survival of the cuddliest

The author with Bullabart, circa 1975.

WHEN I WAS ABOUT TEN YEARS OLD, I was traumatized by one of those ethical who-gets-to-survive questions. I’m sure Miss Presti was just trying to build character, but asking a fourth grader with a tendency toward anxiety attacks to make a life-and-death decision seems less like nurturing and more like water boarding. The question was something like this: Okay, little children, your house is on fire and it’s going to burn to the ground. All the human beings get out safely. You only have time to save one belonging. What will it be?

I’d never worried before about the house burning down. Going to hell for talking back to my mom, yes; getting hit by a car, absolutely. Fear of dying from an undiagnosed acute medical condition, and fear of my parents divorcing would both come later, in sixth grade. In fourth grade I now had to add my house burning down to my growing list of looming worries.

What would I save? I realized immediately I had not one, but two possessions to which I was deeply attached: my pet rabbit Tootsie and my stuffed dog Bullabart. Instinctively, I knew I should save the rabbit, because the rabbit was alive and the stuffed animal was not. I knew by then that ethics required the construction of hierarchies, and obviously the sacredness of life was at the top. I also knew that quality of life was a critical consideration in the hierarchy of needs, and I needed Bullabart to fall asleep at night. Period. His presence was not optional. I left him at the library once, and I didn’t realize he was missing until the library had closed for the evening. I barely survived a fitful night of angst, and when my mother fetched him in the morning from a bookshelf in the children’s section, oddly missing his tail, I vowed I would never part from him again.

So now I had to make a life-or-death choice. Always the rational rebel, I argued with Miss Presti that I must to be allowed to rescue two things, but she wouldn’t budge from the original assignment. On the verge of tears, I chose to save Bullabart. I justified that maybe Tootsie could count as a person, since she was alive, or alternatively that Tootsie’s cage was technically not in the house, since it was in the backyard against the outside wall of the house. I could pull Bullabart from the flames, and then once outside, I could make sure Tootsie was safe, too. I didn’t tell Miss Presti my secret plan to save them both.

In my mind, I had cheated. Which led to an intensified fear of going to hell. It’s no wonder I spent a good part of the fourth grade in the nurse’s office with a stomach ache, lying on a cot while Mrs. Neary encouraged me to pass gas, which I sure as heck wasn’t going to do. I was on the verge of puberty, and I was convinced that everyone noticed everything I did at all times, from tripping on an uneven sidewalk to blinking my eyes. What if one of my peers walked into the nurse’s office for a cough drop at the moment I farted? That would ruin my life forever.

The teacher’s query took other forms over time, in other classes, by some other adult whose goal it was to build moral character. The infamous life raft dilemma, with a varying cast of characters. I recall an old person, a child, a pregnant woman, a priest, and the captain. I never knew how to make peace with the idea that I alone was deciding who would live and who would die. Who would I save? If Bullabart were on that life raft, my decision would be clearer.

The what-would-I-save quandary has followed me for thirty years, echoing in my brain and intruding into my daily thoughts. What would I save? As I aged, I loved new and different things that became my priorities. Roller skates. My class ring. Cash. And still Bullabart. (I didn’t stop sleeping with him until age 23, when his body began decomposing. A nameless teddy bear filled the void briefly, and then a woman permanently took Bullabart’s place in my bed, while he retired to the closet.) The question continues to pop into my head, demanding an answer. What would I save?

I pondered the concept recently while using shoe polish for the first time on my worn-out black, scuffed shoes, now sleek black with a blinding shine as if I was in boot camp. Shoe polish: What a great invention, like white out, dental floss and the French press. Could I live without these things? If the creek behind my house flooded, if my home were foreclosed, if a bomb hit Trumansburg, what would I be willing to sacrifice as I prepared to flee? What would I save?

The truth is that what-if ethical dilemmas piss me off as much as they make me anxious, because I am neither on a life raft, nor is my house burning down, nor are we in the midst of a war in Trumansburg. Today, I do not have to decide between my French press and my Sharpie collection. I know my fourth grade teacher was trying to help us develop ethical decision-making skills; I just think she should have passed out Xanax with those purple mimeographed handouts. For me, being presented with such dilemmas was comparable to warning an obsessive-compulsive hand washer in jest that stepping on cracks breaks your mother’s back. If they hadn’t thought of that one yet, they will now, and will they ever, at each and every sidewalk crack they have to step over.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for those people who can make the right decision in the face of crisis, like to risk one’s life to tackle a gunman. In that situation, hopefully I’d make the right choice, too. I think I would. That is, as long as Bullabart isn’t the one holding the weapon.

-Amelia Sauter


ecologically challenged

Yes, the 93-year-old cat sleeps face down.

Yes, the 93-year-old cat sleeps face down.

Take the quiz at the end!

A FEW WEEKS AGO, I read an internet article about a family who most weeks has no trash to put out on the curb. First, I thought they were cheating. Then I felt inspired. Finally, I realized I how much I suck in comparison to them.

I can find some consolation in the fact that the family does, in fact, cheat. When the mom mails Netflix DVDs, she tucks the little plastic strip from the adhesive into the envelope before she seals it. She also appears to have an eco-mental illness, most likely a subcategory of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Her house is almost empty: the woman only owns six pairs of shoes, seven pairs of pants, and two skirts. Something must be wrong with her.

I was inspired to take an inventory of the items in my trash this week. Here’s what I found:

– An economy-sized ibuprofen bottle, which we emptied astonishingly fast. (We’re girls; we consume that stuff like chocolate.)

– Used dental floss.

– Ink related: two pens sans ink, and a Hewlett Packard cartridge wrapper.

– My old travel mug, which my partner Leah found outside under a pile of wood. I have no idea how it got there, but the mug permanently adopted the smell of a decaying forest floor.

– Gross cat stuff, including paper towels from cleaning up daily hairballs and upchucked meals. Anyone who claims they can live without paper towels obviously does not own a 93-year-old cat, and hey, I can take eco-solace in the fact that the cat will not be replaced when she kicks the bucket.

– Dog poop. We tried a container thing with drainage holes that you partially bury in the ground, affectionately known to us as The Compoopster, but it has unfortunately proved ineffective at turning poop into vanishing poop soup.

– Underwear with dead elastic.

– Wire baskets that hold the corks in champagne bottles. Leah likes to make these into cute little chairs, but one only needs so many miniature chairs. And I drink a lot of champagne.

My Personal Trash Analysis showed a disproportionate amount of pet- and hygiene-related items. While being eco-conscious with food purchases is pretty easy if you shop bulk, I can’t put dog poop in my garden compost, and I love Kleenex. And if you think I should use one of those salty crystal rocks under my arms in place of Sure deodorant, then you have never shared a small office with me on a hot summer day.

How about you? Are you eco-inspired? Eco-hypocritical? An eco-cheater?

Time for a quiz! Answer honestly, and find out how you rate at the end:

1. When I empty a tube of toothpaste:

a. I throw it away.
b. I make a piece of artwork, which also includes my used dental floss, and I sell my masterpiece on Etsy.
c. I don’t use toothpaste, I use baking soda.
d. I don’t brush my teeth.

2. I usually conserve water by:

a. drinking only vodka.
b. showering with my girlfriend/boyfriend.
c. turning off the shower while I soap.
d. drinking my own urine.

3. Do you drive a car?

a. Yes.
b. No, I ride a horse.
c. Yes, but I buy carbon footprint points to offset my gasoline use.
d. I walked to my parents’ house last June and it only took me three weeks.

4. Do you drink organic alcohol?

a. No, I drink nonorganic alcohol to protest the poor, sober people around the world who don’t have access to quality cocktails.
b. No, I drink PBR and save my money to buy carbon footprints.
c. Yes.
d. No, I’m scared of all alcohol. And my mother. And clowns.

5. Do you reuse plastic bags?

a. No. Except maybe for dog poop.
b. Yes, I wash them diligently and bought one of those wooden racks to dry them on.
c. I don’t even know what a plastic bag is. I never use them for anything, ever. Or buy anything that comes in plastic.
d. Never! Germs in all the little corners! I know bacteria are there, threatening me even though I can’t see them.

6. Do you own solar panels?

a. No, but I will when I win the lottery.
b. No, I live in a shack without running water or electricity.
c. Yes.
d. No, I’m scared they will let aliens read my thoughts.

7. Do you use paper towels and Kleenex?

a. Yes, I love them both. I won’t ever give them up. Ever. You can’t make me.
b. No, and I don’t use toilet paper either.
c. Rarely.
d. Do you know how many germs cloth towels and handkerchiefs hold?? Disposable products are safer and much less likely to end in death.

Answer rating scale:

Give yourself one point for every time you answered a, two points for every b, three points for each c, and four points for a d.

0-9 points: Eco-Loser. You aren’t so good at the eco thing. Embrace your failure. Chop down all your trees, join the Republican Party, and/or go into the oil business.

10-17 points: Eco-Creative. You’re trying. You want to be eco-conscious, but it’s so damn inconvenient. You make an occasional effort, but you need to try harder if you want to be able to sleep at night without tossing and turning, worrying about the environment. It’s your fault if the earth dies. All your fault.

18-24 points: Eco-GoodyGoody. Bet you think you’re perfect, don’t you? The rest of us find comfort in the fact that your showers are cold, your breath smells like baking soda and wheat grass, and boogers are permanently stuck to your handmade cloth hankies.

25–28 points: Eco-Wacko. Even if your lifestyle is technically eco-friendly, you are a total weirdo. You are slightly paranoid, you might be a psychologically-limited germaphobe, and you definitely need to brush your teeth.

-Amelia Sauter

flying phobia

flying phobia

You want me to get on an airplane? Drugs, please.

ANXIETY RUNS IN MY FAMILY. So do large foreheads and potbellies, but those don’t prevent me from getting on an airplane. I’d avoided flying the anxiety-filled skies for the last ten years, but now I would feel like a wimp if I told my best friend– who was 600 miles away, alone with a newborn, and in need of my assistance–“hey, I got the weekend off and found a really cheap plane ticket, but I’m too scared to fly, so sorry, you’re on your own.”

I would do it. I would go. But to board a plane, I would require drugs.

When I was a psychotherapist, I discouraged clients from relying on psychiatric medications. Meds are Band-Aids, I would say. They don’t fix the problem; they mask it. You should only use meds if your life is at risk. Like when you are getting on a plane.

My mom – who hates to fly – said her neighbor Sally attended one of those get-rid-of-your-flying-phobia classes that involved facts, relaxation techniques, a tour of the airport, and at the end, a fear-free flight. “Are you kidding?” I asked my mom. “Why would I want to convince myself that I’m not going to die?” That would be tricking myself into a false sense of security while speeding through the clouds at forty thousand feet in a flying tube of death. I did not want my last thoughts in this world to be, “Feet relax. Feet you are relaxing. Feet you are relaxed.” No, I would put my affairs in order, say my final goodbye to my partner Leah, and take my Xanax.

The day of my flight, I posted my last will and testament on Facebook and hugged Leah tightly at the security checkpoint, assuming I was about to plunge to my death in the ocean because the plane’s engines will fail due to some human error, like a mechanic confusing a bottle of personal lubricant with WD-40 – “oops.”

Boarding the rickety commuter plane was as easy as ripping out my own heart with a pair of pliers, but at the last minute, I surprised myself by forgoing the Xanax so I could take Promethazine, a travel sickness pill. This would prevent me from throwing up on the woman sitting beside me, who kindly offered me the window seat and then leaned as far as she could into the aisle to distance herself from my growing pile of grieving Kleenex filled with tears and snot. I tightened the lap belt over my potbelly and prepared to face my death without the assistance of a mind-numbing psych med. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to face my mortality and have my affairs in order, I thought. I tried unsuccessfully to convince myself  of this as the plane bumped along the runway gaining speed.

I survived the two-hour flight, this time. No plane crash, no death by panic attack. And due to my thoughtful drug choice, the other passengers would remember me as the anxious woman with the big forehead who cried hysterically, which is better than being known as the woman who puked on the plane. Did I mention travel sickness also runs in my family?

-Amelia Sauter

progressive destruction disorder


I'm crazy, you're crazy, we're all crazy.

WHEN YOU STUDY THE DSM-IV (which will soon be the DSM-V), you suddenly discover every single one of your friends and family members has a serious mental illness. You read it, therefore you diagnose it, as matter-of-factly as you wake up, therefore you get out of bed. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, is the current psychotherapist’s bible. It describes in painstaking detail every psychological disorder officially recognized by an elite team of mental health professionals.

I’ve heard the same phenomenon seizes wanna-be doctors when they attend medical school. They get a bellyache and wonder, Do I have appendicitis? Diverticulitis? Abdominal cutaneous nerve entrapment syndrome?

For those studying abnormal psychology, the diagnosing starts with ex-boyfriends, loved ones and pets. Your mother-in-law is histrionic. Your sister has obsessive-compulsive tendencies. The cat has panic attacks. Your ex-boyfriend is an asshole – oh, wait, that’s not a diagnosis – your ex-boyfriend has narcissistic personality disorder. The realization that everyone in the whole world is certifiably crazy soon extends to people you’ve never met, like the child throwing a tantrum in the grocery store who obviously has oppositional defiant disorder, sure to blossom into conduct disorder since his mother appears to be bipolar.

At three o’clock in the morning, when your partner is fast asleep beside you, and you are mid-way through reading the DSM-IV, all eight hundred eighty-six pages that your professor has insisted you memorize from beginning to end, you realize that you have the symptoms of two-thirds of the two hundred ninety-seven mental illnesses in the book. You, too, are diagnosably crazy, nuts, cuckoo, bonkers, wacko.

Panicked, you shake your partner awake. “I think I might be autistic,” you whisper. “Shut up,” she mumbles.

Now you can’t fall back to sleep until you’ve pinned it down. You have been feeling a little insane lately. You find yourself reading the DSM-IV late into the night like a cheap romance novel, scanning for the exciting parts, the detailed descriptions of dirty little secrets. Do you have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (300.02)? Adjustment Disorder with Mixed Disturbance of Emotions and Conduct (309.4)? Rumination Disorder (307.53)? Borderline Personality Disorder (301.83)?

While I was studying the DSM-IV, I arrived home one day to find my partner in the bedroom. The sheets lay in a heap on the floor, the mattress leaned up against the wall, and she had disassembled the bed frame into now unrecognizable chunks of pine that were once legs and slats and a headboard. This deconstruction of critical household objects happened frequently while I was out. My partner would tear apart a piece of furniture she had built or knock a hole in the wall, because she had a vision in her head of something better, stronger, more amazing. She was either schizophrenic, or she had an artist’s brain. I hoped it was the latter.

“Hey!” I shouted as she hammered and banged amidst a pile of debris. “Maybe you’ve got progressive destructive disorder!”

She looked up at me. “What’s that?” she asked.

“It’s when you build something new, and you’re pleased with yourself for about ten seconds and then you get disgusted because you realize you can do better, so you rip it all apart and start over again. You feel your creations are never good enough, so you have to constantly destroy and rebuild them.”

“Oh my god, that’s me!” she said. “There’s a name for what I have. I feel so relieved I’m not alone.”

“Actually, I just made it up,” I said, laughing. I stopped laughing when her face fell.

She glared at me. “For a split second, I felt understood,” she said. She turned back to the bed-to-be, and I grabbed my DSM-IV to look up the diagnosis for someone who derives great pleasure from picking on a loved one.

-Amelia Sauter