Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Happy Trails

Hey everyone, just a tiny update here. It is with an indifferent heart that I announce the indefinite suspension of Writing, Writer, Writest. It has been a lot of fun - and really quite useful - for as long as it has been running, but the project just isn't doing it for me anymore. And when I say "me," I am speaking as both Josh and Meg. Josh was the first to admit it to himself, then Meg joined in. They're both kinda over it. Thank you so much to all of our writers over the past five months. We love you so much, and you were so fantastic. There were so many beautiful, touching, hilarious, personal and weird essays.

There will likely come a day when WWW returns from the Internet mists. Maybe in... six months? Three months? Two years. A week! TIMES! A few hours. Whatever. Friday? Fried egg? Some day, I'm sure. Just not right now. In any event guys, it's been a lot of fun. Thank you.

Grosses bises,
Josh Grimmer (and probably Meg Wood, too. Can't speak for her. You know what? I'm gonna. She says thanks.)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Steve Strong: Christi's Legacy

Christi was a beautiful young lady. She was perky, energetic, and absolutely full of life. She was an extrovert, and all about drama before it was fashionable for young women to be dramatic. In describing her like this, it sounds like I’ve written her obituary – but Christi is alive and well. She’s just not around me anymore.

Christi was the kind of girl who, when you were making small talk with her in a crowded cafeteria, would suddenly yell “Hi Robert!” Six guys would turn their heads to her and she’d wave to each one and say hi. Then I’d ask her who she was saying that to and she’d say no one – she just knew it was a common name.

In the very small community of Mormons in Michigan in the 1970’s it was understood that Christi and I would date and, maybe more than just date, it was possible that we would marry. At least, some people were rooting for that.

Christi joined the church while I was a missionary laboring in Japan. She was extremely popular in her high school, and was voted the school’s “Snow Festival Queen” of 1978. She was from a broken family, and when she joined the church, the last of the family members that cared about her quit talking to her. She was alone and on her own by the age of 18.

By the time Christi and I went out on a date, she was living in East Lansing and attending Michigan State University. I had basically been avoiding girls for the two years I was in Japan, so when I drove down to see Christi I was very nervous and awkward around women. It was arranged that I would drive down on Friday night, have dinner with her, then stay on the couch of some guys she was friends with, and then spend Saturday together.

Christi wasn’t weird. But that was the first word people used to describe her if they didn’t understand her. For instance, when asked what her major was in college, she would say, “Puppetry.” Then you would naturally ask, “Does Michigan State have a Puppetry major?” To which she would reply, “Not yet. They’re making me take English, but I plan to start the Puppetry major here.”

On that Friday night of our first date, I got down to East Lansing and she told me wanted to make me a dinner with the theme of “Indian.” I thought she meant we were going to have curry, but no, she meant Chippewa. She baked fish that was burnt and too salty to be edible. We both picked at it but couldn’t eat it. To go with it, she made succotash which was lima beans and corn. I can’t stand lima beans and was choking this stuff down trying to be polite and I noticed she never ate at all, but was just watching me. I asked her what she was doing and she said she hates lima beans so she wasn’t planning to eat that night.

On the second evening of our first date, she asked me to drive her to a graveyard. I thought that was an odd request, but I obliged. Neither of us had warms coats, and this was Michigan in February, but she said she wanted to get out of the car and walk among the graves. It was so cold out there, and she snuggled up to me and said “Hold me.” The whole thing was so strange I felt like I was on Candid Camera!

During the time I was seeing Christi I purchased my first car: a rolling piece of rust called a Ford Mustang II. It was a 4 cylinder car that took one quart of oil for each tank of gas. The driver’s side floorboard had rusted through and I bondo-ed in a piece of wood so my feet wouldn’t hit the pavement when I drove.

It had a tachometer that only worked when the car had been parked in the sun with the windows rolled up. It had the unique combination of no pickup and terrible gas mileage. It was truly an engineering marvel – the pride of 1973 Detroit.

But what the vehicle lacked in body integrity and motor mechanics it made up for in acoustics. I bought and installed a four-way speaker system with the front speakers in the door panels and the rear speakers sitting on the back seat. It had woofers and tweeters like a living room stereo in the back seat and the sound was excellent. If anyone rode in the backseat, they had to hold the speakers on their lap.

I wanted to impress Christi on our date, so I put together a mix tape of Foreigner, Boston, Skynyrd and other cool groups from the era. But when I took Christi for a drive, the first thing she asked me to do was to turn off the music. I was honestly shocked that she wasn’t impressed, and asked her if she wanted some other kind of music.

She looked me in the eye and said, “Wouldn’t you rather talk to me?”

She explained her philosophy that people hide behind noise instead of communicating. She said she liked music, movies and dancing as much as the next person, but she thought that the time two people spent together was precious and shouldn’t be polluted by noise which makes it harder to understand each other. She looked at me and said, “Let’s leave the music off and just talk – unless you’d rather not hear from me.”

That was an awkward moment, but the more I thought about her words the more wise they seemed to be. Why spend money on a date just to hide behind a bunch of noise? After all, isn’t a live person infinitely more interesting than the same old music you can hear over and over with the push of a button?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Kim Harmeling: Cool Redux

I love cars, old cars, new cars, trucks, SUVs, anything, as long as it’s got some personality and a bit of style. My husband just views them as transportation, a way to get from one place to another faster than walking or taking the bus. If it was up to me, I’d buy them like shoes, coordinating them with my outfits and that day’s mood, storing them in a big garage where I could go and ponder which of my collection to drive today, what do I feel like today… let’s see the Caddy or maybe the SUV? In a bad mood? Let’s take the black Dodge Charger. Whenever we buy a car the husband has to steer me away from the great cars on the lot toward the practical cars with admonishments about bad gas mileage and impracticality. I go along with him even though the car lover in me doesn’t really care about those things.

I’m particularly fond of old cars and muscle cars; big, old, American made gas guzzlers with steering wheels as big around as a large pizza, fins you could hang a laundry line from and that require a parking space large enough for semi; loud fast, muscle cars, the beefy originals of the re-imagined versions now put out by Ford, Dodge, and Chevy. Those cars are just cool – they look cool, they sound cool, I felt cool when driving one.

The very first car I ever owned, the one that was mine, paid for with my own money earned at my first real job, was a 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 302. It was white with black racing stripes and chrome wheels. I had trouble getting insurance for it since I was still using my parents insurance company and the place wouldn’t touch it because it was a “race car”. I didn’t really mind the hassles about insurance after that, I was driving a cool car so the cost of insurance wasn’t important. A car like that, it gives a girl confidence, particularly when she – I – was out in the world for the first time and not really sure I knew what I was doing. I could go out, get in the car, tool around for awhile listening to music, eyeing the guys eyeing my car, and get an instant attitude adjustment. I loved that car, drove it for years during college and after, did all the work on it myself, even changed the radiator and heater core out which was a bitch to do, even following the Chilton’s instructions.

Eventually it started to leak and squeak, water would leak into the interior causing it smell like a swamp and the windows to fog up on the inside when the heater and A/C couldn’t keep up with it any more; the suspension squeaked so badly that going over rough road sounded like a great Saturday night on a cheap bed. Practicality and lack of funds to fix the major problems led to the agonizing decision to sell it in order to buy something more dependable. More boring. More adult. Less Cool.

I miss the time when just driving a car was all it took to make things better. All I had to do was put the Mustang on like a suit of armor and be a bit more invincible, more desirable, more confident than I was without it. The Honda just doesn’t do it that for me. It gets me from place to place, dependably, quietly, boringly but with no particular style or panache, no aura of cool confidence that I got from my first car. Maybe I don’t need that any more, practical considerations being more important, but I still miss it.

When I see an old, well cared for classic car on the street I have to walk over and take a look. It’s all I can do not to caress a fender or put nose prints on the windows looking at the upholstery inside. If I’m lucky the owner, usually a guy older than I am, will come out and I can openly admire his ride, envious that I don’t have one of my own. He’ll stand a little straighter, get a gleam in his eyes talking about it and you can see the Cool Guy he was when he drove that model for the first time. Maybe that’s why old guys have all the cool old cars, they remember how great it was to drive one and want to catch just little chill before it’s too late. Someday I’m going to be old enough to toss practicality out the window, maybe leave it open, get me another cool car and catch a little chill.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Marsi White: Treasures in the Abyss

My car is a mess. Not only from the rain that has plagued our region of late and the sap spray from the oak tree in our front yard, but from the tornado that rips through my car each time I transport my children. My kids are ages 7 and 11. We have encouraged their participation in various sports and extracurricular activities and take pride in their accomplishments. However, this also means that we are rarely home, living evenings and weekends speeding from one end of town to the next, cheering for the child of the hour and basking in their smile as we do. The car pays the price.

And yes, I did say sap spray. For some reason when ever I park my car in my driveway, after a undetermined amount of time, there is a fine mist of sap blanketed over my car. A mist so fine that it is only noticeable when I am sitting inside my car keys in hand, ready drive to that destination where a clean car would be preferred. The sap does provide a nice sheen. Just not a sheen that promotes the longevity of my car’s paint job.

I am not entirely innocent. The science experiment that was once a banana was left on my passenger seat before we departed for an 8-day cruise. I would like to blame the kids for distracting me to the point that I forgot my uneaten banana as I chased them into the house for some violation of the family code. Not so much. I do not think they were even in my car that day. The car was just the victim of my distracted mind.

However, the majority of the mess is from my children. I like to think of my car as the toy store of no return. At any given time, there are probably no fewer than five toys from the kids meals obtained at a drive-thru window while on our way to the sporting activity of the day. Closely related are straw wrappers. I am pretty good about removing out and out trash. I make the kids do it mostly, but it seems that the straw wrappers are like magnets to the floor of my car, jumping out of the kids’ hands and diving into the abyss.

The amount of straw wrapper and kids meal toys are followed by a close second by a score of socks. I do not understand what it is about getting into my car, but both kids suddenly feel the need to strip their shoes and socks off almost immediately. Getting out of the car, they always tend to slip their shoes back on to their feet without their socks. Now, I really do not blame them for not caring to put sweaty socks back on their feet, but why take them off in the first place?

I drove my colleagues to lunch this week but gave them fair warning about my car, cautioning them not to look too closely at what lurked at their feet. And really, that is the key. My car does not look all that messy from a far. As my three colleagues squeezed in the back seat, they handed me some glass rocks, or as my children would call them, “treasures”, that were lying in the crevice of the seat. I have no clue the origin of these particular treasures. But the sight of them brought me back to a story from my son’s early childhood. He was about five years old and not yet in Kindergarten. It was beautiful Sunday morning and we had planned to go on a small hike at a park near our house with his friends and their families. One of the dad’s had thought ahead and brought some of these glass rocks with him. When the boys were not paying attention, he had run ahead and placed them in the river for the boys to find. I still remember the squeals and excited looks on the boys faces, followed by their theories on where the treasures could have come from. Pirates, perhaps?

As I told this story to my colleagues, I felt myself smiling from my head to my toes. And in that moment, I did not mind how dirty my car might have been that day. The treasure found in the abyss provided me with a gift.

So, while my car might appear battered and worn from time to time, I cannot help but reminisce about all of the special memories that it holds. Family moments. Trying moments. Moments that I would never trade for a car wash, any day of the week.

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.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Marsi White: Grace, Dignity and a Smile

This time last year, I had many decisions to make. Breast cancer was swiftly spreading amidst the healthy cells on the right side of my chest, each day, slowly surrounding them a little bit more. Though I could not feel any physical change, my nightmares included young, brave cells battling monsters, their body armor tattered and worn. Chemo had taken hold of every aspect of my life. I was four treatments in . . . and while I was still smiling, my skin was ashen and every ounce of my being was fatigued and sore.

Little did I know this would be the easy part.

My mastectomy trumped chemo. They were not able to complete a skin saving mastectomy on my right side, so everything had to go. Flatter than a pancake, I still smiled. I had no hair, but figured out how to wear scarves and hats to hide my battle wounds. I could handle it.

My eyebrows fell out shortly after my mastectomy. I still smiled like it was all part of a well-planned strategy. I always had trouble with those buggers anyway. Always. And with the birth of each of my children, my eyebrows took a vacation, too. I was used to it.

However, the day I lost my last eyelash, I crumbled. I cried a silent tear. I wondered if I would ever be well again. I wondered if I was being punished for being vain. I hoped I would be able to mask my sadness with a good coat of make-up. I cried alone, too afraid to let anyone know I was crying over eyelashes. I wanted to throw something. I wanted to crawl back in bed and give in to the darkness that plagued my heart and my mind. I did neither. Remembering that I am a mother and wife first, I took a breath and hid my sadness.

The decisions that plagued the weeks following were the most challenging of my life. After my surgery, I was cancer free. Chemo was complete. What would come next?

The options on the table were 1) whether or not to have radiation treatments and 2) whether or not to have a prophylactic mastectomy on my left side.

I wanted to run away. I wanted to win the lottery and buy a lifetime of health and wellness. I pretended the prank was short-lived and I was the joker that orchestrated it all. I did not want to face the fact that my cancer would never be "in remission."

Decisions. I had to make them. I had to decide what would buy my life the most time. Which decision would help me best on the craps table? Do I play the hard 6? Or do I play the line? And depending on how the line was interpreted, I was sure that I could go either way.

The reality was that an abnormal cell could be anywhere in my body and at any time decide to divide, as cells do, and metastasize. That was the gamble. Radiation and the prophylactic mastectomy were the best shots I had to rid my body of abnormality. They both had serious risks and traumatic side effects of their own. Not to mention, I had already put my body through a boot camp like no other. I was not sure what I had left.

I did have a couple of tricks up my sleeve. My brother and his wife were in charge of deciphering reports that talked about outcomes and life expectancy. That, I could not face. I could not live in the "what ifs."And words like “long-term outcomes” only served to frighten me in deepest crevices of my soul, leaving me shivering and unsure.

So, I thought and I thought. I listened. I rebelled in words and in my mind. I understood the recommendations. The implications on what I needed to do were fairly clear. However, when these decisions were on the table, it was not difficult to find another cancer survivor who made both options work.

For those of you who have been following my story, you know the decisions I made. I had six weeks of radiation treatment and a prophylactic mastectomy. And I did so with grace, dignity and a smile. In my heart of hearts, I knew that I would. I knew that my best chance of surviving stage four breast cancer was to use every weapon in my arsenal. And I did. And I won.

What you would not have read is my daily battle with myself to try to avoid radiation and the prophylactic mastectomy. That private talk show ran through my head at least once an hour. Life served more like the commercials on some days. Distracted and torn, fear was the show host and my future was the only guest.

On the other side now, I have no regrets. I still have some decisions to make. However, I am happy that my healthy cells have their armor back. It is still in need of a shine, but it is far from the tattered and worn state of last year.

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.

Josh Grimmer: This is Where I Swim b/w State of the Union for January 15, 2011

I feel like a lot of the decisions I've had to make have really been made for me. Not so much in a “cosmic nudge” sense, but more in an “only option” sense. I went to Bridgewater State College because they were the only college that accepted me. I think technically I'm still on the waiting list for St. Joseph's College of Maine. Hopefully someone from the board of admissions is a fan of this blog. They'll read this, then fast-track me to a residence hall in Standish, ME. Anyhow, decisions. I live in Los Angeles because I had to move away from my family and it was really my only option. I don't choose to do anything, it seems, and when I do it's really not for me. I feel like choices only need to be made if things are changing, and I don't like change. Choosing to get a new job. Choosing to move to a new apartment. Choices seem to only lead to new things. No thank you.

I suppose you could argue that I've made the decision to avoid decision-making. Thanks, Geddy Lee. I just want to lead a simple life, y'know? Decisions are challenging. It hurts to make decisions. Every time I make a decision, I feel like I'm locking off so many other options. You can never go back. Rather than make the wrong decision, I just want to never choose. It's easier to live thinking “well, at least I don't make a lot of bad decisions” than thinking “boy, I make a lot of bad decisions.”

If life is just an excuse to experience things, I suppose it could be argued that there's no such thing as a bad decision. You keep living and living and living and you accrue experiences that allegedly add up in the end to Exactly One Life. I feel like my life is no less rich and full than somebody who goes out and does a billion things. Am I less complete than somebody who has driven across the country? Probably not.

I guess more than anything, I just want to be left alone. No decisions to make. Status quo. Let's just see how everything plays out. It's not exciting. It's not fun. It's just kind of what I want. I don't want to be challenged because I'm afraid to fail. I'd rather be lame than a failure.

Then again, isn't being lame the same as being a failure? You've failed at life. Life really is nothing but an excuse to accrue experiences. If you don't do that, then you've objectively failed. You are a failure at life, and I'm headed that direction as we speak. Well, as I write and you read. Anyhow, yeah. I'm failing. Floundering. Drowning in life. Maybe not that dramatic, but close. I don't decide to do anything until it is absolutely necessary, in case another opportunity opens up. The reason I never advance is because I'm afraid I'll miss out on a chance to advance. It's a wretched Ourorboros of indecision and loathing. I hate myself so I never make decisions so I hate myself so I never make decisions. Since I'm obviously too dumb to make good decisions, I never make them at all. I never make decisions because I feel like I've never made a good one.

I had trouble deciding where we should eat for lunch today. I finally sided with the place that had lunch specials. I'm so conscious of every decision I make that when I go out to eat with friends, I let them all order first. I have back-up meals ready, in case one of them orders a thing I want. “I can't order a pastrami sandwich, too! The waitress will think I'm some kind of Goddamned weirdo!” This, I am certain, is indicative of a crippling personality defect that only a psychiatrist can solve with years of couch-talking and pills.

I know I should just get over it. That's terrible advice, by the way. Get over it. No thanks, I like being miserable. Yes. Of course I'd like to get over it. I want to be able to enjoy the decision-making process. I want to say “PURPLE DRAPES, PLEASE!” “I choose this thing over the other thing!” “No, let's have Chinese food!” I want to be able to do this. I really do. I'll probably never be able to leap into anything, whole-hog, but some day I'd like to be able to say “Yeah, I'll have what she's having,” and not feel like some kind of Goddamned weirdo. Some day.

Josh Grimmer lives in North Hollywood with his wife and cat. He kinda sorta runs this blog, and has another one at http://mousebed.blogspot.com. Twitter him up at http://twitter.com/JoshGrimmer


Hey guys, long time no see. How's everything going? Well, I hope. Listen, if there's one thing we've all learned from this essay it's that I need to make the conscious decision to never write stream-of-consciousness again. This thing is a fucking trainwreck. I just couldn't go on not writing if I'm pretending to run this blog, y'know? Thanks for reading, if in fact you read it.

So anyhow, how was decisions week for all of you? I hope you enjoyed it. We got a few really nice essays, which always makes me happy. I have a few new subjects. We have exactly one essay submitted so far about cars, which is next week's theme. Please – if you have a car story, send it my way. Contact info is on the right side of the screen, so go ahead and ship it off.

Now if you want to get ahead of the curve – and I know you do – there are a couple of new and exciting subjects to write about. First off is media. Not THE MEDIA. Not Fox News or the Washington Post or whatever, but media. Film. Music. Literature. How does that make you feel? Do you have a single favorite piece of media? Is there one thing that just turns your crank in a way that no other thing does? Write about that. Do you just like one particular format? 35mm film? Vinyl? Lo-fi, Guided By Voices-style music? Write about that. Submit it by Friday, January 21.

The week after media is self. How pretentious is that? Wicked fucking pretentious. Now, with that said, write about self. What makes you you? How come you're not somebody else? Not “what makes you special” or “what's your secret talent,” but what makes an individual an individual? Or whatever. I don't even care anymore. I need to wake up for work in three hours. Just write about self. Should I use a big S in Self? I dunno, that makes it look even more pretentious. Whatever. Submit your essays for that stuff by Friday, January 28.

Thanks for your continued patronage of Writing, Writer, Writest. It's been a bumpy month here, but I think we're back on board for another great run of amazing essays from the loveliest people I know. (HINT: THAT IS YOU.)

Grosses bises,
Josh Grimmer, Editor-in-Chief

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Kim Harmeling - It's Just a Dog

People make a thousand decisions every day, mostly about small things – what time to get up, what to have for breakfast, what to wear, whether to take route A or route B to work, none of them momentous. In general most folks aren't called upon to make determinations about life and death, and wouldn’t be able to do so if asked. How do you determine whether someone or something lives or dies? What set of criteria would be thorough enough to ensure that you made the best possible decision, because you can believe me when I tell you that there is no “right” decision. You can only hope to make the decision leading to the least of the bad outcomes.

My friends and I run a dog rescue group and make life decisions every day, decisions that literally mean life or death for another living creature. That it’s dogs rather than people doesn’t make the decision making any easier. We get at least one phone call or email a day from a shelter, another rescue group, or an owner about a dog needing a home. The reasons these dogs need new homes are myriad but it all boils down to one thing: a human got a dog they don’t know how to handle, no longer want or are able to care for, and want to get rid of, usually immediately.

There are six of us running the rescue so the work is spread around, but we always try to reach a consensus about whether we are taking a dog or not, knowing full well that if we don’t the dog will more than likely be taken to a shelter, turned loose to fend for itself, shot (which happens a lot in the rural areas), or euthanized. “Euthanized” and “put to sleep” are terms that are supposed to sound kinder or more clinical and maybe provide some intellectual distance from the act of killing an animal just because no one wants it. They don’t. Every time we have to make the decision about whether or not we can take a dog in, we know it could mean the difference between whether that dog lives or dies. If we take it, then it’s got a chance at a better life and there is more room in the shelter for another dog to use, thereby giving two dogs a chance at a new life.

It’s particularly hard when one of us has had to go see the dog in person to determine if we can take it. If we can, great and everyone is happy. If not, we then have a face and a name to put with the memory of the shelter staff leading the dog away to the back room. It’s why I don’t go to shelters any more and why I have four dogs. I couldn’t stand to leave a dog there knowing that it will die. Everyone I know who does rescue work for any kind of animal has a houseful of critters for the very same reason. If we don’t take it the odds of the dog being adopted out to a good home are small because no matter what you hear on the news, shelters still euthanize more animals than they place.

It’s easy to reach the point of burn-out doing rescue work. In fact there’s a clinical term for it: “compassion fatigue.” Rescue workers of every stripe get it whether they work for the Red Cross saving humans or for the local hamster rescue. It’s another one of those kinder-gentler terms, one that still means your brain and emotions are totally fried from dealing with the constant influx of dogs, juggling foster homes and kennel spaces, transport arrangements, and the stress of making decisions we know could result in the death of another living, breathing creature. Decisions that have to be made quickly and sometimes with little information. That we do it all the time makes it no easier. I’ve had people tell me “It’s just a dog.” That doesn’t make it any easier either.

Yet, we continue to do rescue work because we believe that it’s the right thing to do and, when everything falls in to place properly, there IS a happy ending. It’s those days we all strive to reach. Gandhi said “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. We’re all waiting and working for the day when people here reach that point and the decisions we make on a daily basis are no longer necessary. I think we may be waiting a long time.

Kim Harmeling lives in the Cascade foothills with her husband and as many dogs as he’ll let her adopt. Sometimes she writes something worthwhile, hopeful someone will be interested enough to read it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

J. Allen Holt: Hate - It's the New Love

"The opposite of love is not hate — it's apathy. It's not giving a damn." - Dr. Leo Buscaglia (repeated to me by Josh Grimmer)

Love is a choice we make. That goes for romantic and non-romantic types. There are things that lead us into making those choices like hormones and the biological imperative to protect your young. Neither of those things are fool proof though. Hormones fade, and that instinct can be ignored. I had a friend that once said to me, "That's why babies are cute, because otherwise we'd just throw them aside for being so utterly helpless and annoying."

In my estimation, Love is the continuous, conscious decision to put someone else's welfare above your own. In the case of children, it's something we're ingrained with through biology and society to insure the survival of our species. In the case of romantic love, it's a completely unnatural act that can only be explained by the concept of choice.

Hate is actually much closer to Love, rather than being an opposite. That's why it's so easy to transition from one of those emotional responses to the other. Hate, like Love, requires a certain commitment to that feeling, making it also a choice.

Like Love which has different variations and degrees, Hate has several versions as well. There's a scale from dislike to hate depending on your commitment.

The first level is annoyance. The person doesn't occupy any significant place in your life, but you find yourself in positions where you can't totally avoid them. Whether this is a coworker, a neighbor, a member of your extended family, you just don't like being around them.

Once you start to put time into those feelings, the person graduates to the next stage of Hate. This is the stage where you think it's funny (or maybe downright hilarious) if the person experiences bad things and/or physical pain in their lives. You don't even have to see it for it to be funny. Seeing it can make it funnier though, but you know that the response is inappropriate. When you see the guy from the office you dislike slip on a step and take a header into the wall, you stifle back the laughter until you're sure you're alone and away from the judging eyes that just don't understand the cosmic justice that was just dished out.

The next stage is actively wishing bad things on the person. If you've ever fantasized about someone getting hit by a car while crossing the street or developing a painful version of cancer, then you know exactly what this level of Hate is and what type of behavior is required in your life to make you jump to this level.

Finally, when you're on the top of the hate pyramid, your life is consumed by thoughts of the source of your Hate. You can't do anything without thinking about them and what they might be doing. If you imagine they're enjoying their life in any way, it makes you angry. If you imagine them suffering, it makes you happier than you thought was possible. At this level, Hate is a full blown obsession.

Everything past the first level of Hate requires effort on your part. You have to spend your life thinking and acting with the other person in mind. That is a choice. We don't recognize it as a choice, but we can choose to not do it. At the top tier though, the Hate has become something you probably enjoy doing though. It fills your day in a way that you can't imagine what you would do if they really did dive into oncoming traffic like you've fantasized they would so many times.

Hate can fade over time of course. It's usually not the conscious decision that leads to us letting it go, but other things can start to take precedence, and the fires of our Hatred die a little bit.

Is this progression really any different than Love? Each at its base is a very benign entity that adds some flavor and drama to our lives. At their peaks, Hate and Love can both be extremely dangerous to the persons involved and lead to Google searches for the most painful types of cancer.

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: http://tuneupstopdown.blogspot.com. You can also follow his podcast on twitter if you're in to that sort of thing. http://www.twitter.com/tuneupstopdown

Monday, January 10, 2011

Katie McMahon: Oatmeal Before Bed

Sometimes, when it is very late at night, I make the decision to eat oatmeal before bed. I always feel the most hungry right before bed and drink cups of tea or cold water to make the hunger go away long enough so that I can fall asleep. But sometimes, I get so cold or I can’t sleep because I keep thinking about what will happen to me tomorrow. Who will I meet or what will I say to people I already know? Will the washing machine be open so I can wash my towels? I wish I read more books. I wish I could wake up early and walk in the park as the sun comes up. I want to have a dog someday. Soon, I start thinking of the time we were sitting in the library and the elevator made a loud sound, like a scream. It wasn’t a scary scream, but a sighing scream of frustration, which is maybe even scarier. Then, I start thinking: oatmeal. oatmeal. oatmeal.

I like everything about making the oatmeal. Boiling the water. Looking at the bowls in the cupboard, which don’t look round at all from the side, but curvy and misshapen. Looking at the roundness of the bowl from the top as it sits on the counter. Ripping open the packet of instant maple oatmeal and pouring the dry oats into the round bowl. Letting the water drip from the hot pot into the bowl and stirring the oats until they are thick and gooey. The maple smell climbing out of the steam. The waiting. Most times not being able to wait and putting the bowl into the microwave for ten or fifteen seconds. Letting spoonfuls of milk fall into the bowl. Sometimes there are walnuts, but usually it’s just the oatmeal sitting there in the bowl with a spoon.

I lie in bed and scoop tiny spoonfuls into my mouth. I slide the empty bowl onto the bedside table. Instantly, I feel warmth and I know I will sleep and dream dreams about walking in the park with the sun on my face, or dreams about sleeping under warm covers with warm cats at my feet.

Sometimes, when it is very early in the morning and I know I need more sleep, I eat oatmeal before going back to bed. When I wake up again, I don’t eat oatmeal again. I don’t eat anything until lunch. I go about my day doing lots of different things or nothing at all. I meet lots of different people or sometimes I just see the same people I see all the time, or people that I at least know I’ve seen before.

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve met a lot of people today, but none of them were you.

Okay, what I really want to say is that decisions are just decisions. We have to make them all the time. Eating oatmeal before bed is not good or bad; it is just another decision that I make, but it is one of my favorite decisions. Do you understand?

Sometimes I think I make my decisions based on my degree of loneliness, but in the end, I always choose whichever choice will leave me loneliest. I’m starting to understand that I like to make decisions that sometimes result in pain and suffering for myself. You might think this sounds crazy, but I think this is something that a lot of people can relate to.

For instance, when we sat together watching the movie you wanted to watch, while you ran your fingers all over the palm of my hand and I just sat there, staring at the screen, glimpsing at you to see if you knew what you were doing, if you were feeling lonely too. All the while, as you cupped my face with your hands and kissed my lips, I kept hoping you could find the radiating loneliness inside my mouth. That we would have something in common, but you just asked all these questions that I couldn’t answer right or didn’t want to answer. My mouth makes decisions to not share anything with you. It’s not me, I swear.

I guess that is really why I choose the oatmeal before bed, because it provides this comfort that I can’t find in anything or anyone so far. It doesn’t ask for anything, but boiling water and a spoon. It quiets me. It wraps itself around me and warms me. It allows me to put off any thinking or decision making until the morning. I have tried cereal. I have tried toast with peanut butter. But, for now, I like oatmeal before bed the most. I wish I could explain it better.

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:http://www.flickr.com/photos/katiemcmahon/sets, but you don't have to if you're busy right now.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Anonymous: Thirty-Six Laps in a Mile

A few words about shame...

So, it’s deep, this shame I’ve been swimming in for years now. It got so deep there for a while I stopped noticing it, like when you dive into freezing water and at first you can’t fathom how you can stay in one second longer, but you do and you do and then the merest of moments later, you hear yourself calling out to anyone who will listen, “Come in! The water’s fine! It’s fine in here! I’m fine! I’m fine! I’m fine!” And what’s more, you believe it. And then eventually, it becomes the truth.

I was fine for a really long time in that water. I stopped noticing the shivers and tingles and numb. Things are changing now.

I thought for a really long time that the shame was, in fact, actual shame. But as it turns out, the shame is really more fear than anything else.

I wonder if you already knew this. Perhaps you are nodding.

I have been told, and more than once, that what I classify as “coping skills” are not coping skills at all, but instead “avoiding skills.” The people who tell me this sometimes do it with a measure of disgust and impatience and fury. Like this was something I was willfully and childishly refusing to hear, like I wasn’t listening, like they couldn’t stand me for not hearing them.

But, the fact is, I already know. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that (well, two things – I can also give you pi to 14 places). Of course my coping skills are avoiding skills. Of course they are. It’s so much easier to be ashamed than to be afraid. So much easier. You can function with shame; you can breathe right through it. Shame is mostly about failure, and failure is fixable. It can be controlled. Failure can mostly be done over, gotten right next time, tried again. But fear – fear stops everything. Suddenly, you’re back to that first second in the cold water, lungs constricting, brain telling you, “Out! Cold! Death!,” limbs pulled in tight, everything sucking in closer and closer, braced and fragile.

If it was all my fault, then it wasn’t terrifying. Not really. If it was all my fault, then it was just mistakes. Just a series of miscalculations and stupidity and error. But now I’m being told this is wrong. Worse yet, that it is destructive. Let that go now, I’m being told. Recognize I didn’t have even the tiniest fraction of choice I want to believe I had. Recognize now that he had a plan – A PLAN – that started long, long before that day and that my only mistake, my only miscalculation, was playing right into it. Without knowing, of course. And how could I have known? Outwardly, he was the gentlest of men. He laughed easily, eyes authentically lit. He leaned in to listen when I spoke. He opened doors. He wrote notes about my many graces and left them for me to find. He charmed me. He was safe. There was no one safer.

But it was all grooming, really. All part of the plan. This is what I’m being told now. It feels true, I suppose. Pick the young one. The one who blushes when you say something kind. The one who clearly lacks in self-esteem, roots, connections. And hook her. Once thusly hooked, there was no getting away, regardless of struggle. Not until I was released. Not until he released me. I had some choices, and the few I made were wrong. But they were, in fact, very few, and also, they were not really choices. Choice implies the weighing of options and decision-making. I never decided anything.

I know this. If I stop and think about this rationally, I know it immediately, sharply. It was not my fault. But as soon as those words wrangle together into coherent, reasoned form, my brain rebels. It is rebelling right now. Because after logic comes emotion and no, no, I cannot go there. Not all the way there. Not all that way. The moment I start to feel that I had no power is the moment I realize I was not safe then, I am not safe now, I will never be safe. There is no such thing as safety. It was not my fault? But then there’s nothing I could have done differently, do you see? And nothing I could do now to keep it from happening again in a million different vulnerabilities-wide-open kinds of ways.

How do you wrap your heart around that? Your brain, sure, but your heart? How are you supposed to carry on in a world where all it takes to destroy you is a PLAN.

I want to accept this. I am trying very hard. This is where I am right now, perched here on this fence. I am dying to accept it. Leap, leap. I am drowning in my pool. Jump, jump. But crossing that line from shame to fear – how? How? I don’t know how. I can spell it all out, everything not my fault, but I can’t embrace the list when I’m done. Immediately, the logic reconverts to shame. Shame is warm. Shame is home. Shame is safe. Shame is easy.

(Come back, Shame!)

(What, someone had to make that joke.)

I didn’t tell the room service man I needed help – I didn’t know I needed help then; how could I have known? (I was stupid; if only I’d been smarter, I could’ve gotten out.)

I didn’t fight back harder – I knew I would lose any fight I started and I didn’t want to die. (I was a coward; if only I’d been braver, I could’ve gotten out.)

I didn’t tell when I got home – I didn’t know what had happened, not really; I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have the tools I needed. (I was weak; if only I’d been stronger, I could’ve gotten out.)

I lied to people about it later, people I loved, people I wanted to trust, people I wanted to trust me – I couldn’t process the truth; it felt safer to lie; it’s understandable, it’s okay. (I was gutless; if only I’d been more confident, I could’ve gotten out.)

When he called me a “tease,” that’s when I stopped resisting. I thought, “Oh. Oh, of course. Of course that’s what’s happening here. Of course I did this. I did this. Of course this is what happens when you are like me. Of course this is deserved. Yes, yes, naturally, of course.” Did you know – I have been learning this – that they almost all do that? They almost all say that? The thing about being a tease? Rapists, I mean. That’s why they do it. That right there.

That is the first time I have ever called him a “rapist.”

(This would boggle anyone who heard the story, I think. But try it sometime. Try that word out. Say it out loud. It isn’t easy to say -- that word. It shouldn’t be easy. I already want to take it back. I will not be taking it back.)

Peace is coming. I can feel a buzzing tremulousness from it, a ringing, a flutter, usually in the mornings when I first open my eyes. It’s coming in the shape of a boat, a shore, a blanket, something warm. A transition. An allowing. A recognition, realization, acceptance. I can’t see it, that peace -- it’s still... it’s still over there somewhere [waves hand vaguely, in some direction or another]. It’s over there somewhere in the distance. I think maybe just over that bobbing blue horizon. Or just past that one hill. A corner turn away. No further.

I think I can feel it. I think that is what I feel. I think what I’m starting to feel might, in fact, be peace. And all I have to do, all that really needs to be done at this point – I think, I think, I hope – is to start swimming and not stop.

Only kick a leg now, thrust an arm forward. Start swimming, little girl. The water may be cold, it may be deep, but it is not wide. There are shores in sight, and several to choose from. Pick a shore. Take aim. Don’t look back. Look back.

This piece is being published anonymously for now. Perhaps just for now. Just until a shore is reached. Maybe just until then.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Aurora Nibley: Wish Upon a Starbucks

I always get a pastry when I go to Starbucks, and only God can judge me for that. I like pastries.

But the other day, I went to Starbucks and the girl who got my pastry out put it in a bag and handed it to the guy who was going to charge me, and he (not having seen its retrieval) thought it would be cute to try to guess what it was by feeling the bag. Now I understand that this is hardly an outrage on the level of being fondled by TSA, but watching what should have been a sweet and delicious breakfast get palpated by some sweaty stranger who thought he was being funny pretty much ruined my morning. It was a scone, by the way, and there was icing on it. I try to make it a point never to be rude to cashiers because I assume they all hate their jobs and I don't need to make it worse, but my, “Hey. Next time, just fucking ask me what's in there,” did not feel inappropriate. Especially because (did I mention?) he didn't know that the bag contained a scone, because he had refused to take my order (“She'll take care of you”), even though he had been free when I got to the head of the line and he knew all along he was going to have to ring me up.

You don't need to start platituding at me; I know that if this kind of thing is the worst problem I have, my life is probably pretty all right. And it is. But the cut is especially deep because the particular Starbucks location where I suffered this indignity was, up until very recently, a place I looked on with great fondness. I might even go so far as to say it was a refuge for me. Therein lies the sad, ill soul of my generation, right there.

I thought of. Starbucks. As a refuge.

Mostly it was just that one specific Starbucks; it's a block away from my job and all the employees there were surprisingly smart and competent. I could tell when they were having their off days, but I wasn't their only regular, and several of the staff would greet multiple customers (including me) by name. I always ordered the same drink, and there were a couple of times when I went in during a lull and they actually had my drink ready for me before I got to the counter. When life was rough, and it was early and the weather was bad and I felt battered from my public transit commute, I knew that I could go into Starbucks and somebody would smile at me and make me a pretty drink.

But that all changed in October. They shut down that Starbucks location. It wasn't permanent, just for a couple of weeks while they remodeled the place, so nobody worried. This is Brentwood! There are plenty of other places in the neighborhood to grab a morning beverage, and who doesn't love a good remodeling? People remodel their faces here, they love it so much.

Starbucks lost no customers by being closed for two weeks. I went back in as soon as they reopened and it was as crowded as ever. One of my old acquaintances from pRe-modeling days was working, and we had a nice chat, and all seemed to be well. Which may have been why it took me so long to notice that all the rest of the staff had changed. I thought that all my favorite, multi-ethnic hipster baristas were simply not working when I showed up, for a while. But it gradually became clear that I would never see them again. They had not been supplemented by a couple of new employees, they had been totally replaced by the moon-faced white guys in their mid- to late thirties who sang disco music while they mixed my drink in the wrong proportion, and didn't wait for the line to thin out before they decided to restock the fridge bar. One of them even introduced himself to me one morning, in a strange, forced, Dale Carnegie kind of way. So you have to understand, the scone palpitation incident was not an isolated case of bad judgment. It was the last straw in a string of indignities.

And now I find myself at a crossroads. I feel that continuing to patronize this Starbucks location can bring me nothing but sorrow and frustration. I have other options, as mentioned, but for some reason most of the drinks at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf taste a little bit slimy to me, and Peet's has the best pastries hands down but I dislike the feeling I get there of being raped by my coffee (it may be a bit late to point this out, but I am actually not a coffee drinker. My beverage of choice is a green tea lemonade, which neither Peet's nor the Coffee Bean have on offer). Also, the local Peet's has virtually no place to sit.

I suppose I could make a drink at home in the morning, or not, and skip the whole beverage-purchasing part of the morning, saving myself both money and time. But the drink was never the point. The point of going to Starbucks, for me, was that whether I was in a hurry or I had to kill time before work, I knew that someone would smile at me and give me a nice treat, and maybe ask about something that didn't matter, like whether I was in a play, or if I had a vacation coming up, and I didn't have to worry about what I said because my entire relationship with this person was being played out right there in the Starbucks. No feelings, no commitments, no possibility of insult or injury. Just some lemonade and a pastry. It was my five minutes of Utopia.

And now it has been replaced, by a fat pastry molester.

Aurora Nibley lives in North Hollywood with her husband and cat. She used to write about football, but gave that shit up. If you want to look at the things she Tweets, find your way on over to http://twitter.com/auroranibley

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Malkah Duprix: Untitled

This bag of colorful fabric from the thrift store

It’s been crushed inside plastic and stapled in

Unfold it. Iron out the creases.

It could make something pretty or keep somebody warm.

Someone gave it away.

Big ideas maybe, plans for purses, bags, coats, aprons

A stuffed animal

A pillow case

A checkbook cover with elephants or birds.

Nothing came of it.

Maybe hands got tired

Mine do, from time to time

And in those times when grey pervades,

my hands have no purpose here.

But I can make things:



Pair and match,

Stitch and clip.

Time is made of what we have on hand

I’ve got this bag of colorful fabric from the thrift store.

Open it. Let the colors out.