Friday, December 31, 2010

Best of 2010: Patrick White - In the Dark With Monsters

Sometimes when I was, and am, scared, I lock the door to the basement. It’s the scary place where the monsters dwell, and on particularly threatening nights, they come out of the basement, feeding off your fear, and do whatever it is that monsters do. Unless you lock the door. In that case, they are stuck down there, pacing up and down the stairs, helpless until the door is unlocked, in which case you are no longer scared, and they are no longer real.

When I was ten, I had recently been granted the privilege of going home after school instead of to a daycare (which I attended until an embarrassingly old seven years old, the shame) or to my Mom’s office. On this fateful day, there was a storm brewing. I was watching Wheel of Fortune on NBC before the news came on. The wind was howling and the rain was pelting the window behind me, so I had to turn up the volume to hear. On the bottom of the screen, the scrolling bar listed Sioux county (“That’s where I live” I thought) as under a tornado watch. Of course, I knew even then the difference between tornado watch and tornado warning. "Watch" meant nothing, an empty threat. Maybe I’ll come and be a menace, just you wait and see, and there’s a chance I’ll come and possibly get you. Warning meant everything, a threat come to fruition. You’d better run and hide because I’m not coming anymore. I’m already here.

Partway through a commercial break, it started to hail outside. I could hear the house being struck repeatedly by marbles of ice. Thunder crashed around, and the sky was dark purple, giving that color about as ominous a presence as possible. I, a child who delighted in scaring others, was now on the receiving end of fear. I was waiting for Mom, Dad, someone to get home so everything could be okay. Pat Sajak and Vanna White checked to see if there were any RSTLNE’s on the board. I saw the contestant pick, but could no longer really hear, their additional letters and vowels. MCDO. Not much help, this one would be difficult. And the timer started. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. No right answer yet. Five. Four.

Then the sirens went off around town. Knock, knock. Guess who? I knew the drill: go to the basement, it’s the safest place in town, get away from all windows and glass, and bunker down ‘till danger passes. I chased after and grabbed my cat, then sprinted to the basement entrance, where I stopped.

I stared down the stairs, which changed direction a quarter of the way down, leaving the rest of the basement in mystery until you were already there. It was a large place, and it felt old, almost a dungeon. There were several rooms, many of them with offshoots, and nothing was quite level. The walls were white stone of some kind, but you could see the individual bricks, and the wall bowed in and out. Some doors wouldn’t shut unless real force was applied, and then they were twice as difficult to open. And of course, this was where the monsters lived.

I used to go “monster hunting” with friends, snorkels refashioned as guns, and even at two o’clock in the afternoon, I would feel uncomfortable in the basement. After all, we were just playing. We didn’t want to find an actual monster. Monster hunting was much less intimidating looking around the shrubs around the neighborhood.

I looked downstairs, struggling to find the courage to do what I knew had to be done. Outside, the wind and hail were creating a background of apocalypse. I closed the basement door behind me, sealing myself in. I exhaled, reaffirmed the grip on the cat in my arms, and took the stairs one by one. The small, feeble basement windows rarely let enough light in on the brightest days of summer, and at present I could see virtually nothing. And step by step I descended below the ground until I felt the cold floor under my feet. I was in the main chamber, and I traveled by memory to the next room, shuffling along, holding out my cat-free hand feeling for the door, dreading finding something else or, even worse, something finding me.

The door knob was in my small hands, and I slipped into the laundry room, windowless and as tornado-proof as any room in town. I closed the door tight, and wandered forward, now in complete darkness, swinging my arm to find the light cord. I was petrified, because I knew that this was the room where the monsters sprang from, and even though I wanted the light, I was reasonably certain that when I turned it on, there would be something right in front of me. At least in the dark I wouldn’t know, and maybe it would be over before it began.

I gripped the cord, the moment of truth at hand, and I tugged. But something went wrong. The string snapped, leaving the light off, and I was suddenly trapped by the darkness, unable to see or perceive the orientation of the room. I frantically grabbed for the rest of the cord, hoping it had broken low, but to no avail. It was out of my reach. I grabbed my cat closer, and sat down, as terrified a child as possible. Outside, thunder crashed relentlessly and the sirens continued to blare. And I sat, alone in the dark where the monsters lived, clutching my cat, crying for someone to save me.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Best of 2010: Aurora Nibley - Spine vs. Spine - Espionage in the Stacks

I don't know her name. No one knows her name; none of us can even remember whether she ever told us. All we know is that she comes in to the public library twice a week, with her ill-fitting jeans and her overbite, and she's nothing but trouble.

She's not the only incompetent volunteer the library's ever seen, she's just the most consistent. Usually the ones who don't know what they're doing are kids who need school credit. They come in once or twice and don't have the opportunity to do a lot of damage. Alternatively, our “regulars” tend to be older, and have a firm grasp of alphabetical organization.

This woman appears to be in her early fifties, although it's difficult to tell. She obviously immigrated to the US from a Central Asian country, India or Pakistan, but exactly which one is also mysterious. She wears her hair in one long braid down her back, as most women from that part of the world seem to do (her hair is black but her roots are gray—I see that a lot in Asian women, do they dye their hair or does it grow out that way when they get older?), but her clothes are western, obviously cheap and badly sized; she has neither the Hindu forehead dot nor the Muslim head covering, so there are no clues about her life there, either. We literally know nothing about her except that she's a walking apologetic smile of incompetence.

When she first came in over a year ago, we started her off with audio/visual materials. We keep these only loosely alphabetized and most people find them to be the simplest items to shelve. But we soon noticed that she couldn't tell the difference between regular audio books and teen audio books (the teen audio books are marked with a large blue dot on the spine—even if you're colorblind, you can see the giant dots) and would consistently put the teen materials in with the adult materials. When we tried to gently correct her, she switched to putting the adult stuff in with the teen stuff, which was worse. She does not take well to instruction, either; if you repeat an instruction (and she realizes it's something she's been told before), she gets huffy, declares that she has a college education, and sulks. But she never leaves.

What we can't figure out about her, aside from everything, is why she wants to volunteer at the library at all. One of our clerks told me that her family just brings her and leaves her here twice a week, to force her to get out of the house (For her sake? Or theirs? Again, unclear). But if that was all it is, she could sit with a magazine for a couple of hours, or use the public internet. Instead, for reasons known maybe only to herself, she wants to be helpful. My theory is that she somehow got the idea that shelving books at the library would help her to improve her English language skills. This might be the case, if she were reading the English books or conversing with English-speaking people. Instead, she is bringing me books marked with the letter F, because they were written by, say, Jonathan Franzen, or Ford Madox Ford, and asking me where she should put them because she doesn't know where the books go that are written in French—which, admittedly, also begins with F.

My personal relationship with her has evolved since we've known each other. At first, I was happy to show her around and explain where everything was supposed to go. I didn't mind answering her questions. Asking questions is how you learn, after all. But after the third or fourth time she would ask me the same question and then get offended at the phrase, “Remember when I told you...”, she gave up asking me. And shortly afterward, when I realized she would just ignore me if I came to help her unsolicited, we basically reached a silent agreement to ignore each other. Except that she hasn't figured out how to walk around a bookshelf if someone is in her way, so if we're working in the same area at the same time, I end up getting squeezed past far more often than is comfortable for me. Which is to say, at all.

Now she and I are at a stalemate. The librarians refuse to ask her not to come back (their philosophy being that any volunteers are better than none, which would make sense of we didn't have a couple of dozen others to choose from), so they keep just trying to think of different new tasks that she might not fuck up. But she always finds a way. She's wily. She kept putting books in the wrong place, so they asked her to put the books on the shelf with the spines facing up instead of out so that we can check them when she's done. But after about one day, she learned to only face the spines upward when she knows the book is in the right place—if she's not sure, she puts it in normally. She thinks that by doing this we won't be able to figure out that she's the one making all the mistakes. But we did. We thought that maybe she was getting things wrong because English is not her first language (although no one knows what is), and so maybe she's just having trouble with the alphabet. I wouldn't trust myself to alphabetize correctly in Greek, or Chinese. So we asked her to put the non-fiction books in order, because they are arranged numerically. For some reason she's not into that, though, so she does about a third to half of the numerical arranging (usually poorly), and then goes back to fucking up the alphabet again.

I myself have been reduced to following her from a distance while she's in the library, like some kind of crazy detective. If I try to do my own work, she'll take the books I'm working with and put them out of order, or she'll trip over me trying to walk through a narrow passage instead of going around. If I get too close to what she's doing, she gets super defensive and offended. All I can do is trail far enough behind her to hope she doesn't notice, and repair the damage.

I wonder how I could suggest that she'd rather volunteer at the UCLA library?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Best of 2010: Barbi Beckett - POP

In the summer of 1969 a prematurely balding man found love at an Arthur Murray dance studio in Texas. The woman was an attractive, plump, single mother of five and she snagged the man right up because he had a good job and he would have her.

The woman and her kids moved in with the man and she spent his money on trips with her friends and a sports car and things like that. The children were discontented. The oldest boy counted the days to his sixteenth birthday when he would ask the woman to sign a form allowing him to join the Navy. The oldest girl started running away at thirteen. The other kids have sporadic memories of her in that house. The middle boy sported a scar in the shape of a rose by his left eye. The woman wore a rose ring on her right hand. The youngest boy was scared. The youngest girl was a baby.

It wasn’t long before the woman decided to love a new fellow. She and the man fought loudly and the youngest girl, now four years old, got scared too. They all stayed with the man for several more months while the new fellow came around the house for holidays and such.

With the two oldest gone and the middle boy too angry at the woman to live with her anymore, that left only the two youngest to move in with the woman and the new fellow. They lived in a few different apartment complexes over a summer and fall. The new fellow worked in Greenland, which would be a long commute so he really just paid the rent and would come around occasionally to yell with the woman. One of those arguments ended in tears at Grandma’s house where the youngest boy would stay to live. The girl would go back to the house with the man and the middle boy. The woman was free to move to Greenland with the new fellow.

The man was now the single parent of a six year old girl and a teenage boy – though the girl has very little memory of the middle boy in the house with them. He went off to college and it was just the girl and the man. Often, just the girl. The man’s good job was an hour away so he left in the dark and, starting in first grade, the girl got herself up, fed, and dressed everyday. She’d slam the front door with the force it took to engage the lock and let herself back in after school. Two hours later the tired man would come home and make them dinner.

The girl thought and dreamed of the woman always. She wrote letters and waited for phone calls and visits. She resented any caring grown-up relation who wasn’t the woman. The man loved the girl as his own and, as far as she knew, she was. No one had bothered to tell her otherwise.

A few years later, when the girl was twelve, she went to visit the woman in another part of Texas where she was working as a house-parent in a facility for troubled youth. During the visit the girl found a strategically placed photograph of herself at her parents’ wedding. She was only a toddler but she easily recognized herself amongst her siblings. The woman told the girl that her real father was a race car driver who had been killed in a work-related incident. She made the girl promise never to tell anyone that she knew this truth. The girl agreed. It was a hard secret to keep.

The first few years were difficult for the man and the girl. He didn’t know how to have a girl and she didn’t know how to not have a mother. The girl spent a lot of time with the youngest boy at Grandma’s house. She strived to make him laugh because he was so sad. She was always happy to learn that the oldest girl was still alive, even if she was alive in a correctional facility and not allowed in Texas anymore. She exchanged letters with the oldest boy who had settled in California and never looked back.

By the time she was in high school the girl and the man had found their way together. He worked hard to protect her from the youngest boy’s darkness but there was little he could do. The girl was unable to hold all of the boy’s pain and would sometimes hurt herself. She hid the wounds from the man.

The girl appreciated the man’s support of her relationship with the boy, whose troubles now included the law. It wasn’t easy for the man to drive her to the jailhouse on those early Sunday mornings so the boy would have visitors or to be the boy’s guardian years later when he needed twenty-four hour supervision by court order. The man had come to love the boy but he did these things for the girl.

When it came time for the girl to graduate from high school, the woman came around and told her that her real father was not a dead car DRIVER but a living car SALESMAN. In fact, he was the most famous living car salesman in town. He had a series of gimmicky commercials that everyone knew. The woman reminded the girl that she’d met the salesman during an event at one of his dealerships a few years before. The woman introduced them and the salesman showed the girl a talking car. Again, she was sworn to secrecy.

The following weeks were surreal for the girl as she would have to sit through the salesman’s commercials while having dinner in the living room with the man.

Since the woman said she’d be informing the salesman that he had a daughter, the girl sent him a graduation announcement with a photo and a letter. She told him not to feel any obligation to her and that she had a loving father. It was unclear whether the letter ever reached him but she did not hear back.

Two years later the girl moved out of the state. She and the man were terribly sad and spoke on the phone often. As she learned to live on her own over the next few years, he always let her know how proud he was and how much he admired the woman she’d become. They’d visit each other and made efforts through letters and cards to express their gratitude and love, but the words they knew always fell short.

The man struggled helplessly to comfort the girl when the youngest boy took his life. The girl’s heart seized and she only felt relief when she thought of joining the boy. She received the boy’s ashes and took them to the same place she’d taken Grandma’s a few years before. She often went to this place by a river with a wooden bridge to be with them. It was better than a graveyard and she could sort of feel them there. The boy and Grandma had never seen a setting like that in their lifetimes and the girl knew they would like it.

Around that time the girl told the oldest boy about the race car driver and the car salesman. He felt certain that her real father was a military man who’d let the oldest boy play with his gun. It mattered very little to the girl. The man was the only version of dad she cared to concern herself with anymore.

Ten years after she left the man’s house the girl found a beau. The man had never before heard her say that she was in love and he was delighted for her. Two months later the man died. The girl’s Love held her up while she moaned and cried for weeks and months. They lived in a space thick with grief and new love, with guilt and confusion around joy in the face of such sorrow. She couldn’t believe her Love would never know the man.

Prior commitments eased or forced the girl back into life where she would have to learn to be in the world without the man. He had always been there, as long as she could remember. Who would care when she boasted an accomplishment? Who would she call when she was afraid her Love would stop loving her? Who would call her because it had been more than a week? Who would send flowers on opening night? Who would tell her the same stories over and over as if for the first time?

Who would send a barbershop quartet to serenade her on Valentine’s Day while she waited tables?

Well, at least that one was a relief.

Now, the girl has a girl and a boy of her own. She will tell them about the man. The same stories over and over, as if for the first time. She hopes they'll want to know.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Best of 2010: Nathaniel Hoyt - Summer Vacation

I shuddered and died and stuttered and fell. I lay on the bricks and spilled out on the gravel highway. Names came and went, but whatever it was, it was we, and us. We climbed the trunk of a city of roots, while the advertisement beacons bid us to buy another beer, buy another beer. So we did and we did and we did. I kicked open a dumpster like a treasure chest and stood on my tiptoes to peer in. We ate dough and sand, and we ate raw bleeding hearts and minds. We were met with applause. I was outside, inside this city of blisters and infants, and I met up with the wind on two wheels, and I shrugged at twenty-two tons of rolling death. I laughed at tasteless jokes. I moved too fast, and fell, and hurt myself. I was what I wanted to be: I was a child and a nuisance.

I will hone the edge of summer to its sharpest point, to stab into the heart of November and out through March's back. I hate March. I hate November. I need December and I need January. I always forget about February. None of that matters anyway. I'm remembering, in a place where every day is pretty much the same, the trash heap on the docks -- massive, easily the size of a hill, made of scrap metal skeletons and the unidentifiable remains of physical infrastructure. Tools, pylons, rebar, gaskets, drums, bolts, bearings, casings, bits, mounts, chassis, cables, and rust, exhumed from the foundations of the little port city and displayed, for a time, auburn and cold, on the dock to wait for the Stygian ferry, the godhand to clutch and drag away. Waiting to be out of sight, and out of mind. I used to approach the scrap heap as if it were a sleeping beast, shapeless and terrible. You couldn't even touch it, every point was blood. But I so wanted to dive in, to burrow my way beneath the dome and live like some trashlord fox. One day the whole damn thing was gone, lifted away like my hat in a headwind.

We always keep in mind the silly game we are taught to play with authority, and obediently tuck our cheap beer cans into our sleeves while the cruisers slide past. They make me uncomfortable; they are reminders. They don't let me forget this isn't a lawless wasteland (although I'm not really too sure). I know I am being watched; my bravado is a frog's croak on the highway. My rebellion is met with ambivalence, tolerance, condescension too. But when they're gone, I'm back in the wasteland; back in the grit and desert of my fantasy. I just want to build a fort and forget.

I allow the question to linger. Sometimes I think I need the tension that comes from unanswered questions. Sometimes I even like it. I can be satisfied enough just waiting for satisfaction. We rarely make eye contact; our conversations are always in motion, always moving, never going anywhere. Strange, but it doesn't drive me crazy anymore. I let it be. Stet.

We see from strange angles. We have no secrets, but we know all the city's. I think I climbed every tree in this park, and I've probably pissed on every tree in that one. At some point at least one of us will be naked. How old are we, twelve? Don't think we ever grew up. Our time lines are made from movable pieces. We are dogs, or rodents. We are a pack without the politics. When it's over I'll remember how foolish it all was, how futile. But I'll remember it with a grin -- a big, gormless, shit-eating grin.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Best of 2010: Lisa Taylor - Fire Season

October is fire season. While the rest of the country swoons over crisp fall air and Mardi Gras foliage, Southern California braces for color of a different sort. We residents scan painfully blue skies for scribbles of smoke. We examine hillsides furred with browned grass, punctuated with the gray-green eucalyptus trees -- ten-story candles, arboreal dynamite. We wince at forecasts predicting “Santa Ana winds” -- super-heated exhalations from the Mojave Desert which often mark fire season’s opening.

I’ve lived in Southern California my entire life. When I was young, the town I lived in, built in a bowl at the center of bone-dry, high-desert foothills, periodically found itself hostage to wildfire. I remember orange skies and ash falling like snow, a layer of black grit on windowsills and the hoods of cars. The omnipresent smell of burnt vegetation and swimming pools sporting an oily slick of spent fuel.

When I was about ten years old, the street I lived on found itself directly in the path of a wildfire. The houses across the street had backyards bordered by natural hillside, separated from relative wilderness by flimsy chain-link fencing. The fire’s point of origin was somewhere to the west of us, started -- intentionally, we found out later -- in the center of a small state park, and blooming outward. We watched the news for word of the fire’s trajectory, paid close attention to the direction and power of the wind. As this was before e-mail, before home computers, before reverse-911 alerts, the information we gleaned was attenuated; it was still possible, despite the orange skies, to feel somewhat removed from the action.

Then we noticed the fire trucks. Five, then six, then seven of them. Converging on our little neighborhood, their shiny red bulk diminishing our homes to mere backdrop. At first, none of the firefighters would talk to us, though we neighborhood kids were dying to talk to them, bouncing up and down on our heels and sprinting back and forth on the sidewalks behind our parents -- our poor parents, whose fear was mostly lost on us, fixated as we were on the firefighters’ uniforms, on their helmets, on their walkie-talkies, the tangible evidence of their importance. Then, receiving word of a shift in the prevailing winds, the firefighters’ focus shifted. A moment of awful, visceral thrill: the firefighters were talking to our parents, telling our parents to pack up and be prepared to leave on their order. We were no longer spectators -- we were the main attraction. We might be on T.V.!

With faces of stone, my parents hustled me and my sister back to our house. We were told we could fill a paper bag each with things from our rooms. At eight and ten, my sister and I did not acquit ourselves particularly well, here: I remember we both stuffed our Barbies and their wardrobes into our bags, but forgot our scrapbooks, our souvenirs. I did have the presence of mind to grab my stuffed rabbit -- named, imaginatively, Bunny -- from its accustomed place on my bed before rocketing out the door, where my parents were waiting in the driveway.
We stood beside our loaded station wagon and watched the firefighters race to the top of our dead-end street, where Little Sugarloaf and Big Sugarloaf (our local names for the neighborhood hills we’d all hiked countless times) could most easily be reached. Our dogs, loaded into the wagon first by my parents (before the photo albums, before my dad’s paintings, before my grandmother’s wedding dress, before my Barbies, for that matter), threw themselves at the windows, barking furiously in an excess of confusion and excitement and doggy-rage. We watched the hill directly across the street.

And then we saw it.

With the speed of water tumbling out of a cup, the fire poured itself over the lip of the hill. Untethered, the fire chewed its way through the brush, through brittle sage and grass and manzanita, a thick spill of red and orange flaring down and out, urged onward by gravity and wind, erasing the usual brown of the hillside. The fire made no sound; it was quiet. Except for the shouts of the firefighters already on the hillside, already in its path, there was nothing to hear. This seemed odd. To my ten-year-old mind, the absence of sound was the scariest bit. Anything moving that fast should have been noisy, should have sounded like a waterfall, like hail, like an engine. This fire was quietly, simply, efficient.

My parents had had enough. We joined our now-hysterical dogs in the station wagon and left.
When we returned to our house several hours later, the only evidence of the fire was a blackened hillside, relieved here and there by the pale gray of scattered boulders, and the smell of ash. The fire was contained quickly, and our neighbors’ homes were spared. Half the kids in the neighborhood vowed to become firefighters when they grew up. And fire season passed.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Josh Grimmer: Ignorance and Want

[ed. note: This essay was originally written a year ago for Josh's other blog, The Mousebed. Just know that some stuff has changed - he no longer lives close enough to Kung Pao Kitty to have them deliver.]

This may come as a shock to many, considering my famously rosy disposition, but I don't really care for Christmas. I'm not a huge fan of any holidays, really. This most likely comes from having had to spend miserable dinner after miserable dinner with my miserable family. Luckily, I suppose, I'm all but estranged from 90% of my family. I'm not particularly proud of it, but I really only ever talk to my dad and brothers anymore. With the exception of the week I spent in the same house with her, I haven't spoken to my mom in well over a year. I don't speak to her partially because I hate every single thing she says and does, and partially because I just don't want to bum myself out. Sadly, this doesn't mean I don't hear from her. She leaves me voice mails every few days, the content of which just serves to bring me down. She's a depressing person, especially around the holidays. Every message is the same.

“Joshua, it's mom. Um, just wanted to know how you are. How's Beepobo [my cat's name is Peepopo]? I hope you have a good (Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, New Year's). I can't wait to come out to Los Angeles to visit you again. Call me right back. (Then, she gives me her phone number, like I don't already know it.)”

I just can't do it. I'm not even sure why I bother listening to the messages at this point. The worst is when she hijacks my dad's phone and tries to trick me into picking up. This just means I never answer when my dad calls. Incidentally, his voice mail messages are just as formulaic, but they vacillate wildly between hilarious and depressing. They usually contain information about my brothers' athletic prowess and my mom's shitty life. One particularly disconcerting message began with “Don't worry, there's no reason you should call me back about this, but your mom just got driven to Mass General Hospital.” Awesome.

Anyhow, now that I'm out of the will as far as most of my family is concerned, the holidays are a little less painful. A “family holiday dinner” for me now usually means my wife and I order food from Kung Pao Kitty and give Peepopo a tin of wet food. I don't go out for Halloween, I don't really do New Year's. I still, however, hate Christmas with a passion envied by the Grinch himself. I hate the music, I hate shopping, I hate crowds. I also hate being compared to Ebenezer Scrooge. By the way, why did everybody need to shit on Scrooge for hating Christmas? It's not like he went around lighting pine wreaths on fire or anything. What's really rough for me is how much I love crass commercialism.

I, personally, wish no ill will upon anybody who wants to celebrate Christmas. I mean, I have a fairly strong faith in God and the Bible, and even if I didn't, I wouldn't begrudge people their right to observe the birth of Christ in whatever way they see fit. I just don't want to be a part of it, is all. I like the idea of giving presents to my wife, although it almost always happens that we're too poor in December to even think about gift-giving. I'm also not one of those people who feels the need to get their pets Christmas presents. A girl at work asked me a couple weeks ago if I was going to give my cat extra cat nip for Thanksgiving. This would have been a lot more appropriate had she asked me on 4/20 - which, as we all know, is Peepopo's birthday. I told her no, I wouldn't be giving the cat extra cat nip on Thanksgiving, because that doesn't make any fucking sense. She's a cat, she wouldn't understand the significance of the gesture. Also, we need to renew her medical cat nip license before I feel good about giving her anything more potent than one of those dingle balls.

One of my biggest dreads is the idea of raising children. It wouldn't be fair to project my hatred of Christmas onto my child - although the idea of raising him 1/12th Jehovah's Witness has crossed my mind. If his birthday is in December as well, then double score. Christmas really ought to be the best day of the year for kids. Presents, family, Jesus, it's all there - the idea of taking that away from my progeny is unconscionable. I fervently hope that I'll be able to provide for my child an environment only half as shitty as mine was growing up. Hopefully by then I won't loathe everything as much as I do now, but let's face it, that's a long shot.


With only a little over two weeks until Christmas actually happens, I still hold out hope that this year will somehow be different than every other. It can't be as bad as two years ago when my wife had an asthma attack so bad that she nearly died on Christmas Eve. It also probably won't be as bad as that Thanksgiving when I woke up covered in pepper spray. The thing that will be most different about this year is my job. I'll probably end up working both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I'm okay with this. It'll provide me with something to do on Christmas besides sit around and wait for my mom to leave me a sad voice mail and then spend the next six hours moping about my apartment wondering why the family I refuse to talk to didn't send me any Christmas presents.

More than anything it'll give me something to do instead of hate myself for getting my wife nothing for a second consecutive Christmas. Three years ago I bought her Primatene caplets from the Long's Drugs on Hollywood and Sycamore, which ended up saving her life. That's almost as good as a card with 20 dollars in it.

Josh Grimmer lives in North Hollywood with his wife and cat. He kinda sorta runs this blog, and has another one at, where this essay originated. Twitter him up at

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Marsi White: A Christmas Carol

Everything was canceled this weekend, for me anyway. Soccer tournaments (rain); a birthday party (not actually canceled, I just did not go); basically all of the plans for the weekend that I had as of yesterday afternoon. I have a head cold. nothing with a fever; nothing particularly notable about it, just a head cold. But man, am I sick!

I have been fighting it all week, taking plenty of vitamins, sleeping as much as possible, the usual. And I thought I was getting better, until about 10:00 on Friday morning. When suddenly, I realized that I should be no where near my office.

However, instead of coming home and going to sleep, I began addressing our Christmas cards. Instead of adhering to our couch, I made myself busy with Christmas-type things. Around 4:00, I succumbed to my sickness. As my body relaxed, the cold hit in full force and it sucks.

Sitting here today, though, I am appreciating all that is holiday. I am enjoying our tree. I am proud that we actually mailed our Christmas cards today, hoping people like the poem that I drafted as a meager way to offer our thanks for all of the support we received this year from our friends and family. We talked about how Santa stops time. We watched a movie and a couple of Christmas cartoons. I made my girl hot chocolate and enjoyed some coffee. I drank Gatorade. Lots and lots of Gatorade.

The best part is...this year, I do not have cancer. Last year, I seem to recall that we did all the same things. However, I also recall an underlying code of stress and anxiety unmatched by anything we had known before. Exhaustion at every step. A tear around every corner. But we did it. Life went on. That was the most important gift of last Christmas season. Life went on and Christmas came. Family came. Santa came down the chimney. He traveled through the night spreading Christmas cheer that cancer could not abolish. LIFE WENT ON.

Perhaps, I am forgetting the nausea or my gray skin tone or the implicit fog that plagued my brain on Christmas day.....but looking back, none of that seems important. I am proud that we got it done for our kids.

Looking back at pictures, I am sentimental. And I think about many Christmas seasons from now when chemo will be a distant memory, when I am completely reconstructed and I think about that special Christmas as a blessing. A blessing that taught me to appreciate all Christmas's past and future. My own Christmas Carol and the ghost that was our escort was my own.

How many people get a second chance like that?

So, I am going to sit on my couch and continue to enjoy our tree. I am hoping desperately that my cold goes away very soon because Christmas is coming. Good thing that most my shopping is done.

Monday, December 13, 2010

J. Allen Holt: I got Bumped for Michael Bay and Giant Robots

I think it was the second day of high school when I realized that I'd never refer to it as the “best years of my life.” Graduation day was a very happy one for me. It was the day that I realized I'd never be forced to see any of these people again.

Ten years after that realization, I was back living in Kentucky. That's when I got word of the pending reunion. In that ten year gap, I didn't come to appreciate all the people that annoyed me in high school. No thoughts during that ten years were devoted to what was happening in their lives. Now, being back in my hometown meant I learned that from time to time. It's inevitable when most people don't leave the city. You go back, and you're bound to run into people you knew in that previous life. The life that was before you went to college, stopped going to college, had to pay your own bills, did your own laundry, went home again, moved across the country, saw some new places and faces, and went home yet again.

Now, the reunion was coming up, and I was resigned to make my appearance. There was a chance it would be fun. There was also a chance I'd be struck by lightning on the way and have a good excuse for not making it. Who's to say which was more likely. I didn't hate everyone I went to high school with of course. I don't think I hated any of them actually. Hate requires a certain commitment of emotion that most of them just didn't inspire.

The people I liked mostly moved away. Others stayed of course. The ones I came across that I wanted to stay in touch with I did. I didn't need to reconnect with the others; because like I said, there wasn't much of a connection in the first place.

Then came the news that would end my time in Kentucky and give me a great excuse for missing the reunion. I had to be in Los Angeles to meet with Roberto Orci. He and his partner were rising stars in the business at the time. Since then, they've written the Transformer films and the reboot of Star Trek. It was a big meeting. My partner who was still in Los Angeles had scored a sit down through some luck and circumstance. After that first meeting, Bob wanted to meet with both of us together.

They were in the middle of filming the first Transformers film that summer. Our meeting got pushed back a week because Michael Bay requested the writers be on set. I had to change my flight so I'd still be in LA for the new date. This change in schedule meant I would be at a beach house in Oxnard, California when my fellow graduates would be gathering in a convention hall and dancing to Coolio and The Tony Rich Project.

It was decided that we needed to finish our newest script before the meeting. So, this limited the amount of time I was able to explain to the class of '96 that I wasn't going to be able to make their little party because I had important people who needed to be in the same room with me. The dates conflicted, and I was really torn up about the fact that I wouldn't be there for the “Macarena”.

The waiting area at Dreamworks is not a place that puts you at ease. It especially fails at this if you're showing up at the lot wondering what the hell you're doing there in the first place. I sat on a couch that probably cost more than any car I'd ever owned. I felt overdressed as two guys in long-sleeve t-shirts and sandals chuckled on another identical couch. I stared for a moment at Spielberg's Oscars displayed above the receptionist's desk. I stopped myself because I felt it might be dangerous like the way it's dangerous to stare at the sun without a cardboard box over your head.

The meeting was interesting. It was a great experience. There was some awkward talking happening. I raised my hand at one point in the conversation. I don't know how many people do that in their first meeting with a legitimate big shot, but I did and immediately regretted it. We gave him the script that we had finished in the time between the first meeting and this one. He was at least impressed with how quickly we worked. The coverage we received later didn't relate any sentiment similar to impressive. It was another valuable lesson learned that day. It's best to sit on it than rush something that's not ready. There were a few things I learned in that. The biggest one was probably this: If I wanted to be a screenwriter, it was going to happen in Los Angeles, not Kentucky. That was a valuable thing to learn, and I moved back to California a few months later. I also got a great story to tell the people I went to high school with whenever they would remark they missed me at the reunion.

Allen lives in Los Angeles. He writes screenplays and for this blog. He also co-produces a podcast with his best friend about music, movies, and anything else that comes up that you can find here: You can also follow his podcast on twitter if you're in to that sort of thing.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Josh Grimmer: There's No "Mom" in "Denial."

The only thing worse than being caught in a lie is not being believed. When I was 15, my dad gave me his credit card information in order to buy tickets for a baseball game. I did that, and immediately afterward I used his credit card to buy online porn. This was back before really good porn was widely available for free, I'll have you know.

I knew I'd get caught eventually, but I figured I'd just lie and get out of it. Who cared what I told them? It'd all blow over eventually, and years later we'd all be dead and nobody would care. I'm sure this is indicative of deeper, more devious and sociopathic behavior in me or something, but eh, whatever. I had free, high-quality porn, and that's what matters.

Eventually the bill came. My dad figured everything out pretty quickly, considering the email address used in the purchase was mine. My parents confronted me, rather angry. It all seemed to be going pretty much the way I had planned. Then the crazy twist came - rather than lie and see how things played out, I accidentally told the truth. I told them it was me, and I bought it when my dad gave me his credit card to buy baseball tickets. Naturally, my mom didn't believe me, which would have been reasonable if I were lying. She thought that my dad had bought the porn and used my email account to shift the blame onto me when the bill finally arrived.

I was so pissed. Angry beyond words. I spent my entire life lying to my parents about EVERYTHING. “Where are you going?” Lie. Fight. “Did you do your homework?” Lie. Fight. “Are you doing okay in school?” Lie. Fight. I figured maybe, just maybe, the sequence could go along the lines of “did you buy porn?” Truth. Over. I know that it probably wouldn't have just ended like that. That seems stupid and unreasonable, but I figure telling the truth would be better for me. I never, ever got away with anything, even if I did lie. Why bother anymore, right? Tell the truth. The truth will set you free.

My mom flew into a rage. She trashed my dad's bedroom. Did I mention they sleep in different rooms, and have for almost their entire marriage? They do, and they have. I'm sure plenty of healthy couples do this, too. She threw all of his stuff down the stairs. Clothes. Trophies. Furniture. Shoes. All of his ties. It all went.

The lesson to learn from all of this is obvious. Just go ahead and lie to my mom. It really doesn't fucking matter what you tell her. She doesn't listen, and it doesn't really register. Her drug-addled brain is the Only Truth. It's obvious, looking back, that my mom just wanted an excuse to get a divorce, and she was presented with a pretty sweet reason by me and my stupidity. This was the exact moment that I decided to officially become estranged. Can I tell you how hard it is to be estranged from your family but still live with them? It's pretty fucking hard. That's exactly how hard it is. Pretty fucking.

Now that I'm living on the other side of the country, I really don't have to talk to my mom. I call my dad every now and again to see how he's doing, and I have Facebook to get a hold of my brothers. I only speak with her when she wrestles the phone away from my dad, to whom she is still married. Crazy, right? I eventually paid him back for the porn. All is forgiven, all is more or less forgotten. And I still lie to my mom every time I talk to her. “Glad to hear from you.”

Josh Grimmer lives in North Hollywood with his wife and cat. He kinda sorta runs this blog, and has another one at Twitter him up at


This concludes Lying, Liar, Liest week. I hope you lie-ked it. If you didn't, you can still tell me that you did. That's not a lie, so much as it is something that friends do to spare my feelings.

Another week is over. How great is that? The year is almost over. That's even better. This week's essays are going to be about brushes with fame, if indeed anybody actually sends me an essay. I got nothing. Seriously, nobody has sent me anything. That's fine – I didn't get anything for vague unease week until Monday, and that one somehow turned out okay. Please send something, if you've got something.

The week after brushes with fame will be about Christmas. The last week of October was Halloween, the last week of November was Thanksgiving, this coming week will be Christmas. Where do I come up with this shit? Man, I am GOOD. Please have your Christmas essays in by Friday, December 17.

The two weeks after that will be a little different. There will be a sort of end-of-the-year wrap up. I'm going to re-post some of my favorite essays from the year. Not all of my favorites, to preemptively soothe anybody who gets all butt-hurt. Just some of them. If anybody has any essays that they'd like to nominate for re-posting, I'm more than willing to listen to your stumping. In fact, I encourage it.

Grosses bises,
Josh Grimmer, Editor-in-Chief

Friday, December 10, 2010

Steve Strong: The Most Interesting Man in the World

The key to telling good lies is to believe them yourself. They say if you can do that, you can pass a lie detector test. But fooling actual humans who are quickly raising red flags of uncertainly, and who are, in fact, starting to question your integrity - well, that takes a different kind of talent altogether.

The key to telling the biggest whoppers – and getting the masses to actually believe them – requires a special gift of detail. The stories must be sold in such a convincing manner that the hearer feels stupid for questioning any part of them. These crazy tales of pure malarkey need to be told with such conviction and in-your-face detail that the listener will decide to back down mentally before challenging the yarn.

How do I know this? Because I have had the fascinating opportunity for over 22 years, of watching up close, the world’s biggest chronic liar: my ex-brother-in-law Brad.

Let me say up front that Brad is a guy whose life story is quite compelling in its own right. Most people would look at how diverse his life has been, and think, “Why would he need to lie?”

Brad stands six foot seven inches tall and every inch of that frame has been filled with diversity of circumstance. He was hit by a car when he was in high school. He nearly severed a finger in shop class. He served a mission for the Mormon Church. He is a meth addict. He’s been married and divorced three times and has four children he has no contact with. He has hepatitis C; he’s been incarcerated twice in the infamous Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix; and his weight shifts from 180 LBS to over 400 LBS depending on his latest drug of choice.

When I first met Brad he had just finished High School. He was riding in my car and he was telling this tale about a little beater of a car he was driving once when the steering wheel came off in his hands and his car hit a tree. When I started to doubt the story, he made me drive to the tree and showed me the scars on it.

When I got married, he was told to take the wedding announcement to the newspaper office so they could publish it. When the notice didn’t appear after many weeks, we questioned him and asked if he really delivered the notice there. He said for sure he had delivered it, and gave this long story about how the receptionist was on the phone when he got there and how she motioned for him to drop it in her In-Basket.

He tried to recall her name, but couldn’t. But he described her as being cute and in her mid-twenties. A year later, after he had moved away from home, we found the notice folded up and shoved in the glove box of his old car.

So, if you’re looking for pointers on how to lie effectively, note how Brad worked in the case of the wedding notice. Great detail here. Even going so far as to admit he couldn’t remember the woman’s name. Very impressive.

When Brad was 19 he was living in Colorado. I was working and going to school in Utah at the time. A friend of Brad’s from Colorado was visiting Utah and looked me up and upon meeting this man for the first time he greeted me with these words, “How does it feel to be the brother-in-law of the youngest winner of the Talladega 400?”

Wow. How do you reply to that? I know for a fact that the closest Brad came to a NASCAR race was watching “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

Once he was working for a water delivery company in Fresno and I met up with one of his fellow employees and was making small talk with the guy when he said, “Do I know Brad? Sure! He’s told me tons of stories about his days playing for the New York Jets. He even showed me a better way of attacking off the line of scrimmage!”

Well, that would be Brad: Lots of added detail to the lies so they sound more convincing. I know Brad once spent some time talking with Mark Gastineau at a gym in Phoenix, so I suppose that gave him his material to cook up the whopper about playing professional football. He didn’t even play high school football himself.

One of my last conversations with him was when I heard him trying to explain to his parents why he had $700 in his wallet even though he was unemployed. He told them he had “found an ESPN camera” and sold it for the cash. His folks smiled and were impressed with his ingenuity.

But after putting up with his lies for so many years, I couldn’t listen to this last one. So, in front of his folks, I asked him what the camera looked like. He described it as being a shoulder mounted unit with a big sticker on the side that said ESPN. I asked him who he sold it to, and he described in great detail how he first offered to return it to ESPN, but when he called them, the ESPN employee on the phone didn’t seem concerned about the thing and told Brad to just keep it. So then Brad supposedly pawned it.

I tried to act all interested like his parents and asked Brad how he got the phone number for ESPN. Did he look them up in the phone book? He said he used the internet. I said, “What computer did you use? You don’t have one at home.”

That’s when he shot me the murderous look and told me to shut up.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Barbi Beckett: Tom Mays

I lied a lot growing up. I lied to avoid getting in trouble. I lied to get my way ("If the kitten goes, I go!" -- I wouldn’t have gone anywhere), and I lied to get attention.

Me: Hey mom, this professional singer came to school today and he liked my voice -- he asked if there were singers in my family!

Her: Well, did you tell him your mother’s a singer?

Me: (deflating, forgetting all those Shirley Temples at the piano bar, feeling stupid for not thinking of a lie she could find no connection to) no, i forgot.

Her: Well, you should have. Your brother sings too.

But, that was when she was around to try and impress with lies. Later, she and her third husband moved to Greenland to work for some technologies company in the tundra; it was impossible to make an impression from that distance. There were no phone calls and letters took weeks to reach her. She was gone.

Things felt bleak but I had nothing on Karlia and Tony Garcia across the street. Their single mom, Cheryl, worked (or something) a lot. When they first moved in, she had a boyfriend that took a particular interest in Karlia. And then another. The boyfriends didn’t tend to have jobs and were around more than Cheryl -- unfortunately for Karlia. Little Tony’s lot was not better. Cheryl HATED him -- something to do with his resemblance to his father. Karlia was nice enough to Tony when Cheryl was gone but when their mom was around, she hopped right on the torture Tony train.

I recently read something Lynda Barry wrote about how even crummy childhoods don’t seem all bad at the time. It’s true, we did have fun. My dad worked an hour away so we had a lot of freedom. That freedom mixed with responsibility could be tough though. Having to go to school, for example, with no one there to watch, created the constant struggle of trying to figure out how to ditch without getting caught. Getting caught was very bad. My dad let me know it was particularly bad for me because, he said, if certain authorities were to find out, I could be taken away from him. So there were stakes.

It would have been much easier to have a grown-up around so ditching wouldn’t always seem like an option. When we did ditch, it was fun, at least before lunch. We’d lip sync to Neil Diamond and put on shows. As the afternoon crept on, things got heavier and uneasy. I’d go home and dread hearing my dad’s car pull into the driveway around 5:30. He’d always heard from the school.

So, one day after school, Karlia, Tony and I got to talking. We weren’t happy with things as they were and decided to make a change. We got out some paper to write plans on. I drew a butterfly while we waited for the first action point to come to us. We knew we were leaving but we weren’t sure where we’d go. We lived about three miles from the foot of the Franklin mountain range -- desertous mountains, sloping down toward an elevated freeway, a long stretch of flat desert and then, our neighborhood. On the other side of the mountains, with a road running through them, was Tom Mays State Park. It was really just more desert but in the "park" the mountain face had caves. Shelter. So, the plan was to go live in a cave in the desert. On some level, I did think I could make it all the way to Greenland. But first, I needed to get to the other side of town.

We wrote out the plan and what we’d need to take: cans of tuna, bologna, blankets, clothes, diary. We were careful to crumple up the plans paper and throw it away so we couldn’t be tracked.

I went home and packed my bag before my dad got home from work. I used my laundry sack, which was like a long canvas army bag with a drawstring except mine had pink, yellow, white and orange flowers. It was stuffed full, half my size and heavy.

You know that feeling that’s the difference between talking about doing something big and knowing you’re really going to do it? My dad came home from work and we went about our evening, me hoping he wouldn’t notice that my heart was beating louder and my nerves were all atwitter. He didn’t. I went to bed and the next morning at 6:00AM when his car pulled out of the driveway, I got up, ate some Frosted Shredded Wheat, then tossed my duffle bag out the tiny window-within-a-window in our dining room and awkwardly crawled out after it. Now, it may seem like gilding the lily to crawl out the window but there was a sleeping older brother, you see, and the thing with our front door was you had to slam it ridiculously hard for it to lock and it had already slammed once that morning. Sneaking out was necessary strategy.

I must have wondered if Karlia and Tony would follow through. I wonder if I was hoping they wouldn’t be standing there with their laundry bags, ready to cross the craggy wilds. But they were. It was nerve-wracking and surreal to be walking up our quiet block at that early hour. If anyone were to see us, it would look very suspicious. We had some ideas about what we’d say if questioned but, still. We climbed the rock wall at the end of our street and were relieved to be safely in the desert for a while. We trudged along, shifting our poorly conceived packing from shoulder to shoulder, until we came to an area where we could be seen by passing cars in what was becoming rush hour traffic. Again, we felt unnerved and self-conscious. There was no way drivers weren’t spotting us, three 9 to 11 year-old kids, walking nowhere near a school at school time. It was a busy road with no traffic lights, though, and we got all the way past the freeway and safely into the open desert again.

Things were less familiar now. This wasn’t our backyard desert anymore. It was vast and starting to climb toward the mountain. We were all getting tired when Tony got stuck by a prickly pear cactus. Apparently, he was allergic because his calf turned red and swelled up. He started to cry and that’s when I remember getting scared. Karlia and I took turns carrying his bag and supporting him while we pushed on. I was just hoping it would go away and, eventually, it did.

For some time, we stood at the mouth of a giant, metal irrigation tunnel, looking through at a dot of light at the end. We finally stepped in. It was long, dark and echoey. We were anxious to come out the other side and curious to see where it would land us. After navigating up the steep gully we’d been deposited in, we were surprised to find ourselves on Transmountain Road. That was the goal, so we were happy at first, but after walking on the road a few minutes, we got sad. It was brutally windy and sand was stinging our faces, pushing us back. After an hour or so, we were desperate for a break so when we saw a light blue VW van parked in a turn-out we all agreed to check it out.

I’d been in less sketchy situations, sure. But it wasn’t even noon and we were beaten. We had no other option than to learn if the owner of that van was a benevolent being. I was elected to knock on the side. No answer. We stood silently until a thin, somewhat scruffy-looking, bearded guy came walking toward us. We told him our story about how we were just three kids with really cool parents who let us go hiking and spend the night in the mountains on school nights. Nodding. Silence. "Cool. You wanna get in?" Did we ever!

Want to know how I determined Ray was trustworthy? It came up that his birthday was February 7th. Same as mine, so = good guy.

It was decided that we would spend the night in Ray’s van. Phew. That was a relief. He even drove us to the secluded Tom May’s Park where the four of us hopped out to see what cave we might sleep in -- at that point, we still thought the cave was integral to the plan. At first, the climb up wasn’t so bad but the ground became dustier and slippery. We were filthy, I could barely see through my glasses, and I was having trouble breathing. This is when I started to cry muddy tears; I was afraid and stressed out of my gourd. We made it to a cave but, surprise, it too was dusty and BATTY. Pass. Down the hill we slid.

As the afternoon waned on, I grew more aware of the sun and the time. School was out. Dad was driving home. Dad was home. Dad was looking for me.

Night fell. I lay inside the van with my diary, as Karlia, Tony and Ray laughed and roasted bologna over a trash barrel outside. There was a dim yellow light and a tiny black-and-white TV was on without sound. I wrote about my grandma. I missed her and from what I was writing, you’da thought I hadn’t seen her for months. My heart was breaking over all the future nights I wouldn’t be sleeping at her cozy, hazy-from-Kools house. No more hot breakfasts (mini toaster doughnuts) and cutting out Family Circus to glue into the scrapbook she gave me for collecting the round cartoon.

I was alone in the van, but at least I had my Garfield diary.

We slept. I don’t remember it being a bad night’s sleep. We were exhausted as never before.

The next morning, Ray, Karlia and Tony putzed around outside. I don’t remember ever leaving the van once we returned from the cave. I guess I was hiding. Suddenly, Karlia and Tony popped inside, "It’s the police." Sure enough, two officers were approaching the van as Ray slowly walked toward them. They all stood talking. The three of them came to the van and Ray opened the door. We all stepped out, with our bags. I looked at Ray but he was looking away, disappointed in us. Maybe Ray DID have "really cool" parents. Maybe he believed us. I can’t imagine.

That was it for old Ray and us though. He stood there and watched as my cohorts and I were loaded into the back of the squad car and it pulled away. Off we went, back over the mountain with our duffle bags on our laps. Quiet. Dirty.

On the walk over to the police car, I’d noticed one of the cops was holding a crumpled sheet of wide-ruled notebook paper with a butterfly on it. So, if our parents hadn’t told them our names, they would have gotten them from the plans, along with a crude map of how to get to Tom May’s Park from our house.

About halfway over the mountain, one of the officers asked, "Why did you all run away?" Karlia and Tony both mumbled, "I don’t know." ‘Cause, how do you say the Truth?

"I was looking for my mom," I blurted. Dork. Lie. I knew where my mom was.

The cop didn’t say anything. We pulled up at my house before 8AM on a work day but my dad’s car was home. One of the cops walked Karlia and Tony across the street while the other walked me to my door and into the house. My dad stood up from his chair in the living room and walked over to me. I stood frozen until he pulled me into his arms and sobbed.

I was embarrassed when the cop told my dad, "She said she was looking for her mother." God, I shouldn’t have told him anything.

No one was mad at me. After the cops left, my dad and I sat on the couch and talked. He told me how worried he was and asked if I wanted to take a bath. After my bath, I was standing in my room brushing my hair when my older brother came in and gave me a hug. "Don’t you ever do that to us again," he said. And then he noted, "You went out the window so you wouldn’t have to slam the door. Smart."

For years after that, I would sometimes fantasize about running into Ray in a K-Mart or some place. I don’t know if he was questioned or bothered by the police at all. He seemed like a pretty nice guy and I felt bad for lying to him. My biggest regret about Ray, though, is that I left my Garfield diary in his van.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Marsi White: Yes, Harrison, There is a Santa Claus

Driving to lunch one day with my colleague, the topic of conversation turned to the fact that I have very beautiful, very smart children. (I love when that happens!) Knowing that my kids are ages 10 and 7, my colleague turns to me and asked if Harrison, my ten year-old, still believes in Santa. I thought for a moment and answered, "Yes, I think so."

My colleague’s children are in high school and college. I have worked closely with him since the birth of my younger child and have known him for more than 11 years. Surmised through the experience of knowing my children and his own, he says, “Harrison is too smart to believe in Santa, Marsi. He’s just too sensitive to spoil it for his younger sister and smart enough to keep his knowledge under wraps, using it to his advantage.”

"Oh," I said, neither denying nor confirming his assumption. Truth be told, I recognize my own denial -- my kids are growing up.

As the Christmas season begins and conversations of doing chores turn plausibly to idle threats of keeping on "Santa’s good list," I contemplate this conversation often. I am waiting for the moment where my smart and sensitive child looks at me and asks if there really is a Santa. And I have to lie.

Or do I? I have never really had a problem lying to my children. I like to think of them as little white lies or fibs. Nothing that will harm them or anyone else. Just the traditional parental manipulation to get out of buying the candy bar at the store or avoid an amusement park.

Of course, there are other reasons why I might lie to my kids. The protection of their innocence ranks very high in my priorities. In a world where anything you want to know is on the Internet and my child can undoubtedly discover a world of adult truths, scientific or assumed, by reading articles on his iTouch, my husband and I seek to protect them from what we can. And sometimes this involves a lie or two.

We could not protect them from my cancer. They were too smart for that. However, I could protect them from what was to come for their mommy and how the preventative measures, radiation treatments, chemotherapy and surgeries would destroy my strength, leave me permanently marred and make my hair fall out. They did not need to know that right away. But did we actually lie? A little. I said "I don’t know" a lot, when most the time I was about 90% sure of what was to come. Then again, I said "I don’t know" to a lot of people, just to avoid the conversation and the detail. To my children, however, I tried to explain where I could, especially when I thought that an "I don’t know" would cause them more worry than not.

My children are growing up faster than I ever could have imagined. Technology and television mitigate our ability to keep them in a bubble and hide them away from harm or recourse. Soon enough, their inquiring minds and adventurous hearts will take hold and their innocence will wither away like a wilting flower. They have plenty of time to KNOW.

So, for now, I will keep lying, in the hope that with each little fib, I grasp an extra snuggle or giggle that is unique to a young child who still does not know that mommy is the Tooth Fairy. Or that Daddy hides Easter Eggs at 4:00 a.m.

And if/when my son asks if there is really a Santa. I might just say, "yes." I am not sure if I am really to give up that lie yet.

Marsi lives in San Diego, CA with her husband, two children and dog. A private foundation grants writer by trade, Marsi explores her creative side by contributing to Writing Writer Writest. She is a breast cancer survivor and keeps a blog of her journey, entitled Nip-It.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Katie McMahon: Pour Me Lies

I have grown up on lies, so I search for them daily, like old habits that I always come back to, whether or not they will hurt me and harm me and make me feel sick all over.

Not big lies, but I have been fed small, bite-sized lies. You are not enough. You can’t do it. You would be better at something else. You are not pretty enough. You are smarter than them. You are not smart enough. This will be important to you someday. Make me a sandwich. This is not right. Where is the mustard? You are not enough.

The problem with lies is that they become little facts in your brain. A whisper turns into a shout and then it becomes who you are, without you even asking for it. After the shouting, trust becomes impossible because everything that is close to being true is full of doubt and strands of advice and suggestions that you never asked to hear.

The lies I tell myself:
I am not afraid. I like everything that we do. I like being quiet while you talk. I like the way you smell. You are handsome in the morning. You are so funny. You are so strong. What a nice car. I love cats. I like sci-fi movies. Of course that’s okay with me.

And I lie to my body when I stay up all night with you. I tell her she will get sleep another day. I will make it up to her, so my hands can touch your arms and hold onto your shoulders and my mouth can move without making a sound and I can tell myself that these are the moments that I am supposed to enjoy.

So I will say things like, “I can sleep better on my own,” or “I like sleeping on this side of the bed,” when really I sleep best wrapped up tight, unable to breathe or move or feel anything at all, with my head buried so deep in your chest that I could just suffocate and die. Every part of my body will fall asleep and then I will be completely numb to everything you say and do.

After turning off the lights, I like it best when he lies on top of me and only parts of me can move. I feel his sighs on my stomach and my sighs are felt by the sheets beneath. The sheets’ sighs are felt by nothing because they are crushed too thin to make a move or maybe it’s just that no one cares because sheets are just things. But we are supposed to mean something more.

Then he whispers lies into my ears and I feel at home, like a kid again, before going to bed with the door cracked open just enough so that I could see the light from the TV, sweeping its way down the hallway. Then the whispers become shouts and the shouts become what I see when I look in the mirror.

And people keep saying, “What do you want?” What do you want? All I can say is that I want someone who will not lie, who cannot lie, but what I crave is someone who will only lie. What I want is for everyone to stop saying, “You are more than enough,” because being more than enough is too much.

To wake up one morning and to recognize not only you, but me. To say, “I am afraid,” and for you to only say, “Me too.”

Katie McMahon is a lady who lives in the North Hollywood area. She has a bachelor's degree that she keeps on her bookcase and looks at sometimes. She is getting a master's degree to put on her nightstand. Sometimes she takes pictures which you can look at here:, but you don't have to if you're busy right now.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Josh Grimmer: The Worst Thing I've Ever Done to Anybody, Ever b/w State of the Union for December 4, 2010

At this point I feel the need to remind you that you’re on my side here.” – Mike Birbiglia

For the first two years of my high school career, I went to a weeeird school. I went to a school with about 250 or so students but little funding to go around. As such, the school had fewer amenities than the Big Soul-Crushing Public School, Man across town. Most schools had things like cafeterias, auditoriums, libraries and teachers who got paid. We didn't have anything like that, but we did have a guidance counselor, and she was kind enough to take an interest in the lives of her charges. Since she had so few students, she was the guidance counselor for all of us. She knew every intimate detail of every member of the student body. Non-sexually, of course.


I dated two girls my freshman year of high school, neither of whom really turned out the way I thought they would. I failed in both relationships. The first dumped me on my birthday because her parents thought I was a bad influence on her. The second dumped me on her birthday because I wasn’t a bad enough influence on her.

Going into my sophomore year, I got around to asking a girl out who I thought might want to date me for longer than a month. As always, I was way out of my league. She was smart, classy and dignified. If you have managed to read anything else I've ever written, you’ll know that those are three words that don’t describe me. Whenever people asked me why I felt insecure with her, I told them about our summer jobs. I worked at the A&P Supermarket, she worked at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. I couldn’t compete.

There was one other thing that made me uncomfortable with her – she was afraid to kiss me. Anybody reading this who was ever the age of 15 knows that it’s impossible to convince a girl to kiss you without sounding like a date rapist. You just can’t do it. Instead of working through this roadblock, we just ended all of our dates with awkward hugs and I would sneak a kiss on her cheek on the doorstep of her parents’ house. Romantic, right? Well she hated it. I can’t be sure, but I think her parents didn’t approve of me being – believe it or not – a bad influence on their daughter. I couldn’t fucking win, man.

During this time I was eligible to be confirmed as a member of the Catholic faith. The bargain I struck with my parents was as follows: once I went through the rite of confirmation, I no longer had to attend mass with my parents anymore. I couldn’t have been more stoked to be confirmed, let me tell you. In my confirmation classes was a redheaded girl who I had never seen before. Apparently her parents moved from another town and she was to be confirmed at the same church as me. She was much more my type – angry, rebellious and a smoker. We had similar taste in music and that was really the most important thing to me at the time. She and I spoke for hours on end every night after I’d get off the phone with my girlfriend, a habit I would repeat two more times before I was done dating. Long story short, I fell in love.

That summer I grew apart from my girlfriend. Like I said earlier, she worked at Woods Hole and I worked scanning groceries, so we didn’t have much to talk about at night when we’d get home from work. It didn’t help that her dad wouldn’t let her stay on the phone past 9pm, which at the time I considered totally fucking lame, a position I hold to this day. We spent little time together that summer, and when we were together we’d sit around and watch movies. Her favorite movies were Benny and Joon and Harold and Maude but sadly not Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.

As our relationship grew stale, I started talking more with the Girl From Confirmation Class. We’d see each other fairly often and she knew she had me wrapped around her finger. We would hang out all the time, doing things that could only be described as perfectly normal and perfectly healthy. We’d watch Internet porn, talk about our favorite hilarious Internet-only fetishes and listen to Tori Amos albums, all while never having sex. I wasn’t about to cheat on my girlfriend, after all.

Then one night we had sex. One night she came over because she wanted to learn how to play Dungeons and Dragons, and instead we had sex. I know I don’t need to tell you how this all happened - it’s a tale told since time out of mind.

The next day I called my girlfriend, planning to tell her that I had to break up with her, possibly telling her about how horrible a person I was. I got a hold of her and before I could say anything she was crying. Her fucking cat died. I couldn’t believe it. There was no way I could dump her then. If I ever got dumped the same day my cat died, I’d throw myself off of a cliff. I put it off, hoping that things would just kind of figure themselves out, as things are wont to do. Believe it or not, they didn’t.

I kept cheating on my girlfriend that summer, and that September we all had to go back to school. My girlfriend, the Girl From Confirmation Class and I all went to the same school of approximately 250 students, so we all saw a lot of each other. Needless to say, things were pretty nerve-wracking for me. There’s no worse feeling than being constantly reminded of how horrible you are as a person.

One night I was with the Girl From Confirmation Class and we were just starting to have sex when I stupidly decided to have a conscience. I told her I would have to break up with my girlfriend before any other sex could be had, but I would do it at my soonest convenience. We fell asleep without speaking to each other.

The next day, I was invited to lunch by my guidance counselor. Remember my guidance counselor? It’s a post about my guidance counselor. We went to lunch at the hippy restaurant near the school and she told me that my girlfriend would no longer need my services as a boyfriend. I couldn’t believe it – the GFCC told my girlfriend about our tryst(s) and was she ever pissed.

Small class size is a good thing if you’re a teacher. It’s less of a good thing when you’re a bad person and everyone knows in under an hour. I was virtually blackballed from school and I had to transfer to the Big Soul-Crushing Public School, Man just to avoid the constant shame. There's nothing worse than every single person you encounter on a day-to-day basis knowing that you're a wretched piece of shit. You’ll never fucking believe what book we were reading in English class that month. Say it with me: The Scarlet Letter.

A few months after I transferred, my now-ex-girlfriend and I started talking again. We talked about how much we liked being together and how I should have just asked her to have sex with me. She’d have said no, but at least we’d have broken up before I cheated. A few years later I’d be on the other end of infidelity and I finally understood how horrible it felt. Whenever I think about it though I always feel like I deserved it for how I acted in high school.

Josh Grimmer lives in North Hollywood with his wife and cat. He kinda sorta runs this blog, and has another one at Twitter him up at


If that's not a tale of vague unease, I don't know what is. The very, very attentive will recognize that story from my old blog, The Mousebed. I did a little touching-up, a little editing, a little re-writing, a lot of re-purposing. I thought we'd be a little light on stories this week, considering I had zero sent to me on Friday, but it looks like we did okay for ourselves. Thanks to all who wrote. An extra special super awesome thanks to the lovely Sabrina Parke, whose essay “Who Should I Make This Out To?” got a mention on Schmutzie's Five Star Friday this week. How great is that? I'll tell you how great it is. It's really extra special super awesome great. That's how great it is.

We shouldn't dwell on our past victories, though. What we should do is talk about this coming week's theme. Lying, Liar, Liest. Tales of fibs, lies, falsehoods and truth adjustments. Expect some fantastic essays from all of your favorite writers, as well as me.

The week after that will consist of essays about brushes with greatness. Remember the time Emo Philips came to get a cup of coffee from you at work and you nearly puked on him? That's the kind of stuff we're talking about here. Writers, please get those essays in by next Friday, December 10. That is all.

Grosses bises,
Josh Grimmer, Editor-in-Chief

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Steve Strong: The Day the Drug Dogs Caught Me

There was a brief period of peace in Iraq from September 1988 to August 1990. Just two years. After eight years of constant war with Iran, the Iraqi’s took a two-year break, during which time Saddam Hussein decided he had the green light to annex Kuwait. Their brief period of peace ended with the U.S. “shock and awe” that turned Saddam back to his own land and left Kuwait ablaze.

The eight-year war with Iran was straight out of Orwell. Massive defeats were proclaimed to be victories. Young-men-turned-soldiers died inglorious deaths by poison gas on a scale not seen since 1918. Massive posters of Saddam were everywhere. Billboards on the side of the road showed him in a military helmet. Posters in stores showed him sporting a turban. Every home had pictures of him kissing babies, and generally looking lovable.

When I asked Iraqis why there were so many pictures of Saddam, they all replied with the exact same phrase: “Because we love him.”

Crazy. War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.

I was there once during the last year of the war and again during the brief period of calm before the Kuwait invasion. It was a memorable place, and although I was warned not to walk around on my own, I did it all the time. I wanted to spend as much time with the Iraqi people as I could. I was there to facilitate the sale of passenger car tires to the Socialist government of Iraq, but I took the opportunity to visit Babylon and the National Museum of Antiquities.

I mention all this because it explains why I had two Iraqi visas in my passport when I got in trouble at LAX (Los Angeles International Airport). While the United States was bombing bridges, roads and telecommunication centers in Iraq, I was on a business trip in Japan. In fact, I had mostly moved on and forgotten about my business dealings with Saddam’s government. I was in Japan doing some kind of business deal involving collectable antique autos.

When I landed in LA on my return from a week in Japan, I noticed there was a dog running loose in the airport, near the baggage claim. I thought that was strange, so I watched him running around from person to person. Then the little dog came up to me and started sniffing around my ankles and the one bag I had picked up from the carousel.

Then just as suddenly as that dog appeared, he ran off in another direction. Again, I thought that was weird and I was sort of amused at the thought of a dog loose in the airport. That’s when I noticed a beagle sniffing my shoes and legs and my luggage. I thought, “Holy cow, another loose dog in the airport!”

Just then, my last bag came off the carousel. I grabbed my bag, turned around, and the dog was gone. I got my things and started walking to the customs area when I felt someone grab both my arms and pull me away from my luggage.

Two big drug enforcement guys didn’t handcuff me in front of the big crowd, but they certainly had a hold of me and told me to go with them. They took me to a long metal table in full view of people lining up to clear customs. I was embarrassed for sure, so I asked them what was going on.

“You don’t ask us questions. We ask the questions here.”

They searched my briefcase and my wallet before searching my luggage. They took my passport and started going through it. “Why were you in Japan?” Business.

Holy Cow! They saw the Iraqi visas in my passport and turned up the heat. “What were you doing in Iraq?” “Do you have friends in Iraq?” “Why did you have to go to Iraq twice in such a short time?” They didn’t seem to really listen to any of my answers.

“How much money did you take to Japan?” Two-Hundred Dollars. “You only have $140 in here now, what did you do with the other $60?” I really can’t say. I was there for a week, maybe it was food.

These guys were all business. I’m 6 foot 3, but they all seemed taller and stronger than me. They were irritable, bossy, and suddenly I found myself sweating there at that table. I don’t know who had access to my bags. No, I didn’t have them locked. Yes, it’s possible that someone put drugs in my luggage.

They pulled a week’s worth of dirty laundry out of my bags and across the table for all the world to see. I wasn’t allowed to touch anything. They saved the suitcase the dogs were most interested in for last. They asked me one last time if I had any contraband in there. I told them no.

Then they opened it and started dumping my stuff out on the table. They found a plastic bag full of Andes Mints and asked me what that was for? I told them I was doing Weight Watchers and when the hotel left those on my pillow I was saving them for later.

They all looked at each other and told me they were done with me. That was it. No apology. No help re-packing my stuff. I wanted to get out of there as fast as possible so I didn’t say another word to them.