I have a distinct memory of riding an elevator with my mother when I was very small. The elevator's door was shiny and chrome. It reflected my tiny, then perhaps three-and-a-half foot tall frame wearing white shorts and a pink shirt. The elevator was in a hotel in Florida, and we were there to visit my great grandmother like we did every year before her passing.
At an elevator stop before we reached the lobby, a woman entered the elevator and struck up conversation with my mother. I don't know what she said to my mom, but eventually, she bent to my level and asked me, "Is this your first time in Florida, sweetie?"
For some reason, my very young self decided to deceive the woman. I said, "Yes," at which point my mom interjected, "No. We come every year."
I've been asking myself lately about the purpose of this memory. Why is this snapshot taking up space in my brain? Is it because the elevator doors were particularly shiny, or that pink shirt I'd been wearing was comfortable? Perhaps it stands out as my first discernible lie and therefore deserves a spot in my messy collage of memories.
Lately, I've been realizing that memories are not linear. Things don't come back to me in order from birth to this morning. Often times, especially when I write, I cherry pick from moments that stand out. Some of them are large, memorable things, like the events of high school prom weekend that involved toasting marshmallows, sleeping on the beach, and watching Star Wars after eating pepperoni pizza, stone cold sober. Others are small and seemingly useless, like standing in line at Disney World while my friend's grandmother described her time share in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
I'm wondering if we should adopt the memory collage as a viable structure for storytelling. Provided that writers maintain a thread, a theme, a connection of some sort, there should be no reason that the nonlinear narrative can exist in more than just fiction. Faulkner did it in "A Rose for Emily." Why can't I give it a try?
I've taken a hiatus from posting on this blog for almost a full month.
There was no particular reason, either. I have multiple drafts of new posts waiting in the queue - half-finished, unpolished ramblings that may perhaps fit with the style of this blog after the addition of some words, the rearrangement of commas. I know that eventually, they will be up here, ready to read for whomever is looking, but lately, writing - a thing that has always given me solace and comfort - is becoming harder and harder to do.
Part of it is certainly the stress associated with it, that quote about Shakespeare writing King Lear during his quarantine adding pressure to already neurotic writers everywhere. I am not William Shakespeare, and while I don't know what else he did in quarantine, I can assume he didn't have to do much housework, maintain laundry, and cook the meals for the household. I also know that our dear friend William certainly didn't have Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, all screaming at him with their newest releases waving like the frantic inflatable men in front of car dealerships. I can safely deduce that he wasn't scouring job postings having been let go from the school where he loved to teach. I am doing all of this, and I'm supposed to write, too?
Even without the pressure to create something magnificent, the regular pressures are still there, and still just as demanding as usual. Chores, grocery shopping, staff meetings (albeit virtual), mandatory time with family, date night via video chat. All of these things often cut into writing time to begin with; now, they are more precious and attractive than they've ever been. Driving to Dunkin' Donuts for an iced coffee with the windows rolled down, a slight breeze, the sun forcing a squint as you turn the corner now feels like a magical journey back to normalcy.
I know the world is far from normal, and a return to it is still far away, but I am lucky that writing is like an old friend. I can return to it after a long break, and it is like nothing has changed, no time has passed at all. When I am ready, the words will welcome me back with open arms, taking me in their tight embrace, reminding me of their love, their kindness, their comfort. With them wrapped around me, I will be okay.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Who doesn't love a good, old-fashioned Netflix binge? Considering most of us are confined to the walls of our homes and recognizing the significant impressions forming in our couch cushions, I would wager to say most of us were thankful to see a new documentary series come out. In the wake of widespread tragedy, a juicy true crime drama interspersed with wild animals is an excellent way to stay distracted. However, when I saw the memes inevitably popping up in my social media newsfeeds including pictures of a mullet-wearing, gun-toting, lip-syncing man with an eyebrow piercing, I had absolutely no idea what Tiger King was even about. I texted a friend of mine who shared the meme and asked what this infamous Tiger King even was; I was clueless.
She said, "Dude, I cannot even explain it. Just watch."
So I did.
And, like many others who have watched the series, I got sucked into the drama and conspiracies between the major players in the big cat business. Joe Exotic and his two husbands who turned out to be straight, Doc Antle with his undetermined number of lovers, and Carole Baskin who only had one husband at a time, but perhaps had something to do with the disappearance of the first one. The whole show is an insane account of the actions of crazy people with footage of tigers and other wild animals sprinkled into the mix.
And, also like many others who watched the series, I became mildly obsessed, so much so that I roped my mother into watching it so I could watch it a second time and have someone to talk to about it. I needed answers to my many questions, like why would Carole suggest that sardine oil may have been on Joe's shoes the day one of his cats dragged him around? Why would someone like Jeff Lowe even be interested in bailing out a "loser" like Joe Exotic? And why, why, why did Joe Exotic win 19% of the votes during his race to become governor of Oklahoma?
Most of all, though, I wondered how filmmaker Eric Goode could stomach shooting this documentary series. I wondered why producer Rick Kirkham stood idly by for years filming the antics going on at the GW Zoo, only to admit that animal cruelty took place in the bonus episode with Joel McHale. I wondered why - of all the predators in the cages - we were focused on the tigers instead of the humans.
On my second watch, my uneasiness with the big cat industry grew at an exponential rate, and I think it is important to acknowledge the true predators: Carole Baskin, Doc Antle, and Joe Exotic.
When describing Carole Baskin, the only appropriate word that comes to mind is "hypocrite." She made her name in the big cat industry by domesticating bobcats and lynx for sale as pets. In her instructional video on how to bottle-feed a lynx kitten, she even says, "it might seem too early to take them away from the mothers, but that's how to be sure they make good pets." I will acknowledge that she initially took in these bobcats to save them from a fur farm, the only credit I will be giving her at all. She continued to breed and sell cats, the very behaviors she attacks Joe Exotic for throughout the documentary, using Big Cat Rescue as a facade to demonstrate her "care" for the animals.
The rest of her story arc describes the vast array of circumstantial evidence that suggests she murdered her husband and fed him to the tigers, and quite frankly, I'm shocked she wasn't at least arrested. I mean, really, who words their will stating in the first sentence, "Upon my sudden disappearance?" The answer: no one. The whole situation is incredibly suspicious and makes my stomach turn. Alas, it is possible that a woman who may have committed premeditated murder is not the person I detest most in this whole industry.
Bhagavan "Doc" Antle:
This man made me cringe for every single second of screen time he had. Something seemed off about him instantly when he was telling Goode and the rest of the film crew how to introduce him in his first establishing shot. My initial impression was that he was a bit of an ass, for lack of a better word, but he struck me as a harmless entertainer with a genuine interest in animals.
That is, until I kept watching.
This man is the most foul individual in the entire documentary. He is more than likely a sexual predator, luring young girls to "intern" at his establishment, giving them poor living conditions and low pay so they can't really leave, and making them wear "uniforms" that border on lingerie. His whole zoo operates similarly to a cult, a word Doc used facetiously in one of the talking-head shots of the series. Putting aside that it was common for people to "move up" in the company if they slept with him, he essentially made an employee get breast implants, and that he engages in an uncertain polyamorous lifestyle, let's talk animal care.
While he did state that it costs him approximately $10,000 a year per tiger to feed them properly (compared to Joe's estimate he gave the crew which was $3,000) there were also instances where seemingly healthy tigers would suddenly disappear. Rumors circulated about Doc putting tiger cubs who outgrew their cute phase into a gas chamber, and honestly it wouldn't surprise me if that were true. The fact is due to his over-the-top nature and generally off-putting personality, I have no idea what to think. He dismisses all claims of animal mistreatment and claims that he thought the series would shed light on conservation efforts rather than the lives of big cat collectors. Quite frankly, I wish that is what I watched.
This one hurts me the most to write because I truly believe that Joe got into the big cat business for the good of the animals. I want to believe that his intentions were initially good but were warped by the lack of funding and stress. I'd like to believe that, but I don't know if I can now. Having watched each episode twice, I picked up on small things that I didn't notice the first time around, like the suggestion that Joe had someone set the gator house and studio on fire to get rid of video evidence that might incriminate him for criminal activity or that Travis - one of Joe's young, straight husbands - was hinting at suicidal ideation before the "accident" with the gun. On the subject of Joe's husbands, it is troubling that both Travis and John actually identified as straight men. So, why then, did they stay with Joe all that time?
I think between the marijuana, the meth, and the gifts, Joe provided those young men with simple pleasures that fueled their addictions to the point that he had them under his complete control. Although it may not seem so, Joe has the ability to manipulate those around him. Hell, he had me believing that he was a good guy that just wanted to help big cats and wildlife conservation efforts. A scene that stuck with me was when the female tiger was giving birth and Joe immediately took the babies away from the mother using what looked to be a metal pole to retrieve the young cubs. That, for me, was where I stopped feeling like Joe was a victim, like he wants the world to believe.
Regarding the whole "murder for hire" plot, I don't know if he did it or not. I don't know if Jeff Lowe and Alan Glover and Tim Stark were all in on a larger scheme to get Joe locked up. I don't know why James Garretson really decided to work with federal investigators (or why there was a shot of him on a wave-runner set to "Eye of the Tiger" for that matter). I'm not a lawyer or an expert in that field, but having an illegal lemur doesn't seem like a federal offense large enough to force a person into being a confidential informant. I also don't know how Joe Exotic is the only one of this lot who ended up in prison. Regardless, if he truly was looking at almost an eighty-year sentence, I think the twenty-two he is to serve is fair.
We learn at the end of the series that approximately 4,000 tigers are left in the wild while nearly double that live in captivity. Knowing those figures as well as the number of tigers that exist between Big Cat Rescue, Myrtle Beach Safari, and the GW Zoo, I am disappointed in the quality of treatment for many of the world's captive tigers at the hands of the cast of Tiger King.
I could go on longer about the smaller cast members, talk about how Reinke and Saff (and maybe Erik Cowie) were the only decent people in the entire series who seemed to genuinely care for the animals, and ponder the reason that Dillon has for staying with Joe while he's incarcerated, but both my fingers and my heart ache from writing. If anything is clear at the end of this series it is that we know the identities of the true predators. And only one is in a cage.
When someone asks me if I want to go out to dinner, I never have to think about my response. I love going to a new restaurant, reading over the menu, and trying a crazy appetizer that I wouldn't be able to make at home. On days when I have to tell myself, "you have food at home," I'll end up making a sandwich, heating up a frozen entree, or reviving leftovers before they go bad. Rarely, if ever, have I been the type to dredge up recipes or experiment with food, aside from the few sample boxes I was gifted from Blue Apron. If I'm being honest, those boxes were a larger gift than I ever could have imagined.
Learning to cook from a recipe is soothing for me. Following the step-by-step directions and creating an edible meal out of a list of unprepared ingredients provides me with an impossible sense of accomplishment. After making sheet pan shrimp fajitas or homemade vegetarian ramen noodle bowls, I found that not only do I enjoy cooking, I absolutely love it. The recipe is a guiding force that leads me to build art on a plate.
Lately, being on quarantine, I have found solace in cooking - a previously unlikely place for me to find peace. My mother - an avid baker - has described for years the comfort that fills her soul after making cupcakes from scratch, successfully whipping a ganache without breaking the chocolate, or watching someone take a bite of a new cookie she tried out. The satisfaction she gets from building cookie tins at Christmas to gift to our relatives is unmatched by anything else she does.
And finally, I understand. Yesterday, I made slow-cooker shredded beef cheesesteaks with sauteed peppers and onions on toasted rolls. I seasoned the meat generously, and when I was cooking the vegetables, I tried that fancy no-hands flipping technique that professional chefs do when making things in a pan. I fed five people. I used the oven, the stove-top, and the slow-cooker. I shredded three pounds of meat and had to run the dishwasher twice because of all the utensils I used. Then when I bit into my sandwich, it was one of the best things I've ever tasted.
This process has provided me with an outlet, a way to create the most practical art imaginable. It has given me the time to escape from the world outside my window, to focus on building something delicious and ignore everything else. So I will keep adding spices to meats, investing in new appliances, and purchasing butter in bulk. I will keep cooking to cope and to eat.
I am sorry.
I am sorry for misunderstanding, for minimizing, for suggesting that you should "relax" or find a way to distract from what is making you anxious.
I am sorry for being impatient, for getting frustrated, for feeling as if your concerns were trivial.
I am sorry for being ignorant of your pain.
I am sorry for being dismissive of your needs, wants, fears, desires, and concerns simultaneously.
I am sorry for letting myself believe I was compassionate and understanding of your situation.
I am sorry that it has taken a global pandemic, economic malfunction, and widespread panic to make me understand even the slightest sliver of your daily experience.
I am sorry that you must have gone through nights of unexplained insomnia.
I am sorry that while you've watched Netflix movies with your family, your heart has fluttered inside your chest and your stomach has dropped out of your body and everything has felt like it's in a haze for no apparent reason.
I am sorry if you have felt afraid driving in the car with the windows shut or taking a trip to a crowded store or having a conversations with strangers in the park.
I am sorry for ever using the phrase, "we need to talk later."
I am sorry for thinking that my nail-biting and cuticle-picking and knuckle-cracking were manifestations of something similar to your experience.
I am sorry for ever judging those with a Xanax prescription, those who use essential oils, or melatonin to simply get fifteen minutes of peace, of rest.
I am sorry that you need those things to achieve peace, to rest.
I am sorry for making things seem small when in fact they are large, for identifying the problem with no solution, for suggesting deep breaths and meditation as the end-all, be-all of treatment.
I am sorry that none of those things actually work when the panic has bubbled up to the surface and dizziness threatens to make you faint.
I am sorry that I had to experience it myself before I realized how much of a fool I have been.
I am sorry for all of it.
Can you forgive me?
As a high school teacher, the recent school closures and mandated quarantine has been hard. Not necessarily because of the switch to online teaching, but because of the lack of interaction I have with my students. The transition from in-person to online instruction is jarring because I miss interacting with my kids. As much as they can get on my nerves occasionally - and they can - I miss their antics, their giggling at inappropriate moments, their unsolicited photos of pets.
While this transition has not been easy for a lot of reasons, I find myself noticing a shift in participation for certain students. Those who have often had issues maintaining focus, staying on task, and keeping organized are thriving in an online environment. The ability to move at an individual pace and avoid other students who may serve as distractions is allowing struggling learners to improve their grades and take charge of their education in a way they have never shown in the classroom. So, this has me thinking, is this something that we can continue when school buildings open again?
Generally, I think that it is, at least at the high school level. Is this working for middle and elementary school students? Absolutely not. I've heard from other teacher friends who teach the little ones, and they are having a miserable time wrangling their students to sit for Zoom meetings or watch instructional videos. This information, accompanied by tweets from parents, makes me think that this is not sustainable for students still navigating the concept of school.
Regardless, implementing online instruction as an option for high school students is something we should keep in mind. Students who have severe ADHD, issues with anxiety, or prolonged health problems would benefit from having the option to take their classes online or organize their schedule like college courses, taking certain classes online and others that demand in-person instruction in the traditional manner.
Schools, however, will always exist. Online instruction will never be able to become a complete replacement for what is accomplished in the classroom. Students need socialization, and if this quarantine has taught us anything, it's that people will seek out other people, even when they are advised against it. It is human nature to desire contact with others, and schools provide that outlet for many, many teenagers. For those that view school as a haven, we will continue to sit in a circle, hold Socratic seminars, write math problems on the board, and dissect owl pellets. We will continue to talk about our weekends, write journal entries, and bake brownies for the fundraiser. We will always make time to sit and talk with a student who needs an extra ear to listen. For the students who embrace school, we will be there with open arms.
However, for those that view school as a source of emotional stress, why not give them what they need to succeed? Should we force students who are bullied or uncomfortable or anxious to come to a place that provides them only with negative emotions? If the school building is not conducive to an individual's learning process, the online option could be a game changer for how we as a society provide education. Not all students learn the same way, and with the shift in the classroom from paper copies to online assignments, students are generally equipped with the tools needed to navigate an online curriculum. With any new process, there is bound to be some troubleshooting, but the option is what matters. And providing students with as many alternatives that could help them succeed is what teachers do. It's why we come to work every day, even if that work is happening on the couch in the spare room over the garage.
The call of the classroom is one I have always answered. A relentless academic, I have always loved to learn. My college experience was a little different than most since I was double majoring - creative writing and education - but one major was to obtain my bachelor's degree and the other my master's. The creative writing degree was the traditional four-year route, while the master's was an accelerated five-year program. At the end of my senior writing project class after the final meeting, the professor asked me to stay a few extra minutes because he wanted to talk.
He asked me, sincerely, if I had considered attending graduate school for creative writing, and until that moment, I honestly hadn't. I still had a year to go to finish my education degree for which my scholarship wouldn't carry over. I had to figure out how I would pay for that, [*ehem, loans*] let alone another two-year program.
"Well, you're really good, and I wouldn't want to see you waste that talent."
And then I was hooked. Right after submitting my master's thesis to the education department, I started online "shopping" for low-residency MFA programs. I found one that fit me best and applied, and have never regretted a minute of the education I've received. The only thing I have regretted, however, is the financial planning I did - or didn't do - before committing to schools with hefty price tags.
The fact remains that continuing education is expensive no matter where you go, so I've come to terms with that. What I haven't reconciled is if I want to do this again, to do more of it. Through Facebook ads and addictive Googling, I've come across more master's programs in other subjects that pique my interest. Furthermore, the prospect of being able to introduce myself in social circles as "Dr." is quite appealing.
I haven't finished my MFA program yet, but between writing and revising new pages to submit, I open new tabs on my computer and build imaginary schedules at schools across the nation. As I do this, I hear my mother saying "Holly, you will already have two master's degrees when you're done with this. Do you really need to keep going to school?"
The simple answer to this is no. I don't actually need more school to do what I want in life. The benefit of the MFA is that it is a terminal degree in my field, so I will be able to apply for adjunct professorships and teach at the university level. Most of my professors in my undergraduate studies didn't have doctoral degrees. Wouldn't it make more sense to forego the formal education to work on my craft? Wouldn't it be more practical to spend my time working on expanding my publication list than analyzing the hallmarks of comparative literature?
I've rationalized it this way: I will probably go back to school at some point. I just can't help myself. However, I refuse to take out any more student loans. Luckily, I work for a school that is willing to provide tuition reimbursement for up to six credits per year should I go down that route. There are also some local universities here in New Jersey that offer tuition discounts for educators (that's me!) So while I don't need a PhD, I still might get one. Someday.
For now, I will just live vicariously through the rigorous course load I've taken on in my imagination.