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Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

May. 13th, 2016 | 04:10 pm

Welcome to Dubai! This brief quiz will prepare you for some of the many beautiful sights, exciting shopping and dining opportunities, and cultural practices in our emirate. Don’t worry—you’re not being graded! But your answers will be recorded in case we need evidence later.

Let’s get started!

Which of these will you NOT find easily/affordably in Dubai?
a) Pork
b) Alcohol
c) Prostitution
d) Street addresses
e) Skype

[Answer (click to open)]The answers are D and E.


There are no house numbers, zip codes, or postal delivery here. Fingers crossed, though—the new Makani system issues a QR code for every home. Now the pizza guy only has to call for directions twice! And the government owns the phone company and prefers to limit competition, so fire up a Virtual Private Network if you’re going to stream porn or Skype your mom. (Not at the same time!)



One of Dubai’s major industries is gold. Which of the following can you NOT experience in Dubai?
a) Gold cupcake
b) Gold cocktail
c) Gold shrimp cocktail
d) Gold ice cream
e) Gold facial
f) Gold Class car on the Metro
g) An ATM that dispenses gold bars

[Answer]The answer is C.


Of course we would never serve a gold shrimp cocktail! Metallic tastes clash with cocktail sauce, and wouldn’t you rather have a garnish of fois gras? But we do suggest paying double for a Gold Class Metro ticket—it’s not just the cushy seat, it’s avoiding pungent body odor.



Everything in Dubai delivers. Well, almost everything! Except these two:
a) McDonalds
b) Starbucks
c) Pedicure salon
d) Car wash
e) Designer clothing
f) Ice cream truck that comes to your building and signals your phone to let you know it’s there

[Answer]The answers are B and D.


Car washes happen at the mall—so convenient! Just keep an eye out for the skinny Bangladeshi guy in a jumpsuit, wheeling a cart full of dirty water. He paid 200 dirhams to rent that cart for the day, plus soap, and he’ll work it off one 15-dirham car wash at a time. And delivery serves mostly women—too much caffeine will just interfere with an afternoon nap. Instead, have your pedicure in the comfort, safety and privacy of your own living room, where no man you aren’t related to could accidentally see your hair or recognize the shape of a body part through your clothes.



Which of these can you NOT eat or drink in Dubai?
a) Brunch with unlimited alcohol including Jack Daniels slushie machine and vodka-infused watermelons bristling with straws for the whole table
b) Camel burger
c) The Funky Monster, a strawberry shake topped with an entire slice of cheesecake
d) Coffee made from beans pooped by civet cats
e) Cream for coffee made of only cream
f) Fugu
g) Krispy Kreme donut

[Answer]The answer is E.


Organic-shmorganic! There’s carrageenan in all the dairy around here. And it comes in a tetra-pack suitable for cupboard storage for years! After you’ve enjoyed an enormous Friday morning brunch and your exclusive, through-the-digestive-tract coffee with additives, belly up to the bar for a Krispy Kreme at any of our nine local franchises, or enjoy poisonous puffer fish at either of our two licensed fugu restaurants. Care for the many diabetics and heart patients here is top-notch, too!



Taxis are cheap and common in Dubai. Which of these does NOT exist?
a) Pet taxi
b) Woman-only taxi (driver and passengers)
c) Daily pre-booked taxis for schoolchildren
d) Days off for taxi drivers
e) Illegal taxis that stop by the side of the road and charge half the going rate
f) Someone who comes to the bar and drives you home in your car when you’re drunk

[Answer]The answer is D.


Taxi drivers value the opportunities they receive in the United Arab Emirates, and they’re great family men, usually supporting a minimum of five people in India or Pakistan. With a quick six-month unpaid training period to "learn the system," they live in dormitories or work camps, work a twelve-hour shift every day for eleven months, and go home to see how little Raj is growing up in month twelve. So enjoy your ride—and if you’re a woman, look for the driver in the pink headscarf!




Rank these nationalities by order of average salary.
a) South Asian
b) North American/European/Australian/Afrikaaner
c) African
d) East Asian
e) Arabic

[Answer]The answer is B, E, D, A, C.


Use this handy mnemonic: “If you’re light, the money’s right, but if you’re dark, you’re fucked.”



Which of these can you SAFELY do in Dubai?
a) Leave your home unlocked with your computer on the table
b) Leave your car unlocked in the mall parking lot
c) Leave your laptop, cell phone and purse on the coffee shop table while you pee
d) Criticize your employer on social media
e) Criticize the government in any medium
f) Go to the mall bathroom
g) Get a placenta facial

[Answer]The answers are A, B, C, and G.


Welcome to absolute monarchy—where every day is sunny and the news is always good! Remember, if you’re outside your home, you’re on camera. That’s why you’re as safe here as in your mother’s arms! And if you don’t have something nice to say, don't talk about anyone or anything at all. Keep posting those cat memes! Maybe be a writer back in America! Make sure to private this post ASAP!

I know you’re confused about Fmall bathroom? Don’t be discouraged—the bathrooms here are spotless, with Filipina attendants cleaning the seat after every guest. And the privacy is unmatched—the spacious water closets with locking doors are perfect for a jihadi in full burka to call for assistance, then stab you with a kitchen knife when you come to help. But it was just that one time a white American teacher like yourself was murdered in the mall you spent every day in for six months. Time for a new coffee shop—maybe that civet-poop place has good wifi?



Bonus Question: How much would it have cost in “blood money” for the bathroom stabber to get off with a fine and three years?
a) 200,000 dirhams (100 camels, or about US$55,000)
b) Really? A camel only costs $5500? I would have thought they were more expensive
c) Does anyone actually try to pay it in camels? Is that like paying off a bad debt in all pennies?
d) That’s a lot of money. Apparently about five people a year from developing nations throw themselves in front of cars, hoping their family will get the payout
e) I’d hate to be the victim’s surviving spouse and have to choose whether I wanted the blood money or the death penalty
f) Wow, eight months from crime to execution—that’s a fast justice system
g) Mohammed Al Kaabi, chairman of the UAE Human Rights Society, said the speedy execution made a statement. “The hand of justice will slap whoever thinks of distorting the security of the nation,” he said.

Well, that’s all we have time for today, folks—write your answers to the bonus question down, keep your thoughts off social media, and salute when you pass a billboard of the King. Welcome to Dubai and enjoy your white and wealthy day!



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I'll probably be here 3-5 more years. And I'm not kidding about privating this after voting.





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Sharp Words

May. 13th, 2016 | 09:10 am

In my world, “Christian” is another word for “bigot.”

When I teach circus in schools, we always stay with a host family. The host family is always right wing heavy-duty Christian, because those tend to be the people with four extra bedrooms and high-school aged kids. We don’t talk politics or religion in the host house. We don’t rat on their daughter when she comes out to us, terrified her mother will throw her out, refuse to pay for college. We bite our tongues when “the transgenders” come up.

This family has taken us in at the last minute. They feed us baked salmon and remember who is vegan. We use their washing machine. We have our own bedrooms in a house on the lake. We are white and cisgender and we coach their children.

EBT—food stamps—comes up around the table. Their fourteen-year-old son has never heard it called EBT, and as I start to explain, he breaks in.

“It sounds like somebody stealing someone else’s money!”

I know it’s been drilled into him. I know he’s never been out of the upper Midwest. I still can’t help it. I say, “It sounds so Christian when you put it like that.”

***

In my world, “Conservative” is another name for “self-centered moralistic prig.”

I met Mark in Alaska, home of the legitimate gun-toters, at the Seward Fourth of July Festival. He was at the NRA booth. He ran the NRA booth. He ran the Alaska NRA. He also had a great sense of humor and sparkling blue eyes. I was fascinated—I’d never met a gun nut I liked this much.

He thought he knew what he was getting. A loud circus girl, making edgy jokes about whip-cracking and fire-eating, personality to the edges of the earth. He was surprised to meet a fellow small-business owner who wouldn’t sleep with him on the first date and didn’t smoke—anything.

This was before Obamacare, before I could go to the doctor or the therapist, when Planned Parenthood was all I had and they don’t dispense depression meds.

Something political came on the car radio, and Mark said, “Liberals are so selfish.”

I was deeply confused. Weren’t the Democrats the party of health care and education and fair wages?

“But they want everyone else to pay for it.”

“Well,” I pointed out, “You can pay taxes in advance and have people able to see the doctor, or you can pay much more for insurance while people go to the emergency room at great expense, as their last resort. But there isn’t any ‘not paying.’ That’s not actually an option, unless we want to be the country that lets people die on the streets.”

“People should learn to take care of themselves.”

Conversation moved on. We went to dinner. Italian. I paid my own check.

Mark said, laughing, “Hey, this is supposed to be a date!”

I said, “People should take care of themselves.”

***

In my world, “atheist” is another name for “smart, but kind of an asshole.” “Agnostic” means “can’t be bothered.” “Pagan” means “I never grew out of it.”

My world is smug and sharp and self-satisfied. My world has the luxury of living overseas, of seeing BBC News instead of Fox, Al-Jazeera instead of MSNBC. My home-country news comes from NPR and Samantha Bee and John Oliver. My politics come free of religion.

I remind myself of the Christ-like Christians I know, both of them. I salute my Ganesha icon (“cultural appropriator”) and leave him fresh oranges and flowers. I know everything will resolve in dust, that we are all temporary, anger is not worthwhile. I can only bring my own selfish self, fight daily for compassion and kindness, profess uncertainty in the face of vigorous faith.

Inside I know. Inside I remember standing at the stone railing in Church of Our Lady, looking at the Madonna, the only Michelangelo statue to leave Italy during his lifetime. It was November and winter had come early, snow had fallen but the leaves still burned on the branches. I remember the frigid air, the sound of monks—or a recording of monks—chanting. I remember how my hands froze to the rail and lightning went through me, how in that moment I knew, knew that I would know until my dying day, that God was here. For me. No matter what He was wearing when He showed up.

There was a poem in the church:

You, citizen of this town
Or pilgrim from far away
Looking for some tranquility
Here you may become silent
At the well of all beauty and life
No-one is a stranger
In this ancient temple
Where God is a loving father
Waiting only for you.

I know it still. I hear it in the words of frightened Christians, in the speeches of angry Republicans, in the mouths of people I think are not like me. But I, too, fear the Other. I, too, protect my soft underbelly and grasp with hard fingers, all of us pulling toward ourselves while God waits, patiently, until we come.






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I'm a very bad Buddhist.






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Recessional

May. 5th, 2016 | 12:54 pm

Fort McMurray is burning.

A wildfire rages at the edges of town. Right now. Right now my acquaintances are checking in on Facebook, I’m safe, I’m safe. Right now the fire has become a “crown fire,” the tops of conifers blazing, perverse Christmas trees blossoming with flames a hundred metres high, sparks crossing first the Athabasca River, then the Clearwater River and Highway 63, the only road out of town.

When you drive to Fort Mac, you gas up at the north edge of Edmonton, turn onto 63, and laugh and smile at the sign a few kilometers later, LAST GAS FOOD SERVICES FOR 250 KM. I’m guessing at the kilometres—I remember the sign, but Google Maps won’t give me directions right now. Google images won’t give me the sign in the first few screens, and I can’t scroll through any more action-movie images of propane tanks exploding in front of burning trees.

It’s not like an action movie.

No-one is billed above the title—no-one has a guarantee of getting out. Plans for a sequel are uncertain.

Perhaps the theatre, where my circus company did our adults-only show, is burning. Perhaps the college parking lot where we did the outdoor family-friendly show is peeling up in great sheets of asphalt rolling on itself like poorly-laid contact paper in the bottom of a drawer. Maybe the hotel’s gone now. The three casinos. The giant sports arena complex where we played New Year’s Eve.

Almost everyone is out—unlike Key West natives facing down hurricanes, Canadians politely leave when asked. Everyone has gone north, in a slow, bizarre recessional of bumper-to-bumper traffic and cars stalling out from lack of gas. Two of the gas stations in town have burned; the lines were long enough on the others to weigh, gas up and burn in town, or run out and burn on the highway?

Right now it is my borrowed tragedy. The event over which I have no influence, no control, and which only peripherally affects me, but nonetheless makes me weep when the pictures come on.

I stand in another theatre over two thousand miles away and find my light. I wait patiently for the technical director to call “OK, next cue please!” so I can move. There is a lot of thinking time, and I wonder about my own recessional. My house in Kalamazoo, full of boxes, some unopened since moving there in 1998. My mother’s spare closet in Florida, full of formal dresses—prom, debut, New Year’s Eve. Too nice to throw away, no longer useful. My home in Dubai, where secondhand books are stacking up, where I really should let go of the shoes I replaced.

Twenty minutes to pack. You can take what you can carry. Not family photos—my computer covers that. I no longer have pets. I would leave the circus equipment behind, and that’s a bittersweet relief, knowing it no longer matters. Ten minutes, perhaps, fire or flood or cataclysm licking the edges of the city. Revolution is not unlikely. Call it five minutes. Fortunately, I’m almost always packed anyway. Grab the carry-on with clothes and bath stuff and the book I’m reading now and the book I’m writing now and my Ganesha icon (“If you care about it, put it in your carry-on” I chant before every flight). Sling on my laptop bag with notebook, headphones, purse, cash, cards, passport.

I would grab my second passport. And my wedding dress, blue and simple and actually wearable again.

And then I’d run.

Back in the basement in Kalamazoo, I survey still-packed boxes and old costumes and the hats I used to look good in. What if there was a fire? I ask myself. Would you bother to replace this, or would you keep the insurance money?

It’s not as easy as it sounds on paper. But I do set out bags and boxes, a little at a time, make a pile for Goodwill and one for trash, and start throwing things away.





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What would you take with you?





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Twenty-Five Days

Apr. 29th, 2016 | 01:43 pm

Twenty-five days to the end of the world
But I won’t quit my job
I’d like to finish as I started
One last kid boosted into the air
One last round of applause
One last contract kept.

Nineteen days to the end of the world
Six fewer I could have spent with you
You’ve spent our marriage understanding
What’s one week more or less?
I’ll remember to Skype, to text, to call
When the bottom drops out, when I’m ripped apart
Pretending things are whole, I’ll remember
You’re the one I’m supposed to tell, the one
Who truly wants to know.

Seventeen days to the end of the world
The plane descending through clouds
The desert resolving into lights, highways, a taxi
At the baggage claim
Where our meetings and partings blur into each other
Your face shining in the mass of color
Your hand reaching for the trolley, covering mine.

Twelve days to the end of the world
Return to the beach we called the end of the world
Three flights and a tuk-tuk to find blank yellow sand
Not yet crowded or ruined—
At the tideline, Coke bottles and beer cans say it’s coming.
I still carry out my litter, even now.

Five days to the end of the world
We splay on each other, on the couch
Watch bad movies—why not? Do we
Really believe?—order in, eat Thai
And sushi and biryani (save the clay pot),
Tip the moped driver, avoid the horizon.

Today is the end of the world
And I am with you whether it is or not
Perhaps we’ll be surprised at midnight,
Or dawn, or disappointed we’re still here,
The letdown after the party. Either way,
We’ll sigh, and lace our fingers together
Until the end.





___________________________________________
Ten days until I see my husband again.






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Game Night

Apr. 29th, 2016 | 01:36 pm

“It’s Game Night,” he whispered softly into my ear. My eyes scanned his loft apartment, the grey leather Phillipe Starck sofa sitting in the vast, open expanse of platinum-plated floor. Perhaps one day I would call this beautiful place home and polish the solid silver chairs and arrange the Tiffany ornaments. But for now, my inner goddess was dancing the Macarena and I could only bite my lip and stammer, “H-h-holy crap!”

“Come here,” he commanded. I started towards him and fell over, once again tripped by my own clumsiness, landing in a pile of long, coltish legs and pale-skinned arms at his feet, clad in Ferragamo loafers. I looked up his strong, muscular legs to his taut stomach and broad chest, then to his gorgeous face, the epitome of male beauty and perfection. He was perfect. And beautiful. My cheeks burned with a fiery blush and I longed to sink into my usual nondescriptiveness of hair of no particular color and large eyes, but my inner goddess consoled me, wiggling her hips and a pair of semaphore flags to signal that everything would be all right.

I had driven my new Audi to the abode of my—lover? Boyfriend? How he’d hate that word! He always insisted I call him Viscount Lord Masterful, but I knew that insistence was only a badge of the terrible trauma he’d suffered as a child. He had been raised in a Belgian whorehouse from babyhood—a brothel sprout. When they moved to America, his addict mother, to support her hardcore Entenmann’s crumb cake habit, had forced him to pose for Garden&Gun. “I could have handled even Field&Stream,” he’d said, “But holding a plate of macaroons in a garden of azaleas for the Spring Shooting issue was too much. I don’t know where I found the strength to refuse to hold the Confederate flag, but even my thirty-two-year-old self knew that something was terribly wrong.”

How could I know what other injuries his soul had suffered? My inner goddess offered forth an interpretive dance in the style of Martha Graham. Or maybe Agnes de Mille. No, definitely Martha Graham.

“Give me your wrists,” Viscount Lord Masterful stated masterfully, and I offered forth my slender appendages. He swiftly wrapped them in scarlet satin ribbons. The soft fabric caressed my pale skin, and I could tell these were no dollar trimming reels from Jo-ann’s Fabric, but the real thing, purchased at incredible expense from some sort of place to purchase very expensive things. No doubt he had charged them to his American Express Violet-Titanium card, the exclusive credit account which he alone held. My stomach fluttered with butterflies and I bit my lip.

He shuddered, exclaiming, “When you bite your lip it fills me with incredible passion, but I must conceal that passion from you!”

“I know,” I said. “Your childhood—”

“Hush, my pet,” he said, and clasped a hand over my mouth. “You must not speak again, as per clause 487.62B section 38 of our contract decreeing that you shall serve as my love-slave.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” I said when he lifted his velvet hand, a hand as soft as velvet, with very soft velvety skin covering his underlying steel or some other very hard thing, which is a contrast, “I’ve been meaning to ask you, just what is a butt plug anyway?”

Lord Viscount Masterful laughed softly, a sound that crept up my spine and caused my virginal body to shake with longing. Inside, my inner goddess broke into a Savion-Glover-inspired modern tap routine with Afro-Caribbean influences. “That’s for me to know and you to find out, my darling,” he purred.

Would today be the today he finally claimed me for his own? I bit my lip at the thought, and he groaned with longing. My inner goddess inside me metaphorically bit her lip, too.

He led me down the hall, every inch more terrifying than the last as we passed priceless Da Vinci paintings and very expensive and hard-to-find Faberge eggs displayed carelessly on console tables. My inner goddess rigged a flaming limbo pole and began warming up her backbends. At last he paused, his hand on a doorknob. “Are you ready for the Roseate Room of Pain, my adorable gazelle?”

“I’m not sure,” I whispered, and stumbled, falling into his arms, despite having previously been standing still.

“Pursuant to clause 261, section 17, subsection C, it doesn’t really matter now, does it?”

Slowly, he pushed the door open. For a moment, my eyes were clouded with darkness, but slowly they adjusted. I slowly looked around, slowly. Against every wall were long tables, crowded with computer monitors, all glowing softly with a soft light as if something not very bright was lit up but only a little bit. Roughly, he strapped my torso to an Aeron chair, and I noted the ergonomic structure and sleek styling of this very expensive, exclusive office chair.

“Now—finally—” he stammered, with a hesitation so unlike him that my inner goddess paused in the middle of calling a traditional barn dance to listen more closely “—now I can finally reveal to you my secret desires.” Do-si-do indeed, I thought, ready to promenade left.

My eyes grew round as he hurried from monitor to monitor, frantically typing in code. At last he finished, and took a deep breath. “Now—now you’ll see. Perhaps it will change everything you believe about me, everything you thought you knew. But I cannot hide my true longing any longer.”

He pressed ENTER and the screens flickered into life, scrolling endless codes.

#4e5054, #272727, #282828, #292929, #2b2b2b, #2c2c2c, #2e2e2e, #313131, #323232, #343434, #353535, #373737, #393939, #3a3a3a, #3c3c3c, #3f3f3f, #404040, #424242, #444444, #454545, #474747, #484848, #4a4a4a, #4b4b4b, #4d4d4d, #4e4e4e, #505050, #515151, #535353, #565656, #575757, #585858, #595959, #5b5b5b, #5c5c5c, #5e5e5e, #616161, #626262, #646464, #656565, #676767, #6a6a6a, #6b6b6b, #6c6c6c, #6d6d6d, #6f6f6f, #727272, #737373, #757575, #767676, #777777, #7b7b7b, #7c7c7c, #7d7d7d, #7e7e7e, #808080, #818181, #838383, #868686, #878787, #888888, #898989, #8b8b8b, #8c8c8c, #8e8e8e, #919191, #929292, #949494, #959595, #979797, #9a9a9a, #9b9b9b, #9c9c9c, #9d9d9d, #9f9f9f, #a0a0a0, #a2a2a2, #a5a5a5, #a6a6a6, #a8a8a8, #a9a9a9, #ababab, #aeaeae, #afafaf, #b0b0b0…

“Oh!” I gasped, my inner goddess whirling into a triumphant minuet complete with panniers, powdered wig and vermin scratcher, “It’s…beautiful. So beautiful…”

I bit my lip and his breath caught. Heedless of my bonds, he rushed to embrace me, and I fell over. We lay on the floor, a pile of limbs and appendages and arms and legs. His head pillowed on my lap, he sobbed, “I never believed anyone would love me if they knew…”

For the first time, I dared to use his name. “Zoroaster—”

His face brimming with hope, like a glass full of more water than can really fit in a glass but is held by surface tension, he looked into my eyes.

“You forget, my love,” I said. “I majored in graphic design. I will always love your fifty shades of grey…”





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I'm still sad I couldn't think of a great pun for "butt plug." Suggestions welcome!



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Greatest Hits

Apr. 22nd, 2016 | 07:15 pm

Album: Dad: Greatest Hits
Label: Love Him or Leave Him
Featured Tracks:
Pawnbroker Car Dealer Loan Shark
He Who Has The Gold Makes the Rules
(You Kids Are So) Selfish
Why’d It Take So Long (Divorce Him)
Since When Do You Own a Sports Bar Dad
Sure It’s a Tiki Bar Now
Funeral in a Bar
I’m Just Like You (And I Like It)

Rating: * * * *

It’s not often that a writer gets to review her own dad. And in fact, if my dad had ever actually released an album—or been a musician—I’m pretty sure Rolling Stone would think of this as nepotism. If they ever returned my emails.

I don’t know what happened to his records when he died. Or anything else. If there was a will I never saw it. My little brother got his watch, I got three tacky rings (Eagle! Scorpio! Gold nugget!) and gave two of them to our half-siblings. Dad’s third wife got everything else.

But he still left me something, and I think of it as his Greatest Hits. Family matters aside, let’s talk about the music.

Dad’s life: Can you dance to it? The album’s opening track, It’s Nice To Be Important But It’s Important to be Nice would declare yes, laying a catchy, Hallmark-greeting level platitude over a bouncy beat of swimming pools and golf pants, the suburban heartbeat not yet belying the appearance of middle class success. Later, it would turn out tax returns had never been filed, making student loan applications extremely difficult. As the looped electro-dance sample warned us: “You’d better save up/get a scholarship/I made it through fifth grade/isn’t college a rip?”

Dad explored tropical worldbeat with the merengue-influenced Buenos Dias America, brought back from several trips to Guatemala along with gold jewelry and stories of good times. Most memorable is the second verse, the legend of an armed stick-up at the security gate of a friend’s home, in which Dad grabbed the gunman’s weapon through his car window. Unfortunately, the clip had been held in with rubber bands, and when the bullets fell out of the gun and the robber pulled a knife, Dad and his friend Bernie (Track 5: Bernie the Bookie’s Been Busted (Daddy Spent the Night in Jail)) were forced to hand over their jewelry and American cash. Included in this album is a long-lost, now seamlessly inserted additional verse (first heard when I was thirty), detailing the Guatemalan “little girlfriend” who probably set them up. It remains unknown whether Mom knew this verse, but it’s unlikely to be a huge surprise. Listen for the newly restored vocals in the jangling chorus: “Whenever you leave America, you’re traveling second class.”

The Sweetest Sound (Remember People’s Names and Use Them) is a curious inclusion, having never broken the charts in any country. In this collection, it’s the live acoustic version, featuring a rare duet with my father and I. I’ll claim credit for the bridge, “Remember names and use them/it makes people feel special/at your funeral everyone remembered/you remembered their name/it broke my heart.”

No Greatest Hits set would be complete without Dad’s very first vocal outing, Wake Her Up (She’s Your Baby). Longtime readers will remember thirty-something Dad in his second marriage, hearing Mom fretting that she wanted to cuddle her first-born (yours truly!), while reluctant to disturb the sleeping baby. “I told your mother, ‘She’s your baby and you can hold her whenever you want! Wake her up and hold her!’” Often seen as proof of a humanity Dad rarely revealed, this track is always worth a listen. Appropriately, it ends the collection, paired in a medley with (If That Had Been You) It Would Have Killed Me. The latter song shows Dad’s tolerance of black people extending only to co-opting the blues style, but one is hard-pressed to ignore the underlying message, that when the coffin lid closed on my older half-sister and Dad first spoke the title line, I realized I was and had always been “the favorite.”

Listeners with patience will be rewarded with a hidden bonus track, The Pet Store, now remixed. The new trap beat underscores the lyrics, a story of nineteen-year-old Dad entering a pet store to surprise his long-estranged mother, and the nastiness of tables turned when she didn’t recognize him. Perhaps those verses—hidden to all but the most persistent of fans—hold the source of personal pain that flowed under Dad’s life and career. Perhaps my brother has never heard that song. Maybe if he had, he would have called.

Dad’s Greatest Hits isn’t for the casual listener. Only true fans will want to plow through the six disks of bigotry, adultery, absence, alcoholism, deception and apparent lack of caring to reach the few shining moments. And the steep price ($childhood) puts the collection out of reach for most. But if you can stomach the sticker shock and put your money where your mouth is, it might be your favorite, too.

It is mine.





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I took Dad's ashes to India, in hopes that his posthumous self would be less racist.



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On Fire

Apr. 15th, 2016 | 06:49 pm

This is what I remember about the first time I was on fire. It was a gay club. I was wearing a leather outfit with chains across the chest. I blew a fireball and what I always say is that the air conditioner kicked on and it blew back on me, but that may be made up, or a lie. I wasn’t very good at fire-eating. I had only learned a few months previously. When they carried me out I shouted to my friend the go-go dancer, “Get my money!”

The ambulance took me to the closest hospital where they cut off my Sinead O’Connor concert t-shirt. Then another ambulance took me to the charity hospital because I had no insurance. It was brick, and they bathed me in what looked like a horse trough. The nurse shot me up with morphine and the world receded into a hazy glow. I called my voice teacher and she came and sat with me. I was bandaged like the Invisible Man.

Burn wards are full of children, because children pull over pots on stoves, or play with lighters in flammable outfits. Charity burn wards have more of them because the parents have less time and money to watch them. Children scream, and screaming keeps me awake.

So the next day I went home on the bus.

I realized I’d called my voice teacher because I had lived in Chicago for six months and had no friends. That I was cold all the time. I told my drama school I wasn’t coming back. They sent me a cut letter anyway.

The scars healed in the shape of a chain. They are there still, faded.

* * *

The second time I was on fire was in a club in Atlanta, with my then-boyfriend, then-partner, soon-to-be-fiancé. He held a torch on my skin too long and was startled when I screamed. He hadn’t known the beautiful photo of a leg full of fire was a long exposure.

I’m sure I berated him. If not for that, for something else. For many other things. We loved each other like twins and fought like siblings. I didn’t know then that we were both depressed, that my ambition was also mania.

Now he sends me the last book Terry Pratchett will ever have written, because Terry Pratchett is dead and so is our marriage. Inside he writes, I would gladly have kept buying them for you. I am glad we treat each other with such kindness.

Now he is the brother I never had. I have two biological brothers, and that, too, is a scar.

* * *

The last time I was on fire was on purpose. Fire is the act to do when you’re tired, when it’s late, when you’re cold already. Yes, it is easier when it’s cold out. And harder when it’s windy and the flame whips across your face and takes out a pair of false eyelashes and parts of your real ones. I tilted my head back to light my tongue on fire and lit another torch from the flame. Bringing my head upright is a practiced motion, eye contact with an audience member, flick my tongue with the last of the flame and smile. Another ten in the hat, maybe twenty if it’s a family or a group of dudes. On the other side of the circle, my partner flicks her tongue too late and misses the smile. Eventually the motion will sink in. Our interns watch with longing, wanting to be in the fire act and scared of being in it, too.

Tomorrow we will teach them in a windless underground parking garage, first with unlit torches to get the motion. I learned alone—when you teach someone, you’re responsible for their safety, if they set themselves on fire or do something dumb at a party it’s your fault for teaching them wrong or picking the wrong people.

I want to tell them, be kind to your lovers, love your audience, always get what you’re worth. Instead I say, “Heads back farther before the torch goes in,” knowing they will be on fire when I am long retired, they must earn their own scars.





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This is my favorite fire-eating photo - Montenegro, 2009.

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Triple Trap

Apr. 1st, 2016 | 02:49 pm

“Miss Allison?” Shelly asks, because we are in Memphis and thus I cannot break 83 teenagers of calling me “miss” no matter how many times I say “Just Allison is fine.” Instead I say, “Yes?”

“I heard you need someone for triple trap?”

The triple trap is a long trapeze, basically a bar with four ropes dividing it into three sections. Three, four or five performers work in unison, balancing and holding each other while perched on the bar, lifting their own weight in the ropes or clinging below the bar. At the audition everyone tucked up, curling into a ball and hooking their knees, just like on the monkey bars not too many years ago. Then reached up, grabbed the ropes and pulled to sitting. “Pose like a circus princess or a handsome circus prince!” I called, enjoying their fabulous arms. But all I was really looking for was hover—can they reach up from sitting, grab the ropes, and pull their body off the bar, floating in a seated position a few inches above the trapeze.

Every coach has one thing they need to cast a kid in their act. In aerial silks, can you hang from your hands and turn upside down without jumping? In poi-spinning (glowing balls strung on cords that whip through the air in patterns) do you love the act, because it’s boring to practice without wanting to do it? We only have two weeks to train the show. A kid who doesn’t meet “that one thing” is going to be miserable, the only one in their act who can’t get up, the one doomed to “keep trying!” while everyone else succeeds.

Shelly cannot hover. Or rather, with brute force, Shelly can haul her body off the bar briefly, landing hard when her arms quit. Shelly is otherwise amazing. This is her fourth year in Starfish Circus, her senior year in high school. Three times she has been in partner acrobatics, where she is a powerful base. If a kid is floppy or doesn’t feel like trying, Shelly will lift them and make them try. Shelly and her partner—any partner—will get the move every time. In the “comedy squad” (don’t get me started on clowns) Shelly was hilarious in both line-writing and delivery. She dives into any skill we teach, whether the risk is to her dignity or her person, and has never asked “You want me to do what?” She is generally the biggest smile in rehearsal, and we’re a pretty smiley bunch.

When Shelly asks me, “Miss Allison, I hear you need someone for triple trap?” I assume she’s heard that Corrine realized today her church trip is the same weekend as the show, that I’ve tapped Jessica to replace Corrine and Jessica’s not here tonight. We’re four days in and anyone new is going to have a hard time, the girls have already bonded and the choreography is taking shape.

“I sure do,” I say, thinking Shelly probably has a great idea, someone I haven’t thought of.

“Can I try?”

I hadn’t thought of Shelly. Because she’s not strong enough, she doesn’t have a full split, she’s substantially larger than the other two girls and it’s not the good kind of funny when one end of the trapeze hangs lower than the other.

But I love her, and I’m caught by surprise, so I say, “Train with us tonight and see how it goes.”

It goes poorly. She falls off the trapeze twice from under the bar, once from on the bar and once from the ropes. Yes, of course we have a mat, but it’s not a crash pad, it’s not meant to catch her from six feet.

She gets up every time. Smiling, making fun of herself, wanting it bad.

I think about my time this week, about how extra hours will have to be spent and I don’t have extra hours unless I shoehorn them in, unless writing or calling my husband or sleeping takes last place. I think about explaining to Shelly I don’t want her. I think about being one more person telling this beautiful girl she’s not strong enough or not skinny enough or just plain not enough.

“Let’s try basing.” The girls rotate through, two sitting and sticking out a flexed foot, one in the middle below the trapeze, doing the splits on the bases’ feet. It takes a hard pop to raise the girl in the middle back to the bar, and with Shelly’s powerful legs the girl in the middle flies up like a rocket, the move is a moment of radiance and joy.

That I can work with.

At the end of rehearsal I call her over. “Tomorrow I need you to stay on the trapeze. Improve your grip, OK?”

Shelly beams a million watts, for one moment in the world she is enough, for right now that is enough. “Yes, Miss Allison,” she says, and maybe someday I can fix that, too.



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I love teaching circus to kids almost as much as I love retiring from it. This is my second-to-last Starfish Circus!




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Mortification

Mar. 16th, 2016 | 05:34 pm

This morning in Kuwait, the party at the next table left a wreckage of half-eaten waffles mired in strawberries and whipped cream. I looked over and longed to take just one bite.

Slightly embarrassing…but more ‘silly.’ And I didn’t.

When Chita Rivera walked into the afterparty of the song and dance show celebrating her career, I had the impulse to clap but didn’t. She entered in awkward silence instead of to the ovation she deserved.

Self-mourning. But it’s not like I stood out.

At 19, I was fired from a strip club for not being pretty enough. I try to justify it in my head—I was also in a terrible outfit—rather than admit I wasn’t hot enough to show my naked body to a club so dodgy they didn’t even have a DJ, we had to take a cocktail shaker around for quarters for the jukebox.

Getting warmer.

My older half-brother lives in a secure building. Visitors must be announced. The last time I went, the concierge spoke to my brother’s boyfriend of more than a year, put the phone down, and said “I’m sorry, he says Rob doesn’t have a sister Allison.”

Bingo. Humiliation.

Maybe the boyfriend and Rob had been so newly in love they hadn’t talked much about their families. Maybe the boyfriend was confused, already knowing Anne and Amanda, and three sisters with A was too much to process, so the half-one was forgotten.

I left the building in a blur of tears. Writing about it brings me to tears now. I’ve never told my mother, or my other brother, or the half-sister still living. But I’m telling you, confident that it’s more interesting than a business trip to Kuwait (beige! traffic! mall!), a brief encounter with a legendary Broadway star, or yet another teen strip club experience.

Good memoir is not made from interesting lives. Sure, it helps to have traveled, or survived a tragic accident, or spiraled into addiction, or fucked someone famous. But most of us are limited in our time and budget. We treasure our remaining relatives, and writing about recovery is rarely worth the descent (have you seen the price of heroin?). What makes our lives meaningful is not brushes with fame or grand adventure, it is our willingness to write, in painstaking detail, our humiliations, our discoveries of our ignorance, our shames. To mortify ourselves.

Mortification is terrifying—the fear of being known, of revealing something that is intimate and powerful and true.

Intimate.
Powerful.
True.
Don’t you want to read that? I do.

The root of “mortify” means to become dead—or “ded” if you wish, the implication that we are so overcome with cute or sarcasm or revelation that we are (literally, right?) felled—but to mortify ourselves is to face the death of the ego and trust that dignity will walk away unscathed.

The same way we choose symbolic death in the face of comedy, we can employ the power of choosing mortification rather than allowing humiliation to be thrust on us.

The root of successful mortification (I never thought I’d put those two words together) is humility—the admission that we are not unique. Even our fragments are common. The most specific and idiosyncratic stories I tell are the ones where someone comes up to me and says, “Oh my God, that happened to me, too!”

That time you held someone who needed love you couldn’t give them.
That time you realized the “someone” who should have done something was you.
That time you crawled back for one more or five more horrible emotional blows from the one who didn’t love you any more.
That time your family member said something that betrayed everything you ever thought they saw in you.

Humiliating. Potentially mortifying, too. But the details of those stories, the details particular to you, are what make them worth reading, what makes the reader say, “me, too!”

It’s not about being “interesting” or having “adventures.” It’s about telling what happened to us, as honestly as possible. Polishing our craft until we know we can deliver what happened in the best words we can. Not telling the reader how bad we felt, or how bad they should feel, but laying out what happened and waiting to see if they laugh or cry.

Not everyone can write their life. But everyone deserves to see their life written, and with the gift of being able to write comes the responsibility of doing so honestly and well. Write yours if you can, in glorious, mortifying detail.

I wet my pants in the elementary school library, torrentially. On the way back to first grade I taught myself to spell “bathroom” so I could tell why I was late without admitting the deed.

I told an inside joke on stage in a small room full of people I could see clearly. The joke came out racist. I spent the rest of the show knowing I’d need to apologize personally to the black family in the front row.

I made a pass at a colleague I knew was after my friend. He turned me down. I called his hotel room ten minutes later and he turned me down again.

I was mortified.

You, too?




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OK, so the mall in Kuwait is actually pretty interesting, but writing about designer abayas over platform spike heels just wasn't my bag this week.




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That Writer

Mar. 11th, 2016 | 03:42 pm

That Writer. Every writing group or class has one. The person who talks too much. Who comes in stoned, or just high on life. Who interrupts the teacher we’ve all paid big bucks/gone through a tedious application process to hear. Who comments as if they themselves are the teacher. Who says things like “Well, you know what Flannery O’Connor said” as if we all know exactly what Flannery O’Conner said, and it wasn’t “Nobody cares, shut up.”

Look around the table. Do you see That Writer? No no, don’t point—pointing is rude. Instead, draw a smiley face expressing pain and show it to the writer next to you by turning your notebook on the table.

If you can clearly identify That Writer, I’m sorry, there’s nothing you can do. Practice your expressive smileys, and how to say “could you unpack that a little more?” with respectful seriousness for the days you haven’t done the assignment and are trying to run out the clock.

Wait—what? You don’t see That Writer? Oh dear. Ask yourself these questions:

Do you carry a bag of pens? Do you rummage in this bag more than once per class?

Have you ever cut your nails in class, you know, just that once when you had a bad hangnail and it was under the table and really quiet, not at all like it might be additional punctuation in the story of whoever was reading out loud at the time?

Does your jewelry make a delightful collection of wooden and metallic sounds?

Have you ever entered the room prior to class to find a previously arrived fellow-writer typing vigorously, earbuds in, and signaled that you need their attention? When they remove one earbud and say “yes?” in a sharpish tone, have you then courteously let them know you just need to use the printer and will that be OK? Did you then sing quietly to yourself while printing?

Have you written a chapbook of poetry, not self-published by any means but issued by the small independent press you own that has published several of your chapbooks and those of two other writers? Would you like to give a copy of that chapbook to every member of the class, and a few days later discuss it over coffee?

Do you often have a different interpretation of the work being discussed, possibly rooted in Freudian theory or any other psychology named after a dead Slav?

Do you make sounds that people think indicate you are about to speak, but you are in fact just signaling agreement or a blocked sinus?

Have you ever started a comment with, “Well, this may be a little far afield, but this just puts me in mind of Wittgenstein, when he says…” and ended that comment four hundred words later with “does anyone else get that?” Were you discussing a humorous parenting memoir?

Have you come to a class where the guideline is five pages and indicated that your twelve pages of 10-point sans-serif is “really a pretty quick read”? Is there an explicit sex scene on page 9? Does it have anal? Do you need to discuss how anal sex symbolically represents your relationship with the patriarchy/your creative muse/your mother?

Look at the body language of the person on your right: is that writer scooted to the extreme other edge of their chair, tilting toward the teacher as far as possible without falling off? Are you sure the chair-legs are uneven?

Have you ever said, “I know we’re not really workshopping today but perhaps we could just talk through my pages sentence-by-sentence?”

Are you disturbed by the number of questions you’re answering yes to? Are you really just trying to help? Have you noticed other writers angling their notebooks towards each other, scribbling what can only be pictographs of the deep emotional reaction they can barely contain in response to your work? All is not lost!

First, take your pages for today’s reading. When you get to page six, rip it off and any following pages and throw them in the recycle bin. Trust that your lengthy story summary prior to reading will cover it. If there are any chapbooks in your bag, remove them. Have you smoked pot yet today? Skip it. If that horse is already out of the barn, maybe consider taking a sick day and coming to class next week instead. Or smoking later today, especially if it’s a 10AM class. Now remove your jewelry. Select a single pen. Check your manicure, and if necessary, make a quick bathroom trip—really, no-one will mind. Take your writing notebook. Every time you think of something to say in class, write it down. Make a tick mark by anything that anyone else says. Now you don’t have to say it. Of every five remaining un-ticked comments, speak one of them. Then bask in your Buddha-like silence and smile wisely.

And don’t ever quote Wittgenstein again.




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It's my last day of writing residency and my classmates are delightful. I truly wouldn't call any of them That Writer. Uh-oh...




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