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Sunday, October 29, 2006

"Transitions"

By Karen Jahn

I’ve been in several book groups where folks mention ‘academic’ with a dismissive sneer yet wonder why after an hour and a half of discussion, they still don’t know what the book is about. Granted, I fall asleep as soon as the next person when invited to listen to a talk about intertextuality in Joyce’s Ulysses. But a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ and some tough questions open up texts.

When several people in an otherwise sophisticated group of women judged Austen’s Emma irrelevant, I gave up leading their discussions. And yet, my rustic clothes looked shabby next to their fashionable ensembles. And so, the transition from English Professor to avid reader has been a rocky but worthwhile passage. As I struggle to find my civilian legs, I’m learning a great deal about how to function in a milieu more democratic than the classroom or campus.

People still working wonder at their retired colleagues, caught between envying our spare time and doubting that we’re doing anything. Now retired, I can’t imagine how I had time for a career and family all these years. I often railed against both for cheating me from becoming myself, but now I wonder.

As a Navy bride stranded in a Yokahama hotel with a six-month old for weeks at a time, my twentieth year was hardly typical. Later rendering this episode comic, then I struggled daily with the irony of being trapped in the life I’d chosen in place of college. Marrying my lover and having a baby had landed me alone, with no friends, classes, family, or familiar surroundings, not even my husband most of the time. But he had insisted that we stop at Berkeley on the way to Japan and enroll me in two correspondence courses. So, in addition to infancy, my baby Scot and I shared my Shakespeare and Psych Statistics in our New Grand Hotel room.



These days, sitting at breakfast with enough time to chew, read the newspaper, watch two goldfinches circle the feeder nourishes the rest of the day. But other mornings, I’m off at seven for the half hour drive to Pilates or yoga a process which tunes me into my body as intimately as sex in earlier years. Gas is exorbitant, my puritan self nags, but how else can I do my vocal exercises, soak in the rural scenery, and get my errands done? I return refreshed, open to reading, gardening, writing, or being with others.

As Flannery O’Connor has the psychotic Misfit say after shooting the Grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: “She would have been a good woman if it had been someone to shoot her every minute of her life!” These days I have the gun, so life goes well.

Before her retirement, Karen Jahn was for many years a Professor of English. Her special love was African American literature and its connection to music.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

"What the Hell is Going On With These Rainbows?"

By Claudia Ricci

OK so just now I was revising that rainbow poem I wrote last week.

You remember it, the one where I was writing about a rainbow when my husband suddenly called to me from the kitchen, “Oooh, there is a rainbow on the stove.”

I practically fell over.

Anyway, so just now, I was revising that poem.

And then, a moment later, I mean maybe two seconds later,
my son Noah
came wandering into my study.

“Hey, Noah, I am trying to write something,”
I said to him.
“I need some words.” I picked up my Oxford dictionary. “Give me three words.”

“I don’t need a dictionary,” he said. “I have three words.”

And before I could stop him he gave me these three words:

“Profligate.”
“Rainbow.”
"Lizard.”

I sat there. I blinked. I stared at his thick brown hair. “Noah. Why did you say rainbow?”

“I don’t know,” he said. By this point, he was lying here, petting the dog named Bear.

“But Noah, I was just this moment writing about a rainbow. How did you know?”

“I didn’t know,” he said. He laughed.

And then he just left the room, laughing.

And then I just sat here, wondering.

What the hell is going on with these
RAINBOWS?

Claudia Ricci is on the faculty at the University at Albany, SUNY, where she teaches English and journalism. She published her first novel, Dreaming Maples, in 2002.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"The Transience of Memory"


By Renee Geel

My mother’s face was softer than I recall, more vulnerable; the emotions were old, though still raw, but the scene was entirely new. And there I stood, blaming and condemning her as though the universe circled around me and my needs. As though she was pure villain and me, pure victim.

I’ve often wondered about dreams and how they serve us in our day-to-day lives. Dreams refract and reflect like a fun-house mirror; frozen, conical, accessible shapes; a melting clock – shrinking, expanding, twirling, combining memory and impression and imagination all into one wild casserole, a stew of pain and joy and, sometimes, just plain nonsense or confusion. I believe in writing’s potential to transform feelings – often feelings of pain – into an altogether different something.

So often a piece of writing germinates from a seedling of memory; but then, through the sweat and guts and alchemy that is writing, it becomes something else, its own entity, neither an accurate reflection of the past nor a parallel of our present, alongside which it exists. I can’t honestly compare a writer’s and painter’s processes, but I am willing to wager that keystrokes and brushstrokes are prey to the same malleability.

So, ok. One night a few weeks ago I had a particularly fitful sleep, fueled no doubt by a bounty of self-pity I had succumbed to earlier that evening. In theory, I know better than to compare the direction of my life with that of another person; but in that day’s practice, I’d allowed myself to fall prey to pity. I had wallowed for hours in the what-ifs scattered haphazardly across my mental-emotional map. Later that evening, still mired in the hows and whys and how-comes and why-nots of regret, I sat down at the computer and wrote an uncensored, moth-eaten first draft of an essay or short story; though, I wasn’t then yet sure which it would become. A feeling of completion – or depletion – under way, I got up from the computer and took my puffy-eyed, self-induced headache to bed and dreamt about people and circumstances – loosely accurate, though they were – I hadn’t visited in years.

It looked strangely like an amalgam of Seurat’s umbrella-clad “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte” shadow-and-sunlit scene, and Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” – the same surface hush of both; but underneath was a current of anger and questioning and stomach-wrenching regret for what could have been and never will be. And then, an ending I wouldn’t have predicted.


When I woke the next morning, the room still pitch dark – save for the streetlight through the slats of the blinds – and pulsating with shadows of my and my husband’s wedding-picture frames, our cat’s waking stretch, my husband’s still-sleeping silhouette, I was both confused and amazed. Sure, I took undergrad psychology; I learned how the Id – Freud’s moniker for that spoiled, selfish, undisciplined part of us – acts out when our conscience-driven Super Ego isn’t there to rein it in. And yet, I was still in awe of my dream; a volcano of molten feelings had erupted in the night.

My mother’s face was veiled by the angry expression I remember as a kid, much like the sun’s corona; and deeper inside – the sun’s core, if you will – by wide-eyed, lingering vulnerability due to her own mother’s death when she was a mere eleven years old. With a pleading, earnest look, she asked me how and why I could subject her now to the same coldness she’d – probably helplessly – subjected me to when I was little. Don’t you see… she asked, palms up, that you’re doing to me what you’ve always blamed me for doing to you?

I’m sorry, I said to her in that dream. And I meant it, I know I did. After tormenting her for what felt like the entire night, I felt genuine empathy for her. Freed up in sleep, released from Freud’s hell-raiser and his finger-wagging disciplinarian, I was able to step out from the center of the spinning universe long enough to realize that while we may all take a turn there, it’s not meant for permanent residence.

I got out of bed feeling consoled and consoling, newly questioning hazy bits of memory I’d always clung to as absolute. Feet on the cold hard wood as I made my way downstairs in the dark toward the blessed coffee pot, I actually felt, well, good. Yet I was shamefully patting myself on the back for it each step, as though I should congratulate myself for good will. Aaaahhh and uggghhhh in conflicting coexistence.

Measuring out coffee beans, my eyes still heavy with sleep, I realized that both writing and dreaming had gone to work on me. Sitting down at the computer the night before had nudged me around a corner. Emotions I’d spun into words had – with Seurat’s and Dali’s help – transformed memory, and with it, present.

Nights of dreams and pots of coffee later, I still struggle. Those old angers and regrets linger. While I’d like to say they are history, I can’t; I’m far too pragmatic and cynical to think that a single night’s sleep and a bed of wizened dreams could or should whitewash all of memory’s colors and brushstrokes. But I feel one step closer to believing in my capacity for instinctive compassion and willful reconciliation – both of which are thankfully tempered by salty skepticism. (No fairytales in my book, no horror stories, either, but rather a hopeful adventure somewhere in between.)

Clich̩ that it is, I am reminded once more that writing is both outcome and process. Words help us live. Help us grieve. And more than that, they help us transform life and grief. Help us move through mournfully disappearing time with a sometimes-functioning compass. Sometimes. Writing Рas I feel it in the pit of my stomach Рis both a newly discovered place on our psychic map and the highway Рor maybe even the back road Рthat takes us where we need to go.

Freelance writer Renee Geel, of Delmar, New York, is at work on a novel.

Monday, October 23, 2006

"Where's The Rage?"


By Robert G. Willner

Slogans and lies
Crack the skies
Like lightening bolts
Piercing our homes.

Where’s The Rage

No child left behind
Bush bill, bull
Stunted chances, stunted growth,
Children left behind, funds
Used for propaganda.

Where’s the Rage

Social Security to be privatized,
While government destroys the great social plan.
When the cereal runs dry,
Grandmothers will soak and
Eat the cardboard box.

Where’s The Rage

Praise for democracy, freedom and flag
Spout from thieves’ tongues.
They slander candidates,
Keep citizens from voting, and
Steal elections.

Where’s The Rage

A free press, part of our heritage
So they say, as they apply the
Shackles.
Media in fear, or
Cohorts in the rape.

Where’s The Rage

They legalize tax theft of billions,
Use our funds to deceive us, will let
Social Security, education and
Healthcare run dry.
Spend billions in war and
Send our young to die.


Where’s The Rage

Halliburton and the like grow richer.
Huge fees, gouging and stealing,
While GI hummers lack armor
Their vehicles and bodies ripped by
Iraqi insurgents and American privateers.

Where’s The Rage

The threat of WMD’s a lie.
What those who could see
Could not find, and
Soldiers
Left dead, torn and blind.

Where’s The Rage

No WMD’s so –
Switch –
Iraqi’s responsible for 9-11
No evidence so –
Switch –
There’s an Al Qaeda link
No honest answer -- “Why did we go to war.”

Where’s The Rage

Do you not see the
Torn and
Bloody limbs,
Body parts askew,
The dead,
The mother’s pain.

Where’s The Rage

See their bloodied stumps
Can you feel the pain?
Spouses’ and parents’
Retching grief
The young --
Dead
Beneath the flag.

WHERE’S THE RAGE

Writer Bob Willner, of Chatham, New York, has been an attorney and a former president of a drama company called StageWorks.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

"There Is A Rainbow on the Stove"

By Claudia Ricci

So just now, I sat down to write this poem
about a rainbow.

I wrote it because I had to.

I wrote it because I had
cancer four years ago
and today when I woke up my chest felt tight (allergies? bronchitis? OR?)

I’m squeezed.
Sometimes
By body memories.

Twinges of this or that
Muscle
Pulling me back
To that dreadful time.

Pulling me to worry
about what
could be
could be
could be.


Inside me
THERE ARE MEMORIES I CANNOT ERASE.

But I have to face them today.

I was doing yoga and started to feel the tightness the squeeze I had to burp I couldn’t I was bending over, this thought erupted,
“What if I were to have
Something horrific
say,
esophageal cancer,
something deadly deadly deadly
caused by all that radiation
all those rays
I had
all those weeks
all those years ago.

I froze, I panicked
I took a break from yoga,
I went to the kitchen, I started to think about a rainbow
why?
I don't know
I just started to write
this:

“Rainbow,
be a laser for me, let the photons
sink layer by layer through
my skin
RELAXING>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>ME

Behind my eyes, I see
a curve of redorangeyellowgreenblueindigoviolet
magic light
Let it soothe me, remove
the terrorist memories of four years ago.

In order to
go
forward, to HEAL

I must go
Back to FEEL
that
BLACK
RUBBER BAG
that foul swill of CHEMICALS at my throat

I must not hide
I must not stare
I must not be scared

by these
memories
lingering there in the interstices
of my chest

I must reach delicately inside
And hold each of them up
to the sun
cup them in my hands
offer them up one by one to the rainbow for
cleansing, soothing, scouring…”

And this is as far as I got writing my poem
because
at that very moment my husband fixing his breakfast called to me in my study:

“Ooooh there is rainbow on the stove.”

I stopped typing. My stomach kind of dropped to the floor.

I called back,

“What did you say?”

“I said, ‘there is a rainbow on the stove.’”

I got up from the computer and heart pumping I walked into the kitchen and there
was indeed a thick little
rainbow
glowing
on the stove.

Claudia Ricci is on the faculty at the University at Albany, SUNY, where she teaches English and journalism. She has been a fiction writer and a journalist for many years and published her first novel, Dreaming Maples, in 2002.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

"Is Writing Making Me Sick?"

By Nicole Putrello

The characters are calling out to me. They are speaking all at once. The characters are pretty loud and very demanding. It’s hard for me to think. It’s hard for me to focus. It’s hard for me just to be when these characters are all yelling at me. They all want me to tell their story. They want to be heard. Each one is talking and my fingers can’t type fast enough. Spelling mistakes, grammatical errors. What does it matter as long as the story is getting to paper?

The characters don’t care. They just want someone to listen. They are talking all at once. My fingers can only do so much. My head is starting to spin as the voices get louder. I am trying to get everyone’s story. I am trying to capture each character’s voice. Sometimes they forget I am human or that I only have two hands. The voices are getting jumbled because all of them are talking at the same time. I want to pause and let the voices sort themselves out. But there’s no time, louder and louder they shout, they are drowning out the sound of my T.V. I’m sitting here now with a cramp in my right shoulder. My fingers are a blur above the keys.

Finally.
They stop.
Silence,
Floods my room,
Settles in my head.
Fingers,
Fall to my lap as
tension releases,
my
shoulders
drooping
in
such
great
fatigue.

The characters have run out of things to say. But they will be back tomorrow. They always come back tomorrow especially when they have this much to say. It’s never been so intense before. Before I started to write this play I mean.

Funny. As soon as they stop yelling at me, I worry a little. What if they don’t come back tomorrow? Oh God, what then? I’ve lost them.

No, I guess I’d rather have them keep me awake at night then leave me. If they abandoned me, I would just suffocate.

But this is my question for you:
Is this frenzy of writing, is it helping me?
Or.
Is it making me sick?

I fall so easily into a writing trance. Before I know it, five hours have melted away. My boyfriend has called me twice, and I have a pounding headache. I don’t know what I am going to make for dinner. That’s probably why he’s called. I get up feeling so so SO very drained. So empty. I have no thoughts or feelings of my own. Just faded echoes of the characters who hold my body hostage. My mind is blank. All I want to do is take a hot shower and lie down. Lie down until my brain can function properly again.

How else will I be able to make dinner if I have no brain? When the characters come their thoughts become mine and it’s almost as if I disappear. I blank out, go dormant and they take over for a while until they have said what they have to say.

Sometimes the characters come to me while I am eating breakfast. Sometimes they occupy me when I am supposed to be paying attention in class. I really wish they wouldn’t show up in class, especially when we are reviewing for a test but the characters, they just do what they want.

I just type.
For an hour,
two,
three,
or six.
My mind,
is not my own.
My brain
is flooded
with thoughts:

What’s the quickest thing to cook for dinner? What can I make that will be forgiving to his cholesterol? Do I have any chicken? I wonder if I have to do dishes.

I walk into the kitchen taking command of myself. I open the cupboard and pull out two pans. I fill one with water and put it on to boil. I open the fridge and pull out a tub of I can’t believe it’s not Butter Light. I scoop out a chunk and throw it in the other pan. I quickly cut up some onions, mushrooms, and peppers adding them to the melted butter. The smells fill the kitchen. Once the water starts boiling in the other pan I throw in some frozen vegetables.

UH OH. Oh Dear God.

A character is creeping back. Like a whisper tickling the edge of my mind. I push her away. I am cooking now. Please go away. It’s the wrong time to get distracted. Last time it happened I burned a pot of barley. The smell hovered in the kitchen for three days.

Suddenly I sneeze. I run to the bathroom to get tissue. I have had a cold for about two weeks. I don’t know what brought this on. I have lost 18 pounds. I run at least four times a week. I have given up red meat and pork. I stopped buying junk food.

Maybe because it’s the first month of school and I have had so much homework. Maybe it’s because I work 38 hours a week on top of going to school. Maybe it’s because my boyfriend wants dinner.

Or maybe,
It’s the characters.
Is writing making me sick?
They do distract me
From reality.
Is writing making me sick?

Nicole Putrello is a senior at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her play, "Light Skin [sic] Babies," will be produced on campus in the spring. Putrello is hanging on while her characters take over her life completely. Meanwhile, her boyfriend is eating a lot of take out.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

"Excuses and Explanations"


By Leslie Larsen

You've asked me to write so many times. Encouraged, cajoled and all but provided me with a pen. The problem is that, when I look in the mirror, I don't see what you see. Not a writer, certainly not that. A wannabe perhaps, scrawling bad poetry and ideas for books on the back of envelopes. Or perhaps a never was. Someone who knows that to be it you must do it. Definition by act, not unlike polygamy or murder. And I've read the books and listened to the advice: write something every day. But I don't and I'm not sure I even can. I'm more of a compulsive writer, like the person who fights getting sick, even though she knows it's inevitable, finally purging the thoughts that have been churning in her mind onto paper. So different from the person who knows not to fight the inevitable and just gets it over with, aided by a finger or syrup of ipecac.

I think the truth is, in many ways, I'm just a coward. It's not that I'm not a writer but if I allow the inevitable need to express myself or even facilitate it instead of fight it, what then? What if I find out that I'm no good? In a way it's easier to cling to a figment identity than risk losing the one skill I truly value and – in others – envy. So instead I look at the blog you set up, scan the weekly alt rag for contests and give you tepid excuses for not submitting. And I surreptitiously hang on the fringes of groups of people, afraid that if I try to gain full entry I'll find out that I just can't come up with the price of admission; I don't know the exchange rate for the coin of the realm.

Writer Leslie Larsen lives in Albany, New York with her cat Gilligan, the inspiration for much bad poetry. She keeps her passport up to date because, hey, you never know...

Saturday, October 14, 2006

"When Daughters Leave"

By Cindy Stringer

They left yesterday, my three daughters, giving each other and me one last tearful hug in the edgy rush that marks such departures, as if the body’s there, but the mind is already on the road. They drove off in three separate cars to three different cities, three different lives, the next coming together months in the future.

This October morning the home we four shared for decades has not been filled with its usual sustaining tranquility, but with an unsettling silence that carries echoes of conversations, music and laughter just beyond the range of human hearing.

I find myself outside, under the huge walnut tree back of our home, sitting motionless in the swing I had made for myself when the youngest left for college, and I was alone in our home.

It is a child's retreat for a middle aged woman, a place where the mind
relaxes its nervous grip and opens to what the moment presents, the
tangibles of species, shapes and sounds of the life forms around me and
the intangibles that calm the spirit. Still an ache remains in my heart.

You wanted them to have a boundless sky, I remind myself. The day
you hear a far place call and your wings respond with eager strength, go, I
told them. Now they are on the wing. Intellect says they are adults,
they are individuals, this is what a life giver ultimately must give and
give joyfully, no strings attached.

I tell myself that as I swing back and forth, in short arcs, my feet trailing on the worn grass. I tell myself that as my eyes sweep our backyard: There we built a gazebo with benches used for sister talks, for solitary reading, for strumming a guitar and singing with your friends. There the youngest searched for pupils for the doodlebug school she had created from twigs.

A gust of chilled wind stirs the leaves of a nearby tall oak and sweeps across me. It feels good, bracing, awakening. I see the promise of early winter hurry a squirrel in its work. I hear a red bird "tsch, tsch." I see tiny brown butterflies flutter close to the ground, settle, nibble, shake their wings a time or two, then freeze into immobility, the brown wings blending into the dead leaves on the ground, indistinguishable had I not followed them to earth and stillness.

Under the walnut tree, a lone doodlebug creeps across a bare patch of ground.

Then the world stops like a projector pausing on a frame.

Everything around me is suddenly still, all movement suspended in a golden silence. I hold my breath, awed, for in that moment when the world stops, we
become one - the butterflies, the squirrel, the doodlebug, the walnut tree,
the sky, the very air and me - the bonds that tie atoms together to create
separate entities crumbling as all life forces mingle.

I flow through a transparent barrier, some part of me departing the shell I inhabit and settling on the earth to shake my wings, then blend quietly with the
leaves. There I rest until the world returns.

I am in my swing, its movement a gentle, soundless arc. Behind me, my
human nest still hugs the earth, its rooms silent and empty though crowded
with pictures, books, trophies and other outgrown possessions of the
beloved fledglings who have successfully negotiated childhood and taken
flight, leaving in every room vibrancy, imprints of music, tears,
laughter, words and deeds.

I lunch alone, thoughtful, subdued, then in late afternoon I return to
the swing. As twilight approaches, birds begin to sing from every tree
as if in protest against the night, an insistent expression of life. Full
notes formed in tiny throats stream forth in rich round tones caught by
the air and carried like luminous trails of ribbon to the skies.

How can these tiny beings with their fragile muscles and quick beating little hearts,
bring so much power and energy to the creation of music? I wonder even
as I feel my own heartbeat quicken, my throat grow round and sensitive, a channel for a song I could never create.

October brings an awareness of limitations, of songs that will never be sung. In this month of realities, we know the temporary nature of our earthly life with its busy busy, hen-scratching activities pursued in homes, offices and factories. We coexist on this earth, our mundane existence and its frantic energy too frequently an ugly construction on a beautiful orb. We shuffle and scratch in the grass, ripping it out to grab our worms, then scramble bustling and cackling to our roosts. There we tuck our heads under our wings and sleep.

Now twilight comes, and the birds are quiet. The swing stops its gentle movement. The air is chilling. Winter is on its way, but winter is a season, not an ending. Twilight silences the birds, but only until the next dawn. Life does not stop because we try to distance or remove ourselves from it rather than celebrate its joy and endure its sadness and grow from the changes it brings. Life goes on in millions of unique forms and expressions, unnoticed perhaps, unheard the songs. Still the melodies pour forth from tiny throats. Still emerge the clear, pure, brave notes.

No encounter is limited to the immediate. Each brings the past with it and takes the memory of the present into the future. I will live on in the gene memory of the red bird I startled into flight when I 'tsched' in return, in the essence of the brown butterfly who felt my thought on his minute wing, and in the smile I gave that touched the lone doodlebug, years late for school.

The life my daughters and I share has no beginning, no end, no time or place limitation, no walls. Only doors, always opening. My daughters are strong, their spirits free, their hearts true, prepared to answer destiny’s call. That is cause for celebration.

Laverne “Cindy” Stringer, a writer in Natchez, Mississippi, works in civil engineering/land surveying. Raised in a family with a strong oral storytelling tradition, she continues that tradition, creating and sharing stories from the heart with a broader audience.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

"Dead Reckoning," The Conclusion


By Barbara Easton

2006

Once again I toted my backpack, sewing machine, and assorted plastic bags filled with fabric through the city’s grimy, gray, winter streets. It was another long walk during which I could rue my decision to volunteer at an inner city school rather than a cushy, clean, suburban one. Instead of using visitor’s parking close to the front door of a school with an abundance of books, supplies, and well-heated rooms, I spent a harried half-hour searching for a spot where I wouldn’t have to parallel park. It had been almost thirty years since I parked on these city streets on a regular basis. The confident ability to whip into a tight parking space had long since faded away.

Other things had changed about me in that time, too. I had replaced my cynical distrust of the well-to-do with one for city people—the very people from whom I had come. When I first began volunteering at the school a few afternoons a week, I was nervous around these city people. I would glance around to make sure someone I viewed as normal-looking was nearby before getting out of the car. I always turned my engagement ring around so the diamond would be hidden while walking through the streets.

But, from the beginning, the city dwellers had offered to help me carry my bags and guided me into parking spots. I had gone from exchanging quick nervous nods with the guys hanging out on the corners to sharing weather forecasts.

Picking my way down the narrow sidewalks lined with an almost equal number of neat row houses and boarded up wrecks, I stepped around the piles of dented metal garbage cans, jarring blue recycling containers, and the discarded remnants of household furniture and appliances. Was it my imagination or was every day garbage day in this city? Maybe it was because the garbage collectors seemed to drop as much trash as they picked up. That trash, combined with the usual scabs of litter, contributed to a sense of pessimism in the neighborhood.

The school had managed to survive for years in the midst of this. It held an odd mix of children. Most were from the low-income families in the neighborhood. Some were the offspring of counter-culture nonconformists who chose to live in the heart of the city. Almost all had been gifted with carefully chosen, unusual names that were a real challenge to remember. Common names like James and Rita were the exception. Names like Ximen, LaQui’a, Cheche, and Mashaquila were more the norm. The school took in a large number of kids with emotional and behavioral disorders who hadn’t been able to get along in other schools.

This volunteer experience had posed a more difficult adjustment for me than I had expected. When I had applied to the school, I thought I would probably work as a teacher’s aide. That hadn’t even been a possibility. There were no classes, really. Volunteers were expected to be available, to follow students’ interests, to work one-on-one, or just to do what the kids enjoyed. The director of the school suggested I try the latter. “We had an artist who just came in and started drawing portraits. The kids flocked around her. Just do what you like, and they’ll join you.”

Fortunately or unfortunately—I still haven’t decided which—I chose to sew. It would provide a practical skill with opportunities for creativity, and the patterns would encourage reading and math skills. I lugged in my ancient sewing machine and started sewing. I was almost too successful.

“Did you bring your sewing machine?”

“Did you bring more fabric?”

“Can I make a hat?”

“Can I finish my bag?”

Just about every child from kindergarten on up wanted to use that machine. It proved to be an expensive decision, too. My personal fabric and thread supply quickly dwindled. Neither the children nor the school had the money needed to keep me in fabric and patterns.

I had certainly captured their attention, and some of them, like Maureen, had captured mine. She loved to sew. If the sewing machine was out, Maureen was never far away. She turned down swim time at the Y and museum trips to wait impatiently for her chance at the machine. She could be charming, attentive, confident, and amusing.

Yet, any perceived slight brought a loud, angry flood of verbal abuse interspersed with some amazingly vulgar language. At the slightest provocation, she would let out painfully piercing screams of excitement or rage. I could see why she hadn’t been successful at other schools. She even had trouble with this exceptionally laid-back environment.

Maureen’s clothes were always worn and tight. A puffy line of lingering pale baby fat invariably peeked out between shirt and pants. A winter’s-worth of gray-black grime streaked her pastel blue parka. Her dark curls were dull and seldom looked combed.

At eight, she still wet her pants. She would always refuse to acknowledge taht they were wet. It was as though she thought that by ignoring the problem, it didn’t exist. When other kids subtly mentioned that big dark stain on her butt or the smell in the room, she resolutely continued playing as though oblivious to their comments.

Those were the only occasions Maureen refused attention. Any other time, she was desperately trying to be center stage by disrupting activities with clowning, teasing, or bickering.

Lately I had taken to sending Maureen off with Raynell and Imagine, two of the sixth grade girls, with a promise to get her as soon as it was her turn to use the sewing machine. The older girls had decided they were witches. They spent hours in their witch-appropriate outfits conducting Ouija board sessions and casting spells.

By the time I lumbered into the school, my overloaded arms were painfully frozen. Raynell, bounding at her usual hyper speed, collided with me at the door of the science room. Rushing on without stopping, she yelled back to me, “We contacted Maureen’s baby sister that died!”

It is amazing how one piece of information carelessly tossed out by someone can generate a flood of interconnecting thoughts.

I thought of other dead babies and the siblings left behind to cope with the loss. Margie and Shirley had come through their losses bowed but not broken. Marie, however, never stopped blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.

She was a compulsive liar who could not hold a job or relationship.

Now here was Maureen. She wavered between rage and fantasy in dealing with life. Crawling under the table to plug in the ancient Kenmore sewing machine, I tried to close out thoughts of Maureen.

It was overwhelming. She was too needy. Someone else would have to deal with it, someone with more training than me. But here she was shooting words at me as though they were bullets. Again.

“Can I sew first? I get to go first. It’s my turn. You promised. I want to make a baby hat.”

“A baby hat, huh? Okay, then. Let’s talk about it.”

Someone else might have been able to do it better, but I was the one there.


Barbara Easton, a writer in Albany, New York, will graduate from the University at Albany, SUNY in May, 2007. She intends to pursue a master's degree in literacy education. Parts One and Two of "Dead Reckoning" appeared in MyStoryLives on September 30th and October 3rd.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

"I Am Man"

By Andrew Davis

I call my girlfriend, Kristin, a gorilla. It’s a little mean, I know, but she’s abnormally strong and agile for a woman who’s 5’5 and eats nothing but cereal all day. Once we were walking in the park and she got so mad at something I said, she literally picked up a boulder and hurled it about a hundred yards. I’m not lying.

But when it comes to bugs, or “Creepy Crawlies,” as she calls them, it’s a totally different story.

We recently moved into a new apartment in a carriage house, which means it’s over a garage and we have no neighbors. The place itself is nice - decent layout, large kitchen, and a bunch of other nice stuff. Almost a month prior to moving in, we came across the ad. It said “Luxury Apartments,” and we agreed.

The best part is having no neighbors who live above us. Before this place I lived in a basement apartment, and a group of girls lived above me. They appeared to be nice girls but I didn’t know too much about them. What I did know was that they enjoyed bowling and roller skating in their kitchen. So any place without a FunPlex overhead seemed great.

That was until Kris saw a bug hanging from the living room ceiling. Screaming “CENTIPEDE” as loud as possible – and standing only inches away from me – she demanded I do something. I felt like Denzel Washington in “John Q,” when his wife ordered him to do something about their son not having a working heart. Old Denzel found himself a gun and held an emergency room doctor hostage; given the way Kristin was looking at me, I thought I should get a 45 myself.

“Kill It!”

“What for? It’s just a stupid bug.”

“Andrew, I will take this knife and cut you.”

So I had no choice, and besides, it was our first bug together. I had to kill it. But I’m not gonna lie – I was scared. First of all, that thing had about 2700 legs and all kinds of antennas that were waving at me. Plus it was camouflaged with white stripes covering its tan body. I have absolutely never seen anything like it in my life. It was freaky looking. And second, what if I missed? Would he hide for two months and then lay eggs in my eyeballs as I slept?

So there I am: I get a chair, a shoe, and prepare for the kill. All the while, it’s just hanging upside down having no idea it’s about to meet my size 12 Nike. Suddenly my nerves begin to get to me and I think, “Man, if this thing falls anywhere near me I will, without a doubt, scream like an eleven-year old girl.” Consequently my life and my manhood were riding on this one bug.

After two minutes of planning the trajectory of my strike, I went for it.

But I missed by about two feet and the wind from the shoe hitting the ceiling blew the centipede off…and onto the floor. That’s when Kristin did a back flip and landed four feet away on the arm of the couch. It was like the scene from “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” when that lady walked on bamboo.

Now she was screaming as it crawled behind the radiator. I looked for it, but to no avail. So she’s yelling louder even though she’s ten feet away…and that wasn’t helping any. Imagine trying to do a Where’s Waldo puzzle but Waldo keeps moving because he has a million legs, and there’s a really loud lady yelling in your ear. Well, it was something like that.

I got some Windex and sprayed the entire bottle on the radiator hoping to kill it. And don’t you think that was some arbitrary decision, because it wasn’t. I’ve killed many insects with the blue stuff.

Anyway, I don’t think that worked because over the next week we saw about ten of those things. After Kristin vowed never again to set foot off the couch, and I had black eyes after sleeping with goggles every night, we decided it was time to do some research. They're called House Centipedes (or Millioneous Leggus ), but I call them Freaky Little Bugs With a Bunch of Legs That Run Really Fast.

Researching also led to a couple disturbing discoveries. For one, they like moisture and that’s why we kept finding them in the tub and in the kitchen sink. Yeah, it’s not fun being naked in the shower, thinking something’s wiggling their ten-inch long antennas near you.

Two, they eat spiders. As in kill them. Call me crazy, but I thought spiders were at the top of the bug food chain. The eight-legged guardians of the home. When did this change of the guard happen? Animal Planet should really consider doing a show about this hostile takeover. But finding that out was the equivalent of moving to Africa then learning something’s been killing lions…and they live in your tent.

It wasn't comforting – especially not to Kristin.

And just in case you didn’t notice, I’m deathly terrified of Centipedes too. So, yes, that means Kris isn’t the only wuss in the house. She’s just the only wuss who can climb the Empire State Building to escape.

Writer and humorist Andrew Davis lives in Albany, New York, where he is pursuing a Master's Degree to become a high school English teacher. When he's not writing, he likes spending time at home with his girlfriend, Kristin, and dog, Dozer.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

"And When Did You Last See Your Father?"

By Judy Staber

I have been thinking a lot about my father lately, about the little I know and what I might remember. I don’t remember much. My father has been an absence rather than a presence. Mind you, he’s a strong absence. After all, everyone has a father - somewhere - and we learn early on that a proper family is a mother, a father and some children.

Growing up in a home for children whose parents didn’t want them or couldn’t keep them, fathers were often unknown quantities. Sure some lucky kids did know their fathers, usually actors down on their luck; but those kids didn’t stay with us long. When a father landed a film job or a commercial and work started to flow, then his children would leave the orphanage as quickly as they came. Some did come back later, a little down-hearted.

Some children had fathers who didn’t acknowledge them. They were the result of illicit relationships. Oh, the shame of it then, but most outgrew the shame and went on to boast about their, usually famous, fathers.

My Father was neither an illicit relationship nor an out of work actor, he was a goner - not dead, just gone. Gone before I was old enough to even realize or appreciate what a Father might or might not be. Just gone. And what I didn’t know, didn’t hurt, or did it?

At eleven I attended an all-girls day school near the orphanage, the only girl to pass the 11 plus exam and win a scholarship. Sir William Perkins School for Girls was, in hindsight, a wonderful school and I had a great education there. But there were inevitable pitfalls for one such as I.

Having no knowledge of “normal” home life, I was unable to join in much of the girl-talk, and when invited for tea or a sleep-over, I was ham-handed and wrong-footed often as not in the presence of parents.

Being the child of an actress was, in the early 1950s before this cult of celebrity took over, tantamount to being the child of a loose woman. Some girls and many mistresses did look at me askance for that error of my birth.

One of my more painful memories occurred in English class in the Lower Fourth. We were studying the Civil War in History - that’s the English one between the Roundheads and Cavaliers. Our English teacher, Mrs. Green, attempted to introduce a little parallel learning. She showed us a picture of William Yeames’ famous painting: a Roundhead soldier is asking the small son of a Cavalier, “And When Did You Last See Your Father?” Our classroom assignment was to write a paragraph answering that question in our more mundane personal lives.

What could I say? Too intimidated to protest and lacking any information to write down, I didn’t do it. I got an F - an F for my Father.

Judy Staber retired from the Spencertown Academy last year after nine years as arts manager. She is happy to be writing and tending her garden. Born into a theatrical family, she grew up at The Actors' Orphanage in England. She has written a memoir about her childhood and is currently working on a biography of her mother and father and their lives in the theater in England and America.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

"Dead Reckoning, Part Two"

By Barbara Easton

1978
Shirley had her quiet Mona Lisa smile that day. I was always uncomfortable around her. She made me feel inferior. Our desks sat on each side of the commissioner’s office like two finely matching pieces of furniture with jarringly mismatched statues on top. Lovely petite Shirley sat on one side with her shining pitch black hair and eyes, pale milk-white skin, and high cheekbones.
On the other, I sat with wire-rimmed glasses covering my beady brown eyes always trying to hide as much of my blotchy plain face as possible with my thin brown hair. Shirley was the associate commissioner’s secretary.
She was not only beautiful, she also had the perfect husband, a beautiful apartment, and geisha elegance. I was secretary for one of the commissioner’s underlings. An unmarried mother of an infant daughter, I lived in a dingy two-room row house apartment. I wanted to hate Shirley, but I couldn’t. She was just too nice.

This was the day the new board secretary was arriving. There was some excitement about Ms. Edith Crew’s arrival along with some discontented grumbling. She was part Native American which was going to help with the affirmative action quota, but some people thought she wasn’t qualified for the job. She didn’t have a doctorate and no board secretary had ever been hired without one before. I kind of agreed with those that felt the head of the professional licensing office should have a doctorate in the field. There had been other candidates with doctor’s degrees. Shirley, on the other hand, seemed really excited about Ms. Crew.

Ms. Crew, dressed in an expensive brown tweed suit with one of those long midi skirts, literally swept into the office. It wasn’t so much an arrival as a presentation. I don’t think I’d ever seen serene Shirley move so fast. Before Ms. Crew could speak, Shirley was up out of her chair with her hand extended. “Hello, Ms. Craw, I’m Shirley White from the St. Regis Reservation. What reservation are you from?

Ms. Crew drew back looking confused. It took her several excruciatingly long seconds before she understood what Shirley was talking about. “I’m not from any reservation.” She muttered something about being one-sixteenth Native American through some distant grandparent. Shirley’s genuine excitement froze into a formal polite interest. She quickly ushered Ms. Crew into Dr. Stewart’s conference room.

Once we were alone I said, “Wow, Shirley, I didn’t know you were from an Indian reservation. You don’t look Indian.” She smiled at that. Shirley told me her father was Mohawk, but her mother was of Irish descent with bright red hair. Shirley was the third of fourteen children some of whom had her father’s dark hair and skin, a couple even had red hair, and some had Shirley’s coloring.

I was bored so I kept picking Shirley’s brain to find out what it was like growing up on a reservation and as part of such a big family. Shirley didn’t glamorize it, but she also didn’t present her childhood as exceedingly hard. Being the oldest girl, she had often been expected to take care of the younger siblings. Her mother worked and Shirley relieved a babysitter everyday after school from the time she was ten.

I asked if taking care of her siblings so much was why she didn’t have any kids of her own yet. I knew Shirley liked kids. She was always asking me about my daughter, something I really appreciated. That was one of the things about single parenting that I hadn’t expected. There was no one to talk about the little things. People were polite, but they really didn’t care that the baby was finally sleeping through the night or had learned to maneuver a piece of Cheerios into her mouth. Shirley did, though. She was always interested and greeted my news of little triumphs with honest enthusiasm.

Having to take care of siblings wasn’t why she didn’t want kids, though. Shirley said her two-year-old sister had died from pneumonia when she was twelve. Her parents hadn’t taken the baby to the doctor. Money was tight. Babies had been sick before and gotten well. Not this time, though. Shirley was devastated by the loss. She had been the one the baby ran to when in need of comforting. The death of that baby was so painful Shirley said she would never chance going through something like that again. She was never going to have kids of her own.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t happen anymore,” I said. “Nobody dies from pneumonia now. Besides, you have great insurance. You’d never have to worry about something like that. When was the last time you heard of any baby dying? That just doesn’t happen anymore.” Shirley was adamant, though. There would be no children.


Barbara Easton, a writer in Albany, New York, will graduate from the University at Albany, SUNY in May, 2007. She intends to pursue a master's degree in literacy education. The concluding segment of this story, "Dead Reckoning," will appear shortly.