Serving poison

It’s been said that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. Too often, that is no more luridly on display than in one’s own family.

Sometimes I think God brings friends and pets into our lives to help make up for all the damage done by our wing-nut family members. You know the ones; those people to whom you are most closely related who are, ideally, supposed to be supportive, engaged, and accepting of who you are, even when they disagree. Ideally, indeed. What a fantasy that can be.

When “family” takes indifference to levels way beyond rude, into “cruelty” territory, it’s particularly difficult to swallow, especially when you are watching helplessly on the sidelines. Watching as the most precious person in the world stands there with his heart in his hands, generously offering love, affection, support… and in return, is spat on, kicked in the face, bloodied, and ultimately ignored. For no discernible reason except just that it’s tolerated. Over and over and over again.

When “family” takes the old “70 times 7” rule to new heights of abuse, I’m afraid all my civilized, therapeutic notions of detaching emotionally from the situation go right out the window. My faith edicts of taking it to God and praying for the abuser are the next to go flying. Given that “we all fall short,” I admit I am positively in the abyss at this point, for there are no words to describe the fire that rages out of control in me. I feel like I can’t breathe and there’s a crushing need to step between the abuser and her victim to give her what she has so abundantly earned over the past 20 years: my strong backhand across the face while wearing a big cocktail ring. And that would be only the delicious beginning (where’s my baseball bat?).

The one aspect of this appalling situation that I do find laughable is the fact that the abuser is a faith leader in her community. A faith leader who mentors young people. I nearly choke on the irony. Somehow, she has fooled the right people at the right time into believing that she is worthy of this position. Her own children have taken their place alongside her in her toxic, emotional freezer, and I fear for the other kids in her influence. My only hope is that the poison she so casually serves and the damage she inflicts is somehow kept to a minimum. Job security for the local therapists, I suppose. If I were a parent, I wouldn’t want my child anywhere near her. I’ve seen who she truly is for decades now. Without question, a future inductee into the Fake Christians Hall of Fame.

I don’t know exactly how this “relationship” will end, I only know that it can’t end soon enough.

  

Adventures of a urinal

Artists are a special breed of human. They tend to color outside the lines, dream big, hear their own music and march (or not) to their own drummer. They view the world through uniquely tinted, tilted eyes.

Not long out of college, I began dating an artist. By day, he worked as a curator in an art museum, but his work as an artist was most important to him. The walls of his apartment bore pieces that he’d created in grad school, his preferred medium at the time being plaster of Paris. He’d created life-size plaster of Paris forms of women for which he’d used real models. He wrapped women’s bodies in strips of linen soaked in plaster of Paris. Once dry, he’d use the resulting true-to-form sculpture to create his art, adding ordinary items — dried flowers here, a spiral telephone cord there — to complete his statement.

The most outstanding of all his pieces, in my opinion, was an actual urinal attached to a slab of tiled bathroom wall. Within the urinal, as part of it, sat the plaster of Paris torso and head of a woman wearing a strand of beads. He’d even added yellow glitter at the bottom to simulate urine. When I asked him about the piece, he explained, “Men have been using women as receptacles for bodily fluids for millennia.” He felt a woman as a urinal showed just how low men would go in their subjugation of women. A woman’s body represented as part of a urinal was a logical extension of how men have historically viewed women. I loved it. I loved the statement it made, the symbolism, the one-of-a-kind distinctiveness of it. He asked me if I’d like to have the piece. I enthusiastically said yes!

In case you’re wondering, an actual urinal attached to a piece of bathroom wall is pretty heavy and cumbersome. Somehow, we carted it from his apartment to mine, where I kept the piece in my bedroom.

He and I eventually broke up. When it came time for me to move to another city into an even smaller apartment, I wrestled with the idea of keeping the piece. I still loved it and its symbolism, but it was so big and so heavy, I just wasn’t sure I still wanted to make a place for it in my home. I decided to table the decision to keep it or not until I was settled in my new place.

On moving day, my soon-to-be old apartment was swarming with my strongest and most loyal friends, family, and co-workers who’d shown up to help me move, God bless them. Among the movers were my dad, the dairy farmer from rural Pennsylvania, and a couple of the guys from the Sports department of the local newspaper where I worked. When it came time to load the urinal artwork onto the truck, a burly sportswriter approached it, along with my dad. They looked at this thing, then gave each other a look I’ll never forget. Without a word, they raised their eyebrows, shook their heads and shrugged, then picked it up and carried it out.

When we arrived at my new place, nobody knew in which room the urinal artwork should go, including me. I voiced my indecision as to whether to keep it or not, saying that it didn’t really match my décor, to which my aunt, with a straight face, wondered aloud, “I’m not sure what décor it would match.”

My new apartment was lovely, but small. The longer I kept the piece, the more I became convinced, sadly, that I wouldn’t be able to keep it. Since the artist and I had broken up a while back, the piece had begun to lose its charm anyway. My next dilemma was how to get rid of it.

I asked a couple of co-workers if they wanted it, especially those who’d seen it on moving day. Shockingly, they all said no (did not see that coming).

So one evening, while a friend was visiting, we planned to wait until dark, then carry the piece up to the apartment community dumpster where everyone took their trash. But when we tried to lift it, we realized it was too big and too heavy to lug all the way up to the dumpster. Plan B was to take it apart and carry it up in pieces. Here’s where my memory gets murky. I think we pried the plaster of Paris lady loose, put her in a trash bag, and took her up by herself. I think we somehow removed the urinal from the slab of wall, each of those being heavy enough on their own, but at least we could carry them individually once they were separated.

In the end, we got everything to the dumpster and I remember looking back, seeing the urinal leaning against the green dumpster, and wondering what the trash collectors would think when they saw it in the morning. I hated to dismantle a piece of art like that — no matter how “unique” — it felt blasphemous and disrespectful. If my ex-boyfriend artist ever becomes famous, I’ll kick myself even harder for having gotten rid of an original piece of his. I do sometimes wish I still had it. What a great conversation starter it would be for all those cocktail parties I never have.   

Careful: Preoccupied author driving

In order to write a novel, one must first do a lot of thinking. I mean a LOT of thinking. And not just everyday, run-of-the-mill thinking about the weather or the grocery list. I mean thinking as in plotting, strategizing, choreographing, cross-referencing what you want to write with what you’ve written before so everything remains consistent and plausible. I construct scenes in my head and mentally tweak them over and over and I seem to do all this best when I’m driving.

With music playing in the car – music is a big part of my creative process – I do my best creative thinking. My emotions swell to flood into my thoughts and drench my imagery of scenes and dialogue. Like a mini movie playing in my head, I dream up plot points, interactions, conversations, trying to enrich relationships within the arc of each character. I try to expand these scenes to maximize emotional and dramatic effect….

Since I’m doing all this while I’m driving, it’s perhaps not surprising that the other day, I inadvertently blew right through a red light.

I immediately snapped out of my fantasy, realizing what I’d done, and blurted “Sh!t” as I looked in my rearview mirror to see a police car sitting at the opposing light. However, the officer apparently wasn’t paying any better attention than I was, because the cruiser didn’t move. I sighed with relief, but thought, “Geez Louise, I need to be more careful.” If there was an active camera at that intersection, I may still receive a ticket in the mail, deservedly so. Either way, if you’re out driving around and you see my car, better give me a wide berth because I’m writing a novel and we now know how dangerous that can be. The Partridge Family had a sign painted on the back of their bus: “Careful: Nervous mother driving.” I need one that says: “Careful: Preoccupied author driving.” (Seriously, Mom, I’ll be more careful.)     

Sharp-dressed man

On a typical weeknight in December, circa 1998, my husband and I had just finished dinner and I was cleaning the kitchen, filling the dishwasher, washing the wok by hand. We were expecting a visitor, as my husband had scheduled an appointment with an American Express Financial Advisor he’d chosen from the Yellow Pages (remember those?) to discuss my mother-in-law’s finances. She’d somehow managed to squirrel away a few hundred thousand over the years that we’d recently discovered.

Meeting with this guy was the last thing I wanted to do. As someone who never balanced a checkbook (really, what’s the point?), never created a basic budget, and often wondered how my utility bills were going to get paid, a financial genius I was not. A few superfluous thousand hanging around, begging to be invested? HAHAHA!! It wasn’t even our money; it was his mother’s money, so what did I care?

But my husband insisted that I join him for this appointment because in his mind, appearances were everything and it was important to him that I appear interested. I knew if I refused, there’d be hell to pay, so as I often did with him, I rolled my eyes and took the path of least resistance. Whatever.

The doorbell rang. When I answered it, standing on our porch was a professional looking man wearing a stylish overcoat of charcoal gray, smart black dress shoes, and carrying a leather briefcase. He had dark hair and dark eyes. I invited him in and my husband introduced us. We shook hands.

He was a Certified Financial Planner, quite knowledgeable, yet friendly and easy-going. Everything was completely appropriate. There was zero connection between us at the time beyond him being my husband’s financial advisor. I was simply the wife of a client.

I survived the appointment, though I was bored silly. When he left, I peeked out the window to see that he was driving off in a little BMW Z3 roadster with the top down. In December! But I remember thinking, “There’s definitely a sadness about him. A loneliness. I wonder what he goes home to.”

Turns out, not much.

One afternoon, we ran into each other at a department store in the mall and exchanged pleasantries, as acquaintances do. He was buying silverware in preparation for his new life as a single man. We started talking about each of us being at the charred end of an unhappy marriage that wasn’t going to last much longer. We occasionally kept in friendly contact, based on that commonality.

At a very platonic lunch one day at a downtown restaurant that’s no longer there, electricity began to snap in the air between us. We began to see each other through different eyes, as more than friends. Much more. I can’t explain it. Sometimes it hits you like a freight train. When you know, you know.

And that’s how all this started.

He still has that fine, charcoal gray overcoat. To this day, when he wears it, I think back to the first time I saw him standing on our porch that cold December evening. ZZ Top had it right: “Every girl crazy ‘bout a sharp-dressed man.”

On Sunday, February 14, 2021, we’ll celebrate 19 years of marriage. We are ridiculously compatible, still delighted to be in each other’s company. He’s my everything, God’s answer to prayers I never even prayed. My heart still flutters for him, whether he’s wearing that coat or not. Happy Anniversary, and Happy Valentine’s Day, my love!  

First place

Once in a while, a novel comes along that really stands out for its unique voice, for the characters we get to know in the world it creates, for the thought-provoking inspiration it leaves in its wake. Some novels entertain you; others go further than that. They change you. On the Shoulders of Giants is such a novel.      

In December 2020, On the Shoulders of Giants, by acclaimed author Malcolm Ivey, received First Place in the prestigious Writer’s Digest Self-published Book Awards. With more than 1,800 entries in the competition, On the Shoulders of Giants took the big prize and rightfully so.

Below is the Judge’s Commentary, 28th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards:

“On the Shoulders of Giants contains two distinct, equally heartrending stories. It recounts the coming-of-age of two young men: Izzy, a white man who bounced around the foster care system throughout his childhood; and Pharaoh, an African American man who grew up parentless in housing projects riddled with crime. The book alternates between the two stories and eventually merges as the characters’ life journeys cross paths.

“The writing is exceptional, with two well-defined voices written in first and third person. Izzy and Pharaoh are both flawed, yet brimming with potential. Victims of tragic beginnings and repeated tough breaks, they fight and stumble their way through life, yearning for something better. As a reader, I felt their pain, desire, grief, and hope. The dialogue is authentic. The supporting characters are well drawn and multidimensional.

“Solid editing and a clean design are also worth noting. The front and back covers are stark, yet striking. In crisp black and white, including a high-quality pencil sketch of the main characters, it elegantly conveys the book’s theme and content. The visual appeal is carried throughout the interior with other sketches and powerful quotes opening each of the book’s six parts. Unique font selection and design treatment for chapter and section headings in each storyline further ensures clarity as the narratives alternate.

“Foster homes and crack dens, strip clubs and emergency rooms, reform schools and prison cells: the settings for Izzy’s and Pharaoh’s stories are gritty, harrowing, and raw. The author balances such darkness with likable, engaging characters and insightful prose to create a satisfying, thought-provoking read.”

Ivey’s On the Shoulders of Giants received the highest possible score, 5, not just for the writing, but also in these additional categories:  

Structure, Organization, and Pacing: 5
Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar: 5
Production Quality and Cover Design: 5
Plot and Story Appeal: 5
Character Appeal and Development: 5
Voice and Writing Style: 5

On the Shoulders of Giants, and all of Malcolm Ivey’s novels, are available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  To learn more, visit http://www.malcolmivey.com.

It makes sense now

The New York Times ran a fascinating piece yesterday, written by an economist who had the most plausible explanation I’ve read yet for why so many Americans have been refusing to wear masks and otherwise comply with Covid-19 prevention strategies.

Her premise was to assume that people who have not been complying probably won’t, regardless of overwhelming data put forth by medical science and epidemiologists that show prevention measures really do work. Her solution was to provide faster, more accurate, and more widely available testing to slow the spread. She cited several examples of refusal to change personal behavior despite strong evidence that doing so would result in better outcomes.

This made me think about the twin concepts of healthy eating and exercise. The general public has known for decades that replacing processed foods, sugar, and empty calories with more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fiber in our diet is the best way to keep excess weight off, feel better, and improve health. We’ve also been told for years that even light exercise, such as walking a few times a week, leads to better health.

And yet, obesity in America is epidemic. Nearly half of all Americans have heart disease. Prevalence of Type 2 diabetes is on the rise. As a population, we are not healthy and medical professionals tell us it’s mostly due to poor lifestyle choices. Things that are within our control.

So why should anyone be surprised or confused that so many of us refuse to choose something as simple and easy as wearing a mask to protect our own health, much less anyone else’s?

We choose sickness and death over health and longevity all the time. It’s kind of our thing. And we get irritated when someone tries to convince us to take better care of ourselves. We are determined to make poor choices, dammit, even if it’s just for spite, because it’s a free country and we can! Beyond that, we WILL take down as many people with us as possible. Be it drunk driving, gun violence, or spreading deadly disease. Covid is just another weapon in our arsenal.

It makes sense to me now, and follows a long-established pattern. American exceptionalism at its best: The twin concepts of Selfishness and Stupidity and the inseparable Ignorance and Arrogance.       

New book: 7 p.m. (and other essays)

Early reviews are coming in for my new book, 7 p.m. (and other essays)

One reviewer said, “You made me laugh, you made me cry, and you made me think!” Another reviewer said, “I love your sense of humor!” Another said, “It’s bringing back so many memories!”

7 p.m. (and other essays) is a collection of personal essays I’ve written over the past five years. On topics that range from growing up and finding my way, to navigating grief and loss, to at last discovering my soul mate, I write about relatable experiences and life’s frequent absurdities. 

Now available on Amazon!
Great for gift-giving season, which is fast approaching! 

Daffodils in waxed paper

It’s amazing how some images from childhood stay with you your entire life. I can’t remember from year to year all the documents I need to include with my tax return; yet to this day, I can close my eyes and see every small detail of my maternal grandmother’s kitchen, down to the red-and-white tiles of the floor, and the wallpaper with tiny teapots and flowers.

Her back screen door was a substantial, metal contraption that was heavy when I opened it, even as an adult. As a little kid, it took some effort. The Adirondack chairs were too big for the tiny back porch, and her small kitchen always smelled like coffee, even when the percolator wasn’t bubbling on the counter. At one end of the kitchen table, she always kept her pill bottles, her outgoing mail, an ornate, cut-glass butter dish with soft butter inside, and a little bud vase containing one homegrown rose. Since she cut her roses fresh from her own garden, they always gave off the sweetest scent of any roses I’ve ever smelled. Just one rose scented the entire room.

My grandmother frequently baked chocolate chip cookies just for me. She would often arrive for a visit at our house carrying a sizable Tupperware container filled with so many cookies, I knew she couldn’t have eaten any of the batter during the baking process (I must’ve inherited that habit from Dad’s side of the family).

In the early spring, she would sometimes arrive carrying for me a large bouquet of yellow daffodils from her garden, their stems wrapped in waxed paper with a rubber band. She knew I loved flowers, especially daffodils in early spring, a sure sign that summer can’t be too far away.

Many other memories of my grandmother keep me company and make me smile from time to time. I felt close to her growing up. So it’s no surprise that when I entered my mid-30s with no prospects for marriage, it was difficult to realize that I might be a disappointment to her. Aside from receiving society’s message loud and clear that being single at my age was somehow abnormal, I also sensed that my grandmother wondered why I hadn’t yet fulfilled her expectation of being married by a certain age. I tried to be strong, follow my instincts, and do what I knew to be right for me. But I found it so hard to make peace with being a disappointment.

So I got married. At 36, I met someone who seemed like an okay guy, seemed ready for a committed relationship. I settled. I knew in my gut, even on my wedding day, that he was not the right guy for me, but I reasoned that, hey, he’s not an ax murderer, I can probably make it work. There’s not enough space on this web server to enumerate all the ways in which we were wrong for each other, our incompatibilities, our issues as a couple. By the end of our three-year marriage, we were seeing our third marriage counselor.

By this time, my grandmother had been living in a nursing home for several years. And fortunately, my husband was very good at keeping up appearances when he wanted to. So my grandmother never knew how miserable I was. All she knew was that I had married, and my husband appeared to be from a good family. Near the end of her life, she told me how happy she was that I had found “a good man from a good family.” “Yes, I really have,” I lied. I knew her mind was finally at ease.

On Wednesday, December 8, 1999, at 9:30 p.m., my grandmother died. I had been holding her hand for the previous two hours, her hand that remained warm to the very end. She didn’t seem conscious, but would occasionally squeeze my hand as she died. With her death, I had lost a special person, a strong influence from my childhood, and, I now realize, my reason for staying married.

Just a few months after my grandmother’s death, I left my husband. I did not make the connection between the two events until recently. Though that marriage was unbelievably wrong for me, I’m glad my grandmother saw me married before she died. I believe my marriage gave her a measure of peace. Not a big price to pay for all she meant to me.

Unconventional

Political conventions have always been noisy, chaotic affairs that got on my nerves. Held in mammoth arenas with thousands of crazed politics addicts, all dressed from head to toe in red, white and blue sequins, everyone trying to look more outlandish than the next person, and the end result is everyone looks the same: nuts. The TV cameras zoom in on the flashing donkey hats, glow-in-the-dark campaign buttons, and the placards with cheesy slogans. It all has the feel of a circus run amok.

The screaming is constant, while journalists interview people on the floor, having to yell to be heard, even though they’re standing side-by-side. It’s like trying to have a conversation at the top of your lungs while the band is playing in the noisiest bar in town. It’s exhausting, even to watch. For someone like me, who struggles with anxiety that has intensified over the last four years, a conventional convention only adds to the feeling that I can’t catch my breath and my body is about to fly apart.

This year is very different, thank God. Forced to go virtual like the rest of life, it’s actually been quite meaningful and a pleasure to watch. The speeches have been shorter and informal, as if I’m sitting with the speaker in their living room and they’re talking just to me. The states’ roll call Tuesday night featured representatives from each state in a setting that characterized that state’s environment and culture. It was so cool to be reminded of the vast diversity of America, while getting an intimate glimpse of our fellow citizens and where they live.

Michelle Obama’s speech Monday night was heartfelt, urgent, and motivating. Gabby Giffords, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, the Clintons, Speaker Pelosi have all delivered powerful messages. President Obama’s speech last night was outstanding, as I’d expected. The nostalgia and longing for a statesman in the Oval Office almost made me cry, but his words gave me a glimmer of hope. Maybe it is possible that one day, this country’s highest office will once again be held by a normal person who doesn’t make me deeply ashamed to be an American. Fingers crossed, ballot ready.

I can only assume that the Republicans will do something similar with their convention next week, though I won’t be watching. I’ve heard enough lies and vitriol in the past four years to last a lifetime. And I can’t imagine that the My Pillow guy or Kid Rock will have anything quite as compelling to say. In this of all election years, I do NOT have hear both sides to determine for whom I’m voting.

 

Casting the movie

GB as MattLet’s all take a quick break from poring over depressing news apps and have a little fun.

Have you ever been knee-deep in a novel and found yourself casting the movie in your head? Deciding which of your favorite actors would be perfect playing the part of each main character?

It’s an old Hollywood legend that when Margaret Mitchell was writing Gone With the Wind, she wrote the character of Rhett Butler with actor Clark Gable in mind. While that’s an interesting notion, I’m not sure it’s accurate. GWTW was written in the 1920s and was published SH as Mattin the mid-1930s. Gable, who was born in 1901, was just another bit actor whose career was barely getting started in the 1920s and in Hollywood in the mid-30s. At that early stage, he did not yet have his close-clipped mustache for which he and Rhett Butler became famous. In reality, it’s unlikely that Mitchell even knew who Gable was while she was writing the book.

So here’s what I want to know: If you were casting the movie version of Shaman, who would you want to play the lead roles?

As I was writing Shaman over the years, I actually did have NA model as Degana male actor in mind for the part of Matt. Back then, I based Matt’s physical appearance on Scottish actor Gerard Butler. I pictured Butler’s smoldering looks, his tall, well-built physique, his green eyes and dark hair that has a bit of curl to it when it’s longer. Of course now, Butler would be too old for the part of Matt. Matt has been frozen in time for years, while Gerry Butler has aged, and not particularly well, to be honest.

Consequently, I’ve had to cast a new Matt. Having recently been swept up in the Outlander tidal wave, I’ve settled, for now, on Sam Heughan, the Scottish actor who plays Jamie Fraser (what’s with me and the Scots?). But it’s a scruffy, dark-haired version of Sam who’d be right for Matt, not the clean-cut, clean-shaven, blond and VD OS as Daisybeautiful version of Sam. The character of Jamie in Outlander has red hair. Matt is not a redhead, and he’s definitely NOT blond (my ex-husband was blond, ew!). The character of Jamie usually wears a kilt; Matt, not being Scottish, never does (sorry, Bri).

A spotless Sam Heughan would make an attractive woman; Matt would not. Matt is handsome, but he’s not beautiful. Going for rugged here. But let’s not take that too far. When Jamie Fraser is wearing a shirt that was probably DC as Carolinewhite three weeks ago, but is now grayish-brown and soiled and looks like it smells bad (take a shower, dude!), that’s not Matt either. Matt is clean, but he’s not prissy. He’s a little weathered, but he smells good. (By the way, most men underestimate how important it is to smell good. And by that, I don’t mean you should marinate in cologne overnight like a brisket. A big part of smelling good is subtlety. The occasional whiff on a breeze, not a heavy fog SJ as Emmathat stings the back of the throat and makes one cough. Restraint is key!)

But I digress. Back to casting. Degan’s role would be trickier in terms of popular actors that we all know. She’d probably have to be played by an actor who is currently not well known. Maybe the part of Degan would launch the career of a young, unknown Native American actor. I picture Daisy as a Viola Davis or Octavia Spencer type. The dignified, compassionate, no-nonsense backbone of the Tyler family and surrogate mother to Matt and his sister.

Speaking of Caroline, someone like Dove Cameron could play her. She’s got the “Caroline look,” though if you were to ask me what that means, exactly, I couldn’t tell you. As for the other blonde in the book, the ever-scheming and self-centered Emma, Scarlett Johansson could do her justice. She’s always struck me as someone who can be likable one moment and hateable the next. Much like Emma herself.

Surprisingly, I haven’t really thought much about Jon, or Matt’s parents, Kathleen and Adam Tyler. So I’m completely open to suggestions on those. On any of these choices, really. Now it’s your turn! Who would you cast in the leading roles of Shaman?