Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Smallest of Openings

Winter Morning on the Mississippi River, Iowa
I had a few bad years back in the '80s. I'd quit writing. Almost quit living. Short stories got me through and I depended on a few writers for everything: Ann Beattie, Melissa Banks, T.C. Boyle, Carver (of course) and Pam Houston. 
So when I had the opportunity to submit a short story to win a spot at one of Houston's workshops, I was in. I didn't expect to be one of the winners, but I'm going to Boulder.

Here's the piece. It's fiction. The parameters were: Include an airplane, song lyrics from the 70s, a fruit with the letter P and an animal I'd like to be. And do it in 500 words.

The smallest of openings

Out there, the sky went on forever and the days stretched even further. It was that sky Lily remembered years later when someone asked where she’d been.

The television was on. She kept it in a corner of the kitchen counter for company. She’d looked up to see a plane flying into the building.

She remembered that part.

She also remembered the antidepressants weren’t working. How the daily sadness squeezed tighter that morning, a dark dog curled around her heart stealing the last heat from a dying fire.

She’d called him, suspecting he hadn’t heard. No one believed him when he told the story about that day. He’d been in the fields. It was noon when he’d finally thought to look at his phone. By then, the planes had stopped flying, emptying the September sky of clouds and contrails, leaving it the calm endless blue of a tropical sea.

“I don’t want to be alone.” Jack hadn’t picked up, so she left a message. “I don’t know who else to call.”

She’d waited in their sunshine yellow kitchen, embracing him before both his feet were over the threshold. Shaking her off, he turned to the television. She watched his face as it moved from shock to horror before settling on anger.

“You need a drink,” she said. “I’ll get us a drink.”

She kept a bottle of whiskey on the dining room sideboard. For him. She preferred wine. When she returned, two glasses in hand, the television played to an empty room. She found him in the bedroom, pulling clothes from his dresser drawer.

“All of this, it made me think about us. How lucky we are.” She held out his glass.

He walked past her, into the closet where his shirts hung apart from hers.

“I guess …” He’d never been good with words. “I guess our luck’s run out.”

She laughed at him, then realized he wasn’t joking.

“I guess I must have know it would some day,” she said, afraid to disagree.

Years later, when she told the story, she insisted that her luck had just begun, that it increased with ever piece of clothes he threw into his duffel.

But standing there, all she could say was “Where will you go? What will you do?”

He shrugged.  “Life’s too short.”

She swirled the liquor in his glass, then carried both to the sink.

A single jet flew low, far below radar range, crossing to the east, opening a small tear in the sky. She watched through the kitchen window as she poured the whiskey down the drain, thinking she should tell him the President was flying overhead. Tell him everything would be all right now.

Instead, she pulled a knife from the drawer, studying her reflection before choosing an apple from the bowl, slicing it onto a cracked china plate.

Outside, the sun was warm, the apple sweet. And for a second, she forgot that winter was near.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Ideas wanted: Cheap, easy and life-changing preferred

For every post I write, there are at least three that never get out of draft form.

They're contrived. Boring. Trying too hard. Not trying hard enough.
And some of them just don't say anything. No story to tell. I thought there was something there when I started, but I'll never be able to huff enough air into the limp corpse to make it come alive.

For every post that remains unpublished, there are another dozen that never get written. Why? Because I can't string two sentences together. Can't find a thread to follow. A line to write. I poke around, kick a thought or two and nothing. So I have profound respect for anyone with never-ending patter. Writers who churn out pages. Storytellers who gush out words.

Now, I find I can be one too. On The Gist podcast, Slate's Mike Pesca interviewed Matthew Dicks about where he gets his idea. Dicks, a storyteller, author and 20-time winner of The Moth StorySlams, has a system and it's simple in concept.

Simple is good. I can do simple.

Every night, Dicks opens up a spreadsheet and asks himself "If I had to tell a 5 minute story of my day, what would it be?" Then he writes it on a spreadsheet. 5 to 20 words. That's it.

"It will, I promise you, change your life." Dicks says in the podcast.

What it does is find the different in the day, "little moments that mean the most." It's moments that make us more relatable. More entertaining. And once those moments are written down, they spark connections, spin into something bigger than five words.

So I've started a spreadsheet and looked back at the day, searching for a moment that is ready to be the star in it's own story. By writing it down, I've rescued it. Honored it. Given it the potential to save me and itself. To escape the draft folder and find life online.

Listen to Where to Find the Best Stories on The Gist podcast.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Above all, avoid the wankers

The author, escaped from backstage.
I was a roadie — a tour-ette — back in the old days. Before the husband. Pre-kids. Back when I didn’t mind sleeping in a different bed every night. (Alone. OK?)
It was the ‘80. I learned some important things. How to work 36-hours straight. How to earn respect instead of demanding it. How to drink like one of the guys. How to maintain relationships from 1000 miles away.
It wasn’t until I went back on the road, an over-50 wardrobe girl, that I rediscovered the value of some of these lessons, particularly as I navigated the second act of my life.
On the road, every day is an encore. A do-over. A new perspective on the same old problems. The unwritten rules of veteran roadies offered some useful insights in an ever-changing world.
Here are a few things I learned from standing in the wings. 
Shut up about your talent
Talent opens the door, but 90 percent of the rest is hard work. Bands that last have one thing in common. They work. If you want to stick aroour day. The rest of it happens in the bowels of stadiums or the corners of cavund, you never stop working. Those two hours on stage are a small chunk of a 12-hur day. The rest of it happens in the bowels of stadiums or the corners of cavernous theaters. In hotel rooms and dressing rooms. There, you’ll find your fangirl crush crashing through a new tune, working the kinks out of tired chords and running scales like a schoolboy. That time on stage is the tip of the musical iceberg.
Karma, Part 1: Reputation Does Matter
You can meet a dozen Prince Charmings, but it’s always the dicks you remember. No one remembers them now, though. They’re playing casino lounges or opening (and closing) restaurants with augmented hairlines and a back-up band that's counting the days until their contract is up. 
Bring Something To The Table Besides Your Boobs
Groupies. Ugh. They swarm around the shipping docks like gnats, but rarely — so very rarely — get past the gate. If the only thing you feel you have to bring to the table is your looks, fine. Just get out of my way so I can do my job. I’ll deal with the sexism you’ve re-ignited in my workplace later. 
It’s Always Something
So here’s a story. I’m doing wardrobe for a musician who has been performing for more than 50 years. A legend, and I don’t use that word lightly. Originally with three other guys. You probably know him. Anyway, he’ll regularly riff backstage with musicians who interest him. Not big names. Mariachi bands, that kind of thing. Because even after 50 years, there’s more to learn and no one knows where that lesson will come from.
Karma, Part 2: Everyone Makes Mistakes
You stick with this job long enough and you’ll see some train wrecks. Bad relationships. Bad drugs. Bad choices all around. Here’s the thing with a train wreck. You don’t see it coming. The people around you, the one’s standing at the side of the track, watching from a different angle, sense a tragedy in the making. And they’ll try to tell you. In some way, they’ll telegraph the inevitable. They can save you or they can let you sink. That’s up to you. Pay attention to the by-standers.
Rock On
Tour professionals dress like teen-agers, work like monsters and party like a grandmothers (except for catering... that's a whole other thing when it comes to the partying). They’ve seen the world, mostly from their hotel room window. Famous people? They trip over them on the way to a bathroom break. It’s a glamorous job, and someone’s got to do it, but in the end it’s still a job. An exhausting 36-hour-a-day job that just happens to include a nightly serenade from that guy on the cover of the Rolling Stone. But like every job, this one ends and the only thing you can take with you are a few guitar picks and the ability to work with anyone, anywhere at any time. Unless they’re wankers. Avoid the wankers at any cost.

Criss Roberts is the mostly stay-at-home sister in a family of tour professionals who have been on the road since the 1980s. She was out there for a while, but likes her own bed too much. She writes at

Monday, July 06, 2015

The writing life: Part 1

Some days it's like this.
This book-writing thing. It's a bitch. It screws with your head and sucks out your soul.
I'm an outliner, a plotter (and plodder. ) Some people can just wander off down an uncharted path, happily leaving story in their trail. 
Not me.
I need signposts and rest stops. A clearly marked route. Not that I always take it, but I like to know where I'm going and roughly when I'll get there. Once I'm on that route, I trip merrily along until I reach the end, all the while living in this alternative universe I've created.
Real live friends and family are ignored in favor of imaginary ones. If you speak to me and I look confused, I apologize. I'm trying to place you. You may live next door, but at the moment, you're out of context to me. My head's in this book.
Which is fine. Even great sometimes. Except when it comes to keeping a blog going. I'd write more about that, but I feel a plot twist calling. Another thousand words to write before I can dream about anything else.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Storm clouds gather as the battle begins

Call me crazy, but I think the ability to provide food for yourself and your family is a necessary skill. Not simply pushing a cart through the aisles of the grocery store. We're talking something that involves a little labor and a lot of love.
These are not survivalist-level commitments. I'm looking at something more remedial. A potted tomato or a window box of greens to start. A few canning jars. A box of freezer bags.
As a beginning backyard farmer, I've got a deck full of pots. Eggplant. Tomato. Kale. Basil. Other stuff that's green and leafy and needs water.
Well, not eggplant. Not anymore. Because now I've got a raccoon. Two I think. They're sneaky bastards. Even the dogs don't hear them, and they hear everything.
Every night for a week, they've ripped plants out by the roots. Devoured the bird seed. Drank the hummingbird nectar. And as a thank you, left poop all over the deck.
So now what? I've rigged a series of baby gates, blocking access. That worked last night. If I cut off the food source, I'm the one ultimately injured (if being without a steady stream of kale is, indeed, an injury.)
My commitment is being tested. My morality. If I spin it out far enough it becomes kill or be killed. How lethal will this fight become?
You are warned, raccoons. You are warned.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Rethinking food, rediscovering life

The deck farm
Nobody wants to hear about my  health problems. So I'm not going to bore you. But let's just say I'm not unique for a woman of my certain age. Particularly one who had wine as a major food group. 

I’ve been writing about food for years and I would estimate that at least 90 percent of those stories featured copious amounts of fried food and even larger amounts of sugar. These foods went particularly well with the daily hangover I’d come to accept as normal. And judging from reader feedback, I was not alone. I felt like death a lot of the time, so I did what we’ve learned to do. I Googled “Feel Like Death.”

What I learned is I was doing everything wrong. Eating wrong, drinking too much. Exercise? Ha. So I’ve started to change. I’d quit drinking a hundred times. This time, after being derailed by a loved one’s death, I quit again. But this time, I looked for support. Not from other people. Not from 12-Step groups, which work for some addicts, but not most of them. I went the internal, soul-strengthening route of treating myself like a person who deserved to live a good life because — insert long, boring backstory here — I had convinced myself otherwise.

The first step in this process is Getting Over It. Getting over my aversion to vegetables. Getting over my belief that I am special, deserving of indulgences. Getting over a compulsion to fill my empty spaces with food now that the wine is gone.

We all start somewhere.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Cooking vegetables for the vegetable-adverse, remedial

What kind of eater are you?

My favorite meal is:
   1) at a restaurant
   2) one grandma used to make
   3) healthy 
   4) anything with chocolate on it

I eat:
   1) 3 squares a day, with snacks
   2) All-day, grazing
   3) when my body says I’m hungry
   4) when there’s chocolate

The number of calories I consume is:
   1) way more than necessary
   2) anywhere from 800 to 3000
   3) exactly as many as my body needs
   4) I do not believe in calories.

If the majority of your answers were 1 or 2, you’re a normal eater. All you 3s? You’re not a real person. I refuse to believe people like you exist. And you 4s? You are a character in a Cathy comic strip. You’re not, you say? Look in the mirror. Is there a third-dimension? Didn’t think so.
I have food issues. I either think about food constantly or don’t think about it at all. I veer between well-planned, nutritionally balanced menus to days when I eat nothing that can’t be spread on a Triscuit. It isn’t healthy, and it isn’t wise, but that’s one of the wonderful things about food. It changes by necessity. Recipes can be tweaked and twisted, as anyone who owns the cookbook “50 Ways To Cook Artichokes” knows. 
Every January I pledge to eat better, and if the media is to be believed I am far from alone. But eating better is a learned behavior. And it often begins by cooking healthier food, something that can be self-taught. We can all chop up some broccoli. It’s the process of getting it into our mouth and keeping it there that is the challenge.
Begin where you’re comfortable. Tiny pieces of celery in soup is the best you can do? Start there. Tomato sauce on pasta. It’s a step up from the universal vegetable delivery system of ketchup, I guess. It doesn’t matter where you start. It’s one meal. One day. Tomorrow you can add a few tiny pieces of carrot in there with the celery. 
Vegetable aversion is a real thing and it takes time to conquer. It also takes some skill. Haters have not learned to prepare the hated properly. So learn. Google it. Watch YouTube videos. Lock yourself in a room with a computer if you feel shamed, but know this. No one is born knowing how to cook vegetables. People who love vegetables were just like you once. 
We all start somewhere. Try starting here, with pureed cauliflower. It kind of looks like mashed potatoes. But you absolutely need a food processor to create something that doesn’t look like a vegetable. There are no quantities in the recipe, no 1/2 teaspoon of this or cup of that, because now is the time to be dangerous in the kitchen. If we must eat right, we might as well have an adventure while we’re doing it.

Pureed Cauliflower

1 head of cauliflower, cut into little pieces

I should probably say that you’re cutting off the flower part. You’ve already gotten rid of the green leaves and now you’re cutting it away from the core. If you knew that was necessary, you should probably not be reading a remedial article. Boil those pieces until you can stick a fork in them. They’ll be the consistency of ice cream, your fork goes in easily but there is some resistance. (If you do not want to get a pot dirty, invest in those Ziploc Steamer Bags. They are a kitchen miracle.)
Place cooked cauliflower in the food processor with a couple tablespoons butter and a splash of milk. Add a little bit of salt. Turn it on and wait until it looks like mashed potatoes. Add more butter and milk if you’d like after you taste it. Yes, taste it. If it tastes fine, eat it.