Buddha Nature

This is a champion post for rayaso for therealljidol.

Bodh Gaya, India, is where Prince Siddhārtha Gautama sat under a tree, attained enlightenment, and became the Buddha.

I went there to see if I was still an agnostic. Maybe I was a Buddhist now, after years of reading and the desire to be part of something more spiritual than yoga class and the salad bar at Whole Foods. Maybe, here at the source, I would find Buddha-nature in my heart, “spontaneous nirvana. The Unity of the Buddha with everything that exists.”

Siddhārtha’s Bodh Gaya was a tiny village surrounding a temple surrounding a tree.

Now it’s Buddhaland.

There are three roads buzzing with autorickshaws honking at goats wearing sweaters, peddlers with carts of sacred offerings, and three-year-olds trying to sell me gum at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night. Eleven more temples have been built by Buddhist nations. The Thai temple, covered in gold. The Japanese Temple, very plain and Zen. There is a fifty-foot-high Buddha at the edge of town, and it is a major photo opportunity. Muslims celebrating an important holiday dance through the streets behind trucks full of speakers booming out techno music. Touts stand at souvenir stands hawking mandala T-shirts and keychains, asking, “Ma’am? You buy Buddha?”

My inner self is filled with suffering and judgment.

Pilgrims swarm the temples, their white clothes picking up dirt from the unpaved streets. Each group of pilgrims wears matching baseball caps with the logo of their package tour. Monks in maroon robes step out of chartered buses. Monks in orange robes walk clockwise around the main temple, Mahabodhi, while texting on their smartphones. I imagine them thumb-typing:

cant tlk am wrshppng Ld Buddha.

Laypeople in tie-dye and dreadlocks prostrate themselves rhythmically toward the sacred tree. One European guy meditates on the temple lawn. Open face-down on the grass beside him is his copy of Fifty Shades of Grey.

I do it all. I meditate. I spin prayer wheels. I walk clockwise around Mahabodhi every day for three days. It takes a long time to get around and walking mindfully is impossible because every twenty feet a pilgrim or a monk politely stops me, “Take picture?” I am confused until I realize I’m the only redhead in town, and six inches taller than everyone else here. I wonder what they say when they show their pictures back home: “We worshipped the Lord Buddha—and then we saw a white lady!”

I go to the fifty-foot Buddha. There is a sixty-yard path to the statue. On it, I take twenty-eight photos with Buddhist monks, stifling my instinct to sling a friendly arm around their shoulders. Monks aren’t supposed to touch women or even have anything handed to them by a woman. Make contact and they’re supposed to go back to their temple for cleansing rituals. Monks are never alone with women, never even a guest in a house where a woman sleeps. In all my photos, there are three inches of air between us.

Everywhere, I try to listen, to be an empty vessel. I listen to the big Buddha in Mahabodhi, draped in saffron cloth and covered in gold leaf. I listen to the medium Buddha in the Tibetan temple, surrounded by photos of the Dalai Lama. I listen to the little plastic Buddhas set out on makeshift tables lining every street. I listen to the stone Buddha above the sign with the Buddha’s email address for PayPal donations.

At the end of the third day, I hear something.

It’s my own voice saying, “This sucks.”

I’m experiencing the dissatisfaction that Buddhists call dukkha. The origin of dukkha is craving conditioned by ignorance. I didn’t know what it would be like. I want it to be something else.

I am Buddha’d out. I go back to my guesthouse and get online to buy a ticket to anywhere else. A young monk sits at the computer next to mine. I put my hands together, Namaste.

“I from Bhutan,” he says.

“USA,” pointing to myself.

He looks into my eyes, into me. “Practice English more? I come to your room?”

For a moment I am frustrated and disgusted that nothing is sacred here.

Then I realize: He is the Buddha. I am the Buddha. We are both sacred and we are both imperfect. Both suffering in the search for something we cannot have.

I say, “No, I’m going to sleep now.” And then I hug him with all the Buddha-nature in my heart.

Enjoyed this post? Please vote for rayaso :) at The Real LJ Idol's poll this week.

Read the rest of his portfolio:
Favorite entry: "The Pirates"
Lifeboat: "Bunkers and Blueberry Pie"
Fermentation: "FTSEC"
Redo of "My True North" (original) | "Lost" (revision)

Allison K Williams was the winner of The Real LJ Idol Season 8. Her book,
Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book will be published in March 2021. Follow her writing adventures on Instagram or via her sort-of-monthly TinyLetter.

Long Time No See

What have I been up to?

You may have seen my FB pics of Macbeth (manspreading like a champ!) and I have been nominated for an award. It’s an online vote - if you have a moment, would you click through and take the survey? It will make you vote in each category - feel free to click on Macbeth as many times as we are listed, or just select what sounds good to you :) It’ll take about 90 seconds, and it asks for your name to count the vote.

If you have time:


And feel free to pass this along:

Deadline to vote is WEDNESDAY. I worked pretty hard on this one, both acting and fight directing, and it’s so cool to be recognized - Thank you!

Blood bags! - the production was immersive and the audience followed us around. This was our Dubai venue, a lot of which was outside. The show opened with a fashion show (witches as models) of abayas, and our closing fight happened on the catwalk. This is the random kill right before the big Macduff-Macbeth fight. In the play, it's Young Seward, in our modern version, she's a hapless intern at Scotland Corp.

Macduff strangling me with my own belt. At the National Theatre of Abu Dhabi, the show moved through the galleries and the main theatre. The audience is behind us, on stage. After this, I'm killed, and then the audience gathers to snap selfies with my body. Every. Time.

I really worked on my manspreading! That's "Duncan King" our CEO in the green scarf, Lady Macbeth with the choker, and Banquo on the right.
Macbeth Ajman Elevator
In Ajman (another of the United Arab Emirates) I made some audience members join me in the elevator for a very disconcerting ride. That's a witch with the beehive hair!

Developmental Editing Webinar

Hey friends - I've been away for awhile, mostly blogging at the Brevity lit mag site, and writing a couple of books.

- If you're still in the Despair stage post-election, you might like this blog post in particular: Chop Wood, Carry Water.
Inspired by kathrynrose and about how to move on in our creative work in the face of the unthinkable.

- December 3-4 I’ll be teaching a webinar on Developmental Editing - it’s aimed at editors, but it’s basically the exact same advice I give writers navigating the structure, plot, and story of their book. You might enjoy it, and the price is listed in Canadian dollars, so if you are American that’s a 25% discount in the exchange rate!  Find out more and/or sign up.

Do note that the webinar will stay online, so if the live stream is not a good time for you, you can watch it at your convenience. And please feel free to share that link far and wide :)

Other than that, I'm living happily in Dubai, loving my husband, and writing full-time, which has been pretty fun. Ironically enough, I am doing my best work in a co-working space--showing up every day at an office, sitting at a desk, wearing big-girl clothes. So much for my wild free spirit. It'll have to content itself with the amount of work getting done.

How are you?

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

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!

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


Sharp Words

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.

I'm a very bad Buddhist.



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.


What would you take with you?


Twenty-Five Days

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.


Game Night

“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…”

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


Greatest Hits

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.

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


On Fire

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.

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