Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Illusions We Have Left

For a couple of years, I worked in the undergraduate advising office at my university, telling students what to take in order to free themselves from the shackles of our four year college, which by then, was a minimum five to six for most students. I liked the job -- it was sort of an elaborate version of fill in the blanks, and I got to eat my lunch there, which in those days was a small container of plain spaghetti (Susan Powter diet except that instead of the thousands of calories she advocated, I stuck to eight hundred and I did not cut my hair in that crazy buzz fashion she favored for those obnoxious work-out videos) and work on my fiction. My boss, an extremely short, extremely Southern woman whose friends called her Fancy (I referred to her by her title, Dr. and her last name), was almost never around and kept my workload easy. Some days she'd bounce ideas for stories off me -- she's written one called "The Penny Monkey" about a girl who almost gets molested by an immigrant farm worker and alas, many of the stories went along these lines. Fancy and I got along just fine, and I felt like a basketball player, towering over her, even though I am only 5'6.

One day a woman walked into my office and said, I need to know what to take to graduate in two years. I'm dying and I want to graduate. I put down my tired pasta container and blinked hard. I'd dealt with lots of things -- credits not transferring, switching classes from trimesters to semesters, kids on academic probation, financial aid snafus, but this was new. I looked at her, and she had the bloated, poisoned look of someone on any number of cancer drugs (some people have the misconception that cancer makes you thin -- only sometimes. Some of the cruel vile drugs put weight on you, much like you'd been making continous trips to the Old Country Buffet), and I started to work on her file. I managed to create a schedule that would get her out of school right before the grim reaper was scheduled to make his appearance. She left my office, looking oddly thrilled while I'm pretty sure that I still looked stricken. I put her file back in the ancient cabinet and returned to my desk, wondering what I would do if I had two years left to live. At least, I hoped, I'd allow myself some meat sauce on my spaghetti. It was hard to swallow everything plain.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"These days the illusions we have left are the small ones of our own making; we now have to live with ourselves." Tony Earley, "Charlotte"

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: Stevie (disturbing documentary -- quite excellent and includes several rattlesnakes at the end of it, although it is mostly about the foster care system)

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Thursday! And a special hello to my old friend Mark Long! Check out his live journal through the link on yesterday's comment section.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

I Won't Show This To Anyone

If I kept a diary, I'd start it off by saying -- I dream of snakes every night. This, of course, is not strictly true. Last night I dreamed that I was at an airplane crash survivor's meeting and saw my dad. And many nights, my dreams are too boring to repeat. But a lot of times, it's snakes, pooled into themselves or on the river, swimming next to me. So there'd be an emotional truth to my statement, the kind of thing a diary records, I suppose. Don't know because I've never been able to keep one. A diary by definition is for yourself and, while I do many things for myself -- gorge on chocolate, drink endless vats of Dr. Pepper, drag broken glass over my skin (pick out the lie in that sentence, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book!), writing is not one of them. I've often tricked myself into saying, I won't show this to anyone, but if it turns out, I always do. There's no subject I won't write about as a rule, but I don't have much control over what I write -- it's always some obssessional interest that won't leave, like those guests on a Saturday Night Live skit, who stay way past the point of social fun.

My life, by and large, is not all that interesting. I'm not out hunting for big game or attending bullfights, not taking care of children, or even weeding a garden. If it was, I might be tempted to write it out in a traditional chronological narrative, tell the page how I got from point a to point b. Flannery O'Connor once said about the body and blood of Christ, the taking of the eucharist and whether it was symbolic, If it's not real, then to hell with it. That's my only guiding light when it comes to writing. The snakes, you see, are real, at least until I open my eyes, which I never do.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Thought and beauty, like a hurricane or waves, should not know conventional, delimited forms." Anton Chekhov

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: The Last Night at the Alamo

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Wednesday!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Shotgun Approach

One of my aquaintances in graduate school said that she'd rather strip naked in the town square than write something creative. I'd been writing fiction and poetry and couldn't quite square it with the rigors demanded in the art of stripping, but I saw her point. It's a tough business and usually met with all sorts of reactions ranging from indifference to outright scorn. This woman was also having an affair with one of the younger married professors, who I'd heard her call Bri-Bri on the basement telephone, a communal area since we didn't have individual office phones. My then-boyfriend had also seen them making out in the parking lot on his morning jog, and he, as the saying goes, was not one to talk or make things up. I wanted to use her situation in a story, but I could never make it fly -- there wasn't anything fresh in my rendition since I stuck close to reality -- the professor was a bit of an arrogant dolt, the girl a scrappy ambitious little piece of work, and the wife was clueless. I found myself hard-pressed to make any of them seem less than wooden. Needless to say, the professor never became Bri-Bri to me in the course of putting words down on the page.

In retrospect, I see the situation that would have been far more interesting. I used to clean houses every now and them to supplement my great (NOT) salary as a teaching assistant and one such house belonged to one of the most hideous-looking women I had ever met, a fellow graduate student with two kids and an extremely wealthy husband. I assure you this description is not gratitously cruel -- it will play in later. She had a body like a character off H and R Puffenstuff, a distribution of enormous weight (she was little over five feet tall and weighed about 300 pounds, most of it near the middle of her body). Her husband, by any standards, was handsome, and she slept with nearly everyone. How? Shotgun approach, as my friend Hank used to say. Ask a 100 people to sleep with you, someone will. The woman in this story did something fatal to her lifestyle -- she fell in love with one of her conquests, a snaggle-toothed man named Dave who wore a ratty beret in all seasons. She and Dave became tight, although it was clear that he had the power in their relationship. She could often be seen at parties, sobbing, bottle of Smirnoff in hand, asking what to do. Did she have to give up all her money for this man? Did she go slowly mad with longing? I consider of the possibilities inherent in the story and think that real life is far weirder than anything else. She moved her lover in her house, kept the husband, and the kids called her lover Uncle Dave. Man, I'd think, scrubbing her toilets, only someone who looks like Isabella Rosellini is supposed to get away with that! Head in someone else's toilet, that is where my story begins.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Something came along/ and I grabbed ahold of it/ it felt like a ball and chain." Janis Joplin

Cocktail Hour

Drinking music suggestion: 18 Essential Songs Janis Joplin

Benedictions and Maledictions

First published in Taproot

Eat Before It Gets Cold

I'm not going to ask you where you've been.
I know, I don't know. We do what we can
to make things bearable. So much is out of our
control! Take your time. We can hang on this
cross for as long as we want as the waiter has
forgotten about us. I scan the menu, only see what
I don't want. Needless to say, I've been here before.

Monday, November 27, 2006

I Know Who You Are and What You Are

This year I kept with my usual cheery tradition of seeing a Thanksgiving movie -- I generally try to see something happy like The Accused (nothing like a graphic depiction of gang rape to ring in the holiday season) and this year I saw The Last King of Scotland, a movie about a naive Scottish doctor who gets involved with Idi Amin, easily one of the most horrific and charismatic of the dictators of the last century (Amin left power in Uganda in 1979 after his regime killed around 300,000 of his own people). Forest Whitaker plays Amin with a subtle sociopathic intensity that scared the devil out of or into me (I had nightmares from this one). I've always been a fan of Forest W. -- he's one of those actors that's so good that he fades into role after role and hasn't been given proper notice. My dear friend Hank introduced me to his work in the film Ghost Dog, and not for the first time, I was sad that Hank wasn't alive. That happens when someone dies -- you keep seeing things that you wish he or she could have seen, would have loved, been able to explain to you and the list goes on. Forest as Idi will most certainly get notice if not a well-deserved Oscar, and I will not forget this performance although it's not a date movie or something you want to go see or rent on family night unless your family was like mine.

The important question for me in the movie hit me well after I was outside, fumbling for my coat and walking into the night. How does a movie keep such a taut attention with virtually no suspense? The character of the young Scottish doctor (Nicolas Garrigan played to great effect by James McAvoy) comes to us within the first five minutes of the film -- he's bored with Scotland, he longs for adventure in a foreign place, he's no stranger to booze and pot, and he has a weakness for married women. Once in Uganda, he finds himself caught up as Stevie Wonder might sing, with things he doesn't understand, but he's entranced. As viewers, we know with certainty what will probably happen, and it ain't good. Even so, my attention did not wander once and a few scenes sent my hand flying to my mouth to cover it. The key is the substitution of anxiety for mystery and the power of the rendering of setting. I know very little about Africa in the 70s, even less about Uganda in particular, and there I was somewhere both exotic and familiar (Amin's bedroom with its animal heads looked like Elvis' bedroom at Graceland and Deep Throat plays from an old-fashioned film projecter and outside there were guns and jungle and armed guards everywhere). As for anxiety, well, that's the brilliance of this movie. I've heard anxiety described as godlessness, as the root of sickness, as the disease of the modern age. For me, anxiety means you see more than the person you're watching (even and especially if that person is you) and you're afraid because you can imagine the worse outcome and you also understand that what you have imagined isn't probably as bad as it can get. During an interview, Forest Whitaker says that people in Uganda freaked out a little when he showed up for the first time dressed as Amin at the hospital where they were doing the filming. No doubt they did. Some of them had been around in Amin's time and others had heard of his horrible legend. They knew the ending, and they knew Whitaker was an actor. Still, it didn't keep them from fear. They had reason to know that you're never safe.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Your death, I think, will be the first real thing that happens to you." The Last King of Scotland

Cocktail Hour

Drinking music suggestion: A Love Supreme John Coltrane

Maledictions and Benedictions

Since Christmas is nearing, I'd like to ask my readers -- any creative gift suggestions? Feel free to chime in on the comment board all week about gift ideas. Also, if anyone wants to tell about great gifts they've given or received in the past, please do!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

As Long It's Healthy

Here's some Sunday flash fiction! This story first appeared in Orchid.

As Long As It’s Healthy

The night that Melody and Mark see a middle-aged Mexican prostitute smoke a cigarette with her vagina in front of a bunch of drunk frat boys from Texas Tech, Melody asks Mark to marry her.

"Man," Mark says, "what brought this on?" Mark makes a little show of rubbing his temples. He looks at Melody, then takes a long drink out of his tumbler of rum and Diet Coke.

He's been lying in bed, trying to find something on television that he hasn't already seen. They're at a Super 8 that has cable, a luxury they can't afford at home.

"I don't want to play house anymore," she says, and he knows better than to start humming the Tammy Wynette song. Sitting at the table, the one with hotel stationery and a Gideon Bible in the drawer, she looks out at the parking lot. "I want a husband and a baby."

He can't imagine what she's thinking. Money, or the lack of it, is the reason they're in Mexico for a couple of days. He bought three huge jars of Valium that he plans to sell when he gets back to Texas. Mark owns a lawn company that's this far from going under, (picture two fingers, a sliver of light in between), in addition to having a child support payment, and six maxed-out credit cards. All burdens. He remembers how excited he was when he bought the lawn company (his father co-signing, pissed off and skeptical), but now it's just another thing he's on the verge of fucking up beyond repair. Mark hasn't made the monthly loan payment for two months and his father has called him five times to yell about responsibility and duty and "getting your goddamn act together" even though the payment is an amount that Mark's father could cover and not so much as feel. His father is a University chancellor in East Texas, and Mark, now thirty-five, is starting to believe that his father's predictions for his inevitable failure have changed from prophecy to irrefutable fact.

Mark leans back against the headboard in his boxers, drink between his legs. On television, he finds Trailerpark Dojo, a movie about a kid who learns karate from a Vietnam vet. Mark's at the part where the vet wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks his belt is a python. He's going nuts trying to kill it. "I got a headache," Mark says. He picks up the remote from the nightstand and turns the sound down as low as it will go without losing it completely.

Melody continues to stare out the window, not offering him aspirin like she normally would. A huge semi whizzes by, its mudflaps bearing the insignia of the Confederate flag, the losing side still flaunting its colors. Outside, the night remains hot and muggy, August in the hottest summer Texas has had in the last ten years. The air-conditioner struggles to keep up, kicking in every few minutes.

"Why don't you watch the tv with me? Cable," he says.

"You won't marry me because I'm fat," she says, taking off her shoes and getting on the bed, fully clothed on top of the thin hotel bedspread. "I could mortgage my house and we'd have enough money to pay off the loan and you'd never have to deal with your father again."

Mark can't think of anything to say. She's made this offer a couple of times, but this is the first time he's desperate enough to consider it. Melody flips over onto her stomach, stares at a picture over the bed, a desert landscape done in mauves and browns.

"You think every room looks like this?" she asks. She looks young in her cut-offs and white t-shirt. Mark thinks about how pretty she would be if she lost some weight, cut her hair, fixed herself up. Maybe this marriage wouldn't be as bad as his first one.

"I don't imagine there's a lot of variety," he says. Still, everything works, something that can't be said for Melody's house, a place that is falling apart around them. Before they left for vacation, even the bathroom light had blown out. Peeing by candlelight is starting to lose its charm. Mark doesn't complain, though. Her house is an improvement over the last place he lived, a big ranchhouse with bad plumbing, pipes that flooded the bathroom at least once a month.

Whenever the house pipes broke, Mark would get drunk as a frog and sit outside on his lawnchair, shooting a bb gun at cans. After a few beers, he'd call up friends and tell them he was a proactive problem solver.
Melody flips back over again and props herself against the pillow. "Could you believe that woman at the bar?" she asks.

"No, I fucking could not," Mark says, relieved by the topic change.

They'd been on the road for two days and had already seen some pretty disturbing things. He planned to take some pictures of Mexico to help get his mind off the phone calls from his father, his ex-wife, and the credit card companies. He used a Polaroid because even though the film was expensive, he didn't have the patience to wait.

Tonight they had drunk tequilla in a place called The Four Winds, a stripper bar about ten miles over the border. A set of urinals sat against the back wall, and Mark took a picture of them before he saw anyone use them. Some guys saw him squatting down to get the right angle and started laughing. "You want a model for that picture? Mucho grande," the one man said, cupping his crotch. Then, while Mark ordered drinks at the bar, a whore with track marks on both of her arms sat down next to Melody and asked her for a cigarette. Melody told her that she didn't smoke. The whore shrugged and said, "Senorita, if you smoke, you lose some weight, no?" This all happened before the big event of the night, the woman performing the cigarette trick while one of the waiters tapped Mark on the shoulder and said, "This is the queen, the queen I tell you."

Mark stands up to make his way to the bathroom and feels a lot drunker than he did lying on the bed. He inspects himself in the mirror. He used to look and say, "You are one handsome motherfucker," but now he feels old and washed out. Setting out to show all those people who thought he was a world-class fuck-up that he could achieve something by running a successful lawn company, he still has nothing to show for it. His accumulated mistakes, both willful and inadvertant, have added up. It's the same with the drinking. The last time he tried to quit, he carried his imported non-alcoholic beer with him everywhere, the one luxury his budget could support. But eventually his money and patience ran out and he was back to his diet of animal crackers, canned raviolis, and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Mark walks out of the bathroom and gets back into bed, looking for something else with the remote. He flips through an infomercial for an abs machine and touches his own stomach, thinking of when he saw his father the last time. "You're looking a little pudgy there, boy," his dad had said, poking him in the gut. Mark wanted to punch his father in the nose right there in the restaurant, but he needed the loan. Which is what it always came down to. Needing something and having to beg for it.

"If you don't want to get married, maybe we should just deal with this now," Melody says, bringing up the dreaded topic again and looking the worse for it, eyes puffy and red.

"Come on, Mel, don't start," Mark says, patting her hair. He can feel her going into what he refers to as the "we're doomed, we're doomed" mode which he does not feel like dealing with tonight. What can he say? He rubs his eyes, a sleepy child before nap-time.

"What's going to happen to us?" she asks. She undoes the top button of her shorts and gets under the covers.

Pouring more rum into his glass, Mark wonders how she can work up the energy to have this discussion. He doesn't want to tell her the truth, that a lot of his reluctance is about the way she looks and what it says about him. He's told his friends this, saying "I know it makes me a little person, but I can't marry her when she's fifty pounds overweight." Before Melody he had dated an ex-nun who called him three times a day just to say hi and before that a good-looking woman named Jacqueline who had been all right except that during sex she rolled her eyes up in her head so that only the whites showed, like some horror movie creature. His romantic life had been a real mixed bag.

"We're going see what develops, Mel. You just got a divorce. Let's give this some time," he says.
He knows the kind thing to do would be to reach over and hold her, give her some reassurance. But he can't. He's reached the point in drinking tonight when all he wants to do is sleep. He offers her some of his drink, sloshing a little on himself.

Melody takes the drink from his hand and finishes it off. "God, how can you stand it that strong?" she asks.

"Just used to it, I guess." Before Melody he used to say that all he wanted in a woman was someone who would love him enough to come get him in the middle of a night of heavy drinking, no questions asked. He would say this the way expectant parents tell everyone, "We don't care as long as it's healthy."

"I'm going to take a shower. I feel gross," Melody says. She grabs her plastic satchel full of shampoo and lotion. The bathroom door slams shut, and Mark can't tell if the noise is on purpose or if Melody miscalculated how much force it would take to shut the door.

It's one of those ambiguous gestures that could mean anything or nothing Probably nothing. He falls asleep, the kind of sleep where he dreams that Melody becomes beautiful and thin, where his father has died and left him all his money for being such a wonderful son. Too soon it’s morning, and he’s covered in sweat, the smell of rum still in the air from the night before. The alarm rings, a small muffled sound that he tries to stop.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"There is no safety in writing well." Dorothy Allison

Cocktail Hour

Drinking reading suggestion: Facing the Music by Larry Brown

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Sunday to everyone! I hope everyone had a great holiday weekend!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Death of All We Know and Love

From my younger days, I remember two approaches to preaching -- the guys that planned out every word that they would say before Sunday, starting on Monday. In between visiting widows and orphans and such, they'd research and work, translate from original languages, bring in elements of popular culture (I appreciated one attempt that succeeded in bringing in St. Janis Joplin to the sermon). Then there was the other kind, the I try and feel where the spirit leads me ones, the guys with a vague plan and a dog-eared Bible. While not always a sure bet, when the spirit-filled ones worked, they worked with an unplanned brilliance, like a chance meeting at an airport with the person put on earth to tell you what to do next. When they bombed, we were stuck in the book of Job for what seemed like hours, optimistically putting our shoes back on, hoping for the glorious words, In conclusion . . .

My family was friendly with one of the last of the sane preachers the nondemoninational church we went to when I was a teenager. Butch seemed like a real ordinary guy -- he'd sit and eat Dominos pizza with his parishoners and watch movies like Nightmare on Elm Street. He wasn't big on the whole hellfire and brimstone stuff and never spoke in tongues. But his sermons, boy, they were not flashes of unplanned brilliance nor were they well-crafted works of art. One of the more inspired ones started -- I was speeding the other day. Speeding is a sin since it's against the law. So I stopped. But then a good song played on the radio and I started speeding again. And, umm, that was also a sin. And that shows that sin persists despite our best intentions . . . I wondered how Butch had gotten into preaching, what had given him the idea that it was his calling. I remembered the preacher before who had left the church because the relatively judgmental and conservative people in the congregation hadn't liked the way he looked (his body had a gnarled quality and his clothes had big stains all over them) or talked (in what can only be described as an effeminate growl). The heart, he'd say, is a lonely place. We, not one of us, are at home. There is longing, there is grief, there is the death of all we know and love. We wander in our own personal deserts, and nobody can truly know us. I couldn't see him eating pizza or watching Nightmare on Elm Street. But his sermons were so good and real that you felt as if you fell asleep, a fate worse than Freddy's long knives might await you, not the usual bullshit about a punishing God, but your own heart, that desert, full of empty spaces and beautiful dangerous creatures that come out when the sun goes down.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"It is not enough to leave Egypt. You must enter the promised land." Thomas Merton

Cocktail Hour

Drinking music suggestion: Under the Covers Dwight Yoakum

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Saturday! I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday weekend and finding lots of what they want.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Husband of the Year

My dad's secretary Nelda once gave him a rattlesnake in a jar to take home to my mother. He hated snakes, hated them, but he said, Because I love Margie so much, I'm going to put this in my truck. He tucked the snake in its glass pickle jar in the very back of the cab of his pick-up truck and drove home after work. After an abrupt stop at a red light, the jar slammed into the back of his seat and broke. He jumped out of his old green truck and put his hand on his heart. Two of his employees happened to be driving behind him and came running to his aid, thinking he was having a heart attack. There's a rattlesnake in my truck, my dad said. People loved my dad. Lots of people believe this about their fathers, but this is my proof. The couple coaxed a poisonous snake out of his truck and into the grass and calmed him down in the middle of a fairly crowded intersection.

He drove home and much to the disappointment of my mother, he returned without the snake. It was the perfect size, Don, she said. I could have done something with that snake in a Texas mold. Do you know where it went? Of course, the story became the stuff of legend and at his company picnic that summer, he got awarded Husband of the Year for his bravery. They made him a banner, like a Miss America sash, which he got to wear for pictures. There would be lots of sadness after these days that could have never been predicted, and everybody mentioned in this story is now dead. But in Mexico there is a belief that as long as the living still remember your name, you have not died your final death on this earth. And so I offer this story as one of the happier ones of my parents' marriage and as proof that at least for one summer, my dad, at least in Mineral Wells, Texas, was the best husband a woman could ask for.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"You're not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on." - Dean Martin

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie selection: Leaving Las Vegas

Benedictions and Maledictions

Thanks for all the wonderful Thanksgiving comments! I hope everyone is having a lovely Friday, sleeping the food/drink hangover off or shopping or just seeing where the day takes them. Happy Friday!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Set Piece Without Much Variation

For years, my Thanksgivings were punctuated with an unconventional group of my parents' friends, most notably two ex-communicated Jehovah Witnesses, Donna and Richard, a mother-son pair worthy of a Flannery O'Connor story. We'd start in on the turkey, and everything would be a-okay -- I don't remember much alcohol being consumed except for the sip of terrible vinegary wine saved for festive times (my parents didn't, for the most part, drink) so booze was not to blame for the strange turn things would take by dessert -- Richard weeping into the boxed pumpkin pie and telling us the story of how he got kicked out of the Witnesses. It was a set piece for many years without much variation; he'd told the elders of the church about having "bad" feelings for men and that he sometimes indulged in pornography (no secret to us as our house was right next to the huge Triple XXX Superstore on the highway and we'd drive by it several times a week, my dad frequently noting, There's Richard's truck!) The elders kicked him out, some kind of religious version of the tribe has spoken and soon Richard was sobbing even harder and my dad would try and comfort him by saying, It's okay, Richard, really, it's just fine.

I'm not sure what purpose this yearly confession served Richard, but I didn't mind it. It drew attention away from my single status and the battery of lame questions -- Still dating that schoolteacher who won't commit? (the use of the word schoolteacher always struck me as very Laura Ingalls and sent me into a fit of giggles), or Whatever happened to your old high school boyfriend? Said boyfriend's name, ironically, was Richard, and I'd report that he went the way of our Richard, but without the sturm and drang of the religious outing -- he'd merely dyed a blonde streak into his hair and starting listening to the same Berlin album over and over again. I'd leave the table and smile at how things could be both odd and predictable at the same time, the more things change, the more they stay the same feeling, and I was always very thankful.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep." Romans 12:15

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: Dog Day Afternoon

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Thanksgiving! I'm thankful for all those out there reading, for new and old friends, and for my nearest and dearest, too many to name. Alas, you know who you are! Without all of you, there'd be no making it through this or any of life's dreary and not so dreary hours.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Man In A Jar

The day after my dad died, a massage therapist who made a pass at my sister, came over to the house with five jars of mayonnaise, five cans of nuts, and a jar of mustard. People forget condiments in times like these, he said. I'd written a story about our experiences with him, titled "Man In A Jar" about both the good and bad times in the Bella Day Spa (close to the name of the place he worked) and his strange ways. We'd gone there on a referral the year after my mother died. We got our first massages on Christmas Eve -- Mike (the name I gave him in the story), had been incredibly kind. He and my sister had a great rapport and spoke about angels, about God things -- Mike claimed the Lord had helped him put down the bottle, no AA necessary and my sister related how prayer had helped her cope with my mother's death -- they'd been exceptionally close and her heart broke as she saw my mother's health deteriorate. Despite his diminutive physical size (5'1 and relatively thin), he gave a powerful massage, far better than the only other one I'd ever had by a woman who claimed she needed to light more pink candles around me to get rid of my negative energy. Babe, I wanted to say, you're going to need a lot more pink candles to even tap into that dark morass of pain. All that pink made me even more nervous.

We continued to go to Mike, but one day he did something that would most assuredly violate the massage therapist/client code of ethics and my sister came out of the room, madder than a hornet. I had been grading papers in the waiting room and looking at candles for sale. My favorite one smelled like men's cologne. The label read "Man In A Jar." I bought it, and Mike came out of the back of the spa with two pinwheels. These are for you both, he said. You have such child-like spirits. Pinwheels, besides being children's toys, keep pests away from gardens. Certain animals don't like the vibrations. I never thought we'd see Mike again, particularly after my sister said she'd like to shove the pinwheel up his ass. Because my dad died in a plane crash, lots of people heard about it on the news and radio, including Mike. He had our address on file at the spa and brought over the massive amounts of condiments. I'm not much for mayonnaise, but I have to say that the nuts came in handy. I suppose they always do.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Wish in one hand, shit in the other, see which fills up first." Billy Bob Thornton, Bad Santa

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: Bad Santa, one of the few Christmas movies that I find endlessly cheering. I'd also suggest that you start listening to Dolly Parton's "Hard Candy Christmas."

Benedictions and Maledictions

You're Always Here Even When You're Not

I thought about writing you a letter
like they tell you in AA -- Dear So and So,
I am sorry for getting drunk and ruining
your life. I forget what step that is -- all
I have seem to have done is the first one,
admitting that my life is unmangeable,
and yet I do, manage it. I am on speaking
terms with paradox and its little friend,
not in this fucking lifetime. Maybe e-mail
is better, one of those stupid group ones
that starts and ends in the same place --
You will not give a shit about this, but I
think it's funny and it beats nothing. Let's
pretend for the sake of argument that
I wanted to clear the decks, where
would I begin? Love is not enough?
Maybe I should consider the audience.
That's as good a place to begin as any.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

All About Eve

Not so many years ago, I had a student named Eve who wore a flack jacket to school almost every day filled with spent ammo shells. She carried around plastic grocery bags filled with books, papers, clothes, and God knows what. She'd set her bags down around her each class, forming a barrier between her and the other students and often came in late, apologizing underneath her breath. I couldn't discern Eve's age -- she could have been anywhere between forty and sixty and learned over the course of two semesters that she lived in her van, that their were "people" out to get her, and that she'd taken piano lessons as a young girl from the one person in her life who had been kind to her and gave her what she considered the most fantastic advice of her life: If you don't run, nobody can chase you.

Eve was the kind of student that other students mocked because of her appearance and the weird mumbling monologue that she kept up, even when she was talking to you. She had an oddly deferential quality that kept me a little uncentered -- I couldn't quite square it with the flack jacket and the ammo shells that kept falling down around her. But I had an exceptionally kind creative writing class that treated her well, and I edited her writing (which had its moments). As per her stories, though, she became disenchanted with all of us (her main theme in her work was how people betray her -- I should have been warned that there was no acknowledgment of any of her own complicity in any of these tales). I worried that something had happened to her as this was one of the very few cases in which I was completely befuddled as to what had happened to make her turn away. I saw her one more time, standing by St. Donald's Church, all her bags in hand, waiting for the bus. I felt relieved and sad. Once in class she'd brought in a color picture of an ovarian cyst that she'd printed off the internet. The story we read had dealt with one -- and it was just as described, with teeth and hair, something that had been growing for so long that it had become an intimate, vital part of someone. The woman in the story did not want to part with her cyst and kept it as decoration. It sounds strange, but I assure you, I'd seen stranger things.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"That's what they said Prozac would do for me! I never before could have imagined I could sustain twenty-one kitties in my studio apartment." Stacey Richter, My Date With Satan

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: Home For the Holidays

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Tuesday!

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Day After Halloween

With the sad gloom of the holiday season upon us, I can only take heart as a writer that the holidays produce so much conflict and misery that I will be writing about them for weeks and weeks after, using incidents from these dismal days much like turkey leftovers. Last year, I was at an airport waiting for my luggage and heard a woman yelling (and this was in October), There will be no fucking Christmas this year. Do you understand? I looked over at her companion who simply nodded. As the holiday decorations at Target usurped their Halloween counterparts the day after Halloween (remember when Christmas started the day after Thanksgiving?), I heard a woman sobbing and saying to her husband, You can't tell me I can only have one Christmas moose. One moose for my whole life? I can't live that way. Sufficed to say, I don't think their marriage had a shot of surviving past the new year without at least three or four more mooses. I don't know what point the man was making -- that they couldn't afford them, that he thought they were ugly, that he felt she had outgrown the need for these hideous decorative emblems, but I wanted to say, For God's sake's man, this is not a battle you want to fight. Get some more godforsaken moose dolls!

The other side of this is that I secretly love Christmas and always have, especially the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. In my mind, there's nothing better and sadder. Even the music from it can make me teary. I trace this back to my beginnings as a headcase and writer (redundant, I know) when as a young child I used to play my 45 record of the special in the summer to make myself sad. I'd tell myself that I wouldn't cry, not even a sniffle, that I would merely experience the pain and let it be okay. Well, I'm here to tell you that it never was okay! I always cried. But I won't this year, no sir. I'm like Charlie Brown and that football -- you have hope for something different even when you shouldn't.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"I used to see the phrase, 'This crazy business about slinging ink.' This is not a crazy business about slinging ink. This is a deadly serious business. " Charles Schultz

Cocktail Hour

Peppermint Patty

1 Peppermint schnapps
1 part vodka
1 part hot chocolate

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Monday!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

If I've Told You This Story, Stop Me

Here's a piece of flash fiction for your Sunday reading. It first appeared in a journal called Parting Gifts.

The Contemplation of Ruins

Okay, let's say you could do it. Meaning you have the capacity. Fall in love, have a baby, find a job, write a book, get a divorce, etc. First off, there's always some asshole telling you how easy it would be if you really wanted to. It's you that's holding you back. And so on and so forth. And when you're finished, there's somebody else telling you how you could have done it easier, less expensively, with more style, less mess. I'm tired of this.

Sometimes it takes every ounce of energy just to get through the day without coming out the other side as though I'm a passenger getting off a particularly long flight, rumpled and jet-lagged, waiting for someone to pick me up and take me home.

When a man wants to leave you, it's like when you're in a bathtub running the hot water and all of a sudden it's getting colder and colder until you can't stand it. You keep wanting to believe it's going to warm back up, but eventually you're forced to get out and put on your clothes just to quit shaking.

When I get letters for him, which used to be all the time and now is almost never, I always write "not at this address" on the envelope. One time my pen wouldn't work so I threw his mail away. When a pen really finally runs out of ink, all the shaking in the world won't bring it back.

Two weeks after, I dialed my old phone number to check my messages, not realizing it wasn't my phone number anymore, wasn't my message, wasn't anything. I felt like I'd been on one of those rides that goes up for a very long time until you're suspended. Just when you're convinced that you won't drop, you do. At amusement parks, I avoid those rides along with the ones where you're stuck with centrifugal force to a wall and spun around. Inevitably, those attract pukers. One of my childhood friends always rode the evil Whirl-O-Matic with the expected results.

"Why do you put yourself through that?" I'd ask as she leaned against the wall, her face pale after vomiting near the log ride.

"Because I think I'm going to get used to feeling bad when it's over."

One of my co-workers, Kate, got a divorce about the same time I did. It's been two years since that Three Mile Island summer of break-ups, and she's met a man from England through a pen pal page on the internet. Everybody around the office refers to him as Nigel, even though his name is Henry. He's coming to stay on the basis of one two-week visit. I'm as cut off from the meaning of this sudden action as anybody else.

"He's such a cupcake, a perfect little cupcake," she'd told me right after he left from his visit.

"After jerk-boy city, I didn't think it was possible that love could happen so fast or seem so right."

I didn't know it was possible for people to talk that way and keep a straight face.
After, I dated men who, well, wouldn't be described as cupcakes by me or anyone else. I dated men who coached basketball and soccer and hockey. My current has been known to yell "your intensity is for shit" at random points during the evening. He had a side of the bed in no time flat. He's a good time, or at least my idea of one.

When this man was looking for a different job, one of my friends asked him how it was going.

"The last time I made a cut was on my high school basketball team," he said.
It's his reduced expectations that get to me every time.

When I tell my current about Kate's description of Nigel as we're lying in bed, he asks when Cupcake is due to arrive.

I roll onto my side, facing him. "A couple of weeks. Before desire fails, before the silver cord is loosed."

"Where does that come from?"

"Ecclesiastes. There is nothing new under the sun," I say, as I put his hand on my breast.

"Thank God for that." Then we don't say anything at all.

Watching little boys and little girls playing with building blocks, the psychologist Erik Erikson noted that while girls concentrated on building houses and entrances, boys would stack blocks as high as they could and knock them down. I think about what the therapist said to me at my last marriage counselling session: "You're not mad at this man, you're mad at all men." I'd had quite enough, but my ex continues with her to this day. As Erikson wrote in his journal, "Contemplation of the ruins is a masculine speciality."

After, I try not to think about the future because that means thinking about the past, which is, well, past. Instead, I think of Nigel getting off the long flight over the ocean knowing at the end of the tunnel there will be someone waiting to pick him up, help him with his luggage, and drive him to a place he'll learn to call home.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"The ballerina must not depend totally upon her partner for support. In most lifts, there is preparation that helps send her in the air -- and takes the weight off her partner." Barefoot to Balanchine

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: Lady Sings the Blues

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Sunday!

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Heartaches By The Numbers

Happy Saturday, everyone! The following links are to various literary journals that are both print and internet-based. Some have published me, making them brilliant, of course! Hope you enjoy the links!

hhtp:// -- Homestead Review -- Valparisio Poetry Review -- Gertrude -- Wild Violet Alaska Quarterly Review -- Orchid --Slipstream -- Quercus Review -- South Carolina Review -- Poetry Bay -- Other Voices

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Every day you love me less/ Each day I love you more." Dwight Yoakam

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: Being John Malkovich

Benedictions and Maledictions

Dating restaurant suggestion: Nami in Fernadale is excellent for sushi! The roll to order is the Marlon Brando. It's a speciality roll and it's not listed on the menu, but it's the best sushi I've ever had so write it in on the sheet. You will not be sad.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Secure Your Own Mask First

When I was three years old, I served as a flower girl for a couple who were my parents' friends. My dad had serious reservations -- She's only three! What if she messes up? My mother thought it would be fine, though, a very big role reversal for my parents -- my dad never worried, my mother worried about everything. I did great at the rehearsal, but when it came time to walk down the aisle, I didn't scatter one petal in front of me. I swung the basket with my grubby little hand in it, but that was all until I made it to the altar where I dumped all the rose petals out, much like someone emptying the garbage. Then I sat down in the petals. Everyone tried to get me to stand up, but I wouldn't. I would later repeat this trick in my pre-school Christmas pageant. My teacher, mortified that things weren't going as planned, kept whispering furiously to me, but I sat there while everyone laughed and talked about how cute I was, refusing to do what everyone else did. Being mostly a very good girl (not much less was tolerated at home), I came to know the joys and pleasures of being bad.

I suppose this was a portent of things to come -- I almost never stand as I teach, instead prefering to sit on the desk like a gnarled vine. According to my high school typing teacher, I had the worst posture of any student she'd ever taught (and we're talking forty years into her career). By that time, I had clothes that looked one way at school, a completely different way when I got out. I learned to be one thing and then another. One of my favorite Christmas cards has three snowmen on it, one with a head that has fallen off. The thought bubble over the decapitated head reads -- "Just smile . . . like you meant for that to happen . . ." There's something sad and true about this that sums things up for me, much more so than the usual holiday cheer that insists this year will be merry and/or bright.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"I sleep on one beach/ wake up on another." Raymond Carver

Cocktail Hour

Drinking music suggestion: A Charlie Brown Christmas

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Friday!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

You Hadn't Felt A Thing

Given my long history with freshman composition essays, I know what forms of self-abuse are in fashion -- for years, I got body image papers, girls starving themselves, living on four to eight hundred calorie a day diets, binging, purging, everything you can imagine and then some. The details would break your heart -- vomiting into dixie cups while doing leg-lifts, eating only one apple every other day, outlining body parts in magic marker that they didn't like. I'd seen more than enough as a gymnast (eating disorder central), but it still made me sad. Then there was a fairly dramatic shift into what some therapists refer to as delicate self-cutting, a form of mutilation that includes but is not limited to cutting yourself with razor-blades, broken glass, knives. You can also branch out -- burning yourself with curling irons, hitting yourself, tearing your hair out. Somewhere between the Clinton administration and the Bush one, things had changed and not for the better. Heroin replaced ecstasy as the drug of choice, at least in my limited sample group, and I wasn't even through with the semester.

I can't say that I'm shocked, though -- self-destruction has its allure. Where I come from, people would jump off big rocks into Possum Kingdom Lake and see if they'd survive. They would do massive amounts of crystal meth out of boredom. I can do whatever the fuck I want to myself, you think. One of my friends had an evil-looking contraption his grandfather made. You'd hang onto it while the electric voltage kept going up. The point was to see how much pain you could stand. When you're being shocked, your muscles tighten, and you can't release even if you wanted to. Which you wouldn't, of course. You'd keep going until someone turned the damn thing off, and you'd try and pretend that it didn't hurt at all and that you hadn't felt a thing, something I know a little bit about, at least enough to turn in for one of my own assignments, had I the desire.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"My bucket's got a hole/ And Hank can't buy no beer." Hank Williams

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: Heathers -- great dark teenage angsty comedy

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Thursday!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Try This And See What Happens

I once had a growth on my face, a small flowering of red spots that I feared was cancer (all those years in the sun as a lifeguard, baking myself with baby oil and Crisco as a child), my aversion to any kind of self-protective measures catching up with me. I went to my doctor at the time, who didn't know what it was either. He gave me a tube of Retin-A and said, Try this and see what happens. Nothing happened. I came back in three months, and he had some dry ice to try and burn the growth off, but not before showing me a trick he does at parties where he pours the dry ice on a seat and watches it evaporate in the air. Not exactly David Copperfield, I know. The dry ice hurt like all billy hell and gave me an angry-looking patch of skin, but the growth remained. In the tedious process that is the HMO way, he finally referred me to a specialist who froze and lasered the area -- it wasn't cancer or some flesh-eating disease -- they were a cluster of warts. Oh the drama!

This final procedure also hurt a lot, but I was brave and even received a lolipop for not crying, something that my childhood doctors didn't do. The lolipop thing also happened when I got a cyst dug out of my back in my twenties -- perhaps destiny has it that I should experience these pleasures now when I can appreciate them. At any rate, I exhaled when my dermatology nightmare drew to a close and walked out into the lobby, reassuring myself that I didn't look that bad. A small child started to scream and cry when he saw me, clinging to his mother's leg and yelling, What happened to that girl? For almost a month, I got that reaction everywhere I went, albeit in the more muted manner of adults. As the area began to bruise as a prelude to healing, nearly every time I went to a store, I got the stage whispers and was even passed the name of a battered women's shelter on a slip of paper by a woman in line at the Safeway. Don't bother saying anything, honey, she said. I won't believe you. She walked out before me and waved. I didn't wave back as I dug money out of my wallet to pay for my Count Chocula and Dr. Pepper. I would have smiled, but it still hurt to do so and after all, I still needed to pay.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"From error to error, one discovers the entire truth." — Sigmund Freud

Cocktail Hour

Drinking music suggestion: The Essential Waylon Jennings

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Wednesday!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Summer and Smoke

During my long-ago undergraduate years, I took an acting class because it was the only thing that would work with my schedule, and I needed it for a humanities requirement. As I loathe theater, I'd never given the stage much thought. At my high school, our theater department was run by a sweet woman named Betty with a thick braid that below her waist and consisted of a few people who fancied themselves actors (intense brooding conversations, lots of vests with decorative pins on them) and another class of mentally challenged students whose acting troupe was named, rather unfortunately, The Betty's Specials. And I've always found musicals loathesome; I can't get around the whole singing and dancing for no apparent reason thing. I'm able to suspend my belief in all sorts of ways, but not this one. So I was not, as Christopher Guest says in Waiting for Guffman, going to Broadway!

Even so, I was excited about the college acting class -- we had to do a try-out during our first week which consisted of picking a small piece to perform in front of the class. I chose a Sylvia Plath medley, and man, was it not good unless you consider my inadvertent potrayal of a lobotomized, lithium-addled woman who knew a lot of Sylvia Plath poems a triumph. Our teacher had one rule for these first performances -- the class had to clap for everyone, or they wouldn't be allowed to clap for anyone. Most of us voted not to clap at all, the generosity from the would-be performer in us completely underwhelming. Over the course of four months, I improved. It would be hard not to, given where I'd started. My last role was a spinster aunt in Summer and Smoke. Our instructor divided all the girls up into two groups -- fat and thin, character actress or hot young thing. Ever the kind soul, he said that our weight would determine our role in the real world so we'd do well to get used to it now or stop stuffing our faces like hogs (his exact words). He put me in the fat group, even though I weighed about a hundred pounds soaking weight. You're in with the large ones, he said, because you have a heaviness about you. I took it as a compliment -- all my life, I longed to be taken seriously. When I delivered my scene, my instructor said, I've never heard someone sound so sad in that part. It wasn't much, but I clung to the praise like my life depended on it. I might not have been an actor, but the ego part, the clawing insecurity and desperation to be loved, well, that I had down.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"We have created enchantment." Tennessee Williams

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I usually don't think plays translate well to movies, but this one is absolutely brilliant and has the added bonus of Dick Burton and Liz Taylor having a high old time as a couple on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Tuesday!

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Only People In the Whole World

The last words my mother said to me were over the phone as she had entered a hospital for the last time were I have to go. I need to take my medicine. She'd been ill so many times before that I didn't know whether she'd rally this time or not -- I remember being seven years old and being told she was going to die. My sister asked my dad in a panic -- Is Momma going to be all right? Instead of the usual reassurance, he said, I don't know. The doctor told us that he couldn't figure out what was wrong, and that it might be the end. She made one of many miraculous recoveries that time.

Now that she has been gone four years to the day, I find myself thinking about her life far more than her death, especially those years when I was child. Once she told me the following story: When you were a baby, your dad had to go to Minnesota for a business trip. It's the only time I was ever in Minnesota, and we stayed in the hotel room all day watching the snow. I never saw so much snow! It was like we were the only people in the whole world. Of course, I have no memory of this day because I was so young. But maybe I do -- I still love watching the snow fall more than almost anything else. I don't get out and play in it. That wasn't my mother's nature, and it isn't mine either. I admire other people's snowmen, and that's the best I can do, not being terribly unique (like each snowflake) or all that ambitious. But I love the way snowflakes dance in the frozen air like the most perfect confetti, the kind that glitters for a short time before it vanishes into a pile with all the others before it.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"A woman is her mother/ That's the main thing." Anne Sexton

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: Grey Gardens

Benedictions and Maledictions

Here's my beautiful mother, in the prime of her life:

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Ghost Town

In my early twenties, I suffered from panic attacks, not the sudden kind that leave you panting and confused, but the slow steady jungle drumbeat of anxiety that built until I felt as if I would not be able to breathe. Unlike a lot of people, I never mistook these episodes for heart attacks. I knew what was happening which made it worse. I lived with my then-betrothed in a one bedroom apartment with walls so thin that you could feel the wind blow through them and roaches that would not die, but instead dropped from the ceiling into food and clothes and hair despite my constant search for a better pesticide. We shared this palace with his bonsai trees (thank God, there wasn't room for a real plant) and all our stuff, which lined every available surface -- many books, pictures, the troll dolls that were ever so popular at the time -- my favorite was a blonde bridal troll doll with a horrified expression on her face. I'd always been a minimalist, but the clutter made me feel better in some ways, a padding of sorts against the horrors of the world because God knows our door didn't -- I saw a police officer lean into the locked door of one of the apartments when someone died in one of them and entered in less than a minute with one stiff push from his hip.

When I was alone, my mind looped to every bad thing I had ever known or seen -- one of my particular favorites was a high school cheerleader who'd been stabbed forty-three times while babysitting (the kids were asleep) in my hometown by an obsessed weirdo wearing a Jason mask, who kept saying over and over, I love you, you stupid bitch. She crawled to a neighbors and lived through it. I'd often felt a similiar anxiety as a child and would try to visualize the happiest scene I could think of -- fields of tulips. Of course, it wouldn't take all that long before a man wielding an ax came to the tulip field. I didn't even try that technique as an adult -- instead, I'd sit in a fugue state with the television turned up high. Sometimes I'd start to relax a little, especially when watching something funny, like In Living Color. Until a roach fell on my head and startled me, sending me into a fury and panic. If I could have stepped outside of myself, I would have laughed. Other people's suffering can provoke that response if you're not careful.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Every day above ground is a good day." Scarface

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: Midnight Cowboy

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Sunday!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

I Didn't Want To Tell You

I once went on one of the mercifully few camping trips in my life in the tenth grade -- it was a two-day field trip for my advanced biology class. The trip itself had taken many happy turns -- the boys had smuggled Everclear in empty High Karate bottles, I was asked to tell ghost stories late in the evening, everyone was making jokes for most of the ride there. During the course of the second day, a tick attached itself to my neck. Like most hideous blood-sucking creatures, I had no idea that it was there and went around acting normal until I looked in my compact and saw its swollen black body. How long has it been on me?, I asked Scott, a boy who had huge burn scars all along his forearms from being plunged into a way too hot bathtub as a toddler. A long time, he said. I didn't want to tell you because I liked seeing something ugly on you. Despite his grisly scars, he'd gained entry into the popular crowd, something I had about as much chance of doing as making it on Broadway. I doused myself with rubbing alcohol, and the tick released itself. You can't pull them off because the head will stay embedded, causing an infection. You can also light a match, blow it out, and put the heated tip to the tick's body.

The other day I had my students write about jealousy and envy, those unseemly emotions that bite us in the ass and make us crazy. Sometimes it takes a while for the students to start -- say, when I say things like, Amputation -- go anywhere you like with this idea! But with jealousy, my little darlings got right to it and wrote with ceasing for the entire time. Almost nobody, however, wanted to read out loud. Most of the time lots of students want to share, but not with this shame-laced emotion that we're taught not to acknowledge. I'm not a jealous person, we'll say, but . . . I would like to stab that person in the eyes, repeatedly. Of course, I would feel bad about it, but not that bad. I hadn't thought about Scott in years, but I remembered his casual cruelty which had given him a certain cache in high school. He'd taunt the boy in our class who had no forearms, only stubs that stopped where an elbow should have been. And how he hid his own arms in long-sleeve shirts even in the hottest weather. As for my own jealousy and pettiness, if only it were as easy as removing a tick from my otherwise unblemished neck instead of like Scott's scars that would always be there, whethter they were hidden or not.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Me? Jealous? A little -- like Medea." Woody Allen

Cocktail Hour

Drinking book suggestion: Alice K's Guide To Life by Caroline Knapp -- very sharp, dark humor about a single woman in her thirties -- Sex in the City, without much sex, too many drinks, and lots of financial issues, which is to say a lot more like reality.

Benedictions and Maledictions

My cousin Jay has a great website/blog at Check it out! Happy Veteran's Day to all!

Friday, November 10, 2006

I Am Trying To Break Your Heart

I often give my students writing prompts which I think of on my way to class. A lot of it depends on my mood but strangely enough, the subject often corresponds to what people are feeling in class. You're a witch, one student gasped, as I wrote the words for the day on the board. That's exactly what I've been obsessing about all week! One that always gets the class moving is the story of their worst break-ups which I title "love among the ruins." I'm terrible at break-ups -- being a Taurus, I hate change, even necessary change, and take the prolonged, maximum pain approach. It's a testament to the kindness and forgiving nature of the human spirit that I remain friends with almost all my ex-beloveds. Fortunately, when I was doing most of my breaking up with people, I didn't have access to the plethora of options my students do -- they admit to dumping people and being dumped via text message (ala Britney Spears and K-Fed), instant message, e-mail, and voice mail. I suppose none of this tops the Newt Gingrich story about having divorce papers sent to his wife's hospital room as she recovered from her masectomy or Phil Collins dumping his wife via fax. When a letter just isn't fast enough . . .

Of course, none of your options for this moment are particularly delightful. Do you take the person out to eat to drop the bomb? Men have confessed to me that they do this as there is a set time limit and so the little lady doesn't make a scene. One man I know who had a daquiri poured on his head no longer believes this to be the case. Watch out for those frozen girly drinks that non-drinkers love -- they'll cause a lot more damage than a martini! My most memorable break-up was years ago when I had been going out with a very sweet man for a few months. He went on a week-long trip, and I decided to end it given the perspective his absence gave me. I took my friend Angela to the airport with me to pick him up. He'd been in Florida visiting his stepmother and had a great tan. We drove him home in a torrential storm, the kind of flash flood weather for which Texas is known. I popped out to walk him to his apartment while Angela waited in the get-away car. He knew the deal almost instantly without me saying a word. I remember standing in the airport while we waited for his luggage, commenting on how much color he'd gotten on his trip, how the tan suited him. "I feel burnt," he said. "I wish I could go back to the way things were before I left." Sometimes the dialogue writes itself.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"If you have to be in a soap opera try not to get the worst role. " Judy Garland

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: Me and My Shadow -- Judy Davis (one of my favorite actresses) portrays Judy Garland in all her glory.

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Friday, dear readers! If you have any break-up stories or questions you'd like to share or ask, please feel free!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

A New Start For A Healthy Heart

Besides my brief stint as a reporter for the prestigious Mineral Wells Index (circulation 2000), I worked for a few months for a feminist circular called The Gaze. I'd published a poem in the first issue, an ode to good love gone bad, but it was so abstract and strange that one would be hard pressed to cull that meaning from the words on the page. The Gaze had a firm editorial policy -- Do not barrage us with stories and articles about your struggle with body image issues. We are not interested in what you're not eating this week! And please, no I broke up with a real dick stories. So I had to be sneaky. Given my poor writing skills at the time, such subterfuge wasn't difficult. Almost nobody knew what I meant by anything which wasn't the worst thing -- sometimes people assumed that they had missed the "deeper" meaning and weren't smart enough to get it. Yeah, that's it! The fact that I couldn't form a coherent thought on the page -- well, no piece of published writing is ever perfect so . . . The poem, "Dreams of Russia and You" had nothing to do with Russia or communism, but the editor thought it was a musing on the state of entrapment of women in a patriarchal society by use of metaphor. I nodded. The fact that I had been dumped by an artist named Jeff after ignoring his philandering for many months and that in fact was the subtext, well, as my mother used to say, You don't have to tell everything.

Given this first success, the editor assigned me an investigative piece on the local crisis pregnancy center, sponsored by a local nondenominational church. Women could train as volunteer counsellors for this center so I called and signed up for an all day Saturday session where I would learn everything I needed to know to help those in need. I dressed as conservatively as I knew how -- flat shoes, my one hideous Laura Ashley-like mumuu, and a string of fake pearls, ala Tricia Nixon on a budget. The center, housed in a small office-like building, had several homey touches -- kleenex boxes with crocheted outfits, pictures of nature lining the walls, several framed Norman Rockwell prints (I thought the last touch was pure overkill, but there you have it). The process was simple -- a girl (over half the clients were under eighteen) or woman came into the clinic lured by the free pregnancy test. We had them fill out a questionaire about their sex lives, health, and general information, take the test (an EPT test that they could have purchased at Wal-Mart for less than ten dollars) and tell them that the results would be back in an hour. (This, of course, was a lie -- we knew whether they were pregnant in five minutes). If they were pregnant, we were to show them a film on the development of the fetus. If not, we were to show them "A New Start for a Healthy Heart," a film on regaining your virginity. In my mind, I called it "Whore No More." After delivering the news after the film, we were to tell them about all the help they could get from the center -- used baby clothes and toys, WIC coupons, and access to information about putting your baby up for adoption. If the woman so much as mentioned she was considering an abortion, we were instructed to show her The Silent Scream, a famous anti-abortion film. By the end of the day, my feet hurt from wearing flat shoes for so long and from the fake smile I kept plastered on my face, but I was happy because I knew that this would be far better than the first thing I had published in The Gaze. But my article never ran because The Gaze lost its funding. Even so, the day wasn't a total waste -- I had learned how to regain my virginity and to pass for someone I was not. No one suspected I wasn't one of them. I'm sure it wasn't what the crisis pregnancy center had in mind when they said they printed on their brochures that they were committed to help "all personal development," but as I already knew, there were huge gaps between what a person wrote and what she meant.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"I'm sitting here in a pile of ashes, waiting for the phoenix to take shape and rise." Jill McCorkle, Crash Diet

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: U-Turn

Benedictions and Maledictions

Love Note

I would kill myself for you
if I weren't already dead.
Timing, I think, is everything.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Offender Declined To Make A Final Comment

When I was in the fifth grade, we had to memorize the states by what, if any, form their death penalty took. Many of the states had switched to lethal injection (in our twisted little minds, the least interesting way to go), but there were still some that held onto the barbaric ways of the past -- hanging, the electric chair, the rare gas chamber. The only one I remember with any clarity is Utah -- they use a firing squad because of Mormon's belief that blood must be shed onto the ground during the process. (The last of these executions was Gary Gilmore, subject of my favorite Norman Mailer book, Executioner's Song and a brilliant memoir, A Shot in the Heart, by his brother, Rolling Stone journalist Mikal Gilmore.) Of course, I lived in Texas, which killed lots of people, more than any other state, and our social studies teacher reminded us of that fact -- A lot of states say they have a death penalty, but we really do, he said, not with an inconsiderable bit of pride. A veritable bastion of political correctness, he often told us he wanted to be buried underneath the stars and bars, a Southern term for the Confederate flag. For state's rights, he said, but even then I wasn't believing it.

I don't know enough to have a strong opinion about the death penalty, but I admit to a morbid fascination with people's last words and meals. (In my defense, I'm in good company -- Richard Brautigan has a whole story about finding the meal plans for death row inmates.) Given this, it was only a matter of time that I stumbled onto the Texas Correctional Facility Website, the portion that gives the names, offenses, and last words. Like the prisoner's last meal, they are allowed to plan and say whatever they would like before that final entry into the next world. A few prisoners decline to say anything, but most of them invoke Jesus, forgiveness, some are still pleading innocence, some give a final shout-out to those they love. I didn't mean to kill all those people, some say, but things happen. You don't have any idea what my life was like. Of course, that's true for every single one of us. After reading a few, the words bleed together, like one big tapestry of regret and sorrow. The one that I remember, though, was the essence of brevity and clarity. Indeed, I couldn't have done better myself if I was writing the story. Goodbye, the prisoner said, guilty of what I cannot recall, I deserve this.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"This is not a happy story. I warn you." Richard Ford, Rock Springs

Cocktail Hour

Drinking music suggestion: Willie Nelson, Live at Billy Bob's

Benedictions and Maledictions

Thanks to all readers and commenters! And a special hello and thanks to Jill, my friend Shawn's beautiful and brilliant niece!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

My First Second Language

My great-grandmother (we called her Mimi, a French endearment for grandmother) lived with our family for my entire life until she died. She spoke French and broken English, and I spoke to her in broken English as well -- my first second language. I knew that it was very different than what I said to my parents and at school and much louder since she had hearing trouble. Out of all my relatives, she had the most beautiful soul born out of a lot of pain -- all four of her sons had died years before she did -- of accidents, cancer, alcoholism. And unlike everyone else in my family, she had incredible longevity -- she made it until her nineties when everyone else seems to be lucky to hit sixty. A month before her death, she spoke a lot to the air. When my mother asked her who she was talking to, she'd say, I'm talking to my sons. Can't you see them? She never spoke of her dead children, so I felt certain they were in the room.

Mimi served as an incredibly calming presence to the house. She couldn't walk very well and loathed the idea of a wheelchair so she managed to either use a walker (to get to the car) or scoot around the house, using her arms to propel herself forward. She moved fast and got wherever she needed to go. She didn't much like our poodle, the dear Peppi, but she would hold up his little paws during "Ring of Fire" and make him dance whenever Johnny Cash played. We didn't have a very big house so I slept with Mimi every night. When she started talking to her sons, I felt a chill. I wondered what they looked like as I'd never seen a picture. Everyone says French is a beautiful language, but murmured late into the night, it seemed otherwordly, beyond beauty and meaning, like a glimpse of something veiled that you'd see sooner or later.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"I'm not a fan of real life." Nick Nolte

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: North Dallas Forty

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Election Day!

Monday, November 06, 2006

These Winter Mondays

When I was a child, my favorite poem was Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays." (I've copied it under the Benedictions and Maledictions section.) I used to recite it to myself, even though I didn't entirely understand it, especially the lines about "love's austere and lonely offices." And living in such a warm climate, I couldn't imagine anything more exotic than having to wake up and build a fire. Of course, Hayden lived in Detroit most of his life and such cold was no exotic fiction to him. And waking up fearing the chronic angers in a house, I imagine, is not an exotic fiction for anyone. I've always had a low-level anxiety about morning, the time when your bad dreams bleed into your waking life, when the demands of the day seem particularly painful. And I contend, rather unoriginally, that Monday is vile. Once a friend of mine had two eggs crack open in her purse (she carried them to school each day to put underneath her eyes to alleviate dark circles, a trick I'd adopt these days if I ever bought eggs) and said, "Fuck, it's Monday all day, isn't it?"

So this one is for you, the tired reader with nothing clean to wear, a gas tank almost on empty, nothing to eat in the house. You manage to find something that will do to wear even if it doesn't exactly match, you get to where you're going, even if you have to stop at the risk of being late. You buy crap out of the vending machine that never even heard of the food pyramid. You do it because you have to, because sacrifice becomes something else when you draw attention to it. The car takes a while to heat up, but that's fine. You lay your head on the steering wheel. Who says there's no rest for the weary?

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Where am I and how the fuck do I get to Detroit?" Richard Pryor

Cocktail Hour

Drinking music suggestion: DeStilj White Stripes

Benedictions and Maledictions

Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather
made banked fires blaze.
No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call, and slowly
I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers
of that house, Speaking indifferently to him, who had
driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers

The last trip I ever took with my dad was to Archer City, Texas, home of Larry McMurtry's vast project, Booked Up, an attempt to create a ranch of books in his old hometown, the setting for both the brilliant book and movie, The Last Picture Show. Archer City lies in the shadow of Misery Ridge, a tiny mountain range, and signals the vast deadness of the plains of Texas. Booked Up carried thousands and thousands of books -- Larry M. managed to buy several buildings in the town to store them. The bookstores did not carry his books, however, so he wouldn't be swarmed with fans wanting him to sign them. He could be seen carrying books under the unrelenting Texas sun, checking mail, and being crabby. I have always loved his books and had the thrill of being his student for a brief time -- he agreed to teach a week-long workshop at University of North Texas, his alma matter, and it was my great fortune to sign up for it. Larry didn't much like students or people in general and told us that he would not be reading our manuscripts because he said, diplomat that he is, that they sucked. This pissed many a student off -- not yours truly, though. I knew my manuscript was no great shakes -- did I really want the man who had penned All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers reading it? Uh, no. He answered questions with an attitude that I consider to be truly Texan in the best way -- suck it up, deal with it, writing isn't easy, no I don't have any tricks, I write every day, writing doesn't necessarily get better as you age, you never know what people will like, what they won't, don't bitch to me. My friends Shawn and Hank also attended. I do believe we were the only students not profoundly disappointed in the class. Shawn said, I wish someone would fix his hem (Larry had worn the same tired jacket three days running and the hem was hanging something awful), and Hank said, Man, I thought I was crabby and laughed hysterically.

Daddy and I saw Larry carting a huge pile of books when we were there. It was hot as all hell, even in March, and Larry was huffing and puffing. I smiled at him, and he smiled back and told me I had a good smile. It was my first and only direct address from him. I did a happy dance, feeling as if I'd been blessed by the Pope. I told Daddy, and he gave me a high five. We bought a couple of books at the main bookstore and proceeded to the Dairy Queen where Texasville had been filmed. There were framed newspaper clippings of the movie stars eating there (the only place in town besides Sonic to dine). I love Dairy Queens, and this one was no exception. The landscape outside was fierce and terrible and lonely, but I was inside for a few minutes in time with my daddy, eating hamburgers out of a basket, feeling for once that I was exactly where I should be.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

“The lives of happy people are dense with their own doings - crowded, active, thick. But the sorrowing are nomads, on a plain with few landmarks and no boundaries; sorrow's horizons are vague and its demands are few.” Larry McMurtry

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: The Last Picture Show and Texasville -- the first one is a masterpiece, the second one is great fun.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Cakes Men Love

I once made a man I loved a birthday cake. This was many years ago when my cooking skills consisted of having my mother make lasagna, freeze it, and then I would heat it in the oven and then present it to whatever unsupsecting victim I happened to be seeing at the time. Since my mother has died, I can only fall back on such staples as popcorn and soup, prepackaged soup that is. But box cakes don't require much either except that I bought frosting and Batman decorations for the top (he had written an elegiac poem about the possibility of Batman being one's friend and how great that would be -- this was his early work; he was in his forties), and I presented it to my then-boyfriend with a great nervousness. He made a bad poo face and said that it was too much and there was no way he'd be able to eat it. I felt as sick as if I'd eaten the entire layer of frosting myself. It stayed in the fridge for weeks, a testament to my stupidity about where we were in the relationship.

Years after this incident, I bought a book called Cakes Men Love. It was a campy little tome from the sixties that I purchased at Recycled Books and Records, one of the greatest used bookstores ever, located in Denton, Texas. Even so, I've never made another cake. My ex and I stayed together for years, years that eventually led to him wanting a birthday cake. He'd tell me his preference time and again, and I could never remember if it was for a white cake with chocolate icing or a chocolate cake with white icing and still can't. I kept remembering the first one as it looked in the trash, all its figures still on it. I usually saved the little plastic guys, washing them carefully in the sink and storing them in a drawer reserved for candles and confetti, all the happy ornaments of celebration. But Batman and his friend Robin went in the can. It seemed that Batman would not be hanging out at our house, not then, and not ever.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Our true enemy has not revealed himself." Mario Puzo, The Godfather

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: Broadway Danny Rose

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Saturday!

Keep Your Eyes Closed

A friend of mine found out that her boyfriend had been seeing other people, other women, one named Natasha which makes it worse -- that romantic Russian name with its beauty and traces of doomed love, secret meetings, and tortured encounters laced with a gorgeous brocade of desire. By way of explanation, her boyfriend said, "I expected there to be fireworks and bells. I needed a sign to know that I was in love with you. If I became attracted to someone else, I would have called you and broke up immediately." This might be okay in a twenty year old, but this man is pushing fifty with a short stick. To which she replied, "Really makes me want to pick up the phone." The boyfriend, distraught and threatening suicide, continued to dig his grave with one more stupid pronouncement after another; sometimes it really is best to let FTD do the talking along with the cliched card that suggests your ass is in the doghouse. A few years ago, I saw a sign in a flower shop that said, How Mad Is She? with a small bouquet of roses, a medium one, and a gigantic one. I'm guessing that's the one you buy when you've slept with her best friend.

So what are the hanging offenses in love? After what knowledge, can there be no forgiveness, no understanding? We long for love and can hardly live without it, but the compromises it sometimes exacts can be soul-killing. I think back to when I was a child, fearful but hopeful, trying to decide what kind of woman I would be with a man. My fantasies never got past the eating dinner on the floor with Al Green in the background, lit by candles. Never thought about my wedding day or having children or that golden anniversary. I thought about being keeping my eyes closed and never counted the costs. No bells, whistles, or fireworks -- just quiet and harmony and someone to tell secrets to late into the night.

Michelle's Spell of the Day
"I knew I belonged to the public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful, but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else." Marilyn Monroe

Cocktail Hour
Drinking memoir suggestion: Easter Everywhere Darcy Steinke

Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Daylight Savings!

Friday, November 03, 2006

My Life, In Switchbacks, Ahead Of Me

I had my past lives read once, when I was ten years old at a psychic fair held at a Ramada Inn with my mother, her friend, and my friend Melissa. The man who read my palm told me many things, the things that everyone wants to hear -- you're a descendant of Cleopatra, you're an old soul, to things that were, shall we say, more esoteric -- you were Frederick Nietzsche's mistress. I'd heard of Nietzsche and thought that was pretty cool until I saw a picture of him a few years later that gave me considerable pause about having sex with him, even in another life. It doesn't surprise me that I chose to have the past read -- my mother gave me five dollars (the largest amount of money I'd ever had up until then!) and told me I could choose between the past and the future. The future room looked a lot more intimidating -- more people milling about, brighter colors, complicated card readings. Even without much past to my life, I felt more comfortable there almost always. Even though I desperately wanted adulthood, I felt sick with each passing year, suffused with a longing that I did not understand, the knowledge that this would never be again exactly as it was and to attempt to hold onto it would only make the feeling more acute.

Since that time, much of what I feared would happen and then some. Even so, I've made the switch to the room of the future -- when I have my cards read, that's where my attention drifts. After all, there's less of it with each passing year, the dream of what is to come gets smaller. The worst dream I ever had involved a baptism in which I came out of it with my face cut into ribbons. In reality, I have been baptized twice -- once in the Brazos River by Brother Buddy (I saw the head of a snake bob by --Satan, I suppose, is never far) and once in the Catholic Church as an adult (no snakes, heated full immersion tank, and Deacon John laughing when he couldn't get me to put my head back). When you are done, you shiver for a long time. After all, your new life awaits. The past, though, is never far behind, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Hell is empty and all the devils are here. " William Shakespeare

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: Faces John Cassavetes

Benedictions and Maledictions

In the news -- in a Jim Bakker-like scandal, Ted Haggard, head of the largest Evangelical group in America, has stepped down because of allegations that he's been having sex and snorting crystal meth with a male escort every month for three years. Haggard admits to at least some of the allegations (the escort has lots of smoking guns -- Haggard's recorded voice asking for meth, sex, etc.). Haggard was one of the most virulent critics of gay marriage, calling sodomy one of the worst sins of all time. All right then. Good to know.