And Just Like That

The rhythm from the tracks kicks up an afternoon din, the limping rattle-thump putter of an old propeller, and I’m out the door and up the road and into the open, trying to catch a glimpse of the three-car train over the trestle, the pong-pong-pong of crossing warnings, a swirl of racket like seagulls over a patch of churning ocean, startled-split by the burst of a whistle like a blowhole breaking the surface, one deep breath giving way to the slap and slink of a tail disappearing into a twist of eddy, and just like that the great thing is gone again.

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To All-Beef Patties I’ve Special Sauced Before

 

I don’t think I’m a particularly picky eater. I can only think of one category of food I full-on can’t deal with: olives. If I were at a dinner party and the host served a dish fully infested with olives, the battle between my taste buds and my social self-consciousness would be epic. Just thinking about it makes me sweat. And spit.

 

But what else? I’m not a fan of salmon, smoked or seared or raw, but I don’t think I’d struggle to eat it at knifepoint. I tend to remove the tomato slice from my hamburgers, but I’m learning to tolerate—even enjoy?—little bites of it here and there, more and more, on nachos and bruschetta. I’ve enjoyed a few raw oysters over the last year or so. Chewed ‘em and everything. Saltines and horseradish are my gateway drugs.

 

I don’t mind the other end of the culinary culture spectrum, either; I can find sustenance in a pinch: ballpark hot dogs. Pretzel hot dogs. Deep-fried hot dogs.

 

So if my culinary adventurousness is not to be overly praised, per se, neither is it to be dismissed.

 

And yet I’ve never had a Big Mac.

 

Way back when I was a Happy Meal tot, I couldn’t do McDonald’s cheeseburgers. I had a thing about American cheese (which I’ve since overcome) (not that there’s much merit in that). The gentle, unobtrusive creaminess of processed cheese freaks me out. See also: avocados. But in adulthood I’ve learned to love both Haas and plastic-wrapped Kraft horror—albeit both need to be paired with something assertively salty and firm to keep them in check. Otherwise, it’s like they’re up to something. I’m still worried those creamy little bastards are angling for some creepy, subversive flavor-groping.

 

And Big Macs, when I was a child, were like cheeseburgers for grownups. (I had to google them just now to make sure the cheese was automatically included—and no don’t sing the damn song at me I don’t care.) The sheer volume of the sandwich, yes, but also the “special sauce.” Oh, that Special Sauce. A mystery goo whose only identifiable ingredient is relish, a substance that brings dubious tang and horrifying texture to an otherwise creamy condiment? No thank you. No thank you very much.

 

Hang on, did I compare avocados to pedophile grooming up there? Huh. I…I might have, yes.

 

Anyway. All this to say, none of my childhood aversions are really factors anymore. I can get behind American cheese. Relish is fine in tartar sauce and Thousand Island dressing—the latter being, essentially, Ur-Special Sauce. I no longer have reason to fear Big Macs. (The scariest thing now is that, according to Wikipedia, Special Sauce is made with “store-bought” mayo, which seems sketch as fuck.) I’m even starting to find them, as a concept, vaguely appealing.

 

I still haven’t tried one, but where once I’d ruled it out altogether, now that First Big Mac experience feels imminent. And my culinary universe will be that much wider.

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I Remember It Being Hot

 

I remember it being hot, I think. Even at 9 a.m. or whenever it was, in the morning. The sand was hot, the topmost layer, at least, and the water felt cold, at least at first. And still we’d storm into the waves and thrash and make ourselves breathless, and our throats hoarse and our mouths and lips salty with sea, some of which we’d swallowed in exuberance, accidentally.

 

After we’d spent however long forever in the sun, maybe Mom—or would it have been Dad?—would march down to the shore to tell us that breakfast was ready. And we’d wrap ourselves in sandy towels and trudge—joyfully—back up endless unsteady quartz powder and through sea-oat tunnels finally to the shade.

 

Australian pines (an invasive species, they’d want you to know now) make windy whistling whispers up high and drop marble-size cones that hurt like the dickens to step on, so we three kids danced toward the picnic tables or sometimes remembered to put on our flip-flops, and we sat with wet bums on wood benches, hungry.

 

The prep work would have begun hours earlier, before we’d even gotten out of bed, the baking and packing, cracking eggs into mason jars to be scrambled, stored and transported, and then cooked on an old pan over a gas camp stove alongside bacon, Pillsbury cinnamon rolls kept warm under tinfoil. Morning-squeezed orange juice from the trees in our back yard, Valencia and navel, and an Army-green thermos of fragrant black coffee for the grownups.

 

That the beach had, for a time, taken precedence over our tiny mouths’ pre-breakfast begging says something about the beach. About that beach in particular, and perhaps about our ages then, pre-adolescents and urgent, first and foremost, to splash.

 

When you’ve spent a small hour gasping and giggling in the Gulf and swallowing brine, scrambled eggs feel in your mouth an easy creaminess, and cinnamon rolls hearty and replenishing, and fresh juice is vibrant and tart in a way you can only crave most when you are tired and salty, morning sunburned, and in need of sweet, cold moisture.

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Do All The Things

Pardon me while I talk about zombies again.

I’ve had several variations on the same conversation recently–re: diversity and inclusion in fiction–and I feel like the next step in working through my thoughts is to put them to writing. (If you’re among the people with whom I’ve had this conversation–and to be fair, if you’re reading this, you probably are–well…here we go again.)

The catalyst for these recent conversations was this tweet by The New Yorker‘s TV critic, Emily Nussbaum:

“One thing that barely even comes up in KILLING EVE is that four major characters are Asian & aside from their nationality, this isn’t an explicit factor in the show. It’s the best kind of baked-in inclusivity.”

 

Now, I haven’t seen Killing Eve and I could be taking this concept in a slightly different direction than she intended (the woman has a Pulitzer, after all, and I’m over here all trying to earn my Junior Critic’s Art Awareness badge), but “baked-in inclusivity” seems to be a great way of expressing a thing I’ve been trying to articulate for a while: namely, as she put it, including underrepresented characters without making diversity an “explicit factor.”

This is a thing that I tried to express while chatting with Thing 1 and Thing 2 about Zombies, Run! on their podcast. (There are other examples of this, of course, but this one has become my go-to.) When I first got into that story of post-apocalyptic England (back in early 2013, mind), one of the things that struck me was not that a main character is gay, but that we jump right into a rather heart-wrenching story about her and her lover without ever even doffing a cap to the “revelation” of a non-heterosexual character. Here’s Maxine, an American doctor and vital member of the team. Ten episodes later, here’s a recording of Maxine’s girlfriend’s (possible) final moments. This is going to sting a bit. Zombies detected, moving on.

Obviously, there’s long been a push for more diversity in storytelling, and I’m all for that. But what I realized with the Maxine experience (and then going back and taking note of what a range of genders, ethnicities and other human experiences are represented in ZR–something I hadn’t been conscious of at first because, again, they don’t stop to point it out) was that I’m accustomed to a level of self-consciousness accompanying diverse storytelling. As I said on the podcast, a non-heterosexual (or non-male, or non-white, etc.) character usually comes with some kind of doff of the cap, or self-congratulatory pat on the back, or some other nudge-nudge, wink-wink acknowledgement of this “other” quality, all, “see what we did there?”

Or, as Nussbaum pinpointed much better than I could, an Asian (or gay, etc.) character’s inclusion is often made “explicit to the story.”

The result of that explicitness is that diverse storytelling tends to feel like a PSA, like an after-school special about diversity…

…which make diverse stories feel less like nuanced artwork and more like tedious homework through which the audience is educated about the experiences  of these “other” people…

…which is to assume the audience requires this kind of explanation in order to accept the presence of these characters…

…which is to assume the story is speaking to an explicitly straight/white/cis/male audience…

…which is to assume that that straight/white/cis/male is the baseline for human existence.

When an explanation is used to justify the presence of non-white, non-straight, nonbinary characters, even diverse stories are still, to use a jingo-y verb, “othering” them.

That kind of self-consciousness bleeds through to the audience experience, I think. You can feel it. The implicit assumption is that straight/white/cis/male is the standard baseline, the “correct” or “normal” experience that’s reflected between audience and art. If you happen to be a person who deviates from that baseline, it’s great to see a character you can identify with, but you can still sense the character’s other-ness, and you still feel excluded. (I’m thinking back to the token tomboys in kids’ sports movies whose self-conscious backstory only underscored that I was an oddity. Of course the boys play sports; we need to explain why the girl is here.)

Yours are qualities that need explaining, that need justification. The “normal” characters just get to exist.

Thankfully, I think this kind of self-conscious inclusion is on the decline, and probably has been for a long while, especially in the better corners of the storytelling world. (In fact, let’s just acknowledge right now that the stuff that feels profound to me is very basic and old-hat to all of the folks who are smarter than I am. Plenty of people have had this shit figured out for a while now.)

That being said, my own slow epiphany tells me how vital it is to have these diverse stories charging forward without slowing down to explain themselves, to have this baked-in inclusivity. To have an apocalyptic landscape where female soldiers lead the way while sensitive young men tell you about their feelings, with a stable of athletes of all genders and ages and backgrounds (as well as a one-legged, bisexual Canadian dude), with romantic storylines for gay doctors and straight runners and trans scientists and a family with two moms and one dad, to have nonbinary heroes and pansexual foils, where the whole point of everything is really just to stick together and avoid being eaten by zombies.

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Inevitable Vacation

Soon-to-be-tidied “workspace.”

I’ve done it. I’ve finished the last assignment that had been churning in my anxieties. (“This is really good!” the surprise response from the editor.) I finished the sidebar, too, that had been pushed to the back burner by the main story and had, in its own way, been a source of intense anxiety all on its own. I submitted the invoice.

I submitted my tax return, too–also a stressor since well before the new year, and also, ultimately, with no reason for prolonged, anguished procrastination. (Huzzah, a refund! And a refund to rival a 300-word writeup or any other lone afternoon’s work.)

Ninety-nine percent of the time, a to-do list regenerates even as existing items are crossed off–new growth at the bottom creeps up as the top bits are pruned. But as of this moment, all of the things have been crossed off my list. Worrisome stasis. So now we wait.

We wait for freelance fees–and quite a few of them–to show up in the mail. We wait for new assignments, too.

Not that I don’t have plans for being proactive, and ones I look forward to. Tomorrow’s task will be to sort and stow the tax detritus that’s loomed on my table for four-plus months. Tuesday I have gift cards, and I plan to use them. Wednesday, a well-rested run. Thursday…I don’t know. Reading. Long walks. Playoff hockey. A trip to Target. Hopefully more self-driven writing projects. Hopefully for fun.

I’ve got to look for more work, too; obviously I do. But a day or two without a looming deadline is an opportunity, I think. An opportunity not to think.

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The Squirrel

 

 

T’was springtime (though in truth, quite hot),

I’d picked my book, I’d found my spot,

A cocktail and a comfy chair,

A plan for happy hours there.

 

Instead I fear I’ll ne’er forget

What happened next (I haven’t yet).

 

Settled under dappled sun,

I’d opened book and just begun

To read about some English rabbits

Who’d left their home and changed their habits

In search of far-off warrens that

Would keep them safe from owl, stoat, cat.

 

These creatures in their human text

Perhaps aroused what happened next:

 

For soon enough I came to sense

A presence on the nearby fence:

Grey and with a fuzzy tail

Was all I saw (I guessed him male):

A specimen Sciuridae.

He seemed a friendly little guy,

Who turned and bowed as if in greeting

And tempted me away from reading.

 

I felt o’erwhelming need to capture

This interspecies backyard rapture.

So poised my phone to take a pic,

And in that breath ere camera click,

My thoughts a thousand tales were spinning

Of this, our friendship, just beginning.

 

What exploits might befall a gal

And her new charming squirrel pal?

 

I dreamed perhaps we two might spend

Our afternoons as friend and friend.

He’d forage acorns as I read,

And when he felt himself full fed,

He’d laze away in nearby rays—

And that is how we’d spend our days:

And though there’d pass no words between us,

You’d know us friends had you but seen us.

 

Judge me harsh, I’m sure you do.

Hindsight hurts (and more things too).

That’s right, I thought I’d made a friend.

 

I’d learn my lesson, in the end.

 

For in that moment, eye to eye,

I failed to factor: squirrels fly.

And all my dreams aside were swept

When in that breath, the squirrel…he leapt.

 

Dear reader, hast thou aught experience

With airborne rodent interference?

Turns out my skills with sport and ball

Work not on squirrel. Not at all.

 

A twisty, turny grey torpedo

Launched at me as if I were tree, though

Nary leaves nor roots have I;

Instead of bark, my noble cry,

“SWEET HOLY JESUS WHAT IS HAPPENING!?”

Accompanied by flap and swing,

Did nothing to dissuade his flight.

Sailed past my limbs and did alight

Upon my shirt and clung securely.

 

I then responded, quite maturely,

With calm command, “Now down, Squirrel. Sit.”—

 

Just kidding, y’all: I lost my shit.

 

I tugged and flapped and spun and reeled,

I grunted, cursed, I cried and squealed.

(Neighbors who this whirlwind viewed

Might rightly guess I’d come unglued.)

 

The words I used can’t be repeated.

But in the end, my “friend” retreated.

 

And that, dear friends, is why I need

Four walls around me when I read.

He haunts me still, my psyche scarred,

I dare not set foot in the yard.

I tell this tale now safe inside.

If Squirrel comes back, please say I died.

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I Hope You Pants

pants

 

I hope your trousers suit you well as public speaker,

You’re never bullied into heals when you’ve got sneakers.

May you never take an ankle sock for granted.

God forbid you ever leave your hair unbanded.

I hope you still feel hot when rocking jeans and t-shirt.

Whenever someone mocks flip-flops, you’ll never be hurt.

Promise me that you’ll give hats a fighting chance.

And when you get the choice to skirt it up or pants…

I hope you pants.

[Maudlin strings, dance break, sweaty cool down, resume.]

I hope you never fear those workouts in the distance,

Always balance your aerobic with resistance.

All your heft will carry weight, but it’s worth bearing;

Playing sports will lead to bruises, they’re worth sharing.

I hope you still stand tall when surrounded by the shorter,

Whenever someone orders wine, you’ll have a porter.

Give your laurels more than just a passing glance,

And when you’re hearing lots of “no”s or “don’t”s or “can’t”s,

I hope you pants.

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