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Write the Year 2019

For the last 2 years, I have run the year (i.e., gone 2017, then 2018 miles on my feet in some fashion) with some friends, and I’m doing so for 2019 as well.

Having dragged my physical body kicking and screaming into positive habits, I’m trying to do the same with my brain.

So. I’m going to try to write something every week this year. I don’t want to set up too many rules about what, because I can feel the failure nipping at my heels. I posted my first entry on my tumblr, but it’s almost impossible to find things there. I then also posted to my ancient Blogspot, and boy howdy is Blogspot TERRIBLE.

So I’ve tossed up a WordPress blog that I’ll use for my weekly attempts, and I guess any other writing I do.

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Write the Year 2019: Week 03—Marking Time

I just finished Oscar Hijuelos’s Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise this weekend. In the book, Hijuelos has Twain sitting for Dorothy Tennant (Lady Stanley), who is a portrait painter. In an imagined soliloquy of Twain’s, he says “Once a single hour seemed an endless thing, passing as slowly as a shadow shifting in the sunlight in mid-July. . . . As an experiment I have mentally listed the things I can remember from a single hour during an afternoon on my uncle John Quarles’s farm.”

It struck me as such an interesting idea—how would I even know if I were marking an hour, I wondered? And this came to mind. Strangely, even though the details that came filtering into my brain in the middle of the night focused on the second half hour, most of this is about the first.

Marking Time

WC: 1300

I climb the stairs to the brick bungalow. It’s dark out already, or feels like it. It’s cold and my knees are blotchy maroon between the brown of my pulled-up socks and the plaid hem of my school jumper. My coat is purple and puffy. I got to pick it out, and it has big toggle buttons that I love. 

I reach up to ring the bell and wait. 5805 South Fairfield. I hold my breath and race through the address, end to end, inside my head. I do this every time. I think I started when my mom dropped me off once. I think I was afraid she’d forget to come back, though I can’t fathom what good I thought knowing the address I was at would do. My sister is with me today, anyway, but I do this every time. 

5805 South— 

It’s six and a half times before Mrs. Dilamo opens the door. She is portly. I know that’s the absolutely right word for a person who is wide all the way around and not much taller than me. I also know that this is not something I can say, except inside my head, and I do. Every time. 

“Boots in the hallway,” Mrs. Dilamo says. 

I look down at mine. They’re gray and ugly and caked with salt, but the rug in her front room is even uglier. It’s green and short and it seems like it should smell bad. It has a pattern kind of carved into it. Something almost like the green, puffy-cloud tops I put on trees when I have to draw. 

My boots are hand-me-downs from someone. The zippers hurt my fingers when I try to pull them down. My coat is suddenly too hot, and I’m bent over, struggling, but I don’t want to sit on the ugly rug. I grit my teeth and tug hard. The second boot slips off just as the grandfather clock in the hall chimes the hour. 

My sister has my school shoes. She has the canvas bag with my music in it. Hers, too, but my lesson is first. I slip my feet into my school shoes and the two of them disappear into the back of the house. 

The black grand piano barely fits in the bay window of the front room. Mrs. Dilamo isn’t back yet, so I inch my way around to the bench with my eyes mostly closed. I sit exactly in the middle of the bench and slide my music from the canvas bag. I try not to look toward the chair where she’ll sit. I try, but I can’t help it, and it’s still there: A clear plastic hospital jar with a screw top lid. 

There are three lumps inside, each one about the size of a superball. They’re gray and brown, mostly, but I think of them as a swirling green. I think of them as almost the same color as the carpet, because I know the word bile. They’re Mrs. Dilamo’s gallstones and they’ve been sitting there for weeks. I know way too much about them. 

She comes down the hall, then, and everything shakes. The teacups behind glass in a cabinet and the picture frames on the upright piano across from the couch shake. Her cat-lady glasses are on a chain around her neck. They sit, folded up, at the very edge of her chest and the chain seems silly. 

I think about her glasses while I play through my Dozen a Day exercises. I think about the twinkling stones high up in each corner and the fact that I’m almost done with the orange book. I watch my fingers, which I’m not supposed to do. I see Mrs. Dilamo’s hand move out of the corner of my eye, but I lift my chin before she can smack it sharply from underneath. 

I remember to look at the music through Bastien. I’m not reading it. I can, slowly. Slowly, and it’s easier to memorize. It’s easier to remember how the sounds go in my mind. To picture my hands making them. But I have to keep my eyes on the music. Arabesque. I say the name in my head until the sounds of it don’t mean anything. 

“Matthews is missing,” she says sharply as I finish the piece. 

I freeze. The words don’t make any sense at all, and I’m terrified of her. I think for a second that it’s something wrong inside my head. That I’ve said the address and the name of the piece and all these other things end to end and now nothing means anything.  

But she says it again, and an image of the book with its red cover comes into my mind. It’s on the floor at home by the TV. I forgot it. I forgot to put it in the canvas bag with everything else, but I don’t want her to yell at me. 

“I think it’s in the car,” I tell her, and I know in the moment it’s a stupid lie. She could send me out to get it. She could send my sister out, and my heart pounds with the fear of getting caught. 

She shakes her head and grabs a pad of paper from underneath the gallstones. She snatches the sharp pencil from the music rack and writes something. A note to my mother that my mother will never see. That Mrs. Dilamo will forget about by next week. She grumbles and rattles the thin sheet music for my last piece. 

“Brahms,” she snaps, but then she chuckles to herself. It’s a scary, chesty sound, and I know what comes next. A thick, rolling accent that she thinks is funny. “Hungarian Dance, Number 5.” 

I don’t think the accent is funny. I don’t think a lot of the things she says are funny, but it’s like the address. It’s like the word portly being absolutely right. It’s not something I say anywhere other than inside my head. 

I lift my hands to the keys. I play too fast. I always do, but I can see the dancers in my head. I can see the stone fireplace and wide wooden tables pushed up against the walls. I can see the candles flickering and my left hand rocks faster and faster between the low notes, and my right flickers through the melody. 

“That’s enough.” Mrs. Dilamo stops me before I’m finished with the coda. The grandfather clock down the hall chimes the half hour a few seconds later. “We’re done for the day.” 

I gather up my music. I follow her to the kitchen at back of the house. My sister follows her back to the front room. 

There’s a lady in a pink dress that sits on the counter. She splits in half at the waist and there are pretzel rods standing up inside like pencils in a cup. There’s a fancy pedestal dish with a clear glass top that always has Little Debbies on it. They’re white waxy cakes today, not the good kind, but I take one anyway. I take a pretzel rod in my other hand and dash into the tiny room at the side. 

The TV is on already. It’s black and white like the small one in our kitchen, and it’s on a flowery tin tray that wobbles if you step on the floor wrong. Big Valley is on. I missed Bonanza, but I eat my waxy cake and scrape every bit off salt off the pretzel rod with my front teeth. I scrape the hard brown outer layer off. I’m just starting on the rest, end to end, when my sister calls my name from the front room. 

The grandfather clock in the hall chimes the hour. 

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Write the Songs 2019—Session 1, Assignment 1: Crush

Crush: My first song of 2019

So, for our first night of class, we did free writing to prompts, the first of which was “First Crush.” Legit, like two years ago, I had the sudden, lightning-strike realization that I did not at all have a crush on the person I’d spent most of my life thinking of as my first crush. I was VERY into everything about space when I was 5. I was also into every single Japanese giant robot show out there, and it was THE BEST when my older sibs would be at school LIKE CHUMPS and I could flip the switch on the TV to UHF and watch in peace.

I have some guilt about using the real person’s name here, but come on. DAT ASSONANCE.

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Write the Year 2019: Week 2—The Lot

This week, I listened to my Brain. I don’t really sleep, so a lot of my nights are spent trying to slow my mind down to something like a walking pace. A lot of that amounts to exploration of the upstairs real estate as calmly and quietly as I can. The night after I decided to try this experiment, a lot of the images here were percolating, as well as the single line of dialogue that ends this.

The Lot

WC: 1000

Secret. Sacred. Mysterious. I stand on the threshold of The Lot, and it’s strange what images fill my mind. My own hands, pink and childish, shaping the letters from an early age. Tall capitals and lower case letters with their curved tops brushing the dotted blue lines like a low ceiling. 

Esoteric Arcane. Recondite. Those are in cursive. They slant sharply to the right and push past the faint red vertical of the right-hand margin. There’s a careful, studied elegance to these, at odds with the way they run practically off the page. At odds with the ragged, bitten-off ends of my adolescent fingernails. 

I have filled sheets with words. I have crowded notebooks and napkins and canvases with strings of syllables, discovered and discarded. Rediscovered and recommitted from time to time, and that’s what I see now: A hundred, hundred, hundred attempts to understand what no one will talk about, stretching from the time I could first hold a thick-barreled pencil until moments ago. Until it was time. 

Not one of the words is right. Not one descriptor or action word captures anything true about The Lot. I know that now as my weight shifts forward and the toe of my shoe breaks some invisible plane and suddenly I am inside what’s to be. 

I hear Tonna’s voice inside my head, but only for the first few breaths. An adjective won’t get it done, Rhe. I hear the ripple of laughter underneath and rapid calculations fire in the back of my brain, because I understand now what she told me. What she could never tell me, though she’s the closet thing to a friend I’ve found since the revelation that I, too, was bound for The Lot. I know—understand—how much time I’ve wasted. How much wax and ink and paint and blood and whatever else I was able to get my hands on my whole life long. 

The terrible math dies away as the world starts to take shape. The future, I suppose, though that’s not right either. The future is plural, and there’s nothing shared about this. The space high above me—above only me—fills in with an evergreen canopy. Heartsore blue peeks between leaves and needles and bare black branches. None of it lasts. Not once it vanishes from the corner of my eye. There’s nothingness behind me. All around me just outside the edge of my experience. I move forward. Onward, maybe, or through a field of things constantly ceasing to be. 

A house sketches itself into being far ahead of me. A boxy, wood frame thing that might’ve been yellow once upon a time. Or maybe it will be yellow yet. I know how little I know as it fixes itself to the page of what’s to be and shades in details around itself. There’s a kind of permanence in those. A history in trampled grass and a water-filled tire track in red-brown dirt to the left of the footprints I suddenly find I’m leaving, I’ve left, I will leave.  

I climb the steps to the blistered boards of the weathered porch. I reach for the handle of the screen door, but the movement changes in midstream. My fingers curl into a fist that connects sharply with a worn, darkened place high up on the wooden frame. I have to raise up on my toes to reach it, but I’m sure. The door shrugs on its hinges, the movement punctuated by the clatter of hook popping free. 

The house dissolves to nothing but a sound. The long creak of a wooden rocker on gapped, sagging floor. It’s joined by the tick of a clock out of sync with the single room coming to be. I know without knowing it’s keeping someone else’s time. Not mine and not that of the woman sitting dead center in the darkness. 

Her back is to me. She’s silent and still, but explanations travel from her to me, piecemeal. Without a word, she knocks aside every question I thought I would ask. Every question nestled between the lines I’ve been filling my whole life with pink, childish fingers and ragged nails bitten right down to the quick. Without a word, she sends every one skittering to the far corners of the room. To the crevices where scarred baseboard meets crumbling wall. 

I step deeper into the room, or maybe that’s wrong, too. Maybe what I’d like to call decision, will, volition is simply what’s to be filling in around me. Maybe the dusty bulb swaying on a wire is giving off light for someone else entirely and choice lies on weathered boards or trampled grass on the far, far side of a screen door that never was. 

The woman turns as I wonder about it. As my fingers curl and uncurl around the phantom barrel of pencil that will never be. She turns, and the rocker groans with shift of her weight from the wicker seat. The floor sighs and the clock ticks, keeping someone else’s time. 

She looks me up and down and I feel the contours of myself taking form. I feel my veins cast shadows on the backs of my hands and flecks of color as they shake themselves and take up their ordained places in the rings of each iris. I spy history in the making as the  half-moons in the palm of each hand are crossed and crossed again by long, sweeping lines and short, furious hash marks. I shiver as what’s to be snaps into place. 

She looks me up and down. She holds my breath and the first beat of my heart in familiar, gnarled fingers. She tells me everything in a single, sharp nod. Too many things, and my knees would buckle if any this were up to me. 

“So,” she says. She turns away. She lowers herself back into the chair with infinite weariness. “It’s to be a ghost story after all.” 

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Born a Rock God: Missing Bowie

Marlee Matlin posted this on Twitter on David Bowie’s birthday, just two days ago, and now here we are on the third anniversary of his death. I won’t repeat the joke that so many have made about him having held together the fabric of the universe, but the world has certainly been a remarkably crueler place since he left it.

Like so many musicians, I don’t know that I really appreciated Bowie until I learned to play guitar and then started writing songs. Just about seven years ago, right around this time of year, friends were expecting their first baby. I was scheduled to play a set, partly on my own, and partly with friends, including the soon-to-be dad, and I wanted to acknowledge the huge change he and his wife were about to experience.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the number songs about children that do not make one want to gag is asymptotic to zero. Except for “Kooks.” Born a rock god or not, Bowie captured the jangling, awkward hope and excitement, sheer terror, and sheer elation in that song, and his patter at the end of the live version is just so him.*

Anyway, I wrote two different things around the time of his death. A song called Punchline the day he died, when writing anything seemed impossible, and Life Out Here, which was our “response” to “Life on Mars.” As my notes on that indicate, I had to keep Bowie’s masterpiece out of the corner of my eye to write anything, and it really became a song from the perspective of the Marshal Station Doors/Saloon Doors from The Thrilling Adventure Hour’s Sparks Nevada: Marshal on Mars.

I still miss you, Bebe Rock God.

*I was sick the night I was supposed to play, so I never did end up doing this cover. Hmmm. Need to remedy that.

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Write the Year 2019: Week 1—Tape

For this week, I just grabbed a prompt and ran with it. Mia Botha at https://writerswrite.co.za/31-writing-prompts-for-january-2019/ has provided 31 prompts for January. I took the one from January 5, because I was going to try to do this yesterday. 


WC: 1000

Somewhere in the depths of an upstairs closet, there’s a miniature wooden crate I keep not throwing away. It holds tapes—audio cassettes, which are things of a so-distant past that autocorrect can’t decide if that’s one word or two. It doesn’t hold many at the moment. Only two that I can think of, in fact.

One has the audio of a couple of episodes of He-Man (and the Masters of the Universe, of course), because I was the kind of 11-year-old who risked maternal wrath by piling things up in front of the cabinet television in our front room to place the microphone of a tape recorder in the perfect position to catch every single household noise and the occasional distant snatch of He-Man audio.  

The other is a bootleg of Roxette’s Look Sharp that I bought at an open-air market in Arequipa, Peru.

I’d never been out of the US when I settled on the Andes for my area of specialization. I’d never been on a plane when I got on my first, bound for Lima (by way of Newark, then Miami), then on to a much smaller city on the south coast.

You’ll cry every day, someone told me. A well-meaning voice of experience, but I didn’t believe her. You’ll cry.

I didn’t cry.

I left Chicago in the middle of a punishing, terrible heat wave. I navigated the Lima airport for a 3-hour layover that turned into a 17-hour layover. And in nothing short of a miracle, I actually connected in Lima with people I’d met only once, who took me to the house I’d be staying in for the next three months.

I worked hard on two different digs. One planned, one salvage. I figured out how to get permission and materials and transport from point A to point Q when it turned out that point Q was where I needed to be and things needed to be.

I spent long days in a tiny room at the back of the house taking measurements and recording data. I watched Malicia and Time Traxx and Equiiiiiiissssss Meeeeeennnn on the 7-inch black-and-white TV in our house and laughed until I had to sit down in the street when my friend Erika saw an X-Men comic in a shop and said in disbelieving tones, “Beast no es azul! Beast es gris!”

I went out dancing. I don’t dance, but I went out dancing. I drank good beer and bad beer and terrible Peruvian wine. I drank pisco and leche de monja, even though no one would tell me how it was made until afterward.  

I slept. I have never in my life slept well. In Peru I slept soundly, regularly, consistently. For short siestas during the day if I felt like it. All the way through the night. Night after night after night, and when I look back at these few paragraphs, I don’t know how I could have and still done all the things I absolutely did.

I read, constantly and voraciously. At breakfast and over lunch and after hours when there was, quite literally, nothing on television. King of the Confessors and The Difference Engine and Dune in English, along with a dozen forgettable Dean Koontz and Dean Koontz–knock-off mysteries from a beat-up metal locker in the house’s kitchen. Relato de un náufrago and Bien años de soledad in Spanish. Also The Book of Mormon in Spanish, because I had well and truly run out of things to read.

And things to listen to. I know I had the soundtrack to The Little Mermaid when I started out, but someone made off with that pretty early on. And I had Webb Wilder’s Hybrid Vigor, taped off a CD, which I listened to over and over and over until I was suddenly in auditory Book of Mormon territory. That’s where Roxette comes in.  

Why Roxette? I truly have no idea. I can tell you everything about the tape itself. The physical thing: It’s a clear-case Memorex 90-minute tape with pink and yellow brand marks and yellow reels. It’s still in its mini-crate somewhere upstairs. It would take me a while to lay hands on it, but I can picture it perfectly and still feel the way the reels’ teeth would bite into my pinky finger when I had to manually wind up the slack that eternally got caught inside the cheap knock-off Walkman I’d brought with me into the field.

But why Roxette? Honestly, I had a moment while I let this prompt worm its way through my mind when I thought it might’ve been Love and Rockets. I had more than a moment when I could not, for the life of me, recall the title of a single Roxette song, and so I cheated. I googled and the song titles knocked the dust off of everything. They came back to me in all their cheesy glory, “The Look,” “Musta Been Love,” “Dangerous,” “Listen to Your Heat.”

I can hear them now in all their cheesy glory with disco-salsaed hits on Rrrrraaaaddddddio Iiiiiiilo bleeding right through them. But there’s still no real answer to the trenchant question “Why Roxette?” other than “I didn’t cry.”  

I was never homesick like that well-meaning person promised I would be. I was busy. I was curious and able to satisfy my curiosity most of the time. I was frustrated and often out of my depth. I was sneezy and headache-y and altitude sick sometimes. I was shy and awkward  in the wrong clothes because who knew I would suddenly be invited to a huge, elaborate, unending Peruvian wedding?

I was out of books and sick of the music that would keep me company in my little back room, so I read the Book of Mormon in Spanish. I bought a bootleg Roxette tape. And I never once cried.