Friday, June 30, 2006

The Little Book of Killing

My first published short story was in a teeny-tiny anthology of stories all involving people killing other people. The leader of an informal group of undergrads who got together to drink coffee and talk about writing and smoke cigarettes (mostly smoke cigarettes) had decided to put this splendid collection together and by some act of God, got it published by an equally teeny-tiny press. I submitted a little piece of cheer to this enterprise titled "Ain't No Life, Nowhere." (many apologies to Jimi Hendrix for blatant title-stealing) My story, topping out at two pages, involved a Vietnam vet whose wife had left him so he sat on a lawnchair with his murdered son rotting inside his house. As he sits, he talks to the dead boy (he shot him two days ago in a fit of post-traumatic stress breakdown), telling him about how awful women are and how proud he was of him as a son. This droning monologue is punctuated by thrilling details written in the tone of stage directions including such bon mots including "grit had permeated his every orifice." What can I say? I was nineteen! Jesus, hold my hand. I never thought it would get accepted, but it did. The writing group were all men older than me, and I served as their little girl mascot, which seemed like an honor in itself, but to be in "The Little Book of Killin'" -- my God, could there be a bigger thrill?

The only other women who ever came to meetings were girlfriends, two of which I recognized from descriptions of their long and slow deaths detailed in excruciating prose in the anthology. One died of rat poison, another of strangulation. How would they respond to this sort of homage? The girls seemed to me to be exotic creatures in large part because of their indifference to writing. They already had the air of bored wives, putting up with their husbands' stupid hobbies. Many years later, I see what they saw -- a bunch of chain-smoking douchebags (myself included in this assessment, even though I didn't smoke), one who even wore a pea coat (this was Texas and even in the coldest months not exactly a necessity) all chattering for hours on a caffeine high. After the anthology was published, the group died, as groups do. Everything has a half-life. I missed it, of course, but like I wrote in that first story, when you don't have anyone to talk to, you talk to God which works just fine, but that also means you have to bring the cigarettes and coffee.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"I am almost ready to confess that it is not some awful understanding that has carried me here." Denis Johnson, "Now"

More country songs for drinking involving drinking:
(with much thanks to Jodi who suggested the Travis Tritt!)

"The Bottle Let Me Down" Merle Haggard
"The Whiskey Ain't Working" Travis Tritt
"Whiskey River, Take My Mind" Willie Nelson
"Merry Christmas From the Family" Robert Early Keen

Benedictions and Maledictions

As to Wichita-Lineman's question about Natalie Wood's death -- I suspect foul play, but the most interesting detail about the whole drowning death is that from the time she was a child, Natalie W. had a terrible fear of water, especially dark water, and never learned to swim because of it. She must have had an internal prescience about how she would die.

As to Sheila's question about the store that has runes -- It's Mystic Curio, located at Sixteen Mile and Harper. They have great jewelry as well -- much of my snake jewelry has come from there.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Free Shuttle To Hospital

At major cancer hospitals like MD Anderson and the Mayo Clinic, there's a rash of hotels that cater to people's families who have nowhere to stay (many have travelled from other states and countries) during usually grisly and extensive treatments. My family did its time (prison terminology is not an accident) in Houston at MD Anderson in a rickety hotel that advertised "Free Shuttle to Hospital!" with a death-trap elevator that rattled the entire way to the twelvth floor where we stayed. My mother's operation (a fourteen hour ordeal) had been scheduled for the fourth of July weekend, a holiday that I have always, at best, loathed. I hate loud noises, parks, picnics, and still have trauma from the early seventies when my daddy set himself and his avocado-green polyester pant suit on fire with a Roman Candle (luckily for him, we were at good old Possum Kingdom Lake and he jumped in and didn't get burned -- the suit, however, was a goner). Houston in July resembles what I imagine to be hell -- sweltering with humidity, temperatures nearing or surpassing 100 every single day. One never knew how to dress -- the hospital itself felt like a tomb (a/c turned to sixty to protect the machinery) and outside was a sauna, a sauna in a sprawling urban city full of traffic problems.

My mother survived the operation (she had to stay in the hospital over a month, however, and make many returns in the remaining years of her life), and my father, sister, and I became familiar with the hotel -- the Arabic woman dressed in full burkhas who sat at the pool every night after the men had gone inside, the hotel clerks with their gallows humor (floods in the midwest killing dozens of people on the news illicited the following response -- Ha! Nobody lives forever!), the other patients who passed in and out with bandages and ivs trailing, well enough to leave the hospital, but under strict orders not to return home for a certain period of time. I saw a couple on their honeymoon who stood behind a man with half his nose removed and see them look at each other as if to say, Why didn't we go see Steve and Edie in the Poconos? On the fourth, I didn't remember the holiday, but my sister did and told me to wake her up if I saw any fireworks. I stayed up that night reading and kept hearing this loud thumping noise that sounded as if somebody upstairs was falling down, over and over again. I looked up from my book after nearly half an hour, thinking, this is bullshit until I realized the sounds were the fireworks! The whole window lit up with color -- I could tell this was the finale of the show, and I hadn't woken up my sister, and we'd missed it all. I might have let her sleep -- there wasn't much left, but I couldn't stand the thought that she wouldn't see anything. We stayed silent and unmoving for the last few minutes, the time where the whole sky exploded in front of our window, and we stood in front of it, seeing stars, as if we'd been hit.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Until he died, they hadn't taken into account how many times a week they saw him." Jill McCorkle, Creatures of Habit

Bottle Rocket

1 part grapefruit vodka
1 part pomegrante juice

Serve as a martini and garnish with lemon.

Benedictions and Maledictions

First published in Natural Bridge:

This Final Bath

Part of our job is to clean the bodies,
my sister told me. When someone dies,
we take care of them before the funeral
home arrives. She hadn’t known about it,
this final bath. Past all caring, you could
do anything you want, no need for gentle
gestures. Still she checks the water’s
temperature, out of habit or love, waiting
until it becomes warm enough not to be a shock.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Lady Or The Tiger

A dear friend of mine (name withheld given the next bit of information) admitted to me that he'd been reading Dr. Phil (I could not have been more appalled if he'd said that he'd started engaging in ritual animal sacrifice), and while he knew Dr. Phil was a total boob, he did have one good point on his "Ten Truths About Relationships" list. One of the truths was that ninety percent of relationship problems are unsolvable. Dr. Phil, Satan spawn of Oprah and Texas, has driven me nuts enough (I went to the same college he did and have, when drinking heavily, the same accent) that I have learned to do an imitation of him that makes my students laugh, ie, "How's that not using a comma in the right place working for ya?" You get the picture. It is my great fortune not to bear a physical resemblance to Dr. Phil so the joke can only go so far.

One of my first fiction teachers used to give us these great worksheets about fiction and "The Lady Or The Tiger" dilemma featured prominently as a plot device. The story can be summed up like this -- a princess in a faraway land takes a lover well below her station. Her father is a little upset so he puts to the old lady or the tiger routine. The lover has to pick a door and behind one is a beautiful woman that he will marry and the other is the tiger, who will tear him to bits. He looks into the crowd to the princess for a sign as to which door to pick, and her dilemma is obvious. If she tells him the right (meaning not getting eaten alive door), she will have to live her entire life seeing him live with another woman. I suppose what the evil Dr. Phil meant with his truth is not that relationship problems are unsolvable, but that the solutions won't be ones anyone wants. Writing and love are not so different. We all want the same things as writers that are totally incompatible -- to be an original voice and not to offend anyone we know, to write a tremendous deal and to keep doing everything we did before we started writing, to deal with things honestly, painfully, and not be affected by it in any adverse way. We look to teachers or God or the universe or our friends and lovers to give us signs about which door to pick. Hey, what's the worst that can happen? Being ripped to bits has its uses which is to say that if you can survive it, you can write about it. Alas, that's the writer's consolation prize for everything, but it's better than going home empty-handed.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"To a writer, nothing is sacred." The Anniversary Party

The Lady or The Tiger

1 part godiva chocolate liquor
1 part Starbucks liquor

Serve as a layered shot and top with whipped cream.

Benedictions and Maledictions

There’s Room For Everyone

Under the mall’s fluorescent lights,
a man in a black trench coat struggles
with his oxygen while ordering the special,
the same thing I have in front of me,
bits of greasy chicken in bourbon sauce.
You look awful, my sister tells me. What
are you thinking? But I’m not, I just watch
the guy get his food and make his way
to sit down and eat. Almost every table is open.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Bullet I Wear Around My Neck

In my house if you were to look, you could find the following -- a baby cobra in a jar of Vietnamese snake wine, a yellow-colored stuffed representation of the type of bacteria that creates ulcers, a barbwire crucifix, a postcard with Mark Rothko staring at a blank canvas, the tiniest Snoopy alarm clock from Japan, a picture of my mother handling a python in front of a crowd in Australia, a pen that lights up when you write with a beautiful blue color (the last gift from my dad), a free-standing voodoo doll with an entire kitchen knife set stuck in it, a set of appetizer plates with a realistic-looking skeletons adorning them, an old-fashioned rotary phone that still works, a Janis Joplin Christmas tree ornament, a book containing excerpts of all the erotic parts of classic novels (Hank billed it as the "greatest literary timesaver ever!" in his inscription), a Pebbles doll, a watch with the face of the great Dwight Yoakum on the face of the watch, the cd of the last songs of the People's Temple and Jim Jones last speech urging everyone to drink the Kool-Aid, a bottle of Absinthe, every season of the Sopranos, the bullet I wear around my neck. All of these things were gifts, things that define me even though I did not choose them. Of course, they are far more wondrous than anything I could have wished for.

I'm a person who doesn't give enough notice to the physical world. I have inherited from my mother a propensity to hurt myself, in tiny and large ways, ways nobody could have predicted -- walking into walls, dropping knives onto my legs, being sprawled on the cement before anybody understands what has happened. I'd like to think it's because my mind is on other things, the slow alphabet of rain coming down in the morning, the past or future (two of the most interesting places to reside), on conversations that happened long ago or what I would have said to someone had I been thinking fast enough. When I was a gymnast, I never hurt myself during the actual work-out, but rather walking from the uneven bars to the balance beam which kind of makes sense given that I had to prepare my mind to someday live in a world in which I would wake up to a baby cobra encased in alcohol and touch the bullet around my neck, just to make sure it was still there.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"I don't write songs, I just make them up." Janis Joplin

Poetry Collections with drinking themes that I like:

Viper Rum by Mary Karr
The Incognito Lounge by Denis Johnson
All of Us by Raymond Carver

Benedictions and Maledictions

Thanks to everyone for all the great comments! As for the request to put someone out of his misery, I think I'll pass given that I'm much better at putting people into misery than releasing them from it.

First published in bordersenses:

Everything Seems Dead

Everyone had lost something – a finger or toe,
friends, fluency, currency. Most still flew, though,
all that war training having some small part
in the other life. As a child, I feared being buried
alive above all else and made my father promise
to stab a stake of holly through my heart when
my time came to be lowered into the ground.
Instead of planning my funeral, my dad told
me I could ride in a helicopter with one of his
friends, who said, Everything seems so fucking
dead after Vietnam
. Don’t curse in front of the little
, another guy said. She’s heard it before, he
replied. I nodded. Those were the days when I
saw a lot, understood little, much like now, I suppose.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Welcome To Fantasy Island

My favorite day of the week has always been Friday. When I was a child, it was the day my daddy got paid which meant my sister and I would load up in his pick-up truck and go to the Taco Bell for lunch during the summer months when school wasn't in session. These days were looked forward to with great anticipation (no fried bologna saucers!), and even as I got older, Friday remained the same -- the day I went out with Hank for the KFC buffet for a late lunch, or got off work early with that Friday feeling in my heart, knowing that I'd put a solid week in and feeling suddenly lighter. Friday is all possibility, money in the bank, a weekend ahead of you.

It was also the night I watched Fantasy Island. I loved the show, from the moment that Tattoo began screaming at the plane in the sky (imagine my horror years later to see the actor that played Tattoo, old and bitter, railing against his success, screening reruns of the show and throwing bottles at the screen while getting progressively more drunk and damaging his already fragile organs) to the end when the guest inevitably had to get out of the mess that getting what she or he wanted had caused, the wish the person had coming true in unexpected ways. This Monkey Paw (perhaps one of the most scary children's books -- a dad wishes for money on the dreaded monkey's paw and his son dies in a factory accident and he gets the insurance is an example of one of its plot twists) premise, while simple, proved enormously effective. I feared Fantasy Island (unlike its leader show, The Love Boat), it didn't promise any happy ending for those who were basically good people. Unlike lots of television from my youth, I have never seen this one as an adult and if I do, I hope it's as scary as I remember. I imagine it would be -- whisked away to a beautiful place that can solve your problems while creating ones far worse -- yeah, I know that story and still I would go even if it meant being greeted by a bitter little man in a white suit yelling at his suave and handsome boss about what was coming next.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"It happened this way: I fell in love and then, because the love was ruining everything I cared about, I had to fall out." Caroline Knapp, Drinking: A Love Story

Fantasy Island -- Serve chilled in a martini glass, garnished with a lemon rind.

1 part raspberry liquor

1 part vodka

1 part cranberry juice

Benedictions and Maledictions

In answer to Cindy's question about the marginalization of feminist literature in favor of "chic" lit (an excellent question!):

Before Valentine's Day of this year, I went to a used bookstore in Detroit (John King Books, Ferndale branch), one of my favorites, and it had been rearranged. I'm not one to ask for help so after finding a few copies of Live or Die (one of my favorite Anne Sexton collections) to give as presents for the most Satanic holiday there is (not counting the truly awful Sweetest Day), I went in search of the women's section. I couldn't find it anywhere and had to resort to being led to a dark corner of the store where the clerk told me, "We don't sell much out of this section anymore." The selection had been badly decimated so I picked up a copy of a book about a reporter leaving her husband issued in the 70s and blurbed by Gloria Steinem herself, The Erotic Silence of the American Wife (a book I'd been meaning to read given the title), and an outdated copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves to add to my collection (the oldest one I have lists, among the more standard techniques, the astrological method for birth control -- an idea I love if not the actual practice which seems to rely a lot on timing and the stars and probably results in reading the following sections on pregnacy and abortion).

As women, we have entered a very dark time as our rights are being eroded daily, particularly the rights to our own bodies in both issues of abortion and appearance. In the latter case, we have become both victimizer and victim. If men's expectations weren't enough (and truth be told, no man I have ever known scrutinized women as brutally as women do), we amp up the penalties for those who don't dress well, stay a size two, and wax every stray hair on their bodies. No wonder we're enthralled by the heinousness that comprises most "chic" lit. Like fashion magazines, they provide escape and comfort with equal doses of stupidity with which to lash ourselves. This is not to say that everyone should stick to Marge Piercy novels (which are excellent, especially her book Small Changes) and never read anything light, but I doubt that feminism's goal was to get us to work like dogs so that we could take over the tyranny of beauty maintenance and in turn hobble ourselves from doing anything that could truly improve our lives. Instead we stay focused on who is beautiful and who is "sluttish" (meaning cast out from approved behavior -- mind you, this judgment from a society in which it is acceptable to allow your pre-teen to dress like a 30 year old with jeans down to the ass crack) and what else we can buy from Pottery Barn to improve ourselves and give us the perfect life, the one with the gorgeous husband, the beautifully tousled children, and the dog who never shits on the floor. Yeah, that life. The one we're all living. Men and women. Uh huh.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Nothing Special

As a child, I didn't have much patience for stories except for the ones I made up and "The Little Engine That Could." (I can still see the Little Golden Book with Little Engine's story which I now recognize as a metaphor for the writing life -- a long struggle up an almost impossibly steep hill -- no wonder I was enthralled!) But for the most part, I wanted reality, facts, the truth. God only knows where that impulse came from -- in my own days, I pretended to be things more than I ever was myself. Of course, the most asked question of childhood is the easy to answer -- What do you want to be when you grow up? I never said ballerina (too much work and you had to be excruciatingly thin, although I loved the idea of possibly dating Rudolf Nureyev (before I understood he was gay) or Mikhail Barishinikov (before I'd read one too many ballerina memoirs about what an asshole he was to date)) or teacher or nurse, the answers my female classmates gave out with disturbing regularity. I said I was torn -- no shock to those who know me now, although it got many laughs coming out of a five-year old's mouth (much like when I'd report to adults with an uber serious expression, "I'm a fatalist."). My choices included two things -- psychotherapist (like Freud, I'd clarify) or a writer. Lucky for me, I started loving stories after a fifth-grade meltdown after having to do a book report on something "that wasn't true, just made-up and I can't take it and I won't like it and why can't I read another biography or book on witchcraft or something interesting." Strident might be the best word to describe my affect in those days. Anyway, I eventually decided that I'd much rather write about crazy people than treat them and it's been that way ever since.

The most interesting answer, though, to the what are you going to be question came from my friend Curtis. He said, Nothing. He'd become obsessed with Andy Warhol after seeing him make an appearance on The Love Boat and did massive amounts of research on his ways, which I always saw as touched, but Curtis worshipped because he didn't seem to care about anything except for the commercial and the base, said that if he had a television show he'd call it The Nothing Special and it would focus on his favorite subject, nothing. Years passsed and when we were in high school, The Andy Warhol Diaries came out and Curtis bought them immediately. He tried to read them, but could never get through the tedious prose. He wanted to like them, but he didn't. Still, he displayed the book on his shelf in the most prominent position, a large book filled with the thoughts of a man who claimed to love nothing the very best.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Never allow yourself to feel anything because then you feel too much." Marlon Brando

The Factory

1 part vodka
1 part clamato
a dash of tabasco
a dash of wocestershire
salt and pepper

Serve cold and use celery salt for the rim of the martini glass.

Benedictions and Maledictions

Your Comments Are Appreciated

We are a hotel at check-out time
and you are the maid, vacuuming
in the next room, collecting the trash,
stripping the bed. Everything comes
to an end, and maybe your head is in your
hands and maybe it’s on a platter. What you
have given me can be put in a small box,
one that I can take with me should I
desire. When I ask you what you want
to eat at our last dinner date, you set
down the menu, tell me it doesn’t matter,
at all, everything tastes the same here.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Detroit Proper

When I lived in Detroit proper, I stayed up late almost every night and watched the street through my window while I typed at my computer, my office being a corner area off what some might call a sitting room. Television sets glowed blue throughout the night, and I could see right into the house across the street so clearly that I could make their wall art, the most notable piece being the famous poster of Black Panther Huey Newton in a wicker chair holding a machine gun. I'd been mildly obsessed with the Panthers throughout my youth and my favorite birthday card ever (which I received on my 18th birthday) had a picture of Wally and Beaver from "Leave It To Beaver" and Elridge Cleaver standing between them. Inside it read, "Happy Birthday from the Cleavers."

I've always liked guns (blame that on Texas if you will) and sometimes I'd sleep with one underneath a nearby pillow if nobody else was in the house. I could reach out in the middle of the night and touch the cold metal and feel better even though I knew statistically that the gun in your house was far likelier to hurt you than anybody else. The nights were long under such circumstances and sometimes I'd wake up and drift from room to room, wondering where I was, catch a glimpse of myself in one of the many windows and startle, as if I'd seen a ghost.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Never under any circumstance give a nervous woman a pistol." James Thurber

A television show that require heavy drinking:

Beverly Hills 90210 -- The suspension of disbelief required to imagine that Ian Ziering is in high school while looking 38 and suffering from a receeding hairline makes this a hard drinking show from the get go. Add to that fact that the "kids" stay at California University for at least eight years without taking any courses and you really have to guzzle. Still, you find yourself peversely engaged and hating yourself for it. On a serious note, God rest Aaron Spelling's soul who created it and died today.

Benedictions and Maledictions

To Hopeless in Bloomfield Hills:

Your situation sounds tremendously difficult. Robin's smart observation on the comment board is an excellent jumping off point -- why should your married boyfriend change his behavior? He's lucky enough to have someone to support him (his wife) and someone to love him (you). It might require some work and compartmentalization for him, but it's a pretty good deal as far as deals go. For change to happen, a person has to be running from something or running to something. My advice (and nobody ever likes this advice so don't worry if you cringe at first) is to tell him you need a month to sort things out in which you won't be able to see him. If this man has an addictive-like sway over you, this will be mighty hard. But it will give you a sense of what your life would be like without him (you might be surprised at how much better you feel) and it will most certainly make him miss you. At any rate, you'll get some perspective and power over the situation that you don't have right now. If he loves you and you have the strong bond that you purport, then he'll decide that maybe it's best to give up the wife and give life with you a try. A month (maybe start this at the beginning of July) feels like forever -- but it's not. Hold yourself to it and tell yourself that you can always go back to the way things were at the end if that's what you really want. During this month, rent all the movies and read all the books you can on the subject to keep yourself from calling him or having any contact. Start with Woody Allen's Matchpoint. I'll have more suggestions as the month continues and anybody who wants to can chime in on the comment board!

Friday, June 23, 2006

Second Day Reported

Whenever I return to Texas, I know I'm almost home when I pass the 24 Hour XXX-Rated Adult Video Store on the side of the highway. It's been there for as long as I can remember, and there is no fence around the parking lot so the cars and pick-up trucks can be counted. Sometimes I recognize a truck or two, but perhaps the most shocking moment of recognition was when I spotted a familiar mini-van with a handicapped sticker driven by my sister's friend Natalie. Natalie, a sweet girl afflicted with cystic fibrosis and an evangelical Christian, admitted that she frequented the place so often that she'd formed a friendship with the manager. The only thing that kept her from renting videos was when her feet had sores on them from the braces she had to wear when she wasn't in her wheelchair. She told my sister that pornography had made her a shell of herself and as often as she told herself she wouldn't go, she'd find herself in her mini-van with her helper dog Rex, moving toward the store after they'd eaten dinner at Taco Bell or somewhere else that she could pull in and get a meal for both herself and Rex, whom she loved.

When I was a little girl, I thought the Adult in anything meant it was for grown-ups, and I wanted to read and see those videos because kids' stuff was just so dull! When I figured out that adult meant something else, I wondered who might be drawn to such a world and what it would mean to them. Natalie had had boyfriends -- the one she really loved would come over late at night, and she'd douse herself with perfume to hide the odor of urine coming from her catheter bag and hope he wouldn't notice and be disgusted. She'd put on his favorite music, George Strait, and get out of her wheelchair and arrange herself in bed to look as if she could be anyone, someone who didn't deal with wheelchairs and catheter bags and constant pain. For a few minutes, she'd be a beautiful woman waiting for a man she loved until something would happen that brought back reality. She said the man was an addiction, so much so that when she caught him with another woman in a restaurant (she and Rex would follow him around), she threw a knife at him. In that moment, she had fulfilled her fantasy of being like every other woman -- capable of moments of beautiful preparations as well as unplanned violence, the kind we visit on others, the kind we save for ourselves.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

" At some point in your story grief presents itself." D.J. Waldie

Movies that will make you want to drink:

Last Exit To Brooklyn, Leaving Las Vegas, Breaking the Waves, Requiem for A Dream, Deconstructing Harry

Benedictions and Maledictions

Second Day Reported

I have never told anyone this,
and I am not going to start now.
You won’t recognize me because
I’ve dyed my hair, and I don’t
answer to the same name. But
here’s something. This is the worst
story I have ever heard. Once a woman
was gang-raped in an apartment
where men kept streaming in and out
for hours, so many that she couldn’t
identify them all. She changed
everything she could so that they
wouldn’t recognize her, but in the end,
she became Apartment 206, and she
could never leave. Some women tell
themselves this place doesn’t exist,
that she doesn’t even exist. The men, well,
they know better, or so the saying goes.

* second day reported is a police term for rapes that aren't reported on the day the rape takes place

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Difference Between Sex and Rough Sex

I once heard a story about a woman named Jodi who worked at a Donut Hole franchise. She'd get to work around five in the morning and stay until noon. The Donut Hole wasn't the kind of place that required a lot of make-up and nice clothes so her husband grew suspicious when she started leaving for work at three or four in the morning, full make-up, hair styled, and dressed in her Sunday best. The husband followed her one day and caught her in his pick-up truck with one of the Donut Hole regulars, an obese man with a propensity for chocolate-iced cruellers. The husband, an attractive man with a steady job, couldn't believe that he'd been cuckolded by someone bearing no resemblance to George Clooney or even one of George's cousins. Jodi ended up marrying Mr. Donut Hole, he died of a heart attack, and she returned to her husband. As St. Ray once observed, "Who knows why we do what we do?"

One of my dearest friends once made the astute observation that having sex by a dumpster (one of the calling cards of any illicit affair -- a dumpster being a good place to park your car and hide from everyone) is God's way of telling you that you are doing something that should end. Once I picked a paint color for a coffee table, Gargoyle's Shadow, for the name of it if not the thing itself. What could be better than something darker than the gargoyle? When I painted the table, I didn't like how it looked. Somehow it had seemed so much better when I bought it. I'd already opened the can, though, and used a lot of it, trying to see if multiple coats would change how I felt. It would be another thing that I couldn't return to the store, a purchase I'd made without thinking about the end result. In other words, sex by a dumpster, complete with the occasional smell of something rotting wafting in and killing whatever mood you'd managed to create in such cramped conditions.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Are you a good witch or a bad witch?" Dorothy to Glenda in The Wizard of Oz

My spell for the day is to watch "The Wizard of Oz" with cocktails of your choosing. This brilliant movie is the epitome of everything brilliant -- Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, a lot of little people, and flying monkeys! And cheers to Robin, my Glenda! And Mr. Anonymous Rants should pay special attention to those scary flying monkeys, the monkeys in their summer suits, all apologies to Irwin Shaw.

Benedictions and Maledictions

First published in Eclipse:

The Difference Between Sex and Rough Sex

Two days before the first, my best friend Andrea wishes
strangers a Happy New Year, toasting every few minutes
to making men miserable while she watches her ex and his new
girlfriend kiss on the other side of the crowded bar. A Texas
swing band plays songs about sin and salvation, about love
and loss, the lead singer adorned with black flames on his jacket,
yelling, love changes every fucking thing. My younger sister
nurses a hot chocolate while Andrea slams shots of vodka laced
with lemon and sugar and complains about her bladder infection.
"I have to go all night," she says. "It's inconvenient."

On the ride home, Andrea sits in the back while my sister drives,
six months with a license and still nervous. Andrea sticks
her head between the seats and says, "I gave that bastard a blow-job
almost every night for four years. That should be worth something."
My sister nods, keeping her eyes on the road. "Every night?" she asks,
her voice filled with disbelief. Andrea nods. "I even had rough
sex with him." My sister wants to know the difference between sex
and rough sex. "Ask your sister," Andrea says. "She knows."

I put my head in my hands, the streetlights becoming a blur. "All
sex,"I say, "is rough." We drive past hotels and restaurants, strip bars
and movie theaters. If you have the time, Frank's Gentlemens Club offers
the place where desire and destiny meet, plus a steak dinner, only $4.99.
It's all for sale, I'm thinking, when Andrea starts to cry. "Rough
sex leaves marks,"she says. Before long, she falls asleep, curled
up in the back with a jacket for a pillow. "Is she all right?" my sister asks.
"For now. She'll feel it in the morning," I say, watching Andrea struggle to get
comfortable, imprints lining her face where she rested on something that didn't give.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The First Rule of Curses

When I turned thirty, I went to a psychic who told me I had been hexed with an evil eye, a generational curse that went back many years from the French island (in the South Pacific, close to New Zealand) my mother born on -- New Caledonia. To remove said curse, I was to save nine days of my bath water in jars and call her when I felt it was time and say, Sister are you ready? The psychic weighed at least three hundred pounds and worked out of her house that looked normal except that she had her husband locked in a back bedroom and wouldn't let him out except to use the bathroom. The husband appeared to be severely crippled, and no explanation was given for the strange dynamic between them, not even when he was screaming for many long minutes, a plaintive wail that carried through the walls. To end the session, she put a bunch of crystals in a spaghetti pot, poured rubbing alcohol over them, and chanted to "cleanse my aura." I kept thinking she said that she needed to do an "oral cleansing" which I needed, but I couldn't imagine how she could know that. Maybe she was psychic -- my teeth are always a problem, even though they mostly look okay. Aura clean, I headed out the door with promises to return to see how the evil eye problem was progressing. This is what happens when you pick a psychic out of the yellow pages.

The first rule of curses is that you have to know one has been cast. This follows in all lines of belief, what some religious people refer to as the power of the word. I thought about the evil eye, what it might mean. My great grandmother's mother got stabbed to death by a jealous lover (who was a prisoner at the penal colony where my great-great grandfather worked as a guard) with my great grandmother (at age two) in her arms. One of her sons died of skin cancer, a huge sore on his face. He'd put a raw steak on his face at night and the sore would feed off of it. My mother's mother spoke of voodoo on the island, the people who casts spells, and she herself could read ordinary playing cards, tell you what the future held in the jacks and hearts. After my grandfather died, she lived with us, smoking a million cigarettes a day and reading romance novels. But every once in a while, she'd bring out her cards, not to read, but to play Solitaire. She never tired of the game, its hypnotic effect, the way she didn't have to address anyone else or tell them what had happened or what would happen, the worn playing cards hitting the dining room table until the moment she knew she had lost and would gather them all up and start over.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"If the moon smiled, she would resemble you./ You leave the same impression/ Of something beautiful, but annihilating." Sylvia Plath (from the poem "The Rival")

Movies to drink by:

The Last Picture Show, Affliction, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, My Beautiful Laundrette, Faces, Cries and Whispers

Benedictions and Maledictions

In answer to the Ted/Sylvia questions (or why poets might think twice about living together):

For the lovely Ms. Robin (in her question about the movie Sylvia) and Mr. Anonymous Rants (in regards to whether I think Ted Hughes was the villian he is made out to be),

I loved the movie Sylvia, although many people I know did not. I feel it was a pretty measured view of the entire relationship, meaning that lots of people cast Ted Hughes as a villian who ruined Sylvia Plath's life, her work, and so on while the movie tends to bring a lot more depth to the story. While Ted was not the nicest man and certainly not prone to a lot of excessive bathing, I believe this view is unfair. As with most situations, the reasons why Sylvia stuck her head in the oven are as complicated as her poetry and it's an insult to her (she got upset because her husband slept with another woman and couldn't take it!) and him, the public insistence of his evil. The new introduction to her last book Ariel, by her daughter Frieda Hughes, helps understand all of this much better. By all means, watch the movie -- it's great and funny and sad!

It is my belief that each relationship (romantic and otherwise) has a signature, a story and energy that gives insight into it. For Sylvia and Ted, I believe this story is how they met. They were college students at a party, and Ted told Sylvia he was a poet (he was better known than she on campus for his work). They kissed for a little while and she bit him on the cheek, hard enough to draw blood, then ran out the door. So began the most famous poetic courtship of our time. And on this note, good luck to Hopeless in Bloomfield Hills with your story -- it need not be terribly detailed or long, just something for us to begin to get an idea of your situation.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Name We're Not Mentioning

On my 19th birthday, my friends Hank and Erin kidnapped me to watch the not so fantastic version of The Bell Jar. Hank had been madly (emphasis on the mad) in love with Erin since high school. Erin felt substantially less fond of Hank as she didn't invite boys to her ice-cream and cake parties, although we she hadn't come out at that point unless you count propositioning me once or twice in a way that could be serious, could be laughed off as a joke. Erin had a serious owlish look set off with big glasses and frumpy clothes that hid her rather large breasts. She barely hit five feet, Hank was well over six feet tall. The plan, if it could be called such, for my birthday was to kidnap me away from my godawful boyfriend, who Hank referred to routinely as "that fucking prick" (that was when he was in a good mood) and we'd all sit in a teeny-tiny apartment that belonged to a mutual friend and get good and liquored up for the great acting that was The Bell Jar. Why, I wondered, did we need the movie when we were living it? No, the Rosenbergs weren't be executed that summer, but it was Texas, and in Texas, someone is always being executed (that summer it would be Carla Faye Tucker, the famous born-again who claimed her conversion should keep her from the lethal injection, Texas' preferred method).

The night wore on, the movie stayed nearly unwatchable, and our talk turned to matters of a dark nature. Hank and Erin took turns telling me why I should leave my then-boyfriend. Happy Birthday to me, I thought, but I knew they were right. The boyfriend became someone we mentioned in code, fearing we might conjure him up by saying his name. Sure enough, he showed up anyway, looking tore up and sucking all the goodwill out of the room. He had a present for me, wrapped in a brown paper bag. I opened the bag to find an antique fan in it, heavy as hell. "I remembered you said you liked fans," he said. Umm, okay! I couldn't remember the comment at all. The fan didn't have any blade guards -- it was scary even when it wasn't turned on. I put it on my dresser where one day without warning it fell on my head and hurt me (my head bled and bled until my hair become a clotted mess of dried blood -- bye, bye good hair day!), almost bad enough to scare some sense into me.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Freedom fighters, people who fight for truth and justice, for the downtrodden and broken, don't always win, but they're always right." Molly Ivins

Country Music to Drink By:

"If This Drinking Don't Kill Me" Dwight Yoakum
"Cocaine Blues" Johnny Cash
"I've Seen the Light" Hank Williams
"Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" Willie Nelson
"Don't Think Hank Done It This Way" Waylon Jennings
"Angel From Montgomery" John Prine

Benedictions and Maledictions

To Hopeless in Bloomfield Hills,

I think all the advice on the comment is sound from Cheri's "Leave the fucker" to Robin's more measured approach about treating yourself as a friend and going from there with a journal or talking with someone who won't pass judgment on you. I'd love to have a little more information about your situation -- are you also married, what are the stakes for you, what keeps you in it, what makes you want to get out of it and so on. Does anybody else know? Often when I have needed advice, I have given a sugar-coated and/or incomplete version of the story because of not being able to articulate it or being afraid of telling the whole (in my mind) sordid tale. Also, how often do you see this man? What keeps him in this situation of the divided heart? If you can, give me a story that you believe best signifies the nature of your relationship with him, an antecdote that will make us understand the ground scene better. With a little more information, Robin, Cheri, and I (and anybody else who wants to join in) might be able to give even more detailed advice. Most of us keep doing the same things because we don't know how to do anything else and because there is an awful comfort in it. The things to remember is that everything passes, even the most horrible intolerable situations and that change, while difficult, is possible.

Monday, June 19, 2006

You Shouldn't Be Reading This

Hello to Shawn, my wonderful and gorgeous Bamms! And apologies for stealing the title of his brilliant story, but it's only for a day and I promise to give it back!

The strangest things started to happen, the fruit started to glow. I’m not kidding, the entire produce section pulsated. My old life had left, a bored guest at a dinner party that got the coats and cruised. The fruit, that was something else. It wasn’t anything I wanted to eat anyway. Like everybody else, I wanted things to change. When they did, I couldn’t understand it, but I had to anyway. I tried to tell myself it wasn’t that terrible. You deal with things the way you always have and that turns out to be, well, inadequate, like swimming in the current of an already swollen river.

Sometimes when I wake up, my eyes are cut out of my head and things appear behind them that no one could imagine. What could I tell you that I wouldn't want you to know? I don't know any sad stories, just moments and that will have to do. Once I sat in a bar and saw a man sitting alone with a blinking Santa hat, talking to himself. I tried to hear what he was saying, but I couldn't. Some things are not meant to be. And well, if this story has a happy ending, I'll be as surprised as you are.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells, the less you know." Diane Arbus

Wake-Up Call

One part peppar vodka
One part vodka
a hint of vermouth

This is served like a traditional martini garnished with an olive.

Benedictions and Maledictions

First published in bordersenses:

A Wife That Doesn’t Work

Here we are at the end of it -- this
is the part that often doesn’t go
well -- you know, the moment I
threaten to cut off your dick or kill
myself. So you have to be careful.
The tone is tricky. Too much sadness
and I’ll plead that we should be
together, that I could be your wife
that doesn’t work, the one who gave
up everything for you as well as she
can. Too little pain and I’ll feel
used, betrayed, and I could make my
presence known, the lump in her breast
that turns out to be malignant. You
and I have created kingdoms out
of the tiniest slivers of your life, and I
remember each generic hotel room, but
mostly I feel closest to you when you
are not with me. In those moments you
are the faintest hint of the moon instead
of a man in the shower, trying to erase me.
Marry me so I will not love you anymore.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Full Recovery Is Possible

I used to drive a route home every day after work where I'd see a recovering crack addict named Victor at the same street corner selling M&Ms and gum wands to earn his keep at a half-way house in Detroit. I'd give him whatever spare money I had and he'd hand me a wand (I declined the M&Ms because of the calories) and a flyer that said Full Recovery Is Possible! It gave instructions where to send money if you were inclined to help. I never sent any money, but I gave to Victor and soon my car was littered with gum wands, like some kind of low-rent Glenda in the Wizard of Oz. The tiny chiclets of gum retained their flavor for less than a minute, and I'd spit them out and dump more gum into my mouth at each stop light. Signs of salvation littered the city -- Jesus Saves next to Control the Night ads for gin.

My life was at a particularly difficult point which is to say that I was in my hour of need. My wisdom teeth were rotting out of my head, my car was on the verge of a Detroit death, running on one spare donut tire for NINE, yes nine, months, the social work/dementia clinic (Calvary Center) I worked at was closing down because of lack of funds. I'd even seen a rat in the kitchen of Calvary Center, aptly named as it was the last stop of Jesus and it might have been mine had I eaten in that kitchen for very much longer. When I felt mired in self-pity, I stuck a gum wand in my mouth and chewed on it ever so gently with my increasingly bad teeth, telling myself Victor had two teeth in his whole head, but when he smiled, I never noticed. It was as if the sun had come out, which it did every now and then, even in the city of Detroit, where Victor mostly stood on the same corner no matter what the weather.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"All day we had run-ins with jungle snakes." Mary Karr, Viper Rum

Music to drink by when in a melancholy mood:

"My Funny Valentine" Miles Davis (1964 Recording)
"Stardust Memories" Louis Armstrong
"Love Supreme" John Coltrane
"Let's Get Lost" Chet Baker

Benedictions and Maledictions

First published in Taproot:

My Husband’s Closet

Looking for what I could not imagine,
I found a dildo in my husband’s closet,
its harsh reality making me forget
what I came for. Is there a saint
to make you not know something?
I asked
my newly converted friend on the phone,
after telling my story. No, she said, but
Jack Daniels will do. God loves us
in many different ways
. I’m sure there
will be more, the Internet porn bills I’ll
find, that I will lose myself to his secrets
before I can stop. I once heard a man
at a party say, All men want to fuck
a woman who looks like a little girl
. I looked
down at my glass of red wine, almost
empty and went back for more even though
I knew I would be sick in the morning.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Cults of the Famous and the Dead

All my life people have been telling me how I feel about men, opinions ranging from my friend Hank -- God, you're way too fucking nice and you don't see an asshole for an asshole hence (Hank was one of the few people who could use hence in a sentence and not seem like a jerk) the asshole becomes less of an asshole (commonly known as the Heisenberg effect) to my college roommate Sarah who claimed I suffered from Stockholm syndrome (named after a famous bank robbery where the captives started loving their captors and one hostage even married one of them) where I loved those who would do me harm to a therapist (a brief stint in the hell that is couples counselling) who said, You sort of hate men. So what the hell did I think? Even I couldn't be sure. Men, it seemed, were an inkblot test and how you responded signalled your mental health.

In my young evangelical religious days, I went to a Bible study which laid out the roles for women -- wife (even at twelve I had the sense to see what a blech! that was -- Oh goody, I got to marry one of the douchebag leaders -- Yay! Not!), to exhorter (put in layman's terms, a cheerleader except you didn't get to wear hotpants and too much blue eyeshadow), and prophetess, a woman who spoke in tongues and predicted the future. A prophetess did not belong to one man, but the whole congregation. She told what had been and what would come. It was a role that you could have for life and you got better as you got older. Sort of like writing. Except that I don't have to dress modestly and can whip out the hot pants any time I feel like it, regardless of how I'm feeling about men.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"The beautiful thing about men is that they all wanted the same thing." William Cobb, The White Tattoo

The Famous and the Dead

1 part doomed expectation mixed with lots and lots of champagne and desserts

Benedictions and Maledictions

We Never Fight

I am sitting in my house thinking
about all the ways a person can die,
and I’m wondering if I put you in my
mouth and swallowed you whole would
you still exist or would my acid eat you
alive? So I call you and ask where you
are and you ask me the same question,
out of politeness or interest, I don’t know,
so I tell you the truth -- I am sitting at my
table. There is silence. It’s a table, you
see, and I really don’t know what else to say.

Satan Wants Me Fat!

As a gymnast, I've tried every diet known to man, including, but not limited to Atkins (when it wasn't fashionable), Susan Powter low-fat hell, Beverly Hills, Scarsdale . . . the list could go on, but I can't. Everything I couldn't eat was always what I wanted, every season was a misery, the weigh-ins and fat belts (thick pieces of elastic to keep our waists in) had beaten me down. I wasn't a great gymnast, by any stretch, and only sheer determination kept me going long after the cold facts told me to give it the hell up. How did you hurt yourself today? was a question that most of my family and friends had taken to asking me, my hands were tore up with what we called rips, blisters that had opened from the uneven bars, and if I had stayed in any longer, I would have not been able to date men way too old for me, my favorite past-time as a teenager. Still, the dieting habit stuck a little too long, no movie of the week anorexia, I'm dancing as fast as I can stuff, but more the mundane calorie counting, fat-reducing, I'm going to slurp vodka and eat nothing but popsicles this week sort of deal.

My favorite diet book ever, Satan Wants Me Fat!, showed up like grace in Recycled Books and Records in Denton, Texas when my friend Priscilla and I were doing our usual Friday night graduate student perusal of the goods on the clearance shelves. Satan Wants Me Fat! said that people were fat because of demonic influences and that it was safe, advised even, to speak out against Satan when tempted to snack. Examples included "I will not have those potato chips, Satan!" Priscilla and I had tried damn near everything, but not speaking against the ex-Angel of Light. We nearly died laughing, but I remembered a woman named Wendy from my youth who was married to a charismatic youth minister (the glamor job in Christian ministries -- all those young girls, swooning after you, dying to be your wife if only you didn't already have one), and he was having an affair. She'd decided to go on a fast (per the Bible verse about some situations only changing through prayer and fasting) for Jesus in order to make Adulterous Youth Minister Boy change his unholy ways. Well, it didn't, but she got so thin that she nearly died and had to take a class at the church about curing eating disorders through spiritual means. Satan, it seemed, did not want her fat, but wanted her very thin, Karen Carpenter thin, and her husband wasn't going to stop cavorting with his mistress no matter what -- he'd lost his job, the swooning girls, the respect of the elders, and on and on. Seems that having sex with a gorgeous woman had trumped all of that. Of all the things Wendy had to swallow as part of her recovery, this must have been the most difficult. Satan Wants Me Fat! went back on the shelves, and Priscilla and I went out to dinner, a demoralizing affair always, me with a big heaping plate of steamed rice and Dr. Pepper, her with Diet Dr. Pepper and some stir-fried vegetables, but we had good company in each other and the knowledge that we could talk back to Satan whenever we felt like it.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"The biggest victory Satan has is making us not believe in him." C.S. Lewis

Cowgirl With A Twist

25 ml chilled peach schnapps
12.5 ml Bailey's Irish Cream

A shot garnished with a peach wedge. Eat peach wedge after the shot. Layer the schnapps first.

Benedictions and Maledictions

The Other Woman

There's always one, even when there's not:
the childhood sweetheart, the one that never
loved you, your mother's beautiful friend. Or
maybe there is someone, all flesh and blood,
and you see her around Christmas, that doomed
nostalgia that sends you running into her
bed, every meeting a child's peek-a-boo
game, Will I see you again? hanging
in the air like a noose while you search
for your clothese, reassemble yourself
without thought, noticing the colored
lights in someone else's window shining
all for you through no effort of your own.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

In the Beginning Was the Word

In the fifth grade, my language arts teacher had us read a book about the power of the word, a parable in which a person could give someone else a "warm fuzzy" (a compliment) or a "cold prickly" (a put-down). Of course, warm fuzzies were the way to go according to the author. I hadn't experienced all that many warm fuzzies in class -- the last time I'd fallen for someone's kindness was when one of the boys in the class said he liked my necklace, a butterfly with a rainbow on it. When I smiled, he proceeded to ask me where the dead (insert racially slanderous term starting with an n) was that I had stolen said necklace from. Given this kind, humane environment, I dreaded the assignment that followed the reading -- we were to make warm fuzzies and scotch-tape them to other students. Dear Jesus, this was hell and I was living it. I used all my fiction writing skills to come up with as many warm fuzzies as I could and the others in the class also begin to write, but with more glee than usual, and I could see what was going to happen before the rather dense teacher. Many cold pricklies came under the guise of the warm fuzzies, back-handed compliments, outright insults, blank pages with only "ha ha" written on them. We all had to sit down and take a time out to think about our evil little selves. Had we learned nothing from the book? Our teacher couldn't believe the cruelty. I guess she bought all the bullshit about the lovely unspoiled humanity of children. I kept my warm fuzzies with me, the real ones, though, even though we were told to throw everything out. You take your kindness where you can get it, even if it's pinned to your back that's against the wall most of the time.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Words lead to deeds, acts of kindness and mercy." St. Theresa of the Little Flower

Warm Fuzzy

1 shot of starbucks coffee liquor
1 shot of godiva liquor
1 cup of hot chocolate

Make hot chocolate and add the shots.

Benedictions and Maledictions

Love the lively debate on the comment board! Have to agree with Robin about trusting intuition. There's always a moment before something huge happens, for better or worse, that you are given a sense of it, a way for you to embrace it or run from it. Some people call it your conscience, some the voice of God, and so on. I know it exists, regardless of what one names it, and we put ourselves in great peril when we ignore it. Of course, peril is a great learning experience so it works out either way.

In regards to all the academic crap, I spent a lot of money and time drinking to get it out of my head. Ultimately, I found that a) I was not very good at it and b) it was vaguely masturbatory (and not in the good Woody Allen, sex with someone I love, kind of way). Thank you, Robin, for the kind compliment about my class -- I try to be as straight as possible about the writing process and have fun with it and hope to impart anything and everything that can help -- but mostly, my entire class can be boiled down to this -- write anything you can for as long as you can and enjoy it! As for the comparision to Anne Sexton and the compliment on "The Difference Between Sex and Rough Sex," I send a big old kiss to Mr. Anonymous Rants. Love Anne Sexton -- she was beautiful, brilliant, and completely devoted to her poetry, fanatical with her persistence and didn't let anyone or anything get in her way, even her own mental illness -- when she taught classes (and she taught very very few), she'd tell the students not to bother with obscure references to other poems and poets -- she wouldn't get them. What's not to love about someone like that? As for "Cathedral," it's not my favorite Carver story, but I have come around to liking it more as years pass, but emotionally I understand a story like"Vitamins" better. Who could resist a last line as brilliant as -- "Things kept falling."

You're Not Writing

When I was in the third grade, I had a demanding crazy teacher whose last name changed almost every year (she got married a lot, got mad, went back to her maiden name, and got married again to another unwitting victim -- she was Mrs. Goodwin that year. Her daughter was my age, a beautiful large girl who never ever seemed to make a mistake. Mrs. Goodwin seemed mystified by my ability to remember things without taking notes -- you're not writing, she'd say, until she figured out that I didn't need to and because I was always out of Big Chief paper and didn't want to go through the humiliating process of borrowing from someone else, listening to them sigh as they ripped off a page for me and my lame promises to repay them the very next day.

Eventually, she had me grading quizzes for her instead of listening to the lesson although I'd overhear her say things like, If you're not a neat person, you should never be allowed loose-leaf paper. I'd let my daughter use it, but never my son. Her son attended college somewhere in the north and at the end of the year hanged himself with his belt from the rafters of his dorm room. Because I was small and silent, I could listen to adult conversations about the topic without being noticed and learned the sad meager details of his end, the note that he had apparently started and ripped up without finishing. I could imagine him in his last hours, not able to explain anything and giving up and saw him as my spiritual brother, the boy who couldn't stay neat enough to deserve loose-leaf paper. Despite my mother's attempts at making me look beautiful, I tended toward an unkempt haggard appearance, still in recovery from my second stomach ulcer. At the end of the year, Mrs. Goodwin paid me a compliment, a rarity from someone like her, even in the best of times. She said, You're the smartest girl in the room and me looking up from the stack of papers I was stapling for her, giving her a half-smile, the kind that employees reserve for a demanding boss who, even after the job was done, would linger because she had no other place to go.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Writing is fine therapy for people who are perpetually scared of nameless threats as I am most of the time -- for jittery people." William Styron

Border Passing

1 shot of tequila (silver)
1 shot of triplesec
2 shots of lime juice

Serve ice-cold in a martini glass. Garnish with olives.

Benedictions and Maledictions

First appearing in Chicago Quarterly Review:

How to Own and Operate A Haunted House

Start with nothing and build from there.
It won’t take much to bring someone
around – a few masks, a small piece
of rope. Tell everyone what they are
feeling is something else, make sure
to forget what you actually used to create
the effects so that you won’t be tempted
to tell the truth about a peeled grape
masquerading as an eye. Silence becomes
whatever you fear. Use it when they
don’t expect and watch as people touch
each other without meaning to and scream
in knowing expectation of the next horror
they must face before the inevitable exit.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Carver Country

I've always been one to visit graves, finding the experience lovely in ways that I do not fully understand. I respect why other people sometimes find this mystifying and often hear the whole, the person isn't really there spiel, with which I agree in theory. In my twenties, I saw lots of famous graves -- Breece Pancake, Frederick Exley, Charles Bukowski, and of course, the great Raymond Carver. Carver's grave, outside of Yakima (his hometown where I also tracked down the church that he and MaryAnn, his first wife, got married in -- St. Mark's for anyone who wants to know) on the edge of the ocean, was breathtaking. I took a ton of pictures for myself and others -- my friend Mark wanted one to replace a picture of his ex-wife doing dishes with a scowl on her face that he had posted on his office cubicle for reasons unknown to anyone but himself, a very Carver gesture if there was one. People had left notes for Ray, requests for his help with writing and ones of praise. My favorite was from Carver's grandchild who said he'd wished he'd gotten to meet him.

Now I visit graves of people I knew in life, most frequently my friend Hank's, which is out in the middle of nowhere under a huge tree, right off of Joy Road. It's peaceful when people aren't engaging in target practice during hunting season and one fears a stray bullet. Strangely enough, neither of my parents were buried. Cremation appealed to the practical side of my mother and my father's body had to be identified by his teeth so there wasn't anything to bury really. Both of them exist in urns in their old bedroom which gives some people the creeps (my mother's Budhist friends think it's bad luck and brings misfortune on the family), but I don't mind. I suspect they like being in the room where so much of their lives played out, right above their socks and underwear and the top dresser drawers, where everything that you don't use, but value remains. When Hank and I drove by the local graveyard in the middle of Denton, Hank would yell, Hi Dead People! in a jolly voice, and for that minute, we were glad that we weren't them, we were us and being happy that you are you-- well, how often does that happen?

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"The whole world is a graveyard." Six Feet Under

"One can get used to anything/ Become a stranger to nothing/Understand that betrayal is just another word for hunger." Raymond Carver

Find A Grave

1 shot of midori liquor
glass of champagne
2 cherries and a tiny bit of cherry juice

Serve chilled.

Benedictions and Maledictions

In answer to lovely Robin's Carver question and the lively debate that followed!

Raymond Carver was all the buzz when I was in graduate school. I read his stories and fell in love. Usually, I resist what others tout, but in this case, everyone was right! Ray (I feel as if I know him) was brilliant. Later, I discovered his poetry which I think is as every bit as good as the fiction. The answer to why I like him has to do with a certain vision. One senses Ray was a funny kind man, a man who loved to gossip about himself and others, one who loved life, but also had respect for the fact that life could wreak a whole lot of havoc on a person. He writes frankly about money or lack of, the allure and misery of drinking, the pain of the divided heart and soul. My favorite stories are "Menudo," "Are These Actual Miles?" and "Intimacy." Ray's poems are by and large heartbreaking. (Favorites from the collected works -- "Limits," "Wenas Ridge," "Luck," "Nyquil" and on and on)

P.S. As for his editor, Gordon Lish, Lish certainly had a large part in forming his style, but toward the end of Carver's life, he resisted Lish's edits and they had the classic father/son falling out about the work. I like the later Carver just as much as the early writing which is not everyone's feeling, I know. Lish has edited many writers since Carver, most notably Amy Hempel.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Cooking Outside

For a few years, I went to a non-denominational church with my parents when they decided to give religion a try. The church started out pretty middle of the road (despite the fact we were taught that humanism was evil in Sunday School, it was a liberal free-wheeling place). As a few seasons went by, we lost preacher after preacher due to no money in our small town and ended up with almost no congregation and a preacher named Art. Art seemed kind of average, working on his Ph.D. (he was on year fifteen) and had a wife, two kids. Then Art took a turn and started to try to liven up his preaching by talking about how great sex was with his wife ("You don't know Patsy like I know Patsy and we have super sex!"). If you'd seen Patsy, you would understand how truly frightening this statement was. He also determined that all steeples were evil (phallic symbols) and needed to be chopped down. All righty! There we were in a circle with an ax, our small steeple on the ground, receiving symbolic chops from the remaining church members. Someone shared during testimonial that a demonically-possessed squirrel had entered their home. My daddy rolled his eyes and said, This is it. We drove away, the steeple still outside the church on the ground, my daddy muttering about how it looked like some kind of godforsaken dog grave. We drove past Art and Patsy's van, plastered with pro-life stickers and about twenty years past running. I smiled and thought that how happy I was for that demon-squirrel. Sometimes that's all it takes to get you out of something that sucks.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"You don't know me, but you don't like me, say you care less how I feel. Who are you to sit and judge me? Have you ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?" Dwight Yoakum

Cooking Outside

1 Dr. Pepper
1 shot of spiced rum
Serve over crushed ice.

Benedictions and Maledictions

Thank you, lovely and beautiful Robin, dear friend and talented writer, for the insightful question from yesterday: What did you learn from your early marriage?

That's a great question because I never started thinking about that time in my life until I started writing the blog. As many people know, I don't really write much nonfiction -- I find it to be an incredibly difficult form. Weirdly enough, most of my fiction and poetry doesn't stray too far from autobiography (ie, Raymond Carver's quote about not pulling stories and poetry out of thin air). But the blog is kind of a back-door into hard parts of my life that I haven't be able to think about for a long bit of time. The time that I had a common-law marriage (meaning not church-sanctioned) wasn't a bad one -- I was young and going to graduate school and was on the mend from a sexually violent attack. At the very least, writing was giving me a way to process a lot of the things that had happened.

The simple answer for why I got married is that I was physically and emotionally afraid of being alone (suffering from what people now refer to as post-traumatic stress disorder -- know as "nervous from the service" in my hometown because of all the Vietnam Vets burdened with the panic attacks and constant level of terror that never leaves), but they why doesn't really address the question asked and in the end isn't as relevant as Robin's question. What I learned from it was that one should never sacrifice something that you can't sacrifice. The hard part of this is discernment, of course -- what can you give up to make your life better and what will deplete it? That's the battle that rages inside every person, man or woman, with every choice -- choice of career, marriage, religion and so on. I sometimes rail against marriage because I get tired of the party line that it's the only game going (much like some people feel about organized religion, an opinion I completely understand having grown up in the Bible Belt and getting pretty sick of being preached to by complete strangers.) The end of that relationship was remarkably easy for both parties --we both realized we had made a mistake and didn't make each other's lives a living hell because of it. That's grace, and I have never forgotten it.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

There Is No Stop, Drop, and Roll in Hell

When I was in graduate school, home for fourth of July, my sister's diabetic ashmatic stalker returned as if from the dead. We're talking Texas, we're talking hot as all billy hell, oven-like, a virtual furnace. Juan (said stalker) had dressed himself up in a black sweatsuit and black tennis shoes. Keep in mind that Juan was no small man -- at about 5'10, he weighed a little over three hundred pounds. I looked out my window and saw Juan creeping about and periodically sucking on his inhaler. Shit, I thought, Juan's back and yelled for the others in the house to wake up. My sister's then-fiance was there, my soon-to-be ex, and my parents. The fiance, Johnson, and the ex grabbed the only weapons available -- a broomstick and a can of Aquanet hairspray. Perhaps they were hoping to both beat Juan and do his hair which was not looking its best in the heat.

I fell asleep before the police appeared. Juan had been here before and he'd be back if he didn't die of heat stroke. I needed my beauty rest. As for the rest of the house, they stayed up discussing what to do after Johnny Law left, the stalking laws proving as ineffectual as Juan himself for any relief. Poor Johnson had a bit of a meltdown. "I'm going back to Taiwan," Johnson said. "Too much excitement here." His chip trembled as he dipped it in salsa the next night at dinner. He compared Texas to hell, a comparision that holds up if you ask me. Years ago, I saw a sign on a church that tried to scare people into its doors by announcing, There Is No Stop, Drop, or Roll in Hell. Alone with my thoughts late at night whether Juan is around or not, I often think, don't I know it.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Duck and cover." Our government's instructions on what to do during an atomic attack

Belle du Jour

glass of champagne

a splash of gin

a splash of lemon juice

Serve with a lemon garmish

This is a cocktail that is as beautiful as Catherine Denueve. The gin cuts the sweetness of the champagne and the lemon gives it zest!

Benedictions and Maledictions

In answer to Bonnie's question: What is the best part about being a Texan?

I have very complicated feelings about growing up in Texas. It's a great training ground for a writer, being such an odd and large place. What I like best about Texans is they tend to be a bold and independent people who accept a lot more weirdness than others. There's a famous quote about Texas being hell on horses and women. That's true, but if you survive your upbringing, you can handle anything. Look at Molly Ivins or Ann Richards! Those women make me glad to be a Texan.

Paper Swans

When I was engaged a million years ago, there were two places to register in Mineral Wells -- Tru-Value Hardware and Davidson's. Davidson's was upscale -- it had china and candlestick holders and all sorts of scary things that said gracious home, Martha Stewart, loveliness. It intimidated me. So Tru-Value it was with the intoxicating smell of ant insecticide wafting through the aisles. I registered for many things, things like a Snackster, which would make grilled sandwiches almost instantly, a salad shooter (nevermind that I have never made a salad a day in my life), and a juicer (ditto for glasses of juice), a dish rack. These sad tokens of domesticity were what I clung to as I hoped for a new life. My soon-to-be betrothed and I lived in a one bedroom apartment filled with roaches that wouldn't leave no matter how many times we bombed it with Raid, an older Russian man next door that sat in his underpants and watched porno movies with his door open, and walls so thin that a person could feel the wind through them. I decorated and redecorated the space with the concentration of a rabbi studying the Torah. The dinky apartment had so much shit in it that I could have spent hours dusting if my little heart desired. I thought, no knew, that I could make it seem bigger and more beautiful by force of will, by the right things, by enough flowers and candles and troll dolls (okay, I only had one troll doll, dressed as a bride with bright yellow hair). My betrothed said, Give up, Michelle, we live in a shithole, it's always going to be this way. It's like a piece of paper -- you can fold it, but it's still the same. (He was more right than he knew, of course.) He had a bonsai tree and trimmed it every day as his contribution to the space -- at least it was small. I countered his logic by saying that something could either be a wadded up piece of paper or a beautiful paper swan. Our place was going to be the latter, right? Wrong. We picked the place because it was cheap and convenient and cost us almost nothing and no matter how many things we picked out at Tru-Value, that was the truth of our lives couldn't be changed, no matter how we folded it.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"You need to sober up or get a whole lot more drunk." The Ice Harvest

Wedding Vows

1 shot of vodka
1 crushed passion fruit (use the juice only)
1 glass of gingerale

Serve over crushed ice.

Benedictions and Maledictions

For Cindy's question about my feelings about gay marriage:

I completely agree that everyone should have the right to be married, gay or straight, if only because I believe that everyone should have access to the legal rights that marriage offers. In reference to the latter post, I'm not a big fan of marriage in general, but I believe when it's good, there's nothing better. I'd have to go with Sam the Lion in Larry McMurtry's Last Picture Show when he says about eighty percent of marriages are miserable. But even misery has its uses.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Day of Salvation Is At Hand

Simplify your life. Start by killing small things, things you don't really want. Overwater your plants when you get sick of them. Or don't. Don't do anything. Get rid of things you will miss, that you will long to get back. This part is important. Keep a few things, the things you can't do without, that which defines you until nothing defines you. Make sure you leave no stone unturned. Think about all the lost sunglasses, the wallets, the dashed hopes that leave slashes on your heart. Frame it so that you don't feel as if you've lost anything. Tell everyone that you wanted it this way. It's all an illusion, right? Keep telling yourself that it doesn't really matter. And eventually it won't.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"You've been in prison so long, it's difficult to remember exactly what you did to there." Jack Henry Abbot, In the Belly of the Beast

Salvation for Beginners

50 ml vodka
dash of dry vermouth
garnish with a cocktail onion and a hint of neurosis

Benedictions and Maledictions

Kitty Genovese Lives Here

When Kitty screamed, people heard, turned
on their lights to look. Some stayed in bed,
afraid of the night, imagining a lover’s
quarrel. No one could imagine the worst,
when the killer admitted in court -- Live women
didn’t do it for me anymore. She was alive
when he raped her, just not for very long, but it
must have felt like time had stopped. When I
recognized my rapist underneath his mask
and knew he wouldn’t kill me, I felt relieved
until much later, when I realized I had become
illuminated by a thing people would whisper
about, unable to understand enough to help.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Those Days In Texas

In high school I was editor of the Ram Country Review, the high school paper. Nobody wanted to be on the high school paper, not the honor students busting their collective asses to take AP courses, not the athletes, not anyone. So I enlisted a bunch of guys who were known as burn-outs, druggies who wore Social Distortion t-shirts, the ones that carved anarchy symbols into their desks with exacto knives. Our teacher was pregnant and then going through a divorce in the years I was on staff and checked out, and I wrote damn near every article in the paper except the center two pages that were reserved for news about heavy metal music. We had Heavy Metal Now!, Heavy Metal Hotline, Heavy Metal News, and Local Heavy Metal. Despite my relative disinterest, I could tell the difference between a Metalica song and say, the Dead Kennedys.

We spent a lot of time in the staff room discussing music and life since the demands of the paper weren't all that much. One of my staff members by senior year managed to have a wife, child, and a new mistress, dark circles around his eyes and a devilish smile. He wanted our opinion on what to do and since I wrote the advice column, I did my best. I told him to rock on. What, if nothing else, did Heavy Metal Hotline teach us? The Ram Country Review also gave me my first publication, one I shared with my friend Hank. When the Challenger space ship exploded, I wrote an article on the tragedy and Hank wrote a poem. Both were predictably awful, mine as exciting as an entry in Webster's Dictionary and Hank's poem as maudlin as a Carly Simon song. But as any writer knows, any publication is good, and I still have a copy of it, Valentine's day so many years ago. Who would have guessed that Heavy Metal Hotline would have yellowed like a clipping from the ancient past?

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Recovery is eighty percent of lead guitar." Willie Nelson

Texas Two-Step

50 ml scotch whisky
25 ml Drambuie

Pour over ice.
Benedictions and Maledictions

First published in Bordersenses

Those Days In Texas

When we got old,
we were going to live
on an island. I would
still have great legs,
and he would know
a thousand more blues
songs. We'd gossip, our
favorite past-time since
childhood, and he'd turn
a blind eye to my faults
which would be easy
since the doctors said
he'd be completely blind
by then anyway. When
we talked about this,
we lived next door to
each other in shitty one
bedroom apartments, walls
so thin you could hear
the wind even when it
wasn't blowing that hard.
He barely made it into his
thirties and died in another
cramped apartment, this one
in Philadelphia, and when I
think about those days
in Texas, poor as we were,
having nothing but our youth,
I'm pretty sure that was the island.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Eating the Clouds

Near the end of her life, my mother often expressed the wish to smoke opium. She had read about in in a Leon Uris book and old Leon had described it as "eating the clouds." Can you imagine, Michelle? It would be so beautiful. My mother hadn't been much for chemicals during her life -- both her parents had been alcoholics and she feared being away from herself. But opium! Now there was something worth the risk.

My mother died relatively young, and I find myself wishing I could ask her lots of things now. Her favorite poet was William Blake, her favorite artist Paul Gauguin. She loved the extremes. I'm more a dog on a chain person myself, circling the same territory obsessively. In time, you don't even need the chains that kept you to your spot -- you become the chain. When she'd take me shopping at night as a little girl, she'd always say, Michelle, if someone tries to hurt me, you run and tell someone. Those nights were always cloudless, so black that it seemed as if morning would never come.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"What can I say? Anything valuable is going to cost you a lot." Toni Cade Bambara, on the hardships of the writing life

The Clouds

insert your favorite food
your favorite drink
your favorite movie
your favorite everything

Benedictions and Maledictions

What Everyone Carries

Whoever delivers the body is responsible
for the baggage, says the airline employee
as I fill out a description of what I’ve lost
which looks like what everyone carries. Only
the inside is different, each dress taken off
after a night that seemed as if it would never
end and then it did. I bought some of them
at a consignment shop from a woman who
pretended to like me, saying things like, Another
dress? Surely you need slacks for work. I told
her that I was a teacher and could wear whatever
I wanted. She didn’t buy it and maybe you don’t
either. I bought many dresses there over the years,
never trying them on in the store. They all fit my
body, the worn-out curves of it, the one with all
the lost baggage that someone I don’t know assures
me will all be delivered, like magic, to my door.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Someone Without A Name

One of my favorite movies is Saturday Night Fever because of John Travolta. He's one of the rare men that emotes pure beauty and tragedy at a young age and his portrayal of the tortured Tony M. is one that breaks the heart. I've heard lots of people complain about this movie -- the thin plot, the sometimes corny dialogue, the rape scene. I almost never think about anything but the dance sequences in this movie, the times that Tony is a king in his limited world, a moment of beauty in rather diminished circumstances.

I still love John Travolta (even have forgiven Stayin' Alive ), but he's never surpassed that early brilliance. Sometimes an actor's fame can intefere with his or her ability to get lost in a part. You keep thinking, that's so and so doing such and such. You wish you could start over, forget all that had happened. Just like with everything else.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

Without A Name

30 ml brandy
30 ml rum
whie sugar to taste
grated nutmeg

Benedictions and Maledictions


None of us learned sign language even
though my grandmother was nearly
deaf after being boxed in the ears by my
grandfather after coming home late from
babysitting me. I could hear yelling through
the trailer window, and nobody knew what
to do so we drove away and left her there
with the only man she had ever loved. Even
then, I understood you couldn’t save someone
unless you were willing to crucify yourself.
Our car rolled over the gravel and onto a paved
road that led us to our house. It wasn’t much,
that house, with its long black bars covering
the windows, part decoration, part prison, but
it was a house, you see, and it didn’t move every
time the weather changed like the trailer did.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Dark Triple Death Goddess

I have one secret to writing poetry that I give all my students and it's a pretty simple, but effective one. If something isn't really working, add Johnny Cash. It still might not work, but it improves whatever you have. The teaching of writing is one of those hotly debated subjects that people go round and round about -- Can it be taught?

My first writing teacher was a lovely sweet man who wore massive amounts of turquoise jewelery and nursed a desperate crush on Kathleen Turner and spoke of women as "dark triple death goddesses." He'd smoked a lot of pot, had married a lot of women, had written tons of poetry, and had really lived in that Zorba the Greek sense of the word. In class, we'd read our stories on workshop day and discuss them as a group. I nearly died when my first story was met with dead silence. I had no idea what it meant and neither did anyone else. I wanted to emulate a woman having a nervous breakdown in the story. God help us all, because I was having one in front of twenty-eight other students. A few comments were made, mostly to the effect of "huh?" and I sat back down. I wrote a few more nervous breakdown stories -- write what you know! -- but they eventually became more understandable. By the end of the class, I had a sense that the words on the page had to mean something. And I was a dark triple death goddess! Hot damn! Writing could be taught. The Johnny Cash tip, though, is all my own.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"And when the vision comes, I find that, ready to do battle, I am running: obsessively running." Frederick Exley, A Fan's Notes

Triple Death Gooddess

1 part godiva chocolate liquor
1 part Baileys
1 part Kahula
1 part coffee

Benedictions and Maledictions

What’s For Supper?

The Last Supper hung over us as we ate
instant mashed potatoes and pork chops,
Johnny Cash on the radio and he’s busted --
the bills are all due and the babies need shoes --
prisoners cheering him on in the background.
Things were tough all over, something we
said a lot in those days. No one used the word
grateful until they’d lost something valuable
and became aware of how much more there
was to lose. It could have been worse, something
else that got repeated a lot. For dessert, we’d
have vanilla ice-milk sprinkled with Nestle
Quik chocolate powder, and we were grateful.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Ancient Chinese Secret

When I was in grade school, those long ago politically-incorrect days where women were "Bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan and never ever letting you forget that you're a man . . . " (the ad for the perfume Enjoli) or being told, You've Come A Long Way, Baby!, the print ad for Virginia Slims, the commercial I remember most vividly was one where a woman spoke in a heavy Chinese accent about Tide. The Chinese couple in the ad ran a dry-cleaners and when the white customers asked how could they get those stubborn stains out, the woman would say, Ancient Chinese secret. The "secret" was Tide, which was just out of view of the stupid customer. After the amazed customer left, the couple would share a laugh.

Having come from this backward culture and eating LaChoy, a kind of truly awful chop-suey dish (with the slogan -- LaChoy makes Chinese food, swing American!), I have come along way to experience the real ancient Chinese secret, that of acupuncture. I know almost nothing of how it works, only that it does. My sister found a brilliant woman named Xieufen in Canada who practices this medicine and massage. I was terrified at first -- I can't even get blood drawn without considerable trauma. But the needles are small and the results stunning. Like anything new, it was a little scary -- all those needles, all that chi flowing. Would I lose my neurotic Western self? No danger of that, sadly. But for a little while, I feel as if I've been cleansed from the inside out, a baptism requiring only that I stay still for a little while and close my eyes while somebody else determines what I need.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"My bowl is empty. But it's my bowl, you see, and I love it." Raymond Carver

Benedictions and Maledictions

Things I Didn't Want To See

I dreamt my mother returned from the dead
carrying a baby cobra in a take-out container.
Do you want to see? she asks, opens the styrofoam
box just a crack so I can tell it's moving. She
was always showing me things I didn't want to see.
Make no mistake; I'm glad she's back. The night
before she died, I slept on a couch in a maternity
ward waiting room. A nurse said to me,When you
hear a scream, it means a new life. When my
mother died,there was no sound, all the machines
had been turned off, the television muted. A janitor
mopped around her bed, my dad and sister cried.
After everyone cleared out, I held her body, already
changed, to my chest as she woud have never
allowed, and I listened for a scream, but none came.