Tater Tots and My Ulcer


I don’t want to examine the emotions underneath my stomach issues.

I know that emotions are at least partly involved. I’ve been more deeply affected by the stress of waiting than I have been by anything else in a long, long time. Pregnancy was intense. And grief. But waiting for agents to respond to queries about my novel is what finally gave me an ulcer. The ulcer pain started right after I submitted my manuscript to an agent at a literary conference. (See I Heard Those Three Magic Words (No, Not Those Three).) Three months, an endoscopy, and dozens of prescription-strength antacids later, and I think the ulcer itself has healed or mostly healed. Yet the waiting remains in my stomach, indigestible.

I dreamed a long dream about Stephen King this morning. Just doing everyday things, in the presence of Stephen King. Chopping onions. Ministering to children. Wishing I could excuse myself to the bathroom, but not wanting to abandon my guest until my husband came back to the room. (Where was he?) We made small talk. I could not talk about writing with Stephen King in this dream. It wasn’t the proper forum. There were too many non-writers around. (Imagine: One issue I’m having with narrative structure is… oh sorry Steve, hang on… Yes, sweetie, sure you can have a Coke. No, you can’t have a Coke and a Reese’s! GET BACK HERE WITH THAT PEANUT BUTTER CUP, THOSE ARE MOMMY’S!… Now, where was I?) Even in the dream, my stomach churned. Stephen King is hanging out in my kitchen! Stephen King thinks I am an interesting person!

Although honestly, he might have just been waiting for my husband to walk back into the room.

I woke up thinking, having a great writer think your household is inviting does not make you a writer. Writing makes you a writer. Get up and get back to work.

But I couldn’t. It wasn’t even 6am. I was at a Holiday Inn with my husband and two sons, all cherishing their last half-hour of sleep before the day began. Besides, my stomach was turning itself inside out. I was slowly dissolving in stomach acid. I thought it best to lie still.

Later that morning, I was on a panel of three Italian-American authors discussing “Borders Within Fiction.” The chief panelist was also an organizer, and had therefore scheduled himself (and me) for the least convenient, most repellent time available: 8:30 am on Sunday, the last day of the conference. There’d been a huge, wine-soaked party at an Italian restaurant the night before. A spare dozen straggling conference attendees wandered the hall, mostly demanding more coffee. Half-drunk cups stood on desktops and windowsills everywhere.

I didn’t really know what the panel’s title meant (I kept forgetting it, and had to page through the conference program to find it, over and over.) I’d risen early and poured coffee into my festering stomach. That, and nerves, had me wide-awake and ready to hoist up whatever “borders within fiction” the occasion demanded. I would be a one-woman honor guard for every flappable metaphorical flag. There was a third panelist listed on the program, and I was almost sure he wouldn’t show up, until he crawled out of a coffee cup I’d thought abandoned, and declared himself.

We had a marvelous time, actually. We were mostly relieved to not be outnumbered. (We drew three attendees.)

So. This was being a writer.

That evening, my family and I stayed in Geneseo, New York. My older son was scheduled for a college visit in the morning. We’d spent the afternoon in Niagara Falls, and were ready for supper.

My stomach felt okay.

A place for supper. We asked the hotel desk clerk, How’s the Village Tavern, down the street?

It’s my favorite, he said. I went for my birthday two years in a row. Here’s a coupon.

All right, then.

I could tell that the Village Tavern was generous-spirited, relaxed, an old friend to this community. The wood siding was dark with age and weather–maybe soaked in beer, whisky, and deep-fry oil, too, but the white lights strung along the porch railing and roofline didn’t suggest indigestion. They twinkled with the self-assuredness of being everyone’s favorite place, with grown-up birthday parties and welcome.

I didn’t order the Tater Tots. My downstate sensibilities, as well as my recent medical history, prohibited the Tater Tots. (What exactly is in a Tater Tot? Does it involve gluten and GMOs and unsavory fats?) I did notice that you could get them “Tavern Topped” (bleu cheese, green onions, bacon), or smothered in pulled pork and barbecue sauce. Or plain, as a side.

I ordered a salmon burger, “Tavern Topped.”

I drank a Stella Artois, ate the homemade potato chips, and forgot to take my antacid. I felt fabulous.

All the next day, I was thinking about those Tater Tots. As we toured the college campus, splendid in fall foliage, as we spoke to animated, eager admission personnel and students, I kept wondering how I could find an excuse to go back to the Village Tavern. We had lunch at a diner closer to campus, where they were out of ice cream for milkshakes. I had what they called chocolate milk–with just enough syrup to make it grey. I can think of few things more disappointing than chocolate milk with too little syrup. It helped a little to think about the Tater Tots some more.

We got on the road. Time to get back to work.

It’s a nearly-six-hour drive from Geneseo to Chestnut Ridge. I wondered how strongly to push my son toward Geneseo in choosing a college. It seemed a good fit, but was I secretly motivated by the Tavern Topped Tater Tots?

I’d forgotten about the waiting. I’m not saying that my stomach issues are purely due to the anxiety of waiting. No, I’m a middle-aged woman whose parents both had ulcers, and I need to take my antacids. But I also need to get my mind off the waiting.

Writers with ulcers do not order the Tater Tots. We write about them. Sometimes, sometimes, it helps.


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