Saturday, February 14, 2015

Erie, Kansas

When I was little, I thought my grandparents’ house was named Erie and my house was named Iowa. Erie was actually the name of the tiny town in Southern Kansas where my mom spent her teen years. Twice a year we made the eight hour drive from Iowa to the hundred year old house where my mom and her three brothers once lived.

As we approached the castle, crumbling stucco with grayed-white trim, my stomach would knot in anticipation. It was a castle to me because of the flat roofs and the wide, jutting porch front that was at least ten feet high from ground to graying trim. The stucco was not quite beige, not really pink, more like the color of the flesh of the white Kansans I came from. The ones who toasted in baseball fields as well as learned and taught in classrooms. The house meant cousins—games, stories, and extended unsupervised time over three floors.

We spent chilly Thanksgivings and unforgivably hot July Fourths at my grandparents’ house. Never Christmas, because my mom was a fan of festive, over-decorated Christmases where she showered us with presents. Theirs was generally a solemn, religious occasion. They had loosened up since she was a kid, though, because they started having a tree and some presents. When she was a kid there was no Santa Claus or toys, only one utilitarian present and observation of the birth of Christ. Once the lawyer for whom her mom worked as a secretary came by on Christmas and gave each of the four children presents. They were toys they never would have been able to afford. My mom got a doll with eyes that opened and closed. Her parents graciously accepted the gifts, and once the lawyer left her father fumed. She still loved that doll.

Like the July Fourths and Thanksgivings we visited, memories of my grandparents’ house are characterized by warm and cold.


The living room, heated by a wood-burning stove. There were mismatched couches and overstuffed recliners, one of which was occupied by my often-sleeping grandfather. We’d gather there with plates of food and boisterous chatter, filling up the chairs or leaning against couches from the floor. As kids, we’d sit in the middle of the floor playing cards while adults came and went. The TV screen became larger over the years and was usually on, people paying varying degrees of attention. I usually left during sports or televangelists.

The kitchen, full of women and then as they grew up, the older girls. I never got the memo to help. Like the men and the younger kids I walked through for snacks or a soda from the fridge on the back porch, sometimes stopping to chat and walking away.

Thanksgiving dinner in the dining room with the extra-long table and card tables popped up at the sides. The whole extended family, moving between side conversations and off-colored jokes, quieting to observe a playful sparring match between two uncles. We’d contribute our laughter and occasionally egg them on. When the table was clear, the dining room was also the home of the more spirited card games. We played Egyptian Rat Screw (only we weren’t allowed to say screw), BS, Texas Hold’em without real money, and Spoons. Spoons would often end up with a younger family member injuring themselves as they clamored for one of the spoons in the middle of the table, then storming away crying.

Fireworks. They were legal and barely regulated in Kansas and Missouri, so we stocked up on the exploding, the spinning, and the multi-colored fire-spitting novelties that could have surely put our eyes out. At sundown we each held glowing punks and took turns lighting the wick, scrambling back to the safety of the porch stairs when it started to spark. Burnt, sulfurous, lingering in the back of our throats and tearing up our eyes, the smell was exhilarating and a little rebellious.

Our receptions and send-offs with one-armed side-hugs.


The second floor. The draft hit you as you were coming up the stairs. There were extra bedrooms and a sewing room. I remember them with walls of cracked paint and bare metal bed frames, cluttered with old clothes and boxes stuffed with junk from years ago. The hall light was often burnt out, and the rooms were lit by bald bulbs, making this the domain of shadows. I didn’t like going into these rooms. Sometimes my cousins would sleep there on blankets and old mattresses. I was grateful that my family got to stay in the motel down the road. The motel room was a modern, clean, safe break.

The attic air. You could see the foreboding, unfinished staircase through the torn plastic sheet, always flapping in some mysterious breeze.

The reception to our politics and religion. The house was full of religion. Biblical quotes on decorative wood and cross-stiched onto wall-hangings mixed in with the family pictures from three generations and various decades. Babies, weddings, graduations, and Jesus. Piles of books about God, books about politics, sometimes books about both. When I was older, a wall calendar of George W. Bush, the faithful president and family man. The hallway to the kitchen had a series of the high school graduation pictures of each of my grandparents’ children in order of age. First, my mother, long straight hair, creamy skin and blue eyes, all enhanced by a soft-focused, semi-painted look of the sixties. The fourth and final child was my uncle, Russ, with hair below his ears and feathered bangs, sharp-focused and late-seventies yellow-browned. But placed before the series of children was an equally-sized portrait of Jesus, face turned toward the light, illuminating the soft golden brown hair falling to his shoulders. Walk up the stairs covered in green shag carpeting and on the dark second floor landing was a gold-framed painting of Jesus walking on the water. The portrait of Jesus that my older cousin, Jenny, had painted in high school moved around the second floor.

Other than my grandparents’ house, the only place I regularly encountered images like these were when I was a guest at someone’s church or at family weddings. Every church seemed to have a certain smell to it, and a feeling. The smell was a little like a doctor’s office, only older, a little musty. The feeling was eggshells. My dad was a skeptic and my mom had moved away from what she felt was the intolerance in the faith she’d grown up with. She still liked the community and music of church, and for a brief time when I was in first grade, we all went to one of the local Presbyterian churches in Iowa. All I remember is gluing cotton balls to construction paper sheep in Sunday school while a boy talked about how he liked looking up Barbies’ skirts. I’m not sure why we stopped going, but was relieved when we did.

It angered me that my relatives thought my gay friends were going to hell. I wondered if they thought I was going to hell too, not with indignation like with my gay friends, but with sadness and a touch of shame.

As kids, my sisters, cousins and I moved through the warm and cold. The attic was both. Adventures and danger, hidden treasure amid the piles of detritus stored in the terrifying, cobwebbed side closets that were more like low tunnels. We’d emerge with old board games, costumes, and once, a time capsule. Under the two bald lightbulbs, we told stories and secrets. In its one hundred year history, the house had been a mansion, an old folks home, and a mortuary, which inspired its share of folklore. “This is where they kept the bodies,” a cousin would say.

“An old guy died in the room we’re staying in. I woke up last night to him groaning.”
“A girl was murdered and buried in the backyard. She wears a red dress and walks around the halls at midnight. Uncle Russ used to see her all the time.”

The attic had a small stage on one end, no backstage wings, just a risen platform that made the ceiling too low for grown-ups to stand straight. The theory was that the staff used to put on plays for the old folks, but how could they get them up all of those stairs? For a while my cousins, sisters, and I put on plays every year, bringing chairs from the dining room for the family to sit. As we approached our teen years, we lost interest, disappointing the two youngest cousins who were still at prime family theatre age.
Natural light came from only one small set of windows that pointed to the front of the house. We could climb out and sit on the roof overhanging the porch, which we definitely were not supposed to do.

In the midst of an attic project, sometimes cousins would slip away, saying they were just going to get something and be right back. Occasionally I’d find myself alone, with the shadows and the sighing of a drafty old house, and scramble back down the stairs.
As I approached college, our visits became more infrequent. New waves of kids started appearing and growing up as the time between our visits grew. One Thanksgiving I’d be holding a toddler in my arms, the next he was a disinterested preteen, disappearing with neighborhood kids to play soccer.

I was in my late twenties for my last Thanksgiving in Erie. We drove twelve hours to be there, my older sister and fiancé from Minneapolis, stopping in Des Moines to pick up my other older sister, meeting our mom, because everyone was sure it would be my grandmother’s last Thanksgiving. My grandfather had died five years earlier, and the house was too big for her. She scooted around only the first floor with her walker, leaving the second floor remarkably bare. Now that we didn’t have money, we slept in the dusty second floor bedrooms. I was cold sleeping there, but only a little uneasy. Local relatives had gone through several big cleaning and discarding sessions, but stacked boxes of yellowed letters and assorted memories remained.

After dinner, the front yard was taken over by a swarm of unsupervised children, dogs, and balls. They were the new generation, ranging from ages sixteen months to thirteen years. I only had tenuous notions of how some were connected to the family. Some I didn’t recognize at all. “This makes me very nervous,” I told my fiancé as I watched the unattended children from the window. Their parents were out of sight, deeply engaged in sports or conversation or food. I watched a three year old climbing along the ledge of the porch, the one with a ten foot drop, and rushed outside to pull her down, to her dismay. As I tried to convince her not to break her neck, a shoeless toddler pushed his way out through the screen door and began wandering away. I privately ranted to my sister about the wild children, throwing in that the parents were also giving their kids Coke with breakfast.
“That’s the way we were,” my sister shrugged.

“What, the adults would be like, ‘Hey, six year-old, you’re in charge of the two year-old. Have fun!’”

After I said it, I scanned my memories and realized that was actually exactly how it was.
This house is the only one that could have fit all of us. Already, a few cousins have dropped off into their own lives and distant homes. I had been one of them. When my grandmother passes or moves out, we’ll fracture further into disparate holidays dotting the Midwest, a point on the East Coast, another in the Southwest.

I gave up trying to wrangle the wild kids, deciding they weren’t mine, and if their parents weren’t worried, I shouldn’t be either. I found my cousins, ranging in ages from twenties to early thirties gathered around the dining room table, cracking off-colored jokes and ribbing one another. Most were married, some with wild kids in the yard, but as I sat down it felt familiar. My older cousin, Cristina, was shuffling a deck of cards and insisted on a game of Spoons. Things quickly became serious. We were silent as we passed each card to the next person, periodically glancing at the spoons on the table to ensure no one had taken one. When someone grabbed a spoon, mayhem would break out, with cards flying and shrieking laughter. Cristina became a little too enthusiastic grabbing one of the spoons, and either because of one of her rings, a card, or someone’s fingernails, two of her fingers were sliced thinly across the top, bleeding lightly. She pressed a napkin to her hand, then continued to play. Her eight year old son raced through the room on the way to the kitchen, pausing at her chair.

“Mommy, you’re bleeding.”

“I know,” Cristina said, passing the cards without looking up, “Mommy just got a little too excited.”

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Final Girl

In horror movies, there’s a trope of the one young woman who manages to fight off the psychopathic killer or supernatural antagonist until the final act. She survives the harrowing pursuit while her friends and loved ones are picked off around her in the most creatively gruesome ways. She’s virtuous, chaste, clever with a streak of badassery, an excellent screamer with the luck or athleticism to land a few blows.

Sometimes she fails, is the final victim. Sometimes we’re met with a false happy ending, then a twist that shows her night of torment isn’t done. But often she’s the final survivor, staggering into morning light drenched in blood, haunted by the grisly deaths of her friends, love, family right in front of her. Do people think of what happens after the movie is over? How could she live with that trauma? Why did she want to live in the first place, once she knew everyone else was gone?

I could never be the final girl. Watching these movies even as a kid, I was exhausted by the false sense of safety and relief, then the new attack, over and over, it never finishes, it will never finish. I always thought, why doesn’t she just kill herself?

For all my virtuousness and cleverness, I crumble in the face of adversity. I just can’t, I would let it take me, I would turn around my sawn-off shotgun, fall on my machete or jump from the highest window of the haunted mansion.

I also wouldn’t be able to do that much running.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Discussing birth control with my mom

Mom: "Or you could try not using anything at all. I mean, you probably can't get pregnant anyway."

Me: "You know, it's really weird to try to trick someone into getting pregnant."

Mom: "No, it's not!"

Friday, January 17, 2014

Livelihood, Part II of maybe III

Here’s how I came to give up on my parents’ American dream for me, the one they had worked so hard for. Since I was three, I had thought of myself as a writer. I was a prolific creator of “books”, which were stapled-together pages I had illustrated and “read” to family members as I turned the pages. My parents told me I recited them the same every time, and sometimes they transcribed or tape-recorded my words. I think the first book I actually wrote was when I was around five. It was a Nancy Drew mystery about a kidnapped judge, or as I wrote, a “Nasey beroo” mystery about a kidnapped “juj”. The judge was a woman, and I drew this picture of Nancy peeking through the kidnapper’s window and seeing the judge lying on a bed. It was a little racy because I had drawn her with her judicial robe open to reveal her bra, but I was a bad enough artist that nobody realized that. I got a lot of praise for this behavior from adults, that I would create stories with no prompting. I either loved it or I was just messing around. Before long I loved the praise.

I was praised by teachers for my writing all through school, even after I ditched the illustrations. It was part of my identity, and I was seized with anxiety during the increasing stretches of time in high school when I wasn’t writing. Aren’t I writer? Don’t writers write? During a long stretch in college I decided I needed structure to write, couldn’t do it on my own. One of the later writing classes I took in college was a fiction workshop, which would surely give me direction and motivation, I thought. I cried during my first workshop.

My first piece hadn’t received the generally glowing response I was accustomed to. Even with the praise I had always received, I was actually always very self-conscious of my abilities, whether they’d hold up in the real world. What propped me up was the feedback, knowing that so many others believed in me. Suddenly my feedback was predominantly critical with a couple glimmers of positivity when it used to be the reverse. In anticipation of the criticism, I began to write for them, my classmates and my professor. I heard their voices as I typed, judging everything that came out:

Nice word choice, idiot.


Lazy description. Show, don’t tell.

Writing wasn’t a joy. It was a chore, filled my head with voices that made my writing stilted and strange. Then I started wondering if I ever enjoyed writing. Maybe I had just enjoyed the praise. Maybe this “writer” identity was something that others had put on me. I don’t think I had ever been actually good, just good for a second grader or a seventh grader or a twelfth grader. And now I could barely hold my own in a college-level workshop of nonprofessionals. If I wasn’t even the best in the class, how could I make it as a writer in the real world?

You see, writing is a glamour profession. That means that it’s so desired, comes with such a coolness factor that people are willing to write professionally for free. They’re willing to pay to be a writer, as is evidenced by the numerous “become a writer” scams as well as full-time unpaid internships in expensive cities. Which is another kind of scam, in my opinion.

Just before graduating college, I asked my honors project adviser, a real writer, for advice on becoming a real writer myself. You know, just in case.

He suggested I stay away from MFA programs. To write, you needed a job that allowed you the time and mental space to do so. A serving job, an admin, a barista. The overachiever in me didn't like this.

“Writing isn't like physics,” he told me, “It's not time sensitive. You won’t lose your abilities as you get older.”

I talked to him about my career anxiety, told him I was also interested in social justice. I maybe wanted to work for an NGO.

"My wife does that. It's much more noble than holing up in your room and writing stories all day."

I told him I was going to Japan with my boyfriend.

"You're in a relationship?” he said, “That will endlessly complicate things."

I came to the practical conclusion that writing could never be my livelihood. I needed to find something else with a structure and a paycheck, but I had no idea what. I went to Japan as a teacher, but planned along the way to become fluent in Japanese, save some money, and figure out what to do with my life. Have you ever heard that saying that used to be on bumper stickers: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

If god were real, he would have been laughing.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Livelihood, Part I

They told us we would never have to starve, and we would never have to hate what we do in the long run.

Unlike most aspiring artists, my parents actually encouraged me. They had come of age during both a population and economic boom, when one could graduate college and work somewhere as a professional. When I was being instilled with this career-optimism as a kid, everyone seemed to have the idea that we were past depressions, past wars besides the distant, mostly secret ones that never had civilian drafts. Like a wide swath of middle class kids, I had my basic needs met, I was supported, and it was given that I would go to college then go on to some sort of career. And my parents hoped it would be in writing, probably because they had never gotten the chance to follow their own artistic dreams.

I know now that I won’t be a writer. For nearly thirty years I’ve been struggling to be anyone. Now I just long to be an adult who works and eats and is minimally crazy.

Along with that swath of middle class kids, I was fed the notion that if I worked hard enough I could achieve anything, that the best thing I could do is follow my dream. And even after seeing countless artistic depictions of people stuck in miserable, dead-end jobs, I didn’t consider that there might be something to that. That it was a trope because nearly everyone had to come to that, to see their dream then scale down their expectations, scale down, scale down, until they’re just surviving.

You only have to work hard. My grandparents had been through the depression and the second world war. My parents came up from scrappy working-class to lower-middle-class backgrounds. My mom was the first woman in her family to go to college. Both of my parents had artistic inclinations--my dad as a painter and my mom as a writer. My mom was more of a dabbler, but my dad was different. I’ve written about his art before. He was great, like he was at most non-athletic things he tried. But the draft put his dream on hold; it took a deferral to attend medical school to keep him from going to Vietnam.

Becoming a doctor is something to be proud of, among the highest aspirations of kids coming from the lower socioeconomic rungs of the ladder, not that my dad was particularly low on that ladder. If you talk to ambitious teenagers who aspire to be first-generation college attendees, becoming a doctor or lawyer is the most commonly cited ambition. They answer this regardless of their unique talents and passions. Ultimately, they want to be successful. Then hopefully the next generation can do what they really want.

My dad told me that he dreams of nothing but medical procedures--bodies floating by on a grocery store checkout conveyer belt, and he has to operate on them quickly before they fall off the edge.

He’s not even an emergency room doctor or a surgeon. Most of the time he’s dislodging clots from the arteries of old people. Still, he came back from work every day shrouded in gloom, exasperation. My mom tried to train us to tiptoe around him, to be good, the source of zero stress for him because his work is terrible and he only does it for us. If I ever asked him about his work he would put on his calm-but-quick doctor voice and describe complex procedures with a sense of adeptness, an air of enthusiasm barely breaking through his expression. But asking him whether he liked his work was usually met with a deep sigh, and a weary, “I just can’t stand being around sick people anymore.” He can do everything right and something can still go wrong. Sometimes people sue him. Sometimes they die.

Cancer was my dad’s first hiatus from work.

He went through six courses of chemo, then six weeks in a hospital bed in which they plugged him into poisons to kill all the lymphoma cells they could for days at a time. They took out his stem cells through a tube in his jugular vein, pumped him full of more poison, then put new stem cells back in.

When I saw him months after his stem cell transplant, his complexion was ashen and he couldn’t walk much without becoming dizzy and winded. Sometimes he vomited. Sometimes he fell. He still hadn’t grown his hair back, and he loudly snorted mucus through a nose that just wanted to slick it out since it didn’t have any hairs for resistance. We thought he might be dying, that his stem cells would kill him.

In spite of this all, while he was still snorting and vomiting and wheezing, he told me that his six months of cancer treatment had been less stressful than going to work every day.

He didn’t die, and after a year of treatment and recovery he went back to work. When I asked him again, he told me he still preferred cancer.

To be continued in Part II.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A stupid eighteen-year-old writes a poem about being a stupid-sixteen year-old thinking about death

I am sixteen years old, and in less than forty minutes, I’ll be dead.

Omen number one:

Flew alone from Paris to Rochester,
tired, sweaty, jetlagged.
It should be 4 am, but the sun glares outside
in all its defiance
over the field of all-American
winged metal birds of prey.
All boarded the flight to Kansas City
sat and waited, when it came time for takeoff
Engines roared, sparks flew
coast, sputter, stop.
Voice over the intercom:
Crack in the engine.
Everyone get off and wait
for a new plane.

I am sixteen years old and in less than forty minutes I’ll be dead.

Omen number two:

Finally made it to Kansas City
more tired than before
The sky insists that it’s night
in what should be early afternoon

There’s a storm coming.

That’s what they keep saying
but outside I see nothing but dark
a little too calm, maybe.
One by one
but mine, from Kansas City to Cedar Rapids.
Maybe they thought it was short enough
that it would all be okay.

I am sixteen years old and in less than forty minutes I’ll be dead.

Omen number 3:

We walk out into that strange dark
to board the tiny plane.
Not many people flying to Cedar Rapids
so late at night.
All sit down, duct tape on my armrest
my window
This plane is old.
Start engines, begin to move
All of a sudden
Blaring alarms
Red lights flashing in the cabin
Everyone jumps, pilot switches alarms off
I begin to shake. An overwhelming sickness,
a bad feeling is consuming me.

I can’t stop shaking.

I want off, I don’t want to be on this plane anymore.
I don’t feel safe. My mouth tastes like a penny.
I can’t get off.
My dad is expecting me at the airport
in a little over forty minutes.


In the air, I can see the storm.
We’re right in the middle of it.
Lightning flashes every two seconds,
right outside my window
I can see its tiny metallic teeth
dangerously close to the wing
that flails in the tumult of the rain
like a piece of cardboard.
The plane is shaking, being tossed through the air
sometimes feels perpendicular to the ground.
We’re shaking. I look toward the pilot.
There’s a curtain, I can’t see his expression.
Jesus Christ, just tell us if we’re going down!

I’m going to die.

And my mind clears.
I’ve never thought so logically about my own death before.
Now I know what people think about.
Now I know I’m not so above
the clichés of humanity
of those mindless sputtering pleas
that people always offer
at the moments before death,
as if they were so important.
Will my parents identify my charred remains?

No, they’ll just use my dental records.
What would be said at my funeral?
What could be said?
Nothing, except she died too young.
Had potential but didn’t do anything with it.
God, and I was such a bitch most of the time.

What would life be like for my parents after this?

For my sisters?
Would I be canonized
in the minds of those who loved me
like so many youthful dead girls?
Would I create a special hole
in the hearts of all the friends
I would have lost touch with anyway?
It’s weird how normal this is
how routine, how average death is
how utterly easy to come by
It doesn’t happen to saints
but girls like me
who are just going home
who step in the wrong plane
at the wrong time
for no particular reason.


Dear God
I know I don’t believe in you
but maybe I should
You’re the only one who can do anything
In a situation when logical action doesn’t matter
like in war and Kafka.
I know I’ve taken my life too lightly
Entertained too many suicide fantasies
Wallowed in depression and self loathing
Said too many times it didn’t matter if I died
but it just doesn’t make sense that I should die here
I always thought I would die alone
in a hotel, in my mid-forties
face down in vomit,
like all the most accomplished writers.
I haven’t written a single book yet!
I haven’t made my mark on society
like I always thought I was meant to do.
I know now that it’s not that easy
that you hold all the cards
that life is something you can rip away
at any given second.
I’ll use my life now
I’ll build churches—
no, but I’ll write, I’ll fight injustice, I have ideas!
Let me live this once!
If I don’t accomplish anything, kill me!
 I want to live!


I don’t know how
but we hit the ground safely
I love the ground.
I love home.
I love being alive.
I meet my dad, and don’t tell him I almost died.

For weeks after I was inspired
my veins pulsing with the celebration of life.

Then later I was disturbed
that I almost believed in God
that I felt like I was spared by divine intervention
and I settled back into my regular misery
and the mundane.
Now the event has lost its impact
attributed to emotions run wild, delusions.
But every now and then
I feel the cold finger of death
shivering up my spine
and I can’t help glancing over my shoulder
as if waiting for divine retribution
for the other shoe to fall.