Thursday, September 4, 2014


He was the only reason I survived. At least, that’s the story we built together, him and me. I was so boy-crazy then that I spent my attention on him rather than physics. He absorbed my adoration in trade for morsels of knowledge, just enough to get me through that week’s class, just enough that I’d come back close to tears, begging for help with the next formula. That’s how it worked. I’d sit on his bed eating shards of dry ramen and he’d pace – the room only allowed four steps each way – using his hands to sketch invisible diagrams of falling rocks and flying balls and how mass and distance would predict where they’d land. He was like a wizard, you know? He could wave his arms and conjure up the laws that made our world spin.

Nothing changed in five years, except maybe I wasn’t so boy crazy anymore. But he still gave me only just enough to bring me back on my knees. Just enough time. Just enough attention. Then he’d get up on his soap box and make my world spin all over again. Sure, it was a little slower, and the whole thing seemed less magical, but we were getting older.

That day? No, we didn’t fight. We never fought. That was one of his laws. He gave me everything. I only survived because of him. Who was I to argue? He was my world. So yeah. He told me I had to come right home after work. Huh? Yeah, I asked if I could go to Emmy’s farewell party. She was important to me. I think he knew that. I think he maybe could hear something in my voice. He didn’t like me talking about her. He said she was uppity, and when I talked to her I got uppity. I don’t know about that. All I know is she asked me questions, and didn’t really want to hear about him. She wanted me to have ideas. She’s the one who said I was smart. She said I could have passed that first class by myself. That I didn’t need him.

You ever turn the map upside down? I mean, put Antarctica at the top? I read somewhere that the regular map – the one with us at the top, you know, like they have in schools and on the news – is totally arbitrary. Hm? Oh, it means randomly chosen. Gosh, thanks. I’ve always had a good vocabulary. He takes pride in that. Says I’m well-spoken for a dumb girl. Anyway, you ever look at a map upside down? It’s the same thing, but it looks totally weird. That’s what Emmy did. She turned my map. Got me thinking. 

What? Oh, yeah. That day. No, he told me to come right home. Oh gosh no! He would never go out with my friends. Said he had no time for hen parties. But I really wanted to go. I called and told him I was working late. I did that sometimes. He was okay with it. The overtime, you know. He didn’t believe that day, though. He knew it was Emmy’s last day and that there were plans. He was really mad. I was packing up to go home when Emmy hijacked me. Really. She grabbed my bag and my keys and ran out of the office. I was laughing, but it was scary, thinking about what he’d do. I never expected, well, you know.

No, I got it, thanks. 

This hankie belonged to my grandma. Can you tell? I’ve washed it probably a thousand times. She always told me to use it like it was meant to be used. She wasn’t real fond of tissues. She’d lick a corner to scrub our faces and the paper would dissolve. A handkerchief, though. She could really attack a messy face with one of her hankies. Oh. Sorry. Yeah, that day.

So we were at the bar and Emmy talked me into trying some fancy drink I’d never had before. I don’t remember what it was called, but it had vodka and pineapple juice and something red. It looked like a sunset. So pretty. Oh, man did that thing get to me, though. I’m not much of a drinker. He said I got even dumber when I drank, and told me I shouldn’t have more than one of anything. I only had one of those sunset drinks, but it must have been like five glasses of wine. Emmy told me I laughed a lot. She likes it when I laugh. 

I should have gone home but I wasn’t thinking straight. I believe that’s why Harold offered his couch. If I’d been thinking right I never would have agreed. I had to get home. I was in enough trouble already! But Harold took me back to his place and -- oh God no! He’s a married man! His wife was there and everything! No he just, well, I don’t know why he’s the one who took me home. I think all the arranging was done without me. I was trying to call home. Trying to explain myself. I was crying by then, I think. But he wasn’t answering. Emmy said she thought he was being petulant, not answering my calls. Huh? She told me later. I don’t remember that night so well. I’m kind of embarrassed now, you know. That’s not like me. So, um that’s why I didn’t know until the next day. I called, and someone answered his phone, and told me to come right away to the hospital. 

You know, I never asked why you’re going over this. I understand the life insurance people – they’re protecting their assets and all – but why the police? Do you investigate everyone who drives off a cliff? I mean, you guys said it was an accident. That's what the insurance company said. Death certificate says accidental trauma. They wouldn't have paid otherwise, you know. If they thought it wasn't an accident.

He was an awful driver. My mom won’t even ride in the car with him anymore. And I'm sure he was mad. Really mad. I know sometimes that makes people drive stupid, too. He told me that. Defensive driving, he called it, but I don’t know how you can drive like that and be defensive. But I don’t drive much, so what do I know. Oh. Sorry. I guess I’m still not thinking straight, that’s why I’m talking so much. But why are you asking?

Brakes? I don’t know. I’m sure they were fine. He was in charge of the car. Didn’t trust me to get it serviced “in a timely fashion” he said. Told me I never did what I was supposed to do, or at least, not when it needed done. He has the records at home. I mean, I do, I guess. I can dig them out if you’d like. 

Can you ask that again? I’m not sure I understand. 

No! No I didn’t “plan to draw him out of the house.” What do you think I am? I just wanted to say goodbye to Emmy. We’ve worked together for a long time and she’s my friend. My only friend, really. That’s why I went out. I don’t know anything about the accident. You’re the police. You figure it out.

I need to go home.  Emmy’s waiting for me. She’s a good friend. 

Yes, thank you, I will. Good night, officer.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Coal Train

Diesels bay at 3 a.m.
as they prowl railyards
on the north end of town

A screen lights the kitchen
half-cleaned, still
fragrant with cumin and onions

an update chimes:
the rodeo queen has shared
another picture of her boys

Facebook maps a diaspora 
coal-dusted children

poured like mine tailings
from the Valley down the 
slopes of the Rocky Mountains

Goodbyes trace like fireworks
the explosion at the mine
blew out the heart of our town

Iron wheels clatter in time
with breakfast pans. Men
descend into the seam
the whistle of the coal train

Poets of G+ Challenge: write a  poem the starts at the end and moves toward the beginning

A List

Things that hollowed me out
today, a list for
no good reason

Casual jazz under red
string lights
a gift from a man who
will never be my friend

The moment a little
girl rested her head
butterfly gentle
against my shoulder
before flitting off to play

The elusive scent
of lilacs

Two chattering women speed
walking past
as I untangled
The dog’s leash from
my legs

The wobbling path
of my son’s bicycle
as he rode away

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Swan from the Start

The other day, I read a parenting post stating decisively that people shouldn't tell a little girl how pretty she is. Physical attributes, the thinking goes, are neither a good measure of a person nor permanent. The unstated judgement is that valuing appearance is shallow and leads to irreparable vanity. Instead we should praise her strength and intelligence and sense of humor and other more "laudable" traits. The goal is to teach self-worth based on character, not her body.

That sounds really good. I almost bought into it, until I looked into the mirror.

It's so easy for a child to latch on to the most ridiculous of ideas. For me it was the understanding that I'm not pretty. I never thought of myself as ugly, just unremarkable. I don't know the genesis of this thinking. It was probably a generic criticism, mixed in with the other flotsam of girlish competition. Unfortunately this one became entangled in all the other insecurities native to a young girl and fell to the floor of my consciousness, slowly seeping its particular poison through the years.

Looking back I can see subtle ways my behavior was shaped by this one idea. I ached to be pretty and found myself drawn to beautiful people, hoping their magic would dust off onto me. When it didn't, I withdrew into my mind and distanced myself from the disappointment that was my body. I neglected to value myself, and as a consequence didn't care for myself. Exercise was pointless. Beautiful clothes and jewelry were for beautiful people. I would just have to make do. Still, in my secret heart-of-hearts, I longed to be a princess, if only for one Cinderella night.

This doesn't mean I lacked all faith in myself. I took pride in my strength and determination and smarts. I was determined to make a difference in the world. But on the occasions that a man did -- miraculously, I thought -- notice me, I was careless with my body and my heart. I once asked a lover if he thought I was beautiful. He  prevaricated until finally admitting that he didn't. Despite my shredded heart I stayed. 

Over time I've learned to admire my parts. My college roommate taught me that every girl deserves pretty lingerie. My sister-from-another-mother has taken me shopping and shown me how to flatter my curvy figure. I've been given lessons in makeup, and compliments on my eyes. Sometimes, when I least expect it, I look in the mirror and find beauty there, wrinkles and dimples and spots and all. I am grateful for those moments.

To be honest, I don't know if thinking myself pretty would truly have changed anything. Still, I will tell my daughter every step of the way that she is smart and funny and strong and, yes, beautiful. I will tell her until she knows in every cell that both her mind and her body are to be cherished and respected and cared for. I will declare her beauty to the world and I will not be satisfied until she can do the same. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

On Thursday

"This must be Thursday. I could never get the hang of Thursdays." - Douglas Adams, Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy

In Hungarian "On Thursday" is csütörtökön. This is one of my favorite words. I love the precision required to say it correctly. How foreign it feels in my mouth. I've forgotten most of what I learned, but this particular phrase has stuck. I have a treasured collection of linguistic oddments that are part of my internal vernacular. Sometimes I say them out loud to myself, like a child playing with her toys. Once I had to do so in empty rooms, lest people fret. The rise of earpieces and cell phones has done wonders for my perceived sanity.

It's a lovely morning for sleeping in -- overcast, damp, and 63 degrees. The dogs believe it to be a perfect day for a walk. We're agreeing to disagree. The house is quiet, except for occasional song from the more ambitious robins in our neighborhood. The oven is ticking as it preheats -- cinnamon rolls should get us all moving, although I'm tempted to abandon responsibility and leave the kids abed. I take comfort in standing guard over my slumbering sweetlings. 

I was reminded this morning that one of my two superpowers is rescuing trapped insects and small mammals. This morning we saved a Very Large Dragonfly from the bag of apricots on the kitchen counter. I have no idea how it got in there. I couldn't catch it with a container, but at the offer of a fingertip it gingerly stepped aboard for the ride outside, even allowing some photos before hurtling into the brightening sky.

The other is the appearance that I always know where I am and where I'm going. I have been approached around the world by strangers needing directions, sometimes in their own country where I am a visitor.

For the record, my sidekick power is making animal noises. Really. I can imitate most domesticated animals (including livestock). Comes in handy when distracting the villain.

Text copied from Facebook at my mother's request

Friday, June 27, 2014

From the Dusty Corners of My Hard Drive

Just ran across this, er, salute to Poe which I wrote in response to a Poets of G+ Community prompt for National Poetry Month. It is silly and made me laugh, so I thought I'd share it. 

The Dogs
See the puppies with their tails
Wagging tails!
With furry smiles and joyful leaps they happily regale
How they wiggle, wiggle, wiggle
With obvious delight
While tiny children giggle
And even grownups sniggle
And everything about them seems just perfectly alright
Barking: ruff ruff ruff ruff ruff
Pretending to be tough
Running laps around the living room like tiny springtime gales
Wagging tails, tails, tails, tails, tails, tails
The whirling and the spinning fluffy tails.

See the doggies with their paws
Giant paws!
What muddy tracks and messes these beloved pups can cause
How they scurry, scurry, scurry
With evident delight
To greet another furry
or guard against all worry
Always ready to defend against a stranger in the night
Drinking: lap, lap, lap, lap, lap
before a twitching nap
Pacing ‘round the house with clickety-tapping claws
Giant paws paws paws paws paws paws paws
The scratching and the thumping massive paws.

See the canines with their teeth
Pointed teeth!
So sharp and white and perilously unsheathed
How they glisten, glisten, glisten
With pendulous saliva
A shiver comes, a frisson
of tension. Be still, listen
Pray a fearless warrior does in time arrive
Clasp your hands upon your laps
Hope for werewolf traps
Strongly made of iron but in hammered silver wreathed
Lest beasts eat, eat, eat, eat, eat
Feast upon the mortals, flesh between their teeth.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Rational rationale

I have thought about guns a great deal since my father committed suicide by handgun when I was in ninth grade.

I say that not to elicit sympathy, but as a starting point for this essay. A little background: my parents were divorced when I was an infant; I had little contact with my father before he died; and my mother provided such a rich community of elders that his absence seemed incidental. Nonetheless, his death has affected me in ways I am still discovering.

All of this is by way of explaining the very personal relationship I have with gun control efforts, especially those around handguns. Not long before my father died, the "Brady Bill" brought national attention to gun control efforts. I supported the movement then; my conviction was deepened by my father's death and has been cemented over time.

That said, as distasteful as I find them, I am not against gun ownership. My husband has rifles and uses them. My son has practiced marksmanship with his Scout pack. A number of my friends enjoy a day at the shooting range. I respect that. I have even surprised people in the past -- those who have heard (or read) me rant about gun control -- with my ardent support of hunters, albeit from the perspective that they play a vital role in wildlife management.

I am aware that the basic regulations for which I advocate would not have saved my father's life. He owned his weapons legally and had a permit. I know also that his suicide was really a symptom of a lifetime of alcohol abuse. If he was truly intent on ending his life, he would have found a way.

The thing is, with suicide by gun there is very little margin of error. There are plenty of statistics (yes, yes, I know -- lies, damn lies, and statistics) tallying gun deaths. What many people don't realize is that two-thirds of those are suicides. Having a gun vastly increases the odds of someone attempting and succeeding in trying to kill themselves. Especially, unfortunately, people under the age of 18. It is so easy. 

As for other deaths? Looser laws in any one state vastly increases the homocide rate there as well. Locations with regulations around gun storage (locked up and unloaded) see far fewer accidental fatalities. I'm not going to turn this into a numbers game -- there are plenty of much better researched and dedicated pages for that. What I am going to say, after nearly 30 years of thinking about it, is that I truly believe that most of these deaths -- suicide, homocide, accidental -- were preventable with simple, common sense measures. I don't intend to strip guns away from people. I do believe that we can ask them to be responsible -- much as I am required to prove a certain level of responsibility before owning or operating a vehicle. Growing up in my little valley, getting a hunting license and going on your first hunt was a rite of passage. I remember all the kids excitedly talking about signing up for the hunter safety courses their parents required before going into the woods. That step was part and parcel of growing up and being a "good" -- as in moral and ethical -- hunter. I don't know why that has changed.

I have heard at length (from my husband, among others) the argument that people rely too much on the government to keep them safe, and that it's a "nanny state". You know what? We as a nation have proven that necessary. After struggling to keep eight-year olds calm and quiet through lockdown drills, after mourning too many mass shootings, after seeing pictures of men and women carrying firearms through Target, I don't trust my fellow citizens to act in our collective best interest. The roughly 32,000 gun deaths last year are my measure of why I believe the following basics should be implemented:
  • Require all gun owners to take a use and safety course. I'd encourage them to go further and go through some simulation training. This would be for everyone's safety. I have been in enough mildly emergency situations that I don't trust people to behave well under stress, let alone a situation where gunfire might be needed. I really, really, really don't want an untrained, panicking person trying to use a gun.
  • Require background checks for ALL sales. Period.
  • Restrict large capacity ammunition clips.
  • Restrict multi-weapon sales, especially through unlicensed dealers. This is where many of the weapons used unlawfully come from.
I'm sure there are more, but I didn't start this post with the intent to list out my solutions. As I said, there are better and more passionate sites for that. All I wanted to do was tie the political back to the personal. So many folks cry out for RKBA (the Right to Keep and Bear Arms). I think, sometimes, they forget the people behind the calls for regulation.

I was not close to my father. I may never have been, even if he had lived. Nonetheless, his death affected me profoundly. Most immediately came the knowledge that I was "half an orphan". My mother's mortality was highlighted by my father's death, deepening a sense of the fragility of family which had been instilled three years prior with the death of my maternal grandmother.

The longer-lasting, more complicated impact came from my imagination. Here's what I think I know: as a result of his alcoholic behavior, his third wife left him. She found him when she returned to the house sometime during the week. 

From there my vivid imagination takes over, filling in the gaps. I can see him angrily drinking while watching the Broncos lose. I smell the oil as he breaks down the gun, wiping it clean, reassembling. Repeating, maybe, as he drinks more. Easing toward tears, frustration melting into an overwhelming sense of failure. Walking to his bedroom. Lying down on the pastel bedspread. The shot, and a fan of chunky blood on the wall. 

I have carried those images in my head for more than twenty years now. I have no idea if they are even vaguely accurate. I don't care to find out.

All I want, really, is that no one else have to live with their version of this sorrow.