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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.

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?

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.

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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The Tortoise

Mar. 4th, 2016 | 05:53 pm

I always watch for the tortoise. The back wall of the writing studio is mostly a floor-to-ceiling window about eight feet wide, one vast sheet of glass holding the Florida scrubland outside. There’s a white dirt road behind a strip of live oaks and sumac and Spanish moss, and once, in the middle of an afternoon workshop, I saw a tortoise stumping along it.

Most workshop days there is no tortoise, most weeks even. Some days he—or she—can be found near the motel-like double row of artist housing. Once I came across possibly the same tortoise on the public road behind the tiny library. He tucked inside his shell, beady eyes suspicious, while I snapped him for Instagram.

I think of him as an omen. If there is a tortoise, it will be a good writing day, or week, or residency. I will say something profound in beautiful words, my classmates will greet my work in hushed silence, the teacher will pull me aside after class to ask if he can send my pages to his agent, “no promises, of course, but I think she’d love to know about you.”

What privilege. To choose a fickle reptile as muse. To have good writing days and bad writing days, not required to show up at a designated location for a real-world job for three weeks (I am still editing). To not apply for financial aid this time because I think I can still make the grocery bill and my husband pays the rent. This is not the writing life I want. This is the writing life I want. And there’s the rub—what’s a ‘real’ writing life? That I jaunt off to residencies and workshops and have long, uninterrupted swaths of time? Or spend a single writing hour in the morning of this supposedly dedicated time, filling the rest with paid editing, freelance deadlines, podcast recording, afternoon class, emails, sometimes even staying after dinner (healthy, delicious, cooked by someone else) chatting with other artists as if I have a right to a social life when my book’s not done? Or to be at home, writing punctuated by laundry, lunch, dinner, deeply irritated by the supportive question from the man who loves me, “How was your work today?”

My work was fine. To tell you would be boring.
My work was frustrating. To tell you would be frustrating.
My work was transcendent. To tell you would tarnish it.
My work was bad. To tell you would manifest failure.

I would prefer to draw inward. To tuck my legs and arms into my talismanic shell, glare beady-eyed at the world outside the page. If I must be surrounded, to be surrounded by fellow writers, who know not to pry, who know to listen when something must be bragged or rued, who are not allowed to be offended or take it personally when adultery or anger flushes the page. Who instead creep into their own shells and discuss from within the use of modal verbs to convey distance or how “all good creative nonfiction is clear thinking about mixed feelings.”

One week to go at artist camp, in paradise. One week to make the time matter. I hoist up my little shell, cracked and mended, torn and patched. A few polished places still gleaming. White dirt, white page, small tracks marking passage. Stump on, writer, stump on.

I highly recommend Atlantic Center for the Arts. The financial aid is excellent and the tortoise is probably plural.

He--or perhaps she--is engaged in the upright business of being a tortoise. Grazing in the parking lot, watchful eyes, ready to enshell at any moment--the ultimate retreat while also standing ground. I would like a carapace. I would like an attractively patterned helmet and breastplate, something in which I can be here, now, watching and listening and yet impervious. Maybe it's time to up my Wellbutrin. But a shell would be more graceful. #nothingisordinary #nofilter #Florida #aca #depression #instamood #turtle #tortoise #wildlife #travel


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The Snap King

Feb. 12th, 2016 | 07:30 pm

I have heard of a thing called, a blackout, and it is not the same. Mrs. Whelker told me that there is a thing called, alcohol, and that sometimes Mature Adults engage in drinking alcohol and even though it does not taste nice at first it can start tasting nice and then a Mature Adult might fail to observe Appropriate Limits. But Mrs. Whelker, I asked, isn’t observing Appropriate Limits a precondition for promotion to Mature Adult status plus Personal Vehicular Transport and even possibly Personal Living Space Class Two, Double Occupancy?

You would think so Jaykob she said. Then Mrs. Whelker shook her head as though she had experienced a Non-Productive Emotion and needed to remove it through the physical process of, shaking, which is something only Juveniles attempt before learning Personal Analysis™.

Before I could ask Mrs. Whelker, why are you attempting that discredited technique and can I offer you Listening, the bell rang.

It is not actually a bell. A bell is a physical object made of metal and producing a tonal value equal to the frequency of vibration when struck. The end of class is signaled by a tone clearly not created by vibration but Mrs. Whelker has called it, the bell, since she came to Media Crèche 564B(oys) and so we have also started saying, the bell, as if it is a word in a private or secret language known only to MC564-ers.

Mrs Whelker, I told her, I would like to remain seated for reflection please, and she said, that’s fine Jaykob don’t think too hard and catch up some Snaps so you can have Purposeless Content time with the other boys tonight OK? And I waved my Device at her to signify, Yes, and also to imply, I am a Big Snapper and I will Snap away, and also to show a joke or humorous statement such as, are you kidding I am the Snap King, or, no-one can Snap like me I have done so perhaps forty times since this conversation started but I am so fast you have missed it. And Mrs. Whelker laughed and I thought it was too bad I had not Snapped those actual thoughts because they would have a positive impact on my Metrics.

When the door slid shut behind Mrs. Whelker I turned off all the lights and went to the Regression Pod and closed it and curled up my whole body in the cushions and put on Track Five containing Heartbeat and Water Sounds and considered sending a few hundred Snaps with, a joke or humorous statement such as, Snapping hard or hardly Snapping, or, can’t wait to achieve promotion to Mature and get away from my womb-mates. But the first statement did not seem as humorous as needed to sustain my Metrics and, the second statement seemed generational, as if perhaps Mrs. Whelker would understand and, laugh, but the MC564-ers would make deep fake-laughter in their lower torsos and pretend not to know the word, womb, so I would have to define it and they would still pretend not to understand, even Devin who says, fuck, all the time even though he has the same vocabulary everyone else does, Module C Educational Focus Social.

Instead I pulled #32 Loop, which is my mother. She is laughing and has blonde hair and is putting a pie on the table (#33 it is apple which is my favorite and #34 she adds a scoop of ice cream after I have asked three times to show I really mean it). We are smelling the pie which smells like MC564B kitchen on Fridays Traditional Dessert Days and for a moment my mother becomes very serious and touches my hair while looking into my eyes saying, Jaykob I know going away will be hard but I want you to have a better life and you are smart and strong so make me proud by working hard and Snapping every day as many times as you can and one day we will reunite and you will be a Mature Adult and we will care for each other again.

I try not to play the loop too many times because Dr. Rodgers says, emotional immunity is possible after repeated exposure and, it’s better to focus on the present buddy wouldn’t you like to head over to the Filter Studio and send some Snaps?

No I would not.

Which thought surprises me because it is a new thought, and I can tell right away is not a thought to be Snapped and tracked in my Metrics. This thought will not lead to Production Bonus or access to new products to represent in my Story with casual Snaps such as, hey check this Axe Hair Mess™ now in aerosol because I am fly like a white guy, which is a raised humor metric because, I am black. This thought feels like it could be part of, my Sensitive Side, but I am not old enough yet to request a change to category, EmoBoy. You have to be at least fifteen and, although Gavyn has been able to leverage his bangs into endorsements for Toni&Guy™ and also Elevate!™ Mood Enhancement Teen Formula For Feeling Just Enough, he spends a lot of time in this very same Regression Pod and that has negatively impacted his rate of Snaps. Also I do not care for eyeliner.

I am still thinking this new thought and, wondering why Gavyn was not in class today when the classroom door slides open again, whoosh.

It is Mrs. Whelker and she is shushing and it is Dr. Rodgers and he is saying, calm down Kara the lights are off none of them are in here. And the door slides shut, whoosh, which is a thing I can hear even though the Regression Pod is supposed to be soundproofed but Devin found a system weakness or bug in the noise cancellation subroutine, which I said was not a Productive Discovery because Products are useful and Devin said, fuck off.

Dr. Rodgers says, Kara can’t we discuss and Mrs. Whelker is a polite person but she is interrupting which polite people do not do except to make jokes or humor. I can’t stay here anymore she says which, makes me experience a sad feeling because, she is my favorite teacher and understands when I need reflection. The boys need you says Dr. Rodgers and Mrs. Whelker does not interrupt but talks very next without showing Listening behavior, saying, no Bob you need me and I am not on board not anymore. In Dr. Rodgers’ voice there are signals of Distress such as, restricted vibration of lower tonal values. He says Kara, you have been so integral and Mrs. Whelker interrupts again like a Juvenile to say she has seen the files and perhaps other people would like to know exactly what is happening in this facility and then there is a sound like when Gavyn slams his forehead into the door to knock himself out for five minutes of peace Jesus God don’t you guys see it it’s not just the Devices its our brains don’t you ever wonder where you really came from.

I can hear Dr. Rodgers breathing as though he has participated in all four events of Physical Exhibition Day, on which we share our body development and dispel myths about large thumbs and bad eyesight through many extended-length Snaps and which gains our highest Metrics all year. Physical Exhibition Day is usually an excellent chance for a boy such as myself who is fast and strong to gain additional products such as, VitaMix™ or LuluLeMen™ Activewear both of whom have made many Selfies of approval on my Story.

I do not hear Mrs. Whelker breathing but it is nice to know her name is Kara, which sounds like, caring.

There is a sound oh God oh God oh God and it is a very high tonal frequency so I come out of the Regression Pod to see what is now making that sound. It is not Mrs. Whelker because she is lying down. Dr. Rodgers is squatting down beside her and the oh God sound stops when he looks at me.

Jaykob he says.

I ask him why, is Mrs. Whelker lying down, and Dr. Rodgers laughs but I do not see where this situation fits on the humor Metric. He says Jaykob, what the fuck are you doing in here, even though he certainly has a vocabulary Module with many Social-Ready words. I tell him I was thinking about my mother and, sometimes I like to do that in the Regression Pod.

Which mother asks Dr. Rodgers and I say, my mother.

Yeah but which one you little bastard. The one with the puppy? No, wait, the one with the pie, right? #32 Loop? We made you ask for the ice cream three times, right? But she always gives you the fucking ice cream.

Mrs. Whelker makes a sound like bubbles and I look at her face which, looks like someone has asked her to join Ultimate Fighting™ except she would not make a good team member because, she does not hit because hitting is wrong. And Dr. Rodgers must not know that despite his advanced Modules in Social and Medicine because shut up bitch he yells which is when the room is white like when my Device is lagging and I press reboot and look out the WindowLife Screen imagining all the Snaps I am missing until the whiteout stops and Dr. Rodgers also looks like Ultimate Fighting™ and my hands hurt because hitting is wrong.

So I guess what I am saying is that I do not know what happened in that whiteout because I could not Snap it, perhaps I was rebooting. But thank you for telling me that Mrs. Whelker is still lying down but comfortable and also that Dr. Rodgers will not be coming back to MC564B and yes, if you give me back my Device I will catch up on Snaps, I am a Big Snapper I will be the Snap King.

(Shout-out to turned_in2_moon)
I've been spending a lot of time around teenagers this week.


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A Petition to the Urban Dictionary, from The Honorable Birsha, Mayor of Gomorrah

Feb. 5th, 2016 | 01:46 pm

To Whom It May Concern:

First, let me say I admire the work you’re doing. The Urban Dictionary is truly a new classic. Great set-up you’ve got there, everyone wants to share their personal perversion. And yep, sodomy, sodomize, sodomite, and a whole list of variations show up right on top, so to speak. But gomorrah-ing? Gomorrah-ize? All trolls. There’s nothing official. Nothing that reflects our rich history as a city worthy of a scouring cataclysm.

But I’m not here to yak about crowd-sourcing while the internet burns with sin (good job!). I’m here to draw your attention to a member of a proud tradition of partners. Partners who happen to be named second. A tradition of places that don’t toot their own horns, and sometimes end up overlooked.

Have you ever noticed the Tampa Bay Rays play in St. Petersburg? Or how Prairie Home Companion can be blamed on St. Paul? That Slovakia is also a very nice place? As Sir Mix-a-Lot says, you need the L.A. face with the Oakland booty.

We’re not Frank Stallone, or Andrew Ridgeley, or the other Baldwins. We’re more like Mary-Kate and Ashley. We’re Ashley. It’s OK to always come second, we’re cool with that—it makes a good rhythm when you say it in Aramaic, Sodom and Gomorrah—but we’ve got our own interests too.

There’s room for two Gyllenhaals, I’m saying.

Sure, we didn’t have a Spearmint Rhino or a Banana Bar, but Gomorrah had its own unique attractions and a thriving farm-to-table movement. If you needed a cupcake bakery, or a craft brewery, it was a hop-skip-and-a-jump to Sodom with convenient donkey service. But there was an unpretentiousness to Gomorrah. An authenticity. For bright lights big fornication, sure, Sodomites could set you up! But for a friendly missionary poke at a price a working man could afford—well, it starts with Gee! and ends with Aaaaaahhhhh.

We didn’t cater to sploshing, or furries, or anything needing a hoist or special furniture, but there was no better place to take a fallen woman on a picnic before taking her behind a convenient sty. In Gomorrah you could rent a harlot you’d imagine meeting in a tavern after work and finding out her real name. Or pick up an adulteress you could hold a conversation with before stoning her. Duck down an alley with a bright young wanton you’d be embarrassed to—I’ll say it—sodomize.

Look, it’s Sodom and Gomorrah. God wiped us both out at the same time, give-or-take seven seconds of white-hot inferno and molten stone. The cities that perish in a fiery apocalypse together, cherish enduring as vulgar epithets together.

It’s time to put Gomorrah in her rightful place amid the debauchery of mankind. For those occasions after Taco Friday when sodomy is just too risky, or you haven’t had a shower yet, or it’s only the second date and her roommate’s still up watching a particularly disturbing episode of Game of Thrones, just do it the old-fashioned way. Tab A into Slot B. It’s time for Gomorrahmy.

My husband and I spent three hours building an IKEA sofa tonight. If only it were as simple as Tab A into Slot B...


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Frequent Flier

Jan. 29th, 2016 | 02:58 pm


“We ask all passengers to please remain seated and keep your seatbelts fastened. Crew remain seated.”

Bumpy takeoffs and bursts of turbulence used to scare me—now I think of the Boeing 777-300ER hitting a pothole or taking perenially-under-construction I-81 from Harrisburg to Scranton. This time we rise into white mist, break through to an oyster shell sky beneath another layer of clouds. Ten thousand more feet and the eye-shattering blue above is another universe, one where the fluffy cloudfloor is surely solid, and even at an age where I buy my own tickets I still imagine stepping on them.

The last leg is half-full. I check the seating chart on my app and turn to the row of three behind me, two broad-shouldered North Africans and a tiny Arabic lady. “You can probably move if you want more room. I’m sitting here until I find out if someone else got this seat in the last ten minutes.”

The Africans don’t speak English, so the Arabic lady translates in French, then tells me, “They want to stay by the window—it’s their first time going to Dubai, they want to see the city when we land.” She shifts to a four-across and stretches out, the men stay middle and window in their row. Seven hours later I turn off the video screen and scooch across my three seats, the Africans murmuring "Magnifique, formidable," behind me as I, too, peer at the cluster of bright jewels fed by highways from nowhere, rows of stars across the night-black desert.


In Myanmar the 'boarding pass' is a sticker on my jacket, and we sit on rows of plastic chairs in an empty room before walking across the runway, young ground crew holding umbrellas over us against the sun. A Korean or Chinese lady asks to take a picture with me, perhaps because I am two heads taller or a redhead or white or she is just happy to be on a trip and I am next to her in line, all of which have happened before.

I have been a rock star in rural India, watching earnest Indian-native/American-educated grad students measure the impact of accessible water on female schooling. No sunglasses or headscarves cover me enough in Sri Lanka, my generic-lightskinned-POC husband getting elbows and smiles--he looks like a local who landed a white chick. I smother embarassment and pride--I'm finally popular--and ask the next question, Do you own this rickshaw or are you working for someone else?


"You're the freelance writer!" The stewardess recognizes me and that, too, has happened before. This déjà vu that is a memory, this jetway, boarding this Delta-operated flight and smiling at this blonde mom of three from Cincinnati who burned with desire to see the world once they all left home. She is newly promoted and I congratulate her on the red purser's coat, but she looks prouder still of the photo on her phone, her youngest in his mortarboard and gown.


I travel enough to own very expensive noise-canceling headphones, the cost reflecting how much they reduce my need to stifle the baby in 7D who cannot help his inability to swallow or yawn on cue. I travel enough to recognize when the man on the aisle is going to take 75% of the armrest (greedy but tolerable), and when he is headed for 110%, his stranger-elbow about to touch mine, the most horrible feeling in my world, and I carefully but purposefully set my magazine vertically between the armrest and my hip. To the barricades! L’etat, c’est moi!

This past year I have made no important trips, no missions for reproductive health or sex-worker rights. I have made only words, patted myself on the back for publication. I upgrade into the realm of Bose-wearers, our ears covered, noise-cancel switches flipped, all of us convinced we are indeed first class, the beneficiaries of our own labor and benevolence, certain that luck has little to do with it.


I know the Clarins spa with free mini-facials is closed on Wednesdays and I avoid connecting through Paris-Charles de Gaulle then. I know how much it costs to get a chipkaart for the train from Schipol into town and whether my connection is long enough to pop by the Rijksmuseum for an hour of humility in the face of great Art.

It is a gift, it has a price. An easy life makes obligation. To find out how much a rickshaw costs and assess the chances of my guide getting one this year. To learn how long it takes to walk to the well and chart that map in words. To later investigate whether the North Africans enjoy their job or have their passports held. To know what happens in Brussels or Johannesburg or Doha and how it matters to anyone who has never been there. To tell the story and tell it true, to risk deportation, false arrest, the gun, the bomb, the knife. Or to remember the me who wished to walk on clouds and wield the gun, the me of tenth grade, and write her for the other nice white middle class girls who, yes, still need to know they matter.

It is a very self-important task. Snobbish and arrogant to believe it matters what I write, or that I write the truth, in the best words I can make. But there would be no going on without belief. I grasp my passport, recorder and notebook and latch on, a scribe-remora on the lives of others, hoping for symbiosis, settling for parasitism, riding with the current, borne unceasingly into the world.

I may have already broken my resolution to spend at least 50% of the year at home.


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Please Sir May I Have Some More?

Jan. 22nd, 2016 | 01:24 pm

This is a new section from a YA novel in progress, a black comedy about a school shooter. The Fundraiser table currently holds a Christmas-tree sale put on by the Rojans all-girl student service club. "Eyedropper" is the name Aurora is called--there's a story, but you don't have to know it for this excerpt.


Six minutes.

Trevor finishes his lunch in record time, picking off the burger bun, scarfing the patty in three bites, apple in his hoodie pocket, milk in his hand, garbage in the trash, tray on the conveyer belt and out the door.

He leaves without looking at me. Good. I don’t want any of this—of what’s going to happen—to touch him. Any more than it already has.

The smell of deep-fryer grease mixing with student sweat and garbage cans is starting to make me nauseous. I’m sure that’s what’s making me nauseous. I feel in my shoulder bag—safety’s on. Thankfulness flashes through me, for Grampa and the day he made me take all our guns apart and put them back together again blindfolded, over and over until I could keep track of all the parts, check the magazine and the safety and know the gun was safe and ready. At first I couldn’t remember where I set the magazine and the bullets kept rolling on the picnic table and I jammed a big splinter under my thumbnail from sliding my hands around trying to find them. I got cranky and pulled off the blindfold and asked why I had to do this because it was dumb and I wanted to go do failure drills like we were here for. In case you ever have to do it in the dark, Aurora Dawn. I asked why we didn’t just do it in the dark, then. How’m I supposed to see if you’re doing it right? Made sense. If someone’s floundering in the dark, you need someone else who can see what they’re doing, guide their hand when they’re reaching for something that isn’t there. Someone who won’t let them drown in the dark, still reaching.

Grampa gently pushed my wrist in the right direction until I got better at remembering where I put things and putting them in the same place every time, finding the space between the table slats and using that as a trough to hold the bullets. Eventually I got it. Eventually we went inside and did failure drills, which is when you shoot twice at chest height, fast pause, then once at head height. The pause is to check for failure—that is, you didn’t stop the target, it’s still coming at you.

Even though we’re still using the targets shaped like milk bottles and not like torsos—or, God forbid, the ones shaped like guys in turbans and face covers—failure drills make me feel like a gun nut. Like one of those people driving a truck with a Confederate flag, yelling yee-haw out the window on a Saturday night. Because failure drills are where you have to face it—no matter how much fun it is to line up the sights and operate the weapon correctly and overlap your bullet holes—failure drills are about shooting people. Humans. Twice to the chest, check, once to the head.

I only have six bullets. Five targets. No room for failure.

Then again, I’m not expecting the targets to keep approaching.

Be the bigger person, Aurora. I don't know if it's Trevor or Grampa in my head, but at least one of the two most important men in my life is urging me to give it one more try. Everyone deserves a second chance. Even me.

I re-settle the flap on my bag and stand up. Supplicant, Aurora Dawn, now making her way to the Fundraiser Table. Past AV Club, through the ranks of Not Important But Without Them Who Would We Sell Things To, weaving slightly among the tables of Clubs Who Are Also Friends, ignoring the disbelieving looks of Cheerleaders and Non-Nerd Honor Students, who do I think I am?

In front of the Fundraiser table, the sunlight is on me from the windows, but not high enough to blind me. Sorry, ladies.

Logan coughs, "Eyedropper," and he and Cody punch each other. Hannah rolls her eyes. Jessica says "Guys," in her boys, what-can-I-do voice. Ashley doesn't know whether to follow Jessica or Hannah, so she compromises with an exasperated sigh.

I reach into my purse and pull out a wad of bills. Forty-five dollars, from the last time Grampa unloaded some Precious Moments at the VFW Trash-N-Treasure Sale. "I would like to buy a Christmas Tree please."

Hannah looks at Ashley, who startles and then starts scanning the list in front of her. Hannah looks at me and makes me wait. Then, "Douglas Fir or Blue Spruce?"

In my plan, they don't even talk. "Um, Douglas Fir?"

Ashley is on board. "Ohhhh, sorry--we just sold the last one."

"OK, Blue Spruce."

Hannah twists out half a smile and shakes her head. "I don't think we have that in your size, Aurora."

"You have a lot full of trees." I gesture out the window, at the lot full of trees.

I have to give her credit, Hannah doesn't let her face slide into a smirk. She looks genuinely concerned. "Sales have been brisk--I'm afraid we're pretty much sold out."

"You have a lot full of trees. I can see them."

"Well, most of those are reserved." Hannah looks at Jessica, waiting for her contribution.

Jessica doesn't look at me. "We're just waiting for people to come pick them up after school."

Ashley butts in with her sheaf of paper. "There's not anything left in your price range."

I reach into my bag again. I pull out a hundred-dollar bill. Grampa's last birthday gift, you could get some clothes, Aurora, but I'd keep it in case of an emergency. As long as I don't spend it, I know nothing is really an emergency.

Hannah's smile slides for a moment. She lifts the cashbox lid, then looks at me with pity. "I'm sorry, we're out of change. I can't break a hundred. Maybe try the lunch line."

Even Dickensian orphans get Christmas trees, brought to the workhouse by rich benefactors soothing their own consciences. Please sir, I want some more. Some more popularity. Some more friends. Some more compassion as a fellow human being. I know your life can't be as perfect as it looks, do you have to stay on top by stepping on the people underneath? I know you're afraid too, can't you just admit for once that we all are?

Definitely asking for too much there.

I put the money back in my bag--emergency over--and shrug. "Thanks anyway. Guess it'll be a tough Christmas at the Crenshaws."

Jessica is staring hard at her half-eaten salad. Ashley doesn't know what expression she's supposed to make next, so she's stuck in accountant mode. Hannah, of course, always has an answer. Even sweeter, even nicer.

"Well, Rojans adopts a family every year from among the less-fortunate, but I think that might be a little embarrassing for you. Maybe get in touch with the Salvation Army?"

I tried.

Whipchick is currently at the Writers In Paradise conference. Check it out - great place to workshop pages!


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Panglossian Was I

Dec. 28th, 2015 | 10:23 am

We had $250,000. We earned it with tears, we earned it with arrogance. Kevin the Shark-Tank-Shark/Dragon’s-Den-Dragon yelling in person is 100% less funny, especially when it’s at you. Did you know the judges’ platform is raised, that supplicants are lit from below the platform, that our two minutes and thirty seconds was edited from almost an hour, that I didn’t cry until minute forty-five?

No matter. I know when reruns are on—people stop me on the street and say, “don’t let anyone take away your dream!”

They seldom remember that we won.

We had $200,000. Finally enough budget to get everyone in the same room for rehearsals, the dream team, the list of “If you could work with anyone you wanted…” I brought them to Florida in February, paid better than Equity, rented a seven-bedroom house with a pool, a theatre for the mornings, a gym for the afternoons. Made gift baskets and stocked the kitchen with snacks and beer. Flew in the musicians to make songs from us. Had a dramaturge lead rehearsals, coach us through writing our true experience, the things that happened to us, the things we wanted to tell an audience when we could talk to them for real. That was when Dan got sullen. When Kim—my partner, his girlfriend—said nothing was wrong, everything was fine, though her mouth got tight and her eyes looked sad. When Zay, my other partner, decided she was on Kim’s side.

We had $150,000. We practiced in a high school with a low ceiling. We practiced in a gym full of kids. When Ryan double-backed off the tramp wall the whole gym paused. We drove to Illinois, rented hotel rooms, per diems, a theatre. I told the cameramen to zoom in while Dan was sulking. My mother came as costume hand, years of Halloween and church dresses and handmade faux-Cabbage-Patch-Kids, now sewing sequined leotards in the workroom on the other side of the building, and roller-blading down the hall for fittings.

The cast sent the trampolinists to my room—“Everyone figured we were the ones you wouldn’t yell at.” I’ve made a typo in the contracts. They think they are getting show pay instead of rehearsal pay. I give up my pay to pay everyone, but I already know it’s over—the assumption that I’d cheat them rather than screwing up somewhere in a pile of paper.

It can’t possibly be over.

Our investor flew in. The show wasn’t finished, it wasn’t supposed to be, there was a preshow speech, there was a program note. On the way out, a trapeze-girl from Chicago, my acquaintance, Kim’s friend, leaned in and said to Kim, “even you couldn’t make that act look good.” Fuck you, Chicago girl. Fuck you still.

Dan smashed a prop in front of my mother, and that was the last time I thought I “needed a reason” to fire someone.

We had $100,000 and we finally had a show. A good show. Trashed the last act and the last-act costumes. Cut lines and rearranged. Two new acrobats. A full house of happy people, a standing ovation. After strike we went back to the rental house and the Kenyan acrobat cooked Kenyan cornmeal and chicken. We ate in a circle on the floor with our fingers, we loved each other. I thought they loved me again. I hoped.

We had $50,000 and I found out the stage manager had been starting every command with “Allison says you have to…” and the reason the stunt coordinator no longer liked me was he’d been sleeping with the stage manager.

I still thought I could make them like me. I still thought they would like me when I gave them everything they said they ever wanted.

We had $25,000 and I wasn’t invited to the wedding. In Long Island, conversations in the dressing room stopped when I walked in. The new stage manager, Niki, was on my team, she’d worked for me when she was still in high school. She loved me the way everyone else used to, an island of loyalty in a sea of money and malice.

Everyone wants a job. Everyone wants to be paid to do what they love. Everyone wants creative license. Until they get it.

We didn’t spend the last of the money, didn’t ask for it. I sold the trampoline back to the gym, the money paid for my honeymoon. I still own a 20-foot box truck, the lock rusted shut, still full of things I should look through, things I should sell. Anyone need a keyboard?

Years later Dan and Kim apologized. They are a couple, they have a show. I never hated them, so it’s not that hard to like them now, to say, well, two hundred grand down the drain but I guess you learned something about yourselves.

And then Niki-the-second-stage-manager called for a recommendation. She told me how when she worked for me, when she worked for the circus, that was when she knew. That was when she went to Chicago, to theatre school, to the Shakespeare Festival to stage manage for Teller (of Penn and), and now, to grad school for arts administration. She thanked me for her life.

It’s worth two hundred grand.

(No pressure, Niki.) When the show was good, it looked like this.


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Dec. 14th, 2015 | 01:23 pm

There’s a box.

Maybe it’s a glass box, some kind of thick aquarium-y barrier designed to keep sharks from eating snot-nosed brats who richly deserve digestive absorption. Or scratched-up polymer like a check-casher’s window, two layers of don’t-shoot-me-I-just-want-thirty-percent. Or even cardboard, like the washing machine boxes we made into forts, sawing out windows with a steak knife (friendship metaphor, hint of danger).


Inside the box there’s only the faintest communication. Scratches at the cardboard. Taps on the plastic. Sign language through the glass, only one of us speaks ASL and one of us speaks British. Semaphore, except all we have are hors d’oeuvres flags (‘tartare’ or ‘Casu Marzu’ or ‘sweetbreads’).

You get it.

But there’s something I have to say. And I don’t know just how this thing has become a mountain, how every day of silence adds a stone, as it's become increasingly clear, this thing will not clear up on its own.

Blah blah blah box metaphor.

There’s only so many ways a writer can share. Fiction, in which we pretend that people other than ourselves have problems and some of those problems have solutions and looking at the ones that don’t is still entertaining. Nonfiction, in which we pretend to have distance, perspective, and possibly even closure. (Closure! I have an essay’s worth of closure! And then the story continued and it wasn’t finished any more.) Poetry, in which we pretend that other people are interested in our problems, and they clap politely, or if they are feeling ironic, snap their fingers like beatniks, like Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, after she says to a number of people that she’s not pretty. With a straight face. For thirty minutes of screen time. (Fiction.)

I’m pretty.

I’m okay with that. For example, I say, the fastest way to change a tire is to stand by the wheel, holding the lug wrench by the wrong end. Then someone will pull over and change it for you, and all it costs is the appropriate equivalent of ‘My hero!’

I have done that.

More than once.

And maybe bitch bitch white bitch privilege bitch bitch, but let’s face it, pretty’s not fixing this. Pretty’s not getting me out of the box. Or even giving me better hors d’oeuvres flags (‘fig jam’). Pretty’s no shield against the boomerang, the razor-sharp ninja star, the Viking axe bouncing back at me off the plastic, ricochet-ricochet-ricochet-skull.

The plastic cutting me off from you. The box protecting you from the axe. Because that’s the problem. No matter how kind or well-meaning or even true the thing is, the thing is still an axe. And because I am a coward, I would rather sit in a box, with an axe, than throw the axe at you.

This is where we leave me.

In a box.

Without closure.

With a labored metaphor.

With an axe.

Whipchick thinks you should totally look up Casu Marzu. But not while eating.


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Rhyme and Misdemeanors

Dec. 7th, 2015 | 12:55 pm

As a freelance editor, I frequently hear from authors who are worried that if they join a writing group, show their manuscript to an editor, or submit it to an agent, their words will be stolen.

American authors often put a copyright notice on their work, which is usually unnecessary before publication—a written work is under copyright from the moment it’s created in a ‘fixed form,’ with or without the circled C, and with or without registration of the copyright.

While after-publication theft is a growing problem in self-published romance novels (thieves download a PDF, retitle, and re-list it as their own work), it’s unheard-of for a legit industry professional to plagiarize an author’s work. Generally, if someone likes a book enough to want to sell it, they’ll go ahead and work with the author—it’s a lot less hassle. If they're in business to rip you off, they want your money, not your book.

Still, sharing your work with a stranger requires a measure of trust, and some authors are wary.

To those authors, I dedicate this poem.

I steal every poem I see with no copyright note.
I print them on bathroom walls with black markers.
I recite them aloud at weddings when the priest asks if anyone here objects.
I inscribe them on prayer bells and ring them to Heaven for the Buddha.
And I never, ever credit the author.

I steal every poem I see by an unknown author,
smothering their feeble protests with my literary might.
I sell them on corners in inner cities. If a slumming suburbanite in a white SUV pulls up and gives me a twenty, a little kid on the next corner will run out and recite a sestina or haiku.
I mutter them sullenly to cops who ask if I know why they're talking to me today.
Authors who fail to circle-c turn corners to find their work staring down from forty-foot vodka advertisements,
while I get rich on the proceeds and never feel guilt.

When the cab driver asks, where to? I tell him in your trochees
I cram couplets into hopscotch rhymes.
At parties I whisper assonance into the ears of strangers,
Use your words to hook up in the guest bathroom.
Before Mass, I confess your poem.

I used your poem on Craigslist to freecycle my old loveseat,
Covering the stains with metaphors.
The slant rhyme did justice to the blue velour cover. Without your poem
I surely would not have been offered a crockpot in exchange,
I would not now be dining on the slow-cooked iambs of your sonnet
Sucking carefully considered anaphora from the bones.

Whipchick had a great time looking up poetic terms. Her favorite is zeugma.


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