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Goodbye for Now: Week #52 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
Adieu, adieu, to yeu and yeu and yeu
This is going to be one of the weirdest farewells I’ve ever ... fared. Just like a Jane Austen character noticing that her “paper reminds her to conclude,”1 I see that Doctor Waffle has reached the contracted number of 52 essays and henceforth must waffle no more. And I’m afraid that means that you, Dear Reader, are now going to be subjected to a bracing round-up in which we reflect on What It All Means and What We Have Learned Along the Way. I will try to make it funny.
Insight #1. I am much more of an attention slut than I had previously realized. I know I’ve always been a bit of a ham, and I have boundless (perhaps unearned) confidence in social situations, and I love to entertain. But before I started putting a weekly (more or less) essay out there in the world, I didn’t realize the full extent to which my writing is bound up with my intense desire to people-please—by which I mean my intense desire for positive feedback. Yes, of course, everyone who isn’t a sociopath enjoys affirmation, and it’s almost certainly better to be addicted to likes and comments on one’s blog than to cocaine or “Tiger King.” But I was somewhat disturbed to notice myself riding an anticipation-gratification-letdown dopamine rollercoaster with each new essay post. I don’t like to think of myself as addicted to or dependent on anything, although of course my daily life—like that of any other schmo living under late capitalism—is a crazy-quilt of props, sops, substances, and bad habits.
So maybe it’s a good thing that the Doctor Waffle Experience (dibs on the band name) pierced the bubble of my complacency, just a little. I need stuff. I need you. Oh and just to let you know: if you are a regular reader of my essays who never liked or commented on any of them, you are dead to me.2
Insight #2. I can make a plan and stick to it. Sort of. The original scheme was one essay per week for exactly a year. In the end I managed to write and publish 52 essays on an irregular schedule in just about two years—an average of one essay every two weeks, which I think is pretty freaking impressive for wholly unremunerated labor. Moreover, I came out of the gate hot: I kept to a strict once-per-week schedule for about 5 months, until the death of my beloved mother-in-law in October 2021 derailed me for a little while. I think it’s okay to be derailed by the deaths of precious surrogate parents, and I will stick to that proposition in a court of law.
I didn’t do quite as well with the other key component of the original plan, which was to write on a series of topics solicited from friends. Again, I began with the best of intentions, and then I started drifting away from the list as other ideas presented themselves to me, and then I found myself completely unmoored. But because the point of this farewell essay is to tie everything up with a neat little bow, at the end of this post I will address every single topic about which I failed to write an essay. You’re welcome!
Insight #3. I had a lot to say about my parents and their abuse—much more than I thought. I flattered myself that I had already “processed” my childhood trauma in therapy, which I began (thank sweet baby Jesus cradled in the arms of the blessed Madonna) in my early twenties, and which definitely kept me from turning into a hardened emotional criminal. (I am still kind of a difficult person sometimes, and my inner landscape is still swept by storms, but things are really way better than they used to be. Trust me.) But apparently I still had a lot on my mind, because over the course of this project the Doctor Waffle essays have gradually grown more personal, more pointed, maybe a bit more angry, and definitely longer. For the past year and a half or so—beginning with the essay about my panic disorder—I have felt a little uncomfortable about all the self-disclosure. It was not my original intention. It feels weird to me that people who are not intimate friends now know intimate things about me. And in my quietest moments I do wonder what it’s all for. Insofar as these essays are for me, a kind of writing therapy, I do think I’ve somewhat loosened my grip on my anger with my parents. I’ve cleared away a few of the rage weeds and let a little more sun warm the tender shoots of love I’ve always felt for them. They were just human beings, they had horrible childhoods themselves, there was no such thing as therapy for them, or help of any kind. I know they felt something like love for us. And now they’re gone.
I’ve also realized why personal essays make sense for me. I enjoy the process of writing immensely, and traditional academic research makes me anxious (the classic “I can’t start writing until I’ve read everything” problem), so writing about my own life is a nice way to do an end-run around the boring and terrifying bits and get right to the fun part. I do, however, occasionally wonder why anyone else would be interested in this stuff. It amazes me and touches me and warms my core when I hear that anything I’ve written strikes a chord or resonates with someone else’s experience. Then it’s a conversation. That’s all I ever want.
So thank you so much, whoever is out there and has stuck with this weird-ass project. By way of (sort of) repaying my tens of loyal readers, I will now respond to all the essay prompts I never got to. And I will try to keep it funny.
THE ORIGINAL TOPICS LIST, IN ALL ITS (ALPHABETICAL) GLORY:
1. Dentists. [Me] Done!
2. Academic coupledom. [Ari Friedlander] Highly recommended, unless you can possibly avoid it.
3. Aging pets. [Nora Gilbert] I addressed this sad topic in the “my best cat, and why” essay (#32 below), so I feel it’s been sufficiently covered. Next!
4. Aspects of life during the pandemic we should hold onto. [Deb Barker] More TV with less guilt. Sourdough. Misanthropy.
5. Baking. [Natalka Freeland] Done!
6. Bedtime reading. [Jill Galvan] Done!
7. Best/most memorable meal I’ve ever had. [Trish Tilburg / Laura Moss] About ten years ago Scott and I booked a weekend at a resort in the South Island during a long visit to New Zealand. The proprietors failed to tell us that we had to bring and cook all our own food, and that there was no way to get to a supermarket. (The resort was accessible only by boat.) For three days we subsisted on a donated jar of peanut butter and saltines, plus whatever anyone else could spare from their dinner stash. But one night we went down to the beach and harvested our own oysters, which we then grilled and ate with (donated) butter. Those were the most delicious oysters I’ve ever eaten.
8. Breath. [Jill Rappaport] This is a really good book.
9. Cocktails. [Ari Friedlander] Done!
10. Coffee shops. [Jill Galvan] I hate the fact that hipster coffee shops are now serving nasty-ass, sour “single-source” coffee that tastes like vampire piss. I want to go to a coffee shop in order to be distracted from whatever horror I am currently supposed to be working on (grading, book review writing, anything involving a spreadsheet) and coffee that reminds me of my own mortality does not help matters. It’s a sad, sad state of affairs.
11. Color, favorite. [Diana Bellonby] Yellow. I think?
12. Devolution of written language from Thomas Hardy through meme culture. [John Stiver]
13. Difference between “training” and learning. [Karen Raber] People in Commonwealth countries call sneakers “trainers,” which is batshit crazy if you ask me. But to respond to the prompt: learning is just training but without any money at the end of it.
14. Different ways of looking at the sky. [Jill Galvan] Rows and floes of angel hair, and ice cream castles in the air, and feather canyons everywhere.
15. Eavesdropping. [Priti Joshi] Done!
16. Family emergencies. [Nora Gilbert] A conservative estimate is that 87% of them are fake.
17. Friends’ bad habits. [Wendy Rawlings] I think this prompt was, unfortunately, a bit of a trap. What could I possibly write that would not insult half, or more, of my friends? You all drink too much. I wish you were better about responding to invitations with a positive Yes or No. Texting that you’re running late is not the same thing as being on time. But I have these same bad habits too! Being a human being is hard! I love you all to bits.
18. Gender pay gap in higher ed. [Lisa Lynne Moore] I refuse to write this essay for no money.
19. George Eliot is the best. [Jeff Severs] Q.E.D.
20. Gregor Samsa as Gregoria Samsa in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” [Marie Bernard] If Gregor Samsa was a woman who woke up as a giant cockroach, she would have heaved herself up off the floor, glanced sadly in the mirror, waddled off to the kitchen to start breakfast, apologized for not being able to flip pancakes sans opposable thumbs, then spent the rest of the day checking in with other neighborhood women to see if they had also changed overnight into giant cockroaches and if she could help with anything.
21. Growing a meadow. [Ari Friedlander/Kate Lechler] Done!
22. Guns on college campuses and in schools. [Lisa Lynne Moore] What is there to say? I’m pretty sure it’s a bad idea.
23. Henry Mayhew. [Ari Friedlander] I think it’s slightly creepy to spend one’s career “interviewing” the urban poor, but I’m glad he did it.
24. How my profession affects my pleasure reading. [Ari Friedlander] It’s more like the other way around. I am a brainless idiot when it comes to reading, even Victorian novels: I turn the pages like an addict, hooked on the drug of plot, interested only in what happens next. If I’m going to teach or write about a literary text, I have to go back and re-read it, joylessly, “like a critic.” O the underlining! O the humanity!
25. Ishiguro. [Danny Hack] My “free pass.”
26. Lying and truth-telling in everyday life. [Diana Bellonby] Done!
27. Lyrical analysis of “Livin’ on a Prayer.” [Liz Miller / Laura Moss]
Once upon a time
This is always a solid opening.
Not so long ago
But now you’ve ruined it.
Tommy used to work on the docks
Union’s been on strike, he’s down on his luck
I’m confused. Is he a member of the Union? Is there not a strike fund? Were they not able to negotiate better terms with their employers through the power of collective action? I call bullshit on Tommy’s sad-sack excuse here.
It’s tough, so tough
Cry me a river, Tommy. My guess is you never joined the Union and now you’re getting what you deserve, you cowardly scab. ✊
Gina works the diner all day
The waitresses should also unionize.
Working for her man, she brings home her pay for love
This makes absolutely no fucking sense whatsoever. Is she living with this Tommy guy? If so, then presumably she is also bringing home her pay in order to cover the rent, groceries, and electricity bill. Is she simply giving it to him to use on hookers and blow? That doesn’t sound like love to me; that sounds like domestic abuse.
Mmm, for love
Wait—is this a subtle critique, Bon Jovi?
She says, “We’ve gotta hold on to what we’ve got
Hold on to what? The paycheck? But that is going either to rent, groceries, and electricity or to hookers and blow. Maybe Tommy is stuffing it into a mattress? I hadn’t considered a possible hoarding scenario.
It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not
Really? I don’t think you really mean that.
We got each other, and that’s a lot for love
I think a more accurate description would be “Tommy has Gina and her paycheck, and Gina also has Gina.”
We’ll give it a shot”
What you mean “we”?
Whoa, we’re half way there
Halfway where, exactly?
Oh-oh, livin’ on a prayer
But also Gina’s paycheck.
Take my hand, we’ll make it, I swear
Now you’re just babbling.
Oh-oh, livin’ on a prayer
Tommy’s got his six-string in hock
I don’t like where this is going. Does Tommy fantasize that he could “make a living” if only he “had his guitar”? Give me a fucking break. Go get a Union job, you fucking man-baby. No one wants to hear you play the guitar.
Now he’s holding in what he used to make it talk
Really? You’re repressing your boundless musical talent why, exactly? What a tissue of bullshit excuses this guy is turning out to be.
So tough, ooh, it’s tough
Yeah, staying home fantasizing about your rock-star future while your woman works her fingers to the bone supporting you does sound like a rough life.
Gina dreams of running away
RUN, GINA, RUN!!!
When she cries in the night, Tommy whispers
“Baby it’s okay, someday”
This song is really making me uncomfortable.
28. Making holiday plans with spouses. [Jill Galvan] I recommend marrying someone whose family is 14 hours and $2000 away by airplane, because then you never have to fight about the holidays. You’re either hauling your asses to the other end of the globe or you’re not. No hard feelings.
29. Motivational speeches. [Diana Bellonby] I have never attended, read, or heard one. Perhaps this is why I remain profoundly lethargic about a large range of topics.
30. Mountains and their changeability. [Debra Rae Cohen] They change, but very very very slowly. Usually.
31. Musicals of the 1970s. [Nora Gilbert] Done!
32. My best cat, and why. [Desiree Hunt Floyd] Done!
33. Neoliberalism. [John Stiver] Ugh. I hope that by the time I post this essay in two days’ time, it will be over.
34. Nineteenth-century maritime infrastructure and resource routes, including coaling stations. [Liz Miller] Did you know that Pearl Harbor was originally a coaling station? Apparently coaling stations for ships were in use for only a short time, about 40 years, since the technology was quickly supplanted by oil. Thanks, Wikipedia!
35. Periodizing the 1990s. [Richard Menke] Done!
36. Pets and the pandemic. [Maura Glennon] You people are obsessed with pets. Or do you just assume that I am obsessed with pets? Well I am! Our cats have not recovered from the pandemic ... ending. It was a solid year of non-stop laps, TV, and interesting baking smells. It was the only life Jiffy Pop had ever known. Now, as I type this, she is staring morosely through the screen door at a listless squirrel.
37. Playing piano. [Ari Friedlander] If a genie were to appear before me and offer me a single wish, I would wish to be a brilliant jazz pianist. Like, now.
38. Race and Southern hospitality. [Liz Hodgson] As a White Yankee, I feel utterly unqualified to address this topic. I can say, in a general way, that Southerners are definitely more hospitable (than Yankees, than Canadians, than Kiwis—my control groups) in one way. But if you subtract fake “We have to have you over sometime!” invitations then they are not more hospitable than anyone else. I am trying to give up cultural generalizations for Lent.
39. Returning to the South. [Ari Friedlander] See #38 above. I have to stop believing it when people tell me they want to have me over sometime.
40. Season 13 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. [Harley Augustino] Well this is dating things, isn’t it? We just finished Season 15 for pity’s sake! Symone, the winner of Season 13, is the only queen in the entire history of the show I simply cannot remember. She was a total nothingburger for me. I loved Gottmik and Rosé and was pretty “meh” over Kandy Muse, whom I am currently tolerating as a contestant on All Stars 8. Season 13 was desperately sad, I thought, as it was filmed under quarantine. It will always be remembered as such. The pit crew with masks on! Horrible dictu. Is there too much Drag Race now? NEVER!
41. Seasonal allergies. [Jill Galvan] I do not have them. Even though I sneeze approximately 842 times a day for about 3-4 months of the year, always in springtime, I contend I do not have them. Allergies are simply mind over matter. If you deny them they will go away. This is especially true of cat allergies. Anyone who says they are “allergic to cats” is simply weak.3
42. Socks. [Jill Rappaport/Sandy Huss] Done!
43. State fairs. [Jill Galvan] Seem like the kind of thing that exists only in Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. My father grew up on a dairy farm so I have second-hand experience that they exist. But still.
44. Strict middle school teachers. [Nora Gilbert] Mine was called Mr. Plank. (I am not making that up.) He used to routinely inform us that girls are bad at math. (Also not making that up.) The other main thing I remember about him is that during penmanship class (I am also not making that up), he taught us to make the downstrokes on our lower-case letters into rigid straight lines with a sharp vertical upsweep, like this:
As far as I know, he did make that up—I’ve never heard of this military-discipline penmanship “system” before or since.
45. Study a plant very, very closely and write about everything you see. [Talia Schaffer] Tea is a plant, right? See below!
46. Tea. [Jill Rappaport] Done!
47. Throwing parties. [Dory Nason] Done!
48. Under-appreciated household appliance or tool. [Diana Bellonby] Cherry/olive pitter. There is no room for debate on this.
49. Walking. [Diana Bellonby] Done!
50. War and Peace. [Ian Balfour] It is very long. I think Prince Andrei deserves a better ending. The war bits were less boring than I feared they would be. Natasha is probably too thin. The scene with the Christmas mummers and the sleigh rides through the snow is my favorite in all of literature.
51. What happened to public spaces/public life during the pandemic? [Gillian Jerome] What pandemic?
52. Your fair slice of the pie. [Maura Glennon] Done!
And a few bonus topics submitted by folks after the initial list was solidified:
And one final insight. I am not going to stop writing meandering, sometimes-funny, bullshitty essays—in case anyone is losing sleep over it. I’m sure I will keep posting stuff occasionally to the Doctor Waffle Substack, and you subscribers out there (always free! I cannot begin to imagine asking anyone to pay for this!) will get email notifications when I do. I have a number of other essays in the works, some for other publications (one of them is actually going to pay me money), and I’ll always post about them here. I’m keeping my gig at 3 Quarks Daily (I tried to quit, but was convinced to stay on, writing every 8 weeks instead of every 4), and I’ll post links to those here too. So in a way, the end of the 52 Mini-Essays Project is kind of artificial. Doctor Waffle is dead! Long live Doctor Waffle!
But I’m still fucking proud as fuck that I did it.
The quotation is from a letter that Lucy Steele writes to Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. The reference is to the great expense of writing paper at the time; she does not want to have to take up another sheet. The joke is that only the most facile, superficial, and unimaginative writers allow an artificial constraint like paper size to dictate the shape of their compositions.
Just kidding—really! I get it. I respond to only a tiny fraction of the things I read, even the things I like. The personal essay is as close as one can get to a freely given gift.
Again, just kidding! I am so allergic to fire ants that I have to carry an Epi-Pen when gardening. (N.B. I never have my Epi-Pen, which I believe has expired.) I do believe allergies exist, even though I do also ignore my own. (I feel I have to start doing these footnotular caveats on the reg because some people are pretty humorless, I find, and will write nasty comments about stuff that is clearly a joke. But not you! Not you reading this. You get it.)