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The puppy and I have the arms of the couch, with my wife and young son between us. Miles the tiny tortoise is asleep in his terrarium, the doors are locked, and the electric candles we bought for $9.88 a pop at At Home are on. (Stop. They’re less messy.) It’s time for Iron Chef. It’s always time for Iron Chef. It’s been time for Iron Chef — and Flea Market Flipand The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch and, a first, the college baseball World Series — since about 2016, and no one’s talking about it. No one’s tried to answer the questions raging beneath the surface of our daily lives. No one’s offered a corrective.

A commercial break along with my wife’s departure for the restroom allows me to doomscroll. For those of us of functioning gray matter and caring, unselfish heart, opening Twitter is kind of like asking to be kicked in the groin repeatedly. “Is the rare bit of good news worth suffering through the barrage of bad?” That’s what I always ask myself as I wind down that depressing highway despite the ban that my wife D. and I have instituted on doomscrolling during family time — we had to take action to A.) preserve our sanity and B.) to help us focus on the moment, to be in the Now. Laugh it up, but the thing about self-enforcement is that it requires the enforcer to possess an ounce of self-control. All of my self-control right now is going toward the ounces of alcohol that I’m not consuming. Heading into Day 3 now. Not a drop. And this, after a pretty serious stream of the stuff over the past few months. So, when is this totally not illegal edible going to kick in?

Photo by Anthony Mariani

My phone screen only reminds me that the state I live in with my mixed-race family (Black, white, and sort of a grayish sandpaper) is truly terrifying. A group of “educators” here now wants textbook authors to replace “slavery” or “the slave trade” with “involuntary relocation.” Conservatives are only doing this to keep their otherwise innocent children from feeling frowny face because their ancestors were racist, evil, profiteering trash. Part of being an autocrat involves changing the language of history and current events to suit the needs of the state, and along with banning books, Texas’ most recent attempt to bury its history — our history — beneath verbal legerdemain serves only one purpose: to divide us along racial lines, with the endgame being to erase everyone who is not white, straight, and Christian.

Cowtown-Rover_Rectangle4

I suplex my phone shut onto the end table behind my arm. The cooking-to-the-death show’s coming back on.

I still can’t stop stewing. What Texas is doing in vicious increments — gerrymandering, making voting more difficult for people of color, wanting to teach “both sides” of the Holocaust, and now book banning and “involuntary relocation” — mirrors the national conservative movement, and it won’t stop until the United States is whiter, straighter, and more Christian than a Toby Keith concert. And I still don’t know how Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and the rest of the do-nothing Dems are able to email me to donate to them (“URGENT!”) as often as they are when they clearly spend every minute of every day on this wondrous, dying planet napping or digging in their gardens or trying out new recipes or whatever.

Iron Chef is pissing me off, too. Now they’re just making up food. “You see here,” host Alton Brown says, “Sally is going to put a little bloopedyblap,” an orange crystal, “on her slaffertyfluff,” four blue discs, “to make a beautiful narninnynap.” This is bullshit. I’m battling with myself to keep my mouth shut. D. thinks I’ve been too “Pittsburgh” lately, her term for the kind of confrontational, exaggerated, rude behavior my hometown is known for. My reaction to her assessment is, “One dog goes one way, and the other goes the other, and I’m saying, ‘Whadda you want from me? The world’s about to end.’ ” I’m literally squeezing my lips together with my right hand to keep from going off. When’s this totally not illegal edible gonna kick in? I need to sneakily snag the other half of that totally not illegal cookie right quick …

*****

It had been just a day or so since we finished our Fourth of July festivities, which, unlike previous Fourths in Marianiland, involved watching fireworks. We were on the fourth and top floor of a hotel a mile from home because our AC went out (yep) and had an untrammeled view of downtown about 10 miles away. Sometimes we mistook the lights of cars traversing the serpentine overpasses twisting elegantly in the foreground for sky explosions, but maybe being able to stay up late enough to witness the display marked a changing point in our lives. Basically, this is an elevated way of saying we were all glad to get out of the house.

Since the beginning of the COVID Era, it’s been us three and Miles, and even the recent addition of Comet (a.k.a. Comety Gals, a.k.a. Comet-o-rama), an adorable, aggressively teething mini-Aussie who won’t stop biting our heels, has not been able to temper the bitterness coursing like lava through our collective consciousness, a cruel sensation fueled by modern living itself — and modern death. The World Health Organization recently reported that the pandemic has triggered a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide. Most of us Americans are worried about money, more money, “inflation” — which should actually read “corporate price gouging” — and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to a new poll from the American Psychological Association.

Among my otherwise lovely tribe, any little botheration can set us off. The other day at Target, the kid, A., requested some Pirate’s Booty, curiously, since he’s normally content with the baked Cheetos, salt-and-vinegar chips, and Cheeto Puffs squatting in crumpled piles in our pantry. Sure, wifey D. said. Here’s some Pirate’s Booty. And on the way home, we asked A. what he wanted for lunch. “Peanut butter and jelly, please.”

“You can have chips with it,” D. informed him gayly from the passenger seat. “We have baked Cheetos, salt and vinegar, or Cheeto Puffs,” the brand of chip that Pirate’s Booty is openly ripping off.

“Pirate Booty,” A. replied. “Please.”

Photo by Anthony Mariani

Silence. Really uncomfortable silence. There was no way D. could not have heard him. I swallowed my mouth to keep from opening it and thus toppling the massive Jenga structure that constitutes the innerworkings of the three of us these days, my eyes on the road and my hands upon the wheel.

“We have baked Cheetos, salt and vinegar, or Cheeto Puffs,” D. repeated.

“Can I have Pirate Booty, please?” A. requested again.

We were turning onto our driveway. I parked. D. silently exited the vehicle and went inside. A. silently exited the vehicle and went inside. I gingerly unloaded the groceries, fretting the prospect of yet another high-volume, multi-person, tear-filled Mariani Meltdown ®. As my wife has said, it’s like the pandemic has turned our family into a burn victim’s body — even something as tiny as a mosquito bite hurts 10 times worse. I toted every reusable bag as if it were a megaton bomb.

Everything seems harder these days. It took me nearly 10 tries and about 15 minutes to connect the soaker hose to our garden hose to water the side of our house where the sprinklers are broken (yep) and the foundation is separating (yep, yep), and even then, that MFer still leaked. “Be thankful you have running water,” I hear you say. “Be thankful you have a house.” Right, OK. I should be thankful that the mountainous debt that D. and I accrued by earning three college degrees between the two of us has left us one paycheck away from living on the streets. Yeah. Sure. Thanks. I guess.

Little pleasures have also turned sour. I wished a former employee a happy birthday the other day on Fakebook. No response. I wished a current coworker a happy birthday via text. Nothing. I’d heard a good friend who moved to Austin a few years ago beat cancer. I texted him a heartfelt message. He sent me a short, businesslike reply two days later. I just checked a text thread I’m on with my three best friends. I’d sent them five indisputably hilarious memes in a row. No response to any of them, not even a please-leave-me-alone thumbs-up. I’m walking 10,000 steps a day, doing 200 push-ups twice a week, doing lots of pull-ups, dips, and leg raises twice a week, and fasting 14 hours every night-into-day. Why? What’s the point? As my best buddy back home says (when he’s on speaking terms with me), “Last I heard, the cemetery takes skinny people, too.”

Post-Target, the fam achieved normalcy without any talks or tears and with a handful of Pirate’s Booty for the boy. There was no apology in any direction. The felt but not witnessed infractions were too amorphous to hit us fully. Felt. That’s all they were, just more examples of the eldritch funk we’re all trapped in and have no avenue of escaping anytime soon.

And, aside from packing up and moving to New Zealand, there is no end in sight. Our corrective-free domiciles may only be reflections of that funk, permeating the globe, infecting everyone and everything it touches. We Fort Worthians certainly can’t escape it. Our county district attorney plans on enforcing the new abortion ban, our sheriff’s department has turned our jail into a Bond villain’s experiment, and our Tarrant Regional Water District operates like a treehouse club.

The bad news coming out of Austin is arguably even worse. Along with the abortion ban, Gov. Greg Abbott and his sick, anti-Christian cronies in the state legislature have made voting even harder for people of color and have guaranteed us that more gun violence is in our future. Over the past 13 years, Texas has seen eight mass shootings, including most recently at an elementary school in Uvalde, and in that time, GOP lawmakers have loosened gun restrictions. Not tightened. Loosened. The real Upside Down is this state. And we’re living in it without any telekinetic teenager to save us.

Photo by Anthony Mariani

Being a resident of someplace that also boasts crappy schools, shoddy infrastructure, a super-low life expectancy, no public accommodation law to protect against discrimination, and an electricity grid that’s less reliable than my debit card wears a body down, no matter how many push-ups and dips it does or how many Michelob Ultras it does or doesn’t drink.

Trapped in a terrible state in a country that’s equally unbearable doesn’t help. Don’t blame the Democrats. They’re too busy perma-campaigning (“Remember to vote harder this year!”) to actually pass anything via Congress or executive order that would move the needle to the left or right for any longer than a minute. The real culprits are six robed, fork-tongued partisans now whining about their personal privacy at fancy D.C. steakhouses after recently demolishing personal privacy for every woman from sea to shining sea.

In response to allowing us to be minority-ruled by a corrupt, illegal, openly partisan Supreme Court, the people with the power to do something about it are so busy kissing up to undecided voters that we are going to wake up one day soon in 1952. In multiple polls, “swing” voters, who may not be completely illiterate but are probably really close to it, claim they will vote GOP in November to pay less at the pump and the grocery store, not even realizing that Republican lawmakers have absolutely zero plan for either. Correction: They have a plan, and that’s voting against putting an end to corporate price gouging. “Swing” voters are suckers — uninquisitive, selfish dupes, the kinds of people who wouldn’t dial 911 if their neighbor’s house was on fire (“Not my problem”) — and it seems that Republicans are the only ones who know this.

The Dems’ plan is what you would expect at this late stage of the collapse: sit back, dine on some Brazilian-Japanese Amazon lámen, listen to some All Things Considered, watch some Rachel, and criticize progressives. November is going to be even worse than we people with hearts and minds think it is.

That’s for those of us who haven’t had the air sucked from our bodies by a frightening virus at that point. Looking at R0 value, or essentially the rate of transmissibility, the original COVID was 3.3, meaning that every infected person infected 3.3. others. Millions still died. The new COVID subvariants have an R0 of 18.6, so its transmissibility has jumped from a meager but still deadly 3.3 to an unconscionable, Thanos-caliber 18.6. It’s sad that masks are so 2020. Everyone knows the hottest new accessory for fashionable fascists is an iron lung. #tyranny

So, yes, we’re all a little on edge. People are carrying on — maskless and in large groups — like normal while democracy circles the drain and Republican-led state legislators are rolling up their sleeves to be able to hoist up our votes and throw them right out the window. Stuffing our heads with warm, low-stakes reality TV and totally not illegal space cookies is about all we can do to keep from losing it. Cheersing my sad kombucha to that now.

*****

The theme of this episode of Iron Chef is tailgating. There are two teams. One has an Iron Chef on it, and the other, the challenger, does not. Appropriately, there’s a former NFL player on each team. Both men are large and Black. They are being coached, respectively, by a short Asian woman among a trio of short Asian women and a slender African guy backed by some tatted-up bro-bros. The players are really grinding. I want both of them to win. I want everyone to win.

Kitchen Stadium is beautiful. I wish I could live there. In Kitchen Stadium, there is no racism, no sexism, no inequality, no politics. In Kitchen Stadium, there is no violence, no white supremacist masquerading as a talking head on TV, no in-laws and parents lapping up every word like cheap beer at Chili’s. Kitchen Stadium is just you, your talent, your best friends, and food. Delicious food. There for the judging. There for the nourishment of the eyes, the belly, and the soul.

I’m starting to tear up. I stand. “Potty break for Dad,” I whimper. I simply can’t be seen weeping in front of my family, especially my son, who does not think I’m cool, at all, but cowers from me when I go to squish him — that’s when I throw him on the bed and unload all 210 pounds of me on top of him while he giggles uncontrollably and pleads for help from Mom that will never come. I will always remain uncool to him because I am uncool — I’m an insecure, introverted nerd — so the best that I can hope for is that I seem overpowering. I will worry whether I’m still overpowering to him once he’s a foot or more taller than me when the time comes, not now. Big, stupid, and scary’s all I got. You know, this totally not illegal edible can kick in anytime now …

Trying to keep myself together in the library, I mean, the restroom, I opt for a distraction. Instead of doomscrolling, I cruise to Safari. Searching “Texas involuntary relocation slavery” brings a solid page of worthwhile hits. Near the top, the Texas Tribune says, “State education board members push back on proposal to use ‘involuntary relocation’ to describe slavery.”

“State education board members push back” against racism? In Texas? I check the URL to make sure I’m where the internet tells me I am.

Quelle surprise. The Texas Board of Education is indeed rejecting the use of “involuntary relocation” for “slavery.”

The reason this vile, intentionally misleading phrase has even come up is that the state is updating social studies curriculum in Texas’ 8,866 public schools, which happens about once every 10 years, and a group of “educators” offered up the “involuntary relocation” doublespeak. In an interview with the Tribune, board member Aicha Davis said the phrase is not a “fair representation” of the slave trade.

“I can’t say what [the educators’] intention was, but [‘involuntary relocation’ is] not going to be acceptable,” said the Democrat who represents Fort Worth and Dallas.

Along with her eight fellow board members, Davis sent the working draft back to the “educators.”

The story also says that it was only 2015 when a Texas textbook referred to slaves as “workers.”

“Babe!”

It’s my wife D., giddily beckoning me from the family room.

“One minute!” I cry, sliding my phone back into my pocket and checking my look in the mirror. Not soggy, non-bloodshot eyes. OK.

“Babe?!”

I’m fully aware of what’s up.

“Coming!” I yelp.

It’s judgment time. Allez cuisine!

*****

Over the past few months, I’ve done my research (on the toilet). I know what I have to do to keep my two biggest fears — the deterioration of my family’s bond and the death of democracy — from becoming reality. For mia famiglia, it’s pretty simple. Put the phone down, work only during working hours, which will free up time for spreading my physical presence all over our lovely, little, slowly fracturing abode like a hairy, belching fairy, and be present, actively present. Use your eyes, use your touch, use your mouth to let your loved ones know you exist within their ambit. Be kind. Touch kindly. Communicate kindly. Did you sleep well? How’s your day going? How are you feeling? Can I help you with anything? Would you like to join me in a shot of Kraken every time the guys on Skinwalker Ranch say “phenomenon,” “anomaly,” or “UAP”? (Haha. No one needs to get that loaded.)

Reinforcing that familial bond sounds truly enjoyable. Tonight, it starts with Iron Chef. Tomorrow, it will be tossing the baseball with A. out back before we melt or cooking with D. (Allez grilled cheese!) From my meager experience with being actively present so far, I can say that watching the world end tweet by tweet doesn’t slow down or stop the damage. Life is still going to be terrible whether Robert Reich says it is or not.

To keep the motherland from transforming into a Christian autocracy over the next couple of months, we have some options, and not all of them are only symbolic (though most of them are). March at rallies. Sure. Write angry columns. Doing that right now. Vote. OK. Vote harder. We’ll see. Live life. Now, there’s a good one. And I agree. Mask up and go to a super-loud rock show at Lola’s or MASS, go to the museums and galleries, eat that extra slice of Italian sausage, mushroom, and green peppers, run that extra three-quarters of a mile, smash that snooze button a couple more times, throw that tennis ball with that puppy a little longer. Each of us, live deliciously, and maybe we’ll become the nation we want.

Ensuring my family’s bond stays strong is part of the reason I started taking “holidays” from drinking. My primary goal is to stay healthy. I have to keep pulling those disappointing blue levers every election, and I need to be around to see my son off to adulthood in about eight years. As sweet as he is, he’s not like other kids. The preverbal trauma from his abandonment in a third-world orphanage resides deep in his amygdala, meaning our Black adopted son in white America will always have his fight, flight, or freeze response triggered more easily than that of non-abandoned children. He also will always have a quicker pulse than them, and he will always suffer from an overwhelming, unidentifiable sense of loss, which can manifest itself in all sorts of fun behaviors like addiction and depression. Neither D. nor I can do parenthood alone, and neither of us wants to. We’re tight like that.

I can only hope my body agrees to cooperate. There’s no controlling that buffoon. The thought is that if I lessen the booze intake now, I might be able to hang around a few years longer, which — like my kombucha — is just peachy. I really can’t quit anything else. I don’t smoke, I don’t do fast food, don’t do sweets, and I keep the red meat to a minimum. Nursing a couple of Ultras or Nexts before dinner and maybe enjoying a little sip of mid-shelf rum afterward, that’s my bag. Keeping the booze under control might mean I’ll be able to walk slowly along the shore at sunset hand-in-hand with milady and see A. graduate college or enlist in the U.S. Army. Or survive a routine traffic stop. The possibilities are endless.

*****

Back in Kitchen Stadium, the team of small Asian ladies has emerged victorious. The four little chefs attack-hug their large ex-pro baller, who, tilting his head back and screaming joyously, embraces them, all of them, at the same time.

“Is that their dad?” my young son asks sincerely, his eyes focused squarely on the TV screen.

I chuckle. Is that their dad? No, I’m thinking to myself. Don’t be ridiculous, little dude. Is that their dad? I mean, he’s a … and they’re all …

My chuckle turns into a laugh. Is that their dad? Asked by a sweet, innocent child whose parents also don’t look like him, the question could be profound.

No. No. It’s just funny. Like, way funnier than it should be. My laugh has grown steady now, a rocket that’s been launched. There’s no going back. I’m cracking up. Is that their dad? I’m getting louder, rowdier. My sides hurt. I slink off the couch and onto the floor. My voice has to be piercing our four walls and entering into the local atmospheres. The puppy is running around me like crazy. My wife and son are gravely concerned. Tears are running down my cheeks.

Is that their dad?

Whatever it is that’s in those totally not illegal cookies I bought at the gas station apparently does nothing really well. I think I’ll be OK. I think we all will be. Here or in New Zealand but hopefully here.

This column reflects the opinions of the editorial board and not the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column of your own, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at Anthony@FWWeekly.com. Submissions will be gently edited for factuality, clarity, and concision.

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