December 2, 2012

Feast on This: An Interview with Stephen Parrish

My writing partner, Stephen Parrish, and I are hanging out at each others' blogs today.  Steve has recently published a new book, THE FEASTS OF LESSER MEN, and I wanted to interview him not only because the book is fantastic but also because of his unique perspective on Cold War espionage.

After you read his interview, I encourage you to hop over his blog where he is interviewing me in conjunction with my book giveaway.

* * * 

Germany, 1990: The Berlin Wall has fallen. East and West Germany are discussing reunification. After four and a half decades of cloak-and-dagger intrigue, the Cold War is coming to an end.

Not for Jimmy Fisher, a plans clerk in the American 111th Infantry Division. Fisher black markets cigarettes, steals valuables from the dead, and takes advantage of every weakness he identifies in each living person he meets. Which makes him the perfect target for foreign agents seeking to buy documents.

Forced to make life-or-death choices in an ever heightening conflict between his personal safety and the security of his country, Fisher flees to the Vosges Mountains of France with a woman he trusts. In time he learns that love is worthy of a greater conviction than is loyalty to one's country, and that abstract symbols and arbitrary boundaries are not worth dying for.


Wendy: It’s obvious from the book that you have extensive military experience.  What inspired the book and were there any experiences you had that were particularly profound or illuminating (about life, the world, human nature or whatever)?

Steve: I had the extraordinary fortune, from a writer’s perspective (misfortune otherwise), to be actively recruited by the most notorious army spy ring since World War II The Feasts of Lesser Men is fiction, but it capitalizes on my experiences as a foreign-stationed soldier during the Cold War.

The approach technique I described in the novel is fundamentally accurate: you target men who need the money and can be compromised.  You ask for little things first.  You conceal a big stick.  By the time the target realizes he’s in trouble it’s too late; he has already committed espionage, sometimes unwittingly, and there’s no turning back.

That’s what I most wanted to convey, of all that I learned: the people in my unit who are presently serving up to 36 years are not monsters, they’re casualties of masterfully crafted psychological warfare.

Also that it’s easier, it turns out, to steal Top Secret documents from the U.S. military than it is to snatch a high school class ring from Zales.

Wendy:  What do you consider the root cause of this? To summarize one basic idea in the book, the main character Jimmy Fisher says you make a soldier miserable in all areas of his life and then give him a security clearance. Is it as simple as that?

Also, there have been times when concerned citizens have made attempts to demonstrate security weaknesses by committing crimes themselves such as various hacking groups getting into government sites or the 82-year old nuclear activist breaching the site where weapons-grade uranium is stored. Do you consider this a valid or acceptable form of civil disobedience?

Steve:  I don’t believe in civil disobedience except under extreme circumstances.  Administrators of secure installations—including military document vaults—should routinely employ breachers and hackers to test security.  Imagine how fun that job would be.

As for why men spy on their own countries (there are virtually no such things as infiltrator-spies, outside of fiction; all modern-day spies are traitors), I’ll cite the rationale argued by my boss, who died in prison serving a life sentence:

1.  It’s easy money.  My boss made more than a million dollars, obviously tax free, by videotaping documents in the privacy of the vault he managed.  Not counting occasional travel, which he enjoyed anyway, I estimate becoming a millionaire cost him about twenty hours of his time, total.  In Feasts I made protagonist and narrator Jimmy Fisher definitively opportunistic, and thus a good target for approach.

2.  The army demands more of its soldiers than it rewards them.  My boss was a Vietnam veteran who felt unappreciated for his years of service and sacrifice.  Jimmy Fisher feels like a bottom dweller.

3.  This is the big one: Selling secrets to the enemy won’t hurt anyone; it’s all just a game.  My boss was absolutely convinced of this, and had some good arguments—arguments I gave to the bad guys recruiting Jimmy Fisher.

Wendy:  Being that you consider the people in your unit to have been “casualties of masterfully crafted psychological warfare,” how do you feel about how things turned out for them? Did the punishment fit the crime?

In the book there is peril at every turn in Jimmy Fisher’s world of spying. How closely would you say your fictional world resembled the reality of the spy ring you were made aware of?

And while there was a lot of menacing there was a startling lack of car chase scenes, explosions and no “Bond” gadgets! So, am I correct in assuming the spy racket is not nearly as sexy as Hollywood makes it out to be?

Steve: The punishment has to be harsh.  There’s no way to justify a light sentence for committing, or conspiring to commit, espionage.  However I believe the people serving sentences in this particular case should all be paroled today, and if given the opportunity I would testify at their parole hearings.  I knew the guy who recruited them.  I knew him well.  An FBI agent assigned to the case referred to him as “Der Meister,” and there you have it.

Peril?  I don’t know.  Some, I guess.  Not as much as my novel would suggest (it is, after all, a novel).  The greatest peril a spy faces is getting caught.

As for the Bond stuff, no, spying is not sexy.  Intelligence work, on either side of the fence, is exacting and tedious.  The biggest rush a spy experiences is the same as what a shoplifter experiences: leaving a building with something illegal in his pocket.

Wendy: One of the things you do masterfully in this book is how you build the character of Jimmy Fisher.  There are so many reasons to NOT like him and yet by the end of the book readers find themselves rooting for him.  What was your process for building Fisher and what was your goal for him as a character? What did you want to achieve?

Steve:  I wanted to invent a character who was definitively opportunistic, would do pretty much anything (petty) for sex or money.  At the same time, I wanted to make him likeable.  And—this was the challenge—I wanted to present him in first person.  The point of the latter was, describing someone else’s wrongdoings, no matter how objectively or even sympathetically, is nothing compared to having that person boast of those wrongdoings himself.  It took me a long time to get Jimmy’s voice.  I rewrote the early scenes many times until I had the mildly sarcastic wit I wanted.

Plotting his bad behavior was the easy part.  I just asked myself what I wouldn’t do.  The first scene, which can be sampled on Amazon, is a good example.

Wendy: When you decide to write a book, how do you typically approach it with regard to planning and then moving on to the actual writing?

Steve:  I don’t know.  I’ve published two novels, discarded two others, and am slogging my way through a fifth.   For reasons I don’t understand, this one’s the hardest, even though I know what to do at every step, because I always outline—which answers your question, I guess.  I can’t “pants” a story.

I think the answer is different for every writer and possibly for every story.  All I can say for sure is, just fill up blank pages with words, anyway it works for you, and if they’re bad words, exchange them later for better ones.

Wendy:  Another nice touch in the book is an “interlude,” a flashback perhaps, of three boys who are hiking. What did you have in mind when you did this section of the book?  Did you intend it to reveal more of Fisher’s character?  Or was there some other reason?

Steve: Actually I had two such interludes, complete stories in their own right, but deleted one because it was slowing the book down.  Honestly, I put them in (and took one out) simply because it felt right.  You have to trust your instincts.  You have to listen to your inner voice that says “this is right” or “this sucks.”  Too often we ignore the latter, and it gnaws at our subconscious; we don’t feel entirely good about something we’ve written.  When that happens to the writer, you can reasonably expect a similar reaction, or worse, in the reader.


Favorite meal?

A salad.  Crunchy vegetables with a vinegar dressing.  Afterwards, popcorn and a movie.

One book you must have if you’re stranded on a deserted island?

Some large compilation of American poetry, the larger the better.  I’d memorize it as I waited to be rescued.

Amazing wouldn’t-trade-it-for-anything experience?

Playing Barbies and doll house with my daughter.

Stand-up comic smackdown: George Carlin vs. Richard Pryor

George Carlin.  In his later years he became utterly brilliant.  Also, my mom always said I reminded her of him, my mannerisms and irreverance, even my looks.  I took it as a compliment.

Greatest thing since sliced bread?

Doritos.  If God exists, it’s because He made a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let the corn chips be gathered together unto one plastic bag.  And the evening and the morning were the second day.

Three things from your bucket list:

Someone once said, you know you’re old when you leave the house in the morning without the hope or expectation of falling in love.  I’m old.  I’ve done everything I wanted to do, all that’s left is to write about it.

Wendy: And to wrap up, what advice do you have for writers who are just starting out or who might be floundering and trying to find their way?

Steve:  In any given day, the only thing standing between you and your goals is a blank piece of paper.  Stop making excuses, and fill it.

Thanks so much to Steve for indulging me on the interview.  The FEASTS OF LESSER MEN is a wonderful book, well-written and an intriguing peek into the world of non-Hollywoodified espionage. Go get a copy!

And don't forget to stop by Steve's blog to see his interview with me.

November 6, 2012

Thoughts on Election Day

Carl Spitzweg 033
Carl Spitzweg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You're probably sick of the election. Like me. It seems like it's been going on forever. It's sort of like modern Christmas that starts somewhere around June and wraps up after the New Year's sales are over.

Politicians lie or stretch the truth or "spin" the story their way. The media spins worse. Or better, depending on your perspective. I spend a lot of time hoping I make the right decision and I'm not sure there really is a "right" one.

To me it comes down to one basic thing... sometimes life is great and sometimes life just sucks. And I don't care what anyone says -- not politicians, not economists, not the media. THE WORLD IS MAGICAL AND MYSTERIOUS and there's no controlling it.

We're a bunch of people on a planet and we are so tied into one another that changing the price of oil by a few barrels makes me buy less stuff at the grocery store. And some clever jerk who is an expert on the stock market can short-sell something and suddenly my neighbor is at the foodbank every Wednesday because he can't get a job. Yes, the butterly effect.

The other night my oldest son (age 9) was sitting on the couch with me and we were watching the news and discussing the upcoming election. He said, "Your vote doesn't count, Mom."

When I looked over at him, surprised that he knew much of anything about voting, he was ready to defend his position adding, "It doesn't. I'm serious."

I ran through my various options -- was it worth trying to explain the electoral college and the popular vote? I've read all the pros and cons about both and every time I read them I throw my hands up in despair because I'm not smart enough to fix a defective system and even if I were who would listen to me? Me, a mid-40's dumpling with freckles who doesn't have a PhD. (Although to my credit I make a really mean chicken soup.)

And so I took the easy way out and said, "Yes and no. What we do matters even when it seems like it doesn't. We must always make our voices heard even if it seems pointless at the time."

It's like the story about the starfish. Or, my favorite analogy... like throwing a rock in a pond and watching the ripples.

I frequently tell people I live in a small town. I suppose it's bragging because I think small-town living is the best kind of living. But one of the things I love about it is that you can actually SEE what happens when you throw the rock. You can volunteer to chair a committee and months later realize you've helped provide toys for 600 families who would have otherwise had a crummy Christmas. You can volunteer as a child advocate and make sure that a little girl who nearly starved to death from neglect gets adopted into a forever-home and has a chance at life and love and college. You can attend a meeting that results in a dock and bridge being built over a city pond so that handicapped kids can fish alongside all the other children when it's fishing derby time at the summer festival.

You can see the landmarks of your actions.

Twelve years ago before we had electronic voting machines, many of the townsfolk would gather on the courthouse square to watch the ballot counts come in. There were booths where popcorn was served and coffee and hot chocolate. Candidates would mill around and joke and josh and wait for the news. The guy who owns the radio station would stand on the corner and read off the tally sheets someone brought him and an old lady and man would change numbers on the white board as they listened to what he said.

We'd hang out there in the dim street lighting, our breath billowing white into the freezing November air. We didn't care that we were cold or that maybe the election results weren't exactly going our way. Because we were together, all of us. And that is what mattered.

And to me that's all that matters now. So the world is bigger and we are more global, but we still share the rent on the planet. What I do matters. What you do matters.

Keep flapping your wings.

September 7, 2012

The Nail in the Coffin

Tao Te Ching: Chapter 11
translated by Stephen Mitchell (1988)

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being
but non-being is what we use. 

* * *

In the summer we walked to the beach every day.  But now that I think about it, back then it was always summer no matter what month of the year.

I had a theory about men and women in California who always wanted plastic surgery -- in paradise you can't tell that time is moving forward. And one day you wake up and suddenly you're 50 and wrinkled and panic sets in.

But back then our skin was still taut and dewy. We glowed with a sunny optimism and the assumption of invincibility.

Every day my boyfriend and I walked to the beach. We'd walk down the steep hill from the house, hit the beach, run a few kilometers and then drag our tired asses back up the hill. During the walks down and back we had interesting discussions about life, work, politics, psychology, whatever.

One day in particular our talk was quite heated.  It was about men and women and the differences between them. My boyfriend was smart, opinionated, conversationally aggressive. His assumption was that he was always right unless it was proven otherwise. And there was never an "agree to disagree" -- in a debate with him it was either win or lose.  There was no such thing as a draw.

The sidewalk we followed was populated by snails.  They were a terrible blight on the landscape and ate everything in their path. We poisoned them, or picked them off and threw them down into the canyon. But it never seemed to matter.  There were as many the next day as the last.

At the bottom of the hill, my boyfriend huffed passionately and said, "You want to know the real difference between men and women? Do you?"

Punctuating his question he raised his foot and stomped it down hard on the snail in his path, then stepped back.

"That," he said, pointing to the slimy broken mess in front of us. "That is what men can do."

I stood in silence staring at the obliterated snail. I could feel my boyfriend staring at me, holding his breath in anticipation of celebrating his impending triumph at having made his point so powerfully.

There is no doubt it was a powerful moment. But not in the way he hoped. The argument about men and women -- who is stronger, who is dominant, who knows how to seize power and who doesn't -- shattered and the silence that followed was filled with the heavy realization that he had soundly driven the last nail into the coffin of our relationship.

And it wasn't the snail, I suppose. The snail was an unfortunate bystander in an age-old debate about men and women. It was ground zero of a blast that blew away any wisps of illusion, a blast that revealed the raw and naked character I hadn't paid attention to for all the charm, the beautiful words, the clever and impressive jousting.

I turned and began walking and he followed, mistaking my silence for surrender, maybe. He continued on, summing up his proposition in a tidy and logical manner as I thought about how much stuff I needed to pack, where I would go, how I would explain something he would never understand.

Because it was a small thing, a tiny moment, the slamming of a door. Nothing. But also everything.


August 24, 2012

Across the Way

My youngest son started Kindergarten this year. Kindergarten is the start of many new things, but one significant thing in particular is that Mom doesn't walk her "baby" to class any more.

I ease up the hill in the car and back down the other side to wait in line with a gazillion other parents who wait sometimes patiently, sometimes not. The boys like to go early so they can eat breakfast at school, mostly because of the chocolate milk they don't always get at home.

We sit in line, facing the sun and I watch the dispatching of various sized children in various styles of clothing. I like watching how the parents and grandparents send the kids off. Some drop off and drive away. Some open the doors and help the kids out. Sometimes there is hugging and kissing and sometimes not.

For the last two years I've dropped my oldest son off here and he doesn't want the hugging and kissing. He slides out of the car and trudges off, never looking back even though I wave vigorously out the window like I'm a tourist heading off on an exciting cruise vacation. My other son would yell from the back seat, "Bye Brubby!" And then we'd drive to his school building where he'd hang on to the back of my shirt until two teachers wrestle him down so I can make my escape.

But on this particular day, this first day of dropping him off it will be different.  I don't know how it will be, but I know it will be different.  I glance over my shoulder to see if he seems concerned or excited. He seems neither, merely interested.

"I'm just dropping you off today. You'll go up to the cafeteria with your brother. You okay with that?"

A flicker of worry crosses his face and he nods. He puts his head down and looks up at me from under his beautiful black lashes.

"You'll be fine," I remind him. "This is an exciting day!"  I wonder for a second who I'm trying harder to convince, me or him.

Under my breath I say, "You'll take him up, right? You'll walk him in to the cafeteria and show him what to do? You'll stay with him until someone takes charge of him. You will, right?"

My oldest boy nods, not looking at me. "I will."

We sit in silence while the car rolls ahead a few feet as another car pulls away.

At the front finally, I ask, "Do you want to just get out or do you want a goodbye hug?"

"Will you hug me?"

"Of course, Sugar Face. How could I not hug you?"

I got out on the driver's side and he got out on the passenger's side. I thought about the long line of cars behind me and how they were waiting for me to move along so it would be their turn. I quickly dashed around the front of the car, but my youngest had already moved around the back to the other side. I turned and ran the other way thinking how ridiculous it now seemed to be chasing this child around the car for a hug. I imagined foot-tapping and sighing.

When we finally met up on the other side of the car I wrapped my arms around him, half of his mass a too-big backpack that crinkled noisily as I squeezed him to me. I straightened and smoothed his hair, my hands moving down to cup his cheeks. "I love you and I want you to have a GREAT day, okay?"

"Kissy me."

I thought of the cars waiting. Waiting.  I smiled and decided I didn't care how long they waited. I bent down to kiss his cheek and he kissed mine, pressing hard into my face.  He smiled and turned to walk with his big brother up the stairs and I turned to smile at the car behind me by way of polite apology.

Across the way a man sat in his truck with his son. He had a certain look on his face, the look I imagine I have when I watch something beautiful or moving, a sweet parent and child. His face was serene and he had a soft smile. Our eyes met and he nodded. I smiled and nodded back. His look said, "Take all the time you need because what you're doing is the most important thing you'll do all day."

And, as it turns out, it was.

August 21, 2012

What Women Want, Spilling the Secrets of the Sisterhood

It's election time and inevitably women's rights are always served up on the political table. It has started me thinking about what it is women want.

It seems like men are always trying to figure it out, as if women are complicated.  Maybe it's because I'm a woman -- but it doesn't seem complicated to me.  I will admit women are more demonstrative so we sometimes express ourselves openly, maybe more openly than men who have been socialized not to express themselves in certain ways. (Which I think is unfortunate and repressive.)  I don't think we feel our feelings bigger or stronger, we've just not been conditioned to restrain ourselves in any gender-specified way.

What We Want

Love. We want to be loved. Cherished. Valued. We want to feel, now and again, like the sun rises and sets on us. Even if it's just for a moment. Like right after we do the dishes. Or while we brush our teeth while you're using up all the hot water. Or in that moment before we take our last conscious breath before we drift off to sleep.

Beauty. We want to feel beautiful, desired. We aren't always. And beauty is relative. But in some way, to some one we are beautiful. If you are that person, we'd love to know you think that.  Perhaps in our daily lives, in the grind of minutia we can't identify those moments easily. But if you see that glimpse it's okay to say something about it. It doesn't obligate you beyond that moment. It's not foreplay. It's not an apology for being a jerk yesterday. It's not an admission or giving ground. It's you seeing us and we dig that. (See also: any love sonnet by Pablo Neruda)

Security. We want to feel safe. We want to have room to spread our wings and be confident.  We love solid ground. We want to trust and be open.  We want to tell you secrets and dreams and know you won't laugh.  We can kill our own spiders because we are grown-up girls, but it's sort of really cool if you kill them for us.  Sometimes that even seems sexy and brave.

Sex. We want sex. Various kinds. Definitely we differ in this regard. Apparently a lot of us are intrigued by Fifty Shades of Grey. When my own book came out my mother chastised me for the little bit of sexy stuff that was in there (which was minimal) and said I shouldn't be so base, that women want "princess sex."  I have no idea what "princess sex" is and I can tell you right now if I ever wanted that in my life I definitely do not want it now. Ever. Simply because that phrase came out of my mother's mouth. Learn about our bodies, ask questions, try things, get suggestions. Don't be afraid. And certainly don't apologize for wanting it too. (See also: Jaiya)

Men. (Lesbians, this is the only paragraph that probably won't work for you. You can skip it or white it out and write in your own stuff here.) We want men that act like men even when we tell you we want you to be sensitive and nice and caring and all that other stuff.  You can still do those things and be men. Don't let us convince you otherwise. If we wanted women we'd be with women.  And, well, some of us are. And that's no reflection on you. (See also: The Art of Manliness)

Respect. We are not vessels to be filled, nor are we baby-making machines. We are not less than you. We are not better than you. We are sometimes different, but in a lot of ways we are the same. We want your insides to relate to our insides on a deep soul level. And sometimes we just want you to help us unload the dishwasher and talk about what movie we'll watch tonight. Please don't belittle us, ridicule us or derride us because we are just as important to the running of the world as you are.

The Caveat

There are women in the world who are not nice. They are greedy. They are bitches. They don't care about you. They are in it for themselves. They will not take care of you when you are puking in the toilet. They will berate you into keeping a job you hate because it gives you a bigger paycheck. I could go on, but you know those women. Those women are not us and those women are not for you.  Those women are for the dickhead men who deserve them, the men that are not you.  Run. Run from them like your life depends on it. Because it does. Those raging zombie brain-eating women will suck out your life force and leave you lying in the dirt like a dessicated husk of former man-meat that is good for little but being bitter for the really nice woman who follows in her attractive perfume-scented wake.

What Men Want

The joke around the water cooler is that men want sex and beer and TV and that it's silly to make it any more complicated than that. I could be wrong, but I think our lists aren't that much different.

What Else Do You Want?

Add to my list.  Leave me a comment (men and women) and add anything I've missed!

August 14, 2012

I Wrote a Book

Over the last year, I have been mostly-stealthily writing a book. A real live book with pages and a cover and a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end.  A novel.

I wrote a book.

I sort of feel like I have to keep repeating that sentence over and over because sometimes it doesn't seem real, even when I have an actual copy in my hands.

I wrote a book. But not without help.

Even though not very many people knew I was working on it, I was fortunate to have some good people in my corner of the ring.

In particular, my friend and crit-partner Stephen Parrish has my undying gratitude because he pushed and nudged and encouraged and cajoled and rolled his eyes when I was being ridiculous. And he told me stuff stunk when it stunk. And he didn't listen to me when I complained that I was tired or that things were hard. He always knew that morning would bring a fresh attitude.

I wrote a book that people read tirelessly. (And sometimes, I'm sure, tiredly.)

Fellow writers, friends, family members read the book in various drafts. And other friends offered expertise in other aspects. It's a better book because of their honesty and openness. Blowing kisses to Bee, Erica, Ginny, Jennifer, Lunaea, Sarah, Shannon, and Steph.

I wrote a book that looks and sounds like this:

Kate Pearson heads west from Arkansas in an old jalopy with two parakeets, a job offer and a half-baked plan: Dreamboat celebrity chef Warren Hoffman has offered Kate a job – and himself – if she will relocate to Oxnard, California. The catch? Kate soon discovers Warren has a Big Secret. And that he’s possibly crazy.

During her journey, Kate stumbles into the lair of paranoid militants calling themselves the League for the Suppression of Celery. When they learn her destination is Oxnard -- celery capital of the world -- they stop at nothing to indoctrinate her into their nefarious cult.

Her escape from the League sends her racing toward her happily-ever-after while being pursued by members of the League who want her back, and by the compelling new friend who inexplicably quits his job to travel across the country to find her.

I wrote a book.

And I plan on doing it again. And again. And again.


August 10, 2012

The Box from the Dead

It arrived on the ample hip of a woman I call my sister, only she isn't my sister.

The box had the flaps closed at the top and a small hole cut to let the neck of an old timey, glass gallon jug poke through.

"Here you go," she said plunking the large box on my desk sending a stack of files teetering into an avalanche which I stopped by flinging myself on top of it.

"Not there, maybe. Maybe there." I pointed. My face felt tight and frowny as I indicated a desk across the room.

"That's it then?" I felt like I needed to add something to fill the space around us.


Not much of a space filler, it turns out.

My not-sister swooped out as suddenly as she swooped in and left me here alone. The box sits on the desk across the room like it's waiting for me to do something.

I have no idea what to do with it.

Inside is a jug of mead my father made. My father who died 12 years ago. My father who has attached to him a laundry list of disappointments that flap behind him like a ragged kite's tale. In my past he reeks of ideaphoria as he sits in his recliner with his Mother Earth News -- draped in dreams of muscadine orchards and fancy chickens that lay colored eggs and, maybe, the sour taint of memories of late-night poker games in Vietnam.

Except suddenly he has become this box that's sitting across the room waiting for me to do something. And I find myself discomfitted by its proximity which is closer to me than he was in the last 26 estranged years, the last 12 of which he has spent being dead.

I focus on the mechanics of mead, how it's made, how long it lasts. I imagine him brewing it, tasting it. The honey it was made from originated in hives he lovingly tended, bees more present in his life than the trail of three children left behind like bread crumbs leading to a place he'd never return.

Gently he lifts the lid of the hive. I hear them singing. He smokes the hive. "It makes them calm," he explains. They drift, dozy, carrying on. A bee lands on my hand and I freeze. "Don't worry, they won't hurt you if you're careful with them." The bee walks along my hand, the delicate whisper of its tracks on my arm make me fall in love with it, with the miracle of what such a small thing can do.

I cross the room to the box and open it. It smells musty and I wonder where it's been this whole time. Across the top is the name of my aunt in my father's handwriting. Red ballpoint pen.

Inside the box, large pieces of yellow foam fill the open space and I crook my finger through the loop handle of the jug and pull it up. It's covered with dust and cobwebs, an unearthed relic from a reluctantly-revealed past.

I tip the bottle and amber liquid flows, the color heavy. I wonder if it's drinkable. I remember reading about meads discovered in old cellars and ruins.

I want it. I don't want it.

I leave the jug and return to my seat across the room.  Sunlight passes through the blinds, stretches across the desk and wraps around the glass, light filtering through, casting gold reflections, revealing nothing.

July 28, 2012

Life Lessons on the Fly

Photo by Mario (mRio) (cc)
Much to my entire family's annoyance I like to use every day experiences to teach my kids lessons about life. I think the real world is the best possible classroom.

For example, a couple of years ago my oldest son got into the habit of starting his requests with, "I know you're going to say no, but could I..."

I work in a job that is about constant negotiation and there is an art to it. And if you want to hear a yes, you definitely do not let on that you're prepared to hear a "no" because it makes "no" so much easier to say.

So I explained this to my son. "If you want something, don't ever ever ever let on that you expect someone to say no. It puts you in a weaker position." I tell him this because I want him to be in a strong position whenever he goes after something in life. The downside is now, two years later, he is getting to be an exceptional negotiator and if this keeps up I won't stand a chance.

Today we were watching a bike race on the Olympics, a moment where two racers were evenly matched just a minute or so from the finish line. In a bare few seconds one rider let down his guard checking to see how close the pack is on his tail and his evenly-matched competitor takes advantage and sprints for the finish line, creating a gap that was impossible to close in the short time he had to make the finish line.

I sat stunned and rewound the Tivo to see if I had just seen what I thought I had seen. Olympic athletes who have been training for years to get where they were and in one moment of inattention they lose their hard-fought position.

And then on top of that, the guy who pulls ahead starts waving his arms around in celebration before he crosses the finish line.

The mother in me, of course, was thrilled at these teachable moments and my family suffered through me rewinding about four times while I discussed with my oldest the merits of concentration, of keeping your eye on the prize, of not assuming you've made it until you cross the finish line.  I always say it's always more pleasant to learn from other people's mistakes than your own. As a person who has learned a lot of things the hard way, I think I'm right.  The hard lessons are the "sticky" ones, but as a parent I want to try really hard to teach these things before they have a chance to get knocked in the head by life.

It certainly can't hurt.  Until they take your remote control away and stop letting you have control of the television. (That was the lesson I learned the hard way today.)

July 13, 2012

Brothers & Others

Boys fight. I remark on this frequently because it drives me crazy and everyone says it's just what boys do and it doesn't mean anything.  Okay. Fine.

Yesterday, my oldest (9) wanted my youngest (5) to come out with him to play. My youngest declined the offer because I had just gotten home and he wanted to hang out with me for a while before going outside. "FINE," yelled my oldest, "I AM NEVER PLAYING WITH YOU AGAIN!" And punctuated the declaration with the slamming of the front door.

My youngest looked at me, sad-faced, and waited for me to say something comforting or appropriate. I'm not particularly good at either of those things and frequently mess it up. I shrugged and said, "Don't worry about it, Tristan. He said that because he feels bad and he just wants you to feel bad too. He'll play with you again, don't worry."

He pressed his mouth into a thin line and said, "You know what I'm going to do? I'm taking him out of my picture."

He crossed the room to the front door where he'd attached a stick-figure family portrait. He pulled it down and without any drama, without speaking, he dug in the office supply drawer until he found a pair of scissors and carefully cut around the stick figure of his brother until he was excised from the family portrait.

"There," he said, satisfied, then nodded. He set the two pieces of paper on the coffee table along with the scissors and went back to watching TV.

I didn't say anything, but I did sit for a while and puzzle on this. I wondered where a five year old gets the idea of cutting someone out of a picture. It's not like he's seen anyone in our family do that. Even with my history of weirdo boyfriends, crazy stepmothers and disappointing father figures I have never cut anyone out of a picture.

What did it mean to him? He didn't tell his brother what he did.  He didn't make a big production of it. He didn't rail about injustices or brag about revenge or even confetti-ize his brother into little tiny bits of paper and thrown them around the room in a celebration of madness like he could have.

You separated me. I separated you.

There is no doubt they love each other intensely.  When my oldest has been punished in the past the little one cries. And when my little one learned to ride his bike the proudest member of the family, I'm certain, was his brother who said, "Tristan you were AMAZING. You have such spirit."

I was gone much of last night so I don't know whatever happened with the picture or anything that was said about it. This morning when I left for work the portrait was back on the door and Julius was stapled back into the family and then, for good measure, Scotch-taped as well -- the shiny circle around him a little reminder that he was separated for a while.

July 1, 2012

Lazy Sunday

Every week I look forward to my "Lazy Sunday."  I call it that because that's the way I picture it in my mind every week -- me lingering in bed, waking when I want, stretching out with a happy squee while I reach for a book to snuggle with for a leisurely hour before getting up to shower and have a quiet breakfast.  I love Lazy Sunday, my favorite part of the week.

The reality of Lazy Sunday is that it hasn't arrived yet.  It's an elusive fantasy born from lack of sleep, too much stress and too few life victories.

I just nearly... almost... had it today.  I woke up about 6:30 and managed to go through the Lazy Sunday ritual all the way up to a few pages into the book part.  The dog appeared and insisted I let her out because everyone else manages to sleep through her wet nose nudging them in the thigh or elbow.

From there the day proceeded like all the other days with neighbor boys knocking on the door every half hour until my boys finally wake up. I huddled behind the door where they couldn't see me in just a t-shirt and underwear promising, "I will send them over to your house as soon as they wake up. You don't need to keep knocking. Really, you don't."

Mr. Stinky
Around 9AM the boys finally woke and at 9:05 they ran back in to say they have caught a skunk in the live trap they set out the night before. They baited the live trap with three baby birds that had died during yesterday's Operation Rescue the Babies that Fell From the Tree. I'm sure they were expecting a squirrel or raccoon, but with boys rarely does anything go the way everyone expects.

I was on the phone with the Game & Fish guy a few minutes later while a neighbor boy decides it would be a great idea to throw sticks at the skunk to see if he could get it to spray them. I still don't understand the way children's brains work.

Mr. H from Game & Fish says, "I hear you got you a skunk in a trap..."

"Yes," I said, "My children have a present for you."

"Not for ME they don't!"

"Seriously? You're not coming to get this thing?"

"No ma'am. But I'll tell you how to do it over the phone or I'll drive over and tell you how to do it in person."

So I stood in the driveway watching the annoying neighbor boy throw sticks at the skunk trapped in the cage while the other boys dance around in a circle like Neanderthals on methamphetamine and Mr. H explains to me how I should take an old blanket and sneak up on the skunk and throw it over him.  Mr. H says the skunk won't spray us if he can't see us.

"Really? He won't?"

"Pretty sure he won't."

And then Mr. H suggests we fill a 30-gallon trash can with water and submerge the trap into the water, put the lid on it and wait "at least 8 minutes."

"Oh. Ohhh... so you're saying drown the skunk in a trash can full of water? Is that what you're saying?"

"Well, yes ma'am."

"No. We're not killing the skunk. Definitely not."

So after hanging up with the Game & Fish skunk killer, I'm explaining to Mr. Redneck next door (whose kid is throwing sticks at the skunk) exactly the full procedure that Mr. H explained. In the middle of the conversation, Mrs. Redneck interrupts and tells me her kids haven't had breakfast and would I mind driving her to the grocery store because their car is broken.

"I... well, we're sort of doing this right now. If you'll hang on for a few minutes, yeah."

Back inside the house I'm looking for a blanket I don't mind sacrificing in case the mission fails and I give it to my oldest son to hold until I get out there. Mr. Wendy and I begin arguing about discussing the actual procedure -- whether it is okay for the kids to be involved in extraction, the merits of releasing into the yard versus releasing into the wild, the mechanics of how the trap works and how many sticks should be involved in the process, which directions said sticks should point and in what order, and contingency plans for anyone who might fall victim to spraying.

By the time I get back out to the driveway where mobilization is supposed to occur I see Mr. Redneck running like his ass is on fire and five children running in what looks like eight different directions. Apparently during the "planning stage", Mr. Redneck enlisted my oldest son's help to release the skunk which then proceeded to chase my youngest son. His reasoning? "Well, he's a Boy Scout, so I trust him more in this situation." (Nevermind that he's nine and last time he and his friends were together they were using their Boy Scout tools and knowledge to try to start a fire on my front porch.)

My youngest tugged on my shirt and said, "Mom, he was nearly biting my ankle and he had his mouth open like this and was hissing!" To demonstrate, he opened his mouth wide and displayed every tooth he had.

Mrs. Redneck waited not so patiently on the sidelines for her ride to the store. I drove her there and sat in the soon-to-be 100+ degree heat and watched her walk toward the automatic doors -- her in her thin strappy sundress she had been wearing the day before which showed most of her cheap white bra. Her feet were bare and dirty on the bottom, her toenails painted a bright, startling blue.

I scrunched down in the seat, closed my eyes and started dreaming about my next Lazy Sunday.

June 9, 2012

If Wishes Were Horses...

I wish someone had told me, when I was in my 20’s, that fear was a limiting emotion to be acknowledged and then ignored.  I wish someone had told me that pain and sorrow come no matter how carefully we plan, that being cautious and conservative and walking with reserve is never a guarantee for a breezy, safe life.

I wish someone had told me that pain is only a feeling just like hunger or thirst. It’s unpleasant, but it doesn’t kill you. It’s a thing to be tended to, to be dealt with. It’s a sensation that doesn’t define you.

The girl ran barefoot through the dirt, back and forth the length of the house. She imagined, as the breeze stirred, that she was just like the wind. So fast. Inside her mother was doing the spring cleaning, flinging out dirt, debris, old things that needed to be gathered and taken to the burn pile at the edge of the property.

A searing pain stabbed through the girl’s foot and leg. She lifted her foot to find a piece of wood with a nail through it lodged into her heel.

At the hospital the girl cried because she didn’t want the tetanus shot. She wore an old memory of weekly allergy shots like under-armor, a defense against the prospect of pain.

“If you don’t cry,” the mother said, “we’ll go get you a treat afterward. A toy or some ice cream.”

But she cried anyway, one nurse squeezing her tight while the other nurse gave the injection which turned out not to hurt at all.

Wiping her face the girl said, “That didn’t hurt at all! Can we go to the store?”


“But it didn’t hurt. I didn’t know it wouldn’t hurt…”

“Our deal was that you wouldn’t cry and you cried.”

I wish someone had told me that bumps and bruises when you are twenty hurt less and heal faster than the ones you get when you are thirty. Or forty. I wish someone had told me that regrets for things we didn’t do hang with us far longer than regrets for things we did do.  I wish when someone had seen me doing brave things, courageous and expansive things they would recognize them for what they were and not see them through a layer of their own fear.

“I wish you wouldn’t go. You don’t have to.”

Her mother twisted the dish towel around in her hands.

“Mom, I have to. I want to. It will be fine.”

“But where will you live? What about a job? There’s nobody out there to catch you if you fall.”

“I’ll be fine. If I fall I’ll get back up again. Don’t worry.”

“They have earthquakes out there.”

“They have tornadoes here.”

The mother sat heavily down at the table, understanding how pointless it was to convince her to stay. She could see her daughter on a path of destruction and was helpless to stop it. Bad things were coming and there was nothing she could do about it. Nothing.

These are the things I know now. I know them now when I’m weighted down by adulthood, by an accumulation of my past experiences. I know them when I’m driving to a boring job wearing jeans that start to feel tight in my waist and Sheryl Crow is on the radio singing about Steve McQueen. Good God, when was the last time I left anyone feeling breathless? When was the last time I took a leap of faith?

“You know the joke about you going around, right?”

He looked sideways at her, half afraid of what she was about to say.

“They say 30 years ago you arrived here with $1,000 in your pocket and a backpack on your back. And now look at you.”

He smiled and shrugged.

“I admire your courage and all you’ve made out of nothing.”

Finally after the silence he said, “You know the only difference between me and you? I’m braver than you are. That’s all. No other difference.”

I’m not sure I can remember the last time I leaped. Or if I could, I’m not sure I’d want to. It wasn’t yesterday. Or the day before that, or the day before that.

But maybe it will be today.

[Comments are closed for this post, but you can reach me at: wendy at wendy dot com]

June 5, 2012

The Church of the Good Neighbor

I’m starting my own religion.

How presumptuous of her, you might be thinking.  It’s not, really.  It’s more a matter of pragmatism.

You see, for years I have been bothered by the fact that very little about religion makes sense. 

I was raised to believe that Christianity is the “right” religion.  That God is an old white guy who sent his son down to die as a sacrifice to save all of humanity from our imperfections. Setting aside how illogical that is, Christianity is a relatively young religion. Why is it “right” when we have all these old religions that came before it? What is wrong with those religions?  Just because they are old doesn’t mean they are bad.  I use dinnerware from the 1950’s and it does the job and looks good doing it.

And then there is the matter of religious dogma. In one Christian religion I’m supposed to only wear dresses. Or not use a car.  Or eat meat.  But in other ones it’s okay.  And in some I can use birth control and in some I can’t.  And in some it’s okay for leaders to molest children and then other leaders cover it up.  Some religions say I am going to burn in hell forever if I’m bad. Some just say, “Meh, when you’re dead you’re dead, but boy are you going to miss out on some good stuff when we’re all resurrected to Paradise Earth.”

(And as a side question... if you’re picking a church, why would you pick one that believes in hell when you can pick another church that doesn’t and still be just as Christian?)

If we’re all reading from the same bible, can’t we all somehow agree on what the book actually says?  And why do some Christians conveniently say, “Oh, ignore that part. It’s null and void.”  And some don’t agree with the null and void thing at all.

But the thing that really gets me is the hypocrisy. It states very clearly in the bible that you’re not supposed to have sex outside of marriage, but a lot of people do it. And religious leaders says, “Well… we’re weak, we’re sinners. Come in on Sunday and we’ll kind of give you this little chore to do that makes you feel bad and unworthy for 10 minutes and you’ll be forgiven until you do it again and then just come back next Sunday. Let’s do this as often as you can and if you time it right and you’re forgiven just before you die it’ll probably work out okay.”  Unless it doesn’t. Then you’ll burn in hell forever. Unless you go to a church that doesn’t believe in hell. 

(I think the reason they do that is because if you tell them nobody can have sex, nobody will come to church. Except the Catholics.)

I could go on, but to spare you my ranting I’ll get right to my proposal. I say let’s start a new religion that has a very simple set of commandments that are easy to remember and easy to follow.  In fact, let’s boil it down to one commandment.  Surely everyone can remember that.  Here it is:


Be a good neighbor. That’s it?  No, really.  That’s it.  It’s elegantly simple. All things can be measured by the good neighbor rule.

Would a good neighbor sleep with your wife? No. Would a good neighbor borrow your lawnmower and not return it?  No.  Would a good neighbor steal from you or murder you?  No.

Would a good neighbor feed you if you were hungry?  Yes.  And you, as a good neighbor would not take advantage of his kindnesses.  If you borrow his car you would fill up the tank when you returned, maybe even wash it or vacuum it out.

And “neighbor” can be defined broadly. There is the literal sense of me living next door to you in houses on the same street. But it’s scalable.  When I sit next to you in the movie theater I am your neighbor. America is the neighbor to Mexico and Canada. Earth is a neighbor to Mars which, by the way, is why we should stop dumping our trash out into space.

If we have a problem with each other we work it out like good neighbors. Or we ignore each other and do our best to live with it. We should not roll around on top of each other in the lawn and black each other’s eyes as if we were 10 years old and unable to control ourselves.

Idealistic? You betcha. I’m not afraid to be idealistic because someone has to start this church and it might as well be me. I am 100% certain that I can be a good neighbor. If I can get you to commit to being a good neighbor that’s two of us. And then if we do it again that will be four of us.  And if we keep doing that, who knows what kind of delightful madness will ensue.

And then a thousand or two years from now when they dig up our homes and study the beginning of this new Golden Age of Reason they will make up stories and theories about how it all began and some college student will write his doctoral thesis on Fred Rogers, the Patron Saint of the Church of the Good Neighbor.
They won’t remember you and me, but who cares.  We’ll enjoy each other’s company in the meantime.

May 1, 2012

May Day

It's a day of celebration. Not so much in America, but in many places. And I envy that. I am prone to love the pagan holidays because they have so much verve and are so celebratory of nothing more real and vital than the basic fundamentals like... living, breathing, giving birth.

What better things to celebrate?

Four years ago today my niece was murdered by her husband. I got a text message from my nephew last night, her brother. "I'm sorry you had to go through my sister's trial. I love you and I'm sorry for my grief."  He grieves violently and in ways that hurts others. He insists he can't help himself.  Maybe he can't.  I don't know and I choose to not judge.

And so I have given it much thought how to mark the day, if at all.

The best thing about Tanya was her laughter. She was buoyant. Nothing, no dire circumstances, no unfairness, no injustice would keep her down. You could press her and she would spring back. She was fierce, full of life, a cup that bubbled over with all good things. Irrepressible. Well-loved.

And so my May Day will be to honor her memory with laughter of my own. I have grieved long and hard (and sometimes still do), but today I will laugh for her -- to give life again to someone who should have lived way longer than me.

And I ask you to do something ridiculously pagan today -- celebrate some basic and vital aspect of the miracle of living in whatever way it suits you. Breath deep and stretch and fill your body with life-giving air. Tickle someone and be tickled. Give flowers to someone. Practice a random act of kindness. Walk barefoot in the grass. Embrace the earth that gives you life. Laugh. Love. Touch another human. Feel a connection. Do one thing to make the world a better place.

Because it's May Day. Because you're alive. Because Tanya can't. Because some stranger on the Internet asked you to.

Or just... because you can. That's really the best reason of all.

March 27, 2012

Not Your Grandmother's Tea Party

I come from a long line of tea drinkers. We’re an old American family who was kicked out of our country of origin for being rabble rousers, landing on American shores where rabble rousing is not only tolerated but pretty much celebrated as awesome.

My mother’s mother was one of those fancy women who traveled Europe as a young woman. Presumably she had tea and scones constantly. She always knew about the different sized forks. The napkins were always linen, never paper.  She insisted I know all this, too, and there were frequent tests on the matter as well as inspections because “you never know when you will be called to have dinner with the Queen.” 

One should be ready for what comes one’s way, she strenuously maintained.

Growing up it was mostly just my mother and I. On a Saturday morning we might sit companionably at the kitchen table and share one slice of cake cut into tiny bite-sized squares along with mugs of tea. We’d play cards. Rummy.  I was twelve.

Later I would be hooked on decadent teas with rich half-and-half, loaded with sugar. That was my vice instead of smoking or drinking or having wild parties. A book and tea, my idea of heaven.

Being raised in the country I always thought it terribly unlikely that I would ever have need for the high-falutin’ manners my grandmother insisted I know. But I moved to the city years later and found myself involved with a variety of different people from a variety of different lifestyles.

One of these people invited me to afternoon tea.

While I consider myself well-versed in drinking tea, I was really not experienced at all in matters of “afternoon tea.”  But she assured me it would be fabulous. We would wear hats, she said, and fancy dresses. There would be crustless sandwiches. It would be the perfect tea, an afternoon to never forget.

All of this was true. My friend did host an unforgettable afternoon tea. And there were crustless sandwiches. And hats. And fancy dresses. The table was spread with fine china. The forks were all in the proper places.

The hostess welcomed all of us and said we were to relax and our every need would be met by an array of servants who would be serving our fancy tea.

And with that she clinked her spoon against her glass and out came three men in various shapes, sizes and colors. All wearing French maid uniforms.

I glanced down at the end of the table to where the hostess beamed happily. She smiled at me and raised her eyebrows as if to say, “Aren’t you thrilled? Is this the most perfect afternoon tea EVER?”

I reached up to adjust the collar on my fancy dress and stared at a 6’4” 250lb man in a short skirt and fishnet stockings coming toward me. He had a tray of crustless tuna sandwiches.

“May I serve you sandwiches, my lady?”

“Oh yes, most certainly,” I said with a dainty pursed mouth. Because, after all, the sandwich would taste the same no matter what clothes he had on, right?

I glanced down the long table to the other women to see if anyone looked as shocked as I felt. Not a psychic ripple to be seen in the air around me. My lady friends, after being served by three men in drag, sat quietly munching fancy sandwiches and sipping out of china teacups. Pinkies up, of course.

The conversation was pedestrian. Not a word was spoken about the surreal nature of men in stockings and heels, of the juxtaposition of chest hair and lipstick, of tiny china cups held in large meaty paws with red, painted nails.

As a testimony to the adaptability of the human mind, in about ten minutes nothing seemed strange at all, as if every afternoon tea were served just like this.

And now when I think of afternoon tea, I smile because the manners I learned for my tea with the Queen were well-utilized that day and with some amount of perverse pleasure I think, “Oh, Grandma, you were right. One should always be ready for what comes your way.”

March 1, 2012

Exciting News: The Review is Born

I was going to write something fabulous here about my big news, but then my partner-in-crime Stephen Parrish did such a good job breaking the news over at his web site that I figured I'd just point you over there.


February 16, 2012

Tales from the South (Again!)

I told all of you I'd let you know when the broadcast was online.

Here is a link to the podcast of the live show I was on:   "LESSONS LEARNED" recorded live on Tales from the South

I'm the third reader of the show.

Okay, enough about me.  Go on about your business!

January 30, 2012

Tales from the South

I've been blogging for a long time. And I haven't made mention of it, but I've been writing for a long time and not doing a darn thing with the writing that I've done.

A couple of years ago I made a writer friend who also turns out to also be a fabulous human being. To say he was encouraging would be an understatement. He's the kind of guy who, if he believes in you, will shove you out of a nest because he knows you can fly when you aren't certain of it yourself.  For your own good, of course. (At least, I THINK that's what he was doing, and not trying to kill me.)

And so, over the last couple of years I've been flapping my boney little wings trying to get some lift.  And finally, this month, I've caught an updraft and it's an exciting one.

I had a story accepted to a radio show called Tales from the South.  The show airs on NPR and anywhere else that it's syndicated. Tomorrow night I'll be doing the live reading for the show and while I'm there I'll be thinking of all of you who have been hanging out here with me, those of you have taken the time to comment and to be there for me when I was funny and, lately, not so funny.

If you want to hear the recorded version of the show you can listen to it when it airs Thursday at 7PM CST via KUAR.  It will also be archived at PRXUPDATE: The producer said the show won't air for two weeks.  I'll post a reminder here then.

And another writer friend, the lovely, talented and big-haired J.A. Zobair was kind enough to celebrate with me by doing an interview! I hope you will go say hello to both of us at her post: Scenes from the Making of an Interview.  Please go by and reassure her that I will never make her go fishing again. And also that I'm a nice person despite what she may think of me after this interview.  No, really.  REALLY. Go on. Go. GO!

January 26, 2012

Why I Changed My Mind about the Death Penalty

From the time I could understand the concept of right and wrong, good and bad, crime and punishment I have heard the "eye for an eye" argument. It's how I was raised. That sentiment of judgement was in the fabric of me and I gave the death penalty, frankly, less consideration than choosing what restaurant to eat at. It was a matter for others to worry about. It didn't concern me. Kill a man who murders another man?  Sure, why not?  An eye for an eye.  That seems fair enough.

In the first week of May, 2008, while I was alone in my office at work I got a call about my brother's only daughter. "Tanya has been murdered. Terry stabbed her. She's dead, Wendy. Tanya is dead."  As I was hanging up, some office mates arrived and were asking me some questions about work.  I remember answering them by repeating what I had just heard on the phone, then walked to a nearby office and started shuffling through papers to find what they were looking for.

From what seemed like a mile away I heard one person say, "I think she's in shock. Look at her.  She's shaking." And that's when my consciousness returned to my body and I realized I was quivering like I'd been pulled out of some distant, frozen sea.

The next months, even years were revealing. I was sad, raging, apathetic.  Exhausted, I'd forget for a moment anything was amiss, then would suddenly remember with a cold wave of shock and start the cycle over again. The burr under my saddle was that I wanted to settle in my mind on what I thought a fair punishment would be for him. An eye for an eye.  That must be the right thing.  He killed, he should die.

The angry person in me thought that was not nearly fair enough. He should suffer.  A lot.  He should stay in prison for his whole life.  And not just any prison -- the kind of prison you see in the movies where rampaging gangs of men beat and abuse and kill each other and there is peril at every turn.  Would that be fair, that he suffer for a lifetime?

I went through every scenario imaginable -- from the true-life realistic alternatives, to the outlandish never-gonna-happen fantasy. Nothing satisfied me.  I was a boiling stew of unresolve.  I despaired that there was no kind of justice for me.


These days I think our culture defines justice as "a fitting punishment for the crime."  That isn't what justice is, though. The icon for Justice is the lady with the scales who blindly balances truth and fairness.

Justice, in my mind, is the determination of what a person must pay back to the world to offset the damage he or she has done to it.

Killing the man who murdered my niece is not going to bring her back. It's not going to make me feel better because, frankly, I've run through every permutation of his suffering than I can possibly imagine and none of them feel like enough punishment. They seem brutal and pointless. There is nothing to be gained from any of it.

The only possible solution is that he has to balance out the bad he has done with an equivalent amount of good.  If he can be redeemed, he must be.  And then his life should be forfeit to the service of others until he has paid back the amount of joy and usefulness that left the world when my niece was stabbed 27 times in her bedroom by her own husband.

And in the event that he cannot be redeemed, he must toil in some fashion for the good of others. He must knit sweaters for homeless children until his fingers bleed or he goes blind.  Or he must build homes for the homeless or he must grow gardens to feed the hungry. He must sell things he's made with his hands to put a poor kid through college.

Justice is not killing him, it's making him replace what he stole from me and from you.  Yes, you.

Because it's not about my niece. It's about violating all of us as humans.  Criminals hate and disrespect and so we lock them up like bad children because what else can we do with them?

What we can do with them is turn the system upside down and stop throwing up our hands in despair like confused and frustrated parents.  We can admit that our system is broken.  We can insist that balance be restored, that justice become about fairness, not about punishment.

I don't want Terrence Hill to die.  I want Terrence Hill to make the world a better place.  That's what would satisfy me.  That's what might give me a sliver of a chance to feel at peace and to find forgiveness within me.

January 1, 2012

Old Charley

The door swung inward and the bulk of a man filled the opening from edge to edge. He stood in the doorway and quickly surveyed the room as if to weigh his options before making a strategic placement of himself within my office.

“Charley Matheson,” he announced.

He unstoppered himself from the doorway and a gush of people entered along with him in his wake, the rest of the Matheson family who wanted to weigh in on “Pops buying a house.”

I stood in the middle of the room directing his entourage to various areas of engagement – one to the bulletin board, two to the bathrooms, one to get a drink of water. I waved papers in front of Mr. Matheson’s face, papers I thought might entice him to change his life, seduce him into moving north out of the mosquito-infested plains where “levees threatened to break and The Blacks are taking over.”

As the commotion whirled around me I sighed and rubbed my face, my eyes. I’ve lived my life in the South where racism is an ever-present part of the culture like owning a truck and a hound and how you grow enough yellow squash in the summer to supply all your neighbors and the food bank, too.

“It ain’t that I’m against The Blacks,” he continued, as if to reassure me he wasn’t actually a racist. “I got a good friend who’s black, so it ain’t that. But you know…”

He paused and looked at my face, waiting for me to agree that I understand the difference between Not Liking the Blacks and being A Racist. I do not understand it. And yet… having lived here for so long, I understand the difference as they see it.

“We have a nice selection of things to look at Mr. Matheson. I’m certain you’ll like our area.”

I opened the door for him, turned the OPEN sign to CLOSED and ushered them all out the door.

“The last time the levees threatened to break I packed up everything I owned – my tractors, my tools, all my machinery and equipment for the farm. I loaded it all up on a big trailer and took it to my friend's to wait out the flooding. And when I came back it had all been stolen. All of it. Gone.”

I nodded sympathetically. “That’s terrible,” I said and patted him on the arm.

“I just can’t live with it anymore. When I go shopping, I look around and I’m like a marshmallah in a bag full of chocolate chips and I don’t like it.”

“We should go,” I press firmly and point south in the direction we’d start driving.

* * *

Sometimes people are redeemable. Sometimes they are not.

And principles always matter in one’s heart, but sometimes don’t amount for much in real world applications.

As I headed south, an image swam up to the surface of my mind – me sitting at a cheap and grimy fake wood Formica kitchen table in a ramshackle house with the infuriating and grouchy Mr. Bonds.

“Now then,” he said with a heavy pause, the corners of his mouth twitching slightly as if he is making an effort not to smile about a joke he anticipates telling. “What I do NOT want is for you to show this house to any Black People.”

My eyebrows crunched together and I’m pretty certain my face might have started to fold in on itself in distaste. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Of course I’m not kidding, young lady. I wouldn’t do that to my neighbors, sell this house to Blacks.”

“Well, Mr. Bonds. I will tell you that the Federal Fair Housing Act prohibits the discrimination against persons based on race or color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status or disability.”

“I don’t need the Gub’ment to tell me who I can and can’t sell my house to.”

“The Government isn’t telling you who you can and can’t sell your house to, they’re telling ME who I can and can’t sell your house to.  And besides, Mr. Bonds, you know you’re attitude is just plain wrong.”

He blinked and sat back looking at me as if I was delivering the surprising news that his virgin wife would be giving birth to the baby Jesus.  “No it ain’t.”

I pushed my papers into a tidy pile, carefully lining up the edges. “It IS wrong, Mr. Bonds. I’m afraid you’ll need to find someone else to help you with your house.”

* * *

The Matheson House must have a fireplace. It must have 40 acres or more. It also must have a basement in case there are storms. They must be able to live off the land, must be self-sufficient in case Obama is elected again and the world goes to hell.

The first house was “too rustic” according to Mrs. Matheson who breezed through it in less than two minutes.

“The deer heads don’t convey,” I call after her, half-joking. Nobody but me thought it was funny.

Mr. Matheson wanted to look in the garage but his wife insisted they leave as there was no point wasting time in a house she couldn’t live in.  She fled the house leaving Mr. Matheson and I standing in the living room looking at one another.

“She won’t like the next one if she doesn’t like this one, Mr. Matheson.”

“Call me Charley.”

“Okay, Charley, but she won’t.”

And indeed, the road was too long and all dirt. Yet, it was perfect for Charley. “It’s everything I’ve ever wanted,” he whispered to me as we huddled together next to the huge stone fireplace in the round lodge-style living room.

He leaned his ear down toward my mouth as I whispered back, “Don’t worry, we’ll find it for you. We’ll make it work.”

The third house was too far out of town, but I knew as I turned into the fourth house that it was bound to be perfect.  It bordered a highway and had a long, sweeping curved driveway that was paved. It sat sedate and solidly-bricked on a hill overlooking a cattle pasture with a pond. It had two fireplaces, his and hers.

“This would be my room, Charley,” I teased, pointing to the sun room that had its own fireplace. “And no men allowed.”

“Who’d load yer wood up and start the fire?”

We stood next to each other looking through the sunroom glass. I crossed my arms and said, “I reckon I’d let a fella bring me some firewood now and again.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Old Charley grin before he wandered off to find his missus.

We drove to the back of the property to find the fourth corner of the land. I got out of my car and Charley got out of his. We stood at the corner and leaned on the fence post and looked out at the field where the cows were grazing.

“Like it?”

“Yes I do, missy.”

“Think Mama will like it?”

He stood straight and wiggled the fence to test its sturdiness. “Hard to say. But we won't take it if she don’t like it. Me, I’d be happy most anywhere, but she’s more particular.”

“Ain’t that just like a woman to be fussy about her house?”

“Ain’t it,” he agreed.

“Well, you must be doing something right since you’ve been married all these years.”

He clapped his big hand on my shoulder where it sat for a minute like a hot sack of grain. “Truth be known, she’s my second. I was married to the boy’s mama for 38 years and you know what she done?”


“I was working two jobs and she wasn’t doing nothing. And I wanted to get rid of my old trailer and get a new one so I could get some bigger jobs and she threw a big ole fit and told me absolutely not was I gonna spend the money I earned on a new goose-neck trailer. Well how’s a man sposta make a living if he don’t got the right equipment?”

A white cow brayed its opinion in the distance.

“I still got that goose-neck trailer, but I ain’t got the wife no more.”

I laughed and we walked back to his truck where I waited for him to get in and I said my goodbyes to Mrs. Matheson and the rest of the family, then watched them drive away, back to their house with the dangerous levees and their one black friend and Those Other Blacks.

And I gazed out again at the pastures and wondered how the weather was in Portland this time of year.