The year I turned 40, I began a self study, tracking events, behaviors, and occurrences for 365 days. This experiment inspired Project 40 – my life in numbers and stories.
Theme song: Make Room, The Alkoholics
I’m not a poet. Rhymin’ has never been my thing. When enrolled in my writing program, I knew I’d never register for a poetry course. I hoped to run away from all things that weren’t prose while attending readings and other events at school. But of course, poetry found me during our core class. This course had as its professor the program’s director, a lover of poetry, a sentiment that matched many of my peers. When asked to bring in a favorite poem as an assignment on the first week, I located the one book of verse I could find on my bookshelf, thumbing through to the poem I’d tried unsuccessfully to memorize before for a Black History Month potluck at my job. “And what is it you like about Langston Hughes’ Harlem?” I was asked. If others around the table were like me, busy in their head thinking up a witty or smart response for when their turn came around rather than listening to the witty and smart responses of others, they were lucky enough to miss my reply, which was neither witty nor smart, and fully of “ummms” and “uhhhhs.” Surely, I used the words “deep” and “haunting” or “relevant.” My instructor (who happened to be an esteemed playwright) didn’t push me, her tucked in lips, her slow nod instead speaking her feelings about my trite answer.
It takes time for me to be the funny one, and sometimes my humor doesn’t ever take in certain groups. It’s at these times when I retreat in the other direction, becoming the quiet one. The hard worker. The shy one. As one of the older members of the class, with marriage, parenthood, and my commute to school exhausting me so that I’d do little but deliver the basics needed to get by in the class, I figured I’d fade among this table of talents. These artists, these film editors, these actresses, these people who got the instructor’s references to Henry James and Edith Wharton and James Joyce. Take me out of the room and my peers averaged age 26. I didn’t see a connection with them in my future, though I yearned for the day when someone might bring up the notion of 10:00 drinks after class, where despite having to drive nearly half an hour home to Long Beach and be up the next morning by 6:00 to get the kids off, to get myself to work, I’d join them, alcohol being the trick to winning the group over with my sloppy drunken charm.
Such an invitation never came, nor did effortless conversations. I had sensed, however, a respect, perhaps even an enjoyment of my work by classmates, by my professor. Certainly this respect would fizzle away like a young summer love once we began writing pieces for our poetry unit. So I took an eff-it approach when it came to assignments, procrastinating, not daring to try anything out on my co-workers. One particular assignment we had was to read a shortly-versed piece by a writer whose name escapes me; one of those potent, efficient works that stun with its succinctness. We were tasked with writing three poems of our own, emulating the guy’s style, structure, and tone.
The day before it was due, someone in my circle brought up Disneyland, a place that evokes whimsy and thrill and affection in many. Once upon a time, I too felt this warmth for the magical land in Anaheim to which I’ve purchased many an annual pass. I’d even had a wee bit of garden-variety fame with a one-pager in Real Simple magazine on me about how I spend my money; when asked how I splurged, I’m quoted as saying I purchased Disneyland passes each year for me and my girls (lie! I purchased one for myself on a monthly payment plan, and my dad or my husband picked up the tab for the girls).
At that point in my life, though, the thought of Disneyland – the mere word, or even a couple notes of It’s a Small World – shook me with horror, brought me back to the most shameful, harrowing moment of my history: the day I was tossed out of the Happiest Place on Earth for being intoxicated.
I hadn’t planned on getting hammered in the Mickey & Friends parking structure. Rather, I was peer-pressured by my underage friend and colleague.
I’m a wine drinker. On some occasions, feeling wild, perhaps a mojito might show up with my chicken fingers at TGI Friday’s. My friend’s bag had a ¾ full bottle of spiced rum, along with soda and four oversized cups. This was my 37th year. We’d been furloughed at work. Nothing major like some other government agencies at the time – just a Friday off once a month. For our inaugural furlough Friday, I and three others planned a lovely day of magic at Disneyland filled with short lines for rides and cheese dogs and parades and sickly sweet Mickey-shaped concoctions, all while the bulk of Southern California was in school and at work. But we thought it right to get just a teeny bit liquored up before entering the park. A teeny bit.
Instead, we drank more than a good share of rum and soda, giggling as we sucked the scuzzy brew down, its effects not hitting us – not hitting me – until we were well inside the park. Apparently, I caught some attention while enjoying Star Tours, as we were met upon exit from the ride by a trio of aging security officials, likely retired law enforcement who now wave their (invisible) batons at badly behaved park patrons.
I suppose I was feeling low about the incident when I wrote the poem for class.
I got kicked out of Disneyland for being out of my mind drunk.
Mickey stuffed me into a canon and shot me over the other side of the park.
I was Pluto’s fire hydrant.
Once, I judged other people but have stopped doing that so much anymore.
I read the poem in class, expecting my peers to drop their eyes to their papers, to their laps in hopes of avoiding my eyes, ashamed to be in a cohort with someone like me, who not only gets the boot from Disneyland but literally writes a Goofy poem about it and has the nerve to submit it in class, to read it aloud. A bashful silence fell, and I prepared myself mentally for the tough words my instructor would have for me.
“Read it again,” she said.
So I did. And afterward, she took a thoughtful sigh; could hardly contain herself. It was absolutely beautiful, she said. I should do more – the honesty, the admission of feeling low enough to be pissed upon by a cartoon dog. How powerful it all was. My peers, it seemed, felt the same way. Or at least they seemed affected simply because the instructor was so moved.
I mentioned the Disneyland story again (this time using prose) in another class (grad school writing programs also double as group therapy sessions) and was asked at the break to go on, to give a few more details. The following week, I was invited to a happy hour across the street to watch football, our school’s game broadcasted late against Hawaii. I needed to be up at dawn the next morning to make breakfast, to rustle kids from their sleep and get them off to school; to get myself to work at a decent hour. But I couldn’t say no. Another opportunity to get tipsy with my peers might not present itself again.
But I had to be responsible. With a long drive ahead of me, I ate more than drank, what I drank I didn’t even finish. So while many have been delighted and enchanted by drunk Diane, some only get the stories – a little taste of my potential.
Years later in my esteemed role as the Director of Public Health Emergency Management for the city of Long Beach, I found myself in the backside of Disneyland for a tour of their Emergency Operations Center. Others were excited for a look inside of their communications room. But I’d already been there, as it doubles as a holding cell, apparently, for wayward visitors. I can proudly brag that, with two visits to Disneyland during my 41st year, I was kicked out zero times.