Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Trigger Warnings: Chelsey Clammer on Lacy Johnson's The Other Side

The back of the book is your warning:

Lacy Johnson was held prisoner in a soundproofed room in a basement apartment that her ex-boyfriend rented and outfitted for the sole purpose of raping and killing her. She escaped, but not unscathed. The Other Side is the haunting account of a first passionate and then abusive relationship, the events leading to Johnson’s kidnapping and imprisonment, her dramatic escape, and her hard-fought struggle to recover. At once thrilling, terrifying, harrowing, and hopeful, The Other Side…[provokes] both troubling and timely questions about gender roles and the epidemic of violence against women.

To: Lacy M. Johnson
From: Chelsey Clammer
May 20, 2014

Hi Lacy,

First, a bit about me: I have my MA in Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago, my BA in English and Feminist Studies from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas (a feminist studies degree from a cow town in Texas? Yes. It exists. Go Texas), and I am currently enrolled in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program. Aside from all of that, though, I am a feminist (though I am becoming less certain of that term) who has also been diagnosed with PTSD, an eating disorder and bipolar disorder, and I am also a fabulously recovering alcoholic.

I tell you all of this so you have a general idea of where I coming from. I just finished reading an advance copy of The Other Side (I writing a review of it…) and the whole time I was reading I was a) amazed by its unrelenting vulnerability and questioning, b) engaged with its complexities, c) struck by the magnitude of your damn fine prose, and d) suspended every 50 pages or so by the necessity to breathe deeply in order to give my body a little self-care respite upon reading this intense material.

While reading The Other Side, I also read a NY Times article that was posted a few days ago about how UC Santa Barbara and a few other colleges are considering making it a requirement for professors to put trigger warnings in their syllabi. Personally, I am against the idea. This has not always been my position on the matter. Right after a sexual assault I thought every piece of literature or film needed a trigger warning on it. Now, though, I believe that because it’s impossible to put a trigger warning on the entire world, efforts should be concentrated on how one can take care of oneself when reading triggering material. Unfortunately, there is always going to be violence in the world. It will continue to exist if we continue to avoid it.” In other words, violence is a fact, so how can we react to it and work with it in a sustainable way? I don’t think trigger warnings are the answer.

…I’d like to interview you…


You know the book is going to be triggering. You know the book is about rape and violence and will be emotionally hard to get through, You know this because you read the book’s description. Its synopsis is your warning. You probably shouldn’t read this. And yet. You heed these warnings, you open the book and encounter words and language and stories and realities that defy the idea that a warning can temper the truth. Your only preparation for reading this memoir is your willingness to enter it.

When [the man who will kidnap and rape me] is home, he wants to fuck: in the morning, at lunchtime, after school, before bed. I say no, or turn away, or if I find some reason to be out of the house all day, we’re up until three in the morning, him screaming at me the whole time, twisting my words until they tell a story I’ve never heard before, until I doubt myself, until I finally give in, and let him fuck me while I sob face-first into my pillow. Our polite Asian neighbors never complain, never look me in the eye. (97)

There are no warnings, no cushions that could soften the strength of Johnson’s candor.

Though maybe this would work:

Warning: blatancy.

[After the kidnapping and rape] all I want is someone to fuck me senseless, to pound me until I'm raw and shaking. I want to be held down, pushed aside, flipped over, and smacked. I want to be choked, chained, tied to the floor. I want to bruise, to bleed, to cry out please stop please don’t stop. I want him to leave after it’s done. And then I'll stand up, take a shower, turn on the television. (133)

But how can an author provide a warning for something she doesn’t even want to name?

[It’s easy to write] how he kidnapped and raped me, how he murdered my cat in our kitchen, how he threatened to abandon me in a foreign country….It’s easy to write that I'm afraid of him….It’s hard to admit that I loved him. (87-8)


“Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as ‘trigger warnings.’ Explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.”

The New York Times article explains how some professors are fuming. “Trigger warnings, they say, suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace.” The terms “trigger warning” is widely used in feminist blogs with the intention of preparing readers for upcoming content that might be troubling for survivors of violence to read. The warnings are used as signals, as a pause in the text to let the reader gather gulps of breath, take a break, or to walk away.

Advocates of trigger warnings push to have them included in syllabi so violence survivors would be prepared for intense material, would possibly save them from having a panic attack or flashback. A trigger warning could warn readers that The Great Gatsby contains misogynistic violence, that Mrs. Dalloway contains a suicide, or that Things Fall Apart contains racism and religious persecution.

The belief is that a trigger warning would be there for the protection of the readers, to keep them safe as they read the troubling material, to help them navigate different topics they might have felt uncertain about how to respond to them.

Therefore, by mentioning in this sentence that I know of a woman who was brutally raped by her step-father because she was black and he was a white supremacist, and then she committed suicide by slashing her wrists after the rape without giving the reader any sort of trigger warning of this story, I am now responsible for your emotional reactions.

But I don’t know you.

What if, instead, I decided to tell the story of the cute puppy my mother bought me for my 5th birthday? What if, instead of being triggered by stories of sexual violence, you got panic attacks from thinking about puppies because you saw a puppy run over by a truck when you were five and it profoundly altered your spiritual beliefs to the point that you now have unmanageable anxiety when considering the purpose of life?

How can I warn the world of every word I am about to say?

And what if thinking about trigger warnings triggers you?

Warning: this sentence contains the word “trigger.”


Who should be responsible for warning you of your uncertainties?


Chelsey Clammer: Where do you think the concept of "responsibility" comes into play when thinking about how/if the writer needs to forewarn her readers about challenging and possibly triggering material in her work?

Lacy M. Johnson: This notion of the writer’s responsibility to her audience makes me very uncomfortable. If I have a responsibility to my reader, it’s to tell her the truth about my experience, and to do so in a meaningful way. In The Other Side, for example, I’m writing about a personal history of sexual violence and domestic abuse. It was painful for me to write this book, and I imagine it is painful to read it. That’s intentional, because the truth is that the pain of that experience — of living it, writing it, and learning to move past it — is precisely the point. People will likely feel triggered by this book, but I don’t think I make any secret of what it’s about. I mean, it’s right there on the jacket copy.


You might think I need to be warned when a book I am about to read contains scenes of sexual violence. But really, what I need to be warned about is if a character is named Kelly.

It’s funny. I was walking down Wayne Street at 11pm after singing karaoke at a bar with my friends. As I walked home in my short brown dress, a man ran up from behind me. He ran up behind me and he grabbed me. And when he grabbed me, he reached his hands up my dress and put his hands in me. He filled me with his fingers. Think: bowling ball. And then asked me Hey baby, what’s your name? The brown dress I was wearing was the exact same dress that the woman who I had a huge crush on that summer also had, although hers was Kelly Green. This crush wasn’t at karaoke the night a stranger assaulted me by plugging his fingers into me, because she was fighting with her girlfriend. Six years after that night, six years full of therapy and self-harm and alcohol poisoning and hospital trips to stitch up cuts I made myself and a couple shots at sobriety until it really stuck and then moving to a different neighborhood then moving to a different state then moving to another state then getting married then moving again and then I'm at a job interview and meet my future co-worker. She introduces herself as Kelly. Shivers ricochet through me. I’ve been through enough DBT groups to know how to regulate my breathing when I feel a panic attack coming on. I regulate my breathing. I concentrate on Kelly’s lips instead of the flashback that’s trying to claw its way through my presence. The interview is short and in ten minutes I'm back inside my car, finally able to sob.

It’s not hearing the name “Wayne” or seeing a brown dress that scares me. It’s not thinking about the stranger and his hands in my body or my friends who supported me through the effects of his hands in my body. Sometimes I'm doing so well that I can see something that’s Kelly Green and only feel a blip of anxiety. But then six years later I meet a woman named Kelly and I completely lose it.


Chelsey Clammer: As a teacher, how do you approach teaching possibly triggering material?

Lacy M. Johnson: I don’t think about course material in terms of its potential to trigger or not trigger. If we’re watching a film with a difficult scene, I’ll let folks know in advance what to expect and I make clear that if they imagine such a scene will make them uncomfortable, they should feel free to excuse themselves at any time. But I also make clear that this doesn’t mean they’re excused from thinking or writing about the film, or even that scene in particular. If anything, I push harder on them to think critically about their discomfort in relation to the overall aims of the work. 


I'm scared shitless about fishtailing in my truck, crashing into a guardrail and then cracking my skull on the windshield and slowly dying before the paramedics can come and save me. I can’t seem to let go of this fear. And yet I still drive in the rain. I can’t avoid the fact that I live in this world.

I'm not saying a rape survivor should read books or watch films about rape in order to see if she’s “healed.”

But sometimes those books fall in our laps. Since we can’t always avoid triggers, shouldn’t we learn what to do with them?


Chelsey Clammer: Have you ever been triggered by any works of literature, and if so what was your response?

Lacy M. Johnsons: Absolutely. In fact, I tend to seek out works of literature with frank and honest discussions of traumatic experiences. I realize that might sound a little twisted, but I have found that by understanding the stress responses I have to literature (or film or visual art for that matter) that confronts the other people’s experience of trauma, I feel slightly better equipped to understand my own. I feel empathy for that other person, and the intellectual and emotional work of moving with that person through their grief helps me to navigate my own. 


Text as mirror. There I am, on the page. There is my experience. The details are different, and the words are ones I wouldn’t have thought to use, but there I am. Reflected. Held. Connected.

There’s more about how we find strength in other people who will not allow themselves to be silenced. About how we can get through those moments full of fright by knowing that other people have survived. That they have put words to what I have not yet figured out how to describe.

This is about more than sharing an experience with the world. This is more than about a reader feeling like someone gave her experience a voice. This is about understanding how we can’t actually control anything. The world happens. And we’re happening in this world. We need to learn how to work with these things.


Chelsey Clammer: Writing is a way to heal from trauma, but what about reading?

Lacy M. Johnson:  I don’t think I could have written The Other Side (nor would I have felt compelled to) without the brave work of women whose work found me when I most needed it — Alice Sebold, Kathyrn Harrison, Lidia Yuknavitch, Sarah Manguso, Mary Karr. I’ve never met these women, and yet their words — difficult and painful as they were — came as a great comfort to me in a time of terrible doubt and fear. 

I surround myself with books that are hard to open, but even harder to put down once I’ve journeyed through them.

Chelsey Clammer has been published in The Rumpus, Atticus Review, and The Nervous Breakdown among many others. She is the Managing Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, as well as a columnist and workshop instructor for the journal. Her first collection of essays, There is Nothing Else to See Here, is forthcoming from The Lit Pub, Fall 2014.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Lacy M. Johnson on The Art of Mourning

In searching out the truth be ready for the unexpected, for it is difficult to find and puzzling when you find it.  — Heraclitus


I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately—my death in particular. This is a recent development. Ironically enough, it began when I stopped believing that I might be killed by a man I used to love. I haven’t seen him in fourteen years, but during all that time I believed — sincerely believed — that I was in danger, a lot in the beginning, less so in the middle, and a lot again at the end, which isn’t how you might think it should happen. It got to the point that I didn’t leave the house without scanning the street. I refused to travel abroad, or domestically alone. I enrolled my children only in schools with locked doors and pass codes, and even that seemed like insufficient security. Only after I finished writing THE OTHER SIDE could I convince myself that I should probably let it go. I was probably safe. He probably wouldn’t break into my house at any moment to kill me in my sleep. If I said it out loud it sounded preposterous, so I could probably admit he no longer posed any threat to me. My life was not, in fact, in danger. Which is exactly the moment I started thinking a lot about death.


Let’s begin with a brief and oversimplified history of memoir:

Memoir 1.0 begins, perhaps, with The Book of Margery Kempe, in the 1430s, and continues through many versions of spiritual and philosophical chronicles of religious figures, public thinkers and intellectuals. The emphasis of these texts is primarily on the extraordinary nature of certain events in a writer’s life, and therefore the extraordinary nature of the writer herself.

Memoir 2.0 ushers in the age of autobiography, which chronicles the life — from birth to the relative present — of an extraordinary person: this is what made me who I am. Notable examples include Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which recounts a personal history of good choices and well-made decisions (and conveniently leaves out a voracious love of prostitutes and political agitation). It’s not only a self-celebration of a meticulously constructed celebrity-self, but also a sort of advice book: a blueprint for future americans. Imitations of this form continued for many years — still do, in fact — with all manner of major political figures throwing their respective hats into the revolving autobiography ring, followed by works in this vein from major literary figures, then, simply, literary figures.

Memoir 3.0 is now, the present moment, when writers (more or less ordinary people) use memory as a lens through which to bring some aspect of human experience into focus. These works are often not simply a recounting of a complete, meticulously constructed, complete personal history (though those are still published) but rather an investigation into the major issues facing us today, and in this way, we could perhaps describe Memoir 3.0 as memory married to the essay. I would even go so far as to assert that Memoir 3.0 is very often a book-length essay. In the last few decades alone writers have increasingly used memoir as a form for investigating history, memory, thought and perception, and the nature of human experience. In this way we can see some of the most important philosophical work of our time played out in the pages of memoirs.


Tennessee Williams says that “Time is the longest distance between two places, ” which seems right and accurate. I wonder, though, if memory could be even farther? Since in memory there is always a kind of slipping, a kind of drift, or smear, or smudge.

When a friend of mine heard that THE OTHER SIDE was approaching its publication date, she asked for an advance copy. I gave it to her, since she’s in it. In the book I write that I call my parents from the police station after I escape a soundproof room my ex-boyfriend had constructed for the sole purpose of raping and killing me. I have clear memory of this, of calling my parents, of returning to my new apartment and packing my things and leaving for my sister’s place, where I stayed for two weeks. But my friend tells me I’m wrong about that. She says I called her from the police station. She says she came to the station and they let us talk in an interrogation room and watched us from behind a two-way mirror. She took me to her sister’s apartment that night and she remembers very clearly how I rode in the passenger seat and couldn’t stop watching out the rear window of her car.

I don’t remember this at all. I so don’t remember this that for a moment I think she must be lying to me and I am pissed that she didn’t tell me this before I finished the fucking memoir. But she’s a good person — a far better person than me — so why would she lie? I can conjure the vaguest impression of watching the light change on a ceiling in a strange bedroom once. How can I be sure it’s even the right ceiling? I have no way of knowing, though I do know nothing would have returned me to that memory without her calling it into question. It’s an island: located far across a sea of forgotting.

I think maybe that the distance between me and the memory my friend has is farther than time, since I cannot return to it, cannot locate it, and I have tried.


I tell my students that contemporary creative nonfiction (including and especially memoir!), at its most successful, combines elements of mastery (straight delivery of information) as well as mystery (investigation of as yet unexplained phenomena) and mania (obsession with the subject). So many successful contemporary memoirs balance these three impulses.

In The Reenactments, for example (one of my very-favorites) Nick Flynn weaves together three strands of narrative: the first strand (mastery) comprises published findings of certain neuroscientists, which establishes his authority as a writer to even begin discussing memory functions of the brain; the second strand (mystery) offers a history and description of the Glass Flowers Collection at the Harvard Museum of Natural Science, which allows readers to observe Flynn as he considers both how these flowers are made, and the ways in which the memory has slipped, smeared, drifted; the third strand (mania) recounts the experience of watching the filming of Being Flynn, Paul Weitz’s adaptation of Flynn’s earlier memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and in this strand Flynn recounts the experience of watching his most traumatic memories — the suicide of his mother — reenacted, returned to him in real life, filmed for anyone to see.

It’s by weaving together these three impulses (mastery, mystery, and mania) that The Reenactments investigates a set of questions we all seek answers to: what is the relationship between experience and memory? Between form and spirit? Between what I remember and the person I am? Between life and death?


Sometimes I’ll be driving along in my car and I can almost see myself crashing: a glimpse into one possible future. I can almost see the Ford F-350 (we have a lot of those here in Texas — the giant dualies, the long guns stacked up on gun racks), and how I’ll be mangled. How I lay for weeks unconscious in a hospital bed, my face swollen to unrecognizable proportions. Is unconsciousness sort of what death would be like? Like sleeping? I can imagine that. But no, I know death is not like sleeping. Maybe I’ll have an aneurism and die in my sleep. I’ll choke on a piece of salami I eat standing up in front of the refrigerator. I’ll die slowly or instantly. A light dimmed or blinked out. The mind will darken, and with it all thoughts, all dreams, all memory.

This is where I reach the limit of my imagination, though I continue to wonder what is on the other side of its border. I know life would go on: my children would grow older, though I can’t predict how, or for how long. Is it possible this is why I read and write memoir? To cast a projection of myself — what I know, what I wonder, what I spend my days obsessing over — into a future in which I don’t exist?


It is no coincidence, I think now, that the two words, “memory” and “memoir,” share a set of sprawling, branching roots: the Anglo-French memorie, something written to be kept in mind, from Latin memoria, a reminiscence, from Old Norse Mimir, the name of the giant who guards the Well of Wisdom; and from Old English murnan, to mourn.

Lacy M. Johnson is author of the memoirs THE OTHER SIDE (Tin House Books, 2014) — a B&N Discover Great New Writer Pick — and TRESPASSES (Iowa, 2012). She is a Houston-based artist, curator, teacher, activist, and is co-creator of the location-based storytelling project [the invisible city]. Her essays have appeared in Dame, Tin House, Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, Poets & Writers, and elsewhere. She teaches interdisciplinary art at the University of Houston.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Cris Mazza on the perils of being a neighbor

Neighborhood: Taking it to the Grass

This morning, Tuesday, April 22, 5:45 a.m. he revved his old pick-up, pulled out at 6 and returned at 6:10. Last night — after my cell rang around 9, and it was him, and I didn’t answer, and he left no message — he was outside mowing in the dark. Under a streetlight, his silhouette paused, as if he’d hit a bump or the mower blades had become jammed in high grass. But it barely grows in April, and he had just cut his grass two days before.

Finally his form lurched forward again, unstuck. As I remember, I think I heard his breath likewise catch and heave. But of course the image was silent.

I’d been warned. My new neighbors on one side told me the neighbor on the other side was odd. People have various definitions of odd. Theirs was: D— hardly ever comes out of the house, then sometimes he comes out and mows his lawn several days in a row. Sometimes talks and yells to himself. I am sure, now, that they left a lot out of this summary. If they’d told me more before the deal was closed on my house, and if I’d backed out of the purchase, and if the former owners had deduced why I’d reneged, the tale-telling neighbor could be sued.

During a muted first year, I’d noted: D— didn’t come out of his house much. When he did it was to mow his lawn. More frequently than most. He had no flowers or bushes, but the lawn was a uniform, green crew-cut, taller than mine. The difference in how high we set our mowers became a contour of the property line. He did talk out loud, but the Bluetooth earpiece he wore disclosed that it was not a manic conversation with phantoms. Yes, someone had suggested a routine pop-psychological diagnosis. I slotted that as pop-culture pigeonholing. This time, I was wrong.

Once D— told me I had a nice mower. True, a fly-yellow Canadian-made Cub Cadet with a Honda engine and coaster wheels. He saw my White Sox flag and said he was a lifetime Cubs fan (thankfully did not say “I bleed Cubby blue”). He knew I am from California, and after I returned from a visit asked me “How was it in Cali?” (Lingo which suggests he could’ve said “I bleed Cubby blue.”) He’d been in the marines at Camp Pendleton and liked the zoo in San Diego. Could any chitchat be more throwaway trivial?

I never wanted to live in a neighborhood. At least not again. It was cool, in my 20s, renting tiny war-era houses in the college and post-college neighborhoods of San Diego that attracted vegetarian restaurants, bookstores and cult theatres. It was tolerable, in my early 30s, to actually own a post-war slab house in a working-class neighborhood, until the teenaged boy across the street rattled my walls and appropriated my heartbeat with a stereo his parents attempted (and failed) to secure with locks. It was a respite, in my late 30s, in the Midwest and renting again in a train-stop suburb surrounding a thriving village, living in the smallest, oldest bungalow (with the biggest lot) on a street where 100 year old trees dwarfed houses, even though houses that sold were demolished so a newer deluxe mimeo-manor could fill the lot. Sure enough, two days after I moved out, the bulldozers came to flatten my bungalow. Then it was deliverance, in my 40s, to again own, but this time over an acre, with a treeline bordering a cornfield that bordered another treeline that bordered a creek. The neighboring house was on five acres, so association with the inhabitants there only amounted to an occasional wave.

I am back in a cul-de-sac, on a quarter acre, in one of a developer’s 6 or 7 floor plans, houses called “homes” before they were ever lived in. Besides the price range suitable for a fractured budget, this one was chosen because behind it lays the common area, and a pond with natural borders. It’s supposed to be a more responsible way of developing, instead of bigger individual yards with expansive lawns, there’s common open-space. The houses on the edge of that space have the most benefit, as the pond, the trees, the birds, the reeds, the plot of wildflowers are outside my back gate.

But on either side of me: people. The gentle curve of the cul-de-sac also changes, slightly, the direction each house faces, and on a patio or deck that’s snug to the house, each neighbor’s patio or deck can barely (or not-at-all) be seen.

This is where I fixed a home for Mark when, after 30 years apart, we made the required sacrifices to put our lives together. His forfeit: After 30 years of teaching middle school band, 4/5 of every pension check goes to an ex who already had banked almost half of the whole account, then when he retired he still pays 2K a month spousal support out of his remaining portion. Mine: that finally-reached goal of a non-suburban property, with neighbors only at a distance.

The barely-there contact with my new, closer neighbors changed last February. Still in the midst of one of the snowiest winters on record, I was scraping another overnight coating off the front porch. The snow in the yard was now higher than the step-up porch. But being on the concrete slab outside the front door still might have given me another 4 to 6 inches of height when D— came across my snow-covered lawn to stand in front of me, 10 feet away. Had I seen him coming? Memory doesn’t provide that framework. He was just there, saying “I hear you a dog trainer.”

I smiled. “Yes.”

I’d done some training outside during the past year. Enough that it was obvious we weren’t just playing fetch. My dogs’ exploits at performance events are a quiet source of fulfillment.

“So, how you call you-self a trainer. Your dogs bark at me when I go into my yard. You could train them not to, if you a trainer. You not much of a trainer. The way they bark at me.”

Thoughts are supposed to race at moments like this. Time stands still when tension speeds up. A fiction writer can add sensual details, stage directions, small movements and gestures, distant sounds. My thoughts did not race. My head went somewhat silent. There were no background sounds or images to swell out-of-proportion. Snow is not as serene as it is cold. Sometimes harsh. Very quiet.

Only now, in this different kind of quiet at a keyboard, there’s another clanging alarm: what I’m not saying. What I’ve said by reproducing D—’s vernacular without directly disclosing his race. By making the omission seem unconscious when it’s actually the opposite. Sometime in the late 70s, my budding progressive brain locked onto a policy that it was uncool to describe a person using their race. I actually learned this (via a book) from a baseball player who was mugged and refused to tell the police the race of the perpetrator. That code still being maintained in this account until it is becoming an evasion rather than a statement. I did want to keep this episode from being something that happened because of race. I still don’t think race is the chief reason that the situation arose. But the experience and the narrative are never going to be the same thing. And is the latter — especially now that I’ve noticed — at least partially also about the evasion?

Eventually, that day on the cold porch, I did say something. I said my dogs were hardly ever in the yard, only to relieve themselves, then they come back— it’s too cold for them to stay out. He said he was talking about last fall. After another moment of scene paralysis, I mentioned that my other neighbor’s dog barks at me in my yard.

“I knew trained dogs in the military. I been around trained dogs. You call yourself a dog trainer.”

I don’t recall how the dialogue ended. At some point I went back into the house and he returned to his property. I don’t recall which of us turned first.

I had his email address from when I’d first moved in and had introduced myself. I’d put a handwritten note in his mailbox, and he’d responded via email, just something like “let me know if you need anything.” It hadn’t gone any further. I give this detail because it was all so innocuous and normal. Accordingly, after this February exchange, I wrote a brief email apologizing for being unable to respond in a useful way when we’d spoken on my porch. I explained the dogs are trained to come instantly when called, so if they bark, I would not hesitate to call them in. He answered that he hadn’t meant to sound harsh and he’d been under a lot of pressure lately trying to avoid neck surgery. This still sounds unexceptional.

An over-the-fence dialogue a few days later, on one of the few days of mid-winter clemency (in the upper 30s), was likewise nothing more than conventional. I was trying to exercise the dogs in the yard, and D— stepped out into his. The dogs came eagerly for attention from a new friend, and he wanted to tell me he’d seen the news about my faculty union holding a 2-day strike. I was trying to tell him that when they barked, he could call the dogs over to the fence and pat them — it would make them stop barking and get to know him. He wanted to talk about his public-employee union and the current fight to protect his pension. Even though we were having two different conversations, it still seemed the typical surface exchange of neighbors who only talk when they are (seemingly) inadvertently out at the same time.

Two weeks later, I stood on the back stoop while the dogs relieved themselves in the snow. In a rapid causal chain, when D— appeared on his deck, the dogs bolted toward that side of the yard, barking; I called them; they wheeled in their tracks and just as swiftly sprinted to the door and came inside.

A day later, an email:


ANY CANINE BEHAVIOR = purposely trained
FAMILIARITY = expertise

Wednesday, April 23, a day after I’d drafted this narrative’s first paragraph, D— was conjointly rattled and medicated. Both ungainly and wired. Maniacal and wobbly. I couldn’t smell alcohol nor pot. He wasn’t slow and dopey nor in physical high-speed frenzy. He couldn’t finish a sentence, although he started many, one after another, and saliva both spewed and dribbled. In the backyard, after he’d produced wooden stakes and a sledge hammer to reinforce his fence posts, he leaned backwards on the same wobbly fence — while I held the stakes and Mark pounded them in — as though to disguise that he wasn’t standing up on his own power. Once he squeezed my arm with a comment about how strong I seemed. He babbled about his ex-wife who’d just bought an 80-thousand-dollar Audi; how his grandchildren were graduating high school and could I email him something to give them because they needed to know what to do next; about the successful professionals in his family and how they could send someone a thousand dollars just like that if it was needed, and how it hurt him that his sister only contacted him when she needed money; about how he could break a man in half with his hands and if he got angered he wasn’t responsible for what might happen; about his mother who had washed her hair in rain water from a barrel and worked in a laundry where the owner tried to make her stay in the back cleaning the clothes but she insisted that she wanted to be up front where the people were; about how he was going to the pound to rescue a dog, a German shepherd; about how he had a nightmare and could have hurt a woman who was with him. Laced between almost every half-sentence foray, something about how he can’t sleep and when he gets racing he has to take something to calm him down, and why he has trouble trusting, and how it was that the people who used to live in my house came to hate him so much that they moved so now the other neighbors are mad that their friends moved away so they hate him too.

Since the first breath of spring, since the grass first greened, his mower has run every day. His back lawn has yet to be cut.

Friday, April 25. I gave up writing this today when the cul-de-sac filled with police cars, an ambulance and fire truck.

The ambulance and fire truck were first. In the gutter between my driveway and his, a red traffic cone and a spray-painted white line, just about at the property border. D— was still in the front yard when the first heavily garbed fireman came across the lawn from the side. As the first police cruiser circled the curb of the cul-de-sac, D— retrieved the red cone, brought it back to his garage where he met the fireman. Voices resounded, not angry or arguing, just unnatural in a midmorning weekday, like a dramatic performance staged beneath our windows.

Because a cul-de-sac is curved, his front porch is not visible from the gallery seats at our windows. D— exited the stage, into his house, and did not return for over an hour. That was when the other five police vehicles arrived. The paramedics waited in the ambulance. Firemen met in the driveway, police back and forth in the driveway. No crackle of loud radios from the cars. No more audible dialogue. The drama continued as a silent movie. One without any development or action. A convention of police cars. The quota, it would seem, for our quadrant of the city.

On the phone with neighbors: it’s happened before. He might have guns. He barricades himself in the house. Last time they evacuated the whole cul-de-sac, everyone had ten seconds to get out.

Usually, in the calm of past tense, writing a personal account approximates, even surrounds and converges on forms of illumination, new perception and thus new impressions, some sort of closing. The in-writing complication of seeing more angles, more possibilities, more layers in the surrounding detail — from what I was wearing to what was happening at work in-between episodes to my mother’s simultaneous rapid decline 2000 miles away — would actually be a move toward controlling chaos. Toward sealing a memory like a thorn enclosed in scar tissue.  Real-time writing does not feel that way. It’s like solo cooking a fancy meal for 8 people while having a political debate with 3 of them. Something will be overcooked, something will be raw, something will be missing ingredients, and the cook will have no pleasure in finally sitting down to eat two hours later than planned. A simile fit for one who isn’t a good cook in the first place.

Even the mixed metaphors speak the chaos, no closer to a solace of resolution. There is only trust that, in writing, I usually do get close. Or closer.

So I'll go back to late winter, I answered the INTENTIONAL & BIAS email.
March 8
Hi D—, Sometimes I am dense, so I wasn't sure if you were joking — you have to hit me over the head, like write "HAHA" so I'll know.
I hope by this you're not suggesting that I am sic’ing my dogs on you. My dogs are not attack trained. There are children playing in the cul-de-sac while I write this, and when I let the dogs out for the last time before bed, they will bark at those kids. My dogs are high-spirited because they are show dogs. They have to have a lot of energy to be able to perform under pressure.
D— responded:
March 8
I was unsure what was to be cured with the German shepherd. Kids playing outside? My dogs’ high spirits? That I don’t get jokes? It was the last time I answered an email.


Another March snowfall had us out shoveling again a week later. For most of the winter, D— had run his snow-thrower along the sidewalk around the whole cul-de-sac, but on this day he was keeping close to his driveway, letting the machine sit and run while he tinkered with it, then retreating into his garage. Mark and I began our Sisyphus routine re-clearing the driveway, the area in front of the mailbox and this time the sidewalk, including the last 8-foot portion on D—’s side of the property line.

D— approached along the cleared sidewalk while I was digging out the space for the postal truck to reach the mailbox.

“I been around dogs all my life. You taught those dogs to bark at me.”

My mouth remained closed. There seemed not enough air to begin an explanation of how difficult it is to train negative commands (i.e. “don’t bark”), let alone the professional skill it would take to teach a dog to only bark at a specific person, based on some kind of ‘marker’ (scent of contraband, scent of internal disease) in which case the bark would not be “at” the person but an alarm for the handler. Had anyone taught dogs to bark at (or attack/hold, as military or police dogs are trained) a particular race? If dogs show this behavior, it’s often a result of how the owner acts/changes when in the presence of particular “types” of people (long hair and beards, or extreme height, for example; or, I suppose, different races, although I don’t know how well a dog would comprehend differences in skin color or eye shape, whereas being able to identify a beard and long hair, or a ball cap, or boots is probable).

While that was zigzagging through my mind, Mark was answering. Probably pointing out that we’d created a barrier in the yard and the dogs could no longer access the side of the yard where D—’s house was.

“I know dogs all my life, I was around dogs in the military, they bark at who you want them to bark at.”

“They’re not military-trained dogs.” My voice as flat as my momentum, lifting yet another load of snow to the mountain on the parkway.

D— was already leaving. “I know what I know. I know what I see. You send those dogs to bark — it’s bias.”

By the time he was back in front of his house and started fiddling with a porch light, I had returned to our garage. Mark had the wider shovel and would clear the rest of the driveway. But Mark followed D—.

“You’re wrong. If you just knew her, if you could possibly know, you’d know how wrong you are.”

“Mark, you can stand there and tell me this snow is green, but that not going to change that it’s white.”

SNOW = white
DOGS BARK = racism 

On an isolated stretch of mild weather in mid-March, the doorbell rang. The dogs barked. I stuffed them behind me and slipped out, closing the door most of the way but staying in front it, perched on the doorjamb and partially sandwiched by the glass storm door which I held open. D— stood on the porch holding out two solar patio lights. “What’s this?” I said, as I took them. As soon as the lights were in my possession, D— extended a hand to shake, which I did. He did not answer — at least not in full sentences — my stammering attempt to ask why he was bringing me a gift. Of course I recognized it was some sort of apology, so I ignored what it was an apology for, and shifted to building good-will. Flattery. Interest. Attention. Basic human needs (and uphill work for the anti-social among us).

I noted that it looked like he was full of spring clean-up energy (he had hung some ugly plastic sunflower wind chimes in the walnut tree between his driveway and our front yard). He said he had to get the place in shape, he was a good neighbor, and liked to help the older couple across the street. Falling in with the looping of non-sequiturs, I said I’d noticed he cleared their snow, and it looked like he’d lost weight. He said he was going to the rec center every morning. I asked if it was expensive. He said he was trying to avoid surgery on his neck. I asked if it cost a lot to go. He said he did everything over there, even used the pool. In a while I knew that his ex-wife had bought a very expensive German car because he’d been fleeced in the divorce, that he had a speech impediment (which makes him difficult to understand), how many kids he had (two sons), where his eldest son went to college (University of Illinois), where D— went to college (also University of Illinois), what he majored in (criminology), when he’d graduated (1978), that he’d lost his front teeth playing college basketball (which is the speech impediment). He was down off the porch by this time, sort of swinging from side to side, shifting his weight, unable to stand still, grinning like a Jack-o-Lantern, gradually moving away from the porch. I let the storm door close behind me. Maybe it was relief that the bizarre accusations had been lifted, I got chatty too, told him I’d also graduated from college in 1978, of course in San Diego, he already knew that, but that Mark as well had graduated in 1978, from the same college as me, in fact Mark and I had also gone to high school together, had known each other since we were 16.

Mark came home from his afternoon music lessons before we were finished. D— continued his swaying retreat into the driveway to extend the handshake to Mark. I took the opportunity to return into the house.

GIFTS = good neighbors 

My gift to D— was to set a paver landscape border around a tree planted by the city on the property line in the parkway. D—had purchased the pavers, along with bags of red mulch on one of his daily trips to the hardware store around the time it opened (between 6 and 7 a.m.). But when he mounded the mulch up a foot high on the little tree, then jammed the bricks against the pile in a tight circle, I told him I would create a bigger circle out further, to make sure grass didn’t grow up through the mulch, and because the “beehive” look of mulch piles against trees was not good for them, trunks need to breathe. He smiled and said he hadn’t known that, and proceeded to pull a second, bigger mountain of mulch away from his walnut tree, so it appeared that tree was growing out of a red volcano.

During the two hours I spent on my knees in the chilly spring mud, removing turf and leveling the bricks, D— puttered in his driveway and garage, the door rolled open. The first year I’d lived here up through this past winter, two of his cars fit into the garage with the old truck always in the street. Now his slicked-up Nissan and new huge black SUV were always either in the street or the driveway, his garage door usually open, and a pile of paraphernalia growing in the garage. I’d seen him move a used organ out of his truck one day. He said he’d bought it off Craigslist. There was also a lawn tractor with a snowplow attachment, 4 new lawn chairs he’d purchased as soon as the hardware stores featured the trappings for outdoor living in earliest spring, more bags of mulch, and the remaining jumble of junk unknown to me because I had never stood there long enough to take an inventory. How I knew as much as I did: his coming and going was difficult to not just notice, but watch. And my watching would become even more acute. Plus the doorbell had rung more than once, the barking dogs stuffed behind me or Mark, and D— would be on the porch to request Mark’s help to load or unload something into the old pickup.

While I was on my knees finishing the tree, I learned that D— or his son had lost the garage door opener and he’d been on the phone with Liftmaster all morning trying to get the universal code, and then found an opener in a jacket pocket.

Days later, this time just after Mark got home from his private lessons, the doorbell rang. The dogs barked. I stuffed them down the basement stairs while Mark went to answer. I heard Mark’s amiable neighbor-greeting, “Yo, D—, what’s up?” I heard him say, “What?” I heard him say, “What are you talking about?”

When I got to the door and joined them on the porch, D— said, “What do I hafta do to lock this place down?”

I echoed, “What?”

D— stepped backwards. Swaying again. “What do I hafta do? Mark just drove in and was messing with my garage door from his car.”   

My head cocked to indicate I was having trouble hearing him (i.e. I couldn’t understand him; I figured out what he was saying from Mark’s response). I leaned, touched my ear, then stepped forward again.

Don’t come closer, I’m special ops.” By that time D— was on the edge of the lawn. “I’m dangerous when riled. Keep back.”

Meanwhile, Mark had already said, “I’ll show you I didn’t open your garage.” He went into the house, into our garage, opened our door, backed his car into the driveway, closed the door, backed into the cul-de-sac, opened the door, drove up the driveway and into our garage, closed the door.

“You said you just reprogrammed your garage door the other day,” I told D—.

“Don’t crowd me, I’m dangerous. I was special ops. I react.”

And during the sound of our garage door closing again behind Mark’s car, D— either said, “I got guns” or “I know what you done.”

I added the incident to the log I’d started after the last indictment, almost a month previous. The rest of the afternoon, the evening, the attempt to read before sleep, the half hour to an hour before the Ibuprofen PM had any effect, Mark and I tried to think and talk about benign frivolous things: the week-old baseball season, whether or not to do an early spring lawn feeding, how the dogs lying on their backs and holding toys over their faces was an example of evolution-in-action. It was all edgy and eerie.

“There’ll be an apology,” Mark said before we slept, and the next morning, “Your apology is here.”

Four bags of dark brown mulch were stacked in a bare place in my front garden. As much as I could use them, we decided that Mark would go out and give them back.

“Did he seem mad?” I asked as soon as Mark returned to the house.

“No. He claimed he bought brown by mistake, and instead of taking them back thought you could use them because you like brown better than red. He looked like his back wasn’t doing so well, so I put them into his truck for him.”

No mention, by either of them, of yesterday’s scene.

But the gifts continued. D— began to cook outdoors and he brought portions of grilled chicken and bratwurst over to us. He tried to hand me a shopping sack with a brand new pair of men’s pants, too small for either him or Mark, “I don’t know why I bought these,” and he seemed surprised they wouldn’t fit me either. The same shopping sack was used again on Easter to hold a box of chocolates, handed to me over the backyard fence. Mark’s Easter gift a case of beer.

In the name of social living, which I was supposed to be learning to do — that is living as a neighbor in a neighborhood, where front lawns had no physical demarcation on property borders — I asked D— if his lawn service would give us both a discount if Mark and I used it too, on the same days. He said he would call and find out, then asked for my phone number.

I hesitated. “No, I don’t want them calling me.”

“Okay, write your number down and I’ll call you with the answer.”

What could I do? Tell him no, I didn’t want him, my neighbor, to have my number either? Give him a fake? Admit that I’d already put a filter on my email to throw any of his messages into a folder titled “neighbor issues”? I gave him my number. That day we exchanged three calls regarding the lawn service (which did not give either of us a discount, but continued to court me for two months anyway).

Then one evening soon afterwards, my cell rang, displaying his name. After a hesitation, I answered. I’m not sure I ever knew what the chief purpose of the call might have originally been. He talked and talked. About the new state pension overhaul and how he’d worked for the state as a youth probation officer for 30 years only to have them yank everything out from underneath him. Similar to how his ex-wife had raked him over. About why the police had been by his house earlier that week (“sometimes they come to pick my brain about cases they’re working on”). About how he had to go get something from a friend who lives in a ritzy neighborhood but couldn’t drive his old truck, and maybe not even the metallic-red Nissan, or it would look like he was going over there from the ‘hood to clean out some cat’s house. About a law firm named Duey, Cheetum and Howe. About how he’d thought someone might have broken into his house and taken an attaché that contained, among other things, a microcassette recorder where he stored ideas he might forget, but that now he thought it was an “inside job,” someone who’d been visiting him. And then: “so if I met a woman at 7-11 and then go to where she’s staying in a motel, what do they know, it might be my sister, see what I’m saying, they don’t know if it’s not my sister, right?” It was either before or after that when he informed me: “I don’t date Black women, not that I don’t appreciate them, see, but I been burned, they out for what they can get, see? I leave ‘em alone. I have an Asian girlfriend, a RN, but she went to her country to help out her people there.” Somehow he brought up the price I’d paid for my house — “It’s public knowledge, you know that, right?” — and how if he’d known they would be selling so cheap he might’ve bought it himself and rented it out. Then about the people who used to live in my house: “She didn’t travel for work, she hardly worked, she had to lay out in the yard any time the sun was out, had to catch her some rays.” Invisible threads between the non-sequiturs were starting to show.

I stopped answering when the cell showed his name. There were also texts I didn’t answer:

          4/10/2014 5:25 p.m. What days u work in Chicago?
          4/10/2014 6:13 p.m. I be in the city.
          4/14/2014  4:21 p.m. Hey Cris, how are u ??
          4/14/2014  8:51 p.m. How was your day  ?

My calendar tells me I was in New York April 15 through 17. I’d asked Mark to let D— know — as soon as the next circuitous dialogue inevitably occurred — that we didn’t have texting in our cell plan and had to pay for each text. This had recently become not true. We were changing: one of the things Mark said he’d always loved about me was my staunch candor. And Mark, the one who could (and would) strike up conversations everywhere, with anyone, in grocery stores and on airplanes (offended by the social dictum that says don’t bother the person next to you on an airplane), suddenly didn’t want to go outside if D— was patrolling his yard and driveway.

If this account has the same unruly sense of time and logic as those dialogues with D—, it’s because my memory careens from static moment to frozen image when I try to construct plotted narrative. And there are elements I can’t shoehorn into the fragmented timeline, like how my ex, Jim — who’d helped me search-for then refurbish this house, and loaned me most of the entire purchase price — nearly wept his angst over the mounting incidents and tried to figure out a way Mark and I could buy and live in the twice-as-large house on a private acre-and-a-half I’d moved out of and quit-claimed to him. Meanwhile, it’s been several weeks since I started writing, and D— has mowed his front lawn every night, starting around 8:30, the last glimmering of twilight.

So I’m back, not to the beginning but to where I started, the day D— was weaving, unsteady, and babbling apologetic excuses while Mark and I pounded the posts D— had bought to stabilize the fence bordering our backyards. That afternoon of fence-mending (an obvious idiom which I swear wasn’t invented for this purpose) was just after the fevered nighttime mowing of my opening paragraph. It was the middle of the week that ended with emergency vehicles flooding the cul-de-sac. There is still the rest of that week, the before and after, to try to navigate here. 

LAWN MOWER = identity
FRESHLY MOWED LAWN = order, harmony, peace

Thursday, April 17, the day I returned from New York, we stopped on the way home from the airport to purchase our rain barrel.

Friday, April 18, I brought Mark to campus with me for an afternoon lecture. Afterwards, in my office, my cell rang. I held my phone at arm’s length to show Mark D—’s name on the lighted display while the phone rang, and then stopped. We waited for a voicemail chime, but none came. The plan we arrived at was that Mark would call back, on his phone, and say that I was busy at school and had called Mark to ask him to call D— back. Seemingly unruffled by this, D— told Mark that he’d purchased a small snow-thrower at a yard sale and Mark could have it if he wanted.

When we returned home and spotted D— lurking in his open garage amid the junk that had continued to amass, Mark muttered, “I’ll get it over with,” and headed over there while I went into the house to greet the dogs. “Don’t let them go outside and bark,” Mark added.

“OK,” I said, “and don’t bring home the snow-thrower.”

So he told D— that he appreciated the thought, but shoveling was good exercise, and we didn’t have room in our garage for a snow-thrower anyway because we had two lawn mowers. I don’t know if D— asked for an explanation or Mark offered more: We each like our own mower better, my yellow Cub Cadet and the standard red one Mark moved from California, so we kept both. D—’s response was to mock-chide Mark for being sexist (which he called chauvinist but I’m not sure what Mark could have said about my lawn mower partisanship to earn it), said that he’d seen me pushing the Cub Cadet around last summer and it was too big for me. At some point D— asked to borrow the red mower because his was broken. Mark said the mower needed an oil change, and D— volunteered to do the spring tune-up. By the following morning, Saturday April 19, the red mower crooned tranquilly from D—’s garage, and then out on D—’s lawn it became the first mower buzz of the season to announce the shift from gusting snow to flourishing grass.

Saturday, April 19, we needed to install the rain barrel and till the vegetable garden, both located on D—’s side of our yard, so we checked through the front door glass to see if any of his vehicles were gone, or if his garage door was open. Not the first time we expressed to each other that we couldn’t start living like hostages. Mark would have to leave at 11:30 for afternoon music lessons, so we got our tools and went into the yard. Besides, there was an extra car in D—’s driveway, so perhaps a guest would keep him too busy to come give us food or clothes or yard ornaments.

But in fact D— wasted little time in introducing his guest. It was an Asian woman named something like Stephanie or Melanie. When he called her over to the fence, she was circling his house with a watering can, pouring water on volunteer junk trees that had sprouted in his fallow garden beds over the past several years. She shook our hands and said hello, not much more than that, then there was an opportunity when she went to water another big weed for me to ask if this was the nurse he’d told me about. “She a nurse, yeah, that’s right, but a different one.”

As always, looking for something more than chitchat to occupy myself, I wiggled the fence post a little, looking down to where it disappeared into the ground and must be rotting. “I’m getting to that,” D— said.

Later in mid-afternoon, Mark still gone to his music lessons, I bathed and washed my hair. I had a dog show the next morning and would be getting up at 5. We would eat an early supper, watch part of the ballgame then go to bed. I was still soaking in the tub when my phone rang. Leaving pooled footprints of water on the tile, I went to get the phone. Mark often called to tell me when the last lesson was that day, or if he was stopping on the way home for something to grill. But it was D— . I put the still-ringing phone back down. Instead of returning to finish my bath, I dropped to hands-and-knees and crawled from the bedroom to my study and crouched below the window where I could see D—’s driveway. The guest’s silver sedan was still parked there. The dogs stood on either side of me, rattling the vertical blinds, chins on the windowsill, to share what I was watching. When I crept back to the bedroom, I called them in with me and closed the door to prevent them from charging downstairs barking, should the doorbell ring. Back to kneeling, bent forward, huddled in warm water in the tub, waiting for the voicemail chime, but it never sounded.

I was still there when I heard Mark came home. The bath water growing tepid, my bent body curled into a tighter ball.

It seemed to take longer than usual for Mark to unload his instruments, carry them into the house, then begin the trips to bring them upstairs. I was finally wrapped in a towel preparing to dry my hair when Mark released the dogs from the bedroom and came in to ask why we were closed off in there, did the doorbell ring?

“He called, just a little while ago. But his friend is still there.”

Once again, we planned how Mark would call back, tell D— he’d come home and I was sleeping and he saw a missed call on my phone. If that made it look as though Mark was checking my phone log, Mark would call back on his phone, make it a signal that Mark’s phone is the one he should call. Or even tell D— outright my phone is for my writing and school business and Mark’s is our “home phone.” Our strategy as disheveled as it sounds. Probably good that little of it was used, just the part where Mark used his phone to call back. “Hey, D— , we noticed a missed call from you. What’s up?” D—’s reply was it must have been a “pocket call.”

Is this it? The race part I’m avoiding — where a white woman is afraid to tell a Black man to stop calling her because it’ll look like a white woman telling a Black man he can’t call her, laced with flagrant assumptions on why he’s calling? And is that even what’s happening? Twice in the months after this, D— has asked me why Mark answered my phone, but that’s not what Mark did.

Monday, April 21, before breakfast and again afterwards, I scanned the conditions outside. Every time we behaved as though under siege, we commented that we shouldn’t, then went on living as though barricaded.

But sometimes our garage had to be open, like that day when Mark went to prepare my Cub Cadet for its first use of spring. The door rumbled opened like an invitation, and before Mark could even check the oil, D— was on the driveway, just like a neighbor sharing the relief of an early spring day when the lawn mowers reemerge. I could hear their voices from upstairs in my study.

It was the kind of day that brought other adult males out of the two houses on our other side. Raking sticks and leaves scattered during the winter, checking mailbox posts for heave or snowplow damage, a sweatshirt-only day in a week of revisiting the winter coats. After D— had gone back to his own garage, Mark joined the other two men for a moment on the sidewalk. He’d recently shared with me reveries of enjoying beers in the backyard with Tony and Joe — the former like Mark, recently retired, the latter a much younger father of small children whose daughter took weekly flute lessons with Mark. The klatch didn’t last long. Sweatshirts weren’t really enough, unless you were raking more vigorously, or mowing.

When I came downstairs for lunch, Mark told me that Joe had asked him if we were going to use a lawn service for feeding and weed control, and when Mark had said that we’d decided it cost more than we were willing to pay, Joe had said, “Good, I’m not either.” Since now we wouldn’t be the first to mow (and thereby look lawn-neurotic), I suggested maybe Mark could shave off the rowdy sprigs and tufts of our no-professional-lawn-service patch of grass in front of the house. Our red mower had already rumbled across D—’s seamless grass more than once.

So before Mark walked two doors down for the flute lesson, he went the opposite direction to D—’s garage, as usual standing open, with D— tinkering or shifting things around inside. He asked if D— was finished with the red mower. “If not, go ahead and use it all you need to, but if you’re finished, I’d like to use it because Cris wants me to mow and I don’t like her mower.” He thinks his inquiry after the red mower was met, at worst, with neutrality.

At some point during the half-hour flute lesson, the dogs bolted to the door and barked. Braced for the doorbell, I froze. Nothing. My hand went to my phone in my pocket, waiting for the vibration. Nothing. After enough moments had lapsed, I went to check out the door’s window, and saw the red mower had been pushed onto our front lawn and left there.

Coming home from Joe’s house, Mark called out a thanks to D—, but received no response. Nor, he admits, did he wait for one.

One of those scattered-showers passed over. Enough to forestall the ritual first mowing. Enough to propel Mark to the rain barrel to check his first harvest and discover a 5-minute shower can half-fill the 55 gallon barrel, so he set about attaching a hose to the overflow nozzle.

By now it might have been unsurprising that when Mark went out to that side of the yard, at some point D— was there in his backyard as well. His is one of the few houses in the neighborhood with a door from his garage to the backyard, an easy flow from driveway to garage to backyard and back, with access to his kitchen from another door inside the garage. Mark called, “Hey, D—,” but before he could process D—’s starched body language and lack of response, Mark was reporting the news that the rain barrel was already half full.

“Don’t talk to me.” D— began to walk away, but parallel to the fence. A dismissive wave of his hand, his back still only half turned, and he continued, “You the same, that coward who used to live here, he was racist.”

Unable to simply retreat into the house, Mark asked what D— was talking about.

You know. You tell me. Go look it up if you don’t know, go find out who the Grand Wizard of the neighborhood is.”

“What are you talking about, D—?”

“You call me Mister J— . I told that guy before you, I’d kick his ass if he called me D— again, it’s Mister J— to you. That guy, he thought I wanted his woman. That skinny Olive Oyl, I can get any woman I want, and I want someone with meat on her bones. You just go ahead and look it up, go find who’s the Grand Wizard of this neighborhood.”

This is where I began writing: D—purchased his new mower that afternoon. That evening my cell rang and displayed his name. Not 15 minutes later he began the ritual of nighttime mowing.

Wednesday, April 23, was the afternoon we mended his fence. It was a band-aide applied to a concussion. Plus Mark and I had to stop the not-yet-finished tilling of our vegetable plot when D— came to his side of the fence to restart the oscillating dialogue that had been going on all week.

That morning, as Mark and I returned from an errand, we did not think to immediately close the garage door after pulling in. Or maybe we did, but when Mark reached for the transmitter, he saw D— already standing in the driveway behind the car. As we unloaded our groceries, D— wandered into the garage with his face tiled up, admiring the shelves and organizers we had installed, burbling about how he’s also tidy and women who visit him notice, but skeptically. Then he spied two unopened cans of WD40 and said “I need soma that.”

“Take one,” Mark said, “I’ll never use that much in a hundred years.”

D— broke the cans apart and took one. I was going in and out of the house with bags, and only have a last image from that encounter: D— back on the driveway, still talking, holding the WD40, his mouth foaming a little at the corners from the excessive babbling. His speech lubricated but no easier to follow, so my memory holds the image, not any gist of what he was saying.

Some time after that, in the backyard, when D— first came out, Mark left what he was doing and met D— at the fence. I did not, at that point, abandon my task. I couldn’t hear them well enough to follow anything. It was later that Mark reported to me that D— had wanted to apologize, by way of explanation, for the things he’d said two days before. The explanation was circuitous, twisty, a switchback trail that sometimes ended up below the point where it started instead of zigzagging up toward a new message. But D— did have a theme: once again having to do with the people who used to live in our house, how they were at first friendly, and the woman even brought D— portions of meals when she made too much, but then she started coming over to see what D— was doing, and maybe the man himself sent her over to find out things, or else the woman was trying to shame her man into getting off his butt and working like D— did (he gave both possibilities, but did not use an either/or); then the man started to think D— was “after his woman,” but “he shoulda never been allowing her to be coming over with food to give, what would you think if your woman did that?” But the upshot being that when those people rather suddenly decided to sell the house and move, the two other neighbors on the other side were upset that their friend moved away, and they blamed D— , so when D— saw Mark talking to the other guys on the sidewalk, and right afterwards Mark asked D— if he could have his mower back, D— knew— “when you add two and two you get four, right? Am I right?” — it could only mean the other two neighbors had told Mark not to trust D— with his mower and advised him to get it back.

It’s possible D— was wiggling the rotten fencepost during this monologue. After they parted, with the apology aired, if not coherent, D— returned a few minutes later with a package of cedar garden stakes. He was unable to even unwrap the cellophane binding the stakes together, let alone pound them in with the full-sized sledge hammer he’d also produced. Mark, still or once again over at the fence, called me over. “D— says you told him to get these to shore up the fence. How do you mean?”

I’d actually suggested he get rebar stakes that could be pounded in alongside the fence posts. But it was clear D— was in no condition to receive a new explanation any more than he could have wielded a sledge hammer. His speech was slurry, his mouth still foaming, his gestures wonky, his gait and carriage lurching and weaving. I got my own tools, including cordless drill and screws. Mark and I pounded the sakes on three sides of the most rotten fencepost, then fastened them with screws to the post. D—watched us, blathering a string of non sequiturs. The fence was somewhat, but not entirely, more sturdy when we finished.

On Thursday, April 24, D— wasn’t physically as precarious. When Mark went to get the mail we’d forgotten the previous evening, D— was already lurking between his driveway and open garage. When Mark asked how he was feeling, D— returned that he’s always better when he gets his rest. That was probably 7 a.m.

At 8 the doorbell rang. “You never got back to me,” D— said, “about who’s the Grand Wizard of the neighborhood. Did you look that up? Who leads the neighborhood Klan?”

“I’m not going to talk about this shit,” Mark said. “When you have something worthwhile to talk about, come back and we’ll talk.”

At some point on Wednesday I’d heard the news about a mass killing in California, then on the morning of Thursday there were more details on how a distressed young man had fulfilled his plan for retribution against all girls who would not relent to his need to have sex with them. He killed 6 people, then himself, and wounded 13.

That evening I spotted another man with D— on his deck. Probably I was checking to see if I could go outside. Or because I had heard voices outside. Or both. D— was speaking animatedly, pacing and making broad gestures.

Friday, April 25, like a daily appointment, the doorbell rang. Mark was in the middle of his bowl of granola and cantaloupe, still chewing. I’m sure he said “fuck” at the sound of the bell. Maybe we both did. Tasks we’d been conditioned to perform on cue, he went to the door while I stuffed the dogs into the basement. Then I stood well behind Mark where I could hear without becoming a participant.

“I’m dressed down,” D— declared.

“You look nice,” Mark said. D— was wearing khakis or maybe canvas painter pants. Even though much earlier that same morning, he’d been wearing a suit, he still looked dressed to go somewhere. Mark asked if he was dressed up for something.

“No, I dressed down.”

“Yes, it looks nice,” Mark repeated.

“You saw my man here last night — he’s special ops too. What’s it going to take, how many men do I have to bring in, to lock this place down.” Once again, D— began shifting his weight side to side.

“What are you talking about?”

“Go get those two cowards from over there on the other side, those two cowards Tony and Joe, get them out here, let’s settle this right here like men.”

I was first to retreat to my soggy granola, my tepid coffee. Mark finally joined me and we sat staring. Not at each other.

DOWN = sometimes up, sometimes not up
COWARDS = not men 

Not much later was when the ambulance arrived, then the fire truck, then the police cruisers, 3 or 4 of them plus an SUV. Across the street, a Nicor gas truck, a worker returning to it and driving away as the cul-de-sac filled with emergency vehicles, blocking our driveways. The story we heard later: D— had reported a gas leak, but the responding agent had sensed a different kind of problem. Whatever occurred between them, the Nicor man chose to dial 911 instead of just leaving.

We watched from the windows, occasionally on the phone with another neighbor, until D— came out of his house, walked beside a policeman and paramedic to the ambulance, climbed in, the doors were secured behind him, and one by one the vehicles began to depart.

It was a strangely calm, strangely calmly tense, strangely tensely tranquil day.

This has got to end. I know I’ve got to find an ending, even though there isn’t one, D— is still next door, Mark and I are still spontaneously coordinating our time outside to when one of D—’s vehicles is gone. Then we rush, do sloppy work with too much frustration and too little joy. Is the same true of this essay?

D— was only gone until early evening. My ex, Jim, was over to visit the dogs and have dinner. The doorbell rang. On cue: the dogs barked, I stuffed them into the basement, Mark went to the door.

“He tried to talk to me when I got here, but I just said Hi and got into your garage,” Jim muttered before following Mark to the door. I stayed behind, as usual, staring this time at congealing pizza.

“Hey, you saw what went down this morning, now you people ducking me, let’s get this out, let’s just take it to the grass, come on out, let’s settle this.”

“There’s nothing to settle,” Mark said.

Jim added, “We’re just trying to live our lives, trying to enjoy our dinner, let’s just let each other relax at home, no one wants trouble.”

“I know what you think, you think I don’t know? I see.”

“There’s nothing to see, we’re eating dinner …”

“…Just like that last guy living here, all up in my face about how I mow my lawn and sending his woman over to ask me what I’m doing and why.”

It went several more exchanges, and could have continued to circle, until Mark said, “If people are avoiding you, it’s because they’re afraid of you. Because you do things like this. The police talked to us, this morning, know what he said? That if you ever act like this, like what you’re doing right now, we should call them, call 911. They’ll come back.”

D—’s swaying retreated back, to the step below the porch. He was no longer as close but also no longer taller. “I don’t sleep and I have bad nerves. I hear ‘em going off over my head. I’m supposed to take something, for my nerves, you know?”

“Then take your meds, D—,” Mark said. “I’m sorry you have to do that, but we shouldn’t have to pay the consequences when you don’t take care of yourself.”

This is so anticlimactic, so unexciting, me sitting there listening, face toward the tabletop, pushing my finger into hardening pizza cheese, two men, the former and the present, shielding my doorway. Our doorway.

Even before today, Saturday, May 31, when I have resumed my work to complete this narrative, the news had already emerged that several weeks before the California gunman’s rampage, the young man’s mother had sensed something amiss — and she didn’t have to use a mother’s intuition to understand his flagrant internet-available rants ¬— so had called his psychiatrist who then requested a police welfare check. Approximately half a dozen officers arrived simultaneously at his apartment. But the law enforcement contingent determined that the young man did not meet the criteria for an involuntary hold and psych evaluation. Then I discovered this today: A spokesperson for the police department told a reporter that the police had no information or reason to believe the young man possessed any weapons. But according to the New York Daily News, the young man’s “ownership of the semiautomatic weapons was available in law enforcement databases, which apparently were not checked despite his increasingly erratic behavior.”

After the ambulance was gone, we had joined neighbors gathering on the sidewalk around a police sergeant. He told us they were aware of D— and his unbalanced, even volatile behavior; they kept an occasional eye on him, sometimes stopped by unannounced, but they didn’t think D— had weapons. The neighbors said they thought he did, but perhaps they’d been taken away; they told the sergeant about the time the cul-de-sac had been evacuated, so they weren’t there to see who or what was brought out of the house. We didn’t ask specifics about how they’d ended D—’s reverse siege this time. D— had walked on his own to the ambulance, so the psych-eval was voluntary; they couldn’t hold him.

A few days ago, I was out beyond my back fence, at the edge of the pond where a community garden is allowed to grow and bloom wilder and more jungly than the plots in my yard, and I am the community of one who cultivates there, keeping the thistles out and the prairie flowers in balance with the perennials I’ve introduced. I can go out there whenever I need to be outside but want to be alone, especially if the conditions are such that a closer proximity inside my yard isn’t advisable, for these now-obvious reasons. But, this time in the community garden, I did not let my view of the houses become obstructed, and I was not working with my usual focus-on-the-ground obliviousness. So I saw him coming. No back-to-reality flinch that regularly jolts me, even at a knock on my open office door during scheduled office hours.

“Here,” D— extended three plant pots, three near-dead begonias swimming in muddy water because the containers didn’t drain yet had been watered faithfully. “From my Mom’s grave.”

“Thanks.” I took them. “They’ll be happy out here.”

I expected a siege would follow. I’d be out there trying to follow (and end) a fragmented non sequitur monologue that might well contain something funny, something true, something informative, but would also always be about how the world has treated him — and wasn’t I part of that world?

But he didn’t. He turned and returned home. He probably mowed his lawn soon afterwards.

Cris Mazza’s newest title is a real-time memoir titled Something Wrong With Her chronicling the 25-year journey to reunite with a boy from her past. She has sixteen other titles including her most recent novel Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls. Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction. Currently living 50 miles west of Chicago, she is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She can be found online at

Monday, July 21, 2014

Cris Mazza in conversation with Jane Rosenberg LaForge on "California memoirs"

Tradition Without Tradition: California Memoirs Without Much Sunshine or Beach Sand

Jane and I are both natives of Southern California who now live in large cold-weather metropolitan centers, (New York City and Chicagoland … I work in Chicago but don’t live in the city). We both had other kinds of writing careers (journalism and fiction) before publishing a memoir (An Unsuitable Princess and Indigenous: Growing up Californian). But it was my second memoir (Something Wrong With Her) that was published in 2014 just months before Jane’s Princess (both from Jaded Ibis Books). We didn’t meet until this year, spending a day together at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in February. Neither of us eager to wander and schmooze, we both delighted in “playing store” at the Jaded Ibis booth. That day, and in emails where we continued to become acquainted, we started to discover enough parallels to arouse curiosity. Then we read each other’s books with a certain amount of anxious astonishment.

Growing up in Southern California, we’d both lived near or close to the children of movie stars and other famous people, neither of us popular, trendy, beachy, flower children, or star-fuckers. Among a host of other specific similarities, we’d both had fantasies about boys or being boys or being rescued by boys or being rescued at all (when, in fact, there were those who needed that gesture from us). We both had boys in our pasts who needed to be attended to. We wondered: was the source of these parallels our common homeland of Southern California, the era in which we grew up, the economic status of our parents, our membership in the homely-girls-have-dreams-too club, or a swirling cross-section of all of the above? We decided to talk about it, about the methods we chose to deal with our memories in non-traditional memoir forms (hers subtitled “A True Fantasy, A Fantastical Memoir,” mine “A Real-Time Memoir.”) and, perhaps, why our memoir-writing experience led us to return to those boys in or pasts — hers, who she could not save had died still a boy, mine now a man but still waiting, for 30 years, for me to come back. 

CM: Beyond, or lying beneath, the commonest stereotypes of California — the blondness, the beachyness, the mellowness or laid-backness depending on the decade — is California as the dream-seeker destination, the go-to place for the adventurous, the ambitious, the nonconformist. Which, itself, is the biggest example of conformity of them all. You and I, both natives of California, struggled with wanting / needing to conform, to fit, to belong. No more or less so than any teenager anywhere in America. Yet I have to wonder, why are there so many seemingly trivial but very particular similar markers in our childhood, preteen and teenaged experiences growing up in Southern California, you in Los Angeles, and me in San Diego County. 

We both struggled with gifted siblings (mine was older, so I had to try to live up to everything she’d already done). We were both left out of the most coveted of peer outings and events. We experienced fashion deficiencies.  Even more particular similarities: the illusive President’s Council of Physical Fitness Badge (There was a magazine advertisement with a shaggy-haired pre-teen boy pointing to the patch on his shoulder, who looked so similar to me that it seemed I should be entitled to the badge, but I was too small to successfully reach the requirements. I won some lesser certificate which my mother framed for me.) In 4th grade we both had a young male teacher who introduced marching, although ours was not as a punishment, but given as a source of pride and through which we earned “position.”  We were both struck with a young adult novel, rarely taught anymore, A Separate Peace, which (together with the more universal Catcher in the Rye) has always made me wonder why boys at boarding prep school were supposed to be, and successfully did become, something I “related to.”  So much so the earliest fantasy role-playing stories I played out were about boys, but mine were orphans living together (boarding!) at an orphanage, each with his own pony — because I shared with you the envy of purported peers who were “horsey” (had their own horses, at home, in corrals put onto their property by their parents). Another parallel specific: the importance of A Patch of Blue (we watched it in high school English class), thus the allure of the “damaged female character.” And then (our mode of being damaged) the issue of being “ugly,” mostly due to a big nose. When I was around 8, my uncle showed me an early Barbra Streisand album featuring a photo of her when she was around 8, and (like the boy in the Presidential fitness ad) I looked strikingly like her.  Unfortunately (for me) she grew up to have a nose with so much character, it has a rare and real beauty, while mine was more like a potato.  I longed for (and sometimes still do) cosmetic surgery. Instead of tisk-tisking the society that led your parents to put you under the knife at an early age, I (reading it in my 50s) still covet the procedure! 

From this hodge-podge — none of which is the true meat of your book — I can see an era, but also, perhaps, a place: when Southern California was still rural enough that lucky upper-middle class girls had their own horses at home (and could ride on the sandy unpaved road shoulders), and yet not so rural that gifted students can’t be pulled out and sent to special schools; a world where we live too far away and have no transportation to the nighttime entertainment for adolescents that our locations are urban enough to offer. And yet we lived in a state where our fathers could pay every single cent of our college educations at the public universities developed so middle- and working-class kids, even girls, could access higher education.

One of the most California specific parallels in our experience is our proximity to the famous: yours through your neighborhood bordering (and also including) a place where the famous lived, mine through my parents’ early jobs at a private boarding school where the famous sent their children. But I have no memories of that, since they relocated away from that school precisely to remove us from the proximity and the damage they perceived it might do to us when we got old enough to know we couldn’t have what those kids had, couldn’t do what those kids did, couldn’t know what those kids knew. So your experience being in and among them, if not OF them, is like my alternate life, if I had not been removed from the proximity.

Is there a question here?  Maybe you can find one!

JRL: I suppose the question is: Were our childhoods, and by extension, our present lives, really that different because of our Southern California upbringings? And I'm going to answer yes. And your noting our common "ugly duckling" experiences, along with the film A Patch of Blue, really reinforces my answer. We're dealing with archetypes here, and the effect California, or the movie industry, or the combination of California, the movie biz, and the American knack for re-invention, has on those archetypes. I think we got a particularly screwy brew of these elements and our unusual—for lack of a better word—memoirs are the result. As writers, we believe we value certain attributes in our characters as well as in actual people we meet; as Southern Californians, we have been taught to value other, perhaps less than admirable characteristics; as Southern California writers, we have to navigate through all this conflicting or contradictory information and try to make sense of it. 

Neal Gabler, author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, once wrote an essay called "Life: The Movie," in which he argued that people live their lives as if they're always being filmed. They dramatize, or perhaps they epic-size, their experiences as if they were fodder for a Hollywood screenplay; they "perform" their lives as if they were "acting,'' as opposed to truly living their experiences. He attributes this to declining literacy, an over-reliance on films and television (this essay was written in the late 1990s, before social media exploded on the scene). Being so close to the actual mechanics of that industry, whether it was the people, the scenery, the weather that made 365-days-a-year-dreaming possible: I think this is what makes us Californians, even if we are now living in other climates, amid other attitudes. We still believe that dreaming it makes it possible, or, in the case of writing these memoirs, probable. We do it because we think it will have some effect.

And some of those dreams are a little, may I say, troubling? At least in my case, I recognize that these dreams may be. I'm basically fantasizing about my being tortured by political and economic circumstances before a kind of physical torture; and then I fantasize about being rescued by someone who has been dead for thirty years. That's more than a tad more disturbing than A Patch of Blue in which the damsel in distress is a blind girl who is also handicapped by one helluva family living in a Los Angeles tenement.

To get back to the original impetus for all of this—the idea of archetypes—both my own real story, my imagined story, and that movie all refer back to these origins. There is the ugly duckling (whether that ugliness is real, imposed by society, or imagined); there is the princess in peril—a princess locked in a tower or under a spell (which really must have been a way of regulating, or declaring off-limits, a girl's sexuality until the right and worthy man came along); there is that crying need for rescue, because women do not have the wherewithal to extract themselves. Add a lot of speed or steroids to all this, plus the idea that poverty is somehow romantic or ennobling, and other exploitative twists, and you pretty much have the roots of my fantasy. In Something Wrong With Her, you certainly dive into the possibility of returning to old wounds as if you're going to break a spell, reverse all the damage that has been clamped on top of the original offense.

Do you believe that getting down to the nitty-gritty core is the only way to heal those wounds? I am asking you this question, but within a certain context. When I say "nitty-gritty core,'' I realize I am not saying much of anything. "Nitty-gritty" comes down to the sand, the impossibly small beads of it, where you find not much more than nothing. You look and look and look and whatever you find just slips right through your fingers. Because in Something Wrong With Her, you — or at least I — find a girl who was rootless. With Indigenous, I was so impressed with how your parents invented new traditions for you and your siblings. I felt, so much more so than about my own family, that your family created new rituals in some of the most elemental ways—gardening, cooking, camping, fishing, the home—the physical, tactile, actual home place your father built. And yet the girl in the band office was suffering from a kind of rootlessness. It was as if she was a blank slate, as if the traditions in Indigenous had not taken hold. So the men fighting their own petty-power battles were able to shape that girl in ways they really shouldn't have had the authority to do. 

I think when you are rootless, as I sometimes feel, you go back to look for something, and find nothing. I went back and found out about how badly I behaved; that I had, in a sense, severed my roots before they could have taken hold into something real or beautiful. So my question back to you probably is: Is it because the rootlessness of the California experience—or rootlessness in the eyes of the rest of the country—that makes us more susceptible to these archetypes, or their Hollywood-ization? Is it because we were raised or came of age in a time of declining book literacy (or an uptick in film and image literacy)?  

CM: In the beginning of Indigenous, I tell this story: My first week at The University of Illinois at Chicago, I attended a reception for new faculty. During the mingling, one of the senior professors sidled over to me and asked where I’d chosen to live. She expected the hear the name of an iconic Chicago neighborhood — Bucktown, Pilson, Ukrainian Village, Boys Town — not the answer I did give: the western suburban village of Elmhurst. “Why there” she exclaimed, “there’s nothing there you couldn’t get in Southern California.”  The emphasis pointing out to me how insipid my homeland was.

This is also a form of rootlessness, the way Southern California has been regarded as a place with no tradition, no substance, no intellectual meat, no soul. From the sports teams to the arts organizations, I was constantly being told by Midwestern and Eastern transplants to San Diego, that there was “no tradition.”  This meant why care about or even support these entities. Many of these transplants went to our art galleries and to hear the local symphony, but sent their monetary support back to the orchestras and art galleries with “tradition” in Chicago, Cleveland, New York, etc. The same with the sports teams in San Diego, who the rest of the country denigrated as “traditionless,” and therefore unworthy of anyone’s interest.  Yet they were the sports teams I grew up with, the only symphony, art galleries and summer theatre I knew. Why were my roots and traditions degraded as not good enough by virtue of being born later, as California was growing into its burgeoning population?

By now, with magnates such as Helen Copley and Irwin Jacobs and a new generation of young adults whose native-Californian parents would be my age, there’s no longer such a blanket “no tradition” designation of unworthiness thrown over San Diego and all of Southern California culture (until one moves and hears the old cliché insults all over again), but — not while growing up necessarily, but when we became young adults and started to be aware of it — it was like we had to defend what geographic roots we had. I don’t know if you ever felt this too (maybe not until you left?)

Simplistic child psychology: when a child becomes a late teen or young adult, there’s a natural pulling-away from family (you know, when teenagers no longer want to go on trips with their parents — sometimes no longer want their parents at their band concerts or dance recitals?).  So when I was in high school and college, the traditions my parents had created for our family — camping, hunting, hiking, fishing, food gathering and producing (year-round gardening, raising rabbits and chickens in our backyard) — were not as important to me. I forsake the family camping trips, the hunting jaunts, helping in the garden. My involvements in marching bands were my central focus, the place where I was trying to forge an identity. Your version of this was the Faire. I guess, for anyone, you could call this growing your own roots. The fact that it was me having turned away from and forgotten (for a while) the traditions my parents created, not something else taking those roots away from me, doesn’t change the real rootlessness (actual lostness) I felt in college. It’s the same for many 20-somethings everywhere, but add that to the sense that the place you’re in is disparaged by the rest of the country as rootless itself.  Your book ends before college, so I don’t know, but can imagine, how this might have manifested in you, right after Sam’s death.

It took a few decades before I turned back and re-embraced the traditions my parents created for me, and I’m grateful they were there, burned into me so they were never really abandoned. I guess you feel there was nothing there for you to turn back to (except maybe the expectation that you would excel at whatever you did). But having parental illness and divorce can pretty much blow a crater into any kind of roots and tradition instilled when you’re a child.

Rescue fantasies are also a universal for girls of our generation, I think. You literalized yours in the act of writing the fantasy side of your book where a boy like Sam saves and cares for a girl like you; and I literalized mine by going back to that boy as an adult (and making that literal journey a book). But in my early teens I had a nearly neurotically created rescue-fantasy serial story that I lived behind my eyelids every night before going to sleep: being rescued by an “older” man (or boy 3 grades ahead) from “bad boys” who wanted to force me to make out.  Look at the elements of this awful fantasy: I fantasized myself as so desirable that those “bad boys” would seek me out, even kidnap me to force me to be their make-out slave (never extended to sex in my fantasies, making-out was scary enough), and then rescued by male heroes who (seemingly, between the lines of the fantasy) also wanted to kiss me but treated me with concern and respect. Mark was rejected when I was a girl because he was my age, was not an “older man” who could guide and teach me, protect me, lead me. I went back to find him when I realized that I could have (and should have) been something like that for him, and support/partnership would have been mutual.

I see that impulse in your book’s fantasy story as well as the memoir portions. I think in a way, since you couldn’t go back to the boy and rescue him from his literal demise (nor could you have rescued him then), your written fantasy where he rescues you is this same idealization of partnership, the place where rescue-fantasies mature. And in making our fantasies into books, we did it because in writing, we’re creating our own roots. Just as our books also preserve (or let us hold onto) the semi-rural, semi-immature, semi not-yet-grown-up Southern California we grew up with.

JRL: I like this explanation of creating roots very much, because it says something of what I was trying to do in An Unsuitable Princess. I had been writing [to find it] for many years (without much success) before my daughter was born 14 years ago. Since she was born, I have been trying to preserve some of my childhood for her, because I thought she should know. I’m still not clear on why she should know, but I knew her childhood would be different than mine; substantially different, in fact, because she was going to grow up in Manhattan. I mistakenly think of my childhood as something organic—well, at least compared to the steel and concrete of Manhattan, it was; we had trees, soil, and ivy, while hers is a little more civilized, with fewer opportunities to roll around in the dirt. I suppose my idea of my childhood, romanticized, is much like the childhood you actually had in Indigenous.

I have a lot more to say about rootlessness; it’s a feature of the Jewish experience, for one thing; and now that it is on my mind, rootlessness seems to be the explanation for everything that is wrong in the world. To be Jewish, or to have a Jewish identity, is to be reminded of one’s rootlessness; for one’s roots are (supposedly) in Israel and those were torn asunder after the burning of the Second Temple. Or that is the myth that one is taught since birth. My father certainly lived as though that was the case. My father was the first of his generation of cousins born in Los Angeles. Still he often spoke—he still speaks this way, and he’s 85—of “The Old Country,’’ which was Eastern Europe. He never lived there, by the way. The most successful of his cousins were those who moved to Israel. We never really knew how old his mother was, or where she was really from, because she had no birth certificate. His father had a brother who was “lost;’’ not to the Holocaust, but just to the vagaries of immigration out of The Old Country. It was the kind of story familiar to many Jewish families.

My mother’s family was from Pennsylvania, or “back east,’’ where things were real, legitimate, and therefore counted. That was where the good schools were, the fashion houses, the newspapers and television networks, the ballet and the opera, and the money—or the source of our wealth—corporations, the stock market, the family, the headquarters of the U.S. military. (My mother was an Army brat—talk about rootlessness.) When she’d take me to the ballet, and it would start late, she’d scowl, “They’d never do this in the east. In the east everything starts on time.”

So I know exactly what you’re talking about when you say people in the east disparage California. (As a fledgling writer I was always told not to identify myself on submissions to magazines as being from California. If I did, I’d never get published.) So now I’m going to raise another question: when is this going to end, or will it ever end? Or perhaps I should ask if it started to end while we were growing up, in the 1960s and ‘70s, when so much of the culture was either fascinated with, or driven by, the happenings in California? And what effect does that have on our writers’ psyches, or do we have a special responsibility to capture that?

Let me put all of this to you in another way. When I read Indigenous, or especially when I read Something Wrong With Her, I see the roots you’ve planted in all of your fiction. I see the inspiration, or some of it, for Waterbaby in Indigenous, and I see the inspiration for everything else, and more explicitly so, in Something Wrong With Her. So I wonder if you feel that is the purpose of a California-influenced memoir, to demonstrate that these roots do exist? (Or is that the purpose of all memoirs?) I wonder if writing in this “new tradition,’’ or “inaugural tradition” is something like my understanding of Hebrew (because as a rootless Jew, I went to Israel, and discovered I was American; and then I moved “back east,’’ and discovered I was a Californian). Israeli fiction, in its beginnings, relied on a lot of biblical imagery, because the language itself had just been resurrected from biblical Hebrew and it naturally led its writers into those kinds of metaphors. There also was a lot of Holocaust-inspired or themed literature, because of the weight of those events. So when a writer was radical, or experimental, that writer was making everyday life her subject and forgetting about the historical roots of the state or the language. Rootlessness was radical.

Israeli literature has changed, but has the American view of California literature changed? I suppose this is what I’m asking. Whenever I think California is just another place, something happens that reminds me this is not the case. A friend of mine from the east has told me how even the light is different in California, as though it were Paris. I read a biography of Ed Ruscha last summer (Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles by Alexandra Schwartz) and it discusses how fascinated he was with the architecture of these boxy apartments and the arrangement of these wide, sprawling streets. But to me it all looks normal.

I’m sorry. I know I’m going off topic. I suppose I am asking chicken-and-egg questions, and there aren’t necessarily answers for those. Nowadays, pop culture is enamored of fairy tales just as you and I were, or we were enamored of fairy tale themes, some of the oldest themes around. Is that a sign that our culture is going back to its roots because it is rootless too? Maybe everyone is writing a California-kind-of-memoir these days?

Oh, and P.S. I used to work for Helen Copley and her newspaper chain. But that’s gone now, you know. Whether one says “good riddance,’’ or “nothing gold can stay,” some of her newspapers are long gone. What’s left has been taken over and re-configured for the digital age. Our American culture moves so quickly, disposes with its icons or attachments at such a fast rate, and California, perhaps, may have been the first state to perfect disposable culture, or a culture we can witness being disposed of in a communal way. So perhaps what I am asking is if it is possible, as a writer, to escape a California upbringing, or being labeled a “California writer,’’ with all of the rights, privileges and prejudices thereto pertaining? Will your (or any California writer’s) topic always be one of place (or in our cases, time)? Even when you write about sex, which I assume occurs in all fifty states, are you writing about the special burden of coming from a “free love” or a purportedly free love culture?

How’s that? When will this madness end (my final attempt at framing it)?

CM: When I returned to fishing, my retreats have been transplanted from a somewhat dry California alpine environment at 10,000 feet, to the dense and wet hardwood-conifer forest of the northwoods; a move from the Eastern Sierra (the less popular side of the Sierras) to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan which is 29% of the land area of Michigan but has 3% of the state’s population, so culturally place-specific that rootlessness doesn’t seem a problem for people who are from there and who often don’t leave or else return when they can or need to. Anyway, I’m here now, so will get back to this in about a week.

JRL: Oh good because I had another idea about all this, this morning, borne out of the book I'm reading, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; it's about the Nigerian diaspora—I think. I'm not sure. I'm not finished yet. Ifemelu, one of the narrators, is the outsider, alienated from both of her countries. So she's able to make all sorts of judgments and have insights that aren't available to other characters. I don't know if this is the Nigerian way, but it is the American way; the alienation of the narrator allowing for a particular point of view.

Is this also the (for lack of a better word, "unique") purpose of the California memoir (or novel)? Whether we are conscious of it or not; whether it is by the design of the state, on the other coast, or by history in terms of how the U.S. was settled, is it the role of all Californians to look at the rest of the country and say, "No,'' or at least "Not us?" California may be where people go to escape, to re-invent, but there is something in "us" that again says, "No," or "Not me."  I guess I'm asking if this is an intentional thing on our part, because I know it wasn't for me. I wanted to belong. I wanted to be blonde. I wanted to go to the beach and do all of that crap—I say crap because now I realize how unimportant it all was, although I didn't back then. I wanted to belong but I didn't. So did you always know?

CM: At the beginning of Indigenous, I tried to begin with a distinction: those who come to California to find something: a new life, a fortune, a career, a remaking of everything, the “frontier,” fame, glamour or the endless summer … as differentiated from those of us who were born there.  These would be two very different California experiences spawning two different kinds of California memoirs. Of course ours are the latter.  We weren’t “dream seekers” or radical outsiders, or innovators (yet). We didn’t seek out California, either through conscious choice or being brought by parents who were in quest of something. It was our ground floor. That was the meaning behind my title, Indigenous. What California already was, at that time — partially created by the waves of domestic as well as international immigrants — was the place that began our identity.  “No matter where else I go, I’ll never not be a Californian,“ I claimed in (emblematic) double-negatives when I wrote Indigenous. And yet, we find ourselves searching for identity, still.  Is that the lasting mark of being a native Californian born in the middle of the previous century, when California was at the tail end of being the draw for “dream seekers"?

My father was also of an immigrant family, a first-generation Italian-American, but he was an immigrant to California, in 1936 when he was 16, a few years after he had been forced out of school by the Depression for a year or so. He then graduated from a fledgling but prestigious boarding school in California, because he was working there as a part-time janitor and their board of directors needed a graduate who would actually go on to college — how’s that for the California Dream, or anything’s-possible-if-you-move-west? I don’t know if his serendipitous change of future caused him to not speak of any old country which he’d never seen nor even his old neighborhood in Brooklyn. He’d been through World War II by the time he was my father. I believe he was utterly grateful to the place he’d ended up and barely looked back. He even eventually left his Brooklyn Dodgers, who’d followed him to the West Coast, and cheers for the “unworthy,” merely 40-year-old San Diego Padres. Thus I had little personal sense of the superiority of the legendary “East” (which includes the Midwest for everyone in California) until I was a young adult.

Just the other day I had a heated exchange with a close friend who’d moved to California when he was 23 in 1973. He admitted choosing it because he’d visited once (as a tourist) and also liked the Beach Boys. He’d packed up all his belongings after finishing a graduate degree and drove out of the Midwest to California, where he had neither a job nor place to live waiting for him (not a move I‘d ever made when heading east). He eventually started and built his own wholesale business and had a custom-designed contemporary house.  Our debate last week was the longstanding: no performing arts organization or sports team in California can be as good as elsewhere because there isn’t the “tradition,” which includes the history of generations of patrons. There I was engaged in the stock “east is better because of roots” debate that we’ve already discussed here, happening just weeks after I talked to you about it, with someone who moved his life to California because of its image of a lifestyle and apparent boundless opportunity.

No, I didn’t always “know” the shallowness of wanting to belong. I never necessarily desired a California identity as defined by the rest of the country. If I was saying “No,“ it was to the Beach Boys depiction. Sometimes I did consciously (pretentiously) seek to be different because it was my only way to also be accepted — that's what I “knew.” When I wore a feminist symbol on a chain over my plain white T-shirts (and Levis cords) in high school, I did get looks and murmurs, as though I was some far out radical, but I was just a girl who knew she couldn’t compete on the scale of what was considered female-desirability.

And yet I was such a poseur. I didn’t know of, let alone join a feminist group. Likewise, (although I’m not claiming a relationship between drugs and feminism!), I never turned to drugs and would not have known — not the slightest inkling — how to get them.  No one offered, no one shared stories of being high. I think I did know people dabbling in drugs but I so awfully didn’t fit into that scene, those kids instinctively simply hid that side of themselves even from another kid they might hang out with in the band room before school. I’ve discovered the depth of my not-belonging in recent years getting back in contact with people. For example, there were pool parties among band kids that I was never informed of, where the earliest inter-racial sexual mating-dances were toyed with.  I was, therefore, a bit agog (in your book) by the availability of drugs for you to try even though you, also, were one of those left out of “significant” events.  Yes, I was feeling left out again, just reading your book.

I’ve completed my 21st year as a professor at a university in Chicago. I’ve lived in the far western xurbs, in a semi-rural Midwestern milieu. I’ve had the Northwoods cabin for about 10 years. And yet I’ve still set my novels — and of course the memoirs — in Southern California.  There’s still something there, or the “there” I knew, which may not exist anymore, that I’m trying to hang onto.  And yet when people ask if I’d want to go back if I could, I always say no. I do believe the place I knew is gone, filled by people who took it in a direction that is not comfortable to me.

JRL: Well I finished Americanah, which may not seem like a direct answer to you, but bear with me. It’s a love story, and it’s a love story that could not have happened unless the protagonist came home, to Nigeria. There are the basic logistics of the plot that make this so—one of the people cannot leave Nigeria; cannot come to America due to economics, politics, not getting a visa; so the other one had to come back. Nigeria is home (Nigeria also is the place where she says she is no longer “black;” a good deal of the book is about race relations and the American concept of race. Please do not take this to mean that I’m comparing ‘’Californian” to “black;’’ there is no comparison. The important thing is she has to come home.)

Home is that original Garden of Eden. You can learn your life lessons there or you can be cast out or you can exile yourself, but home is your point of reference. So in a literary sense, she had to come home because (for various reasons, race included) her life in the U.S. was lacking.  And what does she find? Her first love is still the best love.  There is also a really neat, really adept, metaphor that the author uses here to explain why this first love was the only love for her, which I won’t get into, but I think what I learned from reading this book, during this conversation, is that home is where you go when you are trying to make things right. That’s certainly what you did in Something Wrong With Her, correct?  It may be what I did in An Unsuitable Princess, as much as I could. I don’t know if ALL of your fiction is about making things right. (Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls is kind of about that? Someone is trying to make something right there.) That is not for me to say. But it might be why you are still writing about California decades after you have left.

I’ve tried to write about other places where I’ve lived—Baltimore, upstate New York—but I don’t know those places as well as I know California. Things went wrong in those places—oh Lord how they went wrong—but maybe I don’t have the distance yet to write about them. Or I don’t have the distance to make those things right. I know we’re supposed to be deep here but I just miss the air in California. I remember the smog, for the ‘60s and ‘70s were the age of smog, but that’s gone now. I miss the lightness of it, the weightlessness; in the east and Midwest the air is too heavy, too much like a cloak for me. And because that air was so light; because I did not have to think about it, think about trudging through it, I believe or believed that so much more was or is possible. Well, at least I know I’m not going to sweat my eyes out of my head. I know I’m just talking about humidity. I know that I am over-romanticizing California. But that humidity is like a seal I can’t break through. Maybe we as a nation, or you and I, as writers, also feel this.  

 So I guess California is a Garden of Eden for folks like us, although there’s another tradition we haven’t discussed, which is California as the place of broken dreams. (Or maybe we have? What happens when you don’t fit in with the dream, which occurred in both of our cases? Please read on.) These are the people who come, or escape to, California and find the same problems they ran away from.  I think this inspired a lot of noir, but that’s another conversation; nevertheless, this is also an ingredient in our stories. Where do you go when the land of dreams disappoints you so? You should have had none of the problems with sex (let alone identity) in California, because everything there is free and easy and open and most of all wild! Challenging those tired old paradigms! Here in California, you will be Accepted! Understood! Why couldn’t you just go to an encounter group? (I hope I sound sarcastic here.) Or a rap session? I suppose psychoanalysis was out, because that is a New York thing. 

When I was a child, I had the distinct feeling of being marooned on a desert island, because of my mother’s family. They talked about the east, and pined for their relatives, and everything that was the east. My uncle subscribed to the New York Times and they’d go at it, section by section, as if it were pieces of the true cross (or the original Torah).  So California was the end of the world, and yet it was where I was just starting out. I suppose it is one thing to grow up in a place and find out later it isn’t all it was cracked up to be. That’s an American story. It’s another to grow up somewhere and know there is something inherently spoiled about it; you are growing up without a chance to discover, to decide, to mature on your own terms and widen your outlook. Your home is at ground zero of the widening gyre. Now that’s a mixed metaphor that could only come from California, eh?

But yes, I did find the Faire, which was filled with the “cool” kids and even more so with a lot of misfits like myself. That was my, or my state’s, saving grace. You could be an oddball there, although I do not know if that is the case in California nowadays. Yes, you are right that the state has changed so much. I think the center of the economy being dragged out to California—the Silicon Valley—has a lot to do with it. Yes there are oddballs in Silicon Valley but life is also deadly serious there, with the amount of money coming and going and most of all, staying. Hollywood is also more like a monarchy these days than when I was a kid, observing it. It’s kind of calcified and become more of a caricature of itself. Since it always was a kind of caricature of the lofty theater business—that was how it built itself up—you can imagine how exaggerated and outlandish today’s caricature is.

I left California because I had burnt out as a journalist and didn’t know any other way of earning a living in California. But a great many of my Faire friends are still there, some of them still doing Faire-like stuff, so I’d like to go back, probably when I retire. I also remember my mother, the born-and-bred east coaster and reluctant world traveler, often telling me that we were living in a world of crap (although she did not always use the word “crap”) and that in California we were at the very top, so we should be grateful. That must have made an impression, especially since she said it more often the older she got.

Look. Life is easier without freezing temperatures and humidity.  Maybe it is easier without roots and traditions, or establishment ideas of art, music and literature. Maybe people who don’t have the courage or gumption to leave their roots and their received ideas behind are jealous and defensive. That California still has to be defended is more than a little sad. I mean, do people in Chicago say, “Our orchestra is better than the Minneapolis orchestra? (Or the St. Paul orchestra?)” Here in New York people don’t talk like that, because it’s assumed that everything—museums, orchestras, theater, everything—is the best it can be. But wasn’t New York at one time inferior to Europe? You know, the next time I move, it’ll be to Berlin. 

CM: Or are east and west there still staging their own bizarre and pointless rivalry?

Cris Mazza’s newest title is a real-time memoir titled Something Wrong With Her chronicling the 25-year journey to reunite with a boy from her past. She has sixteen other titles including her most recent novel Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls. Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction. Currently living 50 miles west of Chicago, she is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She can be found online at

Jane Rosenberg LaForge lives in New York with her husband and daughter, but travels frequently to her hometown of Los Angeles. In addition to her memoir, An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir (Jaded Ibis Press 2014), she is the author of the full-length poetry collection, With Apologies to Mick Jagger, Other Gods, and All Women (The Aldrich Press 2012) and three chapbooks of poetry. More information is available at