Archive for January, 2007

Kiss and Fly

Friday, January 26th, 2007

kissandfly

Mood: Weary
Drinking: Empty

On the way to the airport
we speak of miscellany
and etcetera
in fits and starts.

I tell him Brandy
killed a man. We
both shrug. She’s not
a real girl anyway.

There is such a silence
before sunup
even on the freeway.
Cars creep along carefully

flashing caution-colored
yellows before crossing
the line. Caffeine has not yet
been consumed

in appropriate quantities.
So this might just
all be a dream anyway,
thick and non-linear.

When I pull away from
the curb, his kiss
has barely left a mark.
I practice all

the usual hoodoo,
visualizing the crash,
the flames and lost limbs.
(It is the only way

to keep him safe.)
Imagining the worst
prevents it from coming true.
Keeps me from

waking up. When
I finally get home
I have no recollection
of how I got there.

-Lo, who is old enough to believe in jinxes.

French Vanilla hearts Rocky Road

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

Mood: Thoughtful
Drinking: Diet 7Up

One of my oldest friends wants to know what’s so bad about Vanilla. (She’s referring to my post from a couple of weeks back about the visiting Suck.)

And I don’t have a good answer for her. Because she’s right. Vanilla’s not really so bad. And although she didn’t say it in so many words, I know I should just be damn thankful for my Vanilla. Grateful for my life and for all the mundane simple things that make it so often amazing.

M from Alabama called that post my “pity party”, and I got my feathers all ruffled about that description for a couple of minutes.
But he’s right, too.

And although we’re all entitled to throw ourselves piteous parties every now and again, although we all sometimes wish to be someone else, someone brighter and more beautiful, a bit of perspective is necessary.

It’s like the celebrities who complain about the hardships of being famous, while all the world below them looks up in awe and green envy. Nobody’s ever just happy with what they have when they have it.

If my friend Sterling Girl doesn’t mind, I’d like to borrow a bit of her email to me. I think it’s very well said:

I never knew she had a name, the Suck. She is an old friend of mine. I guess she was overdue for a visit.

You are my alter ego. You are the complete opposite of me and yet we are the same. You are lucky. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have a life like yours. Grow up in a wonderful, loving family. Do good in school, have something you are just naturally talented with. Love someone who loves you back, just live life and be happy.

Me, I’m the one who had that kind of life (from what I can remember) until I was 11 years old. That’s when all the bad things started to happen. Family ripped apart, bonds weakend, bad relationships, single parenthood, ADHD, runaway, talking to cops about my own kids, watching friends fuck up their lives with the shit they do, wondering if I will ever stop loving that one man, wondering why this friend of mine could ever think that Vanilla is so bad.

Sometimes I wish I could write like you do, let the words just flow from my fingertips. I have done my fair share of trying. I have so much pain inside that could easily fill a thousand books.

But I hate to talk about how fucked up my life is because to me that is normal. It is who I am. I am not ashamed and I am not proud.

You may be Vanilla and I may be Rocky Road, but you have always been my friend no matter what. …So if you ever feel Vanilla again just remember this: You are not just humdrum plain ole Vanilla, you are premium French Vanilla, the really expensive shit, with a few wildberries thrown on top along with a few redhots for extra spice.

She’s right. She’s completely right. Vanilla’s really pretty great. (Especially if I get to be French Vanilla ~ ooh la la!) And Rocky Road’s not so bad either. And when you mix ’em together — amazingly delicious.

So thank you, Sterling Girl, for reminding me to just be who I am and stop bitching about all the things that make me that way. And thank you for being my friend, lo these many years (since 5th grade!) Keep on rockin’ your Rocky Road…



-Lo, who’s really hungry for an ice cream cone now.

Last Call

Wednesday, January 17th, 2007

lastcall
Mood: Pensive
Drinking: Water

Last Call

Years can be rough on voices
can wear them down
to the tiniest sounds.
His voice
like his frame
has shrunken with age
and the weight of regret
and has grown
so small now

even hearing aids
cannot help me
find it. Only the sound
of his breathing
survives the long miles

struggling across the frozen shards
of empty Illinois cornfields,
catching on the ragged claws

of the Rockies, blowing through
the dusty Californian cities
until it finally reaches me

on the other end of the telephone.
I don’t know where to begin
so I speak of insignificant things
like forecasts and geography.
I am soft and careful, listening

for the rasp and rattle that tells me

he’s still connected. But the
Tootsie Rolls are my undoing.
I mention them to remind him
of sunny days when I was small
and his voice was as big as a canyon.
I remind myself, instead

of his endless parade of feathered fedoras

and secret cigarettes out behind the
horse barn, the one he himself
hammered with bent brown hands,
of the certainty of years’
worth of twisted candy wrappers,
the chewy chocolate sweetness
melting slowly inside sandwich baggies
stuffed into grandfatherly wool pockets,
always proffered with a whistle and

a Polident smile. I am so much taller

than he ever was, now. And
it’s my voice
that echoes back across state lines,
traveling along snowbound freeways
and forgotten shortcuts,
spilling across his bed sheets and
pooling gently around his ears. “You can

go, if you need to. You can go now,”
I whisper and the silence slips in

and he’s gone.

-Lo, in remembrance of Grandpa.

In Honor of Henry

Monday, January 15th, 2007

Mood: Mixed Up
Drinking: Hot Chai

My Grandpa is dying.

His body has grown tired and gray, but I never remember him that way. I always picture him spry and whistling, pulling into our gravel driveway in his navy blue Oldsmobile, a red feather perched in his jaunty fedora.

Every day of my childhood, Grandpa was there. He always came bearing a ready joke and a baggie of Tootsie Rolls. (Even now I can’t untwist the wrappers without remember his endless sticky candy offerings.)

I know the years have passed us by, but it’s still so hard to imagine that the Grandpa Hank who built my sister and I a horse stable out of scraps of old lumber, clambering around with hammer in hand, nimble as you please, hiding a cigarette behind his back whenever us kids appeared (as if we couldn’t see the smoke winding up, wreathing him from behind)… it’s hard to equate the Grandpa of my childhood, joking and jovial, with the Grandpa of my adulthood, feeble behind his walker. And now lying so quietly in a hospital bed.

So today, in honor of Henry Witmer, I’m sharing a story my sister wrote about him last year. (She has a way with words, too.)

A True Glimpse of Grandpa
by Johanna Witmer Baldwin

Everyone wants a second chance, a chance to be redeemed, to start over. I just never thought Grandpa was one of those people. To me, Grandpa was my hero, invincible and un-aging, without fault. Or so I thought, back then when my world was so small and perfect.

More than President Reagan, Johnny Cash, or even Daisy Duke, I wanted to be like Grandpa when I was little.

After retiring from the steel mill, Grandpa began driving the 10 miles to our house every morning at about 6:30. By the time I crawled out of bed, Grandpa had already finished his cup of coffee, hammered out a few carpentry projects, and probably taken a break with his morning smoke.

Except I wasn’t supposed to know about that smoke. He diligently tried to hide it, even around Mom, who told him that she had known about the smoking for years. She even offered to buy him an ashtray.

Even so, he continued to slink behind the garage, barn or the garden to light up. I can’t remember how many times I walked up on him smoking and nearly gave him a heart attack. After regaining his composure, Grandpa would cough out the smoke from his last drag and pop a Vick’s drop into his mouth to drown his ashy breath. Then he would stand with the cigarette behind his back, in a futile attempt to look innocent while the cigarette smoke slowly curled around his ears grew into a hazy wreath behind his back.

“Oh, hey there! Did ya just now get out of bed?!?”

I played along, but spent more than one afternoon combing the gravel for his cigarette butt, so I could pretend to be a rebel smoker like Grandpa.

So why was Grandpa the secret smoker such a perfect icon in my childhood mind? Because only a few of my memories are of Grandpa pretending he never inhaled; the rest remind me of the selfless way he showed his love for us.

No one ever asked him to show up and work at our little farm, but there he was every morning, whistling a raspy tune while he invented an economical way to convert a shed into a 4-stall horse barn for my sister and me.

In addition to his carpentry skills, Grandpa was the only adult to recognize that I honestly COULD handle an entire Big Mac (minus the middle bun) and strawberry shake at McDonalds instead of a mere child’s Happy Meal.

More than that, he always knew the perfect time to offer me a Tootsie Roll to brighten my mood. Like on the days he drove me to school when my fake stomachaches had not convinced anyone that I was dying and needed constant bed rest.

Amazingly, the Tootsie Roll always healed me instantly. At every school program, Grandpa wandered in half an hour early, in order to get the best seat in the house.

In almost every corner of my childhood memories, I find Grandpa in his feathered fedora, flashing his false teeth to gross me out or standing proudly somewhere nearby.

Last summer, I flew back to my hometown to see Grandpa, whose heart was failing. Maybe all those years of hidden smoking had finally caught up with him. He had been in and out of the hospital every few months, and Dad said Grandpa “might appreciate” seeing me. In other words, Grandpa was dying.

The first night back in Illinois, my Dad sighed as he talked about my Grandpa’s health problems, “He spends all his time complaining about this ache and that pain, how he’s getting too old and might as well die. And he wonders why I don’t always want to come visit him. He forgets that he missed most of my childhood. I mean, for crying out loud! He was a horrible father! He’s never admitted all the affairs he had, or how he disowned me for years after he divorced Grandma. He said terrible things to me back then, things I don’t even want to repeat.”

He rubbed his brow in frustration, as if to erase the painful memories, “But he seems to have forgotten all of that now.”

I was still thinking of this new side of Grandpa the next day when I saw him. He appeared to have shrunk over the past six months and was so frail as he shuffled into the house with his walker, a mere shadow of his former self. But he didn’t seem like the playboy who once had abandoned his family, either.

What was Grandpa really like, and why hadn’t I seen the other side of him all the years when I scampered around in his shadow?

As I was deep in thought, Grandpa’s ashen face lit up and he interrupted my reverie, “I always think about how you used to run around, following me everywhere when you were just a tiny tyke…” A smile tiptoed across his weathered face, then cautiously crossed to mine.

At that moment, the foggy doubt about Grandpa lifted. Grandpa did remember all the hurtful years he lived as a father, and he had spent the next few decades trying to make it up to the following generation of family. I was Grandpa’s redemption. I was his second chance at fatherhood.

Sometimes I just want to go back to the way things were before, when I was little, swaying in the swing he built for me and listening to his stories of surviving through the Depression. Before I knew. Before I could read between the lines of our family history.

But maybe it’s better this way. Because now I know that all Grandpa wanted was redemption. One chance to make things right.

-Lo, who could use a Tootsie Roll or two right now.

the Ego and the Suck

Thursday, January 11th, 2007

Mood: Ready to go
Drinking: Agua

Yesterday I was compiling a submission for a poetry journal when the Suck hit me straight between the eyes.

And now you’re saying, “What the hell is she going on about?”, so let me explain:
Every honest artist will tell you that, coexisting in their brain, side by side, are the Ego and the Suck.

The Ego (self-confidence, talent, pride, whatever) is that magical cold drive that sends you out into the world to staple your posters to light poles on urban corners and slam your poetry behind a microphone on a poorly lit stage. The Ego produces cinepoems and chapbooks, gallery shows and book tours. The Ego believes you are good enough, smart enough, and goddammit, people like you!

But her twin sister is the Suck (self-doubt, fear, etcetera) and even though she’s the ugly one, she’s just as charismatic. The Suck tells you that you’re not a bad writer, you’re worse: you’re mediocre. The Suck sends you cowering into couch potatoland, groveling in the audience at poetry readings, picking your fingernails to bits because you know, you just know, that nameless, faceless people out there somewhere will pick up your book and think that it’s trash. Or worse, vanilla.

The Suck tells you that all your teachers and mentors and friends and neighbors are lying. That none of them have the balls to tell you the truth: Your writing will never be good enough.

The Suck and I have done the dance before, many times. Ego usually arrives in time to pry us apart and impart a little reason. Then she gets to cut in for awhile. And round and round we go.

So yesterday, I opened the door, invited the Suck in to stay awhile. We had some tea. Talked about how sad it is that I will never be published or infamous or toasted about town. (The Suck cares very deeply about all manner of meaningless accolades, contests, and attendant shiny prizes.)

I thought if I just humored her for awhile, the Suck would get bored and run off to torment some other artist, down the street. But she’s added some new tricks to her repertoire, and so I made up the guest room and she’s going to stay for awhile this time.

She reminded me that I’m a white girl. From a good family. No childhood trauma. No secret incest. No parental abuse. No drug habits. No relationship drama. Hell, my parents aren’t even divorced.

I grew up on a farm, rode my horse at the 4-H fair, colored eggs with my Mom at Easter, decorated the tree with my Dad each December. My sister and I had bicycles and puppies and acres of land to explore, barefoot and screaming. I had braids and books and As on my report cards. I earned diplomas from high schools and institutions of higher learning. I won scholarships (banal and prestigious). I had my share of dating dilemmas, but none of my boyfriends were mean. Even the ones who cheated did it decently, if there is such a thing.

I married a man who is not only my friend but seven years later, he still thinks I’m cool. And pretty. And fun to hang out with. I’m surrounded with friends who adore me. And family who lets me be who I am. I live in a yellow house with red flowers out front. I walk my dog on a blue beach near the twinkling, frothy toes of the Pacific. I have my hands in so many creative pots right now, I can’t even find my fingers.

I am lucky.

And so these other poets, the ones from the barrio, the ones from the wrong side, the ones with the shit and the stink and the stories, they get lots of attention. They get book deals and accolades. And they deserve it. They have talent. They have style. They have so many terrifying tales to tell.

And me? Don’t look at me. It’s my friends. My friends who are gay or brown or both. My friends who have the needles and the glittering addictions. It’s my friends whose fathers kicked them down the stairs. My friends who were molested by strange men in the bathrooms of suburban shopping malls. My friends whose mothers fed them acid at age 3. Me? I’m vanilla. I’m well-adjusted. I’m doing just fine. So I write about them. It’s either that, or the 4-H Fair.

So am I jealous? Yes, of course. The Suck is here! So I am loved and blessed and busy and happy and lucky. And I’m jealous of the shit and the stink and the scars and all the stories they tell. The beautiful, painful stories.

But don’t worry. I’ve called the Suck a taxi. She should be leaving any time now…

-Lo, who believes that tall girls want to be short and short girls want to be tall.