When my children were little, I told them if they ever found themselves afraid or embarrassed to do something, they should pretend they’re not, and do the thing anyway. A shy, neurotic, chicken-shit at heart, yet burdened with an attitude and something to prove, that was what I’d always had to do. My thinking was simple: Why would I want to be stuck in the pit of hell for the duration of my time on Earth, when I could suck it up and take an amusing look at myself instead? I mean, what was the worst that could happen?
I also taught them to be brave enough to talk about their feelings. And even more important, courageous enough to argue and fuss with themselves—and anyone else for that matter—until issues were resolved, because how else could intimacy and evolution occur? I’d been brought up the opposite way, which was why I never knew what I was thinking and feeling until things got outwardly weird. And then I had to backtrack through my mind, sometimes for hours or days, until I figured out what was eating at me. And what a waste of time that was.
I’d like to tell you a story about my family, and our efforts to make things right for everyday folks living in the heart of America. It’s a tale that shines a light on the elephant in the room, taking a stand when a stand needs taking. But before I could get to that work, something else needed my attention. Because just like in an airplane, where passengers are told to put their own oxygen masks on first, I had to make things right for myself first.
And so the series begins, on the eve of leaving for Europe, while sitting on a park bench outside a carwash, Funk and I decided he’d run for Mayor of Kansas City. Leave it to us to set the bar higher just before heading out of town. We were already juggling a million projects, and surely didn’t need to add more to our load. Yet innocents that we were, we had no idea how much our lives had changed that day.
In reading our story, my hope is that you’ll find comfort, encouragement, and humor in the telling—enough to make your own wade through the muck easier. And if you should happen to recognize yourself within these pages, my most fervent wish is that you’ll be reassured knowing that you are not alone.
Kansas City, Missouri
21 May 2006
Dreams that you have while sleeping just happen to you. But dreams that begin as a stirring in your soul are meant for action, even if the actualization seems out of reach, or worse, within reach, but too crippling to anticipate taking the first step.
From the moment I’d made our trip to Europe a reality, I had been absolutely terrified of taking it. I was aware enough to understand that if I was willing to force myself to overcome my fear, then I must be in an unusually powerful place in my life. Grabbing hold of that insight, I’d thought to extend the opportunity by enhancing my life in other ways, such as growing up and facing the world with more strength and grace.
The night before I left for Europe, after Funk and I had decided he’d run for mayor, I scattered a thick layer of rose petals inside the fire ring that my son Andrew had built for me in the center of our back yard. After I stepped in, my arms reached up of their own accord, and I stood under the stars and prayed for peace, and safety, and growth during our trip. It felt weird to be praying out in the open, especially when I was sure that our neighbors could see, even though it was dark. But something had called me outside, and listen I did. Halfway through, my body shook like crazy, as my Italian superstitions had kicked in.
Of all the lessons I’d taken away from my upbringing, the most uselessly potent one, still stuck in my genes, was that I was never supposed to “tempt fate” by praying for myself. But since I was doomed either way I went—making the journey in a fetal position or tempting fate by praying for equanimity, I decided to pray for peace and suffer the consequences.
THE FUNKS GO TO EUROPE
Kansas City, Missouri
22 May 2006
It all started when I was born. And everything leading up to this point was just the culmination of the previous forty-seven years that I’d had on Earth. And let me tell you, it wasn’t easy living inside of me. Leaving home for a nine-week European extravaganza was almost more than my soul could bear. Everything in me screamed that I should turn around and go back, but as had always been the case, something bigger was pushing me forward.
But my body was rebelling—pulling out all the stops to keep me from going. By the time I boarded the train, I looked like a refugee from an insane asylum. My tongue was red, swollen, and cracked, and my back was spasming in new and different ways. I was getting a canker sore on my lip, even though I’d never had one before. Making things scarier, I was fighting off a cold. Of course, all these ailments were intensifying my normally anxious state ten-fold. Yet miserably, there was no turning back. However, being trapped on the train for the next thirty-five hours did give me plenty of time to berate myself for spending the previous eighteen months planning this God-forsaken trip.
I stared out the rectangular window and tried recalling what the hell I’d been excited about. I’d read one travel journal after the other, envisioning the day when I would get to live among the locals and become one of them. I, too, wanted a house in Tuscany to renovate! Yet here I was—at the day I’d been excited about, and I was so afraid of leaving home, that I couldn’t give two shits about those past daydreams anymore. Honestly, who cared if I got to live in someone else’s house for a summer? I liked my house. I wanted to keep living in my house. That was the reason I bought it, wasn’t it?
To get myself under control, I tried summoning up all the joyful things that initially fueled the trip. Oh yeah—I would be with foreigners, and I loved foreigners. But now I could see how ridiculous that idea was, as there were plenty of foreigners in New York City, and I loved New York City, and New York City happened to be on my continent, and if I was simply going to New York City, I could easily get back home within twenty-four hours if I really needed to, and the food was good there, and I still had relatives and friends who lived there, so…
Why the fuck didn’t I just plan to go to New York City for nine weeks? Or to the mountains? I loved the mountains. What was I thinking? I could be on my way to the mountains, and for a hell of a lot less money. And if I were on my way to a rejuvenating nine-week stay in the countryside, I probably wouldn’t be in this agony right about now. Christ. Perhaps everyone was right. Maybe there really was something wrong with me.
New York City
23 May 2006
We arrived at Penn Station just before noon. Since I couldn’t carry anything with my back doing acrobatics, I was told to wait outside by the taxi stand while the rest of the people I’m related to went to fetch our luggage. Sixteen pieces, to be exact. But not all of that was luggage. There were seven suitcases and an assortment of backpacks, briefcases, purses, and my pillow.
My husband, whom I call Funk, the-hick-from-West-Vagina, or My Big Mistake, shouted at me to stay put near the perimeter of the taxi area, and then left me standing in a gale-force wind that was blowing at just the right speed and temperature to elicit a warning signal in me. Leaning into the air, I ruminated on all the things that could go wrong if I continued standing there.
Since I was well-versed in Oriental medicine, I knew that if I subjected myself to this weather for long, my chi would start leaking out of me and onto the streets of New York. And if my chi got depleted, I would definitely catch that cold. And given that I was quite familiar with every terrified nuance of myself, I knew that if I came down with a cold, all bets would be off, and I really would lose what was left of my sanity.
But mercifully, I noticed I wasn’t going down. In an unexpected twist, my mind went the other way. Instead of becoming a sniveling mass on the ground, I found myself getting pissed from being fated with whatever Italian gene it was that predisposed one to self-terrorizing thoughts. And before long, the fear in me was replaced with anger, and that made room for the New Yorker in me to rise up strong. With newfound confidence, I defied my husband’s order to wait until the luggage was gathered into a neat little pile and hustled over to the taxi stand to claim my spot in the long-ass line.
Fifteen minutes later, Funk emerged with the kids and luggage. I saw him staring at the place where he’d left me with a puzzled look on his face. When he finally located me, I noticed a fleeting look of disgust on his face. Dragging the luggage and the kids, he came to where I stood. I looked up at him brightly and said, “Funk, aren’t you glad I didn’t listen to you?”
He didn’t answer, just stared down at me from his six-foot-eight frame. Not letting the silence scare me, I informed him that if I had listened, we’d be waiting another forty-five minutes for a cab.
As luck would have it, it was soon our turn, and a van was next in the queue. It was the first large vehicle to show up since I’d gotten into the line. I took it as a sign. It was only because of my decision that we weren’t paying for two cabs to carry us to our hotel.
24 May 2006
I woke up in my room at the Sherry Netherland to the cheers of people on the street. When I realized it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon, I climbed out of bed to see what was up.
Standing naked behind the curtain, I pulled it back just enough to take a peek outside. The Early Show was taping on the street below us, right in front of the glass, underground Apple store. Man, I loved New York—there was always something going on here.
I let the curtain fall back into place, and as quietly as I could, I made myself a cup of coffee. Halfway through, I noticed I was jittery, but it was a kind of jittery that I hadn’t experienced for a long time. Trying to identify the sensation, I realized that it might be excitement. I couldn’t believe it. I expected to be crazed with fright right about now, but instead I think I was actually looking forward to the trip again. Holy shit. It must have been all the prayers and promises I made this morning while my family snored in their beds all around me.
Emboldened by the discovery, I decided to apply the seasick patch that Dr. Mizutani, my Oriental medicine doctor, had insisted I purchase.
I could hear her words playing in my head. “Gladia, you don’t want miss one moment on ship sick in room. It unhappy away home sick. Only happy at home sick. Don’t be sick. Everyone on ship wear patch. It veewy veewy mild. It no damage you. Stop worry. You be fine. I don’t see anyone sick that wear patch. Don’t waste one minute on sick.”
Respectfully, I asked her, “Do you wear a patch when you travel, Reiko?”
“No!” she scoffed. “I don’t need. You need. Don’t waste one minute, enjoy every second. Wear patch.”
So, despite being allergic to most of what Western medicine offered in the way of drugs, I placed the patch behind my ear ... and then tried hard not to glance at the bright yellow warning stickers plastered all over the box. The ones that stated, CAUTION: May cause drowsiness and blurred vision.
For years, I had been fighting off adding hypochondriac to my arsenal of neuroses. And unwilling to give in to it now, I tried convincing myself that my body was strong and that I shouldn’t let a warning meant for those weak in character to take me down that nasty path. To help myself, I woke everyone up and let the confusion of the group carry me away.
Shortly after, the front desk rang our room to tell us that our taxi had arrived … forty-five minutes ahead of schedule. Rushing to gather our belongings, I decided not to be angry, as the chaos was exactly what I needed to take my mind off the patch that was currently burning a hole behind my ear. Just before walking out the door, I rummaged through my pharmacy bag that contained dozens of little blue tubes of homeopathic remedies and glass bottles of Bach Flower tinctures. I was searching for the Apis to counteract the side effects of the patch. With three little pills melting under my tongue, I made my way down the back steps of the hotel and onto the street.
Our driver of the day was a 42-year-old Italian mama’s boy from Queens. He stood just a few inches taller than me and had the dark curly hair that stamped him true—and the querulous male disposition to match. Frumpy and round, he was arrogant in that there’s-nothing-for-you-to-be-arrogant-about sort of way, pretending to be oh-so-busy as we struggled to get our luggage into his trunk. But he was a New Yorker through and through. And did I mention that I loved New Yorkers?
As it turned out, this macho little pansy-ass entertained us the whole way to the pier just by being him. Within minutes of entering his cab, he must have decided that he liked us, and to show his affection, he went into tour-guide mode. He was really getting into it, too, excitedly describing each of the well-known landmarks he whizzed past, as if it were our very first time in the city.
Acting all official he said, “If you look to your left you can see the Statue of Liberty in the distance.”
Thank God she was in the distance, as up close, she would have been all but a green blur at the speed he was going. But trying to be polite, I said, “Mmhmm, she’s very beautiful. And quite green, too.”
Encouraged by my awe, he continued, “And over there you can see where the Twin Towers used to be.”
Why he had to bring that up when he knew we were trying to be on vacation was beyond me, but he did, and that was precise moment he started getting on my nerves. He didn’t notice my change in attitude, but that was probably my fault, as I hadn’t put a stop to things by telling him to fuck off. He must have taken the omission as a sign of confirmation, as he became even more maniacal in his tour-guide role.
At one point, as we were hurtling across the Brooklyn Bridge, the little shit was practically sitting sideways, carrying forth as if we were just kicking back at a party in the middle of his living room, and halfway into directing our attention to the unmistakable mass of the Queen Mary 2, he almost drove us off the motherfucking bridge. In the end, I couldn’t fault him too much, as he was only trying to get my worst fear over with already. But as the mama’s boy had just informed us, he wasn’t ready to die yet, so I guess I wasn’t either.