Monday, December 28, 2015

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Here I am on vacation writing up a blog post on my Kindle which consistently wants to auto-correct Ta-Nehisi Coates, so forgive me if I neglected t to keep writing the name. I have finished reading Between the World and Me.

On the same day  news leaks out about another Chicago police shooting "under investigation". The difficulties of blogging on a Kindle have gone out the window. But, with Coates words in my head and the news headlines before my eyes I cannot help asking some of the same questions raised in this thought-provoking book. Virtually one long essay written to his teenage son. Of how to save himself, and still not be safe. That there is no safety.

I'm questioning so much. Yet, like Coates I feel a great distance between the world out there and the world inside of me, they have never jived. Perhaps this misunderstanding is normal for thoughtful, curious kids. The world of difference is color: I did not have to fear for my life while other writer-type kids such as Coates, Junot Diaz, Jesmyn Ward were in constant danger of being crushed.

So as I sit in middle-class complacency these last days of 2015 there are several families living on the Westside of Chicago making funeral plans for their loved ones. "Unintended victims" of what the police deniers are calling a tragedy.

Between the World and Me provoked a lot of self-examination. One question I kept coming back to and that I'll be unpacking in the upcoming weeks is this: Why during a demonstration for Michael Brown, Black Lives Matter, was I so uncomfortable?  I blogged about this eariler--about how I participated in a die-in where we flung "bodies", stuffed effigies representing people of color, victims of police violence. I felt like was was dying of mortification--especially when we stopped traffic.

I have NEVER been opposed to a good protest. I've been attending demonstrations ever since I was in college. Seriously--when the Iraq "war" started I was down at Daley Plaza holding up my little old sign praying for peace more than a couple of times.

But since that blog post and now, I have come to feel outrage. Not just a smattering of Black Lives Matter, but a soul-felt anger at the trigger-snappy injustice of cops toward those of color. C'mon, really, shoot to kill? Whatever happened to tasering, wounding, hitting them in the knees, letting people at least stand trial??? Giving them their day in court.

What Ta-Nehisi Coates is getting at is that the justice system is broken, policing has broken down. The world is too quick to pass judgment. I know Quintonio Legrier's and Bettie Jones of the 4700 block of West Erie Street in Chicago never had a chance.

Friday, December 18, 2015

What Would Happen, part 2

In a blog post titled What Would Happen I told the story of a man in my building who took a huge risk: He reached out to a refuge.

Now this refugee could have sucked the life out of my friend. I mean, how many times do you get spam emails asking for money to be sent to the bank account of a Nigerian prince. It happens so often we have jokes about Nigerian princes. How many times have our friend's accounts been hacked and we receive a desperate email saying they were robbed in Paris and need just enough money to get home and please send to  . . .

We're all jaded enough that our immediate response is disbelief. Why in the world would we be so foolish to actually help someone. Overseas. In a refugee camp. Poor. Basically unable to ever pay us back.

That's why when my friend Ted decided to write the young man back and begin a dialogue with him that the world seemed to stop on its hinges. The young man was a refugee from the wars in Sudan. A lost boy stuck in a camp in Kenya, and he needed X amount of dollars in order to go to school. $50 a month. Which is a lot when you are deciding to take a risk on someone you've never met.

Lual Pach Pach finished school with Ted's help, then he finished college with Ted's help, and now he works in banking/finance in the new country of South Sudan, and he offered Ted a ticket to come to Kenya for a few weeks. So Ted got on a plane and flew to Nairobi, Kenya.

At the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport he was greeted like a Prince from a most grateful extended family that has seen no end to goodness because of one man's suspension of disbelief. Because Ted took a risk.

Now is the time for all of us to open our heart, not close them, to refugees seeking the basics of human dignity. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Uptown by the Lake


I sleep between
the boats in the
harbor and the
shshsh rattling of
the elevated trains
rocking back and forth
on one side the
eternal hum
of traffic on Lake Shore Drive
and the construction
horn, bleating as if
through thick fog
a new platform
going up at Wilson and Broadway.
To the south, on the
strains of a strong
wind—cheers from
Wrigley Field, and if
evening, the lights
halos of hope, always
To the north the
coast curves and if
possible, if the sky
is clear and the air
washed clean,
the observatory at Northwestern.
And, in between, the pink
Edgewater, successor
to the famous hotel
demolished—who knows
Between landfill that
extended the shore
that lengthened
the Drive,
between train tracks
abandoned, fused, split
and merged,
constantly changing
but ever the same
the sounds and movements
of Uptown, by the

Friday, December 11, 2015

Happy Turkey Day, continued

Danny skidded into the bowling alley just as we were starting the second game. He grabbed the heaviest ball (I’m making this up) and bowled a turkey (I’m not making that up). I high-fived him after each strike and we all had a really great time. Actually a better time than I thought we would have. The lane next to us even asked us to settle down, we were being so loud. As if we could quiet the strikes and accidentally dropping our bowling balls.

Afterwards we all went out into the parking lot to find that it had started to snow. Not a lot, but a little glaze of it covered the windshield. Dad handed me the keys. “Want to practice?”

The parking lot was nearly empty. I took a deep breath that said now or never. I got in and turned on the wipers to clear a see-hole. Mindy waved at me. I put the car into D and felt the power of the accelerator through my gym shoe. I barely touched the pedal and the car lurched forward. All my training had been on class simulators. Dalton gave me a thumb’s up as I inched along. I circled the parking lot a bunch of times each time feeling less and less scared and out of control and a little more a part of the machine. My hands were at 10 and 2. A sweaty 10 and 2, but at least my knuckles were beginning to relax. Danny saluted me after I made another circuit. Dad and James clapped and jumped up and down. I think they were cold.

Then things got a little crazy.

I mean I really did know how to drive; I just needed to settle down. I gave the car a little gas and jerked the steering wheel almost a full turn by slamming on the brakes. The back end of the car swung clear around.

YESSSS, I was doing donuts!

Torrence whooped and did his butt dance. My heart was racing. Everyone piled in and Dad let me drive home. First we dropped of Danny. When I let him off he leaned in through the open window (We’d had to crack a window to get air in the car because the windows were fogging up. Too many people, I guess.) and said, “Thanks for the ride James.” 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Happy Turkey Day, continued

Later that night after a tryptophan nap Torrence and I prank-called Dalton and Mindy, which I guess technically isn’t prank calling since they knew it was us. Still it was fun to hear Torrence ask if their refrigerator was running. I’m sure he had no idea who Prince Albert was. He was like my own little Muppet repeating words into the phone that I whispered to him. He kept screwing up which made me laugh harder. If I wasn’t such a selfish only-child I’d have wished for a little brother.

Right away Dalton drove over after picking up Mindy. I was starting to revive after eating such a heavy meal. Meanwhile we helped clean up the kitchen. By cleaning up I mean we loaded the dishwasher. Mindy loved the crowns Dad made so I let her wear mine. It barely fit over her bandana headband.

We wasted a couple hours talking about what to do until Dad finally put our quibbling to rest by insisting we all go bowling.

Now, there is nothing I hate more than bowling.

Like what the hell is the point? Squeezing your fingers into an oversized marble that weighs probably thirty pounds and heaving it down a narrow track. It is an experiment designed to fail. And, fail I did. With great success! I don’t understand how to score, but thank god there’s an app for that. Except that overhead for the whole world to see was my miserable score. Like how can someone who bowls so badly be allowed into the place?

I sat there like a slug waiting for my turn and every time I rolled it down and the ball broke off into the gutter, Mindy clapped and said, “You get another chance!” Please, I felt like whining, Can’t this all stop?

Dad, of course, had his own shoes and ball in a matching carrying-case. He even had a cloth that he mopped the lane with. He’d strike (no pun intended, okay maybe a little bit) a pose of intense focus, staring straight ahead, his upper lip touching the ball, his other hand under it. Then, like a windmill starting up, he’d flail, his arms and body in a dervish, and by some kind of madness or stroke of luck the ball would be rolling right for the triangle of pins. The crash and falling of the pins amplified, stereophonic, all around me. It felt more like a battle zone than a bowling alley.

Mindy competed with Dad for the most contorted approach and release. She usually ended up on the floor after letting go. Dalton did everything perfectly—except his ball jumped a lane and ended up giving the people next to us a great score. Torrence surprisingly took the whole procedure seriously. Each time he knocked down a pin he’d whoop. He did a lot of whooping. Then he’d do a little dance that involved pushing his butt out and shaking it. He called the pins snowmen. “I got one!”

I thought maybe for Christmas I’d give him one of the many bowling trophies that come in at the Freestore and get his name engraved on it.

In a twisted way bowling was kind of fun. All of us hanging out together again. Like old times. Who am I kidding—old times were so far in the past that it seemed like light-years. I tried to think watching Mindy bowl—remember when we used to be on the same page. Twinsies, finishing each other’s sentences. Had we ever really been that close? Maybe it was just wishful thinking on my part. Mindy whirled, checked herself, then flung the ball halfway down the alley. Ding!

Her phone in front of me on the scoring table made a jingle noise. A text from Danny. I felt like deleting it.

Mindy finished and then checked her phone. She bit her lip and tucked the phone inside the bib pocket of her overalls

“What?” I asked like a neurotic Dalton.


Dad got up to bowl and Mindy took his seat next to me.

“That’s bullshit. I know nothing with you is something.”

Mindy smiled, then confessed. “Danny wants to come bowl with us."

Just great, I thought, the star football player wants to come rub my nose in this stinky bowling business. He’d show me and everyone else in the place up with his innate athletic prowess.

Then I thought—did I really care? About bowling? About anything? All I cared about was Mindy. Suddenly I wanted her to be happy.

“Sure. If you want him to.”

“Sort of. How would you feel?”

“If you want him to come then I’m down with it.”

She smiled hysterically and busily texted him. She looked up and gave me a peck on my cheek. “You’re the best.”

“That’s a goddamn lie.” I was quoting Fame and probably half a dozen other movies we’d watched together.

Dalton scored again—for the other team. They issued a half-assed invitation for him to come join them.

Dad rolled another strike. “That’s a turkey,” he shouted.

He was taking this Thanksgiving thing way too far.

“A turkey is three strikes in a row.”

Torrence came over and draped his arm over my shoulders. “I’m thankful,” he said, “for James.”

I wanted to say again that it was a goddamn lie. Everyone was being so nice and I felt like I didn’t deserve any of it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Happy Turkey Day

This week I am excerpting holiday related sections of a new manuscript I am shopping to editors and agents.
Survivor Guilt

After the high school principal finds his truck on the roof of the school, prankster James Tiller is sentenced to sixty-six hours of community service at a local homeless shelter. Between punking people on Facebook and giving the check-out clerks at Walmart hell, his life is seemingly one big practical joke—until James’ mother is killed when a U-Haul slams into their car.Suddenly things become very serious.

Happy Turkey Day

The director of the homeless shelter where I volunteered dropped Torrence off Thursday morning. Dad had been up since 6 a.m. working on dressing the turkey. I on the other hand was not dressed. I was still in my PJs. Torrence and I sat in front of the TV eating cold cereal and watching the parade. The one with the creepy, globular balloons. The one with Buzz Lightyear the size of a cruise ship. The one with a warehouse size Hello Kitty! The one where Sponge Bob clipped the side of a lamppost and Homer Simpson ate the Empire State building. Just kidding about that last one. Dad had us eat on top of newspapers like he and Mom did when I was a messy little kid, mostly because Torrence is a messy little kid. We had Lucky Charms and Honey Nut Cheerios. I know that was a sacrifice on Dad’s part when he would have rather served us Shredded Wheat bricks.

In the past Mom and I would have gone out for dinner or ordered in. The last couple of years I traded holidays between Mom and Dad. I don’t think Mom ever once fixed a holiday meal, let alone a feast. For some reason Dad was pulling out all the stops. Every pan we owned was in use and every burner on the stove top was occupied. And this was just for three people and one of them was a five year old.

After the parade I went to a closet and got down all my old games. I wasn’t even sure if all the pieces were there or the instructions, but we managed to play Candyland and Operation. Eventually we gave up on rules and kept buzzing the tweezers inside the old geezer and dropping Cheerios into his bodily cavities. The smell from the kitchen was overpowering. Dad asked us if we wanted to pull the wishbone. I felt like I was still playing Operation. What?

“You know. Make a wish and see who gets the bigger half of the wishbone.” I looked at him skeptically. Like it was that easy?

Technically we should have waited for the wishbone to dry out so that it snapped apart. We basically kept bending it back and forth until finally I let Torrence play with it. He hung it from his ear and then balanced it on his nose. Before pronouncing it smelled nasty. No doubt.

I asked him what he wished for and he said for his Dad to come home.

I felt like crying. Instead I told him, “Good job.”

Dad called us to the table where he had arranged a centerpiece of Centerville Booster Club black and gold pygmy pumpkins. He lit some taper candles. I taught Torrence how to whisk his finger through the flame without getting burned until Dad warned us not to spill wax on the runner. Apparently a runner is the skinny tablecloth running the length of the table. Uh, okay.

There were colored paper crowns adorned with craft feathers at our plates. I asked what we were supposed to do with them. Torrence, being a perceptive dude, knew to wear his. I felt about two years old, but put mine on also. Dad had a pilgrim hat perched on top of his head.


And, the food kept coming. I couldn’t believe what Dad had been able to accomplish while we were watching TV and playing games. Torrence announced, “Good job!” I was proud of both of them. Then we got down to making the feast disappear.
notice the broken heart

Monday, December 7, 2015

Roadkill--story running in Fiction on the Web

Fiction on the Web is one of the oldest running on-line story websites--coming to us out of the UK. Since 1996 it has brought out 3 stories per week and Today until Wednesday my story, Roadkill will be up.

Roadkill is a caper based on a true story
Lanie passed a dead deer. It was off to the side of the roadway half hidden by brush. In the span of a second she got an idea.

Click on the link above and continue reading ROADKILL.

Friday, December 4, 2015

A Wassailing We will Go

This time of year brings its own particular memories—usually brought on by the five senses. The smell of fresh-fallen snow reminds us of sled runs when we were younger, the velvety taste of hot chocolate reminds me of sipping cocoa from my Santa mug when I was five or six years old, the ugly ornament half broken and losing its shiny luster is the one I am most fond of, the one my mother gave me that used to be hers. The lights, the carols, the yummy smells all work together to bring forth memories—some good, some not so good.

I remember one particular weekend before Christmas when I was a Girl Scout leader for my daughter’s troop. At best it was like herding cats. Trying to get a dozen or so girls to cooperate, for one minute to shut up and listen. We had plans to go downtown to the Museum of Science and Industry for Christmas Around the World. Does the museum still do this? It is where in the Great Hall trees representing Christmas in other lands are decorated. These days Christmas trees are not as important as what’s underneath them. Sheesh, Black Friday. It’s a scary world out there.

Anyway, in my squishy memory I remember having to change vans to accommodate the number of girls. We went from a mini- to a maxi-van. All of this last minute and mind-jarring with little girls voices blaring louder than the voices normally in my head. I probably was thinking I just want to get there, see the trees, and get this over with. Of course traffic was bad.

On top of this, it was the Christmas post-9/11 when new security procedures were coming into place. So when we pulled into the parking garage beneath the museum a guard came out and said she needed to check the van. How was I supposed to know that in the back of the van was a plastic bag with a decapitated deer head?

My husband had secured the van for us from a hunter just back from bagging a ten-pointer. The head was meant to go to a taxidermist’s while the carcass was at the meat rendering shop getting sliced into cutlets and steaks and little venison burgers.

“Uh, what is this?”

I barely heard the security guard over the girls singing Christmas carols. Jingle bells, Santa smells, Robin laid an egg.

“What?” I asked in return.

She wasn’t going to pick it up, but instead said, “This deer head.”

Then it dawned on me: We’re going to jail. I have all these kids in a van with a bloody deer head.

Before I could answer her, she waved me through. “I don’t even want to know.” The kids never knew either. We just sailed into a spot and clambered out, relieved to be at the museum.

Now in my mind’s memory I can still see these innocent little girl scouts singing at the top of their lungs and the freaked out face of the guard staring into the dead motionless eyes of a deer, the plastic bag smeared with blood and bodily debris. Those two images juxtaposed sort of tell the story of the years I spent as a Girl Scout leader.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Love is Paper

I was reminded earlier this week of something my daughter said. Actually it was a domino effect of little memories one after another. First my husband during an oratory he was delivering at church was reminded once of when our daughter was little more than a toddler and she was asked to clean up her toys. She explained as she sat in her chair upside down (this was not an unusual position for her; she often sat in chairs upside down, on her back or head with her feet in the air). She responded that she was being Mary and not a Martha, from the Gospel of John, Mary the one who dwelled with Jesus whilst Martha scurried about preparing food and doing necessary work. In my opinion Martha always got a bad rap.

According to her 3- or 4-year-old theology she was choosing the “better” way. When actually she really just needed to get down off the chair, right-side up and help clean up her toys.

His memory spurred me into one of my own. In this memory Grace is very, very young. In my mind’s eye I am changing her diaper. Albeit, I let her wear diapers probably way too long, putting off potty training until the last minute. Anyway, I was changing her diapers and she looked up at me and said, Love is paper.

Now paper is very important in our family. We love to write on and draw on paper. We would save huge sheets of it and make and tell stories while drawing away. Long trails of narrative and stick figures and horses and fairy castles and girls with long hair and crowns.

Grace was repeating something she had heard at daycare or from children’s church. Love is patient. In her world—what’s better than love is patient except when love is PAPER!

This particular memory has dwelled with me for years (as she is now 26 and living on her own). This week she plans to come over and “borrow” some Christmas ornaments to decorate her own tree in her own little apartment. All those memories we made together will continue to grow and morph and expand into her own set of memories.