Bellyaching

I’m a champion complainer now. A gold medal bitcher. It surprises me, too.

My work had arranged for me to travel to California’s Napa Valley to attend a conference. When I first heard about it, I was thrilled.

But then complaints surfaced. I wanted to take a friend, but couldn’t figure out how to make it work, financially, not with their money, or mine. I wanted to go into San Francisco, a city I had only visited briefly, and go to an amazing tiki bar and the Walt Disney family museum, the art museum. Complications: transit, to and from the city, for a person who avoids driving when out of town, whenever possible.

Complications: shortly before my trip, my sisters both got covid, and though I was vaccinated, I was six months past my booster, and I was struck by how covid was very unpleasant for them. No one was going to the hospital or anything, but they were significantly ill.

A week before my trip, I was so off balance, I was still vacillating about whether I would go. Covid gives us this get-out-of-jail-free card as far as backing out of things.

Your reacquaintance with covid is like having a dream you are back in school. You’re like, whoa, wait, I already graduated from high school, I thought? High school is a disease you’ve learned to not to trust, to always be wary of. You think you’ve matured past its insecurities.

Maybe it’s exactly like high school.

Summer 2022, my heart chokes on unpleasant emotions and thoughts. I can bring up the Police Search My Classroom for Drugs. Or Well, You Know Trump Did Win. Or The Pastor Who Didn’t Wear A Mask. Or The Kid Stabbed To Death in the School Bathroom. Or Visiting The Suicidal Friend in the Hospital. Or Jesus They’re In The Capitol. There’s a beat I can subconsciously tune in to, an ear worm that regulates my steps, my breath. A steady, righteous anger.

It’s so righteous. It’s embarassing.

Days before the trip, I am covid isolating, watching an entire season of “Game of Thrones,” reorganizing a closet, sweeping up cat hair at a pace that actually kept up with the cat hair. Taking my sedative medication again.

After Roe comes down, I plan to wail alongside friends and drink as much as I want to and throw myself on the mercy of everything.

It is so windy, a sun umbrella is thrown into the air and crashes back down. Menus slap people in the face. Someone is brought a cocktail so tiny it should have been called a petri dish.

I’m in shock. Someone else is in the resignation stage. Someone else wants distraction. Someone else is joking about it. Someone else wants to talk local politics, what we can do.

Then I go home and sit with my confusion. Wear my fear like a ratty old sweatshirt.

I, who have gotten on airplanes to the Middle East, to Paris, alone, I who have taken every work trip I was offered, was talking myself out of going to Napa. Our flights will get delayed. Or canceled. I’ll have to wear a mask the whole time. They won’t sort out the car rental issues. I’ll be annoyed by my coworkers. I’ve never met them, but what if they are awful? I’ll be sad because I couldn’t get a friend to enjoy the getaway with me. I’ll get covid and be stuck in Cali, alone. An earthquake will kill us all.

My friend had recently been to a funeral, and she said, well, my dead friend always felt like, if you can go, go.

This was powerful because she was making no effort to shame me or manipulate me. She was just correct. I was like that dead guy. When I could go, I went.

I got to packing.

I remembered that public school teachers are very kind, accommodating people. They were looking out for me. We were staying together. As someone who has traveled alone a lot, I feel the luxury of not repeatedly checking gate numbers and times.

I was thrilled to give someone an ibuprofen when they didn’t have one.

I appreciated that the morning I accidentally slept in, no one brought it up again after I apologized.

They were cheerful drinkers and eaters. They were aware of others in a way I think other people aren’t. We had made ourselves people who are aware if everyone is okay. And people who were ready to adjust if someone was not okay.

Another thing that was helpful to notice was other people being triggered, and noticing myself going off, too. I asked a fellow teacher something innocent like, “Why don’t we have alligators at our school?” and a fellow teacher responded with panicky defensiveness. I know, everyone thinks we should have alligators, but I do not have time to write a grant for alligators, build a tank, hold an opening ceremony for them, organize students to clean the tank and raise chickens to feed them and feed them the chickens.

I’m sorry, I said, I didn’t mean that YOU should raise alligators in the school cafeteria, just that someone could. I watched her rant, feeling bad that I had tripped the wire. I was sorry.

Then when she was done, I was able to notice that I was triggered, too. Why was everyone so careless? Why could people not shut up about things? Just say you don’t like alligators. Who the fuck cares. Oh.

Teachers together, right now, are each carrying so much fear and grief that it can easily spill out. We are strong, holding a cheerful face as our insides roil, but the recent past has worn down that strength.

Without any effort or frustration on my part, I was driven into San Francisco for a quick tour and a dinner. I met the Bay Bridge and appreciated its resemblance to the Manhattan Bridge. They both sit near spectacular, world-famous bridges, doing the same work, and being basically ignored.

I looked at Alcatraz, remembering my childhood visit there, and decided I would like to go back, though this time I might not volunteer to be briefly locked in a cell. (My first memory of claustrophobia.)

I stood near the bay and had my hair blown crazy in the cold wind of July. I scrutinized the architecture, doors that open straight from the street, signs that said, “Seismic Protection In Progress.” I learned that there are many abandoned ships buried in the San Francisco soil. They were referred to, in our tour, as a “ghost fleet.”

I spread good butter on the best sourdough and had one of many glasses of Napa cabernet sauvignon.

Right, this was who I am, interested in everything, delighted by a little girl who had pulled her Elsa hat completely over her face and the sight of the only mansion to survive the earthquake, its brownstone walls still firm.

One of our flights was delayed. I missed seeing the best January 6th hearing live. The last afternoon, they took our coffee away long before the workshop ended. We left the wine tasting before I’d tasted them all.

But it was nothing to bitch about.

Aside: I was delighted to learn that Napa’s wine became prestigious in the year of my birth, 1976, and even more so that it is referred to as the Judgment of Paris. This story has everything I love: wine, snobbery, French people, and striving Americans. For the first time, French wine judges rated California cabernet sauvignon higher than Bordeaux in a blind taste test.


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