatively short period of time, three or so days, but she couldn’t see me for a week and a half. I had heard horror stories about coming off Zoloft, no specifics, just lots of head-wagging and rolling eyeballs and windy exhalations. I was nervous. Also, sick. Everybody got a flu after Mardi Gras, and mine is actually still hanging on in the lymph node region. But I felt okay in my brain. And gradually I felt better. And better. I stared suspiciously down into the abyss of self. Any red cracks? Desolately howling polymorph monsters? No? Nobody? Was that…a rainbow? Gilded lofty clouds? WHAT COULD THIS BE?

I mostly notice changes in my psyche in relation to the jokes I make and the speed with which I can make them. During that brainslug Hives time, my jokes were not high quality. Nor were they delivered in a timely fashion. Now, my jokes are on FIRE. And whip crack fast. I think. I’ll have to ask other people, but I’m pretty sure. I went to the doctah, an older lady with bleached golden hair and respectable jewellery, who told me if I didn’t feel like I needed to go back on them, I shouldn’t go back on them (thank you, med school) and proceeded to totally screw me by sending me for blood work for unspecified reasons, the bill for which has only recently arrived. She was milking me. I knew it too, I knew it at the time, but I just couldn’t crack the plate of authority across my knee.

So. Here I am. Pretty good if gently resentful. Keeping a weather eye out for the Visigoths of Depression to come over the Hills of Inner Peace. Speaking of weather, I think this may be related to the sunny and ridiculous nature of Louisiana. It was eighty degrees in February. The sun doesn’t really go away. Seasonal Affective Disorder can’t when there’s no seasons to be affected by except hot and too damn hot.

We shall see. Change is the only permanent and complacency leads to my downfall on a bimonthly basis, approximately.

A very small hope bird has made a very small nest in me though, and so I am able to hope that its faith is not misplaced.

Mental Health