Wednesday, November 30, 2011
--WHAT ARE YOU WEARING?
…Yesterday was a bit of a thrill.
My story, “Mouthwash” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. It’s my first nomination.
These days a lot of people get nominated for the Pushcart because there are so many online lit journals, but it still means a great deal to me. I even have the 2008 Pushcart Anthology on a bookshelf right behind me.
I feel as if I have always lagged behind my writer peers. Most have novels out or story collections out or maybe even several collections. I know I shouldn’t compare myself, but having grown up in a family with seven brothers, well, I’m competitive.
Competitive and insecure.
These are a couple of things I wish I could change about myself, although to a large degree, they have served me well in many ways.
They’ve driven me to be productive. I guess it’s about finding more of a balance, moderation.
Sara Lippmann, a friend of mine, wrote a column in Used Laundry about the subject of striving versus enjoying. She talked about simply doing your best work. Always doing your best work, no matter what others do or say. That’s pretty good advice.
…My office smells like Aqua Di Gio, my favorite fragrance. I save the scent strip ads in magazines and open one up every now and then. It’s a good trick.
I’m listening to Sufjan Stevens. I’m not sure why artists need to use such bizarre ambient noises in their songs. All they do is take you out of the music.
The new Drake disc got four stars in Rolling Stone magazine. The new Drake disc is like listening to the first Drake disc, but maybe on vicodin.
…Today I have to put up the Christmas tree and Christmas decorations, but I am going to write. I feel like there are a lot of creative words inside of me today.
…The other day I watched Pete the eagle swoop and dive bomb a scattered gaggle of ducklings on the lake. It was oddly terrifying. I’m a fan of Pete’s, but I was definitely rooting for the ducks in this case. The fowl kept going under and then finally they went under for a long time and never came up, or if they did, I never saw them.
Right now there are a group of ducks outside my window by the dock bobbing underwater, plucking out fish and eating them. Why do I not care so much about them gobbling fish when I feared for the ducks as Pete made his assaults?
…Here are a couple of things I like on a Wednesday:
“Sometimes," said Pooh, "the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.” A.A. Milne
"I'm losing faith in humanity one faked orgasm at a time." Summer Robinson
"What kind of beast would turn its life into words? What atonement is this all about?" Adrienne Rich
"Given the choice between grief and nothing, I choose grief." Faulkner
"There are a lot more cannibals in this country than people think." Dexter
"I need you to give my heart an erection." Parenthood
Monday, November 28, 2011
--I GUESS YOU WEREN’T REALLY WHO YOU THOUGHT YOU WERE, WERE YOU?
…I have a new story, “We Only Do This On A Tuesday” up at In Between Altered States and here under “Words in Print.”
…It’s chilly on this side of the country, in this little patch of the globe. Thus, I have the small fireplace going in my office. Plus I’m listening to “The Smiths.” I’m not a huge fan of theirs, but I do like a few songs, especially, “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.”
I have the new Drake but I am waiting until I get in my car to play it.
…This weekend was festive. I ate too much and drank too much and didn’t exercise or do anything productive, though I did laugh a lot.
I had fun.
…I keep realizing that it’s pretty important to have friends, a least a few who are active in your life. Without them, things wouldn’t be as hopeful. One night we stayed up until 2:30 am. I think a lot of humorous things were shared, although I can’t for the life of me remember any of them now.
It’s good to have people you feel comfortable and unguarded with.
…Along with 67,000 other fans, my friends and I went to watch our state’s two rival college football teams clash at mammoth Century Link Stadium.
What a place—with cliffs of cement, five billion slanted seats and a hole cracked through the center seam roof so that smoky gray sky can show through, rain or shine.
After all these years, I’m still not used to crowds.
I felt small and insignificant quite a bit of the time I was there, or while walking around the nearby neighborhoods.
It’s hard not to feel inconsequential among throngs like that, gigantic buildings like that with their towering advertising and shimmering squad car bright lights.
When you’re standing in line with two hundred other people waiting to use the restroom or buy a beer, you start to feeling a bit like an animal being herded here and there, at the whims of the crowd’s discretion.
At least I did.
A person can even start to understand the mob mentality that ends up rioting.
I’m not saying I would ever riot or loot because I wouldn’t, but I can kind of see how people could very easily get wound up, how a bonfire could burn pretty tall and for quite a long time.
On Saturday, one guy was lying on the parking lot ground trying to fend off policemen.
Another guy was wobbling down the road, barely being held together with help from his friend.
Others were shouting slurs and slanders against opposing teams.
And this was all before the game started.
It wasn’t totally out of control, however. Not at all. You can’t really maneuver that many people without order.
Still, I found myself being consumed by the magnitude, the scale of everything. It was intense, daunting and exhilarating.
Actually, I felt like an eight year old.
I kept thinking: People really take their sports seriously.
I kept thinking: This is very fun, but it’s not like it means anything all that important.
And then, inside the stadium, the guy behind me started shouting at the other team’s fan and I thought, Well, for whatever reason, this is quite important to him. His allegiance and this game carries meaning for him.
…We all have our biases, our passions.
On Facebook this morning I read a post from a writer I admire (who’s also somewhat renown in the virtual world) saying something such as: “I detest football in every form and don’t want to have anything to do with it. I despised being made to feel I have to like sports simply because I am a male in America.”
I get what he’s saying. But why so vitriolic? It’s almost no different than the boisterous fan at the stadium who is spewing his views at anyone close enough to hear it.
…I guess we all wear costumes and manifest who think we are by the way we play out our lives, who we engage with, where our minds take us in times of fruition or despair.
I guess there are lots and lots and lots of us and we are very much alike while being distinct and different, too.
Friday, November 25, 2011
--SOMEONE HAS TO BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE, SO IT MIGHT AS WELL BE ME
…I've got a story, "Mixed Breed" up at Troubadour 21 and another story, "The Loss of All Things Tame" up at Housefire. Both are also here under "Words in Print."
The latter story was one I was queried for and given that title. I like being queried. It's one of my favorite things. It's like being asked to dance. Like being asked to Tolo.
…A new favorite thing of mine is "Words With Friends" which is an app on your phone. It's basically Scrabble and you can play with anyone anywhere.
Yesterday I got it on with a dozen people. One was Dorianne Laux. Dorianne Laux!! She's like one of the most famous poets around. I have three of her books.
If you play "Words With Friends" shoot me an invite and we'll have it out.
..Another thing I like is laughing. I like that a lot. I laugh loud and freely. I'm not afraid to cackle in a theater. Many times I laugh at things other people don't think are funny. Most of the time I laugh a second or two before the crowd does. I don't think that makes me any smarter at all, but I think I am a little more receptive to getting the joke. I think I want it more--to be happy. Maybe it's because I am more lonely than most folks.
Shows like "Get Him To The Greek" make me laugh. So does "Arrested Development" and "Saturday Night Live" and all of the "Scary Movies," especially #3.
Kristen Wiig really makes me bust a gut.
Ellen does, too. She's very witty.
And comedy shows.
Here's are the best bits from the recent (well it was three months ago) Charlie Sheen roast.
--"Charlie is the reason a dick with cocaine on it is called a “Sheenish.”
--Mike Tyson has beaten every opponent he’s gone up against except the letter “S.” So please be patient as he sounds out his jokes.
--Mike Tyson, here’s something you’ll never hear in your life: “Nice tattoo.” I mean, come on, you’ve got a tramp stamp on your face. I don’t know whether to be appalled or just finish on it.
--Charlie Sheen, you’ve convinced more women to have abortions than the prenatal test for Downs Syndrome.
--William Shatner, look at your skin. I can’t tell whether you’ve had a face lift or a vagina rejuvenation.
--William Shatner, I've seen men more bloated that were dragged out of a river.
--(from Mike Tyson) If you don't shut up, I'm gonna bite my own ears off.
--Is that Seth McFarland or Chaz Bono with guyliner?
--Charlie’s nostrils are so snotty and filled with cocaine that he calls them the Hilton Sisters.
--Charlie, if you’re "winning," you’re obviously not at a child custody hearing.
--Charlie’s meltdown was so epic that Al Gore is doing a documentary on it.
--There’s Brooke Mueller, Charlie’s ex. Brooke’s not very bright, unless Charlie’s throwing a lamp at her."
My friends make me laugh, too.
…Today I am going to spend the afternoon and evening playing shuffleboard with my best friend who lives in Portland.
This is the kind of shuffleboard that has a salted table and you toss metal pucks down one end trying to get your pucks closest to the edge to score.
It's the kindof shuffleboard that's hard to find, that is usually only available in dive bars with bail bondsman phone numbers posted on the ratty walls in front of rank-smelling urinals.
But we both love the game.
We can play for hours.
We usually turn into kids, punching each other and swearing a lot and coming up with pithy things to say.
I'm sure we're going to laugh a lot.
Just imagine that.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
--YOU WOULD BE SO PROUD OF ME
…Good morning/afternoon/evening where you are.
I hope you are happy today.
I hope you are feeling inspired.
I hope you are grateful.
It's raining here. Last night/yesterday I spent ten hours in a car driving or stopped or going five miles per hour in snow with flakes the size of paper plates.
When I got home--after passing fallen trees and mounds of leaves on the street--my power was out.
There's something about an outage that forces you to be grateful. It has a way of stripping off the husk of extravagance and the unnecessary.
We played card games with a lantern.
…I went ahead and culled the best bits out of Lidia Yuknavich's memoir, "The Chronology of Water." Even if you're not a writer, even if you don't like to read, I think there will be a least a few things here that will resonate with you. If not, let me know…
"I am a woman who talks to herself and lies.
There are many ways to drown.
So here's the deal. About family, you have to make it up.
I believe in art the way other people believe in God.
In water, like books, you can leave your life.
Maybe forgiveness is just that. The ability to admit someone else's story. To give it to them. To let it be enunciated in your presence. It's your job not to flinch.
It is possible to carry life and death in the same sentence. In the same body.
When the thing you are living for dies right in front of you, why go on?
It's a sadness that enters us all, just differently I suppose.
There are so many stories to tell about what we do to our bodies.
We've always burned witches.
I think my mother was just trying to drown a sadness which wouldn't lift.
I've never met anyone who hasn't fucked up in their life a time or tow. Royally. I'm pretty sure that's what keeps us connected to one another.
The other thing I'd say is that if we didn’t' have drugs and alcohol, we wouldn't have art.
You see it is important to understand how damaged people don't know how to say yes, or to choose the big thing, even when it is right in front of them. It's a shame we carry. The shame of wanting something good. The shame of feeling something good. The same of not believing we deserve to stand in the same room in the same way as all those we admire. Big red A's on our chests.
Let the top of your head lift. See? There are spaces between things. What you thought was nothingness carries the life of it.
Addicts have a problem comprehending gravitas.
The more you describe a memory, the more likely it is that you are making a story that fits your life, resolves the past, creates a fiction you can live with. It's what writers do. Once you open your mouth, you are moving away from the truth of things.
I don't need anyone to explain to me why people join gangs. We do it to replace the frame of family. We do it to erase and remake our origins in their own images. To say, I too was here.
This is something I know: damaged women? We don't think we deserve kindness. In fact, when kindness happens to us, we go a little beserk. It's threatening. Deeply. Becauseif I have to admit how profoundly I need kindness? I have to admit that I hid the me who deserves it down in a sadness well. Serioulsly. Like abandoning a child at the bottom of a well because it's better than the life she is facing. Not quite killing my little girl me, but damn close.
Rehab and relapse and remember all start with the letter R.
Sometimes I think my voice arrived on paper.
My very skin knew the tyranny of speaking.
Big enough to fit the rage of a girl.
I didn't know yet that sexuality is an entire continet. I didn't know yet how many times a person can be born.
Women live their lives secretly wanting their lives to become movies.
People are often asking me if the things in my short stories really happened to me. I always think this is the same question to ask of a life--did this really happen to me? The body doesn't lie. But when we bring language to the body, isn't it always already an act of fiction?
There are many ways to love boys and men. Or to let them love you.
Language! What a thunderous mercy, huh?"
Monday, November 21, 2011
--IF YOU SWING, DON’T MISS
…I have a poem, “Alchemy” and story, “Jackknife” up at A Minor Magazine as well as a poem, “New Shoes” up at Steel Toe Review.
All are also here under “Words In Print.”
…In college some years ago, I majored in Poli Sci.
I also majored in English.
I knew I wanted to be a writer but thought I would be a lawyer instead because that seemed smart and practical.
Growing up, a movie that had a big impact on me was “The Paper Chase.” It was about a young buck going to Harvard Law School in the 70’s. Back then, Harvard Law School had the highest suicide rate of any school—law school, normal college, what have you—in the nation. Few people could handle the intense grind necessary for survival.
The main protagonist-“James Hart,” played by Timothy Bottoms--soon discerns that there are three types of students at Harvard:
1.) There are those that will not be able to handle the pressure and so, in a matter of six months or so, they will flunk out, drop out or commit suicide.
2.) The second group will make it, but they will graduate toward the middle or bottom of the class, having done the required work but nothing outside of requisite scope of assignments. They will become lawyers in time, but at small, nondescript firms.
3.) The third group is an elite one. These are the people who do everything required and then some, always tackling the tough projects, always volunteering, never afraid of putting themselves at risk or in jeopardy of embarrassment. This is the group that will get jobs at the top firms. These are the lawyers who will go on to become judges and super successful attorneys. They are the ones who will even end up shaping our judicial system.
I tend to think life is like that—that all people can be divided into three similar stratas.
In the film, James Hart realizes he’s been coasting mid-level and so he decides he’s going to move into the top tier. He’s very serious about making it, too, so serious in fact that he drops his smoking hot girlfriend (Lindsay Wagner! from “The Bionic Woman” fame) because sex with her is too draining. (!!)
That’s how committed he is. He does the work. He makes some blunders. He graduates top of his class. He gets back with Lindsay (of course he does) and the film ends in one of those soaring crescendos that makes the tiny hairs on your scalp prickle.
So out of college, I got a job clerking at a law firm in Seattle. I did that for a year.
What I realized was I’d romanticized the law. It was nothing like what I’d seen on TV. It was nothing like “The Paper Chase.” No one really cared about truth and justice. Their concern was only about how many hours got billed. They only cared about winning cases regardless if their client/position was the right one. And they would win those cases by hook or by crook, let me tell you.
It made me sick.
It made me sick not only for obvious moral reasons, but also because I thought I’d thrown my whole college education in the crapper…
Four years of college…
A year sewing unemployed old men and old grannies…
I thought I was doomed.
And yet, I survived.
I found a job in fashion, which is funny because I never had any money growing up to be fashionable with.
But I gave the job and the industry and the company everything I had. I pushed myself into that third group.
I sold sweaters. I sold neck ties and argyle vests. I unloaded freight and folded shirts and dusted fixtures and set up sales.
I worked hard and did okay.
Over the years, however, I continued to follow politics and government, both, international and national.
I kept myself educated and up to date on current political affairs.
To me, that’s important. And I try not to be cynical when it comes to government. Lord knows there are enough people to take on that task.
I try to think politicians can do good things, make wise decisions, serve the people, drive the nation toward sustainable prosperity…
But I will say, it’s getting harder and harder to believe in government. Every other day provides another reason to think the cynics are correct.
Today is one of those.
After three months of talks, the twelve members of the specially appointed Debt Relief Committee have concluded they can’t come to an agreement on how to ease the financial knot choking our country’s throat.
There’s no solution? No compromise?
Good Lord, are we really doomed?
…Sorry. I just had to rant. I feel better now. Sorry for vomiting all over this page.
Here. Here are a few things to make up for it.
You thought that drinking all weekend would make us go away but we're still here. Happy Monday!
"Mental fight means thinking against the current, not with it. It is our business to puncture gas bags and discover the seeds of truth." Virginia Woolf
"I only require three things of a man: he must be handsome, ruthless and stupid." Dorothy Parker
"Good manners and bad breath will get you nowhere." Elvis Costello
Saturday, November 19, 2011
--AND YOUR FRIENDS SAY, "WHAT IS IT? YOU LOOK LIKE YOU'VE SEEN A GHOST."
...I have two new poems, "Holes" and "A Fortress For Teens" up at Verse Wisconsin for their Earthworks theme. Both are also here under "Words in Print."
…It snowed yesterday. White spikes, spittle, toothpicks, confetti, sand shower, spears salting the sky. It looked pretty and then it didn’t. It reminded me how, if you are brave enough to really examine it, life can be one thing then another.
My favorite snow is big sloppy white Labrador flakes. Maybe it’s something about the way that type of snow coats and hides everything beneath it that makes me feel safe.
…Here is the conclusion of “Reasons I Should Be Dead.”
The bathroom is the warmest pace the heat vent pours out air holding back holding down holding apart some of the noise it’s not my favorite room because of the smell but I go there when they start to yell this time someone kissed someone else you cheating sonofabitch you bitch you bastard and there’s hell to pay I’m a boy supposed to be a man already so I open the door in time to see his oiled obsidian hair glinting open in time to see him shoot an arrow into the closed kitchen window glass shattering breaking apart like angry glaciers and when he turns the bow to me I say to myself “be brave don’t duck don’t run don’t hide we are done here.”
I was too loud in church or not paying enough attention to the pastor or my room was dirty or my thoughts were dirty or I missed “Please” or wasn’t grateful enough or just because because I say so because I’m in charge because this is my house because of some reason or other whatever reason any reason the belt swings and slashes wuuuh wuuuh wuuuh through the air leather helicopter blades that bite and sting but then it stops to be adjusted so the buckle is the end that rains metal teeth bronze nails hail hitting my head my shoulders my arms here’s my heart cut it open go ahead make a mess of things get it over with I won’t hate you if you are quick.
This guy can drink drinks like a fish a whale get him the funnel holy hell man how’re you still standing he’s my hero whatever you do don’t crash on your back man sleep on your stomach remember Janice Joplin and Jimmie H if they say anything else to me it is oatmeal in my ears the stairs reach right up and slap me the halls hit me someone’s got one arm someone the other and I fall a final time until there’s light everything white but not heaven the nurse saying good morning young man I hope you know how lucky you are.
Hey bogart you got a death wish or what? that wasn’t a line more like an avalanche yeah yeah I say wanting to say more but my face is numb down to the roots of my molars eyes jittery ice cubes nose runny or bleeding hair 4th of July sparklers twitching my scalp but none of that matters as much as my heart sprinting up and down the gym shoe stomps booming in my ears bouncing off one wall then the next make it stop make it stop no wait don’t make it stop that’s called dead just slow the pounding please what am I doing here anyway that guy has a thin hockey stick thingy with a boomerang end scraping green felt saying “seven seven out craps” and there are men around me my friends and strangers comic book patches 12 the hard way other numbers and squares dice die my friends my heart my friend what happens here stays here.
Blood taste like licking a rock when I open my eyes I see my eyes staring back at me in the rearview how did I get here why is my car stopped stalled hit something a curb lip swollen star fruit jaw sore must have hit the steering wheel hard no airbag should be dead what time is it I keep cheating time or it keeps throwing me a life line or maybe this is how it tortures me by keeping me alive why does everyone else want it so bad life?
This is not the same as the other times the other times death came for me now I am searching for it at five am in the pitch dark running miles getting in mileage before the marathon is the rationale I tell my wife here it comes sixty five going seventy speeding semi on my side of the road just a hitch a little jump is all it takes and SLAM SPLAT we’re done here finally but that driver he has a wife too or a mom maybe maybe even one that loves him got to be fair play fair don’t fuck it up for other people for other people death is what they run from not to.
The box is white a cream-colored coffin some irony there who called for an open casket is this somebody’s idea of a joke we tell jokes my brothers and I in hushed tones out in the sober foyer us older almost too old to take no longer skinny barefoot boys but men with bellies bald heads grudges and our own bags of sins we shuffle inside no different than dust ourselves sit on the stone hard wooden pews settle unsettle cough spit fidget fart silently “she is with God” the man in glasses says is he a liar we sing about grace “when we’ve been here ten thousand years bright shining as the sun” and then I stand because I am called called the name I was given the one she gave me I walk down an aisle dip my head at the podium I speak do not slur do not tarry I tell the tarnished and the true I don’t use bullets or blades but something falls away something dies inside of me a molting ghost carcass floating through stained glass as I inhale my first breath in this new skin.
Thursday, November 17, 2011
--PEOPLE SHOULD SMILE MORE
…It’s funny how the mind works. Or how mine does, I should say.
Mine jumps around a lot. It goes weird places. It ends up at odd junctures. It talks me out of things and into tight tunnels.
Sometimes it says, “You should really think about getting better at ______.”
Every once in a while it will say, “Remember that time when you could have done ______, but you did _______ instead? Me, too,” it will say. My mind will go on to postulate, “Life would be different if you’d done ______. I’m not sure if it’d be better, but it’d sure as hell be a lot different.”
On the treadmill this morning, I listened to Newton Faulkner (if you’ve never heard Newton, please do yourself a favor and find “Dream Catch Me” on YouTube. you won’t be sorry. cross my heart.)
While I was running and panting and sweating and singing along (“There’s a place I go when I’m alone. Be anyone I wanna be…”) my mind started to play a film reel of my past, not a life-flashing-in-front-of-my-eyes type thing, but more of a selective-moments-of-my-life-flashing-in-front-of-my-eyes situation.
For some reason, I don’t know why, my mind was trying to use my past misdeeds as a way of getting me to grasp a certain concept, one that is spelled:
And it didn't mean that I should be grateful for material things or friends or any of that.
My mind said, “Hey, I was just thinking.”
So I said, “Oh oh.”
To wit, my mind replied, “Yeah, man, I was thinking that you’re one luckiest dudes I know.”
And I replied with, “Is that right?”
“Mos def,” my mind said. “Let me show you what I mean.”
And then we did this kind of Ebenezer stroll through my life, highlighting a number of times where, quite honestly, I should have been killed.
A rafting trip gone awry.
Stupid adolescent experimentation.
Stupid adult experimentation…
In all, I came up with 11 (yikes!) different times that I should have died, been killed, terminated, done in.
Funny thing is I wasn’t even trying very hard and I came up with 11 Johnny on the spot.
But I did get off the treadmill, shower, and sit down and write an experimental version of those eleven called, “Reasons I Should Be Dead”
Here are the first four parts of what I wrote, before I get to adulthood…
Reasons I Should Be Dead
Before I was or am death comes for me rambunctious sloppy drunk death knocking over a headboard a mirror breaking a lamp or plate black blast to the ribs to her back belly uppercut that shakes the planet the lake the ocean the soup that I swim and float in becoming a typhoon while I bob like an upended boat but do not drown.
Before I am fully me death returns again sneaky bastard while I’m sleeping slumbering dreaming not snoring death and death’s hand stabbing a thin metal rod into the milky cloud where I am hiding hibernating death poking and jabbing at the juice and fleshy walls tearing red gashes into this embryonic tent angling aiming for me a slippery fish who will not be so easily aborted.
After I am born the woman driving the car takes long pulls on her cigarette as if she’s french kissing a snake made of smoke touching a finger to the edge of her white cat-eyed glasses “have I seen you before?” I say only saliva slips out over my lips like goo she is sad is annoyed she sneers down at me on the seat and says “what?” I recognize the voice I want to say “it’s you isn’t it? you’re my mother?” but my words my thoughts are gurgles Gerber baby food the thunderbird trundles over some tracks then shuts off even though Charlie Pride goes on singing does my ring hurt your finger when you go out at night I want to ask “why are we stopping?” but bubbles—two or three floaters—slide out of my mouth instead this is where grandmother died not necessarily here but on a set of railroad tracks somewhere in the middle of the night no one knowing if it was an accident or on purpose I heard them talking—the one time they were civil instead of two angry attack dogs—making funeral arrangements maybe we will go like gran “mom we’d better move a train might come” those are the words in my constipated head that become nothing but soapsuds and blue breath on the way out of my mouth “I can tell I can just tell” mother says “you’re going to be like all the rest a useless piece of shit.”
I am in another car and the man who is my new dad who is not my real dad my blood dad he has the convertible caddie going very fast the car black as evening long like a parade float but sleek I wish the wind weren’t so rough I wish I wasn’t freezing I wish my brothers would stop saying “faster! faster!” I wish my mom would stop holding onto her head scarf and use it for a parachute a homemade airlift cape that could get us out of here but instead we go over a hill leaping the crest like a slow motion trout and I think this is where death will get me right here all of us together a bunch of broken bones bloody bits or a burnt out car nothing to do but scream and pray my soul escapes somehow.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
--TELL ME ANYTHING YOU WANT, ANY OLD LIE WILL DO
…I have a new story, “The Drunk” up at Troubadour 21 and here under “Words in Print.”
This was one of the twenty or so "label" pieces ("Daughter," "Brother," "Son," "The Fan," "The Prosecutor") that I wrote for a chapbook (which never came out) called, "People You Know By Heart."
…Yesterday I sent some stories out to people who had queried me and I got the fastest acceptance of my life. I sent the piece out at 11:01 am and got a reply accepting it for publication at 11:09.
Now that's greased lightning.
…I thought this news was encouraging, or somewhat anyway:
When asked by CBS News, “Have you read a book in the last month?” these were the answers:
Yes –68% 74% of those were women, 65% under 30 years of age)
Yes –62% Men
…I thought this was discouraging:
73% of critics gave last week’s #1 grossing film (“Immortals”) an unfavorable rating.
3% of all critics gave Adam Sandler’s new film a favorable rating versus the 61% of audience-goers who liked it.
That seems to be a big disconnect. The message is: Dumb down you movies. Go ahead, make inane films because people will not only pay to watch them, but afterward they will say bizarre things such as, “That was a really good motion picture. I think I’ll recommend this to my friends!”
I’m not a snob berating family-friendly fare, but when theaters are saturated with week after week of horrid films it gets discouraging. Film is an art form. They are print stories brought to life.
Just makes me a little sad.
…Did you know that there are now 7 billion people on the planet?
Did you know that the world consumes 1.7 cans of Coke every day?
That’s a lot of folks.
That’s a lot of soda.
…How do you feel about airports?
I had never flow on a real airplane until I was 24. I was terrified. Not only am I afraid of heights, but I was frightened by airports, not knowing how they functioned, where to go, what to do, etc.
My very first flight on a plane was from Seattle to Hong Kong. Yikes. And then three days later Tokyo. A month later it was New York City. Within a year it was Scotland, Italy, England and NY again.
I was a clothing buyer and that’s what buyers did—they flew to places and bought merchandise from vendors so as to resell it to intrigued customers.
Since then I’ve flown scads and scads of miles. Even still, airports still make me nervous and agitated. I always feel like I’m doing it wrong, that I’m going to make a mistake and get in the B lane instead of the D lane, miss my flight, miss my connecting flight, arrive at my destination hours late, thereby screwing things up for my waiting ride.
Mostly, though, when I’m in an airport I feel very small and insignificant. I especially feel that way in any airport that is not SeaTac.
To be surrounded by thousands of people and not know a single person is, to me, very daunting. Watching all those people with their lives and cell phones and packs and bags, purses and ear buds going wherever it is they’re going—it all sort of turns me inside out.
Shit starts to get deep for me sometime.
Questions can start to fly:
“Who are all these people?”
“Where are they going?”
“Why do they all seem so busy, focused and full of direction?”
“Why am I here?”
“What the hell am I doing?”
“What’s my purpose?”
“Am I sure I’m going in the right direction?”
Inside airports, the world seems both big and compressed. Inside airports, you can hide but not really ever get lost. Everyone inside an airport is a little like a convict looking to get out, eager to get on with their lives.
I don’t know about you, but it kind of fascinates me.
…More wind today. Right now. Bold and belligerent as hell, it comes right at me, right at my windows, spitting cedar spikes, clawing at the glass like an unleashed animal, a hungry demon with razor tipped paws, a rabid Doberman that might actually crack through no different than one of the Darkseekers from I Am Legend.
Behind and beneath is the black old man water wrinkled foaming without foam ridge after ridge lapping slapping turbulent black tea green tea no duck or gull brave enough to sit there no eagle or hawk flying overhead. Even the sky looks worried, as if there’s not enough light getting through the patchy areas, as if this place on the planet has decided to play a different game, using its own rules, having turned Mother Nature against herself.
All I can do is watch and listen and write. My defense is that weak. If I’m taken captured or swallowed up into the vortex, tell them there’s nothing to worry about. Tell them I am writing a better story from all the way up there.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
--AND THAT WHITE DRESS YOU’RE WEARING, HAVEN'T SEEN IT FOR A WHILE
…Yesterday I had three stories accepted. The day before, I spent an hour or so submitting. It had been a while.
Getting work accepted is sort of addicting. It’s addicting if you have an addictive-type personality, which I have.
Clearly, the compulsion has to do with needing to feel valued. So I guess there are a lot of times when I feel valueless. Is that just me? Or do you ever find yourself in that place?
…On the treadmill I pulled out The Airborne Toxic Event. The first album. They’re very good. You should check them out. Make sure to get the album with “Sometime Around Midnight” on it. That song is pretty brilliant for a lot of reasons.
…I’ve started watching “The Wire.” I’m six episodes in. I’d give it a solid B. When you don’t have a unique premise like “Dexter” (vigilante serial killer kills rampant murders that the justice system can’t apprehend) or “The Sopranos” (present day New Jersey mob boss battles with duality and sees a psychiatrist), the acting and characters become even more important than the actual plot.
I’m going to give it a few more turns.
…It’s possible to be lonely in a crowded room. It’s possible to be huddled in the midst of a lot of other people, to be the center of attention in that particular huddle, to be the one speaking while everyone else is listening, somewhat rapt, and feel very alone.
…I wrote these a while ago:
The vapor of your ghost
hangs like gossamer.
Was there always this much space?
Were the walls once red?
How about that chair?
I remember you leaning over the bed post
dripping sweat and eating a meaty chunk
of strawberry that bled juice down your chin.
You snarled and
curled your finger,
claimed you wanted to feed me.
Now we are too old to turn back.
I have no reserves.
One thing is not like the other
and fingerprints are only useful for felonies.
So I step out onto the sun porch,
blinded by bright white glare.
as they stripe the lake surface with their shadows.
A fish twists in midair.
two kids squeal about the icy water.
All around me life pushes on,
--not even pushing, really,
rather simply moving without effort.
without you anywhere in it.
I have spent the day
considering the archeology of your kiss
wondering about the line of your lipstick,
where it’s going,
if there is thirst involved,
who’s going along for the ride
Kant and Proust push through,
slinging blades and barbs,
You join in with coiffed curls
and a fingertip answer
about sexual duality
and gender inconsistencies.
Sometimes I could just puke.
Friday, November 11, 2011
--I'VE BEEN YOUNG AND I'VE BEEN OLD BUT I HAVE NEVER SEEN THE RIGHTEOUS FORSAKEN
…I have two interviews up at Scribophile that had somehow slipped by me. They were posted late October. Anyway, they’re here listed as “Scribophile Interview, Part 1” and “Scribophile Interview, Part 2” under “Words in Print.”
…Today is Veteran’s Day. 11/11.
Veteran’s Day is an important occasion in my family. Four of my brothers went into the miltary. One is still serving.
Their experiences changed their lives. You can see the way it’s been worked into the fabric of who they are. Sometimes it’s very obvious—a broke down body, a flag tattoo spread across the entire expanse of a back. Other times it’s a subtle hitch of the eye when a certain word is said.
My oldest brother got sent to Vietnam when I was ten. I remember watching the news, Walter Cronkite, reporting on various battles, showing the black body sacks being lifted, airborne into helicopters. You could tell Walter didn’t approve. A small film camouflaged the fact that he was more than a little bit fed up and disgusted with the war. News people were supposed to be unbiased when reporting, but Walter was always like that gentle Grandfather who was strong yet not afraid to cry in front of you.
I wrote a paper called, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, or Does He?” I was in 7th Grade and the teacher made a big fuss over it. At first she questioned whether I really wrote it. She told me I was saying things adults said. She asked how I could write something without having experienced it firsthand (which is what people would continue to ask me to this day.)
My brother, Charlie, served on the demilitarized zone, the line drawn between North and South Vietnam. However, it was anything but “demilitarized.”
His squad came under attack the first week they were there and a buddy of my brother’s got hit with a missile while in a trench. (CAUTION: READ THE NEXT LINE AT YOUR OWN RISK). The explosion blew my brother’s buddy’s body apart, his head flew through the air, through smoke and haze, dirt and splattered blood, before landing my brother’s lap like some horrifying fruit.
That’s one of a few stories my brother told. There were others that were worse. I know, how can there be worse? But there were.
Eventually my brother won The Bronze Star. It’s the fourth highest award a service man or woman can receive for distinguished bravery, heroism and meritorious participation. My brother carried a severely wounded solider over five miles on his back. Every day since then, he’s paid for that act physically. He walks with a cane and some mornings—all these years later--the pain is so severe that he doesn’t get out of bed.
Last week when I was home for my mother’s funeral, I asked if he’d do it over again knowing what he knows now and without hesitation, he said, “I’d do it in a second.”
I am not that brave. In fact, it’s difficult for me to comprehend that kind of daring and courage.
--When I was a boy, my parents somehow got a hold of a stash of military rations. They felt it important that we know what our brother was feasting on each day in the muggy jungles of Nam, so they pried open the tins and sliced up the coagulated globs. Everything came out of a can and was a combination of pasty and dry, like Elmer’s glue rolled in sawdust, like dog food dusted with someone’s cremated ashes.
That night I studied the only picture we had of him in Nam. In it, he’s stacking mortar shells into a massive pyramid taller than himself. Each copper-colored shell looked double the size of a king Salmon. My brother was smiling and shirtless.
It was raining that night, and after dinner I felt very strange—proud of my brother yet guilty for not being in the service myself, even if I was only 10 at the time. I remember (and this is going to sound really stupid, but it’s the truth) taking my shirt off, going into the rocky hills behind out trailer and walking bare-chested in the icy rain for several hours until I could no longer stand it. I guess I thought by doing so, I was somehow proving I could sacrifice as well as my brother, that I had gumption and moxie.
--When I lived in Virginia, my brothers all came back for a reunion. It was a touching time. At dinner I heard them tell raucous tales. They spoke a common language, employing some terms that meant nothing to me unless I asked for clarification.
I heard some heart-searing stories about the Vietnam War, ones I’d never heard before, ones I’m sure I will never hear again, stories I won’t ever forget.
The second day we went to the Mall, to the Vietnam Memorial. It’s a long black marble wall built into the ground, sort of like a retaining wall. The names of every dead service man and woman, plus those still missing, are etched into the stone. No one spoke. Not my brothers and not any of the other dozens of people. Most touched their fingers against the names carved there. Some had tracing paper and would pencil a reverse stencil and lift a name off. There was a book on a pedestal there were a person could look up someone. My oldest brother spent a lot of time flipping through the pages, his breath catching every so often. He cried but didn’t speak a word.
5,604 Americans have died fighting in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars since November 3, 2011.
58,794 Americans died fighting in Vietnam.
My third oldest brother is a Colonel. While we were in DC that time, I got to see him in full uniform. Everywhere we went that day, if a soldier was passing, they stopped at once, pivoted, clicked their heels and saluted. It was a startling thing to witness.
When I was in the corporate world, I more or less gave up my life for my job. I sacrificed time with my kids and special events. But I wasn’t literally sacrificing my life. I was just walking in the rain, without a shirt, getting very cold and frost-bitten.
…Obviously I’m a bit in awe of my brothers, just as I am any service person. I hope we do right by them. I hope we get out of the wars soon. I hope we don’t cut their benefits. I hope we help them find jobs and transition back into society. Those things seem like the bare minimum.
Here are three poems I wrote that were published last year at Rusty Truck. Each is more or less nonfiction:
We went as brothers
from different towns to this one,
meeting at the memorial,
our pasts broken down by
slab after slab of gray granite.
People moved like solemn shapes
no one speaking.
Black rain pecked our skins
but those were tears on Charlie’s face.
There might have been a million names.
There might have been but one.
War is an unscrupulous host.
A young boy my son’s age
Dragged his fingers across rows of engraved letters
I thought my brothers might be angered by the child’s act
but instead my eldest grinned and said,
“That’s why I went.
For those born later
they would only know it as the bad war
the one they made so many movies about.
At the time, protesters received more attention
and history may never right that wrong
or the ignorance of a new generation
but to the men
to the women
to the souls who went there,
I bow down
and I say,
“God bless you.”
His brother took him to a pool hall,
bought him tequila and beer chasers,
farted out loud and
commented over the texture and vibrato of each.
His brother laughed at anything—
his own jokes,
the old geezer with a chin stuck inside his mug,
the skipping juke box saying, “You give love a bad naye-naye-naye-naye.”
This place had the classic arcade games—Pac Man and Space Invaders.
Around 2:00 am,
Stucky threw them the keys and said to close up,
as if it was something he’d done a lot of times before.
He studied the homemade tattoos on his brother’s forearms.
Everything was short, choppy and to the point,
no word or ink mark wasting time on being clever:
Old Glory Hole
The little gray bug men
marched across the screen in neat rows.
His brother shot them down with his finger beating the sweaty red button.
He killed as many as he could.
He seemed happy.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
--I DON’T BELIEVE THAT ANYBODY FEELS THE WAY I DO ABOUT YOU NOW
…Is there anything that makes you feel more vulnerable than sitting/laying in the dentist chair while two people poke inside your numbed mouth using needles and electric drills that screech and smoke?
Can’t be, can there?
Perhaps gynecology visits for women. That would be unnerving. Just the thought is more than a little unsettling to me.
Yesterday I was fitted for a crown. I’d much rather have been fitted for a tux or even a bra.
Thankfully my son wisely suggested that I bring an iPod to squelch the drilling cacophony. I put on Ryan Adams and kept my thumb on the volume path slide and would turn it up as loud as I could take it without making my ears bleed.
I went through 23 Ryan Adams songs during the time I was there.
Afterward the left side of my face was numb until the afternoon. I felt like Elephant Man.
What’s funny (is that the right word? Probably not) is I didn’t go to the dentist until I was 23 years old. Yep.
My mother didn’t believe in dentists, or so she said. Really, I think it was just that we couldn’t afford it.
On my first trip to a dentist, he told me I had no cavities and the first thing he asked me was if I grew up in North Dakota. I said, “How did you know?” He said, there’s in fluoride in the water there that shields the teeth from cavities.
So there’s at least one thing good about North Dakota.
I remember flossing once and my mother later telling my dad, “You should see it; he cleans his teeth with a string.”
Anyway, getting fitted for a crown isn’t much fun and though it wasn’t anything like childbirth, nothing even remotely close to it pain-wise, for some reason yesterday’s experience gave me a renewed appreciate for mothers.
…I'm still enamored with Lidia Yuknavitch's memoir, "The Chronology of Water."
"You see it is important to understand how damaged people don't always know how to say yes, or to choose the big thing, even when it is right in front of them. It's a shame we carry. The shame of wanting something good. The shame of feeling something good. The shame of not believing we deserve to stand in the same room in the same way as all those we admire. Big red A's on our chests."
…Today, in just a few minutes after I read some submissions for Metazen, I am going to work on the novel. It's been a while. This week I've written a few thousand words--six pieces in all, kind of stylistically experimental for me.
Here's what I wrote yesterday, which is more or less a true event from my childhood:
I am six almost seven when the twister comes do you see it do you see it my brother asks it must be as far away as Dickinson or Fargo the hill we live on gives a view of the flat land and on it this afternoon with the sky gone gray as night this twister is a manic marauder a cone-shaped thing alladin’s angry genie unleashed will it take us I ask you’re such a scaredy cat my brother says but he doesn’t realize I’m not really afraid he sleeps downstairs and can’t hear their fights mom’s muffled shriek’s her squeals mirror glass shattering atop their dresser pipe or fist hitting the wall going through it on the other side of mine my little indian warrior clock with its big brown eyes coming free of its nail breaking off one pony tail when it hits the floor and bounces dead as I always knew hate you hate you I hate you she screams and so he hits her his father does hits or slaps I’m leaving you you’re a monster oh yeah I’ll show you a monster last night was the worst every evening is bad but last night the floor shook bombs exploded I expected smoke expected flames to burn their room to cinders but breakfast came and mom was at the stove frying flap jacks wearing a head scarf and jackie o sunglasses smoking silent as a hollow log saying stop your gawking and eat go on you let it get cold and I’ll whoop you sure as satan and now in the distance the cyclone is swiveling its smoke hips and I imagine it sucking up barns and buildings and houses with screaming children and astonished parents milk cows and chickens hogs farms being rolled up like rugs the moss place folger’s farm chicory square all of them slurped up that massive funnel of dirt while I wait our turn kenny says we better get downstairs come on you stupid turd I shake him off fine go ahead and die see if I care he might mean it he might know more than I think there the twister pivots like a jerky dust dancer moving through smolinski’s plot swiveling mowing pulverizing breaking things apart wherever it finds them a motorcycle comes flying this way hurled a mile through space like a chrome asteroid this is it this is it this is deliverance this is god acting saying I’ve heard your prayers this is his wrath that I’ve read about only at the bottom of bell street where the coolie sits the twister veers east without warning east east why east I’ve been waiting my whole life my short life willing eager to give it up and there you go god there you go you do not exist don’t tell me any more lies there you go no different than the gray ghost vapors my mother blows out of her nose when she smokes mom dad and me the fight between three maybe not tonight but tomorrow tomorrow the twister will reappear a different cyclone but just as savage and cruel and it might finally be the one that takes me the one that ends it all.
Monday, November 7, 2011
--I THINK THE WAY YOU EAT YOUR TOAST IS ADORABLE
…I have a new story, "Maps" up at Curbside Splendor, a story, "The Hard Dance" at Awosting Alchemy and a poem, "Sunglasses," about domestic violence up at S/Word.
All of them are also here under "Words in Print."
…My hands are shaking.
I hate that.
It would be hell to have Parkinson’s. I just voted and my script was all jagged as if I was signing my name with a razor blade.
Prior to voting, I blew all the cedar shavings off the decks. It took over an hour. The vibrations from that machine get into my nervous system somehow, and I ended up being numb in one arm and have a twitchy thing going on in the other.
This typically lasts an entire day.
…Prior to all that, I ran five miles on the treadmill.
I listened to Alicia Keys.
I think she is a doll.
I think she should make dozens and dozens of albums.
I hope her marriage survives. I'm not betting on it, but I wish she would find love and that it would stick.
…I’m almost done with Lidia Yuknavitch's astonishing memoir, "The Chronology of Water." Her story, delivered, ironically, without a chronological timeline, is rendered in ruthless truth and her writing is lyrical and lovely.
Here are a few samples:
"I didn't know yet that sexuality is an entire continent. I didn't know yet how many times a person can be born."
"Women live their lives secretly wanting their lives to become movies."
"People are often asking me if the things in my short stories really happened to me. I always think this is the same question to ask of a life--did this really happen to me? The body doesn't lie. But when we bring language to the body, isn't it always already an act of fiction?"
"There are many ways to love boys and men. Or to let them love you."
Do yourself a favor and get her book.
…Last week before my mother died, before the funeral and all that, I spent a full day reading stories for Scribophile. I was guest judge for a contest they were holding, a paying contest.
Most of the stories were very bland. Quite a lot of them were about zombies or robots or other weird sci fi shit.
I found three winners pretty easily. But that's all I found. It was too easy. I wanted it to be struggle. I expected it to be very, very difficult to hone it down to three. So what does that tell me/us? there are too many writers? Everyone thinks they're a writer?
Don't get me wrong--I was happy to be judge, honored and flattered to be asked. I just wished there would have been better writing.
…One of my favorite things is laughing. Saturday Night Live can pretty much always make me laugh. It's not as sharp this year, but there are still some good gags.
Laughing reminds me that I'm alive and that life is a good thing.
…Another of my favorite things is being asked by someone to write a story. I guess it's validating--having someone like your writing enough to solicit a story or poem.
…I am sometimes on Facebook longer than I'd like. I get sidetracked on it. But there are other people, people you know, who are on there ALL THE TIME. These people also have jobs. These people also edit lit journals and have a spouse and probably take time to bathe and dine and go to the restroom.
These people are writers.
How do they do it? Where do they find the time? And why is it so important for them to share every inane detail of their life?
I honestly don't get it.
…One other thing I love is Amazon. Amazon is dangerous.
The other day I ordered the new Jack's Mannequin and Laura Marling (because Ryan Adams name-checked her), two Kathy Acker's books, Jen Knox's book, and Gene Weingarten's, "The Fiddler in the Subway" about classical violists who anonymously pose as homeless people playing in the subway stations.
I can't wait for that box to arrive.
Oh, and I ordered Drake's new disc.
…Here are four things to ponder on a Monday:
"The innocent and beautiful have no enemy except time." Yeats
"Nobody has ever measured,
not even poets,
how much the heart can hold."
~ Zelda Fitzgerald
"When I sing, I feel like when you're first in love. It's more than sex. It's that point two people get to they call love, when you really touch someone for the first time, but it's gigantic, multiplied by the whole audience. I feel chills." Janis Joplin
"There is a smile of love,
And there is a smile of deceit,
And there is a smile of smiles
In which these two smiles meet."
~ William Blake
Saturday, November 5, 2011
--ONE DAY WE'RE GOING TO LIVE IN PARIS. I PROMISE.
…I was really excited to have a story, "My Mother, Marilyn Monroe" named Best of the Web by Sundress Press and Dorothee Lang.
The story is about the mom character in my novel "House of Rats" who dresses up in costumes. Her daughter thinks the mother is going nuts. Her son, the narrator, thinks the opposite, that--following her husband's suicide--she is finally starting to live.
And then some stuff happens.
…Death has a way of allowing us to live better…
…So, I'm home now.
Got here last night.
Thank you for all who were so kind about my own mother's passing.
The world seems small in a good way. A lot my best friends now are people I've never even met, not physically anyway.
You find out how much people care about you when you get knocked down and dinged up.
And it’s not that they buy you a drink or send you flowers. They’re just there.
“There” can be anywhere.
Nicolette Wong, a talented writer from Hong Kong, is someone I "talk" to frequently via this blog or Facebook or email. Same with Maree in New Zealand and others in Germany, Scotland, etc.
But having cyber friends can be tricky. It often takes a lot of reading between the lines. It takes having to bend sentences so that the words form facial expressions. You have to throw your darts accurately, and you have to use the right ones or what you mean to say can end up meaning the opposite.
I'm not a huge fan of the exclamation mark, but every once in a while a well placed ! adds a little something, like Cayenne pepper in a meatloaf.
Someone once posted, "It's the internet. It's not real."
But it is real.
It has certainly felt that way these last few days. You can tell when someone is being genuine and authentic, even if they're half a globe away, even if they are someone you've never met.
…In college I took a lot of writing classes. My major was Poli Sci and I was going to be a lawyer because that seemed like a good choice, fiscally. But in my heart I wanted to be a writer and ended up double majoring, adding English to the mix.
I took scads of writing classes. In one, I wrote a story about a dysfunctional group of brothers who gather together for their mother's funeral, and afterward, after the wake, they sit down to play a game of Parcheesi, something they did quite often as young boys. During the game playing, secrets spill out, grudges get matched and vented. There's a lot of anguish and tension. Wounds are laid bare in order to be cleansed and then sutured. I think it was one of the better pieces I'd written up until then. I was 19. My professor gave me A for "The Parcheesi Game."
It was strange how similar yesterday was to that story.
--Following the service and burial we all met in the trailer where I grew up. It was very crowded to say the least. The food was not what my mother would have cooked. Most of the crowd kept taking smoke breaks. A few drank canned beer. Initially it was awkward and tense. Men are not very skilled social beings. Throw in blood line and a tarnished history and, well, it be very uncomfortable.
But eventually it was okay.
It was fine to be a little bit vulnerable. To not feel threatened. To saunter up to a brother you hadn't seen in 30 years and say, "So tell me what your life is like now."
It was all right to play Parcheesi again.
Death has a way of allowing us to live better.
…At the funeral one brother leaned over to another brother and, speaking of Mom, said, "God better like to eat."
Then he added, "And he better not have a problem following orders."
A little bit of levity that was quite accurate.
…I feel good. I feel fine. The lake is very still outside my window--a sheet of wax paper. A few geese keep flying across at tree height and on the south end steam or fog has bearded up the boat launch.
It's all quite beautiful.
…Here are a few fun things for a Seattle Saturday:
"A story has no reason whatsoever to exist unless it's about trouble." Les Edgerton
"I am so clever that sometimes I don't understand a single word of what I am saying.” Oscar Wilde
"When we sit or when we run in place with images and sounds rather than flee farther into our rational minds, the imagination quietly reawakens to the possibilities of wonder and awe." Charlotte Beck
"The influence of each human being on others in this life is a kind of immortality." John Quincy Adams
"Let everyone sweep in front of his own door and the whole world will be clean." Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
"If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I'm neurotic as hell. I'll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days." Sylvia Plath
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
This is a eulogy for my mother and a small tribute to the family she left behind…
Like my brothers who are here today, I grew up on the north side of poor and didn’t realize it until there was nothing to be done but work hard, listen well, mind yourself, respect others and—if you were able--share.
Sharing is a kind of bravery when you don’t have much. It’s Biblical in the purest sense.
My dad is, and always was, a genius with his hands, a mechanical artiste hardly matched by anyone in the entire state. Time and time again he tried to share his knowledge of mechanics with me, but I preferred poetry to Peterbuilts, books instead of bolts. Lovingly, he called me “Sally” and “Flower Child” because I had long hair and wore puka shells like David Cassidy, my idol, from “The Partridge Family.” So, whether or not he meant to, my dad taught me that it was okay to be different, to be a nonconformist, so long as you were true to yourself.
From my brothers I didn’t get a lot of advice, but I did get mounds and mounds of Hand Me Downs. I’d get ornate western shirts with pearl snap buttons, yoke-stitched shoulder seams, and silver-tipped collars. They were fine shirts, something a countrified Elvis might wear—but they were usually four sizes too big for me and typically most had an unbleachable rust-stained patch of Ring Around Collar.
I also got their coats and gloves and hats and ratty old sweaters that resembled boneless cats. It was always an honest thrill to receive a new article of clothing because I figured if the item had once been good enough for them, it was doubly adequate for me—as if by sweating on the garments, my brother’s had somehow doused and blessed them with Holy water..
For many years, I owned exactly one pair of jeans. Once, during baseball practice, a fellow player slid in high and cleated me in the knee so rough and hard and deep that it splayed my tendons open like lasagna, and you could even see bone. When I got back from being stitched up, Mom washed those jeans and sewed the flap and I continued to wear those pants until I outgrew them (Ironically, the pattern formed a huge L, as if I was wealthy and had started monogramming all my clothes, even work-play apparel.
Because I was shy and essentially friendless, I spent a lot of time in our kitchen. I would read at the table or practice my penmanship by copying the first fifty pages of the dictionary. Every day Mom was there cooking. She used oversized kettles and pans, gigantic, steroid-infused cutlery, hardcore cookware you’d expect to see in the military.
There were a lot of us kids, many hungry boys with insatiable appetites, and she meant to take care of us.
So she’d toil for hours on end, Mother would, dropping bags of potatoes into a cloud of steam, using a rolling pin to flatten a blanket of bread dough, slathering glaze over a tin of caramel rolls.
It was all very workman-like yet fascinating. Watching her cook, or bake, was akin to witnessing Michelangelo paint, Rodin sculpt or Lawrence Welk smarmily conducting his Champagne Orchestra.
Mother made homemade donuts and bread and cream puffs and Aunt Anne’s cake and Glorified Rice and dumplings, German dishes with strange names like Fleisch Keeklah that really amounted to nothing more thanfried dough and hamburger. I thought she must be a chemist, a magician, or at the very least, the best cook on the planet.
When I’d run out of things to tell her, I’d make them up. I don’t know if she knew I was lying or if she was even that interested in my outlandish stories, but Mom let me ramble on and on. I was really just trying to impress her. Back then, a huge goal of mine had been to make my Mother love me without condition.
One Spring when I got really bored and complained about having nothing to do, Mother handed me a plate of rolls and said, “Here, take this to the Lemelys. They live a mile and half over that hill. Tell them I said you needed to be put to work.”
I had no idea who the Lemelys were or if there was even a house a mile and half over the craggy landscape that was our back yard, but Mom’s instructions were always meant to be carried out, and to veer from them was a very unwise decision—like cheating on your taxes or spouse, like relying on the rhythm method for your birth control.
And so I did. I grabbed the rolls and ran. And just as she’d predicted, there was a house and a kind old man named Homer Lemely who took the caramel rolls with a big grin, handed me a rake, and after watching me work like a fiend for two hours, hired me on the spot.
Work was an important element of our lives—in the lives of being a Kuntz, a Volk, or a Hauff. When you don’t have much, what you do have are two clear-cut choices: to whine about not having anything, or to get busy.
In our family, we were always some sort of busy.
But being busy—for us anyway--often meant getting over yourself, steeping yourself in survival, ignoring embarrassment that others might equate with shame.
We raised milk cows—Kathy and Irene, Go Go and Thunder--that we milked each morning before school. We had chickens that Mom butchered. We had a makeshift garden and after harvesting, Mom would drive me down to Two Schwabbies. Working out a deal with the store manager, I’d be allowed to sell vegetables in front of the store. “Cucumbers, cucumbers, ten cents each!” I’d shout. Invariably I’d see a schoolmate who would gawk then stiffen like an erection, as if I were some diseased horror. Or often times there’d be some lady who would see me, stop and ask, “My God, aren’t you Joe and Alice’s son?” in a horrified voice that might as well have asked, “Aren’t you Michelle and Barrack Obama’s son?” On a good day, I might make four or five bucks, which Mom would collect, note on a ledger, and save for me inside a stained envelope labeled with my name.
During summers, Mom took us to the fruit fields where we picked strawberries, pie cherries, raspberries, and sometimes corn. We were the only white family among groups of Hispanic migrant workers. Mother was a Checker. Her job was to make sure no one loaded the bottom lug or flat with rocks and leaves instead of fruit. Her task was to sign off on each carton, tell workers where to pick, and generally, just run the show. It was a man’s job, but my mother could be as tough and mean as any male when she wanted to, and I think she was--by all accounts--a pretty damn good Checker.
Before The World’s Fair in 1974, Mom would drive a school bus down to the river, to a very sketchy area known as “Skid Row.” Always we arrived before dusk, usually at 4 am. When she’d honk the horn, the bums and winos would saunter out of the foggy dark like constipated zombies. They’d trundle up on the bus, and then mom would drive them to the cherry orchards where they’d pick fruit, get cash money on the spot, sing old Buck Owens songs with their bottles dangling from branches, drunk as one-legged dogs, burping and farting in key. I was 12 and 13 at the time, but I still recall the friendly, rank stench of those bus rides to and from the fields—it was a kind of cat pee-meets-lighter fluid-meets-embalming fluid odor, and to get through the journeys, I plugged my nose and breathed through my mouth. I remember Mom driving, smoking, wearing cat-eye glasses, tapping her fingernail on the steering wheel, looking tough as steel. I think the men on board both feared and respected her. They certainly didn’t give her any guff.
There are a lot of quirky but true stories, similar to those, that I could tell, but time is short and no one likes a story that never ends.
So, lastly, I just like to say that whether she knew it or not, Mom shared a way of living with me, with us.
She taught us how to love and she taught us how not to love.
She was hardly perfect. None of us are. The examples she set were sometimes unorthodox, often far from textbook, never Dr. Spock-approved, but if you looked and listened you could gain a sense of how to survive, even if history was a disloyal friend, even if the brightest odds looked bleak.
Mom taught the value of dollar, the importance of hard work, the value of service to one’s country, exemplified through the examples of my brothers here today.
She taught me that life can in fact be both simple and full at the same time.
She taught me that it’s better to be surrounded by a gaggle of noisy kids than to be sequestered alone in an empty room.
She showed me the importance of family and the necessity of a loyal, loving spouse, and how in the end those things are what’s true, how they become a kind of living legacy.
We don’t pick our parents—none of us do—but we do get to pick what we remember of our parents, or at least how to use what our parents taught us to better inform and shape our life.
My mother, my brothers’ mother, my father’s spouse—she was a complicated and paradoxical woman.
She was many things.
She was a young girl, someone’s daughter, a farmer’s daughter, a farmer, cook, chef, model, lover, spouse, bible salesman, truck driver, field hand, foreman and Mariner’s fan.
She was a tiny stick of dynamite that could take out an entire building or someone’s self-esteem.
She was a lot of things, but in the end, she was my mother. She me—gave us, her children—life.
So it seems only fitting that at a moment like this, on a day like today, that we fill our hearts with kind remembrance, that we give our mother a full measure of gratitude, that we wish her all of the grace and God’s love we would humbly wish for ourselves.
Thank you, and thank you for being here.
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
(...from last night when i was without a connection...)
--I WANNA BE SEDATED
…I have ten new micro fictions (each one is 25 words exactly and the titles are all nail polish color names) up at Nicole Scarpato Monaghan’s fun new site, Nailpolish Stories.
They’re also up here at “Words in Print.”
…Today was a productive day on some fronts.
I ran. I read. I took a bath. I submitted some poems to two different sites.
But most of the day I worked on my mother’s eulogy.
Last night late, my Dad called and asked me to give one.
I sort of new he would. I was actually expecting it.
He said, “Heck, you knew her as well as anyone.”
I thought that was an interesting thing to say.
Did I know her as well as anyone? I doubt it. I really do.
The eulogy is four pages long. It was tricky to write. To capture the essence of someone, to celebrate their life truthfully without denigrating it.
I think it turned out all right. I may put it up here before I leave on Wednesday. We’ll see.
I am reading “The Chronology of Water” by Lidia Y. (I can’t remember how to spell her Czech last name and the book is downstairs. It is phenomenal, this memoir. She’s so, so brave. Many of the chapters read like eulogies. That helped me with mine.
Plus Mona Simpson’s eulogy of her brother, Steve Jobs, is running around all over the internet. Her take on her life and their relationship also helped me create a flavor for being honest in a respectful way.
This week I will see brothers and sisters I have not seen since I was 14 years old. I will see others who do like one another. I will see some who vowed never to speak to my mother, and hadn’t for well over a decade.
I once saw an interview with Winona Judd where she said, “Our family put the ‘fun” in dysfunctional.”
My family puts the “dys” in dysfunctional.
But it’ll be okay. I think it will.
…It is Halloween.
Where I am on the planet it is pitch black out. The lake is a sheet of tar, ending only shore-side where some house lights glow.
We will not get a solitary Trick or Treator. We haven’t in the last four years. It’s not an efficient undertaking as it requires too much work to cover this road and make the long trek down our road.
When I was a kid, Halloween was my favorite holiday. Free candy! As much as you want! We used to take pillow cases with us and run door to door as fast as we could. We’d work well into the evening. Halloween is a poor kid’s lottery winning ticket.
I hope you have a great holiday wherever you are.
I hope you are chewing on something sugary and maybe getting a little bit chubby.
…Here are some things I like on Halloween:
New York City – stingiest city for giving out Halloween candy
Washington, DC – third stingiest
Los Angeles – fifth stingiest
"There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that's your own self." Aldous Huxley
"We have a natural right to make use of our pens as of our tongue, at our peril, risk and hazard." Voltaire
"To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting." e.e.cummings
"Nothing makes you a hypocrite quite like parenthood." Amy Wood
"I've always had this sense that the unexamined fact is like a rattlesnake. It's going to come after you. And you can keep it at bay by always keeping it in your eye line." Joan Didion
"Art is a lie that speaks the truth." Picasso
"What ought one to say then as each hardship comes? I was practicing
for this, I was training for this." Epictetus
"I saw myself when I shut my eyes: space, space, where I am and am not." Octavio Paz
"Don't bother about genius. Don't worry about being clever. Trust to hard work, perseverance and determination." Sir Frederick Treves
"The one thing an aspiring writer must understand is it's hard. If you think it's not, you're not doing it right." Gene Weingarten