Sarah Bird unwittingly enacted a scene from one of her most recent novels, How Perfect Is That? where her hapless heroine, down-at-the-heels Blythe Young, tries to survive in Austin as a recently-divorced woman on the wrong end of a prenuptial agreement. Blythe attempts to earn a living as a "caterer" and secures an event that will be attended by the beautiful young women of Austin society. However, Blythe has no credit and no funds for the food and drink that would be expected at such an event. So, in Bird's telling, Blythe resolved to cover the humble origins of her menu items by spiking the party punch with a mixture of grain alcohol, Welch’s grape jelly, and Rohypnol. The latter is the "date-rape drug." Suffice it to say, Blythe's even as a disaster. At the 2012 Texas Book Festival, life imitated art as Sarah Bird mistook a dose of Ambien for a dose of propranolol. Ambien is a powerful sleep aid and propranolol, a blood-pressure medication that quiets a pounding heart, fluttery pulse, and other forms of stage fright. The result was a disaster for Bird who was not fit to moderate a panel discussion of anything, let alone a consideration of a pair of excellent novels. Sarah Bird, like her protagonist Blythe Young, was hoist by her use of pharmaceutical chemicals at a major social event. If this is a (fair & balanced) profile in self-revelation, so be it.
The Big Sleep
By Sarah Bird
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A year ago this month, I was nervously preparing for my star turn at the 2012 Texas Book Festival. Two hundred and sixty people in my line of business—torturing the alphabet for fun and profit—were converging on the Capitol grounds, and I was going to play the big room, the Senate Chamber, at high noon. I would be moderating my dream panel, “War and Absurdity,” with two authors I admire extravagantly: Ben Fountain, who wrote the best book I read last year, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012), which looks at America’s disturbing tendency to conflate war and spectator sports, and David Abrams, who wrote perhaps the funniest, FOBBIT (2012), about the inhabitants of a forward operating base in Iraq. Both novels had been dubbed the Catch-22 of the Iraq war, and since I’d been beavering away on my own tome, Above the East China Sea, concerned with how the price of empire is always borne by the young, I was doubly excited to have this conversation.
Anxious about being the dim bulb amid the illuminati, I had labored mightily over an exhaustive list of questions that ranged from penetrating to hard-hitting. Just to make absolutely certain that I would be the sort of steely, unflappable examiner not seen since the Spanish Inquisition, I dropped my trusty bottle of the public speaker’s secret friend, propranolol, into my purse. Like many actors and musicians, I’d long relied on the blood pressure medication to ward off the pounding heart, fluttering pulse, and clammy hands of stage fright. Armed with pills and pages of high IQ–affirming questions, I felt relatively calm.
And then, as my car approached the Capitol grounds, I recalled that the festival attracts 40,000 book lovers— 40,000!—and a squadron of kamikaze butterflies hit. As I spiraled upward through a parking garage, I snaked a trembling hand into my purse, felt for the bottle of pills without glancing down, extracted two, and popped them in.
Should I note at this juncture that I’d accidentally tossed a bottle of Ambien into my purse rather than harmless blood pressure meds? Or that I’m such a lightweight that on the occasions when I do use the sleep aid, I hold one pill in my hands like a squirrel with a nut and chip off a flake with the tips of my incisors—which has the added benefit of making a single blue beauty last through a week of otherwise sleepless nights? Or that parking my car is the last thing I recall from my big day at the Texas Book Festival?
From this point forward, we will have to rely on deduction and eyewitness accounts to piece together the suspect’s activities on the day in question. After getting out of my car, I must have crossed several busy streets, made my way over to the Capitol, and ascended the fairly steep flight of stairs into the building. Friends told me later that they hailed me but that I ignored them. That I had an odd “blank” expression on my face and that they sensed “something was wrong.” The word “zombie” appeared in some reports. Apparently, I made it through the rigorous security screening at the entrance. Because an official Author/Moderator badge was found later on my person, I know I must have checked in at the private apartment just behind the House Chamber that Speaker Joe Straus was kind enough to make available to the festival as a green room. And there I settled in.
It was around then that a festival volunteer approached literary director Clay Smith to report that “a moderator is asleep.” Smith, besides dealing with sick moderators, malfunctioning microphones, and prima donna authors demanding cappuccinos and Brazilian blow-outs, was also contending with the fallout from Hurricane Sandy. Thanks to that Frankenstorm, six authors, including the main attraction, Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz, had to cancel at the last minute.
In the Speaker’s apartment, the already-beleaguered Smith found his moderator, the one who was supposed to facilitate a high-brow, paradigm-shifting discussion in half an hour, slumped on a bench, mouth open, eyes glazed—visualize your favorite alcoholic aunt ten nogs into Christmas dinner. When he roused me, I insisted that, in spite of the drool, I was ready to get out there and kick some panel ass. To prove it, I’m told, I attempted to make myself a mug of hot tea. Instead of my usual milk, however, I poured in orange juice until the cup overflowed.
Maybe it was the scalding tea dribbling on his feet or perhaps it was my bovine gaze that convinced Smith that his moderator was not ready for her close-up. With assistance from a heartier-than-average writer, Smith was able to wrangle me into a room in the back, where I could achieve the total horizontality I’d been teetering toward like a rhino with a tranquilizer dart between the eyes.
Fortunately, the quick-witted Smith promptly found my sheet of questions and enlisted as my substitute the writer Amanda Eyre Ward, who filled in so beautifully that friends sitting in the balcony later wrote to tell me what a great job I’d done. Michael Merschel, of the Dallas Morning News, even said that the animated remarks occasioned by my questions were “still worth talking about a couple of days later.” Obviously, comatose is my best moderating mode.
My steadfast husband, George, was summoned to rescue me, and after sleeping the rest of the day away, I came to and, for a few buoyant moments, shielded by Ambien’s blessed amnesiac properties, was bemused by the outlandish dream I’d had and by the fact that my special panel outfit was scattered all over the floor. Why, it looked as if someone had undressed me and just dumped the clothes wherever.
It wasn’t until I began rushing to get ready that George entered the room and sketched in the outlines of my lost day. Each detail sent me skittering further down the ex–Catholic schoolgirl’s well-greased chute into the Vortex of Shame. Mortification crushed me.
My always-sympathetic sisters tried to snap me out of my funk. The younger one said, “This sounds like something from a Sarah Bird book. You can use it in your work.” Ah, yes, the writer’s all-purpose ticket to redemption: use it in your work. That bucked me up, until I recalled that this incident sounded like something from a Sarah Bird book because it had already been in a Sarah Bird book. The one where the thoroughly reprehensible caterer protagonist drugs a party of socialites with a mixture of grain alcohol, Welch’s grape jelly, and Rohypnol. That was so not the art I had ever wanted my life to imitate.
We all have our daily humiliations, the first drafts of life that we fix in editing before we step out the door and face the world. But this? Passing out in the state capitol? It was so irredeemably public. I considered the standard means of seeking redemption: going into rehab or finding Jesus. But those were the easy ways out. No, defaulting again to all I’d learned from the nuns, I decided that confession, a public mea culpa, was my only hope for salvation. That evening I composed a Facebook post admitting to the world that I had roofied myself and offering apologies and thanks to Ben Fountain, David Abrams, Amanda Ward, and Clay Smith. “I will get over my embarrassment,” I wrote, “but it’s going to take a while.” Before I sent it, I hesitated and considered my new life as a known loser who not only was dependent on a gaudy array of chemicals to function but couldn’t keep her drugs straight.
Sitting there, I recalled my only other experience of blacking out. It had occurred more than forty years ago when I was nineteen and working as a summer intern in a hospital psychiatric unit in San Diego. Most weekends my surfer boyfriend and his gang of whoa-dude buddies would drive down from Seal Beach in an Econoline van and pick me up from the flophouse for retired merchant marines where I was renting a room, then we’d head south to Mexico. In those years before “cartel” became synonymous with “chain-saw beheading,” a favorite destination was an undiscovered stretch of beach between Tijuana and Ensenada.
We’d camp out on the hundred-foot-high cliffs above the waves, eat Dinty Moore stew out of the can, smoke weed, and drink Ripple or some other wine-adjacent beverage. I favored an impertinent little vintage known to oenophiles and bag ladies alike as Pagan Pink; I could almost finish off an entire glass without throwing up. My inability to party hearty nearly disqualified me from being an official beach bunny. Early most mornings, the whoa-dudes would clamber down the steep cliffs to surf the southern swell while I stayed up top reading books by R. D. Laing, Erving Goffman, and other radicals in the anti-psychiatry movement and working on the baby-oil-and-iodine-anointed tan required of all surfer girlfriends.
Then, one memorable evening, a smoky Mexican stranger joined our merry crew: Jose Cuervo. Tequila, which went down as easy as water, with just as few immediate effects, appeared to be the golden river that would carry me to full beach-bunny status. The last words I recall saying were “I’ve found my drink! Glug, glug, glug.” I came to late the next afternoon as I was being taken across the border in the back of the van, wedged in among a sodden pile of wet suits. Confinement had been necessary because of my inebriated insistence on dancing along the hundred-foot cliff. The surfer boyfriend said he’d had to literally sit on me to keep me from boogalooing off the edge. In this feral band, that passed for tenderness. I was touched and interpreted such protectiveness as proof of a love eternal, one that would last until I once again walked in on him in bed with one of my friends.
I had a similar loved-and-lost feeling—combined with crushing embarrassment— that night last October, when I finally hit the “Post” button on Facebook. I cringed, expecting my screen to fill with invitations to twelve-step with friends who’d gotten sober, maybe a few stern Scripture citations from the high school pals who were wont to impart such advice whether requested or not. Or, worse, nothing. Simply the silence of friends politely turning away.
Instead, dozens of posts carried well wishes from generous souls, all with the same message: we’re human, we make mistakes. Not long after, Ben Fountain emailed to say he’d quoted one of my questions in an essay he was writing for a British magazine. David Abrams got in touch to ask if I’d interview him for Booktalk Nation. A kind friend came by with a gorgeous bouquet and a card with a photo of a dog about to pounce on a cat above the caption “Life is one damned thing after another.”
As I crawled out of the spiral of shame, I thought about that long-ago boyfriend sitting on me, and tears filled my eyes. Was it because forty years had passed since I was a teenager dancing on a cliff? Or was it because I’d burned my mouth and ruined my blouse with scalding orangey-brown tea? Maybe a bit of both. But mostly it was because I realized what a small price a little humiliation is for learning how many friends stand ready to catch you when you fall. Ω
[Sarah Bird received a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of New Mexico in 1973 and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 1976. Bird was an editor and contributor for the former Austin magazine Third Coast. She authored five romance novels under the name Tory Cates before publishing her 1986 comic novel Alamo House, set on frat row at a Texas university. Bird is the author of eight other novels: Virgin of the Rodeo (1993), The Yakota Officers Club (2002), The Boyfriend School (2003), The Mommy Club (2003), The Flamenco Academy (2007), How Perfect Is That (2009), and most recently, The Gap Year (2011). Bird's upcoming novel will be Above the East China Sea (2014). Bird was the 2010 Ralph Johnston Fellow in the Dobie Paisano Writing Fellowships Program of the University of Texas at Austin which allow two writers to live and work for that year at the Paisano Ranch, J. Frank Dobie’s 254-acre retreat west of Austin.]
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