Monday, March 31, 2008

April Theme: Neighbors

I have already been getting questions about April's theme; aren't you an enthusiastic bunch!

A few New Rules and Announcements:

  • Your (Neighbor) stories can be fictional, biographical, an incident that someone you know encountered or any combination of the above.
  • Please use the Labels Section to make it easier to find your stories. Things like your name, the month/theme and any other descriptor that fits your story. That way, your fans can find you faster. (Yes, this is where my crazy organizing skills kick in.)
  • Feel free to write more than one story if you are inspired.
  • Please comment on the stories you read. I don't want to start a popularity contest, but I think everyone loves comments.
  • I am still trying to figure out how to implement some of my bigger plans, and hopefully by the end of April, if not sooner. The only things that can slow me down are work and the IRS.
  • I almost updated the site to include AdSense, with the money generated going to the writer of the best story of the month, but I don't like the idea of giving up control of the site yet. (Yes, I have control issues).
Happy Writing!

Eight Months, Two Weeks, and Three Days

Eight months, two weeks, and three days. If I had a calculator and even the slightest ability to add, subtract, and multiply, I could probably break that figure down into days, hours, minutes and seconds. But, I’m not very good with the maffs. I do know that’s roughly two weeks shorter than my son’s gestation period. It’s also the amount of time it took me to realize just how truly difficult parenting was going to be.

Sure, in the first eight months, two week, and three days, I’ve struggled mightily with fatherhood. You won’t believe it until it happens, but when you’re a parent, you suddenly lose 25 percent of your sleep, but you also realize that – as a father – you magically don’t need those two hours of sleep a night anymore. In fact, you beat yourself up for all those years you insisted on sleeping a full seven to eight hours a night when you could’ve been writing the great American novel or catching up on AMC’s late-night fare. You know what else you realize? That you don’t really need to sleep in consecutive hours – 20-minute bursts will do just fine, thank you very much. You can fit a full three dreams into 20 minutes and wake up refreshed with a little tiny foot in your left eye orbit. There’s no better way to awaken.

You also don’t realize, until it happens, how good you can be with your time management skills. If I’d realized how great I was at organizing my time, I might’ve gone into time-management consulting. I can juggle a schedule like a circus professional – I can keep one project hanging up in the air for hours while simultaneously tossing six balls, two blocks, and a shitty diaper into the air.

And speaking of shitty diapers, I never realized I had such a facility for tolerating excrement! Before I had a child, the topic of bowel movements was verboten in my world – as far as I knew, no one ever visited the bathroom for any other reason other than to reapply their hair gel or clip their nails. I had a knack for blacking out my own toilet sessions, like mini-traumas I forced to the back of my mind a few times a week. But now: I play in excrement! Feces and I have become excellent friends. Shit is like my favorite new accessory, which I wear with a broach of regurgitated breast milk and a nice string of urine around my neck, like shiny glistening pearls. I’m the hippest Dad on my block.

And then there’s the crying. Eight months, two weeks, and three days ago, I wanted to murder the parents of infants who took their goddamn children to movie theaters, restaurants, and other public places where infants had no business to be, like the park or other open-air spaces. The screaming, the bawling, the incessant whining! It drove me berserker, and I firmly believed those parents should’ve been given the guillotine, on the spot, without due process. Weeping, I reasoned, should only be done in the privacy of the home, maybe even under a pillow or three to better muffle the sound. But I realize now that seasoned parents – or at least those with children older than three months – no longer hear the crying. It’s just background white noise, like the Meredith Viera, only less annoying.

But today, after eight months, two weeks, and three days of diapers, bawling, sleepless nights, missed appointments, and botched assignments, I realized that the hard part is just beginning: Today, for the first time, I actually hurt my son’s feelings.

For the last couple of months, our son has gotten increasingly mobile – he can crawl, he can pull himself to the standing position, and he can even climb up an entire flight of stairs. He’s a little goddamn miracle, I tell you. With increased mobility, it’s become more imperative that one word becomes part of his vocabulary: “No.” My wife and I have attempted to make use of the word in many occasions –- when he tries to climb skyscrapers, when he bites during nursing, or when he attempts to eat the bottom of a shoe. It’s all for his own good, of course.

Until today, however, “No” was just another random noise, an utterance like “wowwowwuzzy” or “motherfucking cocksucker” that didn’t compute –- the simple grouping of two letters that didn’t ring any bells in his tiny, growing brain. But when he attempted to climb the radiator cover in our living room this afternoon, I used the word in the same harshly gentle way I’ve used it dozens of times before, but this time, for my son, there was actual meaning attached to it. He recognized disapproval. And instead of smiling and going along on his merry way like his father was just another wooden Indian statue in a barber shop, he turned toward me, gazed with his liquid blue eyes into my face, paused for three seconds, curled his lip under, and cried. And it wasn’t the kind of crying one would associate with a wet diaper, hunger, or a little bump to his noggin. That’s crying I’ve become accustomed to, the sort of sniffling one can treat with a simple, “there, there, you’re all right,” and a few pats on this back. This was different: It coincided with huge, streaming tears that flowed like cheap, store-brand ketchup and dribbled off his chin like a sno-cone in July. But instead of curling up into the fetal position, running to his room, or lashing out, like you’d expect from a child when he gets yelled at, my son reached for me. He fucking reached for me, after I’d just used the harsh no, after I’d hurt his feelings, after my words made his lip curl under. He reached for me.

And it broke my fucking heart in three.

And so, today, after eight months, two weeks, and three days, I recognized how much difficulty I’m going to have, because now I know. I know that every time I tell him no, every time I ground him, or take away his toys, or tell him not to blow bubbles with his applesauce, or stop him from going to a party or a sleepover, or tell him I’d rather he not drink the six pack I left in the fridge, I’m going to remember that the first time I hurt him emotionally, he reached out to me.

I can’t even begin to wrap my head around what that means.

It Wasn't a Trip, It Was a Journey

I have never been fond of Mehrabad Airport. Coming or going, it fills me with anxiety because unlike any other place I know, it marks new chapters in my life.

In October 1991, I was preparing to retake the entrance exams for university. Getting accepted as an English major the first time around was not significant enough; I needed something more grounded and viable--at least a pharmacy or dental major. But right around that time, my father was contemplating a trip to the States, and for some reason he wanted to take me along. The timing couldn't be more strange, considering how disruptive it would be to my studies and there was no real cause for me to go with him--he preferred traveling alone (or with his friends) where he was free to do as he wished and not be responsible for wife and child. Despite my mom and my protests, he kept insisting I could use the break. By November, I was ready to travel with so many fears and thoughts in my head, I could neither sleep nor rest. I was moving through days of preparation, good-byes and well wishes for what was to be a month long 'vacation'. I was to go to Arizona and visit my beloved uncle and come home refreshed mere weeks before my exams. I was packing text books, prep books, notes and gifts for my aunt and uncle. And I prepared one more thing for my trip: a notarized official copy of my high school transcripts.

One early morning in November, my family took my father and I to Mehrabad Airport bidding us farewell and reminding me to give their love and regards. I looked at them all through a haze of tears, because I knew something they didn't: I was not going back. They teased me in those final moments for never being able to hold back my tears, at my innocence that would cause such fear for a trip chaperoned by my father. My mom held me closest, because for the first time in my 18 years on earth, she was letting me go away from her for more than one night. She reminded me to be a good girl and not to impose. She promised to call me everyday, she whispered that I shouldn't cry when my dad lost his temper and not to let him get to me. And she tucked a small folded prayer into the pocket of the raincoat she had lent me. Her last words to me were, "When you come back, you'll be a grown up girl. I love you."

And I, a little disingenuously whispered back, "I'll be back soon. I love you, too."

There were no formal plans for the trip. It was just another one of my dad's unplanned, semi-spontaneous trips. No one had breathed a word about my staying away from Iran longer than a month, and no one even considered the idea of my staying in the US alone to study. My father did not believe in women getting higher educations, even if he humored me and got me tutors. My mother who spent every waking hour trying to get me into university, never dreamed of my being away from her in a country full of temptation and sin.

It was only meant to be a month long trip.

Yet I knew, the same way I know things that have not happened and no one else predicts, that I would not be going back. The tears I shed were premature tears from the pain I would soon be inflicting on myself. I would rip myself away from the only life I knew and go after something that was beyond my capabilities. The good girl was going to rebel soon; quietly and fearfully.

When we arrived in Chicago, I was so light-headed and apprehensive that I fainted soon after we landed. The city lived up to its windy reputation as the sliding glass doors parted and whipped my already trembling body. Discovery would start the next morning with something as simple the fact that I had naturally curly hair. Very unruly, curly hair. As I sat on the rim of the bathtub crying about my uncontrollable hair and my uncertain future, I knew this was no longer a trip--it was a journey.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Travlin' Girl

Travel used to terrify me. Getting lost. Being broken down on some dark, secluded road. Missing flights, stranded in a strange city. Muggings. Plane crashes. All manners of horrific incidents (like limb loss) occurring somewhere no one speaks English. These were the bars of my gilded phobic cage. I was content to never travel far beyond the safe and familiar confines of my own state.

When the man who now refers to himself as my husband first entered my life, one of the many gifts he brought with him to our relationship was a passion for travel. Over the years, he gradually and somewhat forcefully pried me out of my cozy little cage. Among the many challenges we endured: innumerable heated squabbles, lost hotel reservations, fevered races through airports, and one particularly insane bum in a D.C. McDonald’s. All in the name of ridding me of my irrational fear of the open road.

Despite these hurdles, I am proud to say I contracted a hearty case of wanderlust. I learned to love the possibilities of an unknown city. I became passionate about trying new cuisine and supporting quirky local shops and artists. My role on road trips has become that of head navigatrix , and nobody best question my map-reading skills. Unearthed was my dormant talent for successfully charting the labyrinthine waters of major metropolitan subway systems.

I’m not completely cured of my phobia. My chest still tightens at the thought of rushing up to an empty gate, having just missed the last boarding call by moments. I’m terrified of losing my luggage and have been known on more than one occasion to cram my carry-on bag with a week’s worth of socks and underwear. But I’ve gotten over the worst of my fears, culminating in a trip to Europe some years ago where I bravely faced a land of non-English speakers and never needed to stammer in French that my husband’s arm had been lopped off and that he needed a doctor.

Despite my experiences, even solo jaunts across the country, I hadn’t yet conquered staying in a hotel by myself. I have a girlfriend from college who spent months gallivanting across Europe and South Asia by her lonesome. She frequently recounted tales of wandering into foreign towns and cities with nary a clue where she would lay her head for the evening. I think she is insane. Sleeping alone in a hotel forces to the surface that fear and vulnerability that all women hate but must face as an inevitability, no matter how tough and independent we think we are. I dreaded the thought of laying my head down all alone in a strange hotel room. The experience conjured up a crazy quilt of images culled from improbable Lifetime movies and The Shining.

In the fall of 2005, I finally had the opportunity to vanquish that residual fear on a business trip to New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. (Call centers!) I was also almost seven months pregnant. Thanks to the fabulous combination of a lengthy layover in Boston made extra tortuous by added hours of delays, my little coterie of coworkers and I didn’t arrive at our hotel until the wee hours of the morning. And I was so weary from the journey that no manner of dread crept into my heart as I crawled all alone under the clean but slightly stiff sheets that first night.

The second evening, with a tasty local meal in my belly and the heavy cloak of a long day about my shoulders, I returned to my hotel room. Slightly envious of some of my coworkers who were out enjoying drinks and what I would later learn were some pretty nutty adventures for a little Canadian ‘burg, I settled into an exciting night of being pregnant and watching television. After a chat with the Mister, I sat on my bed steeling myself against those hysteria-inducing images of masked men bursting into my room or of a naked spectral woman in my bathtub. But these waking nightmares never came.

Because I wasn’t alone. Floating and bobbing in the dark, warm confines of my womb was that lumpy little creation who now calls me Mommy. And it was his presence within me that made me feel safe and protected. He chased away the stench of loneliness that was at the core of my fears with just a few jabs to my lower abdomen. It’s a ridiculous logic, a sentimental rationale born of the same goofy reasoning that also birthed the notion that the presence of my two cats in bed with me is better protection when my husband is out of town than my handgun in the nightstand.

I spent those nights on my trip comforted by the growing pea in my pod, chatting with him about how I spent my day and how excited I was about the prospect of some day soon giving him the white souvenir bear that laid on the pillow next to me. In the mornings, I wished aloud that he could see the savory vision of the sunrise over those wooly, evergreen hills outside my window. Well, just past the parking lot outside my window.

This is the mystical motherhood that we often let slip our hearts when our children emerge post-uterus to become noisy, messy, contrary infants who then morph into noisy, messy, contrary toddlers; and then noisy, messy, contrary children; noisy, messy, contrary teenagers; finally breaking from these cocoons of sloppy contrariness to become retreads of our own messy adulthoods.

The mysticism of the unborn munchkin, how he shares with us in those nine months the food we eat and the air we breathe. How he lives suspended within our organs, tissues, and bones, surrounded by the noises of our own inner workings-the blood whooshing through veins, the gurgling of the stomach, the liquid booming of his mommy’s voice and laughter. It is this mysticism that makes us on our more contemplative occasions during gestation realize we are not alone. Our baby is with us, within us, and in a way, is us.

Sad moments sometimes slide into my heart when I think my son will never be that close to me again. I know that in our lifetime together our relationship will ebb and flow. The little boy who wraps his arms around me and gleefully pooches out his lips for a kiss will someday give me a cold, adolescent shoulder. Such is the mobius ring of parenthood, a fate you must accept the moment your kid takes that first gargled scream of life.

In a few years, my hope is that my son and I can relive our first journey together when he “illegally” crossed the northern borders and kept his mommy’s loneliness at bay. I’ll wait until he’s old enough that an airplane voyage isn’t a frightening affair, and notions of passports and foreign currency are fascinating and exotic to a his brain. Maybe we won’t go back to New Glasgow. But we will sleep in our own comfy Canadian hotel room, curled up together with that little gift shop bear tucked under his arm.

Someday we'll go round the world
I'll make the journey so sublime
I know you're not a travelin' girl.
-Scissor Sisters

Arts and Sciences

I have no idea what motivated my mom to choose dance lessons when my nursery school teacher suggested that I have some sort of extracurricular stimulation. I was learning quickly and the teacher thought I would benefit from some extra challenges. My mom could have chosen piano lessons, tennis lessons, gymnastics (although they did all come later) but she chose to call a local dance studio. I can still remember that September evening, sitting at the kitchen table while she made the phone call and suddenly I was enrolled in pre-school ballet at Carol's Academy of Dance. The fall classes had only just begun so I could join my class the following week.

It was 1980 and I was three and a half months shy of my 4th birthday.

Ever the mama's girl, I spent most of that first year in tears. They subsided about two months in when I realized that, being only a 45 minute class, mom was just outside the studio door reading her beat up paperback Agatha Christie novel but the tears would flare up whenever I found myself in a new and strange position. Whether it was trying on our new costumes, joining the other class in the larger studio to practice in front of each other, or learning that our teacher Bonnie would, indeed, not be leading us through our dance up on stage (was I the only one who assumed Miss Bonnie would don a yellow tutu just like ours and do "point and together, point and together, bend and straight!" right along with us?) it was a sure bet that I would handle the situation with my signature style, sobbing hysterically until someone called for my mom. But I hung in there and made it to recital night. I was placed in the front row towards the center because, even after all the histrionics, I actually knew what I was doing.

The next fall I enthusiastically signed up for ballet again...and jazz, and acrobatics, and baton twirling. The following year I added tap to the roster. I guess you could say I was hooked.

By the time I hit second grade I was a full blown competition kid. My best friend had persuaded her mom to enroll her in classes as well and together we lived for our dancing. We danced in each others living rooms and on the playground, we counted down the days until our favorite dance competition in King of Prussia over Thanksgiving weekend, and then we counted down the days until the recital. My dad worked on the stage crew with the other dads and my mom even began "running backstage" - organizing the mothers who volunteered to be "backstage moms" and help dress the group of dancers assigned to them. I had become one of the serious dancers at our dance studio and I was thrilled to be acknowledged as one of them.

My nursery school teacher was correct in realizing my need for extracurricular activity, she was also correct that I was a fast learner. I could read before I started kindergarten and I had an uncanny ability for memorization. By the end of the school year I had been tested for the accelerated learning program and was to start what we called ESCA the next fall (the full meaning of ESCA escapes me but it was our school's gifted and talented program, which it was later renamed). A couple of days a week those of us in ESCA would go to a smaller classroom to work on what I imagine were meant to be challenging projects that were above our average grade level. Sometimes we did creative writing projects, sometimes little science projects. We did plays and art projects. We competed in the Science Olympics and went on an archeological dig field trip. I don't know what was happening back in our regular classroom during our time in ESCA but the ESCA kids were geeking out and having a great time.

Second grade found me in a new "experimental split" grade class. It was a mix of both second and third graders but only one teacher. Sometimes we split up and did work as our separate grades but mostly we worked as one class. In third grade I was in a split third and fourth grade class. I knew that I, as part of the younger class, was part of the gifted students who were doing some accelerated schoolwork but it was just a short time ago that it occurred to me that the older students were probably considered some of the slower learners. The split grades were discontinued after that but I was now ahead of my grade in reading and math so the school formed a little gifted and talented math class for a few of us who were doing exceptionally well. By the end of sixth grade I had finished pre-algebra.

But the highlights of my elementary school career? The fifth grade talent show where I did a solo jazz routine and our sixth grade gifted and talented performance of Macbeth (which I quite possibly still have on VHS tape somewhere).

I was still very much the little performer, as well as the little academic. I would be starting seventh grade in one of the better schools in the county, and I had just been named a member of Carol's Academy of Dance's junior dance company.

My life continued this way through junior high and high school. It became somewhat of a dichotomy. Was I a geek? Was I an artsy kid? Was it possible that I could be both?(!) I continued to take math classes with students a grade ahead of me, even when it meant taking the bus to the high school as an eighth grader and then being shipped back to the junior high for the rest of my day. I moved up to Senior Dance company and we started winning national titles. I became well known in school as a dancer when I got to high school and began performing in the annual show called Dance Theatre. In tenth grade I became a cheerleader. I was the only cheerleader that was a member of the Biology Club.

Junior year of high school arrived and everyone, parents and teachers and guidance counselors and strangers that I'd just met who found out I was a junior, began asking the inevitable questions about college choices and majors. My only true college visit, one where I actually had an appointment to meet with someone in the department, was to the health sciences department of Slippery Rock University. I was there to talk about the physical therapy program; thanks to a torn ACL ligament and a very cute physical therapist my interest in the field had been piqued. I was warned that it was a difficult program, one where I would have to major in biology or physics and then apply for the actual physical therapy program. All in all, about seven years of school was required. As someone who was not all that interested in college (this visit was mostly perpetrated by my mom) I reeled at the thought of seven more years of school and by the time we were home from Slippery Rock my thoughts had wandered elsewhere.

It seemed as though my years of performing had gotten the better of me. My best friend mentioned a "Related Arts" program at Kutztown University that she was considering and I immediately jumped on it. The visit to Kutztown consisted of a frosty Saturday in January where I looked at the campus for about ten minutes and, after seeing that it wasn't a complete hellhole, insisted that it was fine and could we please get back in the car because I was freezing. My best friend changed her mind about Kutztown when her parents agreed to send her halfway across the country to a great dance program (which she left after one semester) but I was accepted into the Related Arts program, thankfully since it was the only school I applied to.

My senior year I was a principal dancer in Dance Theatre, landed a role in the Fall Play, and was working in the acting troupe at the PA Renaissance Faire (stop laughing). I had firmly convinced myself that I was the artsy one in the family, that this is what I was born to do. After all, I had been performing for so long I must be meant for this, right? Never mind that I was also in AP calculus and AP physics, never mind that the rest of my family was very science and tech saavy; mom was a registered nurse, dad was an airplane mechanic for the National Guard, and my sister was majoring in social work at college. My mom kept suggesting alternatives to a theatre major. I could major in psychology and minor in dance, I could go with the physical therapy program and join the college dance company as a hobby. Being the stubborn teenager that I was (and still am sometimes) I refused to budge and when that fall arrived I was off to be a theatre major (oh yeah, we spelled theatre with an "re", no "theater" for us actors).

Four years of predictable college life followed - finding a group of actor friends, going to parties, performing in plays and dancing with the dance company. Other than a basic algebra and a biology class, I was free of all the nerdy stuff. I graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor of arts in theatre. Surprisingly enough though, at least to me, I was one of only a few of the theatre majors who moved to New York City to "do the acting thing". Most of my friends fell into what I considered "regular" jobs, some barely thought about acting. I was disappointed in them at first, but it didn't take my logic-preferring practical brain long to figure out that being an actor in New York City ain't all it's cracked up to be.

So...I'm really bad at endings. It's the reason my creative writing stories always went on for chapters and chapters and I dread having to write the conclusion paragraph of my research papers. I'll just say this - I am now 31 years old, I still live in New York City, and I am one semester away from getting my bachelor of science in Veterinary Nursing. I am proud to say that I have gotten a 4.0 every semester since I went back to school. I talk about placing catheters and monitoring anesthesia with my mom, the nurse. The last time I took a dance class was five or six months ago. Maybe there is no dichotomy. I love the performing arts and I love veterinary science. It just took me 30 years to figure out how they fit into my story.

And that's my story.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Ode to My Penis

I refer to myself as a warrior-poet, because it sounds more mysterious and less douchebaggerous than explaining that I write screenplays, one-acts, theatrical productions, short stories, poems, and nonsense.  But I earned the sword and pen.  Entirely by accident.

I went to a poetry reading once.  Because a friend asked me.  And she was hot.  Not just physically, but poetically.  The other poets would drone on about awkward sexual experiences or how they learned yoga to stretch their toes to reach shotgun barrels while they were in their mouths.  It was like watching Jerry Springer sans the carnivalistic whimsy.  Then my friend got up, and smoked us in our seats.  It was a poem about her grandmother reading tea leaves.  It was so simple, but she infused her words with so much passion, I wanted to pounce on her and savage her with love.  Instead, I sent her some of my poetry.

I did it by email, asking her to read them and tell me what she thought.  I hadn’t heard from her for a couple days.  Then weeks.  Then a month.  So I ran into her on campus and decided to debonairly broach the subject.

--Hey.  You read my shit?


--My poems.  You like them?

--Oh yeah.  You won.

--I what?

--You won.  The poetry contest.  You won for Winter.

-- The fuck? 

See, I forgot that my dear friend was editor of the literary magazine for our campus. So instead of reading my stuff, she submitted it.  And apparently I won the poetry award and $25 for my poem, “darwinism at its finest”.  Because I do everything in lowercase.  Because I was listening to way too much Smiths at the time. 

Well not only did I win, but apparently I was going to be the featured poet at the next poetry reading.  Unfortunately it was the same night as our rehearsals for Falstaff.  In which I was playing Falstaff.  Me and Orson Welles, baby, tubby bearded bitches in our early twenties.  I told the director that it would be really great if I could leave rehearsal a little early to go to the poetry reading I was being featured in.  Instead, I got a lecture about commitment to my craft, which caused us run over, so I had to haul my fat ass across campus to the coffeeshop where the poetry reading was going on.  I would not recommend a fried chicken and pizza diet for fast transit. 

I got there, to find my two friends onstage, stoned out of their fucking minds, jamming on guitar and what appeared to be an African decorative mixing bowl with some sort of voodoo stick which made a weird tonal sound.  They were the “intermission”.  My poetess had been practically begging people to hang around for my reading.  This was not being assisted by Smoked Up and the Bandit doing a fifteen minute rendition of “Whoa!: A Choral Ode to Keanu Reeves and Holy Shit I Have Fingers”. 

There was myself, and one other poet left to go.  The other poet was a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute next door to our campus.  Susan asked us which of us would care to go first.  I told him to go, because I wouldn’t get beaten with soap bars wrapped in towels by my roommates if I was late.  Worst case scenario, they’d have drank all the beer. 

So my friends kind of pass out onstage, and Susan takes the opportunity to distract them with something shiny and thank them off the stage.  This kid goes up.  I figure cool, he’s from VMI, he’ll probably have stuff about war and sex.

--Black curtains before me mother cuts my skin blood pours out.

Oh.  Shit.  Susan looks at me with an “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know” look.

--She loves me with the knife and curtains blacken hell my wounds.

No.  No.  Fuck.  I look up.  People are starting to gather their coats.   He finishes. 

--I have one more. 

Oh, shit.  Maybe it won’t be so--

--Stained glass windows break the virgin falls cutting my eyes.

Motherfuck a duck.  People are starting to pay their tabs.  I’m begging the Virgin Mary to kill him so I can get up there.  I’m pleading for the muses to slit his throat.  Away with thee!  Away!

--Thank you. 

He walks off.  Susan runs up, doesn't even both with an intro, just says, “Brian Prisco”.  I desh up to the microphone as people are getting ready to walk up the stairs.  I grab it and stammer. 

--Hi everyone.  I’d like to read my first poem.  It’s called Ode to My Penis. 

Don't worry.  It's not very long.

Everyone pauses and stares at me in horror. 

--That was the poem.

They start looking at each other. 

--I’m kidding.  I’m kidding.  Please sit down.

They laugh and sit.  I then proceed to bust into my very first poetry reading.  The audience is laughing and clapping, and I’m filled with fire.  I see Susan smiling, which made the whole thing worth it.  Because I did it for her.

I go into my last poem, the poem that won me the honor of featured poet and got me $25, which promptly went to a pizza and beer victory for me and my roommates.

as the smug teenage punk

in his tattoos and piercings

and tommy hilfiger jeans

three sizes too big

coasts by two small children

eating ice cream cones

on their front stoop

he turns to give them the finger

but falls off his skateboard

and breaks  his balls on a fire hydrant

crushing his testicles

before falling into the creek

and the children laugh

good for them

The things we do for love, you know?



Friday, March 28, 2008

Found Myself In A Strange Town

(small plastic table-topper looking thing next to the 'kerb')

I'm walking down Oxford Street in central London back towards the Tavistock Hotel in Bloomsbury about 1:00 am on a Sunday night in March 2000. Since it is past midnight my all-day tube pass has expired and I don't want to pay another pound fifty to get a ride, so that's why I'm walking.

(mind you, it's extremely exceptional and exciting that I'm there. I often jealously thought "How in the hell do YOU get to do that???" if someone happened to mention travels and escapades and such, but I felt hard done by and was also younger and underemployed, lest anyone else think "why'd HE get to go to London?". I ended up changing pretty much my whole life that year: new art, new career, new relationships, and someone had to die first for it to happen, so it's a big deal, and that'll serve to give you just the driest kiss of background information, relatively speaking, if you know me, which maybe you don't)

So I'm walking down Oxford Street, starting to leave the retail area, not sure how much further I have to go. I'm playing a minidisc with headphones on and a man taps me on my shoulder and is gesturing and saying something. I can't really hear him but I wave him off, don't want to talk or give or receive, thank you. I keep walking. I'm approaching an intersection where the Oxford Circus Underground is located. I do not realize I'm crossing a border, "abandon all hope...", etc.

He returns.

Huh? What? I pull off my headphones. He thought I was being rude back there, you see. My solicitation etiquette is sorely lacking and now I'm the jerk and he's asking me for money. I can tell he's from the North, but that's as far as my regional knowledge goes. I want him to go away so I dig out the coins I have in my front pocket where I also keep my wallet like a good little tourist. I give him the coins. He is unsatisfied. "Ye got paper! I know ye got paper! I'm a junkie, man! I need to score bad! Come on, help me!" and he proceeds to try to get his hands into my slash pockets. I'm getting alarmed but also angry and start beating on his forearms, "get off! get off!" I'm able to pull his arms away but then he decides to change tack. "I've got a knife!" At this point I look around. What I said about the border? Yeah, it's suddenly darker on this stretch of the street, dark old buildings with unmarked doors, seems to be an afterhours club enclave or something, I see that table topper on the street, I do not see The Met. I saw them back around Parliament ignoring my attempts to get directions so I've been using my tube map which is at least as detailed as a map of the Magic Kingdom with the streets so I can find a way back if not necessarily the best way. Where's Bloomsbury? According to the map it's down this street that's too dark for me to see much further than a block or two.

Oh he sees me looking around.

"Me mates are around! You can't get away! I'll fookin stab ye, mate! I'll fookin stab ye!". Oh do you think his methods are hackneyed? Predictable? Unconvincing? Scripted? Did he really say "fookin stab ye"? Yes to them all. Know how your mom would say she "didn't feel like going to the emergency room tonight?". I'm seeing no conspicuous "mates", though there are a few people who are not paying any attention to us at all going about their London nightlives, I am seeing NO knife. But what if there are a few mates? What if there is a knife he's suddenly remembered and realized he's gonna have to brandish because doing the sympathetic smack copping routine didn't work well enough? If he has a knife, does he know better than I how to use it? Yes. I'm not even working right now, though I'm going to start temping in a few weeks when I'm back home, but I have no health insurance now, and I don't feel like going to the emergency room in a foreign country where I don't even know if Blue Cross would do anything for me anyway. Keith Coogan only got one stitch but that knife was just in his shoe. Why complicate my trip further?


Yeah, I'm a little scared but I'm pissed too. This guy's a pestering jerk as well as a threatener of violence. There's an envelope in one of my pockets containing a twenty pound note I got out of an ATM earlier that day. I've kept my cash in this envelope instead of my wallet to make robbing me more difficult like a good little tourist. Is this what it's gonna cost me? I pull out the 20. "Alright, look, if I give you this will you leave me alone???" "Yeah, yeah!" "Alright, here!" He's satisfied and I start walking again and put the headphones back on. He's back and taps my shoulder. "WHAT???" "Have ye got boos feh?" "......huh?" "Have ye got boos feh?"

"NO, I gave you all my money!"

He gives me my coins back, thanks me again and is off. Again, I'd have gotten back on the tube if I'd wanted to pay for transit. I don't like buses anyway. Can't just get off and turn around. I walk for about thirty seconds without putting my headphones back on.

"Dya want some company?"

Now this is a valid question. I don't know who's behind me asking it, but....yeah, actually, I kind of would. I was part of a group of transatlantic friends that met up in pockets and coalesced in Liverpool over the weekend, but now I'm back in London and ready to do my own thing for a few days. I like being alone a lot of the time, I like traveling alone at my own pace, but I am feeling slightly lost in space tonight. That's why I was in the EasyEverything internet cafe near Debenham's late on a Sunday night to begin with, wanting to send and receive proof that I wasn't on another planet. I guess international travel can be slightly disorienting the first time. Yeah, I'd kinda like some company at the moment. However, I have an idea what she's talking about.


"Dya want some company?" "Uhhh......" This London girl is pretty fetching, in that slightly tarty way. "Um....I don't have any money, I gave it all to a guy back there". "You gave him all your money?" "Well....I was accosted." "You mean you were mugged?? Look, I'm not going to mug you, I'm a prostitute", and she waves her arms out to display herself, "do you think I'd try to mug you wearing these shoes?" "No, but....yeah, I don't--" "Don't ya like me?" "Uh...." "Hey, if you don't like me there's a bunch of other girls, we're close by, we don't have a pimp, it's all really nice, you can pick out whoever you like, it'd be 40 pounds for--" and she goes through some of the menu. "Well, I just don't have any money on me". I'm skirting the whole "it's decadently tempting but I know my guilty conscience far too well, sexually and financially" by just pleading poverty.

"Don't you have a bank card?" "Huh?" "A bank card, you can get some more money". ".........not on me." Of course that's a lie, but the quick withdrawals are not working for me tonight. "Look, I just can't". She is disappointed but ultimately lets me go. So I keep walking, put the headphones back on, pass the unmarked doors and head for a lot of darkness. I think I'm getting close by now. Oh the map says there's Bloomsbury Park up here before I reach the hotel. Yes, I see it now, there's a big patch of woody utter blackness between me and the hotel, past 1 am on a Sunday night. Perfect.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Once upon a time...

Once upon a time there was a boy.

A boy who loved boyish things... he loved playing with action figures, and little league baseball. He loved his Mom and his Dad, and his sister... well... he didn't hate her, I suppose. He loved puppies (though he was never allowed to have one), and kittens (though he wasn't very good at caring for them), and snakes and bugs and playing in dirt.

He loved sledding in the wintertime, and mittens and hoods so big that they hid his eyes, even if it caused him to walk into the occasional tree. It made people laugh, so he figured that was fine.

Once upon a time there was a boy who loved to make people laugh.

Once upon a time there was a teenager. A teenager who loved teenage things - some good, some bad. What were the good things? Well, he loved to play lacrosse, though he wasn't terribly good at it. He loved his English class, and it's stirring conversation. He loved his friends. He loved cheeseburgers and getting up in the middle of the night to climb onto the roof and look at the stars. He loved snow-days and sleeping late. He loved making people laugh.

Of course, there were the bad things he loved. He loved parties and staying out late. He loved arguing with his parents and Busch Lite and girls who squeezed his heart until it popped. He loved smoking and skipping school.

Once upon a time there was a teenager who loved to make people laugh.

Once upon a time there was a young man. A young man who loved the things a young man loves. He loved drinking legally. He loved having a place of his own, although he wasn't very good at taking care of it. He loved playing darts late at night, in smoky rooms, listening to music and waxing nostalgic. He even loved his work, although he didn't like getting up so early.

He loved his girlfriend (so much that it made him nervous).

He loved his freedom, he loved being able to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He loved his life, and making people laugh.

Once upon a time there was a man. A man who loved being a man. He loved his wife (who no longer made him nervous) and his house and finally having a dog. He loved his work, which was now less of a job and more of a calling.

But he still loved his darts in smoky rooms and his music and his waxing nostalgic. Until one night, late after work, he stood with friends in a dimly lit, smoke-filled room, playing what felt like his thousandth round of darts, drinking his thousandth cheap drink, and hearing the same story for the thousandth time.

Once upon a time there was a man. A man who loved many things, but decided there was room for one more. And that night, after leaving the smoke-filled room and going home, he lay in bed with his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling that his wife had so meticulously painted. His wife, who lay next to him, with her head on his chest, listening to him breathe. They had a house and a dog. And a garden and a yard and a life linked to dozens of other lives, but with something still missing.

Some day there will be a boy... or a girl. And that child will do childish things, and will have a father who will make them laugh.

Some day, thought the man. And he laughed.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Over My Dead Body

I jumped.

Seconds before I hit the icy water, I changed my mind. I wasn't ready for the impact, or the awkward way I entered. By the time I opened my mouth to scream, cold mountain stream water rushed in, taking the place of precious, precious air. My eyes swam; I only saw a murky blue-black. My lungs gasped. My arms flung about, fingers desperately trying to find a cling-hold on the slippery rock wall.

The water churned around me, alternately flattening my struggling body against the bare rock before forcing me to the center of the whirling pool. I still couldn't get to the surface; sweet, life-supporting oxygen just inches out of reach.

I panicked.

For the first time in my life, I soberly thought that I might die.

I'm what some would call a daredevil, but only compared to others. It started out innocently enough, as these things always do, competing with my friends and younger brother (he, the truest personification of the word "daredevil"). I never minded taking the chances, being the one to act. In fact, I relished being the one. I would ring the doorbell; make the prank calls; sneak into windows; shit in the bag. I climbed trees, buildings, scaffolding, and boulders. I liked it when someone said my name, and then "badass" in the same sentence. I wore that crown proudly. Too proudly. And oh, after pride -- you sick, twisted mistress -- cometh the fall indeed. Quite literally, as I was to discover.

On a gorgeous summer day, thick with lusty life and restlessness, my brother suggested a little trip. Now, as I mentioned earlier, my brother is the truest sense of what it means to be a daredevil, and though I may be prone to exaggeration, in this I am completely straight. He has survived, navigated, and all-around snorted in the face of more life-threatening dangers throughout his entire life than a compulsive smoker on an oil rig in a firestorm. (Some of his more dangerous stories -- he being an extremely gifted storyteller -- are actually side-splittingly hilarious. I have heard several of these yarns numerous times, and every time I find myself giggling in anticipation, knowing I'm going to completely lose it when he gets to the good, er sometimes bad, parts.) He has incurred the injuries to prove it, too. (Although how an 18-year-old former baseball, soccer, and football player -- then wrestler and boxer, soon to be rugby player and MMA trainee -- can break his collar bone on a see-saw, I'll never know.) So when he suggested I join he and some friends to go jump off a waterfall, proudly I said, "Yes."

It is in a fantastic spot. We drive twenty minutes north and park outside of the fence surrounding the rock quarry. Hop the fence, down a short trail through the woods, follow the stream towards the sound of thunder, and there it is. The Eliminator. (That's the name I just gave it; no one actually calls it that.)

The Eliminator is actually a series of waterfalls. The first jump follows the stream over a 20 foot drop into a deep, narrow, churning pool of whitewater nestled deep within surround rock walls. That pool gushes over the top of a pile of large boulders, downdowndown a 40 foot drop -- the aforementioned thunder -- into a lovely, calm little lake at the bottom. The catch: there is no way to get out once you've made the first jump. You have to squirm through a crack in the sheer rock wall, position yourself on very slippery wet rocks, and jump out over the big drop, hoping with all hope that you are far enough away to not hit a few of the large boulders at the bottom. Once you are in the lake at the very bottom, there is a nice little trail that winds back up through the woods to the top of the falls. So that you can do it. Again.

Have I mentioned that I have an almost paralyzing fear of heights?

It took me thirty minutes before I could get close enough to the edge to see the first narrow, deep pool. At this point, my pride was still intact, but only because one of my brother's friends -- the biggest, burliest of the bunch -- was up there with me, terrified out of his mind. We were alternately making fun of one another, daring each other to jump, and talking each other out of it. But I was the only girl in the group, and I wanted to save face, mainly in front of my brother. So I decided that my motivation was to jump off this ridiculous waterfall to make the big, burly boy look like a pussy. (At least, that's what I said to myself. The real truth was that I didn't want to look like one. Pride -- you bitch!!)

I watched my brother and the others jump repeatedly, making it look easy. Hell, they even made it look fun! Trying higher and higher jumping points, climbing trees over the top of the falls to make it ever more (dangerous) of a thrill. I started to feel truly uneasy.

I told myself to stop being such a wuss.

My feet stayed planted.

I told myself that I could do this. I had to confront my fear of heights once and for all.

I didn't budge.

I looked over at my petrified companion and saw my own scared face looking back at me, and that's when I decided to do it. Pride. Foolish pride.

I walked to the edge of the stream and...stopped...kinda.

See, earlier? When I said I jumped? Well, jumping would be considered graceful compared to what my body did. It was like two completely opposite and in-control parts of me screamed "Yes!" and "No!" at the same moment, and the physical result was an awkward lurch that had me hitting that cold-ass water with my neck and face.

If one of the other jumpers hadn't grabbed me as I swirled underwater, just far enough away from the air to really miss it, then I think I would have drowned. He pulled me into the small gash in the rock facade. Even out of the water, I still couldn't breath. He pounded on my back several times. Hard.

I finally coughed what seemed like a fucking bucket of water out of my lungs, and gasped a series of extremely grateful thank you's to my savior, clutching his arm with every ounce of strength I had left. I felt so relieved! I was alive! Earth. Under my feet. And then I realized what I would have to do to get back to the sweet, safe earth.

Jump off a more treacherous jump, down a further fall, into a larger body of churning water.

I will be completely honest here: if the savior guy had not been right there, in close range, I would have pissed myself. At this point, pride, the small hold she still had on my heart, didn't let me.

Instead, I froze. It took my brother a long time to convince me that I could do this, that I wouldn't die. I kept imagining my mother's face when my brother would come home, by himself, and tell her how I had perished. I thought about how my brother would need all the other people there to carry my empty body away from this hell on earth, me floating safely on a cloud, playing a fucking lute. I thought about what people might say at my funeral, and when I decided that death by waterfall wouldn't look so bad on my headstone, I did it.

Shaking like an epileptic, I slowly crawled out onto the wet rocks, water splashing down on top of me, me trying to keep my balance and my composure. This time, there was no fuckery in my mind. Both selves knew that to get out of this mess, they would have to work together.

In one fluid motion, I stood and launched myself off the rocks, body aligning into a classic spike, stabbing the water below.

I kicked and swam and burst through the surface as quickly as I could get myself there, looked back at the waterfalls, and laughed. I did it! I had faced a paralyzing fear, and had overcome. I had survived The Eliminator.

And I will never, ever, evah-evah-evah, do that dumb shit again.



Pride be DAMNED.

Nut in a Shell

I don't remember much about my father. Really, the only things I have to remind me of him these days are faded photographs. Sepia colored memories of someone I never really knew. I've spent hours scouring my memories for a sound, a smell, something that would trigger a recollection of a father son moment. Nothing. No summer days spent playing catch, no rough housing on the living room floor, no man to man talks about girls or how to protect myself or Monday nights spent watching football or any other sporting event. My brother and I are a generation of Martinez men that were raised almost exclusively by women.

Sure, my grandfather did the best he knew how, but he was 70 years old and couldn't possibly keep up with two kids. My uncle was around only sparingly, but he was too wrapped up in his mistress and smoking pot to really take an active role in our lives. It fell squarely upon my grandmother and great grandmother's shoulders to raise us. They of course tried their best as well, but I always knew something was missing. They couldn't show me how to change a tire (I learned that later in auto shop class in high school), and they couldn't show me how to properly throw a spiral pass with a football. When I lived with my mother again, it was with her and her partner Liz. I took what lessons I could from whatever other guys I hung around with and pretended to be just like them.

So, I became the geek that hung out with the kids that played Dungeons & Dragons and whispered to each other excitedly about the latest sci-fi movie. My brother coached pee wee football. I loved to read about ancient mythology, monsters, and attended comic book conventions. My brother read the Sports Illustrated. I took Advanced Placement art classes in high school and never took up any sports. My brother watches football every Sunday and Monday night. I can't quote you batting averages but I can quote almost the entire script from Aliens word for word. My brother knows the entire lineup for the New York Yankees. I don't know the difference between a Catalytic Converter and a Distributor Cap, but if you place a sci-fi DVD in the suspense section of my DVD collection, you can bet your ass you're going to hear about it. I could care less who wins the Super Bowl or the Pro Am Bowl World Series of Who Gives a Rat's Ass. I never saw a rock concert given by some iconic rock band, but I saw Dee-Lite and Doc Marten perform at a rave and loved every minute of it. Whether this is a result of the lack of a strong stereotypical male role model, I don't know and I don't care. Because I like who I am, and I make no apologies for it.

My name is Manuel Martinez.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Frogs, Death, Springtime

My story is about Spring. This in itself is unusual as Springtime has never held any traditional meaning for me. It never seems to arrive spectacularly in England, it creeps in late and half heartedly melts the morning frost; too embarrassed to make a real show of itself. Spring for me has never meant skipping lambs and blooming crocuses – shouting in purple and orange, their colours reflected in Easter ribbons and the new season’s dresses. It has never been a time of parties or holidays, of religious feasts or family picnics. Spring has always been the season of frogs.

I’ve been fascinated by frogs ever since I was a child. I still am. They always seem to be tiny packets of evolution. From clusters of transparencies to be-tailed swimming things and right up to frogs, they’re the poster child for metamorphoses. You can watch them change; from when the first legs sprout until the tail withers and dies. It all happens in plain sight, in the tank or the pond, outside of the confines of flesh. That’s what’s so special about frogs; you get to see the in between stages. But then, in time, you learn that all the baby things look the same – cows and chicks and tadpoles and people - all curved over, punctuating a sentence yet unspoken. As the spine stretches over and the supine form begins to spawn four limb buds, extending through into the developing tail and soon tiny digits forming, their partings spanned by webs of skin. After that somehow frogs lose their metaphorical power. Lines warp again, learning that everything grows in the same way takes away the mystery: it can’t be magic if it’s common, that’s just not the way that the world works. And so frogs become just frogs and most of us forget that they were even tadpoles to begin with.

But it wasn’t the development of frogs that snared me, not the end of spring which brought the clusters of eggs captured in jam jars which suddenly disappeared to be replaced with swarming life. It was the very start of the season when the ice that covered the pond would begin to thaw.

The pond at the base of our garden had been put there by the previous owners in what must have been a sudden fit of individuality. In a group of identical squat red-brick houses, with rooms that stood each others’ mirror images and gardens cut in matched rectangles from levelled off soil, the shallow plastic pond set us slightly apart. A small comma of rippling blue laid down in one piece of a patchwork canvas of green. Or it should have been; the stagnant water was shallow, during summer months it was thick with algae which carpeted the surface obscuring the water from view and preventing light from filtering down below its blanket. We ignored the pond for the most part, fish would have never survived in it, but it would have been awkward to replace, the logistics of it requiring longer than the few seconds’ thought we ever gave its removal, so it remained unnoticed in a patch of land too small to really forget anything. As soon as the first frost of winter would set in the water would freeze over forming a sheet which lay stretched across the surface between the moss covered plastic banks. The ice would remain there all winter, slowly covered by the last fallen leaves from the tree above, until finally – when the first blush of the new season crept out over the countryside – it would begin to melt.

I remember the first frog that I noticed after the thaw. I had been standing, thinking nothing much at all, and staring down unseeing into the inky black water. Slowly the frog caught my attention, but this was before it was a frog back when it was merely a pebble at the water’s surface. The rock was smooth and grey and glistening and as the wind slowly stroked the water’s surface, gently persuading it to move in gently swells against its artificial banks, the stone moved with it gradually turning on its axis until I was met with the two unblinking pearls of its eyes. I think it struck me then, when the eyes of the rock met my own, that what I was observing was not a thing that was un-alive but rather a dead thing – something that had lived once but did so no more. I had seen dead things before, the shredded creatures that had once been feline playthings or the inverted birds that hung from rafters caught in an eternal and unintentional dive, but never so closely or for so long without turning my head away. Never knowing that it had seen me too. There were no flies, no sticky blood in matted fur, no warm feathers disturbed by pellets of lead, just the smooth grey skin and alien glassy eyes drained of colour serene and unmoving. Slowly, softly more frogs began to rise into my consciousness – stiff limbs projecting from invisible axes, tumbling towards the surface like dancers caught in a silent waltz. It should have been the stuff of nightmares; the child confronted with an army of amphibian corpses, bobbing on the pond’s surface like rotten apples with their mushroom coloured flesh sickly reflecting the morning light. It wasn’t. The frogs brought comfort rather than terror. For a child living in the countryside death is an unexpected event, a wild card drawn during a hunt or in the mouth of a trap it is accompanied by the crack of a gun or a keening cry. It is never quiet, never peaceful and never left without making its mark. The graceful and unblemished frogs spoke of something else, something kinder and not to be feared. The frogs spoke of peace and something that felt a little like grace.

The weeks passed and soon the frogs were gone, removed by a hand both unseen and unconsidered, to be replaced by oozing clumps of frogspawn which clung to one another and the textured banks of the pond and a season which began filled with glazed eyes and rigid limbs ended with a swarm of teeming life, sprouting legs and evolving while barely drawing notice.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

March's Madness

This is Open Mic Month. Tell me a tale about anything at all. Spring, Holidays, your best friend, love, or birthdays.

If you're not ready to Tell a Tale, then comment on the stories you read. I love comments almost as much as I love stories.

About These Tales

This is a blog. A blog where people share their stories every month, on a suggested theme. A little bit like an online stage, where you can tell your story in your own voice with your own flare for everyone to delight in. Sure, you could do that on your own blog--but this is more like a gathering.

This is only the first step of where I'd like to go with this blog and eventually, I will be sharing much more. But before any of those visions develop, I need your help and participation. So share your thoughts and words. Tell us your tale. I want to bring people together on this little virtual stage, and shine the spotlight on you.

I will share more soon. Until then, share your stories. We can't wait to hear.