my new streetSo I’m here now. I’m in St. Louis.

I’ve been here for a month and a half, I think. I’m probably supposed to have updated my license plates and drivers’ license and stuff by now, but I haven’t yet. I’m tired.

Even if you’re familiar with it as a place to visit, living in a new city is exhausting. You have to constantly remind yourself that you live there now. The other day my aunt asked me if I had my DSLR camera with me so she could get some pictures of the family. “I don’t have it with me,” I said, forgetting that I did have it with me, just a few blocks away in my new apartment.

My dad keeps asking me when I’m leaving town. “I live here now, Dad,” I say, and he smiles and shakes his head as if to say, right, I should remember that by now. Me too, Dad.

The grocery stores are different. I got used to good tortillas and good tortilla chips and my favorite brands and the Austin plastic bag ban. Everyone in line in front of me and behind me in St. Louis has their items put into what looks like a thousand separate plastic bags. When I give my fabric bags to the grocery bagger, he gives me a strange look like, “what are these?”


The radio talks about NASCAR. The guys on Tinder (I’m not ready to date, but I looked) are all pictured holding dead fish or automatic weapons. I can’t do the thing I did in Austin where I talk to new people and can safely assume they’re as politically liberal as I am.

This part is good, in theory. In Austin I got tired of the homogeneity. If you stayed out of the far-flung suburbs in Austin, you would pretty much see the same types of people everywhere you went. In St. Louis it’s different. I went to the zoo last weekend with my dad and sister and nephew (the latter two were here visiting us), and the mix of people there reminded me of Houston a little bit. I hadn’t realized how much I missed that.

I keep thinking about jobs I had in the Houston area in my teens and twenties—waitress, grocery cashier, that sort of thing. The people in those jobs were all very diverse—politically, ethnically, age- and politics- and education-wise. I’d always liked that feeling of being part of a weird crew of people from various backgrounds who respected and loved each other despite their differences. Maybe I’ll find that here. It’s less unlikely than it was in Austin anyway, with my remote job and the city’s lack of diversity.

(I don’t mean I want to have diverse friends as tokens or anything; I just mean that knowing more people who aren’t like me is good for my perspective. And my snobbery.)

But it won’t happen right away, because like I said, I’m tired. The last few months in Austin, packing, feeling displaced, not having a real home, and saying goodbye to my friends and family and habits and things I was used to, really took it out of me. Since I’ve been here, I exercise in the mornings, work during the day, and then in the evenings I lie in bed with my dog and my knitting and whatever I’m watching on Netflix, and then I fall asleep. It’s about all I can muster.

When I do meet new people I ask them about the local laws and customs. Is it okay that my new landlord didn’t have me fill out a form with what’s wrong with my apartment before I moved in so I don’t get charged for those things when I move out? That’s what they do in Texas. Can you really drink in the park here without getting a ticket? Does everyone refer to Anheuser-Busch as AB or do some people call it InBev? I hadn’t realized how many strange assumptions I had until I moved away from Texas for the first time in my life.

My new aerial studio is different, too. I took a private lesson with a trapeze instructor so he could see what level class I should take, and every skill I know has a different name here. He asked me if I knew how to do 4 and I said, 4 of what? It turns out “4” here is called “candlestick” at home, and I knew how to do it, but I still felt awkward. I took nearly all my classes in Austin with the same instructor, and having someone different feels wrong. My new trapeze classes start on Tuesday, and I’m already nervous.

(I’m the most nervous because I’ve never had a male instructor before. I won’t be able to make jokes about how hard a straddle is for me due to my giant boobs! If I cry in front of a male instructor it’ll be awkward and I won’t want to explain it! What if I develop a huge dumb crush on the poor guy, as is my tendency these days? Then I won’t want to sweat or look gross in front of him, and it’s hard to learn trapeze properly without sweating or looking gross.)

The major reason I moved here, to help my parents, is going fine so far. I live a block and a half from them, and it’s great to be able to walk over there on a whim to help my mother change a light bulb or fix the printer, or hang out with my dad while she runs an errand, or help them make dinner.

It rains differently here. There’s no lightning or thunder or hail or high winds like in Texas. I walk outside and find that it’s been raining softly for hours without my even noticing.

you wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death

I am trying to quit smoking again.

I’ve been a smoker off and on (mostly on) since I was 17. One summer evening when we were really bored, my best friend S taught me to smoke. And by “taught me to smoke,” I mean she literally instructed me. She bought us a pack of cigarettes (she was a grade ahead of me so she’d already turned 18), and we parked on a dead-end street in her neighborhood and sat on the hood of her mom’s car while she handed me cigarette after cigarette. She lit the first one for me and told me to just hold it to see how it felt. She lit the second one and told me to allow a little smoke to get in my mouth, but not inhale it. She lit the third one and told me to inhale the smallest amount of smoke I possibly could. We went on from there and by the end, S had taught me how to smoke, and I never even coughed once.

The last time I saw S, 8 years ago, she told me how bad she felt for having taught me to smoke, but I’ve never held her responsible. I did it willingly. Hell, I probably asked her to teach me. That summer, S had a job at a water park in Houston, and she’d made a lot of new friends. I was jealous of the time she spent with them, they really intimidated me, and I was already so insecure that I was desperate for anything that might make me seem like I fit in. S would take me to these parties where everyone was drunk or high, and I’d stand there smoking my cigarette, watching one of S’s friends hold another girl’s hair back as she threw up into the swimming pool.

I started out just smoking at these parties or when I was with S, but then I made some other friends who smoked, and we smoked whenever we hung out in the evenings or on weekends. My senior year of high school I fell in with the theater crowd, and again I’d chain-smoke at parties while my acquaintances got drunk or did drugs or whatever. Cigarettes were my way of feeling like I was “cool” at parties without having to drink or whatever else. Drunk or high people from my high school didn’t usually let people walk around vice-free without comment, either, so smoking was my way of keeping them from pressuring me.

One of many photos of me where I'm clearly smoking but I've photoshopped the cigarette out.

One of many photos of me where I’m clearly smoking but I’ve photoshopped the cigarette out. (RIP green glasses)

I spent my freshman year at UT living in a dorm where you could smoke in your room (I KNOW, I’M SO OLD), and my friends across the hall both smoked, so cigarettes turned from a party habit into an everyday habit. After the smoking dorms at UT there was waiting tables, where everyone smoked, and then there was being an English major and hanging out with a bunch of writers who smoked, and my identity as a smoker was cemented.

I’ve always attributed a sort of romance to smoking. I did confine my smoking time to parties at first, but the majority of my smoking time in high school was spent with friends in little poorly-lit corners of parks in our neighborhood at night. We’d stop at the Circle K for cigarettes and sodas, and sit in the park for hours, smoking and talking about boys or our friends or what we thought college would be like. There was a newer subdivision next to mine that had a few little man-made lakes in it, and one of those lakes had a dock with a gazebo at the end of it. My two closest friends and I would spend hours in that gazebo, talking and laughing, singing whatever new radio hit we were obsessed with, and smoking.

Then there’s standing outside in the snow at night sharing a cigarette with your boyfriend. There’s you and a friend driving down the highway, smoking, singing an angry Ani DiFranco song at the top of your lungs. There’s going camping with friends and two of you waking up earlier than everyone else, sitting by the river as the sun comes up, each of you with your first cigarette of the day. There’s lighting a cigarette in your apartment building’s hallway and then running outside to stand in the wind as a cold front comes in and leaves whip around you.

There’s sitting on your patio with a glass of wine and a cigarette and your laptop, writing.

This is the first personal thing I’ve written in years without a half-full ashtray next to me. It’s weird and I don’t like it. I haven’t had a cigarette since 1:00 yesterday afternoon.

I’ve quit smoking once before. Throughout most of my twenties, I told myself that I would stop smoking when I turned thirty. In March 2008, two months before my 30th birthday, I came down with a terrible flu-like illness that left me weak and lifeless and uninterested in smoking. A week later, once I was well again, I decided to continue not smoking. Since I’d already gotten over the nicotine withdrawals, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to just go ahead and quit, right?

It was difficult, but not terrible. I kept half a pack of cigarettes in my glove compartment just in case, and somehow knowing they were there calmed me, made it easier not to smoke. I started listening to NPR on my commute instead of music, just to change up my routine. When I went out to bars I brought knitting with me to keep my hands busy. Things were okay.

I’d stopped smoking for three months when I went through the breakup of a bad relationship I’d had no business being in in the first place. The stress and general horribleness of the whole thing broke me, and I thought, fuck it, why bother with this quitting? I bought a pack of cigarettes on my way to a friend’s wedding in Fort Worth, and I’ve been smoking ever since.

Until yesterday.

I don’t think I really smoked that much. Maybe half a pack on a normal day? More when I went out or was stressed or traveling or it was nice out or I was doing yardwork or woodworking projects?

I liked smoking.

But I started to feel dirty inside. And I don’t mean literally, though I wouldn’t want to look at any pictures of my lungs at this point. I mean figuratively dirty, like there was something wrong with me. As I get older, fewer and fewer of my friends are smokers—they quit for health reasons or because they’re going to be parents or because dude, they’re not in fucking college anymore—and sneaking off to have a cigarette by myself lacked the aforementioned romance. When I met new people I tried not to tell them I smoked unless I had to, for fear of being judged.

And trapeze. When I do trapeze routines, I get tired and winded before everyone else. When I go to strength training class in the mornings, I have to take more breaks than anyone else. Sometimes my instructor sniffs the air near me and says, “Did you SMOKE TODAY?” Which is annoying, but also kind of adorable (I’m a smoker! Why wouldn’t I have smoked today?). Anyway, if I want to be able to do actual trapeze performance routines, I can’t also be a smoker.

Everything I hear about quitting smoking says that your life should be otherwise stable when you quit, so that quitting is the only stressful thing going on in your life. That obviously isn’t true for me right now, as I’ve got a breakup and a move to another state and my dad’s health problems to contend with.

But first of all, I got the quitting feeling (you former smokers will know about the quitting feeling), and it’s always easier to quit when I have the quitting feeling, so I’m going to do what the feeling says. Second of all, why the hell not add one more change to my already evolving life? If I can move to St. Louis and start my life there without smoking as part of my identity, more’s the better.

But holy hell is that 14-hour drive to StL going to be boring without any cigarettes.

dad part 1

Growing up, my father was the calm, organized center of our family. My mother had health problems and a demanding job, so working and caring for herself and spending time with us was all she could manage. Cooking, cleaning, bill paying, and administrative tasks fell to my father, who handled them with such ease and timeliness that even as an adult I sometimes don’t understand why my new car registration sticker doesn’t just show up on my windshield one day, or why it has to be my job to know what time my flight is.

When it came to traveling, my father was a machine. He booked our flights and hotels and car and loosely planned our sightseeing activities in advance. On travel mornings, he would wake my sister, mother and me up at the appropriate times, load the car, drive us all to the airport, check us in, find our gate, and handle our boarding passes all by himself. My mother and sister were grumpy and sluggish in the mornings, so they would trail behind my father and me as we walked through the airport to our gate. I always took it as a point of pride to walk up ahead with my father. The two of us were awake, we were organized, we were ready. No bleary-eyed stumbles down the concourse for us.


My father has Parkinson’s disease. I never thought of his Parkinson’s symptoms as being all that severe, but they’ve worsened over the past few years. He stumbles when he walks, he drops things, he can’t drive a car that isn’t his because his feet can’t tell the gas from the brake, he is taking naps for the first time in his life. These symptoms would be manageable, but there is also the forgetfulness, the lost sense of direction. Sometimes he forgets what he’s saying in the middle of a sentence, or can’t remember a specific word he wants to use. My aunt told me that once, when they were gardening at her house, he briefly forgot where he was.

He’s had Parkinson’s for 10 years, and 10 years is the point at which a Parkinson’s sufferer can have a deep brain stimulator implanted in their skull to relieve their symptoms. As far as my understanding goes, Parkinson’s is hard to diagnose, and the deep brain stimulator is a very bad idea if it turns out the person has been misdiagnosed, so neurosurgeons like to be sure they’re dealing with Parkinson’s before they go through with the DBS implant.

DBS implantThe DBS apparatus consists of a power supply, the nodes that do the actual stimulation, and a few cords that connect the nodes to the power supply. The power supply is about the size of a tobacco can and is implanted in the chest like a pacemaker, the nodes are implanted in the brain, and the cords are run from the nodes to the power supply through the neck. These parts are implanted in a series of three surgeries, and after healing time, a neurologist calibrates the unit and it’s supposed to relieve symptoms.

My family has known this was coming for awhile. My dad made jokes about it, mostly “I need it like I need a hole in the head.” For a long time I saw it as a sort of abstract concept that may or may not be necessary, but as his symptoms worsened, I began to look forward to it, and I think my dad did too. His neurosurgeon scheduled it, and it happened in July of this year.

My parents live in St. Louis and my sister and I live in Austin, so we heard about the first two surgeries over the phone. The first one went fine, he recovered nicely, and the second one went fine until he woke up confused and disoriented. The neurosurgeon said that this was normal, that he’d just had brain surgery after all, and that things would get better quickly. My father stayed in the hospital for a few days and then he and my mother went home.

They shouldn’t have gone home. Dad wasn’t any less clumsy than he was before the surgery, but now he’d had brain surgery, so if he fell and hit his head at home it’d be a very bad thing indeed. And he did fall, but thankfully he landed on his knees and elbows and not his head. Worse, though, he remained confused and disoriented to the point where one evening he became convinced that he wasn’t in his own house. He’s quite a bit taller and stronger than my mother, so my aunt and a visiting cousin had to come over and prevent him from walking out the front door into the night.

I got a text from my aunt: “One of you should come to St. Louis.” My sister needed to stay home with her six-month-old baby, so I caught a flight to St. Louis and arrived on the day of my dad’s third surgery.


 My aunt picks me up from the airport and drives me straight to the hospital, where I take the elevator up to the neurology floor and find my father’s room. He is tired and out of it, but happy to see me.

In all the confusion, my aunt and mother have forgotten to warn me about the surgery scars. My father has a huge scar across the top of his head and another one down the side. The one down the side is new; it’s held shut with large staples. They’ve shaved his white hair around the scars, leaving a lone wispy tuft at the top of his forehead, which makes him look strange. I’ve never seen a brain surgery scar before, and seeing one on my father as he lay in a hospital bed is almost more than I can take.

More than I can take will come later. My mother has been taking care of my dad around the clock for the past week, and she needs a break. I offer to spend the night in the hospital room with my dad so she can go home and get some rest.


My dad grew up on a farm in northwest Ohio. Gender roles being what they were in the fifties and sixties, his two older sisters helped my grandmother with housework, and he helped Grandpa with farm chores. They would get up very early each morning to milk the cows and do other things I don’t know about because my father can no longer type and has stopped writing his memoir. It sits in text files on his computer, which he took apart the other day while my mother was asleep because he thought something was wrong with it, and now he can’t put it back together.

My father is the one who taught me how to build and use computers.

Farm living was hard work, and eventually my father’s family sold the farm and moved into a nearby town, where my grandfather worked for the city water department. The farm work ethic followed my dad into adulthood, and I have never seen him wake up later than 6 a.m.


My mother gathers her things and goes home. My aunt and cousin arrive and the three of us talk for awhile. My dad doesn’t say much until my aunt is telling a story about the time she and my father were children and they were both in the hospital having their tonsils taken out. She’s saying that my grandparents were really worried about the tonsil surgery, because another child they knew had died during a tonsillectomy. “We were friends with the family,” my aunt says, “but I can’t remember their name.”

“Stevens,” my dad mutters from his hospital bed. “It was John Stevens.”

My aunt and cousin and I exchange surprised glances. “I can’t believe you remember that!” my aunt says. “You couldn’t have been older than 5.”

I don’t want my aunt and cousin to leave, but of course they have to, and then it’s just me and my dad. The other hospital bed in the room is empty, and I settle in with my e-reader, anticipating that my dad will go to sleep soon.

He doesn’t. They’ve given him all his pills and a sedative and some water and helped him go to the bathroom and tucked him in, but he doesn’t go to sleep. Or maybe he does sleep a little, but after 20 minutes or so I hear him sitting up in his bed. I get up and go over to him and he says, “Well, let’s go if you want to leave.”

“Dad, we’re not leaving,” I say, and he glares at me from underneath his imposing eyebrows and sighs. The nurse and an orderly come in and put an alarm on his bed, which will sound whenever he gets up so that they’ll know to come in and help him, and maybe he’ll realize he’s not supposed to get up.

The alarm does its thing, but it doesn’t deter him. He sits up anyway, or tries to stand, and says things like:

“It’s time to milk the cows.”

or “Let’s go if you’re ready.”

or “What time do you want me to get you up in the morning?”

This last one kills me, because when I was a kid he would say it to me every time we had to go somewhere early the next morning. “What time are we leaving?” I’d reply, and he’d tell me, and I’d tell him how long I’d need to get ready to go. The next morning, without fail, he’d knock on the door to my room at the exact time I requested. I’d hear his footsteps recede down the hallway, and then I’d hear him knock on my sister’s door.

Each time he sits up I put my hand on his shoulder so he doesn’t stand. He’s classified as a “fall risk,” and he’s not supposed to stand up and move around the room without an orderly or nurse present. “Dad, we’re in the hospital, and it’s not time to leave. I’m sorry.”

He glares at me again. “Why is everyone so sorry all of a sudden?”

The bed alarm is going off and an orderly and nurse come in. The orderly helps my father to the bathroom, and I ask the nurse if she’d mind watching him so I can have a break. She says okay, so I take the elevator downstairs and go outside, where I sit on a bench and sob.

My mother’s health problems throughout my childhood mean that I am used to taking care of her. In college I spent a night on a cot next to her hospital bed (though it pains me to admit that she asked me to do this in exchange for buying me a new pair of jeans, and I accepted), and I have brought her things she needed and helped her get up and move around as she recovered from multiple surgeries.

I have no such history with my father. He spent my entire childhood in near-perfect health, caring for my mother and sister and me tirelessly and without complaint. That I now have to help coax him back into a hospital bed he doesn’t think he belongs in is unbelievable to me.


My dad’s parents were very adamant about education; their goal was for their three children to have an easier financial adulthood than they did. After he finished college, my dad completed both a master’s and doctorate in chemistry in the span of five years. He and my mother married and moved to the Houston suburbs, where my dad worked for the same oil and gas company for thirty years, his entire adult career. My sister and I never wanted for anything important–we lived in a big lovely house and had our own car and studied abroad and never had to worry about debt or student loans. To say that my father had an easier financial adulthood than his parents did would be an understatement.

When my father was 55, the oil and gas company he worked for was sold to another company, and he was offered early retirement with full pension. He spent the first part of that retirement testifying as an expert witness against large, scary oil conglomerates similar to the one he’d worked for. At one point he gave my sister’s husband a jar full of mud, and assigned him the task of keeping it sealed until a specific date, on which he was to open it and see if it smelled bad. “It’s for a case!” Dad said. I don’t know what happened to the mud or if it smelled bad or not, but the case was eventually won.

In his spare time he did carpentry and genealogy, read books about science and the history of farming, sang and did sound mixing for a local adult chorus, collected old books and farm equipment, volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and helped cook breakfast at a soup kitchen. At my grandfather’s funeral he gave the eulogy, and when he got to the part about how my grandfather had passed to him his love of learning, I thought, “And how.”


When I go back upstairs to his room, the orderly is suggesting that my still-awake father might like to watch some TV, and I can’t help but laugh. My father’s hatred of television is notorious among our friends and family members; he enjoys PBS documentaries, Rachel Maddow, The Daily Show and TED talks, but as far as he’s concerned the rest of it can all disappear forever.

“He hates TV,” I say to the orderly, “but thank you, and thanks for keeping an eye on him. Dad, do you want me to read to you?” Dad says yes, so I flip through my e-reader to see what I have. On his recommendation I’d downloaded Angle of Repose by his favorite author Wallace Stegner, so we agree that I’ll read that, and I pull a recliner chair up next to his bed and sit down.

The book turns out to be narrated by an older man in a wheelchair who is suffering from a terminal disease, and the first part of the book has the narrator complaining that his children want to put him in a home. I can’t tell if Dad’s following the plot or not, but I skip ahead to the farm part just to be safe, and he doesn’t seem to notice. Eventually he falls asleep, so I stop reading, and then I fall asleep too until the bed alarm wakes me an hour later. He’s trying to get up again, trying to leave, and I say, “Dad, we have to stay here in the hospital. I’m sorry, hon.” I don’t realize how patronizing this sounds, but he does.

“Don’t give me that ‘hon’ crap,” he says.

“Okay,” I whisper. The orderly and I get him back into bed, and I sit back down in the recliner. I can’t remember where we left off in the book, so I just pick a random paragraph and start there. It’s 3 a.m.

We continue like this until 6:30 rolls around and it’s time to wake up anyway. I order us breakfast from the cafeteria, and we eat in silence with the TV in the background tuned to the Weather Channel, the only thing on that I think he could possibly stand. When he’s done eating he grins at me and jokes, “So, are we going to have this neurosurgeon disbarred or what?”

(to be continued)