Thursday, December 23, 2010

Roy and Dale Defeat the Indians

Cathy walks with confidence ahead of me. She is Dale Evans, and we are tracking Indians through the second growth forest of northern New Jersey. They took this path—and there ahead is my Palomino horse Trigger. We break into a run. Just like Roy Rogers, I swing easily up onto the fallen log that lies across our path. Cathy swings herself up behind me. Together we ride after the Indians. The log bounces in a big satisfying rhythm. We kick with our heels. When we spot the Indians at last, I give Cathy a gun from my cowhide holster and keep one for myself.

We open fire. But the Indians shoot back. Eventually one of them hits me in my shooting arm with an arrow. I drop my gun and roll dramatically off the log.

Cathy finishes off the last Indians with a sure aim and hurries to tend to my wounds. Lying on the loamy ground with a little stand of Jack-in-the-pulpit looking on, I indicate the arrow. Cathy grabs it and digs it out with a knife. She bandages it with care. Together, sweaty and satisfied, we take the wooded path back toward my house.

When we reach the sandbox we catch and hold each other's gaze. A smile works on my lips, and happily I see the same smile force itself into Cathy's eyes and then her mouth. When she yodels, my heart and that of Roy Rogers sing along.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Crunch Time

Cast of Characters
Patient: Middle-aged, garrulous, opinionated, a more-or-less lapsed Catholic. Wearing jacket, shirt and tie. He's a high-level sales guy.

Chiropractor: Young, handsome, Jewish, it's his second day in the chiropractor business.

Scene: Chiropractor's office. Plastic replica spine at the ready. Poster with words: "LOOK WELL TO THE SPINE," everything else too small to read. A poster of a posed muscular man and woman showing major nerves.

[ Lights Up. ]
Chiropractor: [Seated at desk, looking at a file, tapping pen nervously, picks out a business card from a display of cards on his desk and reads from it. Trying on different tones of voice:] Doctor Ben Levin. DOCTOR Ben LEVIN. Hi, I'm Doctor Ben Levin… Doctor Ben.

Patient: [To offstage office manager, looking back over shoulder] In here?

Chiropractor: [leaps to feet, strides to door to shake the patient's hand, incredibly self-conscious, feels totally stupid, hearing himself sound like a recording of a chiropractor] Hello, there. Yes, you're in the right place, heh-heh. You've come to the right place! I'm Ben Levin. Doctor Ben Levin.

Patient: [dragging one leg, holding his lower back] Oh, doctor, thanks for taking me on such short notice—and on the day before Christmas. I didn't think I'd find anyone open.

Chiropractor: Well, I guess that's an advantage, after all…

Patient: [Barely hearing what the doctor says] Yeah, yeah, I'm bringing in the tree the way I have for 18 years—Cheryl doesn't like it in the house until Christmas eve—tracks needles all over the house, she says—and I don't know I guess I've let myself go a little—Cheryl's always nagging me to get to the gym, but you know, I run the whole sales division for the region now, so when am I supposed to get to the gym? She wants me home for dinner once in a while, too, and frankly, you get…

Chiropractor: So, you hurt your lower back putting up the Christmas tree?

Patient: Uh, yeah.

Chiropractor: [Big, nervous smile] Okay, well, let's get you on the table and see what we can do for you, if anything…

Patient: [Hoping that's a joke] Ha-ha.

Chiropractor: Let's see, take your shirt off and just sit on the edge of the table and then I'll have a look.

Patient: [follows instructions]

Chiropractor: [Pokes and prods a bit up and down the back.] Hurt there?

Patient: No. It's down…

Chiropractor: How about there?

Patient: No, it's just down…

Chiropractor: Here?

Patient: [in excruciating pain] Jesus Mary and Joseph! That's it.

Chiropractor: [Feels around the suspect area a bit, getting sharp intakes of breath from patient] Oh, holy crap, that's way out of alignment. Okay, lie down then, and I'll—we'll just see what we can do.

Patient: [Gingerly lying down on his back] It's bad, then? Will I be able to go Christmas shopping? Jeez, Cheryl's going to kill me…

Chiropractor: Uh, sorry, on your stomach.

Patient: [Finally cluing in that the doc is less than expert, and giving him a dirty look] You want me on my stomach? You could have said so. [many grunts and groans as he turns over.]

Chiropractor: Sorry. [puts an ice pack on the patient's back.]

Patient: You new at this?

Chiropractor: Um, well, not new, exactly. I mean, I totally know what I'm doing. I come from a long line of doctors.

Patient: Great, I'll count on your genetics, then, right?

Chiropractor: You'd be surprised the things that are genetic. My sister's kid…

Patient: [Interrupting] Can you fix it?
Chiropractor: Huh?

Patient: My back, can you fix it?

Chiropractor: [Shrugs] Oh, sure. I can reduce it. [Adds another ice pack]

Patient: [Skeptical grunt]

Chiropractor: Been under a lot of pressure lately? [Seems to be quoting from a textbook:] "Lumbar region issues often result from occupational stress."

Patient: Oh, yeah, it's end of year, so what with crunching all the numbers and coming up half a million short of goal, I haven't had time to get Cheryl a Christmas present.

Chiropractor: That's bad.

Patient: You have no idea. I was away on her birthday, I forgot our anniversary entirely, and if I come up short of a damn miracle for Christmas, she'll have my balls fried up for lunch. No kidding, she might just move in with her mother.

Chiropractor: Hm, that is bad. So, when you say "miracle," are we talking three figures? Four figures?

Patient: [Doleful look]

Chiropractor: Five figures? Your ass really is in a sling! No wonder your 4th lumbar is in the next county.

Patient: Yeah, thanks. [A little surprised:] That feels better, by the way.

Chiropractor: It's just numb. With what I have to do to it, you're going to want it numb.

Patient: Ah.

Chiropractor: [Moves into position by patient's neck to apply pressure with both hands overlapped] So, you're looking at what? A car? [Pushes sharply downward on neck. Then idly wiggles patient's head to left and right.]

Patient: She has those. A nice SUV for running errands around town, and last year, when I remembered about Christmas, I got her a del Sol, which she loves, because she picked it out herself.

Chiropractor: [Moves hands down patient's spine a few inches, overlaps them.] Diamond? [Pushes sharply down on patient's upper back]

Patient: Has those. Never wears them.

Chiropractor: A horse? [Pushes sharply down on patient's back]

Patient: Allergic.

Chiropractor: Hm, that puts us into intangibles. [Crunching farther down the spine with each enumeration:] Vacations in exotic locations, master's degrees …

Patient: Been there, done that. We've been married 18 years! I'm doomed! I'm dead meat.

Chiropractor: [Almost to himself:] But you remember how many years you've been married… [Sitting down on a stool with notebook and pen at the ready] Tell me a little more about – Cheryl. How did you meet?

Patient: She was a nursing student, and I was selling shoes at Macy's between my Junior and Senior year. She bought 6 pairs of shoes the first time she came in. I'd never seen anyone do that before.

Chiropractor: What did she like about you?

Patient: I don't know, we laughed a lot. I was in a string band, I used to tell the jokes in between numbers.

Chiropractor: [Adjusting the ice packs] What did you like about her?

Patient: Well, she liked me. That sounds terrible, doesn't it? What I mean is, she was nice to me, she was caring and a good listener. And beautiful. She still is.

Chiropractor: So, you told jokes and she listened.

Patient: Yeah, it's not like that anymore, though. She's got her own life, her own career—she does public health administration—and I'm not that much fun anymore, frankly. I'm away a lot, and working all the time, and when I try to tell her about my work, she's—I don’t know—disengaged somehow. I make my customers laugh, but not her.

[His cell phone rings. He gestures to Ben to get it from his jacket pocket, which Ben does.] My boss. [Into the phone:] Yeah, hi Gerald….Yes, well, times are bad everywhere… No, I guess you're right, not in China… Oh. Uh huh. So what you're saying is...? Well, one down quarter…
I see, I guess you could look at it that way, but Gerald—Oh. It's a done deal, then. I see. Oh, very good, a severance package, of course. Monday. 8:30. Sure. Sure. See you then. [Stares at phone.]

He just fired me.

Chiropractor: I'm sorry.

Patient: He just fired the entire division.

Chiropractor: What was that about China?

Patient: They're getting out of latex paint and focusing on lead-based.

Chiropractor: Who knew there was a market for banned, toxic paint?

Patient: Yeah, "Brains schmains" is what he just said to me, do you believe that?

Chiropractor: Wow.

Patient: I haven't liked the direction the company was taking for a while now, but this is just… [Turning suddenly toward the chiropractor.] You know what, I'm glad they fired me. I wouldn't work for those jerks for all the--ha-ha-ha! tea in China! [breaks down in tears.]

Chiropractor: [Rubbing his back] I'm sorry.

Patient: How can they do this to people right before Christmas?

Chiropractor: [Still rubbing] Hmm. I guess you're off the hook for a present, then.

Patient: Oh, God, she's going to leave me!

Chiropractor: Maybe not.

Patient: Oh, right. This'll be perfect. [Bitterly:] "Hi honey, look what I got you for Christmas—a husband who can't earn a living. But you'll like living in a rented hovel. That's what you always wanted, right?" I'm screwed.

Chiropractor: Maybe not.

Patient: You don't understand.

Chiropractor: Well, she can probably support the house. Right?

Patient: Well, yes. But a deadbeat husband…

Chiropractor: Here's what I'm going to do. What's her number?

Patient: [Offers his cell phone.] Here, use mine. It's under "S," [abashedly] for Schnookums, but what…

Chiropractor: [Into phone] Hello, is this Cheryl? Cheryl this is Be—Doctor Levin, of Montgomery Spine. Your husband—yes, your husband has suffered a subluxated 4th lumbar vertebra, and quite possibly a ruptured disk. We're awaiting imaging before making a final diagnosis… Yes, he's in quite a bit of pain, although I've performed mitigation for that. He's going to need 24-hour nursing for a few days. I can recommend an agency… Oh, you're a nurse? You have? Well, that should work out fine, then. Yes, a couple of days of bed rest and then gradual range-of-motion therapy—but I'll write the prescription for you…. Uh-huh. No, he must not try to drive. I don't know how he managed to get here, frankly…[Grabs one of his cards off of his desk and reads] 1654 Montgomery Avenue, suite 125… Yes, first floor. See you in 20 minutes, then. Very good.

Patient: So now I'm unemployed and an invalid, too?

Chiropractor: Look, my mother always says, to move a cat, put butter on its paws.

Patient: Huh?

Chiropractor: It licks its paws and rubs the butter on its ears, and it's a mess. It might take days to get all that butter off. It hardly notices the new house. Tell her immediately—on the phone, before she gets here—about losing your job, about the lead paint, about China. Let her nurse you back to health. By the time you're walking again—lie on your side—By the time you're walking again… [twists patient into a doughnut shape and pushes on leg and shoulder simultaneously.]

Patient: [Cry of pain] Mother of God!

Chiropractor: …She'll have had time to get used to the idea of your looking for another job.

Patient: [Doubtful] Maybe.

Chiropractor: Stand up.

Here's the other part. While you're lying around, you write her a lovely heartfelt Christmas card. Maybe a poem in there. You hand-decorate it.

Patient: [Stands up, but still can't use his leg] With what?

Chiropractor: How do I know? Candy canes. Pictures of wreaths from Orvis catalogs. Whatever you people do. But most important: you tell jokes. Every time she walks in the room, you make her laugh.

[Hands patient his shirt, tie, jacket.] Sit down.

Patient: [Sits. Puts on shirt, tie, and jacket.]

Chiropractor: [Hands him his cell phone.] Call her. Schnookums.

Patient: [Dials.] Hi, honey. It's… Hurts like hell… Listen, Cheryl… They're closing the Western division. I … I lost my job. It's all going to China… No, I can't really walk. Actually, dialing the phone hurt. [Smiles.] Okay. I'll be right here. I love you, too.

Ben, Doctor, you're a genius! [Stands up to hug him—sits back down clutching his back.]

Chiropractor: [Hands him the ice packs.] You're going to want these.

[Lights down and End of Act]

This work was originally written for Hitching Post Theater, Boulder, Colorado.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Black Gown

The long, satiny black dress is cut on the bias. It fits…it fits the way it's supposed to, revealing the chest between my small, well-shaped breasts. Even lower in the back, but you can't see that in the photo. There are several shiny necklaces around my young neck and a bracelet on each wrist. There's a dangly earring on each ear—clip-ons—partly obscured by the corkscrew curls a cast member has created at each of my temples. My glossy dark hair is parted, pulled back in some kind of a bun. I'm wearing makeup, also courtesy of the young woman who did my hair. I loved her looking intently at my face and her gentle touch as she applied the make-up. In the photo I give the camera a baleful look, standing with one hand on my hip and the other bent up and touching my bare shoulder. The stance and the baleful look are all my mother's. The strange cocked position of my arm is hers, as well, one she adopted after she cut the arteries, tendons and nerves in her wrist on a broken window. To me it reads sexy. The hint of wariness in my eyes and reserve on my mouth is all me, though.

My arms are buff—a term we aren't anywhere near using in 1970, when the Hunterdon Repertory Company puts on Dracula. At 16, I've been carrying two buckets of water up the slope from the well to my horse twice a day for several years already, and at this point I am also taking a night school fencing class. It has occurred to me that I will most likely not have a man protecting me once I leave for college, and I've started running the perimeter of the fallow field behind our house, because, as I've articulated it, I may have to run someday.

There is a women's liberation movement starting and a gay liberation movement as well. This is not an historical note, but a matter of desperate importance to me. I hear about women's liberation and gay liberation from the TV news that reaches central New Jersey from New York. I've been to the libraries, both Flemington's and Hunterdon County's, to search for books on feminism, but all I found was Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. The disappointment I felt was like dry bone meal in my mouth.

The real capital of New Jersey is not Trenton, but New York City. The rest of New Jersey is decentralized, a backwater. Nobody goes from Flemington to New York except on school field trips, as far as I know. New York might as well be a foreign country. Dracula will be interesting for me. An ancient actress who belongs to the Company speaks with a whisky voice, and smokes Tiparillos. She, it is said, is a lesbian. I seldom see her, and I don't know why she's hanging around the women's dressing room on opening night, but that night she growls to me, "Knock 'em dead." And then there's Berta, who plays Mina, Dracula's second victim. Her husband is the dentist who has crafted Dracula's fangs. Between the fangs and the thick Transylvanian accent, Dracula is barely intelligible at times. But Berta, his stage lover, is perfect. Delicate, slim, dark, and a good actress. Years later, when I return to New Jersey from college on Christmas vacation, my mother will tell me that Berta has left the dentist and run away with a woman to Florida. "She's a homosexual" my mother pronounces carefully. I pretend indifference. Anyway, the romance is short-lived and she straggles back after a while.

Just as interesting are the dreams all the female cast members have of being attacked by a vampire. My part in the play is not exactly cast. The director has decided to do live ads instead of a program. It's a clever idea, giving more people a chance to be involved in the production and saving printing costs. I'm one or two of the commercials. She's also got the blood bank parked outside taking blood—a nice tie-in. We are blessed on opening night by the appearance of the theater bat—or if not, it becomes theater lore anyway. I never see it.

In 1970, it's not de rigueur for kids to run like crazy from one activity to another, and the Repertory Company is a rare social opportunity for me. The 4-H horse club. That's about it until next year, my senior year, when I'll take Russian and join the Russian Club. I love the theater group. I get to hang out with adults and some other teenagers. I've had a stagecraft class in high school, so I know as much about that as a lot of the adults. Early in my involvement with the theater group, I actually went on some dates with the son of one of the directors.

My mother and my brother have both had major roles in Hunterdon Repertory productions. They run pretty hot-blooded. My father and I are cooler. He takes pictures of rehearsals. He took this picture of me. This live commercial for Bram Stoker's Dracula will be my only appearance on the stage of the Clinton Theater. The high point of my involvement there will be in a later production, Once Upon a Mattress. I will have a hand in designing the set and crafting props. It's a marvelous production with fine actors, music, comic dancing, colorful costumes and a set so encrusted with gold glitter that it swirls around on the stage as the actors move, interfering with their contact lenses, and looking positively magical from the audience.

My closest friend is Debbi. She comes to a Dracula rehearsal and sits in the seats with me coloring drops of blood on the play's posters with red magic marker. I am in love with Debbi, who shows every sign of being heterosexual. She dates a football player named Hans, who turns up in one of my fencing classes. She complains in a general way about boys wanting to handle her. I dream nightly about "handling" her. I have been working assiduously since I was 13 not to touch her, not to tell her I love her. I have developed very good self-control.

The sophisticated black gown is a costume. The teenager is wary and reserved.

Inspiration for Writing—Practical Tips

Maybe you go into the office expecting your inspiration to be there. But of course it's in your head. I like to think of it as foreplay. You need a little mental warm-up before you go into the office, just as a little making out in the kitchen can make the bedroom--um--imperative. So start re-reading your last day's work before breakfast or grab some recent notes you've made about your work, and glance over them before you do your workout. Working out plot and character problems is the only thing that makes running sufferable for me.

Here's another angle. Mental work isn't just in your mind; it's in your body, too. Your body has daily rhythms, so writing happily depends on when you work more than where. I like to start writing first thing in the morning, so my favorite "inspiration" is to lie in bed for half an hour reviewing and plotting forward, until the keyboard beckons, rather than repulsing me.

Different people have different tolerances for noise. I like to have instrumental classical music from the Classical period as background. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Handel, Vivaldi. Alternatively, generic coffee shop noises are ok if they're not too loud, but that's hard to count on. Too much silence isn't helpful.

All else fails, a bath. It's time-consuming, but it always works. I draw a hot one, get in, soak until the water cools (no books allowed if I'm working on plot), drain out most of the cool water, refill with hot, and get out when that starts to cool, or when I've melted, whichever comes first. Invariably I've solved the problem.

Dominus and Other Doms

Cast of Characters

He: Father Todd, NY accent -- Or at any rate avoid an Irish accent at all costs – these are Americans.

She: Mother Mary Clement, Mother Superior of a teaching order convent. A woman used to wielding authority, she retains some sense of proportion. She and the priest share a dry sense of humor. Their conversation is part of surviving their knowledge of sin and the burden of their responsibilities.

Scene: Mary's office in the convent. A bottle of scotch on Mary's large desk. A cross on the wall behind her desk. A comfortable chair awaits a guest. During this scene, Mary refills both their glasses at natural intervals.

[ Lights Up. ]

She: [stands at the open door of her office] Father Todd, so glad you could make it this evening.

He: [enters shaking her hand warmly with two of his] As am I. As am I.

She: [Shuts the door behind them, opens a window. While he takes the comfortable chair.] There. Smoke whatever. How you can ruin a 12 year old scotch with that weed of yours I'll never understand.

He: [Draws a cigar from his breast pocket, accepts a glass of scotch from Mary, but doesn't light up yet] I admit it's a bad habit. Not evil, but not good.

She: The Good Lord meant spirits to be appreciated, fully and rightly.

He: Mm-hm, that's why the cigar. [He fingers it but doesn't light. A knock at the door]

She: [under her breath] Go the hell away. [Goes to the door] Yes? …Sister Jenneece, this couldn't wait until morning?... So, what do you think should be done about it? …I see you have the answer to the dilemma already to hand… Go for it, Jenneece —oh, and I AM in an important meeting so… Good.

[Shuts the door, returns to seat at desk.]

In the outside world, I'm told, you get to hire lieutenants from the general populace. Do you suppose that makes the chances of finding competent people better or worse?

He: [Harrumphs] Might make it harder. A guy I was confessing the other day—fascinating guy, I've been confessing him for years—anyway, he was complaining that he put out a job ad for a Waste Manager for his company and got 300 applications—several on scented stationery!

She: How did he make a decision?

He: You know, anyone else would have read through all the resumes and picked the people with the most experience, but…

She: ..But…?

He: He threw out anything that wasn't on scented stationery.

She: Expeditious…

He: Of course he's already got a sex harassment suit going, but he figures the company can stall 'til she runs out of money.

She: I'm just getting the picture. Lucky you, Todd. You get to offer him forgiveness once a week.

He: Well, starting out it was frustrating, but the stories were almost worth the sense of ramming my head against a brick wall. But then… [He pauses for effect]

She: Then? Is he reforming? Has the Church worked a rare miracle?

He: Ah, that remains to be seen. But one day I was driving to a conference, listening to the radio, and I heard about this judge—not sure where—who was giving out some really crazy punishments – to help with jail overcrowding, and, you know, jail doesn't work that great anyway.

She: Making people parade on the sidewalks with signs on them that say 'I'm sorry I sold drugs to your kids.' Like that?

He: Right.

She: Like putting them in stocks and letting the neighbors throw rotten fruit? A bit medieval, isn't it, Todd?

He: Yes, but SO much more entertaining than increasing numbers of Hail Marys! It has me wondering what a little thumb screw might accomplish. [Gestures to suit words].

She: What have you had him do?

He: Well--a little background-- this guy has walked the straight and narrow—good family man, churchgoer, coaches Little League, holds down a well-paying, responsible job. At least, that's how it looks from the outside.

She: [knowingly] Ah! But life offers the Devil so many opportunities.

He: And it turns out, this guy's been a walking opportunity. Any kind of sexual depravity you can name, he's done it. Cheating on his wife with more than one of their neighbors. Insisting his wife act out scenes from naughty videos, which she naturally found demeaning. Patting the behinds of his Little Leaguers, when the dads aren't looking.

She: [Without irony] Appalling.

He: Anyway, the turning point came when I heard about the Little Leaguers. I was horrified. How many Hail Marys do you give for that? My God, they're talking about defrocking Bishops.

She: And they would, but they're afraid they'll find choir boys under their robes.

He: So I had to do something. Making him give up coaching Little League was the obvious move. I told him that he'd have to go to counseling—that's pretty obvious, too--not that it'll do any good. Then I had an inspiration: I made him go to a certain woman of the night for a good paddling.

She: …A woman of the night, whom you knew from…?

He: [Confused a moment] From confession!

She: Uh-huh.

He: THAT's when he discovered he LIKED being paddled. Now he makes regular visits to the dominatrix two towns over…

She: But he's definitely not coaching kids' baseball anymore?

He: A small success. Admittedly, my punishments may not do HIS soul much good, but mine gets a lift every time!

She: He's paying for it?

He: It's hard for a grown man to get a good spanking for free—So I hear!

She: It compounds the sin if he's taking bread out of his children's mouths to pay for it. Although it might require a little research to know if getting spanked is per se a sin.

He: Well, if it is, the Church has been colluding in that particular sin for centuries.

She: [grimly, taking it a little personally,] Not news, Todd, not news… You know I've been at the head of the movement to strictly limit corporal punishment. How often I've reminded my teachers that our kids with the worst behavior problems got that way from being beaten.

He: Now, Mary, don't get on your high horse. You know I didn't mean anything about St. Margaret's.

She: [Mollified, taking a different tack] Well, your story shows that sin can be an incident or a lifetime habit. God takes His sweet time working out repentance. I'm grateful to be working with children, from that point of view. Seriously, if we could just convince them that God forgives mistakes--

He: If we could sort out for ourselves what are mistakes and what are original acts of brilliance…

She: Or sins disguised as gifts from God…

He: Go on.

She: Well, one of the teachers confessed to me an early step off the path of righteousness. She was on the point of going for a uterine ablation and—

He: A what?

She: [pronouncing carefully] A utereen ablation. And no, it's not a holy rite. It's a kind of female surgery they do.

He: For what?

She: To stop the monthly bl—honestly, you'd rather not know. The point is, this sister, was afraid she'd die, because she'd committed a sin ages ago and she still felt so guilty she thought God would punish her if he got the least little chance, like outpatient surgery.

He: And what was this horrifying sin?

She: [snorts derisively] In college, before she took orders, she had sexual relations with her roommate. A sin so common it's on a par with shoplifting a pack of Lifesavers. But in this case it went on quite a long time—a couple of years, in fact.

He: Was she troubled by it all that time?

She: She said it seemed like a blessing from heaven after years of confusion about dating boys and fearing pregnancy. And of course she was very fond of the girl.

He: When did she start to see it as a sin?

She: Rather suddenly, as if the knowledge had been hidden in a closet, and suddenly one day the wind blew the closet door open.

He: So she ended it?

She: Yes. But sadly, the lingering knowledge of the one sin had such an oppressive effect on her that her heart has been ringed around with briars ever since. That's the language she used: ringed around with briars.

He: And now she's kept pure by the Holy Orders.

She: Yes, it's rather worrying.

He: You're afraid she'll take out on the children?

She: Not as directly as that. But a heart ringed around by briars…it's not a good example for the kids. Teachers should have easily accessible hearts.

He: One common sin, and a life of emotional paralysis.

She: Exactly. And why? Because she doesn't know that God forgives.

He: You tell them every week, exhort them not to do it again, and either they damn well go out and do it again every week, or they --

She: --They grasp onto it and make a career of never making another mistake. [Together, silent contemplation]

He: So, which sister was it?

She: You're hopeless!

He: Sister Margaret Joseph?

She: Shut up and have another drink.

He: I'm right, aren't I?

She: No, you're not, and quit asking. I'm not going to gratify your prurient curiosity.

He: You gave her a penance, I hope?

She: Not enough of one, apparently. She's still clinging to her sense of having done wrong.

He: It's tricky isn't it? You want them to feel just the right amount of penance, but not so much that they feel put upon.

She: Now there, I disagree. I think they need to feel a bit of resentment against the punishment, a little defensive. I think you want them saying, 'Ok it was wrong, but not THAT wrong…'

He: No, not me. I don't want them thinking, 'God's a mean bastard, God wants me to hurt.'

She: Their own damn fault if they confuse us with God.

He: All too often they do.

She: I mean adults. The children can't be expected to know the difference. Us, their parents, the bus driver…

He: The neighbor's dachshund…

She: It's unavoidable. Their little heads are so ready to see God, so in need of guidance.

He: What little kids have you been teaching?

She: Oh they're brats, all right. But they're malleable. It's not fixed. The danger's if WE think we're God.

He: Yet here we are, day to day, making decisions for God. How shall this sinner be punished?

She: And that's why God gave us spirits.

He: Souls?

She: [raising the nearly empty scotch bottle] No, spirits.

He: Bless you, Mary, I think I've had it for the night.

She: [Walks him to the door. With a wink:] Well, come up and see me between the holidays, won't you? [opens the door]

He: [Softly, shaking her hand with his two] That I will. That I will.

She: [raises her voice] And watch you don't catch anything from the Dominatrix!

[Lights down and End of Act]
(This work was created under the auspices of Hitching Post Theater, Boulder, Colorado.)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

First Lessons in Gardening—#2 The Harvest

On my cell phone there's a photo of a dark, shiny, perfect zucchini resting on a board next to a very, very small carrot. This photo cheers me. I sent it to my gf, entitled "World's smallest carrot," but with pride.

Somebody, presumably a squirrel, nibbled the very first, smallest sprouts of rainbow chard and beets, so those never prospered. But carrot greens did not appeal.

The carrots never did get more than 4 inches long, but by early September they were crisp, tender, delicious! The zucchini were marvelous. Peering amongst the enormous furred green leaves, I picked about one zuch a week, sometimes two, from the four plants that grew. And they would have kept on coming. There were lovely orange flowers promising a future right up until the frost.

Oh, but the corn. The lovely, impressive, glossy, rustling, tasseled corn. It was a crop, not a garden vegetable! I adored the corn. It stood like a forest. It waved and glistened in the sun. I watered it religiously. I calculated the cost of the water versus the value of the four short rows of that ancient gold. I smiled at the haze of bees circling in the heat above the corn. I palpated the plumping ears and tried so hard to guess what was going on beneath the green husks. One day at the end of July, I twisted an ear off the stalk and pulled it open. Small, tender kernels, but only a smattering of them. Another 2 weeks, I estimated.

Then, the moment of truth. In August I picked another ear and unzipped it. The kernels were filled in and firm all the way to the top. Excitedly, I carried the ear up the backstairs to the kitchen, boiled up some water and dropped in the ear. Five minutes later, the butter dripping, I bit into my precious food. Gummy, chewy, and flavorless! Say it ain't so… But it was. A total loss. Cow corn and no cows. Friends offered condolences: it's hard to grow corn around here. They offered analysis: maybe not enough water, maybe not a good variety for a dry climate.

The pale stalks stand ragged, desolate, above a dusting of snow. I plan for spring.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

First Lessons in Gardening -- #1 "To garden"

When you decide to garden—funny verb—you commit to a course of discrimination. Gardening is the logical action following on the not-entirely rational decision that some plants must stay and some plants will not be tolerated. And you will become, if not the god who decides what lives, at least that god’s enforcer in Eden.

Many women would not feel burdened by this responsibility. They accepted it long ago, when they took charge of the kitchen and had to eradicate the invading ants and roaches—or the minuscule crumbs and germs that accumulated into seams of black crud if neglected.

But I had to feel my way toward that responsibility in the garden, in much the same way that my sister had to do so in the kitchen. She argued with our mother for years, maybe decades, about the relative importance of keeping the crud at bay, and about what Terrible Things would happen if she did not.

Much of what we know we must do in the world comes from first-hand experience of those Terrible Things.

Similarly, I have had to try some theories of my own in the garden to learn and trust the most basic tenets of the garden: You have to decide who’s in and who’s out. And you have to enforce.

My teacher chides me: “You can’t just weed once.” Weed. The essential verb. The verb that describes the very act of discrimination. The verb which, if put into action regularly, defines the verb “to garden.” All the mulching, fertilizing, and watering in the world will not make a garden if you do not weed. I have seen this for myself. I have removed the boards that bordered my garden and watched, stunned as the grass and weeds from the grassy area marched into my choice, composted, amended, turned and raked soil and took up residence among my peaceful rows of carrots, beets, peas and chard. Worse, among my strawberries, from where it is very hard to pull them without destroying the berry plants. The borders are not just someone’s idea of drawing a line. They function. If I can get ahead of the weeds for just one minute, I will put them back.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

To each her stone

I think of the Egyptians whenever someone says that "nuclear has to be part of the mix" of energy sources we use. Not the Egyptians who are currently going to college or walking the crowded streets of Cairo, but the ancient Egyptians in their generations going back 5,000 years or so.

This is about the oldest continuous civilization any of us knows about. And I think, if they had dumped a bunch of nuclear waste in a deep grave around the time that Thebes was founded, and had posted (carved) big red signs around its entrances (saying, in the argot of the day, "Cursed! Keep away!"), at some point in the 5000 years since, people would have forgotten about the dump, and forgotten how to read the signs. And there would have been a period of decades until archaeologists found the Rosetta Stone during which people fumbled around trying to translate the signs, losing their hair to age and radiation poisoning both. The radioactive waste continues to be dangerous to humans, according to one estimate, for from 10,000 to 1 million years. It's a weird, wide-ranging estimate, partly because how dangerous the waste is depends on what it is, and how much of it there is.

Still, I conclude, don't use nuclear. The chances that people 10,000 years from now are going to be able to read our signs are very slim.

For one thing, we print our warning signs on steel, which rusts. You can see signs 30 years old that are rusting out and starting to hint at their future illegibility. If we really wanted people far into the future to be able to read our thoughts and warnings, and know how smart we really were, we should be carving those thoughts in stone. Or at least writing them on vitrified pottery. Acid-free papyrus, at the very least. Those are the writing materials that have stood the test of time.

What if the Greeks and Egyptians hadn’t chiseled their finest thoughts and observations in stone? Hadn’t worshipped in stone? Hadn’t commemorated each other’s victories and defeats in stone, carving penises in marble when times were fat and lopping them off the statues of enemies on occasions of victory? What would we know of Plato or Homer, Caesar or Ptah if our predecessors hadn't taken the time to chisel down the important facts? How many people would know Thing One about their own family histories if some old relative with a stoop and coat with elbows worn thin hadn't stood around in cemeteries and copied down names and dates from the stones there?

But our use of chisel on stone has become more and more rare. Where in the last century or two, businesses proudly declared the Plumm Building theirs, or at least designated the little brick construction on the corner "Bank," the pace of business is now so rapid that only the biggest of the big carve Hancock or Trump into the stone. On the far end of the scale, we mostly don't even write on cheap paper any more. We write in letters that come and go with the electric current, the currency of your software, or sometimes, on a whim.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The school at dawn

The night before the triathlon is almost festive. Like the night before Christmas, you go to bed early and put yourself to sleep thinking magic thoughts. I mulled the question, “What if the run is really hot again? How can I think my way through it?” The night was full of anticipation.

I dreamed about the children I helped raise, how I left them, how it wasn’t up to me. I woke up miserable. I thought, “I will tell myself, Feel how hot it is. Feel how my muscles work so well, so fast when it’s hot. Feel how my joints are loosest when it’s hot. I’m fast when it’s hot. I’m a well-oiled machine running hot.”

Amy woke beside me, restless because the hotel was noisy. I mumbled what our coaches had told us. “It doesn’t matter if we sleep badly tonight. Last night was what mattered, and we had a good night’s sleep.” She turned on the light to read for a while.

I dreamed I was outdoors before dawn barefoot, in a cotton negligee. I was on my way home, but there, suddenly, was a school of black and brown teenagers on the hillside as the first light was breaking, singing and clapping and chanting affirmations. I am somebody! I slipped between their rows.

I thought, It’s good for them to do affirmations. They probably benefit, but wouldn’t they benefit more from sleeping another hour and a half? I thought, I have to start swimming right away. None of this waiting for everyone else to get out of the way. I have to start swimming with the crowd.

I woke earlier than necessary, listened to the hotel noises, felt the hotel sheets, thought, “I’ll say, Feel how hot it is! Feel how my muscles move so fast when it’s hot.”

It was 4 am. In the room next door, the people who had been up until 11, who had fiddled with the connecting door before going to bed, got a wake-up call. As one mind, Amy and I said, “Not fair! Our revenge was going to be to wake them up at 4:30!”

I felt the sheets. I reminded myself, “I have to limit my rests in the swim and in the run. I have to be disciplined. Only five short walk periods in the run. Maybe ten breaths. In the swim, turn over and kick, only the minimum, maybe ten breaths. Then back into the freestyle stroke.”

The phone rang. Our wake-up call. We made our preparations and were out of the hotel with our transition bags, a cup of hot coffee, and our bikes by 5:15. At the reservoir parking lot, people with blinking flashlights, women smiling at each other, getting their bikes off the back of their cars, riding down to the reservoir. First light was breaking.

We split up in the transition area, racked our bikes, got our things arranged on our towels. Found familiar faces, found the porta-potties. Snacked and drank. I stripped down, finally, in the cool dawn light, and walked down the hill to the swim start, barefoot and blind, to join the crowd, my orange swim cap in one hand, happily not clashing with my blue bathing suit, my disposable bottle of water in the other.

The familiar voice started in my head: I am NOT going to put this cap on, these goggles on, and get in THAT water and swim OUT THERE. (Where are the course markers?) The crowd chatted and assessed the water, the course, the weather, their goggles. I shared my bottled water with a woman who wore an orange cap. I swung my arms, jumped up and down, stretched my lower back. And the voice in my head kept on saying, I am NOT. I put on my orange cap and my goggles, moved forward with the other orange caps, watched the green caps before us splash away. I am NOT. You’ve gotta be kidding!

Officiating there on the dock was our jovial coach Dave yelling, “Get in the water, get wet all the way, ladies!” I squatted down in the gray water, gave a thought to all the women who were no doubt peeing in the water around me. I put my face in and blew out. Cold! I sputtered. Repeat. Still so cold. Again. Damn, no good. Again. Okay, better. Again. Better. . .

“. . .Three! Two! One!” Then with an awkward leap, the orange-capped crowd became a school, splashing silver like smelt, slipping evolutionary bounds, slipping through the water. I thought, “None of that waiting for everyone else to get out of the way. I have to start swimming with the school.” And so I did.


Hugging her I remembered the apple orchards of my childhood. It was she who made the fat, round apples hang on the blurry trees with her broad, flat brush and a springy knife that laid the soft, glistening colors on and scratched into them.

The smell of turpentine was more familiar to me than apples, as familiar to me as the smell of my brother's head or the sound of blue jays bragging in the tall tulip trees.

She owned the sunniest places in the house. She hummed while she worked with her untouchable bottles and tubes. Turpentine greeting me at the door meant she was floating in happy distraction.

I was invited to lie on the floor with my own colors—colors that had their own delicious smell. Curious, each had the same smell, although the colors were different. I could make a house and a path, cut the path into the paper, and have a little person pay a visit, walking right through the apple orchard and knocking at the front door. Or I could draw a mountain with a train climbing it, cut a track into the paper, CH-ch-ch-ch, CH-ch-ch-ch.

Now, her shoulders are frail as I hug her, and no matter what I do, the apples, the orchard, the train remain outside of me, flat objects, but then, surrounded by light and oils and her humming, I could hear the knock on the door, feel the pull of the train, taste the apples.


Cymbopogan, maybe:
A flattened bell shape, an ancient Greek bell, probably to chime or gong or call the vestal virgins to the hearth, the Oracle to speak, the worshippers to witness mysteries. A cymbal crashing into its twin, or the shape of the sound, thrilling, drawing in.

But no. Cymbopogan:
Camel grass, citronella grass, lemon grass, the sweet aromatic breath of the bitter ship of the desert, the insect repellant sweat of the dromedary in a desert full of fleas, the fragrant feed at the end of the searing sand, the surprise rising on air at the end of the surprising spit on your shirt. The shifty slave's bite, scented grace.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Now I see how she felt for others
with generous heart and gentle tongue
Sun rises and noons through pine and apple leaves
had dappled her hands,
thinned her once-pert lips, public and private,
dried the honey dew off her blushing cheeks,
sucked the smooth and plump from everywhere,
leaving the delicate, fragile as tundra.
So who was she to aim a darted tongue,
turn up a nose? No one
No one might ever see her again
that acute arbiter, that accomplished hostess,
for the lover she was
that temptress in what way was she still a wife?
In what life did she last sink deeply into
being deeply sunken into?