I thought I was unconventional, cutting edge, a rebel. Boy was I wrong.
When I came out of the closet and then had children with my partner, I worried about the stigma. But I did sort of feel like I was avant-garde—or at least like I had an atypical family composition. When I started talking about my lifelong struggle with depression and hospitalizations, I thought for sure I’d be shunned and thought incompetent or at least weird. And I really thought my Adult Protective Services (APS) job—where I investigate and manage cases dealing with vulnerable adults who have been abused, neglected, or exploited—was off the beaten path.
But thanks to the progressive tendencies of the Maryland community in which I live, my identity as a lesbian/APS social worker/mom with mental illness has become so dreadfully…normal.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that same-sex marriage is both accepted and legal. I can now pay taxes in a normal way, and my wife (thank you, SCOTUS) can make medical decisions for me. There’s far less stigma and more acceptance of depression, which seems to be a popular thing to have these days. The number of people with the same debilitating illness I have means that I can speak more openly about it. And TV shows like Hoarders and news stories about older folks getting taken advantage of have made even my APS job more familiar.
So my life is conventional. Regular. Boring. And my biggest excitement is the occasional opportunity to communicate with real, live adults over a quick dinner outside of work and away from my children. Although I have not resorted to being a soccer mom (my kids don’t like soccer) or wearing an appliqued kitten in a basket on a soft, pink sweatshirt, I am an average mom around here.
I’m the new Stepford wife—the suburban, liberal, sometimes crazy, lesbian kind. So what am I to do for a mid-life crisis? Do I have to become a straight, conservative PTA mom to rebel?
I'm on a serious search for something new, something different, something rebellious, and something meaningful and exciting to do with my life—inexpensive or free, please. So I've checked out my options and come up with some possibilities.
Option 1: Monster-Truck Driver. I can hear the crowd roar as I'm high in the air, revving my engine at the top of the vehicular food chain—intimidated by nothing. I maneuver my stick, in control of a huge beast that can crush piddly full-size SUVs. Vroom Vroom. But it does all sound a bit phallic—now I see why it is predominately a male sport. I, of course, would paint a rainbow with Rosie the Riveter proudly We-Can-Do-It’ing on the side of the truck, and name my truck something like, “Kick Ass Amazon Estrogen Warrior.”
I start watching monster truck videos. The appeal is waning. I think driving over cars might feel even worse than driving over incredibly big potholes and speed bumps. My butt hurts just thinking about it, and I know I’d definitely need to sit on a pillow—maybe one of those post-hemorrhoid-surgery doughnuts could be Velcroed to the seat. I’d put a macho flannel pillowcase with big trucks on it, but somehow I think no cover could make a hemorrhoid pillow macho enough for a monster-truck driver.
I wonder if I could get a monster truck with sliding side doors like my minivan and car seats, so my kids could easily ride along. I also wonder what my neighbors will say if I parked it in front of the house. I’m not quite sure how I'd manage drive-thrus or get in and out of the truck. A blow-up ladder? A Hoyer lift? A trampoline?
I check the DMV website to find out how to obtain a CDL license, hoping that the ability to spell CDL is all that's required. I also check out the Monster Truck Racing Association website. I scope out the tan, lithe, manly men on the site, and I realize that there's a small possibility I won't fit in. And apparently they do not give a membership discount to social workers.
Option 2: High-Octane Crafter. I do not have enough time, events in my life, sense of paper placement, or highlights in my hair, to be a good scrapbooker. So I look into new types of funky crafts. A kind of craft not to be found at a conventional craft store. Because I am no longer conventional, dammit.
Glassblowing classes at Glen Echo look fun. With long metal poles, fire, and artistry, it seems to be sort of a Cirque-Du-Soleil-meets-visual-art thing. But as I look through the pictures of people blowing glass, I notice that none of them look intrinsically happy. And that is really what I am searching for. That, and a cool uniform.
So I check out metal sculpting and welding—where fire and cool apparel meet. I could look like a Monty Python knight while brandishing a fire weapon and producing art. I could be a new anti-super hero artist chick: Who is that woman behind the mask? It is the mistress, Rodin-Katz, sculptor of evil, creator of all things non-mundane. With her powerful hands, she crushes scrap-bookers and PTA flyers into usable pieces of metal for the greater good.
But it turns out all local metal sculpting classes require enrolling in a whole course of study at a community college. So Rodin-Katz will have to rise another day. Despite knowing this, I have vivid dreams at night of welders doing interpretative modern dance and synchronized swimming wearing rustproofed welding masks. Obscure rebellion clearly lives on in my unconscious.
Option 3: Start a New Career—Law School. I swear there are more lawyers around here than streets, but I convince myself I would be different from them. I convince myself that I would be a tattooed, cool public defender or legal-aid attorney. But then I remember: Oh yeah, I despise public speaking. My voice shakes so severely that, after every oral report or presentation I've ever given, someone next to me puts her hand on my shoulder and flashes a patronizing smile saying: “You did just fine.”
Although they say to envision everyone in the audience naked, I think that's rude, so I imagine everyone in layers and parkas so they don’t feel so cold. Even with a room full of down-clad, wool-socked and -sweatered audience members, I still sound like a blithering idiot. This public speaking thing may be a deal-breaker for lawyering and law school. Then there are the years of no income and the additional student-loan debt to think about.
Option 4: Learn and work abroad. I dream about applying for a Fulbright scholarship and taking either one kid or the whole family abroad with me. Then I remember how exhausting it is just taking a kid on the metro somewhere local. Two seconds after we find seats, I hear the inevitable: "I have to go potty. I don’t want to go to DC." Then louder: "Why does that scary man look so fat and ugly?" And (louder still):"Do all girls have vaginas? Do I still have the chicken pox? I think I just peed."
What makes me think I could help a child or two adjust to a whole new culture? Or even make it through a multi-hour flight? How could we break up our family for any length of time? And as much as school is appealing, do I really need to add homework to my list of responsibilities? (Remember, Liat, that sigh of relief you took after graduate school, when you were no longer obligated to do homework? You’re too old to do that shit again.)
Option 5: Get a Tattoo. This is a great idea—artistic expression, honoring my body as a canvas, and a definite rebel factor. Except I keep thinking of all those relatives of mine who were forced to have numbers tattooed on their arms. Would a tattoo be a big slap in the face to their memories? And with my luck, I’d probably have a misspelled word forever on my body (Like “Liar” instead of “Liat”). And because of Jewish law, I wouldn't be able to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Though, would I notice? The last straw: A conventional-looking me with a rebellious tattoo might just be, well, stupid.
Option 6: Volunteer. I make a couple of calls looking into volunteering to roam the city streets at night to provide support and resources to “sex workers.” (The term “sex workers” sounds so much less rebellious than prostitutes—almost like an office job. Postal workers only more sane.) The cover of darkness thing makes the volunteering sound so cool. The social worker in me says “sex workers” are troubled souls with unresolved abuse issues in need of resources that will help them leave the life.
But part of me is jealous, and I romanticize a clearly difficult existence—I tell myself they are leading the ultimate rebellious life. They are providing a fantasy for men that want them. I fear that helping sex workers on the street in DC might be too enticing. I can see my first conversation with a fictional prostitute I've named Ruby Starlet: "You make how much per hour?" Ruby probably doesn't have dental insurance, but I am a night owl in need of more money, so maybe I could do this. Unfortunately I look terrible in hot pink spandex, and I fall over in high heels.
Option 7: Change my appearance through a new wardrobe. Nothing seems flattering when I feel fat. And a regular fashion makeover won’t do if I want to be unconventional. So I move beyond the standard of beauty for women into a wardrobe of rebellious self-expression, and this one requires no particular pant size. I plan my wardrobe carefully. I'll wear the pink spandex from the sex-worker idea as a tasteful scarf. And I'll work with my young girls to create a spectacular dress from rhinestone-studded tricolored rotini. I'll call it "Pastabulous." In an ode to the plaguing social ill of bulimia, I will fashion overalls from an air-sickness bag. And in an attempt to signify the struggle of the working class and my own struggles, I'll stitch a skirt of overdue bills, to be accented with a Prozac necklace. Such a fine wardrobe, except that it's all too ridiculous, even for me. Noodles will have to stay on the dinner menu.
The option I finally choose is Option 8: Write about my options in life, wax poetic about my dreams in therapy, be happy with what I've got, and get a new kitten. Her name is Carly, and she came to us from the shelter with ringworm, which she gladly shared. As a result my whole family now has matching round tattoos. Perhaps I’m a rebel after all.
The moderator gives us a nod, and we walk in unison along the edge of the deep end. “Aaaaaand stop!” comes a call from the rear. We pivot to face the pool and bend and stretch into formation, surrounding our seven-person clump with a sunburst of jazz hands. I feel hundreds of eyes watching us as we wait for the music, smiling in our silver-and-pink swimsuits and glittery eyeliner.
A whistle blows, and “Boogie Shoes” by KC and the Sunshine Band explodes from the loudspeakers. We silently count the beats in our heads. I dive on my turn, my teammates fast on my heels, and feel a twinge of pride as my skin breaks the cool surface of the water. My fear of plunging in head-first is one I've been working hard to overcome.
The mention of synchronized swimming often calls to mind Hollywood images of the demure toe-pointing and toothpaste smile of Esther Williams or of wiry Olympic athletes with gelled hair and unfortunate eye makeup. For me, as I dive into the water at my second national synchronized-swimming competition, I think of how the sport has challenged my inhibitions and introduced me to a side of myself that I was surprised to meet.
Although I've always loved being in the water, before I signed up for a synchronized-swimming class in Rockville, I had never learned to dive—which seemed telling of a larger resistance in my life to letting loose, taking risks, and plunging in. As a thirty-something with no big plans for personal transformation on my horizon, I figured it was all downhill from there. An internal ticking clock reminded me constantly that I was “too old for short shorts,” as my mother would say. I had grown most comfortable in swimsuits of the skirted variety and had started to wonder if my coworker was right when she said there are no good surprises after 30.
Each week, though, when I slipped into the water for class, I felt stronger and sexier—a chimeric morphing of a mermaid and Michael Phelps. The day I swam the length of the pool underwater on a single breath, I felt like I could accomplish anything. After a semester, my classmates encouraged me to join the DC-area synchronized swimming team. I looked for excuses: I wasn’t good enough. I was too busy. Worst of all, I would have to perform in a swimsuit! But a nagging part of me wanted to know if I could make it. So after weeks of deliberation, I went to a practice.
At the pool, I was greeted by a group of energetic, latex-capped women aged 24 to 72. I joined them in the deep end and, at their urging, demonstrated what I had learned—a basic scull, a back layout, a splashy, sinking attempt at raising one pointed leg toward the ceiling. Despite being years ahead of me in their skills, the women on the team graciously offered pointers and encouraged me to keep practicing. Afterwards, everyone headed to the communal shower, and I slunk off to change by myself.
I came back the next week and then the next, the camaraderie and the challenge satisfying needs so submerged I hadn’t even realized they were there. At times, I thought the sport would defeat me—if not with its dizzying upside-down spins then surely the dangerously long stretches between gasps of air. For months I left the four-hour practices with quivering legs and an appetite previously seen only on Animal Planet.
Yet as I pushed my body to its limits, it responded by becoming harder and leaner; my lungs stretched to meet the new demands. As my body changed, something inside me shifted as well. I took to wearing audaciously short shorts. Thanks to my teammates, I learned to dive and conquered my fear of the communal shower. I even bid a public farewell to my skirted granny suit at a nude beach.
But what matters more than feeling good in my skin is that I discovered a side of myself I didn't know was there—a side that is strong and capable of taking a chance and diving in. Instead of being on the cusp of inevitable decline, I realize I am in charge of my own journey. There are good surprises after thirty.
Vicki Valosik is a Silver Spring-based writer, program officer, and aquaphile. She has written previously for Washingtonian, as well as for TheAtlantic.com, American Scholar, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post Magazine, and Huffington Post, among others. Find her on Twitter or at vickivalosik.net.
Last summer, my husband and I went on a private sail on Chesapeake Bay—just the two of us. We had no idea that it would be our last.
Between us, Bruce and I have gathered over 90 years of boating experience in all kinds of water and weather conditions, including “blue water” or ocean sailing. We love the exhilaration of brisk winds on sunlit days and are fascinated by the many places to explore and anchor on the Bay. From Baltimore to Solomons Island to Norfolk, there are few places we’ve missed.
Our favorite anchorage is on Dividing Creek on the Upper Wye River near St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore, and it was there that we made an annual pilgrimage. One year, we stayed at anchor for four nights watching the blue herons stalk their prey and the bald eagles guard their nests. We relished the peace of early morning, when the water is like glass broken only by the slap of a jumping fish or the gentle putt-putt of a waterman’s boat.
Gradually, we became more cautious and listened carefully to the marine forecast before setting out. Sometimes we raised only the foresail, leaving the mainsail down. Even in our 70s we knew we could handle any kind of trouble that arose.
One day last summer, we found a window of quiet weather in an otherwise stormy week and set out from Rock Hall. We glided across the Bay and slipped into the narrow mouth of the Magothy River. Behind the protection of Gibson Island we dropped anchor and settled into a quiet evening of reading, conversation, and a leisurely dinner.
It was morning when the trouble began. I knew that I no longer had the strength to haul up the anchor with its 20 feet of heavy chain, so this pleasure fell to Bruce. After breakfast and with a deep sigh, he was ready for the challenge. “We who are about to die salute you!” he declared and up to the bow he went. With much effort and a few breaks to catch his breath, he got the anchor out of the bay muck and up to the water line. Now what? The anchor refused to right itself so that it could be hauled on board. Bruce was sweating, covered with mud, and bleeding from several abrasions on his forearms. I joined him on the bow to help. As we struggled, the weight of the anchor propelled him forward directly onto me, re-injuring the broken ribs I had sustained a couple of months before. In the meantime we were drifting towards shore and in danger of going aground. Clutching my painful side, I steered us to deeper water while Bruce tried again. No luck. As I watched the scene unfold, I couldn’t help thinking: Please, what are we doing here?
Finally, we gave up and left the anchor dangling off the bow—not a recommended practice, as it could swing into the bow and cause serious damage in rough weather. Fortunately, the trip back was benign. We hadn’t damaged the boat and we had sustained no serious injuries, but it could have been otherwise. We were shaken.
I had been wondering for some time how much longer we could continue to sail, given our ages. How would I ever be able to retrieve him if he fell overboard? Though we do possess these 90 years of combined experience, we lack the strength, agility, and stamina we once had. Apparently, Bruce had been having some of these thoughts, too. As we sat in the cockpit having a beer, he looked at me. There was a long pause. “I don’t think we can continue to sail alone,” he said quietly. I nodded my head in agreement, saddened, but relieved that we had faced reality.
We’ll sail again with friends, but we’ll forever miss the tranquil mornings on “our” Dividing Creek.
Vicky Wood is a retired teacher and freelance writer who lives in Bethesda.
Nathan found me online, where I’d been waiting for a man with perfect spelling and great taste. He was Ivy League and used the phrase bee-loud glade to describe his backyard in Georgetown.
In his emails, he seemed serious but often wrote things like this: “I really like fun. I want to be part of a fun couple.” And, hey, I’m from Baltimore. No one likes fun more than us.
“Shall we meet at the zoo, then?” he asked on the phone. “Let’s say the Elephant House?”
“Maryland Zoo or Washington Zoo?” I asked.
He snickered. There is no other word.
“The National Zoo,” he corrected me. The more we talked, the more I began to think that Nathan believed my city was really a sound stage for The Wire. And there was a part of me that wavered on that. I’m from a place that conjures up formstone and Natty Boh, while the District is all “Hail to the Chief” and gleaming white marble. Of course we’d meet there, I started thinking.
It had snowed, and traffic was snarled, yet I managed to miss the Connecticut Avenue exit. When I walked in, the smell of the Elephant House made me gag a little. Nathan’s eyebrows formed a serious, knitted line.
“Aren’t the elephants fun?” he asked. A wan smile from me. “Is this your first time at our zoo?”
“How about our Capitol? Our Smiths?”
Move over, Pierre L’Enfant. Nathan talked about his adopted city with Chamber of Commerce enthusiasm and, for the first hour, I was willing to give it to him. After all, I knew the Belvedere Hotel couldn’t keep up with the Willard any more than Fort McHenry and the Lincoln Memorial should be allowed in the same sentence. When I attempted a little Baltimore aside about the Cone Sisters, he nodded quickly and moved on to the majesty of the National Gallery.
I was surprised—but kind of relieved—when my Baltimore inferiority complex began to disappear on our walk to lunch. It happened somewhere between Nathan’s connection to the Corcoran (emotional) and his affection for the gelato on Wisconsin (sinful). My inner voice kept saying, “Hey, Nathan, over here. I’m from somewhere, too.”
When we were seated at the restaurant, he began looking over the wine list. He called for the sommelier. More wine list. More brow. The waiter stood, pencil poised, for a long time. “Excellent choice!” he sang out when the word finally came down. It seemed like a lot of work just to get buzzed after a long day at the zoo, as we might say in Baltimore.
To keep myself from making inappropriate comments about drunken crab feasts I’d hosted, I mounted my last defense—pretending to listen. By the time I merged onto the Beltway on my way home, I’d already started thinking of him in the past tense. There would be no more literary emails, and I would miss the Nathan I’d come to know in Times New Roman.
When I got home, there was a message in my inbox from a man who lives in Logan Circle. He seems to know his way around the Reading Room at the Folger, but there was no mention of elephants or fun. Worth a shot. Maybe I’ll suggest an afternoon in Fells Point.
Linda DeMers Hummel is a freelance writer who lives in Baltimore.
I hate those annual bouts of hacking and sneezing. Yet, recent experience compels me to grudgingly acknowledge that the common cold might have a few benefits.
You know how it goes with a cold. At first, you're Roadrunner. You make plans with the family to go skiing or hiking, to take the subway into the city to wander through the museums despite not feeling too well. You get things done: carting your children to the activity of the season, paying bills, shopping, cooking, cleaning, repairing, maintaining. You are a master juggler. Sometimes you wish things would slow down, but there isn’t anything you want to give up. Okay, you could do without housework, home repair, and 40-hour work weeks, but you like to eat, and you like some semblance of order. In the end, you keep everything on the calendar and on the list of Things to Do.
Then one day you wake up listless and lethargic. Over the course of the day you wind down like a toy soldier with a dying battery. You know you're coming down with a cold—the cold that your six-year-old brought home along with the list of things he needs by Monday for the science experiment; the cold that your husband is still fighting. You try to keep going. You slog through the days with your foggy brain, your running nose, your aching body, your sore throat, and your nearly empty gas tank accomplishing less and less. Laundry mounts, home repair projects stall, toys and newspapers litter the living room floor, dinner becomes take out, and some of the balls you have been juggling tumble to the ground.
Your body is a tyrant. Eventually, you can go no farther. Your nose is red and raw, and a tissue box has become a fifth appendage. You cannot utter two sentences without hacking, the same hacks that make sleep impossible. You have entered the stage of perfect misery. With the food supply nearing empty, no energy to grocery shop, and a budget that cannot stretch to one more night of take out, you're wondering what to serve for dinner when your eight-year-old and six-year-old appear with trays of graham crackers, peanut butter, and bananas. These are the same children that just hours earlier, knowing your miserable state, had relentlessly begged and pleaded to go to the zoo. Their earnest faces convey their empathy and their sincere apology for nagging. As you dine on trays in the living room, crumbs all over the couch and floor, you wonder why you do not have graham crackers, peanut butter, and bananas for dinner more often. You top off the evening by playing the computer games your children have begged you to try for months.
A few days later you are surprised by a spark of energy. You consider the to-do list. But since you have been genuinely sick, you send the guilt demons packing and sink into a chair to watch a movie or a football game. At some point, you can no longer tolerate the disorder. You summon the calendar and the to-do list—but you also mark a week in March to not go anywhere, not do anything, and just see what new moves you and your family might imagine. This is the thing about the common cold: In altering the routine choreography of daily life and relationships, it allows a space to imagine new steps and new moves. Other life events certainly have the same potential, but there is nothing that so reliably settles into almost every household every year.
Terry Northcutt is a psychologist. She often muses about the creativity and gentle humor people bring to bear on the ordinary and sometimes uncomfortable events in their lives from Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
I made my first magic wand out of a Popsicle stick and one of those sticky gold stars that teachers used to slap on the top of papers when you did a particularly excellent job. Don't know if they still do that, but I do know that I still believe in the power of wands.
Growing up, I did a lot of wishful thinking, mostly focused on the twists and turns of an unpredictable life. Sometimes my wishes worked; sometimes they didn't. I came to learn that wishes required more than a hopeful thought.
In 1986, I moved to Maryland from Oklahoma. I was living under a protective order, escaping from my abusive ex-husband. All the magical thinking in the world wouldn't make him disappear from the face of the earth. But thanks to family and friends, I was able to start a new life. I must admit, just for old time’s sake, I bought myself one of those cylinder wands with glitter inside. I'd wave it around when I was feeling low, and like Dorothy's red shoes in The Wizard of Oz, it gave me a confidence I didn't know I had. After moving here, I have met and married a wonderful man, adopted our daughter, worked for pay for two great organizations, and volunteered because I wanted to for many others.
Living and working in and around DC, I have been privy to the wishes of lots of people. I'm sure you've heard them, too: I wish I could meet a man. I wish I could meet a woman. I wish I could get a new job. I wish I could have a baby. I wish I could find a good sitter. I wish I could get that grant. I wish that dress would fit me. I wish my car wouldn't run out of gas until I hit that station with the cheap prices.
I bet you have a few wishes too. And I'm pretty sure you aren't certain how to make them come true. That brings me back to wands.
About 10 years ago, I was in a freak accident that required a half knee replacement. My terrific doctor warned me that after a decade, it would be time to get the total knee replaced. Ten years sounded like a really long time back then, but here we are. I spent months and months preparing for surgery, getting things in order at work and going to yoga six times a week. But I knew something was missing. Of course, a wish! And not just my wish, but wishes for and from lots of people. So I started buying wands.
I put a picture of myself in warrior pose on Facebook, holding a wand. My cover photo was of Glinda, the Good Witch, telling Dorothy that she "had the power all along," while, of course, waving that shiny stick.
I gave wands to my yoga teachers, my colleagues, and my family and friends. I packed one in my hospital suitcase, alongside my books and dry shampoo. At the appointed hour at Sibley Hospital everyone was supposed to turn towards DC and wave. In the hospital, nurses and physical therapists waved my wand. When I came home, every one of my visitors received a wand, too. They waved them at me, and they waved them for their own wishes. One friend wished for a winning lottery ticket. Another turned a snarky checker at the supermarket into a snake. I am healing well from my surgery, getting ready to go back to work and doing a pretty mean downward dog. Could wands have played a small part?
Why am I telling you this? Because you can get you own wand at the dollar store. Because, sometimes, wishes do come true. Because I trust with every part of my being that we all need something to believe in.
And because, as my grandmother used to say, "It couldn't hurt."
Cheryl Kravitz works as communications director at the American Red Cross in the National Capital Region and lives in Silver Spring. More of her published works (including a couple from Washingtonian) can be found on her website.
Booking two interconnecting rooms at the Holiday Inn in Leiden, Holland, seemed so perfect at the time. Although the Innocents Abroad travel guide—which was my Bible for living and traveling with two young children in Europe—didn’t mention the hotel, all of my ex-pat friends had assured me it would be the best place to stay during our upcoming trip to the Netherlands. And they were right…sort of.
Almost three years earlier, my husband John and I had moved to Belgium with our newly two- and six-year-olds in tow. His law firm wanted him to represent clients in their Brussels practice. So after a bit of trepidation on my part, we found a house and a school, and the kids and I tagged along for the adventure.
We were determined to make the most of those three years in Europe by scouring the continent and beyond as much as we could, taking into consideration work and school schedules and the young ages of our children. First stop: EuroDisney in Paris, the carrot we dangled to get the kids to move. Then, it was the canals of Brugges and the sidewalk performers in Antwerp. In Rome little old ladies would stop us in the street to run their fingers through our children’s white-blonde hair, exclaiming, “Bellissimo!”
The kids learned to ski in Austria and rode an overnight train to Switzerland. They zipped to London on the EuroStar and saw the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens. There was Portugal, Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, Greece, and perhaps best of all, the Arctic Circle in Finland—that final Christmas—to see the real Santa Claus.
During our last spring living in Belgium, we had one more trip to make. We had to see the millions of tulips in the Keukenhof Gardens one last time. We had to see the Anne Frank museum now that the kids were a bit older, and we had to see my favorite artist’s work in the Van Gogh.
Amsterdam houses many wonderful art museums, but I knew the kids, then aged 4 and 8, would likely withstand only one, and the Van Gogh was the winner. He had been my favorite since high school, when my artist boyfriend introduced his paintings to me. I knew his colorful, bold paint strokes appealed to my children—they loved to imitate them in their coloring books and read about them in Camille and the Sunflowers by Laurence Anholt. I had bought the storybook for them a couple of years before, and I read it aloud to them every night the week before we left for Holland.
Out itinerary was set but we still had to make our hotel reservation.
“You have to stay at the Holiday Inn in Leiden,” so many friends said. We had been to the Netherlands previously but had never stayed in Leiden, a centuries-old university town. Why is there a Holiday Inn there? I wondered to myself.
“The kids will love the hotel!” we were assured.
It did look appealing from a kid’s point of view. It had an indoor swimming pool, a bowling alley, miniature golf, a movie theater, and a food buffet with options that would appeal to my carbs-only eaters. It even had a life-sized chess set in the lobby, right next to the buffet restaurant.
The open plan of the main floor was a godsend for parents wanting to keep their eyes on their children. The place was a kid’s heaven and a parent’s purgatory, kids running around loose everywhere. But they were happy, very happy.
Our friends and neighbors, the Finnegans, happened to be going to Leiden the same weekend and had been to the hotel before. I didn’t know their itinerary, but I did know that while we were at the hotel, Daniel would have his friend, Ryan, to play with. That would be a plus…or so I thought.
When we arrived Friday night, Daniel and Ryan quickly disappeared to explore the hotel's offerings. Ryan’s mom stayed close to them while I got our things settled in our two rooms and explored with Nicole. John found the bar.
Ryan and Daniel were beside themselves with excitement. There was so much to do! They watched a cartoon movie, went swimming, ate macaroni and cheese, and then bowled. That first night, my calm, mild, reasonable Daniel, was a wound-up spring ready to uncoil at any second. It was time for sleep.
He was so exhausted when we returned to the room that he fell into the twin bed next to Nicole without complaint. I told him our plans for the next day as he dozed off, foregoing his usual reading of Camille and the Sunflowers.
He woke early the next morning, so excited to join Ryan at breakfast in the lobby. We quickly got dressed, Daniel found Ryan and his family, and we all ate together. While the parents were finishing their coffee, Daniel asked to be excused from the table. He and Ryan ran over to the giant chess set. The pieces were bigger than the kids, and they struggled to slide them across the painted squares on the floor.
The Finnegans informed us that they were planning to spend the morning at the hotel, and I told them we were off to see the sights. After breakfast, the Van Gogh Museum would be our first stop. We called Daniel over so we could leave, and he came bounding across the floor. “Here, sweetie, put your jacket on. It’s time to go.”
I had always taken pride in the fact that Daniel was such a reasonable child. Even if he didn’t like something or didn’t want to do it, as long as you explained the reason, he would comply. I never had to resort to the fallback parental retort ‘Because I said so!’
“I don’t want to go," he told me. "I want to stay at the hotel.”
“But we’ve made this trip to see fun things," I implored, "not just hang around the hotel. It's time to go look at the Van Gogh paintings.”
“I don’t want to go, " he insisted. "I want to stay here with Ryan. He’s not going anywhere and I don’t want to either.”
“But then you’d miss seeing ‘Starry Night’ and the ‘Sunflowers.’”
I hoped to appeal to his rational side. He loved those paintings in the books. I knew he’d love the real thing.
“I want to stay here," he insisted. "Ryan’s parents can take care of me. He said so.”
Daniel had it all figured out. He and Ryan had probably been conspiring as they took turns moving their rooks and bishops. It was then that it hit me: Van Gogh's masterpieces were no competition for bowling, swimming, mini-golf, cartoons, and life-sized chess with another 8-year-old boy. Duh.
But I remained firm: “I’m sorry, Daniel, but you have to come with us. Ryan will be here when we get back, and you can play with him then.”
Daniel wasn’t happy, but to his credit, he didn’t scream or yell. He came along peacefully, albeit begrudgingly. I would learn that he had another plan, one he knew would gnaw at me more than any verbal protests.
In the car on the way to the Van Gogh museum, Nicole chattered and sang in the back seat next to her big brother. He was silent. His little sister’s attempts to engage him in song were for naught. My attempts to cheer him up and assure him he’d have a fun day—and my promises that he could play at the hotel as soon as we returned—had no impact. He stared out the window in silence at the old university buildings and the red tulips lining the road until we arrived at the museum about 45 minutes later.
John bought the tickets, and I held Daniel’s hand as we walked in. I was thrilled. Here they were—live—the paintings I had loved all these years. John held Nicole in his arms so she could get a better look. I squeezed Daniel’s hand.
“Look, honey, look! Aren’t these magnificent? Look there’s the painting of the sunflowers! Oh, and look over there! There’s ‘Starry Night.’ Isn’t this great?”
I tilted my head down to see the excitement in his eyes, but the only thing Daniel would look at were his black-and-white sneakers.
“Daniel, look up, honey. See!” He refused. Through three floors of the museum and over 200 paintings, he never once looked up. My heart sank thinking he might never again have the opportunity to see all these incredible paintings in one place, but his gaze held steadfast to his sneakers. This was my punishment.
When we returned to our home in Waterloo after that weekend, I was tempted to write the authors of Innocents Abroad to tell them they were right to have excluded the Holiday Inn in Leiden. It was too much damn fun.
Many years have passed since then, and I’ve told the story of Daniel and the Van Goghs whenever the subject of art or travel with children comes up. Daniel once told me he really did look up at the paintings that day, only not when I was looking at him. I suspect he only said that to try and make me feel better.
Now, Daniel is 25. He recently graduated from law school and moved back to DC. A few weeks ago, I read a review in the Washington Post of the new Van Gogh exhibit at the Phillips Collection, where multiple copies of his work—his variations on a theme—were displayed side by side. I knew I’d have to go.
On October 11, Daniel and I were text messaging about car insurance. As we wrapped up, I said: “On another note, everyone doesn’t get a second chance in life, but you may. There is a Van Gogh exhibit in town at the Phillips. Remember how you refused to look at the paintings at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam because you were pissed that we made you leave the fun at the Holiday Inn? Wanna go some time? No looking down at your sneakers though.”
My phone dinged seconds later.
“Haha yes I would like to go.”
And then after a few days, when I hadn’t gotten back to him with any arrangements, he nudged me: “When do you want to see the Van Goghs?” I bought tickets for the next day.
The name of the Phillips exhibit has special meaning for us—‘Van Gogh Repititions’—and this time Daniel never looked down.
Van Gogh Repetitions runs at the Phillips Collection until February 2, 2014.
Desirée Magney is a lawyer for the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project. She is married with two adult children—she writes about her daughter here—and she lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Our trip from Washington, DC into Sea Island, Georgia, in the midst of a May 2012 tropical storm seems now like an omen for the turmoil ahead. I had been looking forward to having a week with my husband, John, son, Daniel, and daughter, Nicole—a rare week when we could all be together, given that my children were in their twenties and away at school most of the year.
During the two-hour drive from the airport, I focused on the road ahead. My knuckles turned white trying to keep our rental car from blowing across traffic and off the Causeway into the water below.
We arrived safely and didn’t mind those first couple days of forced confinement. We read and assembled a near-impossible 1,000-piece “Paris by Night” puzzle on the living room coffee table, tropical rains pounding the roof, wind whistling through the fireplace. It was fine. We were cozy in our familial solitude. Cocooned in our house, our daily rhythms resumed, despite the past year apart. It was when the weather broke, oddly enough, that my tranquility did as well. The turmoil inside of me about our daughter’s upcoming departure for a semester abroad in the Middle East began to swirl.
After Nicole’s freshman year of college, she decided to forgo her five-year study of Mandarin and switch to Arabic, much to her dad’s chagrin. He felt certain that knowledge of Chinese would provide countless future job opportunities, but having taken a number of courses about the Middle East, she had become intrigued by its culture and history. She decided she wanted to spend her junior semester abroad in an Arabic-speaking country to further her language skills. As parents, we wanted to be supportive of her, whatever her pursuits, and we felt that, as a young adult, these decisions should be largely hers to make.
I wondered whether growing up in Washington contributed to her inquisitiveness about other cultures. Nicole has often commented on how she enjoys living in DC, listening to the mix of languages spoken on the Metro and in the streets, seeing the amount of racial and ethnic diversity. She also learned to appreciate different cultures and languages early in life: First, when we lived in Belgium for three years and also through the many trips we’ve taken with our children around the globe. But she had never experienced the Middle East, except in books and lectures.
She and I had many conversations her sophomore year about her study-abroad options. When she was back in Chevy Chase for fall break, I looked over her shoulder as she clicked on her laptop from one study-abroad program to the next. There was no disagreement that Egypt and Tunisia were out of contention. After the Arab Spring uprisings, things were too unsettled there. Morocco and Jordan seemed the most reasonable alternatives. Her research about different programs, the language dialects, and the political climate led her to her decision. “Jordan will be the best place, Mom. The Moroccan dialect is too different from the standard Arabic I’m learning.”
That seemed reasonable, and we felt somewhat comforted because Jordan has traditionally had good relations with the US. Even though Jordan has seen its own protests since the Arab Spring, it’s been a seeming oasis of calm surrounded by Israel and Gaza to the East, Syria to the North, and Iraq and Saudi Arabia to the West and South. Nicole had considered studying in the university town of Irbid, but its proximity to the Syrian border and the conflict there caused great concern for me. Ultimately, she chose Amman, Jordan’s capital. But our overall concern—allowing her to go anywhere in the region—hung over us like a cloud.
On the Wednesday morning of our beach vacation, when the sun finally burned through the clouds, we began our daily bike rides beneath the canopies of huge oak trees laden with Spanish moss. In the afternoon we lay on the beach, each of us immersed in the book of the day. I was engrossed in Reading Lolita in Tehran. As if I weren’t disturbed enough thinking about Nicole leaving for the Middle East, my anxiety heightened as I read about the treatment of women in Iran.
By Wednesday night, Nicole, too, became anxious about her much-anticipated fall semester abroad, but for a different reason. She hadn’t booked her flight to Amman yet, and she was getting emails inquiring when she would arrive. She did an Internet search for flights but quickly became flummoxed with all the connections, layovers, early AM arrivals, and varying prices.
We sat shoulder to shoulder on the couch, her laptop balanced on her thighs, and sifted through the myriad options, none very palatable. I didn’t want her to arrive in Amman at 2:00 AM, when no one from the program would be available to pick her up. I didn’t want her to spend seven hours alone at night in a foreign airport, waiting for a connection. I heard the panic rise in her voice and felt my heart palpitate, our nerves feeding off each other, jumping from one shoulder to the next and back again. It wasn’t just the flight. It was the four months to follow.
We finally found an acceptable flight and booked it. Despite my fears, I knew it was right to let her go. We have to let our children go, regardless of how much we love them—we let them go because we love them. But knowing that doesn’t make it any easier.
I tried to minimize my negative thoughts. She’ll be fine. It’s not like she’s going into a war zone, for God’s sake. She’s going to Jordan. She’ll be fine. But somehow, I just couldn’t quiet that opposing voice or forget the knitted brows of friends whom I’d told of her plans. Will she be safe? Will she be treated well? I had known this day was coming since the previous October, but now that the plane ticket had been purchased, the trip became real, and all my fears about her safety in that part of the world resurfaced.
I tried to tamp down my heart, so we could enjoy the rest of this vacation together. Nicole and I took a ten-mile bike ride to see the remains of a 1700’s fort and town. As we pedaled slowly back toward the house, exhausted from the heat, we decided to stop for lunch at a restaurant in a small shopping center. After parking our bikes near an outdoor table, we slumped into our chairs and gulped down the ice water the waitress poured. Looking around at the shops, Nicole commented, “We need to shop when we get back to DC. I don’t have clothes appropriate for Jordan.” True enough—skinny, tight-fitting jeans, shorts, and sleeveless blouses would not do.
“I’ll need some large scarves to cover my head.”
“Cover your blonde hair, so you don’t stand out so much.”
We discussed the two-page list of protocols from the study-abroad office. It said: “Jordan does not have decency laws or official dress codes. However, there are clear social norms regarding appropriate dress that students are expected to follow Women must avoid shorts, skirts above mid-calf, spaghetti straps, low-cut tops, sleeveless tops, bare midriffs, and any clothing that reveals upper arms, décolletage.” She would be dressing according to cultural norms, not the desert heat.
Along with proper dress, proper decorum was stressed. “Jordan is a traditional Arab and Moslem society with deeply ingrained social norms. However, because Jordan has a deceptively ‘western’ veneer, students can easily get fooled into thinking certain modes of dress or personal conduct are acceptable when they are actually Haram, forbidden or shameful.” My throat tightened.
Biking over the bridge back to Sea Island, I was on edge. The sidewalk was narrow, and the traffic was moving quickly just a few feet from us. I was worried about Nicole, recalling an infamous bike ride about ten years earlier, when I’d warned her about a tree coming up in the middle of the path and, so focused on its location, she slammed smack into it. This time, she was the confident one—I felt shaky and tired, anxious to peddle those last couple of miles home. Halfway across the bridge, I ran into the metal guard rail, bruising my leg. I decided to walk my bike the rest of the way across, lacking the confidence to ride any further. She stayed with me, concerned.
A few days later, back home in Chevy Chase, I purchased trip insurance for her flight—just in case. I envisioned some incident causing the entire region to explode. I could only hope that, if something like that were to happen, it wouldn’t be while she was there.
I knew the summer was going to whiz by. She was working at an office in the District, but we caught moments together when we could. We searched for clothing she’d wear for four months and then, perhaps, never again: long skirts; long-sleeved, loose-fitting, opaque blouses; headscarves. At night, we sat together, legs curled on the couch in our family room, eating Snyder’s sourdough pretzels and hummus, watching the news and mindless TV shows. Nothing special, but it was.
On June 18, 2012, we watched news reports about the Muslim Brotherhood having won the election in Egypt. A reporter from Cairo expressed his concern that the entire Middle East might erupt. I sat upright in my chair: I hated hearing these stories.
Nicole wondered aloud about the election choices in Egypt. I thought of Lara Logan, the pretty, blonde CBS reporter who was brutally attacked in Tahrir Square while covering an Arab Spring uprising there. I reached over and stroked Nicole’s waist-long blonde hair. It had always been her hallmark but soon, I feared, it would be the thing that would mark her. I gently kissed her on the cheek. She smiled.
A few weeks before her departure, on a Sunday afternoon, we were floating together in our backyard pool trying to escape the Washington heat and humidity. We faced each other, arms draped across a shared raft, legs dangling in the cool, blue water, the smell of suntan lotion permeating the air. We chatted about her boyfriend and the upcoming visit by her Vassar College friends. Then the discussion turned to more serious topics: the conflicts in Syria and Egypt and her safety in Jordan. The air became even heavier; my chest tightened.
“Get out of the area if you ever see a large crowd forming,” I warned. “Let’s think of a secret code to use if you find yourself in a bad situation. You can call or text it to me. Remember we did that when you were in high school?”
“Ok, Mom,” she laughed. “But you won’t be able to drive to Amman and pick me up. Seriously, don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I promise I won’t do anything stupid, like walk near the Syrian border.”
Then, she reached over to my face and with her pinky finger, gently lifted a fallen eyelash off my cheek. Holding it before my lips, she said, “Make a wish, Mom.” I hesitated for a second, trying to precisely formulate the wish I wanted, trying to encapsulate all my concerns for her and wish them away in one fell swoop. Then I blew as hard as I could.
The next morning, as soon as I got out of bed, I checked the weather on my iPhone. It was a habit: Everyday, I checked the weather in Washington and, during the school year, in Poughkeepsie and New York City, where Nicole and Daniel lived. That day, after seeing the local weather, I hit the plus sign to add another location. I needed to navigate through my internal storm and focus on the road ahead—the one Nicole would travel alone. I typed in A-M-M-A-N and added it to my list. It was 97 degrees there.
As I looked more closely at the screen, there appeared to be a tiny crack. It was an eyelash. I gently picked it up on my pinky finger and blew, making my wish once again, and watched it float away.
Desirée Magney is a lawyer for the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project. She is married with two adult children, and she lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
“No, mom, I’m not going to straddle the printer or anything,” I said, trying to explain to my technophobe mother the concept of ordering, but not receiving, sperm from an online bank. She didn’t get it. “You order it by selecting a donor online, but they ship the actual sperm to your doctor’s office,” I added. In this discussion ten-plus years ago, I told her, “It’s not like you get an AOL audio announcement, ‘You’ve got Sperm!’ and there it is ”
Still, it was a hard concept for my mother to grasp. It was hard enough for her to get that I was with Lisa to begin with, let alone how she would be getting her grandkids. I had known she’d have a hard time when I first came out to her. Lisa was, after all—in order of importance—not Jewish, not a doctor, and not a man.
Maybe my mom didn’t really get the gay thing because I didn’t I fully get it either. My coming out was not a torturous struggle to be true to myself, nor was it a gleaming moment of epiphany and pride. I had grown up in a liberal household, in an era where gay couples were visible. I had gay friends and friends with gay parents. In the zeitgeist of a crunchy granola high school and college, I conceptualized a fluctuating sexuality continuum, as did I life, mental-health, and sense-of-self-worth continua, which everyone moved on a bit during their lives. I dated men and women.
In my late 20s, though, a long-term relationship and possible marriage and children meant I’d reached a declarative moment. It meant announcing to the world that I was gay by virtue of my family—which meant that I would be a juggler of pronouns and others’ comfort levels, would never be in the mainstream, and would be without universal rights.
I cried. And cried. And cried a lot. Then I floated back to a place of higher self worth on my likert scale and became generally ok with it. The world would just have to deal. Now, in my 40s, I’m comfortable in my own undefined skin.
Oddly, I was worried that I wasn’t “gay enough.” Lisa used to ask me if strangers knew she was gay. “They’re not visually impaired,” I’d answer. She is, in a traditional sense, butchy, dykey, and well, lesbian-looking, if there is such a thing. I am not butchy. And I’m not chic enough to be a lipstick lesbian. I’m more the imperfect, middle-aged, Jewish, big-curly-haired, funky-earrings-wearing, messy, tired-mom, heavier-than-I-want-to-be-looking lesbian. Which requires a bit more explanation after heterosexual-by-default assumptions.
Without a declarative uniform, I find myself having to decide whether or not to announce my sexuality when people make assumptions that I am with a man. If I correct people, they sometimes apologize for their heterosexist assumption. Or they give me the awkward so-you-like-vaginas smile. They don’t get that that’s not it. Instead of explaining that I think of my body as a vessel for a deeper self, where sexuality and life are fluid and that, yes, I love Lisa, but I don’t define myself by that, I just smile, as if to say, yup, I like vaginas. But not yours. Really. You can sit next to me.
My mom got over the gay thing once she realized she might still get grandkids. She supported us in our long struggle with fertility and was pleased as punch when I finally gave birth to two beautiful girls.
When my oldest child was two, we were in the bathroom of a community center, when a random girl tapped me: “That little girl called you mommy and that other lady mama. Which one’s her mom?”
I responded with the ease and a grace of a stumbling hippopotamus. “Um, well, she, see ” The girl’s mother quickly interrupted, “Like your friend Ashley and your other friend Brianna she has two moms.” And I realized I could do the two-mom thing.
Laws are now catching up with progressive attitudes. The recent defeat of DOMA and the expansion of gay rights and gay marriage throughout the country are marvelous. Really. I have benefited a great deal from all the progress. I can be who I am and reap the legal benefits of true marriage in all senses of the word. But in everyday life, I still choose to be closeted. A lot. Not because I’m ashamed of who I am, but because I don’t wish to make folks uncomfortable. This is especially because, as of late, I’ve been hanging out with an octogenarian crowd.
“Ya married, dear?” Gladys* asks me as she sips her coffee, her mauve lipstick imprinted on a slightly cracked “Myrtle Beach” mug with a palm tree. We’re making a plan to help her sister stay in her home and out of a nursing home as long as possible. Gladys is 82 and her sister, Gloria*, is 87. Gladys lives in a different city, but she came to town to help, and she is staying with Gloria at her house. The sisters look strikingly similar, except for the fact that Gladys dies her hair red and Gloria’s face looks much more weathered. They have similar mannerisms, and both are chronic coffee drinkers with deep belly laughs that include snorts in variable intervals. They’ve both been retired for about 20 years—Gladys from the government and Gloria from being a magazine editor. Each was widowed twice. Gladys is sharp as a tack and Gloria, well Gloria is not so sharp. A pretty typical Adult Protective Services (APS) case, she was found confused and wandering in the street at 3 AM wearing only a pair of pants and one slipper. She hadn’t taken her medication in days, her place smelled like urine, and her fridge was empty. I was assigned as her APS social worker by Montgomery County.
“Yup, I’m married,” I answer Gladys, not mentioning that, according to federal law, I have only been married for a few hours. That DOMA was struck down that day, and my marriage to Lisa in Canada in 2004 is only now legally valid. I don’t mention that my whole financial and tax picture will change and that my young children won’t remember a time when we weren’t legally married.
“Well don’t get old and outlive your husband; its no fun,” she says. “I’ve done it twice.” All I can think is that if, God forbid, Lisa does die, now I could theoretically get her social security and vice-versa. I tilt my head and give Gladys my best “that must have been hard” look and touch her shoulder.
All afternoon, Gladys and I have been discussing such intimate matters as trying to obtain a urine sample from her sister to help the doctor determine if she has a urinary tract infection—a common cause of temporary delirium in older folks that can mimic dementia. I had also helped her clean her sister’s set of false teeth and get her sister into an adult diaper from the spare pack I had in my car. But there was no way I’d even hint to Gladys that I was married to a woman. There is intimacy, and then there is respectful professionalism—I’d only make her uncomfortable, and not correcting her does not diminish who I am. Maybe I don’t give Gladys enough credit for being okay with me being gay, but really, today is not about me, it’s about Gloria.
“Your husband is one lucky man,” Gladys goes on. “You’re such sweet gal to be helping me with Gloria.” I smile and think that I’m the lucky one to have this kind of job.
My wife says that “we” wouldn’t have gotten where we are today in gay rights if people stayed closeted at all—people have to be challenged in their homophobia or they will never change. They have to realize that their friends, neighbors, or daughters could be gay and would still be the same people they’ve known and loved, in order for their attitudes to change. And she’s right. I know. Unlike Lisa, though, I choose not to be out in every situation because, frankly, it’s easier. I am thankful I have that choice, though being closeted in some situations but not in others definitely takes a toll.
One recent Saturday evening, after a long day spreading our radical gay agenda by getting milk from Safeway and carting kids to play dates, we are all on an impromptu trip to Baskin-Robbins. I smile as I look at my sweet girls’ mint-chocolate-chip laden faces. I look at Lisa, and I think of all we have gone through to become a family. I want to hold her hand, but I know I can’t. Not here, not now. Not worth ruining the moment with strange glances from onlookers. I hold my little girls’ hands instead.
Liat Katz is a clinical social worker for Montgomery County Adult Protective Services. She lives in an estrogen-filled home with her wife, two daughters, and two female cats in Rockville. She is the author of an (as yet) unpublished memoir, Creatively Maladjusted: Essays of a Broken Life.
*The clients from Ms. Katz’s work have had details of their identities changed to protect their confidentiality.
Driving. That was one of the things I most dreaded when I married Liz and moved down to DC from Baltimore two years ago. I have my own issues with road rage, so I wasn’t looking forward to this region’s renowned traffic. I never imagined, though, that I would have to contend with DC’s other distinctions: A gold medal from an Allstate Insurance report about the nation’s worst drivers and a bronze from Travel and Leisure magazine for rudest city. Put them together, I’ve learned, and you’ve got a daily mash of macadam mania and animus that smacks of apocalypse now.
For two years, I have been negotiating Derby Dystopia, as I’ve come to think of local roadways, and up until now, it has only intensified my venom. But I should thank DC drivers. The motorists who are 112.1% more likely to get into an accident than the average American have unwittingly helped me do something I never thought possible—curb my own road rage.
When I first moved to the area, I was concerned that I might get myself or my family seriously injured on the road. At the very least, I worried that our toddler son, Macallah, might mimic the steady stream of invective spewed from behind the wheel. My road rage was just that bad. Even when Liz drove, I could barely contain myself; once I had to sit on my hands when the urge to push down Liz’s gas-pedal leg nearly overwhelmed me. A driver had suddenly appeared in the vanishing lane on Colesville Road and bullied her way into the merging lane, where we had been waiting—no blinker, no wave of thanks—nearly grazing our car. “Try visualization to calm yourself,” Liz said, ever evolved. I followed her advice, sort of: I visualized our headlights. Retrofitted with howitzers.
A psychologist once suggested that the road rage I've embraced since my 20s stems from taking other drivers’ misdirected aggression too personally. “It’s not about you,” she said. She was right. Mostly. This became clearer one morning when I was driving my 10-year-old stepdaughter, Aliya, to school in Northeast DC. She was learning about cultural conflict in school, and we were discussing the reasons behind King Philip’s War—a colonial conflict that occurred when Metacomet, sachem of the Massachusetts Wampanoags, lashed out against the Pilgrims’ land-grabbing descendants in an uprising that was doomed from the start. A woman in a Lexus swung from behind us on Sargent Road and passed us in the next lane over, the one intended for oncoming traffic. “See that?!” I screamed. “That’s a perfect example of what we’re talking about!” I sped up to catch the Lexus and saw it turn at the next traffic light. At the intersection, I struggled to open my window in time and from a slim crack yelled, “You—you Pilgrim!”
This was the source of my road rage: I was Metacomet. I didn’t care about personal trespasses. I cared about the larger, tribal ones. As I saw it, my rage bloomed into spear-waving stewardship. I needed to prevent these poachers, who believed that their private-property rights extended to the highway, from encroaching on the dwindling sanity and safety of our roads. It was the good fight, and it didn’t matter that mine was an ill-fated stand from the start. (The irony wasn’t lost on me. I knew full well that my vigilantism aped the corrosive antics of the very people I sought to rein in.)
For a long time, my Metacomet moments only deepened my resolve. Until recently. I was driving Macallah to his daycare provider’s home near Forest Glen, heading south on Georgia Avenue during morning rush hour. I signaled to turn left near the Woodside Deli and was met with a rash of blaring horns behind me. (I didn’t know that I couldn’t turn left from Georgia Avenue during rush hour.) I cleared my throat—something I do when I’m pressed for quick answers. Mistaking this for a cough, which warrants benediction in his two-year-old world, Macallah chirped “Blessh ouuu!"
The next thing I knew, a Ford SUV screeched up alongside us. It came to a stop, in the oncoming traffic lane, blocking my turn. I saw that it wasn’t a cop but another motorist, a balding, beefy guy with a beard. “Here we go,” I hissed, steeling myself. He screamed at me from behind his closed window, hands gesticulating violently. I rolled down my window, preparing for a clear verbal shot across my bow, and cleared my throat again. “Blessh ouuu!” Macallah chirped.
That was when a woman in a minivan appeared. Her van approached Beefy Guy head on and came to a stop—directly in front of his car. She, too, signaled to make a left-hand turn, essentially boxing him in. (The farcical skit was now complete.) Beefy Guy turned his rant toward the woman in the minivan, honking his horn, screaming and flailing about like some B-list silent-movie actor. At one point, he stopped ranting and looked my way, still from behind his closed window. In his window I saw our reflections: Superimposed over his flushed, seething face was my own face, stoic and serene.
Talk about a jarring moment.
For some reason I still don’t understand, I asked him a question, politely no less. “Am I not supposed to turn left here?” From behind his window, he continued to rant. Then he sped off. Apparently, the woman in the minivan had finally made her turn.
I made my turn, too, and heard Macallah sneeze through the bleating horns in our wake. “Blessh ouuu,” I said, relieved that this time my mimicry came from inside the car, rather than from outside of it.
When not taking to the warpath on local roads, Andrew Reiner teaches at Towson University, works on a collection of essays, and shamelessly moons over his two-year-old son. He, his wife, and their family live in Layhill.