Saturday, March 31, 2007

Breakfast With Mark Rothko

Over my desk, I have a silver bulletin board full of pictures and postcards. The objects on the board, by and large, do not change. They were chosen as inspirations of sorts -- they include a tarot card, representing The Tower as Janis Joplin, postcards of Bonnie and Clyde, Ice-T, a memento from the Texas Rangers Museum that says, Live Free or Die, a picture of my friend Hank playing with an plastic orange skeleton, a photograph of the grave of Marie Leveau, and a host of other objects. For an entire year, I've written one blog entry a day and each day I look at a postcard of the painter Mark Rothko staring at a blank canvas, preparing to work. Some days this image pleases me; other days I find it terrifying. What could be more wonderful than to begin a new work? And what is approached with more fear and loathing? So I have sat in front of my computer and some days it's like breathing and other days is like running uphill with lead weights.
I cannot tell you what the optimum conditions for writing are -- the process is as mysterious to me as physics or balancing my checkbook. But it gives me a reason for getting up in the morning and that's a start. And sometimes I even dream about having breakfast at a diner with Mark Rothko; he's not depressed or suicidal. He's talking about his next great work and offers to pick up the check, but he never does.
Michelle's Spell of Day
"Live with the gods." Marcus Aerelius, Meditations
Cocktail Hour
Drinking music suggestion: Lovesick, Broke, and Driftin Hank Williams III
Benedictions and Maledictions
Eight days until The Sopranos airs!

Friday, March 30, 2007

Have Lots of Buckets Ready

Years ago, I read a book called Pigs in the Parlor by Frank Hammond and Ida Mae Hammond about demonic possession and what to do about it. Now this is the kind of thing I love in a self-help book. No life-coaching, bringing money to you with your thoughts, no manage your time, change your life, win friends, make yourself influential crap that only succeeds in making you feel bad. Pigs in the Parlor offers a glimpse into the deliverance movement which varies slightly from traditional exorcisms. Exorcisms are pretty extreme and are done under only the most dramatic of cases -- bloody writing appearing on someone's stomach, victims speaking in foreign tongues they've never studied, creepy shit of that nature. Deliverance is a Protestant idea (not a mainstream one) that derives from the sense that almost all sin is a sign of demonic manifestation. Have trouble not sleeping with everyone in sight? Demons. Eating too much? Demon trouble again! Not living your testimony? Blame a demon!
The authors' solution to these various manifestations of evil are to lay hands on the hapless Christian who has been inhabited and vomit out the offending demon into a bucket that has been thoughtfully provided for that purpose. Have lots of buckets ready, intone the Hammonds. You'll need them. I can understand the vomit -- if certain people laid hands on me, that would be my first reaction. And what a fantastic idea for your inner-bulimic! Okay, so I jest. I'll probably go back to reading the occasional tome about directing my energy in a positive way to bring about change and love. Although that's almost enough to make me vomit. So I guess the buckets are a good way to deal with things after all.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"I always wanted to be a gangster." Ray Liotta, Goodfellas
Cocktail Hour
Drinking movie suggestion: Goodfellas
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Friday!
Nine days until The Sopranos airs!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Mental Illness, Substance Abuse, TV Dinners

According to prominent sociologist Ken Kessler, living alone is dangerous. "It's the biggest predictor of early death and a risk factor for mental illness, substance abuse, TV dinners, and all kinds of bad stuff." I think this is, to put it mildly, a crock of shit. Bad enough that single people endure the endless sets of questions at family reunions and dinner parties -- So is there anybody special out there for you? Have you met someone yet? Yes, I have met lots of people in the course of my day as I am not a hermit. Now the soft science professionals weigh in with yet another dreary opinion about life expectancy, confirming the stereotypes of single women with only cats for companions as they grow stranger and stranger or men so emotionally stunted that they're prone to die alone, being abused or neglected by a hired companion as they drift into death's oblivion.

It goes without saying that marriage can be lovely, the sweet consumation of an overwhelming passion. I myself have always admired the Liz Taylor/Richard Burton model where they married and divorced twice, so crazy in love they were. One of my ex-boyfriend's had a tremendous admiration for the Ike and Tina Turner model. Do you think, he would ask rhetorically, that Tina was easy to live with? Never having lived with Ms. Turner, I cannot say. But I did know a little something about living with my ex. He didn't have Dick Burton's drinking habit or Ike Turner's propensity for violence, but it was, as one of my friends is fond of saying, slightly lower than Heaven. What can I say? I like a good TV dinner, Healthy Choice being my favorite brand.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"I told them that strange things happen," the Pistons' coach, Flip Saunders said. "We might as well try to get something crazy." (Flip said this right before Rasheed Wallace made a sixty-foot shot at the last second of the game and beat Denver in overtime! Go Pistons!)

Cocktail Hour

Drinking sociology book suggestion: Bachelor Girl by Betsy Israel

Benedictions and Maledictions

Ten days until The Sopranos airs!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Three Arms And A Lot of Blood

I almost never read the newspaper, but I did today and saw a story about two men who tried to kill themselves with a circular saw by cutting their arms off. No surprise, but the plan went off without a hitch until they realized that the fourth arm would be a bit of a stretch. They left a note with their apartment manager saying they were committing suicide because their business had failed, and they'd recently been diagnosed as HIV positive. The apartment manager called the police who found three arms on the floor and a whole lot of blood. Both lived to tell the tale, should they wish. The article suggested that the men might be having a mid-life crisis of sorts.
That's one way to put it, I suppose! I remember as a child that term was thrown around a lot as a joke, usually involving men dating much younger women, the cliched sports car as an antidote to the sure knowledge that we all die. I guess driving or sleeping with someone who wasn't born when you were in high school to induce a temporary oblivion is one remedy, certainly much less drastic than cutting off your arms. The worst insult these men would get for their actions of leaving their wives, wearing a few gold chains, or God forbid, a gold nugget ring shaped like the state of Texas was pathetic. That word seems like nothing compared to the reality of cutting off the third arm and realizing their was nothing more you could do except wait to die or be rescued and who can tell which would be worse.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"By daily dying I have come to be." Theodore Roethke
Cocktail Hour
Drinking novel suggestion: Torch by Cheryl Strayed
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Wednesday!
Eleven more days until The Sopranos airs!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Way Of All Flesh

When asked how many husbands she'd had, art collector Peggy Guggenheim replied, My own or other people's? I once had a friend who juggled a husband, two kids, and an affair with a co-worker for seven years. She didn't, as they say, seem the type. Her hair was cut into an extremely practical wash and go style, and she never wore anything more revealing than a polo shirt with the top button undone. No Peggy Guggenheim, she did not revel in her infidelity, but it came to define her all the same. In time, her husband and her boyfriend went the way of all flesh. The affair, she told me, became as tiresome. If you want to lose weight, she said, the first year is great -- you feel like you're alive again and every day is a miracle. The rest after that is as tedious as a PBS pledge drive and as exhausting as working two jobs.
Questioned about his ability to keep his marriage together in Hollywood despite all the temptations, Samuel L. Jackson revealed the following -- I think about all the shit I have and divide it by half. That'll keep your ass straight. I have been a victim of infidelity a few times; it wasn't as apocalyptic as I'd imagined. I didn't start calling friends or loading guns. My guns are always loaded. But I know how these things end so I kept my cool. You don't, as they say, shoot a man who is already hanging himself.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"That's what an audience had to see to be fully engaged -- the threatened destruction of a human being and the rebirth of this person." Sidney Poitier
Cocktail Hour
Drinking novel suggestion: Painted Desert by Rick Barthelme
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Tuesday!
12 more days until The Sopranos airs!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Half-Measures Avail Us Nothing

One of Ted Haggard's first ministries in Colorado where he pastored (note the past tense) the largest evangelical church in the United States, was to go to gay bars and encourage men to come to church so he could "heal" and "convert" them. As Kierkegaard says, life can only be understood backwards, but has to be lived forwards. As a recently outed gay man himself, Pastor Ted as he was referred to by his flock, in retrospect, seems a little too suited for this role. Ted Haggard is many things -- duplicitious, hypocritical, brilliant, politic, wicked smart, a husband, a father of five, a user of meth, a man who hired a male prostitute. He is a little bit Icarus and has been brought down by his own hubris and recently the elders of his church that have given the word that he is not to go back into the ministry and instead have sent him to New Orleans, a city without an ounce of temptation, to study to become a therapist, my least favorite profession in this world. Ever hear of David and Bathsheba? What Ted has done is no different, I suppose, and now he's out on his ass. In addition to telling Pastor Ted that he could no longer preach, they claim to have cured him of his homosexuality in a mere three weeks! He is 100% heterosexual now thanks to the kindly ministrations of these men.
In the documentary, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Pat Boone says, "Christians are the only army that kills their wounded." Truer words were never spoken. This excellent film tells the story of the rise and fall of one of the most influential Christian couples ever. I adore Tammy Faye for her beautiful spirit and her son Jay, a radical preacher who is as cool as cool gets. When my spirit flags (read all the time), I listen to his sermons in my home office on the internet, the place where I spend a large portion of my days. Jay has preached about Ted, has said that we are to love him. His own father got kicked out of the ministry for alleged indiscretions, personal and financial, and Jay and his family suffered greatly. Jay has a ragass crew of thirty people; his father preached to millions. But Jay has my heart, I'd forgive him anything. Pastor Ted is a tougher case; he's been a real asshole. But if we forgive only the people we love, we're no better than the tax collectors, right? So I'm trying. There's a lot of hate in my heart; people have done me wrong. But I've seen The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and she's had to forgive a lot of jerks. She's sick right now, very sick, but she's still doing her make-up, she's still trying to make peace with this world, with those who have wished her harm. Half measures avail us nothing, so I will try, I will try, I will do my best.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"Despair is simply a harsh blindfold pulled over the eyes of hope." Steve Turner
Cocktail Hour
Drinking documentary suggestion: The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Monday, dear readers! Thank you for reading for so long -- I'm coming up on the one year mark on Saturday. You have kept me going with your love and support. I'm eternally indebted to y'all. (That's my Texas coming out, but don't forget, I'm really a Detroiter!)
13 days until The Sopranos airs!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Because I'm Good At It

When asked why she wrote, Flannery O'Connor famously answered, Because I'm good at it. I love the boldness of this answer -- no apologies, no self-deprecating bullshit. It ain't bragging, as one of my friends says, if you can do it. And she could. Seldom do I pick up a story of hers without seeing something new and brilliant. A comic genius, there's something totally awful, funny, and modern about a man who steals body parts for no reason -- I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die . . . Of course, her world view would have to take a dark comic edge -- the bleakness of her physical condition (a body ravaged by lupus) and the knowledge she would die young made her one tough customer. It allowed her to write one of my favorite stories, "Parker's Back" about a man who gets a tattoo of Jesus on his entire back to please his wife who is horrified by the representation that he will carry around for the rest of his days. How can one laugh about lines that allude to not trusting artists, about how they are always wanting to get into your business and whatnot. Not that I'm guilty of this, of course!
The biggest sin in O'Connor's world is pride. People are brought low by the distance of what they believe about themselves and what is proven under pressure to be true. Her refusal of any kind of middle ground, her characters drawn from the depths of despair, poverty, and pettiness, an attachment to a violent outcome -- these were her trademarks. A practicing Catholic in the mostly Protestant south, she once remarked on the act of transubstantiation possibly being symbolic, If it isn't the body and blood of Christ, then to hell with it. Her fiction is as real as it gets, a world of broken people struggling for redemption or against it. No middle ground. I can imagine her at her desk with her farm of peacocks making their horrible noises as she wrote. Some people think they are manifestations of God, while others think it's bad luck to bring one of their feathers in the house. For her, they were both and I'm guessing that she could not separate their beauty from the pain.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"God and the Devil were very far away. I used to pray, but now I seldom do. Still, I knelt at the open window, looking and wondering." Jean Rhys
Cocktail Hour
Drinking short story suggestion: "Feathers" Raymond Carver
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Sunday! And happy birthday to Ms. Flannery O'Conner!
14 days until The Sopranos airs!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Masks To Make You Real

Yesterday I walked into the past and took a look around, saw everything I remembered from masks to costumes to props, things people use to expose their true selves. I hadn't been in this store for at least fifteen years, but I saw it from the road and decided that I had to go inside. Four times the size of the one I remembered, it had changed locations, but not mood. It was creepy as all get-out then, creepy as all get-out now. My sister and I perused the various rooms. You could be anything, someone sexy or scary, depending on your needs or someone else's. Why, as a friend once wrote to me, limit yourself to one identity?
As for the store in the past, I loved going in there as a child every Halloween with my friend Melissa and her mother. Her mother bought us something we wanted each Halloween, and we'd spend hours deciding what that thing would be. My favorite was a mask of a hanged man -- we saw it one year, decided it was too scary, and then came back the next year, ready to get it. The mask looked so real that it still scares me to think of it. If you put it on, you'd looked as if you hanged yourself, right down to the realistic noose and rope burns. Melissa and I both wore it from time to time and agreed that it was hard to not feel the rope around your neck for a long time after removing it.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"Myths have staying power." Ray Bradbury
Cocktail Hour
Drinking novel suggestion: Mysterious Skin Scott Heim
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Saturday!
Fifteen days until The Sopranos airs!

Friday, March 23, 2007

I Fell Down The Stairs

I love the Raymond Carver poem where he describes getting drunk for the first time with a girl who spit on him. In the words of the great St. Ray, "I kept getting drunk and getting spit on for years." The first time I got so drunk that the floor spun was in college with my one and only roommate, Sarah. At the time, she was engaged to a rich Arab guy whose main contribution to their relationship consisted of teaching her how to swear in Arabic. We'd gone over to his apartment obstensibly to make a cake for his birthday, but instead ended up getting ass-out drunk on some cheap jug wine and peppermint schnapps while listening to old Bob Dylan on the boombox, the height of technology at the time. We drank from noon until five when she was supposed to pick him up from work. I did what all drunk dumbasses do which is pick up the phone and start to call friends who couldn't believe a control freak like me had whittled away a Friday afternoon under the influence of cheap liquor and bad politically-incorrect pizza as we had ordered a special from Dominos which I mangled -- the cheese will sober me up! and raided his freezer for popsicles.
Told my friends I was fine to drive back to the dorms, in fact, perfect, before collapsing underneath the staircase in a pile of laundry. Sarah tried to find her beloved's car keys. Bob sang on about being in his dream if he could be in ours. We finally pulled it together enough to make it out the door, no cake, no balloons, nothing. Sarah got a little hysterical -- her betrothed was not above beating the shit out of her if things weren't going well. Things are fine, I said. Things, of course, were not fine. Were in fact a fucking trainwreck. I can drive home, I told my friends. That popsicle sobered me up all right! Nothing bad happened, though. Sarah managed to pick up her betrothed after passing the exit three times and having him curse at her in English the rest of the ride home. My friends found me and picked me up so I wouldn't have to drive while I sang (the real tragedy of this story) out the window. The times, they were a'changing or so it seemed until the next morning when Sarah came over covered in bruises. I fell down the stairs, she said. Too much wine, she said. Booze, it seemed, could cover a multitude of sins.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner." Colette
Cocktail Hour
Drinking essay suggestion: "Quality Time Keeps Love Fresh" Lewis Nordan (printed in The Bastard on the Couch)
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Friday!
19 days until The Sopranos airs!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

When Our Spirit Is In Shadow

My grandfather was named Charlie, never Chuck or Charles. When things got bad, he wasn't above pulling up stakes and starting over, usually in the middle of the night by the light of a lantern. He didn't think about what the neighbors thought -- I doubt the neighbors thought much of anything since he was the kind of badass that you did not mess with -- he'd soon shoot you as look at you. You little bastards, he'd say to me and my sister, his only grandchildren, a term of endearment of sorts. I was not a badass; I feared damn near everything about the outside world and indoors wasn't much better -- the internecine politics of all the houses of my childhood were enough to give anyone an ulcer. Anything bad that happens to you is your fault should have been stitched on a sampler pillow along with the dirty one in the trailer that said, God Loves You.

When people talk about legacy, I think about mine and laugh. You will not be afraid; you will be the last one standing. I sucked that philosophy down just as I did my Dr. Pepper from the gas station Flinstones glass I always used. I wasn't sure if I was in training for kindergarten or the Vietcong. Of course, this background suited me well -- if it takes twenty years, it takes twenty years, if it takes thirty, it takes thirty. We will not be defeated. You will lose yourself to find yourself. You will die to this world. This world will die to you. Make a way where there is no way. Or as Charlie would have said, Get out of my fucking way. Of course, I've cleaned it up. If I'm ever going to knit it on a pillow, I'd better use as few words as possible since I only know how to use a needle for one thing, inflicting pain on myself or others. Sometimes it's the same thing.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"I've waded through water and I've waded through mud/ To come to this place they call the bucket of blood." Stagger Lee

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: Hustle and Flow

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Thursday!

20 days until The Sopranos airs!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Word Like That In English

Coleman Young, the late mayor of Detroit, upon being told by a Japanese interpreter that the same word in Japanese could mean many different things depending on how the speaker said it, Coleman Y. replied, We have a word like that in English -- it's motherfucker. Long-time Detroiters know Mr. Young's fondness for this word; dare I say it was probably his favorite? When asked what my favorite word is, I used to say melancholy. As a child, I loved telling people how melancholy I was, how melancholy the world felt, and so on. But if my grubby little feet were held to the fire, I'd have to say that my favorite word is evil. I use it to mean almost everything: happiness, disgust, delight, sympathy. You're so evil, I might say. If I hit you and laugh, this is a good sign. But if I say it with a flat intonation, like death not even warmed over, I think you're an asshole.
Stephen King wrote that if night didn't exist, horror writers would have to invent it. So it goes with evil even though I don't hear many people use the word anymore. I fear it's fallen out of fashion, like shoulderpads. One of my pet peeves is watered-down clinical language, although I'm as guilty of using it as anyone else -- ie, What a passive-aggressive motherfucker! I have to admit a fondness for old-fashioned language; nobody had poor boundary issues --they just got into your shit or fucked with your head. They were, in a word, evil. That's the kind of thing I like to say -- it can mean anything or nothing or everything. You can bring your own burdens to the table; there's enough food for everyone.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"Silence may be as variously shaded as speech." Edith Wharton
Cocktail Hour
Drinking music suggestion: Magic Potion The Black Keys
Benedictions and Maledictions
21 days until The Sopranos airs!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Lake Filled With Garbage

When one of my friends landed a spot in Playboy (as a model, not a fiction writer -- that's my dream!), she sent her father a copy of the proofs. Her father was a deeply evil man who had once given me a serious case of the willies by undressing in front of me when I came over to pick up his daughter to go to Possum Kingdom Lake. My friend was running late, and I ran the hell out of that house, a house I remember well, decorated with all sorts of sayings from the Bible and Catholic saints left behind by her dead mother who had committed suicide a few years earlier. In a truly ugly turn of events, she shot herself in the head but did not die immediately -- instead she hung between life and death in an alley for a few days before being found and dying shortly after. My eyes scanned the Serenity Prayer framed on the mantle before making my escape. God, give me the courage to change what I can change . . . My car and I proceeded to wait further on down the road. These were the days sans cell phones -- timing was a bit dicier then. I never mentioned to my friend why I'd taken off so suddenly, and she never asked. I suspect she knew all too well.
I admired her act of aggression, sending her father the pictures. I'm not sure what the message was -- This is what you cannot have anymore or This is what you made me or something else entirely. He was a slight man, not someone anyone would have feared upon sight. Like many things lodged in my memory, I've often tried to use this incident in a story. I get stuck on where the story begins, but perhaps it begins in the lake we were trying to get to -- a lake filled with garbage and man-sized catfish, a lake surrounded by venomous snakes of every ilk, a place frequented by people tanked up on qualudes and Wild Turkey, looking for fun, looking for trouble. It's hard to tell the difference. The water is so dark that it doesn't give any clues to what it holds.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"At all crucial moments in our lives we want to speak without knowing what to say." Joyce Carol Oates
Cocktail Hour
Drinking movie suggestion: Office Space
Drinking short story collection: Faithless Joyce Carol Oates
Benedictions and Maledictions
22 days until The Sopranos airs!

Monday, March 19, 2007

I Shouldn't Be Doing Something Else

One of my ex-boyfriends told me that I'd be a great mother to a retarded child by way of a compliment. You're patient, you never stop trying to get things to work, he said. In the exact case, it was a crappy dishwasher, but I also sent his poems out for years. Most of them were accepted to small journals quickly, but one remained at large. It was a favorite of his, and I think nearly editor in the continental United States saw it. It finally got published in a journal that had illustrated it with a picture of an evil mangy-looking dog. Not the New Yorker, but it was something, right? What can I say? I'm Broadway Danny Rose! Anyway, the compliment did not make my heart race, but like many casual observations, it is true. Some people call this trait a revolutionary patience, some pounding your head against a wall, and others refer to it as this is fucking stupid, Michelle, give it up. But I can't. Once I set upon a path, I can't stop. This has served me well in my writing life, during the long deserts of little encouragement and adulation. All along the way, there are plenty of people telling me to give it up and do something easier and while I'm at it, a little more lucrative as well. Nobody in your life needs you to be a writer, and in fact most of them need you to be something else. But I hold the position that you should try to be around people who support you. It's one of the things I tell my students -- if people around you aren't encouraging of your writing (this does not mean they have to like everything you write, only that they like your writing in general), find new people. The world of endless rejection that the best writers face is hard enough.
My friend Hank used to say that if you do what you love, what you're passionate about, talent will follow. He taught himself the blues this way. He went from not having an iota of skill to being able to play Stevie Ray with the best of them. I've always felt best when I'm writing -- as Gloria Steinem once said, Writing is one of the only times when I feel that I shouldn't be doing something else. And when I can only sit and stare at the computer screen or piece of paper or I can't figure out what's working in a story, I don't know what to do except pray to the good Lord that something will come. It always does. I usually have to go to a dark place that I resist. It's a strange business, putting yourself on the page. Sometimes you don't like what you see. It stings. But like with everything else, that's how you know it's working.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"You can ask the people around me. I don't give up... and it's not out of frustration and desperation that I say I don't give up. I don't give up because I don't give up. I don't believe in it. " Johnny Cash

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: The Departed

Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Monday, dear readers! I hope March is treating you well.
23 days until The Sopranos airs!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Cast Your Bread Upon The Waters

Sometimes I'll pick up my Bible and turn to a random verse as a way of divining the future. The Bible I use is off-white and old -- I got it as a Christmas present when I was twelve from one of my poorest friends and whenever I touch its cracked and broken front, I can't help think of her generosity. The gift must have been expensive, the widow's mite if you will, and it broke my heart then and breaks it now. My name, written in turquoise-colored ink, was written in calligraphy on the front pages and has never changed in all of these years. I'm not one for changes, even though I've never been wild about my first, middle, or last name. What I do is called Bible-dipping, and I got the idea from Running With Scissors. It's what the crazy psychiatrist family does to solve problems. My friend Shawn laughed himself sick when he heard this -- You're the only person I know that used that memoir as a self-help book. What can I say? I know a good idea when I see one! If nothing else, it gives me ideas for writing. I know most of the stories -- the lust, sin, salvation, war, demons, and angels are all my friends. I loathe the widespread misinterpretations of the Good Book to condemn people and fuck up their lives, but it's always been a comfort to me to be able to flip to any page and see people as messed-up as I am crying out for help.
Once in a bathroom stall, I heard a little girl tell her mother that she prayed to God for everything not to come up, but it did anyway. Her pink romper dripped of vomit. Her mother cleaned her up and told her that it's good sometimes to get the bad stuff out of you. I'd like to think so. But I also believe that you carry everything with you: our confessions and sadness, our fear and hope. Today I came upon the first chapter of John, the verse about how the beginning was the Word, about how the Word was with God and was God. What we say defines us, no question, and about the words that I have said, I have many regrets. I have cast my bread upon the waters and sometimes what comes back is only an echo of my own misery. But sometimes everything bad leaves me, and emptiness comes like a blessing and a curse, the clean slate on which I can start again.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." John 1:14
Cocktail Hour
Femme Fatale in the Afternoon
1 teaspoon of chautreuse
2 teaspoons of cognac
2 teaspoons of lemon juice
a dash of bitters
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Birthday to my dear friend Stacey! And happy birthday to my dear Hank as well.
24 days until The Sopranos airs!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Flesh Wounds

One of my most beautiful friends was told by her then-boyfriend that her triceps were flabby. She'd been a model in Playboy, had worked as an actress, and by any standard, was gorgeous. Add this to the fact that she had huge breasts and a tiny frame and a face like Barbie and wherever we went, we could instantly get seated, free food, free whatever, and it wasn't because of my shy, mousy presence beside her. She'd been through one hellish ride in her life which also gave her character and made it tolerable to bask in the glow of such overwhelming loveliness without dying of jealousy. The boyfriend was a photographer and gave her some exercises to do to increase tone. Everyone thinks you're so hot, he told her, but I see some areas that could use improvement. She cried when she related this incident until I plied her with enough champagne to forget about those fucking tricep exercises and made her laugh about all the men we'd dealt with over the years, my favorite being one of her one-night regrets (my term for a one-night stand that you shouldn't have had -- perhaps most of them eventually go under that umbrella) that kept calling and coming to her house and begging her to see him again. We did it once, he kept saying, why can't we do it again? This argument, not up to the caliber of Clarence Darrow or Johnny Cochrane, sent us into fits of giggles.

To my sadness, she stayed with the photographer a little longer than was good for her, taking into account all of his poisonous comments for self-improvement, ranging from exercise to plastic surgery. He doesn't think I'm special, she told me. He sees the real me. I suppose this is what everyone is looking for, someone who sees beyond the polite masks we wear, our press, if you will. But it's amazing how easy it is to mistake cruelty for truth. She'd had such a hard life already that had formed her into a jewel, and all the exercises and make-up in the world couldn't change her heart, that damaged bloody fist that pumps despite anyone's attempts to make it stop.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"A single moment of being seen can make up for a lifetime of invisibility." Hope Donahue

Cocktail Hour

Drinking movie suggestion: Raising Arizona

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

25 days until The Sopranos airs!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Something To Do In Bed

For your Friday reading pleasure. First appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review Spring and Summer 2005 (Vol. 22, Nos. 1 & 2).

The Difference Between Pluto and Goofy

The night my brother Josh took a razor and carved a grin underneath his mouth, I fell off a car. Fourth of July, watching fireworks over the lake in a marina parking lot, drinking gin and tonics with my married boyfriend Kevin, and without warning, I passed out. When I awoke, it was to an anxious wreath of faces peering down at my pounding head. Because I didn’t know I was falling, I didn’t make the classic mistake of holding out my arms to protect myself, so I didn’t experience any injuries except scrapes and bruises, marks that you can see for a few weeks after, the ones that make people ask, what the hell happened to you?

Which, of course, is what I want to ask Josh. His new grin runs from cheek to cheek, a deep cut that severed a tendon. It is nothing like the polite smiles we gave our parents over what I now refer to as the last supper, the fleeting smiles of employees imagining that an unpleasant task was almost done, only to find out that they had only scratched the surface of what would be demanded of them. My parents announced they were moving back to Detroit, quite possibly within the next few months. They hadn’t lived in our city for almost ten years. We were at a restaurant that didn’t stay open very long, an expensive soul food place called Jada, where they paid a lot for ribs and okra, collard greens and sweet potato pie, my parents insisting on trying whatever seemed adventurous. They live in Atlanta, and their infrequent visits are punctuated with outings that proved to be short and filled with ideas about how the next one might be better, the things we are all trained to say, the things we couldn’t possibly mean.

So here I am living with Josh once again because I do not trust that he won’t do something worse, although in this case, I do not want to imagine worse. For once, I am thankful that there is no one in my life who cares where I live. I remembered how Josh and I shared a room as children, before my parents had money, and we’d take turns staying awake so that if we heard our father creeping around, wanting to say goodnight, we’d be prepared. I remembered Mother saying, You need to be careful. Men can’t be trusted and that goes for your father. I don’t want you crawling in bed with him while I’m gone. She was a nurse. We never crawled into bed with him, but I can’t say we were always good at keeping him out of ours.
Our parents had left a few boxes at Josh’s duplex, telling us they’d come back for them when they moved here for good. When I moved in with Josh, I had to make room. I started with those boxes, moving them to the basement when the bottom fell out of one. I stuffed all the shit back in, looking for something that would explain the way Josh turned out, but everything seemed so normal. You’d never know my father from his things.

I think about a night when my father didn’t come home and my mother called the police, telling them he was missing. They searched the block, got the neighbors involved, called for him. I didn’t say anything, but I saw him across the street, hiding in a wooded area where Mother forbid Josh and me to go. Men hide in the woods and they wait for women so they can slash their tendons and hurt them, she said. You can’t move when someone slashes your tendons. We nodded. My father came back the next day, leaves in his hair. I don’t know what he told Mother. Mother would phone her girlfriends and say, I know he’s got some whore. I thought about that as I heard my father’s name called that night, over and over again.

And now I am someone’s whore. The symmetry does not escape me, though seeing Kevin is perfect, in spite of the obvious problem of his marriage. I thought it was good that I had never met his wife, that an actual person would only make me crazy. The last time I lived with a man, I would look at pictures of his former fiancĂ©e, whom I had only met a few times. He’d devoted an album to her, and it seemed realer than things that had happened to us. I looked at that album with a regularity that can only be described as disturbing. By the time I realized that this ritual was making me sick, it was impossible to quit, like reading someone’s journal – no matter how miserable it makes you, you can’t stop until you’re to the end of what’s there.

“Hey, what’s going on?” Josh asks, as he walked into the living room, his Doc Marten’s loud on the wood floor. I try not to look at his face.
“Just sorting things. Do you care if I move some of your boxes to the basement?”
“Do what you want,” Josh says. He plunks down on the couch and switches on the television with a remote bigger than any I’ve ever seen. He calls it The Commander. As in, The Commander wants respect. The Commander thinks this show sucks. It’s strange how Josh and I got along so well, despite being so unalike. We don’t even look like brother and sister; he’s tall, big, shaggy, and had a beautiful face. I’m tiny and plain, like a miniature someone forgot to make exquisite with the right heartbreaking details.
“Josette,” he says. He never calls me by my name unless he’s tired. “Feel free to move anything you want.”
I sit down and try to relax. Josh changes the channel.
“This is one of those movies where it looks like there’s going to be boobs, but there just isn’t going to be boobs.” He continues to drink his Coors, nowhere near a beautiful stream featured in their commercials.
“I thought we got the complete cable package so you could find something you liked.” I start arranging things in the room to make it look better.
“It’s a wasteland. I’ve seen everything too many times.”
It starts to rain, hard, without warning. The lights go out, then the television.
“Now what?” Josh asks.
“Josh, why do you think they’re coming back?”
He picks at his nails, and I try something else. “Why didn’t you marry Annie?” Annie had been Josh’s girlfriend right up until the cut.
“I don’t know. She’s not the type of person you want to marry. I should have married Coley.” Coley was the one before Annie. They seem pretty alike to me, both underfed and hopeful, like happy children who wanted more attention.
“They’re both women, right? I don’t get the difference.”
“It’s like saying Pluto and Goofy are both dogs. Goofy is Mickey Mouse’s friend, whereas Pluto is Mickey’s pet. I mean, there’s a difference.”
“That clears it right up,” I say. “Do you think I’m doomed to always be Pluto?”
As if by cue, I hear thunder.
“You want me to call to see how long we’ll be without power?” I ask.
He shrugs, so I dial. I don’t like sitting around with nothing to do, no air-conditioner, no lights, no music, no television. It strikes me all at once how limiting and claustrophobic this situation is. I don’t speak to a person on the phone, just the automated help line. I keep hearing the voice say, “We are sorry you are without power. We understand the importance of knowing when your power will be restored” followed by an estimate of how long it would take before things would start working again.

Josh lights a candle and gets a book from the shelf, a biography of Tolstoy. I can’t get comfortable. I want to call Kevin, but I don’t know if he’s home. Or alone. I’ve never been inside his house, even thought I know where it is. I think about confronting his wife. At least, maybe something would happen.
I look outside, our duplex right on the border of Detroit. Like all borders, this one feels scary and powerful, like change might happen in any second. We’ll have to drive into the suburbs to see Kevin, but it isn’t all that far from danger to where he lives. When you can’t go outside, my mother used to say, you need to make your own fun!
“Do you want to go somewhere? A drive?” I ask. The rain has stopped. I don’t hear anything going on outside.
“Where are we going?”
“I want to see if Kevin’s home.”
He looks at me, his carved grin like a jack-o-lantern that I can’t turn off. “Is he alone?”
“I guess we’ll find out.”

As we drive, it occurs to me that this is a bad idea. The trip feels slow-motion, Josh in the driver’s seat, me looking out the window, noticing the way everything seems brighter after a storm. I know what I’m doing is reckless, stupid, but I can’t stop. I see my opportunities to turn around recede as we get closer. I knock on the door, a tap so light I can’t imagine anyone hearing it. When I turn to go, I hear the door open and feel compelled to stop and look, the pillar of salt thing.
“Can I help you?”

The woman at the door looks like someone’s sort of attractive mother, a woman who made grocery lists, who drank no more than one glass of wine with any meal. A wife.
I shake my head. A wasp lands on the birdbath. It is poised on the water like a plane ready for take-off.
“Are you looking for something?” she asks. She picks a thread off her khaki shorts. “Who are you?”
I consider the various ways in which I can answer that question before I hear a sucking noise and felt water. An automatic sprinkler.
I run to the car before she can ask anything else, shaking with the same sensation I get after throwing up. I can’t cry, so I throw up instead which doesn’t have the same social grace. Josh sits in the car, smoking, flicking his ashes onto the road. When I get in, he drops his cigarette and drives.

When we return home, the power is still out but only for a few minutes. After we sit down, the lights and television come back on, and I startle, surprised by the sound of everything starting up again.

The next week, I forget about the visit to Kevin’s house, the way you forget about a bill that you can’t pay. Instead, I work as many extra hours as I could at Planned Parenthood, spending the nights too tired to do much. I think about the girls I see during the day, many of them in for their first pap smear in order to get on the pill. They look nervous, excited. I don’t want to tell them what’s ahead, that it’s not what they imagine. Instead, I think about the first man I loved enough to get a pap smear for, how happy I was, how even the scraping felt comfortable, something I was doing for love.

Kevin doesn’t call until Wednesday night, four days after my visit. My parents call before Kevin did, told me that they won’t be moving after all, isn’t it too bad. I don’t tell them about Josh and his face. They’ll have to see it for themselves, I think, it will be something I won’t be able to hide from them. I’ve been hiding his problems for years, and it’s an oddly liberating position to have something I can do nothing about. I tell Josh the good news, but he doesn’t respond. For once, I don’t know if he’s happy or not. The phone rings again, but I don’t want to pick up. Josh does. We take turns doing the things we don’t like, just as we did when we were younger.
“It’s for you,” he says.
“What do you want from me? I thought you understood,” Kevin says. I can see him on the phone, hand up in the air as if he’s drowning. It was how he gesticulated when he talked to his wife when I was around.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, it’s over. I can’t tell you what a bad position this has put me in.”
“It’s been great for me,” not sure if I mean it or not. All I know is that I felt the old sadness settle in, like a vivid dream that bleeds into the day. The night before, I dreamt that I was working at a gigantic stockyard, lost among the cows and pigs, waiting for someone to pick me up and drive me home. In the dream, I started to cry because I didn’t think anyone would ever love me enough to pick me up from such a horrible place.
“Who was on the line?” Josh asks.
“I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s play head on a stick,” I say. Josh looks startled, but he smiles, a real smile above his carved one.
“What made you think of that?” he asks.
“It’s been a while,” I said. Head on a Stick is a game we played until we moved out of our parents’ house. It’s fairly basic in the particulars. When one of us felt like it, we’d yell “head on a stick.” That meant you’d been paralyzed in an accident from the neck down, and the other person had to do everything for you that you couldn’t do as a result of your condition. The game could go on for hours. I remember feeding Josh, him feeding me. I miss it. “Head on a stick,” I yelled.
“What do you need?” he asks, the beginning of all Head on a Stick games.
“I want to go to bed.”

He picks me up, not much more difficult for him now than it was then. He sets me down on my comforter and sifts through some t-shirts he knew I wear to bed.
“I need to change you,” he says, holding up a couple of t-shirts.
“Do I get to pick which one I want?” I nod at the red one.
He brings the t-shirt to me and takes off my clothes. I don’t make it easy for him. After all, I can’t move anything below my neck. After he tucks me in, he walks to the edge of the room and turns off the overhead light.
“Is there anything else?”
“I want to hear a story.”
“About what?”
I don’t say anything. I only look at him. There isn’t anywhere I can go in this condition. “Tell me about your face,” I say.
He picks up my hand and traces the grin even though I’m not supposed to have any feeling in my hands. I can’t imagine how he did this to himself, how his neighbor had found him on the porch that they shared and called to report an emergency. I think about that night, how I’d taken three Valiums before I could go to sleep, how hard it was to wake up when the hospital had called.
“It hurts to talk,” he says. I nod, the only action I can perform in this game. He gets in bed next to me, arms by his side. I close my eyes and listen to all the noises outside, the sounds of sirens and yelling, the sounds of screeching tires against the pavement, taking comfort in the fact that other people also sometimes find it difficult to stop.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

Cocktail Hour

Drinking memoir suggestion: Beautiful Stranger Hope Donahue

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Friday!

24 days until The Sopranos airs!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

I Made It Myself

For a couple of years, I worked part-time at a social work center in Detroit as a receptionist / writer / records keeper, all-around Girl Monday through Friday. The first thing happened was an older female social worker named Mary who took it upon herself to teach me to make coffee (I knew how, but she insisted on this really strong terrible stuff that would make even my hair stand on edge) and talking to me as if I were a slightly retarded child (later on, I would find out that she had ten children and one was indeed autistic) and keeping me chained to her filing cabinet engrossed in endless case histories dating back to the sixties. I stood so long that I fainted one day, and it wasn't from excitement. Mary drove everyone to drink by treating them as if they were slow, but I learned to respect her in that she could work an almost impossible system to get the very best things for her clients. She hadn't been around the block; she poured the cement for it. After a little while, Mary told me how smart I seemed and had I ever thought about going to college. Yes, I said, neglecting to add that I had a doctorate in creative writing and was teaching part-time at the community college to make ends meet.

Of course, my co-workers who knew me got a good laugh out of these interchanges, Mary trying to get me to see the importance of my education and how much more I could be doing with my life. Eventually she learned of my background and apologized for treating me the way she did. No harm done, I said and there wasn't. I'd learned a lot from her just by observing her way of cutting through the bullshit. I was far more insulted by an older client who kept coming in to harrass the help and telling me that I could go to Harvard if I wanted, meaning the Harvard Coney on the corner. You're a good little worker, darling, he said. Your life should have taken a different turn. You could have gotten married, I'm sure. I smiled and cursed him in my mind. My days consisted of financial despair, exhausting work, romantic woe, and the endless task of putting out fires at all my jobs. I have, I said. I'm now a lesbian. My fellow co-worker spit his coffee as the client turned red. Is that true? he asked. That can't be true. Two of my co-workers were lesbians, and he'd done his best to deny that reality -- of course, my thin fiction wouldn't fly. Want some coffee? I said. I made it myself. He took the first sip, put it down, and never ever spoke to me again. I thought about my first day in the office and learning how my way around the coffee machine, silently thanked Mary, and laughed.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"I'd always loved to read and, eventually, I began to want to learn to write. It seemed that it was a thing that could be learned with enough work." Larry Brown
Cocktail Hour
Drinking movie suggestion: Jesus Camp
Benedictions and Maledictions
25 days until The Sopranos airs!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Computers, Toys, Trips To The Museum

When I was a child, my friends and I used to put talcum powder on our faces and pretend we were dead. If this isn't proof that there wasn't much going on in our hometown, I don't know what is. The kids I know now have educational videos, they have animated movies, they have computers and toys and trips to the museum. We had one free game at the bowling alley and catching crawfish in muddy ponds. By the time I was in high school, our family had an Atari with Pong and Ms. Pacman. But before that, it was up to us to make our own fun, as they say, and playing dead was a game based on who could stay still -- it's much harder than you would think. You can't move or breathe very much. It was a little scary, all of us girls in a row, trying to will ourselves into submission. This fun pastime ranks right up there with the one we were to take up in a few years -- making ourselves faint by cutting off our air supply.
I was good at being dead -- it suited my personality. I didn't have to draw attention to myself, something I wasn't good at anyway. Without a daredevil bone in my body, this game didn't result in me being picked last for something or humiliating myself with lack of experience in all things worldly. Fainting proved to be much more difficult. I could never quite bring myself to the loss of control it required, the way the girls would describe the world falling away and waking up without knowing where you were. All of it was practice for later years when our survival instincts would kick in and we'd have to be able to deal with both experiences with more frequency than one might hope. As for me, I've upgraded my powder, but I still like to stay still and scare people with my ability to resurrect from time to time.

Michelle's Spell of the Day
"I shrug my shoulders in the scented darkness. 'It's me.'" Mary O'Connell
Cocktail Hour
Drinking short story collection suggestion: Living With Saints by Mary O'Connell
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Wednesday!
26 days until The Sopranos airs!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Have A Good Trip Home

During a one-week conference at a beautiful place in California, I was up against the firing squad for the day, i.e., my story was up for workshop. The conference was the type that switched teachers every day, believing that the students should bond with each other, not be led in a Jim Jones fashion by one instructor. To my good fortune, I had a great writer as my teacher who has since passed to the next life. He said incredibly kind things about my story and writing, but he kept calling me Josette. Josette was the name of my incredibly fucked-up narrator -- a woman who had sex for drugs, who had possibly slept with her brother, and had most certainly been molested by her father, a woman who was having an affair with a married man, and had many, many substance abuse issues, the kind of gal who thought nothing of plopping a Vicodin into a margarita and watching it fizz like an Alka-Seltzer before downing it. Did this sound like me? The class laughed about it. They'd started calling me Snow White because of my deathly white skin, red lipstick, and black hair. I played the role to the hilt -- I have seen the seven dwarves, I said, surveying the menfolk, but Prince Charming has left the building. That's why I'm so fucked up! My friends laughed in memory of my story. Did you really sleep with your brother? one person asked. Yes, I said. All of them. Of course, I don't have any brothers.
People assume almost everything in my fiction has really happened. What can I say? I'm not even sure that everything in my nonfiction has really happened, memory being that faulty dog that it is. No James Frey, I try to play it straight when I say I am. I'm not one to turn a day in prison into a year. That shit can be found out! But fiction is a different matter. Of course, as the great St. Raymond Carver says, it does not come out of thin air. This much is true. But the confusion between my writing self and my normal self is one that never ceases to amuse me. When one of my friends read a story of mine, her response cracked me up. That's not my Michelle. You're not like that. You didn't write that. She'd never known me as a writer, only as myself. Can you separate the two? I'd like to believe so, but then again, at the end of the week, I saw my teacher. Have a good trip home, Josette, he said. I didn't bother correcting him. After all, I had to get back to my stories, real and imagined.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"Stories don't come out of thin air." Raymond Carver
Cocktail Hour
Drinking music suggestion: The Best of Leadbelly, Leadbelly
Benedictions and Maledictions
27 days until The Sopranos airs!

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Glory That Will Be Revealed In Us

Once a friend of mine told me I should start doing affirmations, repeated statements to draw good fortune my way, things that were true about my life and would become true. The best one I could come up with was, Most of my life is not shitty and good things might happen at some point in the dim, receeding future. This, she told me, was not what she had in mind. We were drinking cosmos, and she kept dumping hers. The kind waitress replaced it without charge a couple of times and eventually she asked for a sippy cup. I hadn't eaten all day (taking care of myself should have been top on that affirmation list) and was drunk by drink two, causing me to trip and fall on the unforgiving cement outside, leaving a scar under my knee. A year later, I would trip in the Target parking (totally sober this time, after shopping for cleaning products -- ah the glamour!), and get a matching one on the other knee. So there is a beautiful symmetry to life if one looks for it.
I've always contended that change is nothing short of a miracle, which is why so many new year's resolutions are bye-bye in week two of the new year. When I was younger, I'd wake up every day wishing that I was different, dreaming that I would be the kind of person who could inspire myself and others to new ways of behavior. I'd drink orange juice instead of Dr. Pepper for breakfast, I'd work out right away, I'd write for hours, I'd dress in perfect matching clothes and never have a hair out of place. I'd be lady-like and calm, never swear, be productive, hopeful. Ha! Damned if I could remember to comb my hair, much less style it, my clothes never matched, I couldn't even pretend to be lady-like for ten seconds. Short of being blinded on the road to Damascus, I'm me, for better or worse. And hey, most of my scars even match! That's a start, I suppose.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us." Romans 8:18
Cocktail Hour
Drinking movie suggestion: Mr. Jealousy
Bendictions and Maledictions
Happy Monday! I'm sorry about Daylight Savings time, dear readers. I don't like more daylight.
28 days until The Sopranos airs!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Your Hair Is As Black As Your Soul

Years ago, my sister took care of two older mentally- challenged women named Barbara and Ethel. They shared a room in a group home and yelled at each other constantly. Barbara, Ethel would say, you old whore. Quit with the red lipstick already. Who are you trying to impress, tramp? Ethel would ride Barbara about her gray hair -- Looking for roots again? Your hair is as black as your soul. Dye it one more time and it will all fall out. As high as their animosity was about having to spend a lot of their days and nights together, they chose to spend their free time together as well. When asked about this, Ethel replied, Who the fuck else would I want to talk to except that bitch? Picture this coming from the sweetest-looking elderly woman with tiny red ribbons tied in her hair. Friendship can be such an odd thing! I always think of the first line of the Carson McCullers novel, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, about the two mutes who went everywhere in town together.
I was at the airport yesterday and on my flight, one of the stars from the reality show Little People, Big World was sitting in first class. I recognized her immediately from other documentaries on little people and from ads -- I've never seen the actual show. Once we landed, she met her little person co-star and greeted him as if she hadn't seen him for years. They walked to baggage claim as happy and comfortable as two people could be. I didn't know if they were friends, family, or lovers, but I watched them as the luggage carousel went round and round. Her bag was considerably larger than she was, but with her co-star's help, they wrestled it off the machine and went on their way into the very big world, which is, for even the largest person, hard to navigate alone.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"I felt there were times it was absolutely mandatory that the world be skewed, that I could no longer bear it dead-on, that it had to be twisted." Harry Crews
Cocktail Hour
Drinking short story collection suggestion: Everything That Rises Must Converge Flannery O'Connor
Benedictions and Maledictions
29 days until The Sopranos airs! There's a great picture of Tony and the gang on the cover of Cigar Afficianado. Thanks, dear friend, who sent this along to me!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Right Side Of The Law

On most Friday nights of my childhood, I watched "The Dukes of Hazzard" right after "The Lawrence Welk Show." This strange juxaposition might explain a fair amount about my life now, dare I ever venture into the pit of hell known as me in therapy, but alas, I can't see myself dwelling on the trauma of knowing not only Bo and Luke Duke, but their cousin replacements, Coy and Vance, and my joy at knowing this trivia turning to sorrow when I saw my friends look at me with pity for a life ill-spent. And don't get me started on Mr. Welk -- I was the youngest person to ever willingly (I use that word loosely -- I was not held at gunpoint) visit his birthplace on a date. Anyway, despite the overt racism of the General Lee (their car adorned with the stars and bars -- even at ten, I wasn't buying that "state's rights" bullshit rap about it), I loved the show and its championing of outlaw ways. The Dukes were never on the right side of the law -- they played fast and loose with it and always outsmarted the man. Since almost everyone on the show was white save for an occassional extra to fill in scenes at the Boar's Nest (the main hang-out and provider of employment for cousin Daisy), it was poor white man against rich white man (played with pathos and subtlety as Boss Hogg -- a short little dude prone to white leather suits and counting his money while laughing).
The great late Waylon Jennings narrated the show -- he let you know the finer points, filled in the gaps. Much of the philosophical point, if you will, was that you could get around damn near anything with some smarts, a fast car, and a pretty decoy (in this case, it was Daisy and as the boy's cousin, she was off limits sexually -- yes, even in the south!). So the show wasn't really about the boys hooking up with girls or running moonshine for Uncle Jesse, it was about defeating the system. When I catch glimpses of it on television now, I see why I was so drawn to it -- it had an optimism, not a bullshit kind of fairy-tale type, but a joyous celebration of speed, energy, and keeping one's wits in the face of pressure. Many shows about the struggles of poor whites would follow it, but none, dare I say, had its happy charm while retaining a certain kind of realism. I saw my world reflected in it, the world of the small town, the world of poverty and struggle, but it wasn't bleak. Unlike other reflections in culture, it wasn't being mocked. In thirty minute episodes, shit would happen, get fixed, and from the knowing smiles of the actors, you knew that next week, it'd be something else. Just like in your world.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"Lord, it's the same old tune, fiddle and guitar/ Where do we take it from here?" Waylon Jennings
Cocktail Hour
Drinking music suggestion: A Man Called Hoss Waylon Jennings
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Saturday!
30 days until The Sopranos airs!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Love Is Salvation

The first time I went to a Unitarian church, I received a sticker that said Love Is Salvation which I was instructed to put on my dress. I attended the service with the man who would eventually rape me, his father, and stepmother. As a child steeped in both a mystical and traditional background (seances and the Blood of Christ could coexist in my family's house), I found it oddly bland. There were no snakes, no crazy rules about not cutting your hair, not even any crucifixes. A good gory crucifix comes in handy at the oddest times -- my friend Hank taught the last years of his life at a Jesuit college and would frequently turn to our crucified Lord when the students weren't getting it and say, See what I have to put up with? The service lasted a long time and everyone hugged each other at the end. I can barely endure a mumbled "peace be with you" and a quick handshake so this didn't set well with me. I threw my Love Is Salvation sticker away as soon as I could. Running around with that on was almost as humiliating as the time I had to ride in a mini-van covered with pro-life bumper stickers to a KFC buffet that my preacher and his wife had decided to treat my then-husband and I to since they had a two for one coupon. I love KFC, but that ride in the van nearly killed me. I hung my head getting out, as if I were in handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit.

My second experience with the Unitarians was far better. I went to Easter services with my disseration director. When asked what we were thankful for, a man that went by the name of Stinky Dick raised his hand. Stinky Dick was actually Richard, a history professor who had lost his mind and his job and any committment to personal hygiene. He wandered Frye Street, the biggest drug mecca in all of my old college town, and yelled crazy-ass shit to people, imploring women to come back to his apartment because he had air-conditioning. "I slept with this beautiful girl from Minnesota about a year ago. She was the best sex I ever had. I just want to thank God for this precious gift." Stinky Dick looked teary. "I mean, eighteen years old. Damn. I may never get that again." It was one of the most sincere praise items I'd ever heard. The room fell silent. I thought back to that Love Is Salvation sticker from so many years ago. Maybe I'd ripped it off a little too fast. Finally someone said, That's great, Richard. Praise God. Anyone else have something to be thankful for? But his testimony is the only one I remember.

Michelle's Spell of the Day
"If you're not ready to die for it, take the word "freedom" out of your vocabulary." Malcolm X
Cocktail Hour
Drinking music suggestion: When The Lights Go Out The Black Keys
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Friday! Thanks for all the great comments on seduction yesterday, dear readers!
31 days until The Sopranos airs!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Where You Got Your Scar

The secret to seduction, a man once told me, is to tell a beautiful woman she's smart and a smart woman she's beautiful. The Seduction Expert was not handsome by any stretch and not all that brilliant -- he couldn't even be counted on to wash his hair once a week, but he got his share of the ladies even with the faint hint of vomit on his clothes from what he used to call his "failures of will" with the bottle. So I'm thinking maybe he had a point. Seduction, as any writer knows, is a complicated business. After all, we're doing it all the time, compelling the reader to come along with us wherever we happen to take him or her and let's face it, sometimes these are pretty horrible places. So what gives? When you're under someone's sway, a trip to the garbage dump seems groovy (Man, I always find the best stuff there! Hell yeah, I'll go with you!) and when you're not, an all expense paid trip to Rome seems like a suckfest. (God, the food is so overrated!) It's this phenomenon that accounts for sudden changes of behavior, ie, When he was dating me, he wouldn't so much as go to Wal-Mart and now he's taking you to New Orleans?!
The most seductive people I've ever known have an uncanny knack for seeing into the souls of people and knowing what they feel is true about themselves. Not what everyone else sees usually, but what's there beneath all the surfaces. Tell a beautiful women she's smart, a smart one she's beautiful. They say, I will love your darkness, your sadness, your weakness. Of course, they don't say anything that direct. They ask where you got your scar, run a finger up against it. They love your pain, the things we're always downplaying and pretending don't matter. You'll go anywhere with them for this gift of sight because you're assured that wherever you are, you'll see what's true and therefore lovely about it. I've got to hone this skill. After all, I'm taking my readers to the garbage dump a lot. (Write what you know!) That's where all good stories are, what people have discarded, at least until someone picks it up and says, This is really beautiful. I've been looking for one all my life.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"You know what the sun is all about when the lights go out." The Black Keys
Cocktail Hour
Drinking movie suggestion: Infamous (this is the other Truman Capote movie that got overshadowed by Capote -- it's very good!)
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Thursday!
32 days until The Sopranos airs!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Black Snake Moan

The last time I was in the south, I hadn't been off the plane for six hours before I had a toothless hillbilly panhandler offer to share his Jack Daniels with me. When I declined, he tried to sell me his coat. I'd already given a panhandler money that night and was exhausted and ready to get back to my hotel. When I started to walk away, he yelled, If those niggers out there get me tonight, it's your fault. It's all your fucking fault, little girl. Welcome to the New South! Lest I disavow my roots completely, I must say that the South has produced some of our greatest musicians and writers, both black and white. So how best to capture this heady mix of racism, sexism, heat, language, lushness, beauty, and general craziness? My answer at the moment-- the movie Black Snake Moan.

Black Snake Moan has gotten a whole mess of mixed reviews -- some love it, some hate it, but nobody can turn away. In a sea of bullshit, politcally correct pablum, this country-fried sexploitation flick stands out. Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci carry the day; he as a washed up, embittered blues player whose wife has left him for his younger brother, she as a deeply ill incest survivor who fucks everything that moves, not to put too fine a point on it. By the time we're into it, there's a chain around her waist, there's a chain around his heart, and a lot of blood is shed. The movie gets its title from a Blind Lemon Jefferson song about an affliction that won't let you go. If this isn't the song for our times, I don't know what is. Who doesn't have an affliction that won't let them loose, no matter how hard they try? Once again, I found myself laughing at how real everything seemed despite the bizarre set-up. And really, what alliance doesn't have some strange shit at the center of it? The blues speaks of redemption, salvation, sex, the bottle, adultery, and loneliness all mixed together to make one heady cocktail. I ain't gonna be moved, Samuel L. says in one scene, when he's got his plan together to save Christina and himself. But I was, and I suspect that anyone who dares to see this film will be too.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"There's only one kind of blues and that is what consists between a man and a woman." Son House

Cocktail Hour

Drinking soundtrack suggestion: Black Snake Moan (the music in this movie is fantastic!)

Benedictions and Maledictions

33 days until The Sopranos airs!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Finish A Story With A Dream

The other night I had a classic writer's nightmare that a book was in my house and it kept opening up and revealing all sorts of horrific things -- devil children yielding knives, ghosts, Ann Coulter. You get the idea. I'd run from room to room in the dream and couldn't get away -- the book turned into a mist and kept chasing me. Dreaming for Dumbasses 101, no doubt. I've been working on some difficult material lately, and I'm certain that it has taken a teeny-tiny psychic toll, like Three Mile Island was a teeny-tiny mistake. I keep a God's Eye by my bed to deter such dreams -- one of those little knitted ones from the seventies -- I haven't seen them in years, like pet rocks. In their purest spiritual sense, they are supposed to give one the power to see and understand things unknown. It was my mother's, and I also have her tiger's eye ring. I once had a student who knew someone who "read" jewelry. I'd love to see what she had to say about it because I can't decide whether it's powerful or harmful. No doubt, it is both. What isn't?
You never start or finish a story with a dream, I have told my students in the past. But look, I violated my own rule! And I often use the comparision of writing and dating to bring my point home with the fevor of some demented off-brand channel televangelist. When I ask my classes what kills dates, most of them say things like when the date starts telling him or her about dreams or talking about exes. The men, I have to say, are often more direct. If she's fucking hot, she can do whatever she wants, man. I had this girl who started in on her ex, her tiny little problem with cocaine, got totally wasted, and cried half the night. I was in love. I couldn't argue his point. Sometimes it doesn't matter where we start, so long as we get to the right place. If we're travelling through some rough patches, we might be so deep in our dreams that we can't tell them from reality. As John Lee Hooker says on one of his live albums, We travel late at night to bring the blues to you. And so our books open in darkness and try as we might, we cannot escape them, even protected by all the charms left to us from the dead.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"But the greatest desire of all is to be/ in the dream of another/ to feel a slight pull, like reins/ to feel a heavy pull, like chains." Yehuda Amichai
Cocktail Party
Drinking movie suggestion: Wonder Boys -- this movie is a laugh riot for all writers and it gets funnier with each passing year. Robert Downey Jr. is at his best, playing a drugged out, bisexual, literary agent.
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Tuesday!
34 more days until The Sopranos! And for hard-core fans, I saw that James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) and David Chase (the series creator) are appearing on the cover of April's Vanity Fair.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Cities At Night

Saturday I received a nice rejection note from the Christian Science Monitor which said that they didn't take religious poetry, but to send more. I'd sent them two poems, my ONLY two poems that even vaguely fit the criteria the editors lay out in Writer's Market. "We do not want things about the bleakness and sadness of life. Nothing violent or sexual. Please be life-affirming." If this was a poker game, I'd be down to almost nothing. But I've been thinking about the idea of what is life-affirming. Sitting next to a woman on a plane determined to talk despite my determination to put my head in a book, I finally gave in. Do you think Nicole Kidman is that white or do you think it's make-up? she asked about an ad for Chanel 5 in Oprah's magazine, and so it began. She had a King James Bible in one hand, glass of wine in the other and told me the story about the Detroit dude who hacked up his wife. They found notes from him to the babysiter, she said. Damn, I found notes from my husband's women for years. He was a dog and now I'm divorcing him. They'd been married for twenty-five years. I expected deep grief to inform her talk, but it did not. I have a friend now, she said. That I see from time to time. I've been knowing him for a long time, but not in the new way. I thought of new self-help tome -- Don't Hack Up Your Spouse -- Get A Friend!
The woman went on to say that nobody could understand why she'd finally snapped after putting up with his infidelities for years. A woman at church, she said. The last straw. She gave the devil his due, told me that he'd always brought his check home every two weeks and mowed the lawn. He was, by way of these actions, a good father in her book. And I'm thinking that it's strange what will bring you to your breaking point. One of my friends found out that her husband had a mistress because he'd charged the mistress's abortion to her American Express bill. She'd been with him while he detoxed from heroin three times. If you know anything about what this is like -- sweats, vomiting, cramps, insomnia and wanting to die, die, die, you know how much she loved him. By time three, you'd think her love for him would be dead. But the American Express bill did it. Don't leave home without it, the commercials intone, and he didn't. She didn't hack him up either -- she got a divorce. I'm trying to figure out how to write something about this, but I'm guessing that the Christian Science Monitor won't be taking it. I might have to resort to nature, but let's face it -- I'm much more comfortable in a world of wine, Bibles, American Express bills, and cities at night than I ever will be walking around outside where anything can happen, but mostly nothing ever does, at least not that I notice running from my house to my car in the cold.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"Any decent kind of world, you wouldn't need all these rules." John Updike
Cocktail Hour
Drinking novel suggestion: the Rabbit series by John Updike -- these four novels and one novella rank among my favorites of all time!
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Monday!
35 days until The Sopranos airs!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Abstract Doesn't Work

Hi Readers! This is an extended version of an earlier blog entry for your Sunday reading pleasure.

Describe Your Favorite Food

I can’t remember the first time I carried a gun to class, you know, the particulars, the way the weather was or if I saw a carved-in jack-o-lantern on my way to class, you know, the details I’m always stressing to my students -- the abstract doesn’t work! I do, however, remember the student who inspired me to it, an ex-Marine named Karl who had an aura that said things, things like this man is a rapist/serial killer/torturer of animals. Karl wasn’t in class the first day I taught (by first day I mean, first day ever), and he got the writing prompt from another student and turned it into my box. His handwriting, extremely tiny print, scared me even before I saw him, although the story he wrote was not extraordinary. The second day of class, Karl walked in with his shirt off and a towel around his waist, as if he’d stepped out of the shower. Since it was storming outside, I tried to reconcile the scene, but try as I might, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. As for me with my backpack and student-like wardrobe, I was the easiest-looking mark ever.

I had never taken an education class, never been in a classroom except as a student, and at the age of twenty-one, was ill-prepared to stare down twenty-five college students at a state university, particularly one who kept mentioning his great skill with deadly weapons, no scratch that, he didn’t need a weapon, he could kill with his bare hands! Not a Pollyanna by nature, I hadn’t expected a bunch of learning-hungry types with eyes and apples only for me, but this exceeded even the 70s classic Scared Straight video. What did the old fair, firm, and friendly advice mean in such a setting? Lucky for me, the rhetoric professor in the department was assigned to watch over me and help me in the lion’s den for my first semester. A kind woman in her thirties, I felt her to be both unintimidating and soothing, if a little uninspired in her classroom exercises. Nonetheless, I used them with great hope. I wasn't a natural teacher, despite all those years of exercising control over a few stuffed animals and my small chalkboard. All the props of teaching suited me -- it was the actual classroom time that wasn't my forte.

One of these exercises -- describe your favorite food without saying what the food is -- seemed, well, ill-advised even by my own dismal standards. I worried about Karl for good reason -- his paper contained a graphic description of what could be interpreted as a) oral sex or b) eating a kiwi. I took this scrap to my mentor. She showed it to the head of freshman English, a lively woman in her eighties who read it with a look of someone smelling something foul and told me that I would not be dealing with this horror much longer. Karl left my class, having to report to an older male teacher with a take no prisoners approach to teaching. But like most stories, the problem wasn’t even close to being over. Karl always seemed to be in the shadows (the term stalking was just coming into fashion), and I’d already dealt with being a victim of sexual violence years earlier. In response I developed a fear I couldn’t quite shake. I’d fixate on his old chair during class, a chair nobody ever sat in, despite the fact that there was no formal seating arrangement.

I kept teaching, fear bleeding into each day, little by little. I spent a lot of time in public bathrooms, trying to get a hold of myself. I didn't have a choice. And the saga wasn't over yet -- Karl ended up in the huge lecture hall where I was assigned to be one of the assistants for the professor. I had to decide whether to give up the class (summer classes being valuable and rare for grad students) or endure. I endured. Through lectures on Homer, I stared at the asshole, wishing him dead. I remember the last day with a surprising clarity -- clad in a white and red horizontally-striped dress (big fashion mistake) with an angel pin that someone had given me for protection, I watched as he took his final and left early. I'd survived, but it had cost me a lot -- my romantic relationship suffered, my weight fluctuated like mad, and my hair had started to fall out. It was a pyrrhic victory by any standards.

Years later in a writing workshop, the professor instructed us to write a story about someone carrying around something unexpected. I thought about the gun. It hadn’t lasted forever, despite the fact that I had a permit for it and the right to carry it in the state of Texas. Its weight eventually became too much to bear. I traded my student backpack in for a satchel. I moved to Detroit, lost my fear. I didn’t, however, use the describe your favorite food exercise ever again and kiwis always remind me of what I tell my students about words being powerful. The exercise didn’t do much for the students, but I never forgot it.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Did you ever feel like nothing good was going to happen to you?" "Yeah, and nothing did. So what? I'm alive. I'm surviving." exchange between Christopher and Paulie on The Sopranos

Cocktail Hour

Drinking music suggestion: Love You Live Rolling Stones

Benedictions and Maledictions

36 days until The Sopranos airs!