Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I am.

My sophomore year of college, I was taking a class on Virginia Woolf and Henry James, and we were assigned Woolf’s The Waves. It was February, the most depressing month in the Midwest as far as I’m concerned. Thank God, it’s also the shortest, because this was always my bad time, when deep, black depression would come rolling in.

I fell in love with Woolf’s language, her stream of consciousness, and the way she was trying to show how six different personalities were forces of nature—first, young and marshaling their powers, then as they crescendo, and then falling back spent. I got quite obsessed with Virginia Woolf that term, rereading passages, writing about her and what her novel inspired in me, and when kept up by insomnia, I’d lie in bed awake in the dark, pondering the novel’s meaning and, in turn, life’s. I worked myself into an existential crisis.

I thought about The Waves so hard and so often that life got overwhelming, and I holed up inside my apartment and didn’t go to classes for a week because I was so convinced that my art sucked and what was the point of even trying when my imaginings, my ideas of perfection, could never match up to what I produced.

Once I put The Waves back up on the shelf, I slowly recovered and felt on steadier ground with stories that had a firmer structure, and I blamed Virginia Woolf for making me come unhinged. She’s a great writer, but life is very slippery, too slippery, when viewed through her eyes. I thought a lot of people had this affliction—this Virginia Woolf disease. For the longest time, I believed the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was about that, and I was totally shocked when I watched it and the story wasn’t about how Virginia Woolf made you crazy.

My Achilles’ heel–Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.

 

I have certain tastes for literature, like mind food, and I get cravings. Sometimes I hanker for a little Stephen King, sometimes I want Flannery O’Connor, and sometimes I want Virginia Woof. The next time I picked up her books, I was wary. I started with a few journals and A Room of One’s Own, and they were quite tasty. I felt strong, I was doing okay. Silly me, I thought. What a crazy thing to think that a writer could make you insane. But then it happened somewhere between The Waves and Between the Acts.

My senses started feeling muffled, like I was wrapped in a layer of cotton batting or living underwater. My insomnia ratcheted up to an uncomfortable level, and I was finding it hard to read or write, which is how I make my living. I talked to a therapist I was seeing at the time, asking her if she had ever heard of the Virginia Woolf disease. The therapist appreciated literature and specialized in helping creative people, so we talked about Virginia Woolf’s life and writing process.

Woolf was a famous depressive and that disease probably stemmed from her rocky childhood. She was extremely bright and devoured books in the library of her intellectual father. However, because she was a girl, not much was expected out of her. She was allowed to read and learn, but she was not formally educated like the boys in her family. Woolf was sexually abused by her stepbrother, and she wrote about those occurrences, attacking them from different angles, I believe, in an attempt to write herself well. This was done at a time when people didn’t talk about such unpleasant realities. The topic of war was okay, but not the violence that goes on inside homes.

Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf.

 

She married Leonard Woolf, but it was more of a platonic relationship, a marriage never consummated, with Leonard taking care of Virginia when she became mentally unstable. Virginia was attracted more to women and one of those relationships helped her produce Orlando. Virginia always defined herself by writing. Sometimes, though, she was kept from it because people thought that brought on her depressive episodes.

She had a suicide pact with her husband. World War II threatened England, and the Woolfs were terrified of going through this. Leonard was Jewish, and they knew that if England was invaded, they would appear on the list of people to be done away with. This might have been one of the contributing factors to the depression that Virginia found herself slipping into when she took her life. She knew the signs of it and was very clever, pretending to be okay so Leonard, her caretaker, felt he could leave her alone at times. She wrote out her suicide notes, filled her pockets with stones so she wouldn’t float, and drowned herself in a nearby river when she was fifty-nine.

Virginia’s journals and essays can be beautiful, well-thought-out commentary and arguments, but her fiction is something completely different. She’s one of the first to use the stream-of-consciousness technique, where writing imitates a person’s thoughts, racing, loping, interrupting each other, and she wrote and planned her novels like she was painting, thinking in color and composition rather than in rising action, conflict, and character development.

My therapist’s theory is that because Virginia Woolf worked so closely with her subconscious in these novels, she ended up replicating her manic-depressive mind state. And somebody who already has a tendency to go that way, like me, is very sensitive to those impressions. Those people can get caught up in the text, Virginia’s ideas, like the undertow in the ocean. Her recommendation was to monitor my reading and put away the novels when I start to recognize the signs of depression. It doesn’t mean I can never read Virginia Woolf again. I just have to do it carefully.

While waiting for this dreary, awful March to get over with, I picked up The Waves again, wanting a little taste. But I think it might be better to wait until June.

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A Heavy Metal Valentine

When Kristi and I were growing up and had just come back from Germany, we were spoiled for a couple of years because we had access to MTV. But then we moved to a small town where we had cable but no MTV for the first year we lived there. Luckily my resourceful sister had taped the best heavy metal videos from Headbangers Ball, which takes a real knack because you don’t want to record commercials or crappy videos. Her transitions were seamless, and that VCR tape was the loop and soundtrack to some angsty teenage years. We would watch that tape every day and I still remember the order of the videos. It started with Quiet Riot’s “Bang Your Head (Metal Health)” and then segued to KISS’s “I Love It Loud.”

 

We still have that tape. One day I’m going to get that transferred to DVD, and then we will be the happiest sisters in all the world. Sometimes we stay up late and play a game on YouTube, where we surprise each other by dialing up metal videos, which the next person has to feed off, and so on. But I’d still like to listen and look at old Metal Music—666—My Shit.

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Now I’m working on my heavy metal novel (about twenty thousand words in), and one of the first things I do when I’m writing is compose a playlist that thematically relates to what I’m working on. Here’s the first playlist I’ve come up with, and I’d like to have about four more so nothing gets stale. I’ve put up the music on 8tracks—my heavy metal valentine to you—and Kristi lettered and decorated it à la high school heavy metal and horror, which is what my story’s about.

A Heavy Metal Valentine

Sadly I wasn’t introduced to the awesome pairing of horror director Dario Argento and heavy metal band Goblin until after college, but all good things can wait. I would have probably died of the awesomeness if I saw their work too young.

Vixen was a lady metal band put togeher like some of the boy bands of the eighties and nineties, N’ SYNC and New Kids on the Block, and the only prerequisite was that a member be a female and hot. That’s something I’ve struggled and thought a lot about with metal—why did the ladies always have to be so tarted up?—and an issue I find myself writing about.

Whitesnake introduced what was probably the first video vixen—Tawny Kitaen—who was the epitome of the metal chick in the eighties, but she was always featured as an accessory to the band. First she dated the guy in RATT, then she made the rounds with Mötley Crüe and Whitesnake, until she went batshit crazy and beat her ex-husband with a shoe.

I do include Joan Jett on my list, though she spans many genres—punk, hard rock blues—and might not be considered heavy metal by some. She embraced the bad, tough girl ethos, though, which was what it meant to be a heavy metal lady and taking what you wanted.

And then, of course, we have the reigning highnesses of metal—Lita Ford and Doro Pesch. They’re the real-life versions of the warrior woman from Heavy Metal magazine.

Evil Genius to Produce Zombie Color Books

Kristi and I are ripe with plans right now as we write (me) and draw (Kristi) our upcoming zombie color books. When we were kids we were always into the spooky things, but sadly, color books never really reflected our interests. I think my best one was a Scooby Doo coloring book that had a happy-looking ghost in it. We had to make do with what we had, and still being coloring fans to this day that sometimes involves subtly changing preexisting color books. Hee-hee. Check out this bastardized color book page by Kristi.

JesusAsPaulStanley

Well, now we’ve decided we need to help out the youth of America and coloring fans everywhere by putting out some scary-themed color books. And first up, we’re doing our favorites—zombies!!! We’re hard at work writing and drawing and coming soon will be Zombie Apocalypse in Ditmas Park and Zombie Pet Parade.

The Marilyn Manson Family Portraits

When I first moved across the country to live in Portland, Oregon, I couldn’t afford to go back to visit my family for six months, which was probably the longest time we had ever been apart. Though we’ve moved many places far away, we were almost always together as a unit.

During one of the phone conversations leading up to my visit, where my mom quizzed me about what I wanted to eat, she mentioned that she had scheduled a date at the local photography studio to have a family portrait taken.

We hadn’t had one done since I was a teenager, shortly before my grandmother died. She had a terminal illness and knew she was dying but wanted one last photo of our family all together. I was sixteen at the time and so hungover that I had to sit down midway through the photo session because I thought I was going to pass out. (My grandmother asked my mom and dad if there was a possibility that I was pregnant.) My brother Randall and sister Karla were wee—ages six and eight—full of gapped teeth, and my brother had a summer crew cut that was growing out.

Now Karla and Randall were in high school, and my mom said my brother was seriously resisting the family portraits. He was fifteen, had grown his hair out, and dressed like his favorite musician Marilyn Manson, who he had seen in concert multiple times. After getting off the phone with my mom, I told my friend Susan that my brother didn’t want to dress up for family portraits. She came up with the brilliant suggestion of us all wearing Marilyn Manson T-shirts since my brother had so many.

Once I flew home to see my family, I jokingly mentioned this to my mother, and my brother was on fire with this idea. He insisted we do it and my mom picked through the closet full of Halloween costumes and found some wigs to go along with the T-shirts that Randall had selected.

My father didn’t like the idea of the joke photo, and we drove to the photography studio in our good clothes with the Marilyn Manson T-shirts, leopard gloves, and wigs stashed in a bag.

Our first photo was formal with us kids grouped around a sitting Mom and Dad under the bright lights and umbrellas. That didn’t take too long, maybe ten minutes. And then my mom said to our photographer, “Okay, you’re going to think this is weird, but…,” and she laid out what we wanted to do. I think the photographer had been bored before, going by the “Greats,” “Just one more shot,” and so on that she let out, but now she got really excited.

“I know the perfect place—do you mind driving somewhere?—it’ll be like an album cover.”

It was January in Iowa, which means freezing or below, and we found ourselves in front of a half-destroyed building in just our Marilyn Manson T-shirts and other street clothes. My mom and dad both put on wigs and Kristi brought along the serial killer paperback that she was reading as a prop. With leopard gloves dispersed so we could each wear one, we huddled together for warmth while trying to strike band poses. My dad really started getting into it now and cadged a pack of cigarettes off one of us to roll up in his shirtsleeve and look more badass.

ScheinerMMansonFamilyPortrait

I went back to Portland and forgot all about that photo session until several months later when my mom mailed photocopies of the family portraits to me. I didn’t like the normal ones—I don’t think any of us did. I liked the portraits of us in the Marilyn Manson T-shirts. It seemed more like who we were together—too loud, always late, with a closet full of Halloween that’s too good for just one day a year.

ScheinerMansonFamilyPortrait

The Cockroach Wars, Part II: Apoca-cockaroach-alypse

When I was in fourth grade, our class was given a test to let us know what types of careers we were geared toward based on how we answered some multiple-choice questions. I wasn’t surprised by many of the career options that were recommended for me—artist, writer, teacher—but one I found completely mind-boggling: pest exterminator. How in the hell did that come up?

I was a nerdy kid who liked to spell, read the dictionary, and handwrite chapters out of my textbooks for “fun.” I didn’t see how that translated into killing bugs and rodents. Well, apparently, there is a small germ for this deep down in my soul, because this year with our cockroach problem, I’ve found the pest exterminator that exists inside of me. We’ve had them bad this year—an apoca-cockaroach-alypse—but after exploring several methods of pest control, I think we’ve finally got a handle on the problem.

Pest exterminator in the making. See the killer gleam in my eyes?

We used a fogger when the cockroach problem was definitely more than a few stray ones making their way up the pipes. I had heard that for every cockroach you see, there are ten more hiding, and I wanted them all dead. Now. It turns out, though, that using a fogger is a real pain in the ass. We had to move everything out of our kitchen cabinets and into our living room. Then after we were done fogging, we had to move everything back in and clean all the kitchen surfaces to make sure that we didn’t poison ourselves or our cats. This ended up being an all-day affair, and we found out later that we were supposed to repeat this in twenty-eight day intervals to get rid of new hatching populations. After our first fogger attempt, we just didn’t have the heart to repeat the process. Too much work. Grade: C+

I really, really liked the idea of Pest Offense and wanted it to work, but I was dubious. Pest Offense is a tannish box that looks like a garage opener from days of yore. You’re supposed to plug it into an outlet, and the device will then use electrical current to scramble a cockroach’s senses, creating a force field that shields a person’s home or apartment from pests. It sounded a little too Star Wars for the world I live in, but I was desperate. I read the reviews online for Pest Offense, and they seemed equally divided between “works like a charm” and “what a piece of crap.” I’m afraid our experience fell in the latter category. When I first plugged the device in, I did notice a cockroach that stood rooted on the wall near it. It’s working, I thought. It’s scrambling its brains. Alas, that was not the case. The cockroaches frolicked, more concerned with finding food and water than being alarmed by the pretty blinking light on the box. Grade: F

Our first line of defense, and always one of the most effective, is boric acid. We’ve been carrying around a large squeeze bottle of the stuff since we had our apartment in Bushwick (and it only cost $1.99—the sticker is still on the bottle). You have to make a boric acid barrier in the cracks and crannies where the cockroaches like to go. When we had problems before, we would squeeze a few lines under the sink, and presto, the roaches started dying off. This gets very messy, though, when you’re cleaning or trying to make food. Water mixes with the boric acid and makes a paste like mud. Also, it’s a little hard to explain when company comes over.

“What’s all that yellow powder on your counter?”

You just don’t want to say, “Well, we have a little cockroach problem right now.”

Never pretty.

Boric acid is also somewhat toxic. It’s all right when you just need to do a little upkeep underneath your sink, but it made me nervous to have it on the floor or around the counters where my cats might step in it or possibly eat it. Grade: B+

We have a professional exterminator that comes to our building monthly and sprays down any apartment that’s having trouble. All you have to do is put your name on the sign-up sheet in the lobby. I saw that my direct downstairs neighbors had signed up and was terrified of inheriting their roaches once they’d been sprayed. The night before the exterminator was due to come, I crept downstairs and added my name to the sheet, wanting to avoid as much social stigma as possible. The guy came the next day with his canister of bug juice and squirted poison with a nozzle as I anxiously followed behind him, wringing my hands. I told him we’d never had such a problem, but this year it was just terrible.

“Yeah, we been getting a lot of that,” he said. “It’s because we had no winter last year. Cold kills ’em.”

I really didn’t notice much of a difference the two times the exterminator came and sprayed, but I appreciated hearing a reason for this problem and being reassured that it wasn’t because my neighbors were filthy or our apartment. Grade: C

We had a bad week back in early October, spotting two or more roaches on the counter when we woke up in the morning and flicked the lights on in the kitchen, and to top things off, we had a houseguest coming to stay for a week. I sure didn’t want her to wake up to that. I had read a few reviews about Combat Source Kill Max that said it worked well. I was shopping for other things in the Duane Reade when I came across this little box, and feeling dispirited and sure that my problem would never be solved, I went ahead and purchased it.

The Combat Source Kill Max directions said to put drops in the cracks and crevices of cupboards, counters, anywhere the roaches would go. The substance comes in something that looks like a glue gun, and you apply tiny drops that are smaller than the size of a pencil eraser. The stuff works as both bait and poison. It attracts the roaches and they carry the substance back to their lairs, where even more roaches are killed.

I applied drops as directed, and not even an hour later, I saw some big fatties heading along the wall to the poison. They were so anxious for the bait that they didn’t even try and hide. And then suddenly, the carcasses started piling up. This stuff is the shit!

I get a little smug sometimes and want to pat myself on the back, convinced that the roaches are gone and I’m an ace pest exterminator. But every once in a while, one pops out, keeping me humble. It takes maintenance. You have to reapply the bait to keep new roaches from appearing—all part of that life cycle I’ve read so much about. Grade: A+++

A Trip to the Banya and Everything’s All Right

I had some bad energy going on in October. Everything just kept going wrong and anxiety plagued me, keeping me from sleeping or ever relaxing completely. I knew in my head that this too shall soon pass, but it sure seemed to be taking its sweet time. Somebody told me once that stress hormones are released from the body in two ways—through crying or sweating. Now, I’ve never been much of a crier. The studies that say women cry an average of once a week never took me into account. I’m more like three or four times a year, if that. It’s a good thing I’m a world-class sweat machine; otherwise, I’m sure I’d have a nervous breakdown annually. From about May through September, I’m usually in a constant state of ooze. With the arrival of fall, though, it’s been chilly, and I haven’t had much time to exercise or work up a sweat. Maybe that’s why I was feeling so off. Luckily, I live near a Russian bathhouse, the Banya, on Coney Island Avenue, where I can pay to go sweat. This might seem like a weird idea, but it really does work. Really.

I was first introduced to Russian bathhouses when my friend had part of her bridal shower at one. We went to the Russian & Turkish Baths on Tenth Street in Manhattan, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d never been fond of the locker room experience in high school and wasn’t looking forward to it again in my adult life, but I stomached it and got dressed in what I could put together as a swimsuit. All I can remember from that experience is that two hours later, I was more relaxed than I had been in years, maybe even in a decade. I fully intended on getting a ten-punch card so I could return again at a discounted rate, but then I learned that there was an ongoing feud between the two owners, Russian émigrés Boris Tuberman and David Shapiro. Their feud was so bitter that once a card was purchased you could only go on days that Boris staffed the baths or David, depending on whom you had bought your card from.

My first visit to a Russian bathhouse.

 

A year later I watched the movie Eastern Promises with the famous naked knife-fight scene that takes place in a Russian bathhouse, and the one on Tenth Street didn’t seem like the safest place in the world. Plus, it was far from home. I didn’t want to have to trek all the way into Manhattan to get relaxed and then just waste it by getting tensed up in the subway because of angry commuters or what have you.

 

When I moved to Ditmas Park, a friend told me that there was a Russian bathhouse within walking distance of my house. I hadn’t visited, though, until my stressful time last month, but now that I have, I hope to return at least a couple times a month—especially during the winter. I had forgotten how much stress relief sweating it out in a sauna can provide.

We went on a Monday, and there were hardly any customers, just a few seasoned Russian pros. The man running the counter spoke minimal English, but he made it clear what he wanted: we were to hand over our wallets. He locked them into security boxes and gave us keys for the women’s locker room and one large towel each. The general admission for the Banya is $30, and if any food or drink is ordered in the cafeteria area or a massage, robe, any of the extras, that is charged to your safety deposit box number, and you settle up at the end of the visit.

At the Banya, there are two saunas and one steam room, a cooling pool, and a Jacuzzi. There not as many saunas as the Russian & Turkish Baths in Manhattan and the Banya doesn’t have the ice-cold pool that is cold enough to stop your heart, but I liked it better because there was less traffic and the masseuses weren’t as aggressive about getting customers. (At the Banya, there was one masseuse on duty, and she spent the majority of her time watching Russian soaps on TV.)

The Brooklyn Banya.

 

This is a DIY spa, and the goal is to go through five or six cycles of sitting in the sauna and then spending an equal amount of time or longer outside of the sauna. In the sauna, your job is to have a full sweat from your head to your feet, which I had no problem doing. I left a huge wet print on the wooden benches each time I went into the sauna, and after my first cycle, I could feel the tension rolling off me as I relaxed in the Jacuzzi. I lay my head back, and I think I would have been able to take a nap if Russian music videos hadn’t been playing on the overhead TV. There are large orange jugs full of ice water so patrons can replenish their fluids between cycles, and next to the jugs is an endless supply of clean towels to keep you dry. After leaving the sauna, you are expected to rinse your sweat off in showers provided before dipping yourself into the pool or Jacuzzi. With all of this water in and out, you are really clean and feel like a new person by the time you’ve finished your visit.

When I left the Banya three hours later, I was in a completely different head space than when I had entered. My body felt loose and relaxed, all the tension was gone from my shoulders and neck, and my sinuses were clear. In the locker room, we ran into a neighborhood woman who asked if it was our first time there. She laughed and said, “It’s better than sex, isn’t it?”

I’ve Been Robbed!, Part I

A few years back when I started making good money from my freelance work, I decided it was time to make the move from my humble laptop to a ginormous desktop system. I figured that it was necessary since I was working on bigger graphic files and not just Microsoft Word anymore. I bought myself a 21.5-inch iMac and had the maximum amount of memory installed with my accountant’s blessing. I named my hard drive Second Brain, but as time went on, I found that it was acting more and more as First Brain.

In the morning, often before I had even made my coffee, my first stop was my computer. I logged in and checked all my e-mails and such to make sure nothing earth-shattering had happened during the night. From there I would make myself breakfast and then watch something on YouTube or just surf while I ate. Then I would get to work. Sometimes I would feel a physical pang when I was separated from my computer for too long. I could lose whole days on that computer between my work, music, online life, and movies without much to demarcate the time of day or even the week. I wasn’t a complete computer potato. I would make sure to get out of the house at least once a day unless I had a killer deadline to make. But I never noticed how much my home life had shrunk until my computer was stolen.

Second Brain hard at work on the night of the first presidential debate.

 

I’ve been going to a coworking studio pretty regularly since June because it gets me out of the house and somewhat socialized—also, I have a dual-monitor setup there that is so helpful with all of the fact-checking and shifting that I have to do between documents. I came back from the studio last week and went to my computer right off—only it was gone. My printer, my scanner, and my brand-new camera were all there on my desk. It was only my iMac, keyboard, and Magic Mouse that were gone; the thumb drive, digital voice recorder, and iPod cord that had been plugged into the iMac’s USB ports were taken out and lay lifelessly on my desk. I went through my desk drawers and live checks were still there, credit cards, and my checkbook. At first, I thought maybe my sister had borrowed the computer or something, and I waited for her to get home. Once she did, we were able to verify pretty quickly that we had been robbed. I knew I had to call the police, but what number should I call: 911? That seemed so frivolous. A robbery didn’t really rank as an emergency, did it? I dug out my netbook and did a quick google, which suggested that I call the city’s information line: 311.

I did that and the woman who picked up ended up patching me into 911 anyway, so that’s one thing I learned. If you’ve been robbed, call 911. The 911 operator took my address, phone number, and asked me what had been stolen and then said to wait and police officers would respond as soon as they could. I hung up, talked to my sister about it, wrote about it, made something to eat, and talked to my sister about it some more. It was nearing eleven at night, and we had been waiting a couple of hours. I didn’t think the police were going to come until morning and was just getting ready to take a bath when I heard the telltale sound of police radios in the entryway outside our apartment. I opened the door to a short, loudmouthed Ponch type of character and his completely silent sidekick, who was tall and gangly with the shadow of adolescent acne still on his face.

They checked my windows that led to the fire escape, asked about my work and what was stolen, and weirdly enough, complimented me on my driver’s license photo. Then they got a call on the radio about a deranged person on Ocean Parkway and said that they would be back in twenty minutes. They were back in less than that, and while they were gone, Kristi and I joked about getting them to pose for photos as they investigated the crime. When this team came back and were checking out my windows again, our doorbell rang and another cop and his partner entered our apartment. Now, it was starting to look like Law & Order, and the cops started acting like that too. The most senior officer (I assume, since the Ponch character was deferring to him) decided that point of entry was the door to our apartment, though it had been locked. Because I’m a freelance writer/editor type and only the computer was taken, he thought it sounded like “corporate espionage.” There had been tons of other valuables lying around in the open, and he said a thief would just sweep the computer and valuables into a bag and not worry about niceties like disconnecting cords and external hardware. Then he said that this was definitely somebody we knew.

My naked desk after the robbery.

 

This made me feel awful. The last thing I wanted to do was cycle through all my friends and acquaintances, mentally calculating who the guilty party might be. I was reading Damien Echols’s Life After Death, too, where the author was blamed for a crime because of his Goth tastes and sentenced to death with no evidence because of a prejudiced jury, judge, and so on, which made me really leery of thinking about anybody that way. The police finished up and said not to touch anything on the desk and that a detective would be at our house in the morning.

Pimping Out My Apartment

I love beautifying my apartment, and in the last year, my sister and I have kicked it into overdrive. The centerpiece of our apartment has always been ammo crate bookshelves. When Kristi and I were in high school, my mom would buy these ammo crates for five dollars apiece at a local store that had hideous things like camouflage overalls and fishing lures. She loves a sale and the ammo crates were a deal, but they sat in our garage for a long time. Kristi was the one who figured out that they made fabulous bookshelves when staggered and stacked up on top of one another. And each crate had rope handles on the ends so it was easy to move them by stacking the crates and lifting them up by the rope loops. The last time we moved and the movers saw all of the ammo crate bookcases, I thought they were going to pass out. I could see them mentally calculating how many crates there were and how many flights of stairs they would have to walk down with them. Then we showed them the trick, and suddenly they were all smiley faces.

Our ammo crate bookshelves.

Last year, I spent August in Berlin and had a fine time glutting myself on German art from the Weimar Republic. I picked up a few posters of artwork by Otto Dix and George Grosz, a couple of my favorite artists, and brought them home with me. Kristi and I also had a poster of one of our favorite Caravaggio’s from a trip to Florence a few years earlier, and we had never had it properly framed. I took the art to the Frame Shop at Pearl Paint when Kristi was working there, and she helped me pick out really great frames and mats and then had the great idea of using a circular mat for our Caravaggio shield of Medusa.

Caravaggio in our kitchen.

Once we had all this fabulous artwork to hang up, we wanted the walls to look festive, so we went to the hardware store and picked up a few gallons of paint—banana yellow for our kitchen and a really saturated turquoise for my bedroom. Around the beginning of the year, Susan Godfrey had a Kickstarter campaign for the last funding she needed to start her coworking studio, the Productive, and she had a set of drawings by artist Maya Edelman as a prize for a certain level contributor. I fell in love with one particular drawing—The Sadness of Not Fitting—and had to have it. I wanted to support the Productive, but I wanted to own this particular drawing even more. When I got the drawings, I had Kristi evaluate them once again and she came up with the perfect frame treatments, which cost under twenty dollars and look great against our yellow walls.

Maya Edelman’s drawings.

The ammo crate bookcases still look wonderful, but I was getting sick of the rest of our living room. We had used the same blue futon cover and curtains for several years, and they were starting to get dingy and yellow. Our friend Sarah was coming to visit in October for Kristi’s birthday, so this became the perfect time to fix up the living room a bit. I had it in my head that I wanted skull curtains, and Kristi, the master seamstress, said okay and that we could go pick up some material and she would stitch them up. We went to the Fashion District in Manhattan, where skull fabric was all the rage a few years ago, and found nothing but a chichi silk fabric with a very subtle skull pattern after visiting a half-dozen stores. One proprietor told us to come back in a week because the stock is always changing. We just couldn’t wait that long. We went home and Kristi found some nice-looking fabric online with the bold, dramatic skulls that we craved. We decided to take a risk and order it, and the fabric really did turn out to be lovely and worth it. Again, it cost less than twenty dollars, and Kristi whipped up these babies in an evening.

Our skull curtains.

In this same week, I also decided that I had to have a leopard-print couch—probably because I’m reading all these heavy metal biographies and autobiographies right now as research and animal prints are a big part of the style. Also, my mother started buying us leopard-printed things starting in high school. I have a leopard-print cigarette case from her that I use for my laundry card, and we both have matching leopard-print comforters from Christmas one year. Now, it’s turned from Mom buying me leopard to me buying it, so maybe the fetish is just something I’ve inherited from my mother—a genetic predisposition for leopard print. The leopard-print futon cover that I ordered online looks so nice, and now we have the old grungy blue one as a spare so Kristi can rip it apart and make a pattern for new futon covers. I’m imagining zebra print and snakeskin print, a skull print. Maybe we’ll change the futon cover every time a new guest comes to visit us.

Our new and improved leopard-print couch.

 

 

 

 

Flying the Friendly Skies

I’m a nervous flier, but this condition came on slowly during my life. I remember liking to fly when I was a kid. I’d get all sorts of privileges like having my stuffed bear ride in the seat next to me, little plastic wings affixed to my shirt or dress, and unlimited soda. We flew frequently when my father was in the military, but when he got out during my teen years, I didn’t fly for about ten years.

Instead of gradually building up my flying skills after that amount of no-fly time, I found myself facing an eight-hour-long international flight to Italy on my first trip there. Suddenly I was petrified and envisioned all sorts of crash scenarios. I made it onto the plane and sat in a ball of fear for about an hour, but it was too hard to sustain that kind of tension and I gradually relaxed. After that trip, I found myself flying about once a year, and though it wasn’t my favorite thing to do, I made it through. I don’t particularly like flying, but I do like to travel, so something had to give.

Me scared to death before my first flight after ten years of not flying.

Then 9/11 happened, and instead of a little nervousness, I started experiencing full-blown panic attacks. Part of the problem, I think, is the amped-up security. It seems like every time I fly, a new safety procedure has been instituted and each one of these precautions reminds me of all the dangers today’s travelers face. Shoes have to come off because of shoe bombs, liquids have to be minuscule and separated out to make sure they’re not the makings for bombs, and now there’s a full-body X-ray to make sure we’re not stuffing bombs up our orifices.

For several years after 9/11, I was terrified to fly. Being stuck in that circular tube full of people (often uncomfortably full) and recycled air was my idea of torture, but my family was far-flung, as well as the other places that I wanted to travel to. Once I took Amtrak from New York to Chicago, and the twenty-three-hour trip was hell for the last eight hours. I kept a detailed hour-by-hour log of the trip, and by the end I was a raving lunatic. It also took me a day to uncurl my body from the sitting position I had been in for so long during my train travels, which took precious time from my vacation schedule. I decided never again after that. I was going to have to get used to flying again.

A couple things did really help me with my phobias. A friend of mine went to school and trained as an airline pilot, and when I told her about my flight phobias, she broke down what happens in a crash and how to survive it if at all possible. First off, she said, always try to get a seat ahead of the wings. The gas tanks are below the wings and that’s where the fire will erupt during a crash, flowing backward and flash-frying everybody in back of the tanks. Check—I always do that now. Second, she said to always know where your exits are and to physically count how many rows you are from the exits. If the plane crashes, there will be so much smoke that it will be hard to see and the emergency lighting might fail. I now do this immediately after sitting down. It’s funny how preparing for the absolute worst can make somebody feel better, but sometimes it works out that way.

Sherman Alexie is another nervous flier, and his tactic is to watch the flight staff since they’re the ones who will know first if something’s up. He said that the minute they’re up from their seats, he knows everything’s all right, and he keeps a close eye on them throughout the flight to gauge how the plane is doing.

I’ve had a prescription for Xanax in the past, but when I take one of those pills, I feel like a zombie for the rest of the day or longer, which can eat up too much time in a packed vacation schedule. Now, I’m doing my traveling with a bottle of Bach Rescue Remedy. I like its cheerful yellow label, and I do actually feel a little mellower after I dose myself with a few drops. I don’t care if it’s a placebo as long as I’m not spinning into the stratosphere, so panicky and anxious that I feel like I’m going to flip dimensions.

My sister, who’s not a nervous flier, after we were bumped up to first class. Notice the pin that she asked for.

I wonder, though, if it will help after my last flying experience. I visited my family in Iowa a few days ago, and the flights there were no problem. I had that familiar panicky sensation in the pit of my stomach on the way back, though. I passed through security with no problem in Moline. The staff there was professional and cheerful, getting me through security with little agitation. The plane between Moline and Chicago is tiny with a single row of seats on one side and two-seaters on the other side. I was just grateful it wasn’t a propeller plane. We took off with no problem, and that’s always something I carefully watch. My pilot friend told me that’s when the majority of accidents happen—during takeoffs and landings.

It was meant to be a short flight—only thirty minutes. As we made our descent and were within kissing distance of the trees—a point when I’m always convinced we’re safe—instead of feeling the ka-thud of wheels hitting the tarmac and the sudden braking as the plane slowed down, I noticed that we were ascending again. I looked around puzzled at other passengers, and the man near me, who had been regaling a college student about his business trip to China during the flight, said, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

I couldn’t see the flight attendant in her jump seat from where I was sitting and was unable to read the expression on her face. Once we were fully in the air and wheeling around Chicago, the pilot came on and informed us that there had been a plane in front of ours, but there wasn’t enough room on the runway to land. This was all relayed in a very conversational and friendly manner, like I was chatting with somebody at a bar. Then he signed off with “Peace,” and I felt like my life was in the hands of some surfer dude, not the coolheaded professional that I wanted to envision my pilot being.

I tried googling what I thought was a near accident when I got home, but the last time something serious enough to warrant the news happened at O’Hare was in May. Apparently, this running out of runway must happen more often than I think, which will now give me something else to worry about with my flight phobia.