Monday, July 30, 2018

On Cockroaches, Kudzu, and the Eco-Essay: A Conversation with Clinton Crockett Peters & Amanda Yanowski

Recently, I sat down in my North Texas home with Clinton Crockett Peters, author of Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and other Misfits of Ecology, to escape the summer heat, drink iced tea, and, mainly, discuss his new essay collection. Clint was kind enough to answer my questions about his writing process, how he balances research with personal essaying, and his hopes for the future of the eco-writing genre.

This book has such an intriguing premise. I am wondering, first, if you would speak about how the project came together?

Right. I’m going to go deep here. When I was in college, I did this major called Natural History and Humanities, which was actually the brainchild of Barry Lopez, the author, and E.O. Wilson, the ant biologist. They came up with this degree to bridge the gap between environmental science and fields like writing and journalism, because they felt like there was a lack of science literacy in the public. They started the major, and I just happened to land at [Texas Tech University] right when they were piloting it. It was great. I had just been backpacking for the first time and had fallen in love with the outdoors, but I had a very old-school idea about what environmental writing was. So I got involved and started reading people like Barry Lopez, like Annie Dillard, of course, and John McPhee, and I loved what these writers did with environmental writing, with the outdoors, with researching and going out into the world to find stories and essays.

Then in the second semester of my MFA, I took this elective called Biogeography. I didn’t know what that was until I signed up for it, but Biogeography is the study of why animals and plants live where they do and why they don’t live elsewhere. So like, why are marsupials in Australia but not in Alaska, or why are penguins in the South Pole and why are polar bears in the North Pole—those kinds of questions. The class was basically the story of life, and it undid a lot of my assumptions about the world.

What sort of assumptions?

One of the main ones is that whole circle of life thing. I know we both love The Lion King—it’s a great movie, I love the music—but unfortunately, in ecology, the circle of life doesn’t really work because there’s no stable tapestry in any environment, anywhere, and there never has been. And that’s one of the things that class taught me: things have always been shifting, have always been moving. The continents and cells have been moving since there have been continents and cells. Species have always poured across time zones and boundaries, mountains have eroded, there have been mass extinctions. And so this really shifted the way I saw the environment—not as this stable tapestry, but basically as chaos that’s only there for a moment of time.

That’s how I got interested in assisted species migration, which was my MFA thesis. Assisted species migration is about people who have moved plants and animals from where we found them to other places, often with disastrous consequences.

Yes, readers of your book will certainly be familiar with these sort of disastrous consequences.

Exactly. You know, the big example for me is in “Rabbits and Convicts,” which was one of the first essays I wrote for the book. I was just fascinated—how did rabbits take over Australia? How did that happen? And people built the world’s longest fence to stop the rabbits? This sounds like science fiction. But no, it really happened. Pandora’s Garden grew out of this fascination with assisted species migration, but I felt like that was too narrow. There wasn’t enough of a story there, so I turned to misfits. I’ve always been attracted to ecological misfits, so I kind of wanted to give them their due. I mean, everyone hates cockroaches—and, by the way, I want to go on the record and say that I also don’t like cockroaches—but I’d like to understand why I don’t like them.

In general, I thought there was enough to talk about with misfits that reflected on humanity—how we see ourselves as part of the ecological world, and also how we have enabled and created misfits. Like with cockroaches—there’s actually several thousand species of cockroaches, and most of them are part of the ecological tapestry of rainforests and are very helpful because they’re scavengers. But we only talk about the cockroaches, like six species, that live with us. These species live with humans and nowhere else because they’re evolutionarily designed to live with us. We have enabled them. We are their benefactors. We are their soil. And they’re here to stay. Cockroaches aren’t going anywhere, kudzu is not going anywhere. They keep wiping out the rabbits, and they just keep coming back, so I guess they’re probably there to stay in Australia.

So it’s like, since these things are going to be around, why don’t we try to understand them? And since there is no stable ecology, since everything is flux, where are we going with these misfits? Can we imagine a future where we don’t live in harmony (because that’s also an ideal), but how can we live together? How do we want to live? How can we shape our future in a way that isn’t reflective and retroactive, but is more proactive? I think those are the things I was interested in.

For me, much of the collection is framed by the claim you make in the prologue that you are agnostic about “human knowledge of our place among other creatures…” I’m wondering if you could speak a bit about how this identification might have shaped your research and writing process, and also how it might inform a reading of the collection?

Absolutely. I’ve been steeped among people who have been interested in preserving wildernesses and prairies and to maintain some semblance of life as these things know it. And I feel like a lot of them have this good intent to promote life, and promote care, and promote concern for the more than human world. So I understand what they’re trying to do, and that they’re trying to get people on board with their cause. But the idea that things stay where they are is, I think, really undermined by the work that paleontologists and paleobotanists and other scientists are doing. Doreen Massey is a theorist who talked about how everything in an ecological system—any system, even this room that we’re in right now—will eventually dissolve. The air in this room will go somewhere else; we’ll leave and go have a beer. Even your computer, which you just got and is really awesome, will eventually break down and go somewhere else. And that’s fine. That’s just how things are. I mean, everything came from places before. The metal for that computer was in a mountain somewhere, and was in some other mountain before that. 

So that’s why I’m agnostic. We try to understand these things—where they are, and where they need to be for environmental purposes, or environmentalist purposes—but the problem is that the geological record is pretty scarce, and we still don’t know a lot. Our ability to know things is really hampered by this sense that we just haven’t been around that long as a species, and science hasn’t been around that long, and ecology hasn’t been around that long, and our ways of knowing are still very limited. It’s just really hard to know what is the most healthy way to live in terms of humans as ecological beings. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try! I really don’t want to have a nihilistic outlook. I think we should still try, and it’s fun to try.

It wouldn’t take more than skimming a few pages to see how much research was conducted for this book. An impressive amount, an intimidating amount, I think, for a lot of writers! So I am curious about what your research process looked like.

I tend to do the research first. I think about the pieces in terms of collage or sculpture—first I have to make the individual parts, usually through research, and then I can put them together in the essay. I actually love doing research. I’m a big nerd, and I’m old-school in the sense that I still love going to libraries. I love sitting in libraries, I love going to stacks, I love looking at books. Even if the material in the books is comparatively outdated, I still love that process.

Why? I mean, I love library stacks, too, but when you think about the material potentially being outdated, what value does this sort of research add?

There’s two sides to me. There’s the kid in the candy store who just wants to browse the books. I really feel like this is just pure joy, and I like to mine any kind of joy I can get out of the research process because that keeps me motivated. But the other side, the responsible writer in me, does have to cross-reference things with more updated journal articles or interviews with living scientists who are actually in the field.

I don’t tend to start with interviews because I don’t like to come off as completely illiterate. I think it was Richard Preston—who wrote The Hot Zone and First Light—who said he likes to become like a first-year graduate student before he interviews scientists. I might be wrong about that being said by him, but I like that idea of at least getting semiliterate in the subject matter. Books are great for this because they often start with a general overview of a subject, where journal articles are usually knee-deep in some controversy and not interested in offering that sort of background. So, process-wise, it usually starts with books. But I do read a lot of journal articles, and I do a lot of Google searches—who doesn’t these days while doing research? Why wouldn’t you?

And different essays require different types of research. Some subjects have been widely reported on—the Asian carp was a big controversy in the Great Lakes region, so there was a bunch of reporting in the Chicago mass media that I could mine. But the Texas snow monkeys, there’s still not a lot in the public media about that.

That is really surprising, especially when you throw Nolan Ryan into that conversation!

Yeah, it is really surprising! I mean there was some reporting out there. There was one story about fifteen years ago in the Austin American-Statesman, and a sports radio show called The Ticket did an interview with Nolan Ryan that kind of went viral, but mostly just because it was funny. I couldn’t find this story, which is when on-the-ground reporting can really come in handy. I talked to a snow monkey primatologist in Japan (we Skyped at three in the morning, my time), and then I talked to the person who is actually in charge of wrangling these monkeys at the refuge right now. They were both really helpful. 

I wish I was braver about talking to people over the phone than I am, but I’m a terrible reporter. I could never be a beat reporter. I’m such a nerd; I just want to curl up with my books and take notes. While writing “The Carp Experience,” I really wanted to see a picture of the dam—this electric current that’s blocking the fish from going up the Chicago Canal into the Great Lakes. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to find a picture, or how to get there and see it. Finally I just called the head of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, who obviously has bigger fish to fry but was willing to talk to me—people are so generous with their time! He said I couldn’t come see the place, so I asked what it looked like and he sat there and described it for me in detail. It’s in the book, his description, and that’s how I accomplished that task—just calling this person who works there to figure out what does this look like, how does it operate, that kind of thing. I got information that was impossible to find anywhere else.

As a last resort, go straight to the source!

I know, it’s terrible. But the other thing is, when I go the circuitous route I often find these really fascinating tidbits that I think make the piece more fun and lively and interesting, and I also try to follow the rabbit holes because they often take me in fun directions. In “Rabbits and Convicts,” in particular, I follow a lot of rabbit holes. I went all kinds of places with that essay because I didn’t really know where it was going and I wanted to follow some different threads. Originally it was about rabbits. It was always about rabbits, but then it started to be about the First Fleet and branding in the UK and criminals, and then I brought in Percy Shelley. And I think all that stuff kind of works, right? I think it all comes together. Whereas, if I had gone straight to the source maybe I wouldn’t have found that stuff—that quirky stuff that bounces off other places and then makes it into something better.

Absolutely, and I think these sort of intriguing connections appear throughout the book. I also think you answered a question I didn’t ask yet, which is why do you think the book doesn’t feel bogged down with research.

Oh thank God. Thank you for saying that.

It doesn’t! Actually, much of the book is deeply personal, and I’m wondering if you might talk about the balance you arrived at between research-driven writing, which seems to be the place you start from, and personal essaying.

At first the book was very research-driven, always looking out of the self. I feel part of the change was just me growing as a writer and as a person, really. I started this project in 2011, and I like to think I’m a more mature writer and individual now. I think that seven years ago I wasn’t able to look at my background, or my dad, or myself, and hit upon subject material that could be fodder for an essay. I was just way too close to the material, and the personal stuff I was writing was way too narcissistic, nostalgic, and all of the other things that I think are often wrong with early drafts of essays. It just took me six, seven years to get to that point where I could write personal stuff that I thought still connected with the material and the book. So the research-heavy essays came first, for the most part. (Although “Evolving the Monster: A History of Godzilla” was one of the later ones and “Recycle Prairie Dogs” was actually the last one that I wrote.) But by-and-large, the personal essays, and the personal stuff within the other essays, came later, when I felt more comfortable writing about myself and finding the material. 

And you know another thing is, my dad died, and I just didn’t think I could write about him before that happened. I just couldn’t. One of the worst experiences of my life [was when] I wrote an essay about my dad and for whatever stupid reason—maybe it was Freudian, I don’t know—I left it sitting on a counter and my dad saw it and read it. And he was really hurt because it was really honest. He was in the middle of his unending slide into cancer and dementia at that point, and I was really brutal and honest. I was not intending him to read that. So that left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I really didn’t think I could write about him again until he finally died, and then things just opened up in me. I think things changed for me, too, and in this change I was able to reflect and think about what his life meant to me at that point. That didn’t happen until 2013 and then, you know, you’re always kind of slam-dunked for a year after a death—or at least a year, I guess. I don’t think I even started writing “The Genealogy of Extinction” until the end of 2015, and didn’t finish it until way late in the process. I actually was still working on that essay after it was published, so I have an even newer version than what’s in the book. It just had to go to print.

That’s interesting. At some point it has to be done, it has to go to print. But I’m sure the essays could keep changing endlessly.

Exactly. So, perfect example—that kudzu essay? I finished that in 2013, but when I was reading it at the American Literary Review reading a couple of weeks ago, I was still changing things. As I was reading it.

I’ve seen you do this! With a pen or pencil, making notes while you’re reading to a crowd.

Yeah, it’s great! It’s like, this is a book and I’m still rewriting. That’s one of the best things I’ve ever learned, though. What is that old line—perfect is the enemy of good? When I learned that perfect is never the goal, but just can you make it sing in all of its messy sloppiness? That liberated me from whatever constraints I felt.

I love that. And at the very least you can keep making margin notes in your own published book until the end of time, and someday read entirely different scribbled-margin essays.

It’s my book, dammit. 

Could you speak about your relation to genre and how much that factored into your writing process?

I could honestly go here all day. This would be a great point to link to a piece that I wrote for Essay Daily in 2016 called “A New ‘I’ on Nature: An Exploration in Eco-Essays” because most of the things I want to say about the environmental genre I said in that essay. It’s sort of my manifesto. I actually am not kidding about this—I still think it’s my favorite thing that I have written, because it’s something I really care about. How can we reshape the environmental genre, which I want to call eco-writing now because the terms environmental writing and nature writing have so much baggage.

So you would title the genre eco-writing?

Yeah, or eco-essays. 

I love eco-essay as a title. It has some great connective tissue for what you do in combining environmental writing with the personal essay.

But I also think there are a lot of cool novelists that are doing eco-writing. A great example is Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. Yeah, dude, that’s eco-writing. Maybe she doesn’t want to use that term (and that’s fine, she can call her writing whatever she wants), but I just feel that she’s so aware on the page of the more than human world and how it connects to humanity. Huge thumbs up.

Novels are doing this, but I tend to write eco-essays. Other examples are Elena Passarello’s Animals Strike Curious Poses, which came out last year and is really great, or Angela Pelster’s Limber, which I talk about in that Essay Daily article, along with Yelizaveta Renfro’s Xylotheque.

I try to do a couple of things in my own eco-writing. One is to have humor, because I feel like so many people have (rightfully) criticized nature writing/environmental writing of being humorless, stodgy, and sermonizing. And I just don’t want to do that; I want to have fun and I want to show that this is fun stuff—it’s really fun to research things like kudzu or rabbits that are taking over a continent. It’s like, why mire yourself in a guilt-trip when, (A) I don’t think that even works, it probably backfires, and (B) I don’t want to read that, so why would other people want to read that? Maybe that worked back in the day, but I feel like we’ve had that note for fifty years now and it’s just time to move on.

So, for you, this genre title shift from environmental/nature writing to what you’re calling eco-writing has a lot to do with tone? With humor?

Yes, but not just humor. It also has to do with the issue of nature writing being this male-dominated, heteronormative, white, classist thing—where it’s mostly white, male writers telling other people what to think, feel, and do. The epitome of this, of course, is Edward Abbey. I think he writes a good sentence, and I know he captivates people—when I worked at an outdoor shop at Texas Tech, we literally carried all of his books. We had this tiny library in the store, and it was like “how to tie knots,” “how to cook outdoors,” and then it was Edward Abbey. Everyone would read Edward Abbey, including myself. He’s captivating. But he ties so much into this toxic masculine view of nature as this proving ground for white heteronormativity, and that just is not cool anymore. It was never cool, but it’s really not cool now. And if we environmental, eco-type people want to bring people into the fold and increase and make connections, it’s best to call people out for their bullshit. I just don’t think we can excuse it anymore.

That’s another thing—taking ownership of privilege and not seeing the outdoors as something “out there,” because nature is never “out there.” There is no nature separate from humanity. There is no out there, there is no not-nature. And we are part of nature. We’re still animals, we’re 98% like other primates, and we have something like a quart of bacteria swimming around in our gut right now that we couldn’t survive without. We’re just a conglomeration of stuff. We eat other things every day that become us, right? And then we excrete them and they become part of—well, anyway, we’re never separate from nature.

I feel like that dichotomy is actually conversely upheld by environmentalists who want to show that we need to help out nature. They uphold the binary, and I want to do away with that. There are a lot of things that I think are possible in the eco-writing genre. (Which, again, a lot of other writers are doing this well, like Elena Passarello, Angela Pelster, Amy Leach, and Luis Urrea.) I think it’s really exciting right now. And in the academic field, eco-criticism has come a long way and has actually been on the forefront of pushing these antiqued genre ideals forward for about a decade. A great example of this is UNT’s own Priscilla Ybarra—her book Writing the Goodlife does this well.

So eco-writing’s distinction is clearly not all about humor. But you’re a funny guy, and there are some laughs to be had in Pandora’s Garden. Could you talk a bit more about the function of humor in your own writing?

A lot of the humor is in direct response to the unfolding conversations in the eco-writing genre. I don’t believe in guilt-trips, I don’t believe in sermonizing. I have something to say, and I have questions, but I don’t like lecturing. I don’t feel like that works. I don’t want to tell people what to think, but if they want to follow me into whatever I’m thinking then I want to make it fun. I learned this working as an outdoor guide, actually. You lead a bunch of people who have never been backpacking before, and backpacking’s hard, right? You’re putting this fifty-pound bag on your shoulders, which you’ve never done before, you’re getting blisters, you’re hiking up a mountain. It’s exhausting. So how do you make this better? Well, you have fun. You sing songs, you tell jokes, you pull some pranks—the guides would do this as a way of shepherding people to the point where we would camp and they would get this wonderful view. Humor has a way of moving people to a place they want to get to.

In writing, I think humor can be such an effective delivery mechanism for theme, or metaphor, or whatever it is you’re going for. I would not call my writing humorous; I would just say that I understand that reading a bunch of research can feel overwhelming, and having something that sparks a smile can really help pull a reader through. A lot of what I do when I rewrite is actually trim some of the heavier research and focus more on those bright spots that cause this spark. So when I’m researching, a lot of what I do is look for those fascinating moments (and sometimes disgusting moments because I think disgust can lead to pleasure.) Basically, I try to skew toward humor and zaniness, hopefully not to the detriment of accuracy, but to the benefit of readability.

When a guy eats too many cockroaches and dies, that’s disgusting. And fascinating.

A fascinating moment, especially because it’s not even the most disgusting part of your cockroach essay, “Water Bugs: A Story of Absolution”.

What is the worst part? That’s not the worst part?! I thought that was the worst part, which is why I put it at the beginning of the essay. That was actually originally in the middle, and I made the choice to move it. So, what’s the worst part for you? The bug in the ear?

The bug in the ear. Because that’s something you can’t avoid. I can choose to not enter a cockroach-eating contest, but I can’t necessarily choose what happens around me and to me while I’m sleeping.

That’s a good point! 

But that moment offers an interesting coalescence of disgust, humor, and fear. And you do warn readers—there’s a cockroach right on the cover! Actually, do you want to talk about the cover? It’s a bold choice, and it seems to underscore your use of humor.

Yeah, I chose that! That was my decision and the University of Georgia Press was really on board with it, which was great. And there’s absolutely some humor behind the kind of insane choice to put a cockroach on the cover of a book. And it might hurt book sales, but that’s completely fine. I think it’s kind of self-selecting; if someone is willing to buy a book with a cockroach on the cover, they’re going to (I hope) enjoy it, and are probably willing to think through all of the things I am trying to think through. I hope. I also thought it was eye-catching.

I wonder if you could talk more about the concept of monster-wonder. It’s a term you only use once in the collection, but I felt its presence in a number of the essays.

You’re right! I don’t think I thought that, but now that you say that it makes sense. Even the rabbits turn out to be monsters. I also talk about kudzu monsters, how when they grow over telephone poles and houses they look like prehistoric creatures. That makes a lot of sense. Of course in “Beasts on the Street” I talk about how cars are monsters, and then Godzilla, duh. Wow, that’s cool. I mean, monster-wonder might relate to the whole misfit-love that I have.

So monster-wonder, for you, is less fear-based (which you bring up as a possibility in “Becoming Mascot”) and more rooted in curiosity?

More awe-based. Not fear-based. I would actually say that I even have an awe for something like the cockroach. They’ve been around for 350 million years, there are millions of them, they are everywhere, they can survive so well—as I researched I found that it’s true that they would survive a nuclear bomb, not the blast but the radiation fallout. So part of me is in awe. Obviously Godzilla is awesome. And I’m in awe of kudzu, that it can grow so well and grow so much. It can literally grow a foot in twenty-four hours. It’s insane that a plant can grow that much, that anything can grow that fast. I definitely like utilizing the fear to create interest and entertainment, and to make connections. But for me, personally, I just wonder what these creatures’ lives are like.

Pretty hard-hitting follow-up question: Which version of Godzilla pairs best with Pandora’s Garden? Which of the films do you think relates best to the work you are doing in this book?

Oh, you know the answer to that! Because you’ve seen it.

I think I do know—the only Godzilla film I have ever seen.

I love that this is the only one you’ve seen. But, for the readers of Essay Daily who have not checked out Godzilla vs. Biollante, this is where Godzilla fights a giant rosebush that is part Godzilla cells, part radiation, part rosebush, and has the soul of a botanist’s murdered daughter who died in a terrorist bombing. And if that doesn’t sound crazy just wait, because there’s more. There’s a psychic, there’s a thunder-making device, there’s a flying UFO militarized weapon, and there’s a love plot. There’s also this nuclear-eating bacteria, oh, and there are spies. This movie is just whacked out, but the reason that I like it (aside from the fact that it’s funny) is that it’s Godzilla fighting a rosebush. Parts of it are stupid, but that just describes all of the Godzilla franchise.

I’m going to really shift gears on you here. I think it would be difficult to read this book and not draw some parallels to our country’s fraught history and complex relationship with immigration. I am wondering if this was an intentional effect on your part, or if these connections were just a natural byproduct of the subject matter.

Surprisingly, they were a natural byproduct. As an example, I did not intend to talk about colonialism when I started talking about rabbits in Australia, but for me that’s what that essay is about. And in “The Texas Snow Monkeys,” I did not think I would start talking about Texas’s treatment of its immigrants and America’s treatment of immigrants. And the carp essay, same deal.

What I’m pointing to is the rhetoric and some of the actions that are used in order to undermine and to erase these creatures and these people. And there are parallels between the two, right? For instance, the carp did not ask to be brought over here. That was not their decision. They just survived and did what they had to do, and then rose in prominence and become very successful. And when they become successful, that’s when America was like uh-oh, we’ve gotta do something about this! And that just struck me as a huge parallel to how America treats its immigrants: you’re welcome to come here and do shit work, but once you become successful—oh no, we can’t let you, and now we have to elect Donald Trump to stop you.

This is all toward that cause of connecting eco-writing with humanity. You can look at the natural world, the more than human world, and see politics. I don’t think I’m any kind of genius for doing that; I think it’s completely on the surface. I tried to be subtle about it because, again, I don’t like sermonizing. I wanted the reader to stumble on these themes and conclusions organically, the way I did while researching and writing. My writing process works well, I think, when I don’t have an axe to grind initially—when I come at it with a curious mind and I find quirky things that lead me to other topics.

You’ve referenced a number of writers and books in our conversation, but I’m curious if you want to add to that list? Did you have any models for the work you are doing in this book? Writers you kept in the back of your mind?

Yeah, oh man. I mean, Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams is just a dream of a book. Again, Luis Urrea’s Devil’s Highway. But thinking of people I haven’t mentioned, he’s controversial, but I really like John D’Agata’s About a Mountain. He mines the poetry of the world in a way that I deeply admire. I kind of wish that other writers who write about the natural world would do that a little bit more. Elena Passarello does this beautifully in Animals Strike Curious Poses.

And more that I have mentioned already—I talk about Angela Pelster’s Limber in my manifesto. There’s also Yelizaveta Renfro’s Xylotheque, which is really good. Xylotheque is just an archaic word for an arbor—a tree farm. Actually, Limber is also about trees. They’re both great eco-essay collections.

Nick Neely’s Coast Range is another good example. Of course, Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss.

I actually did a panel once with Roger Reeves, who is a poet. I feel like his work touches on things that I talk about. Apparently his first book, King Me, was originally going to do even more in terms of incorporating the natural world with other things. And speaking of people I admire in other genres, Toni Jensen is doing that with fiction in ways that I also really admire. She does write essays, too. She is doing a lot of research about fracking, and frack camps and prostitution—really important work. She’s an incredible writer and person.

A book I was really interested in was Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, which won the Man Booker prize a couple of years ago. I think it’s so eco-feminist, how she connects the maltreatment of animals in animal farming to the treatment of women and feminism. I think that Jesmyn Ward does that, too, in Salvage the Bones. There’re connections between her treatment by the men in her world to how this dog is treated.

Oh, and Linda Hogan. Dwellings is magical; you can’t put that book down. Yeah, anything by Linda Hogan.

Well then, Dr. Clinton Crockett Peters, what’s next for you (beyond striving for that trophy for “World’s Best Human” that you mention in the book)? What writing projects are you working on? More eco-writing, I assume?

There’s my dissertation—another collection of essays, which I kind of have on a shelf right now because I just need to take a break from it. It’s sort of eco-writing, but it’s actually more personal. It’s about me living in Japan and about my dad, and about me trying to become a human in his shadow.

But I’m really, really excited about my third book project, which I am calling Wilderness Warriors right now, ironically. I want to research all of these people who I think are very unlikely environmentalists and, often, very troubling environmentalists—to sort of see how we look at environmentalism and maybe to undercut some of those assumptions we make about environmental figures.

Can you give us a little preview? An example of someone you are profiling in the book?

Oh yeah, are you ready for this? I am knee-deep in George W. Bush research right now. I have this huge stack of biographies in my study. I’m really interested in his Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, Texas. It’s big—something like 1,600 acres—and he spent over a million dollars on it. He’s taken really good care of it; I mean, Texas master naturalists sing its praises. It is this beautiful, wonderful place that he has taken really good care of, yet this is the president who decided to do nothing about climate change. I feel like the tension there is really fascinating. I’m having a lot of fun researching, and it’s probably closer to Pandora’s Garden than my second book is.

As we wrap up, is there anything else you might want to talk about? Something else specific to your book or your writing process that a person might not know to ask about after reading your work?

Yeah, actually! So, I have ADHD, and I’ve always had ADHD. Focusing on one thing for very long is something that doesn’t feel natural, so I tend to not focus on one particular part of the writing process for a long time. For instance, I don’t think I would work on composing one essay for more than two days in a row. But that’s the great part about writing essays. With research, with composing, with shuffling pieces, editing, retooling, proofreading, submitting—I have all of these moving pieces, stages in the writing process that I can focus on. So if I get tired with composition, I can go back to research. If I get tired of research, I can go to editing and retooling. As long as I don’t stay on one stage of the writing process for very long, I find that I can keep my motivation going.

It’s like the ADHD is maybe your biggest challenge as a writer, but has also helped you structure how you approach the process in a particular way that works.

I actually like to think of it as the biggest help! I like doing all of these stages, because they keep me going. The only thing is that it just makes everything take longer, individually, which can get frustrating. Actually, this second book, my dissertation, I started working on that in 2007—way before I started writing Pandora’s Garden—and it’s still not finished.

I think that’s because of the personal nature of that book. I didn’t know how to write the thing that was more personal until I had written the thing that was more objective. Writing about kudzu and rabbits taught me how to write about myself as a subject. 

*

Clinton Crockett Peters is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Berry College. He is the author of Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology, from the University of Georgia Press. He has been awarded literary prizes from Shenandoah, North American Review, Crab Orchard Review, Columbia Journal, and the Society for Professional Journalists. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow, and a PhD in English/creative writing at the University of North Texas. His work also appears in Orion, Southern Review, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Catapult, Hotel Amerika, Electric Literature, and elsewhere.

A native of central Minnesota, Amanda Yanowski currently lives in Denton, Texas, where she teaches writing, literature, and theatre. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of North Texas. Her writing has appeared in The Carolina Quarterly and South Dakota Review.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Rukmini Girish: On Not Understanding

I began reading Jenny Boully’s Betwixt-and-Between on a bus. I stopped after the first half of the first sentence of the first essay. I wanted to return to the beginning of the preface and arrive at this point again. I stopped myself. I feared getting stuck in a loop, because it is possible to read this first half of a first sentence again, and again, and again, and never read anything else. “In the writing life, an occasional glance sometimes out of windows where clouds scuttle and the sky is autumn blue, but somehow one is not a part of it,” Boully writes, followed by a semicolon.
     Place a comma before “sometimes,” or place one before and after, and the sentence becomes familiar. Read it aloud the way it is and you will trail off into slightly breathless uncertainty. Or, perhaps, dreaming. Boully often writes about dreams; the essay which begins with this fraction is, in fact, about tenses, and dreaming, and daydreaming, and the ways in which we meld our pasts, presents, and futures. That “sometimes” blows us straight into the dream state. There is no subject, unless it is the writing life (even the “one” which peeks in timidly is banished as “not a part of it”). There is only a state where things are at once terribly clear (I remember the times when I too have looked up from my desk to the sliver of sky I can see between tall buildings and felt a sense of wonder because the world outside the window is so far away) and terrifyingly vague (I feel, by the time I reach that semicolon, as if I am about to float away).
     And then there is another half sentence to read.

I like to watch the steam curling in fantastic spirals from a freshly-brewed cup of tea. It always takes me a few seconds to enter a state where I can simply follow the movement, without attempting to hold onto one tendril before it curls into nothingness. And yet, if I was a speck of dust, small enough to be caught up in a coil of steam without seeing its end, perhaps I would finally have something with which to compare reading Boully’s sentences. There is an engulfing sincerity to them; it seems not that she believes what she is saying, but rather that there is no other way to experience the world. The second half of that remarkable first sentence describes a glance into a mirror. A few sentences later, Boully writes, “I refuse to see that the mirror too is glass, a window, a glass with a thin sheet on which I am written, a sheet that keeps the inside in. To be a part of it is to be apart from it.” A window becomes a mirror thanks to the thin sheet of reflective metal coating the back. That sheet reflects rays of light, creating the world within. To be written on that sheet, one must be apart from it. Boully’s “refusal” to see the connections only strengthens them; writing, mirrors and (a)part-ness exist, not in the often hierarchical relationship of metaphor, but simultaneously. The sheet is literal and figurative, the coconut on a German chocolate cake is “a million anemones,” the letter X is a deletion and various former lovers, and I do not question any of it.
     I am fascinated by the way Boully views the world, but it is the movement of her sentences that really draws me in, their unexpected curvatures, the ways in which they loop back on themselves without getting stuck. One of the most remarkable is yet another beginning, this time of an essay titled “The Art of Fiction”:
When I first met Butch, he was counting spiders on his ceiling, which he said wasn’t the ceiling but rather a metaphor for sky, which itself wasn’t a sky at all either but rather a metaphor for something else, and so it happened that I fell quite madly in love with Butch; however, Butch never really happened either, or maybe he did, but his name was something other than Butch, and the manner in which we’d made the other’s acquaintance didn’t happen with such significance—but the way I am telling it makes it no different from the telling which occurs quite truthfully under the guise of fiction, which means, if it’s truly true fiction, which is to say, if it is true, then it really is fiction, and everything else is a failed mimicry.
I smile each time I read this sentence. A ceiling expands to a sky, a sky expands to something else, and then the sentence doubles back to doubt a fundamental assumption of its beginning. It retraces its path through a different lens (that of the telling) and then, in a glorious hailstorm of truth and fiction, transports us to a place I still cannot see from the beginning. The sentence dissolves each time I try to grasp it, but if I surrender to the curving, I find something unexpected on each journey.

I showed a friend that fraction of a sentence about the writing life and the autumn blue sky. She told me it reminded her of the Penrose stairs, a staircase that makes four ninety-degree turns, forming a continuous loop so that a person could climb it forever. But no one will do so, for the Penrose stairs can only exist in the mind and on the page. Stairs, in waking life, must arrive somewhere. I should have remembered that Boully’s texts rarely do the same. A couple of years ago, I tried to track the movement of ghosts and writing and Boully’s family in Thailand in “Too Many Spirits Who Begged to be Let In,” but gave up after three pages. There is too much contained, for example, in these two sentences: “I can’t think of only nothing. My mind wants to think in terms of white: white curtains, white bedding, a white wedding dress, a white handkerchief, a blank sheet of white paper, a dizzy, smoky memory, a few stars shimmering, snow on the T, a white dusting covering everything.” Why does your mind move from this object to this, I wanted to ask. But tracking and glossing and all those other techniques I learned are supposed to provide answers.
     You see, a large part of my education has been in the art of controlling texts. Understanding them. Separating useful information from flourishes of style. Parsing what, exactly, stylistic flourishes are doing to aid the intentions of the text. I was used to reading through. Even if I happened upon some twist of logic or phrasing unexpected enough to warrant a second look (the movement from a handkerchief to a sheet of paper, for instance), I was always aware that I was only interrupting, briefly, a familiar movement. If I happened upon a text that moved nonlinearly, I learned to find its rules and articulate them. I failed, spectacularly, to do so with “Too Many Spirits Who Begged to be Let In.” I feel no desire to try with Betwixt-and-Between. Perhaps my first sustained experience of Boully’s writing has taught me that there is no logic to dreams. The longer I spend in this text, the more clearly I see that it does not behave like any other. It does not behave at all. Though the essay is often a meandering, a tracing of thought, this text does something more. Like a dream, it remains mutable, almost unbearably real when I am part of it, resurfacing most unexpectedly—when I look in the mirror, when I am negotiating traffic, when I look at another person—when I am not.
     This is beginning to frighten me, for it is destroying my many notions about the nature of reading. I read it. I and it are both static (in the physical world, at least). I choose when to bring an end to reading, or so I thought. The action moves in one direction, or so I thought. But it contains an i, and perhaps this is the truest thing I have said about this more-than-reading that Boully reveals. Reading describes an action. And yet I am not acting on Boully’s text; nor is it acting on me. It simply makes manifest a state of confusion without chaos, uncertainty without tentativeness, into which I am drawn almost imperceptibly. I can never see a route through Boully’s texts. Even “The Poet’s Education,” perhaps the most straightforward essay in Betwixt-and-Between, moves through the second, third and fourth grades, then circles back to second before moving on to fifth. The connotations of tutoring and killing change. But, as always, I follow this turning.
     The wonder of the Penrose stairs is that their looping cannot exist; the wonder of Boully’s text is that it does.

When I read The Stranger for the first time, I knew I was in the presence of something beyond my understanding. The Handmaid’s Tale made me wonder at what is possible in fiction. But I had never felt a book changing the way I think, changing my assumptions about something as fundamental as the act of reading, as I read it.
     So as the pages in my right hand dwindled, I grew anxious. I set the book down. I glanced at it guiltily for days. The thought of a return to mundanity turned the sky gray. Of course, Boully has words for this too: “The used one envies the new one: the new one has yet to come into the rite of her first opening, unveiling; the used one admits then to pitying herself and her lovers one thing: that the book is not being read in its original: meaning, it would be lovely to live serially, to await patiently the next chapter instead of acquiring a book completely bound, its ending already fully dressed and departing before the completion of the love act.” Boully uses the metaphor of the love act, but I imagined reading Betwixt-and-Between a second time more like climbing the Penrose stairs. Though this movement exists in the mind, it would be a novelty only at first; soon, it would become regular, up and down ad infinitum.
     I wanted to find the appropriate time to finish off the book, to leave behind that state of wonder. But then I had ten minutes before I had to leave for work, the day was so beautiful that the sky was blue, and I seized it. It felt right to depart almost before the completion.
     So I read the last essay and then climbed onto my bike and jolted over potholes with the wind in my face. Now, I understand that this was vital. If I had grieved the end of the book, I would have wept at the sight of the more-than-reading state receding into the distance, not realizing that I was the one pushing it away into memory. But the potholes reminded me of the earth and the wind reminded me of resisting gravity, and I realized, as I stopped and started, that though there is no more steam when a first cup of tea has been drunk, the steam from a second cup curves no more predictably than the first.

What does reading become when it is no longer an action?
     “Poetry is an instant,” Boully writes. “It is an instant in which transcendence is achieved, where a miracle occurs, and knowledge, experience, and memory are obliterated and transformed into awe. The instant passes quickly, so quickly, and then you are just your regular self again.”
     Reading Boully as extended poetry.
     I like this description. I have been resisting the use of the word sublime for all its religious implications. Boully does not set her writing up to be worshipped; I imagine she would be profoundly uncomfortable at the idea. And yet, the experience is undeniably transcendent. I find myself pausing to take deep breaths when I read Betwixt-and-Between, feeling my ribs expand as I look up from the page for a moment simply to reassure myself that knowledge, experience, and memory still exist in some far-distant realm. I do not know whether I stop breathing, or whether my breathing only slows to the bare minimum necessary to keep me alive.  Perhaps it is fitting that I can only describe reading Boully in Boully’s own words.
     But I have not yet returned to being my regular self.

When I read Boully’s interpretation of orgasm as “marginalia I couldn’t help but have,” I think of the only other time a text caused me to wonder at its very existence. As the old year died, I lay on my stomach in my grandparents’ house in Mysore, reading Toni Nealie’s The Miles Between Me, a collection of essays about motherhood, migration and the complexities of heritage after colonialism. I had just realized that my cousin and his wife were moving to Australia. I was thinking about the fracturing of families, mine in particular, and what it would mean when I could not categorize us as simply as those-who-left (or those-who-are-apart) and those-who-stayed (or those-who-are-together). Nealie quotes her fellow countrywoman, Katherine Mansfield, who advises, “Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.” Nealie responds, “How can we know what is hard until we are in the pain of it? And once there, how do we confront the truth?” I stopped reading, stared, rolled out of bed, rummaged through my backpack for a pencil, got back into bed, stared again, then underlined the sentence for fear that it would vanish. I read it once more.
     There is something unexpected about the journey from “hard” to “pain.” We have all been told that what is worthwhile is usually hard, and many other variations on the same theme. But the word “pain” makes the hardness physical, evoking bruises and scraped knuckles and throbbing muscles. And when one is in pain, it is harder to arrive at the clearheadedness I imagine is necessary to confront something so vast as the truth. Nealie’s extra twist of reasoning led me down a path I might never have noticed in the first place. I had to move; I had to commemorate it. I couldn’t help myself.
     So when I got home from work the night I finished the last essay in Betwixt-and-Between, I sat down with the book in one hand, pencil in the other, and opened to the preface. I underlined three words in the first paragraph: strives. serves. It.
     I laid down the pencil.
     The difference between reading Nealie and reading Boully is in the length of wonder. I underlined other sentences throughout The Miles Between Me, each one a paradox or a contradiction or an articulation of something I have never managed to say. When I return to the book, and to those sentences, I will pause, again, to admire all that they contain. But I can either underline all of Betwixt-and-Between or I can underline none of it. The commemoration is in the reading. The reading is, perhaps, poetry. The poetry is neverending.
     So all I can say, all I can leave you with, is a desire to be a part of it. Read Boully. Read Nealie too. And let’s talk about it.

*

Rukmini Girish usually writes about theater, performance, identity and the intersections between those topics. She received an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago and was selected as a Luminarts Creative Writing Fellow for 2018. Her work has appeared in Punctuate: A Nonfiction Magazine, East End Elements, and BUST.com.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Rachel Ratner's June 21, 2018

RACHEL RATNER

June 21, 2018—

I am a summer baby, in the truest sense. I came into this world on June 21st, when the
day is long, and the night is short, and airy, chatty Gemini gives way to sentimental Cancer, and spring turns to summer, brimming with possibility, with wonder, with the enchantment of new smells and sounds: a whiff of sunscreen, a symphony of crickets, a blossoming romance. On June 21st, we’ve not yet accounted for the swampy asses, sandy crotches, and oppressive subway platforms ahead, on June 21 we are still on the cusp of magic.
     On this June 21, I wake up in a Courtyard Marriott in Sunnyvale, California. I can feel that I’m not home, even before I open my eyes; sunlight floods my hotel room in a way it never does back home in Portland, OR. I begin this day like all others: disoriented, reaching for the phone, silencing my alarm before it gets loud enough to be annoying, and autopilot-tapping my way onto the Astrology Zone app, where I read both Gemini and Cancer horoscopes.
     As a June 21 baby, I sit on a zodiac cusp—neither and both. Always the end, and always the beginning. I suspect my first identity crisis (there have been a few) was deciding if I was a Gemini Twin or Cancer Crab. Was I ruled by idea or emotion? I couldn’t decide, so usually, I read both horoscopes and accept whichever is the most exciting or most devastating, depending on my mood. At some point, I learned that astrologers refer to this specific in-between as the Cusp of Magic. One astrologer said this cusp, and those of us born on it, are symbolically likened to age 21, when we approach new experiences with a childlike wonder, when the world is our horizon, and we are enamoured with potential.
     I am nothing if not enamoured with the horizon. This is both a fantastic and terrible quality for an event planner (which I am). I approach my work, and each new event with an anything-is-possible mentality. My enthusiasm is infectious to all, until it’s time to put all those ideas in a spreadsheet and execute the damn thing. It’s hard to hold on to all the promise, when you’re 46 emails deep with a caterer who just doesn’t get your vision for the aperitifs.
     This morning I dress in all black (event day uniform) and head downstairs. When I get off the elevator, I see a few of my event team members waiting for me at a table in the lobby. They begin a sluggish version of “Happy Birthday,” but they are uncaffeinated and peter out before the end.
“Who has the van keys?” Kara, the senior event producer asks us. We all pat down our hips, and asses, and backpacks, until the van’s last driver, Lizette claims ownership from across
 the lobby. She hands the keys to Kyle, this event’s Creative Director. When I first met Kyle, I assumed that he was a San Francisco bro. He’s hip, usually hidden behind a MacBook Air, with just a flat-brimmed colorful hat and half-sleeve peeking out around the screen. But soon I know much more. He is from New Orleans by way of Detroit; an artist, a vegetarian, an Aires. His hands are big, rough, not the hands of someone who sits behind a computer all day. They show the markings of someone who knows how to work.
     “Ready?” Kyle says to me, holding the van keys. He is smiling. He is much more functional in the morning than I am. I feel my eyes widening with enthusiastic consent—they are Disney-princess-like as I follow him outside.
     Four days earlier, I rented that van from the Enterprise next door. When I noticed “pick up rental car and put down credit card” listed under my job duties, I panicked. Before I turned 25, I regarded renting a car as a signifier of true adulthood. If I could rent a car, I was adult enough to do anything. But now, car rentals had come to represent my own developmental delay, my adulting failures. Before they let you rent a car, companies like Enterprise place a large credit hold on your card, and even at times perform on-the-spot credit checks. Although I would be reimbursed for any expenses I incurred, my credit cards were usually maxed, and I was faced with the awkward position of asking my mother to help me make a dent on my Visa balance, so I could drive that van off the lot.
     The first day of the event, I pulled the van up to the Courtyard Marriott, and Kyle, who was still a stranger then, hopped in the passenger side. From the driver’s seat, I felt him watch me slowly inch out of the parking lot and merge into the morning commute. “I hate driving,” I said excusing my nervous merge.
     “Well, obviously.”
     “What does that mean?” I feigned outrage. I knew exactly what he meant.
     “You just don’t look that comfortable cemented to the 10 and 2.” He said he would drive from now on. I could DJ.

“Well, 34!” he says, inching out of that same parking lot on June 21. “Don’t remind me.”
     “Why not?”
     “Well, it’s 34—it’s like the last young year.”
     “How do you figure?”
     “At 35 you can run for president. Constitutionally speaking, that’s grown up.”
     “That’s fair, but for what it’s worth, I don’t think ‘presidential’ and adulthood are still synonymous.”
     “I guess I’ve always considered 34 to be a last chance year—your last chance to fuck up and blame it on youthful indiscretion or call it a learning opportunity.” I intentionally avoided specifics like, at 35 you’re too old to ask your mother to pay off your credit card so you can go to Enterprise.
Kyle changes the subject. Earlier that week we commiserate about recent exes, when mid conversation, he cut himself off, embarrassed: “If I tell you the full story I feel like you’ll think badly of me.”
     “What? No. I love talking about this stuff.”
     “You’re such a gossip,” he teased.
     “I am! Tell me on my birthday. We’ll drink tequila and you can gift this gossip to me.” Before the tequila, and before we even hit our first traffic light, he launches into it. I listen with the same care I would take unwrapping a beautifully wrapped gift—pausing to consider after I remove each layer of paper, anxiously anticipating where it’s going, what I’m uncovering.
     He tells me that over the course of their brief relationship—“we’re talking four months max”— this ex went under the knife three times, for three different plastic surgery procedures.
     “You’re kidding me!” I say. I sound like my mother.
     “No!” he laughs. “Her life and her surgeries are completely funded by her parents,” he adds, not hiding his disgust.
     “Wow,” I say, shifting to hide something he cannot see.
     We talk about authenticity, and the lack of it, how we present ourselves on the dating apps, and when, if ever, you actually know someone. I wonder if under other circumstances we’d swipe right on each other.
     Watching Kyle behind the wheel of the minivan reminded me of a recent episode of The Bachelorette, where contestant Garrett, hoping to make an impression on bachelorette Becca, arrives at the mansion driving a souped-out minivan. He takes her hand, and slides open the door to reveal a backseat full of car seats, sports equipment, and diaper bags. He says it represents the future he is driving towards. I thought Becca was too smart for such a hokey stunt, but she loves it, and watching Kyle drive behind the wheel, I can see the appeal. I doubt either of us will ever be in the market for a minivan, but I like playing this version of grown up with him—trying on a life, where together, we endure the morning commute, stop at the adjacent shopping center for iced coffees, discuss what we have in store for the day, me DJing, him driving, indulging my preference for Lite FM: Easy Morning Listening.
     It’s not yet 7am when we arrive at the event center. The catering staff is setting out breakfast when my roommate, Meredith FaceTimes me with birthday wishes. I sneak out of the event production office, and en route to a quiet place to chat, give her a virtual tour of the space. “Look at this pool!” I say, holding the phone to the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the an Olympic size swimming pool in the middle of the campus. A few Googlers are swimming laps, some are tanning on surrounding lounge chairs.
     The first day of the event, after I got lost in a maze of on-campus cafes, nap rooms, and cute picnic spaces full of vibrant young people, I stood in front of the same windows and looked out on what felt like another world. Kyle stood next to me, and silently we watched a handful of Googlers breast stoke across the pool. “Where did I go wrong?” I asked him. “Why am I not working here? Why is this not my office view?” I was (mostly) kidding, enduring parallel silence was not? one of my skills.
     “You don’t want this,” he said. “You would be miserable.” He spoke with the authority of someone who knew me—someone who knew that despite the shiny perks (sunny views, massage chairs, snack rooms), such a workplace would suffocate my creativity, my sense of wonder, my enthusiasm for what could be. And though we only just met, I knew Kyle wouldn’t want this either. Kyle was unlike most other ‘event’ people I encounter. I mean, he’s a straight guy—we don’t get a lot of that in these parts—but specifically, there is an openness about him. He is not interested dictating from a clipboard or a creative brief; he is present, he is sharing the experience with you. Kyle is a painter, and when he is not working on an event, he is traveling, learning, creating—animation school in Paris, Spanish classes in Mexico City, buying property in New Orleans, and dreaming of what it can be—always adding more color to his pallet.
     After my birthday FaceTime with Meredith, some of the event team is tasked with jimmy-rigging 50 pieces of scrap cardboard into 25 science fair trifolds. I am the first to volunteer. “I love a craft project!” I say sincerely. A few others join me; we have one hour to finish before the attendees arrive, and we need to go, go, go. It feels like we’re on HGTV. Both Kara and Kyle insist that the birthday girl curate a playlist for the project. I tell them they’ll regret it. The craft supplies are out, the walkie talkies synched up, I am sweating from running trifolds around the event space, and the co-working banter is definitely reality TV-worthy, when Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” plays from my phone.
     “Oh goodie, another Billy Joel song,” someone says. I laugh, and tell them that as a Long Islander, Billy Joel music is the soundtrack of my life. I don’t tell her just how right this song is for this moment, when I don’t feel like I’m at work, or Google HQ, or a country club, but rather I feel like I’m summer camp, which has always been my space. It’s where strangers instantly become friends, life plans are dreamed up, new skills are mastered, and inspiration is always present. And like the song says, I haven’t been here in the longest time.
     My phone rings, and interrupts the Billy. Kyle glances at the screen, “Fran’s calling,” he says. “Again.” It’s very important to my mother, Fran, that she connect with me on my birthday. It was barely 11am, and I sent four of her calls to voicemail. Since we were just about finished, I answer.
“Happy birthday, Ray!” she yells. “How’s my summer baby?” I tell her I am good. I mean it—so much so, that I feel a little buzzed when I say it. “Really?” she says, and then after a thoughtful pause adds: “That makes me so happy!” She is genuinely surprised.
     For as often and enthusiastically as this summer baby falls in love with the horizon, I have a hard time holding onto all that is good, and all that is possible during a setback. It’s challenging to have a summer camp mentality when you’re knee-deep in finals week. The setbacks really do set me back, and during my 33rd year the setbacks hit hard.
     In November, my lifelong best friend died of lung cancer. We knew each other since utero, and were born three days apart. She, the first day, me, the last day of the Cusp of Magic. I spent most of the year collapsed into the couch, not working, usually drugged, void of any enthusiasm, or sense of possibility. I’ve always had a laissez-faire attitude towards adulting, but over the last year, would laundry cover the floor for months, accounts were overdrawn, work nonexistent, sobriety optional, showering not required. It was like being 21 again, in all the worst possible ways. My mother would call to ask ‘how are you?’ and like a parent of a toddler who has just stumbled, she would hold her breath for my answer, suspending her reaction until I’d either jump up to shake it off, or I’d decide I was too hurt to stand. For most of 33, I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t see beyond my own grief.
     My roommate, Meredith would whiteboard my accomplishments, exciting action steps, and all the great things in the works—there was so much to look forward to, she’d say. And I would feel positive for a matter of time, a moment, an afternoon, but then 3, 2, 1, poof! Like the sneeze or orgasm that slips away, the good feeling would disappear. When winter turned spring things started to improve for me, good feeling stayed around for a while, possibility bloomed again, but no one, myself included, thought I’d get through this week unscathed. How could I celebrate my birthday, when hers never came to be?
     “Do they know it’s your birthday?” my mother asks. They did. I slipped it in earlier that week, when we were all sitting in the production office, and someone mentioned the summer solstice. “Which is also my birthday!” I said, like I couldn’t contain it anymore. Kyle looked up from across the board room table, mischief on his face.
     “Ooooh,” he said. “I’m gonna ice you so bad!” I had no idea what he was talking about. “You’re gonna what?” I said.
     “Ice you!”
     “Like, you’re gonna separate me from my parents at the border, or...?”
     “No!” he stifled a politically incorrect giggle. He wouldn’t tell me what it meant, so I made an intern explain. Apparently, I already aged out of viral drinking trends.
     After I hang up the phone with my mother, and the science fair trifolds are set out, and we eat lunch, and white board our loadout plan, I hear rumblings outside the production office, and then, an eruption of “Happy birthday.” Kyle walks in, holding the cake, Lizette behind him with red, green, blue, and yellow balloons—very thematic for a Google birthday party.
     “Make the first cut,” Kyle says placing the cake in front of me. My face is burning red, part embarrassment, part joy. I cut into the cake, but the knife won’t pass through. It hits something hard and glassy. Kyle attentively watches; his eyes are wide, Disney-like.
     “Oh my god!” I say. I realize what it is. “Oh my god, oh my god!” I say again and again, uncovering the blocking object. Kyle films my reaction. I am laughing so hard that I keel over. Off-camera he asks what I found. “Smirnoff Ice,” I say, cutting around the cake to reveal the neck of a bottle sitting between layers of buttercream. This, as I learned from that event intern, is getting iced. It’s a drinking game prank, in which one person hides a warm bottle of Smirnoff Ice (you know, the sugary shit you drank in high school, college if you were a late bloomer) and when the prankee uncovers the bottle, they must take a knee, and chug it all at once. Everyone in the production office returns to their task at hand, but Kyle is still recording me. We both can’t stop laughing.
     That evening, after we clear the event space, and before we leave Google, Kyle hands me the bottle of Smirnoff. “It’s time,” he says. The team gathers round me, Lizette ties the balloons to my wrist, I take a knee, and chug. To be honest, I don’t really understand this prank, but it doesn’t matter. Like the sorority girl I once was, I chug quickly, jump up, and throw my arms into the air. Victory. The team cheers.
     After dinner in downtown Sunnyvale, we return to the lobby of The Courtyard Marriott, beers in tow. We take turns telling life stories, and praising each other for a great event, a great week; we all acknowledge that our team chemistry is magical. We say we felt it from the first night of this project, when our entire team went out for Chinese food, and clicked. That was the first of many meals that Kyle and I would share side-by-side, eating eggplant and tofu off each others plate. I knew then, with that group, the week would be fine. Great, even. I felt excited and inspired for the first time in ages. At the end of that dinner, we cracked open our fortunes, and went round the table reading them aloud. Next to me, Kyle read his: “The one you will love is closer than you think.” I couldn’t believe it. Later that night I texted my friends: “Get ready to hear about an amazing meet-cute!” and fell asleep dreaming about his fortune, and all the promise it held.
     I sit next to Kyle in the lobby of the Courtyard Marriott, and I allow myself to wonder what will happen when we say goodnight? What will be when we board our planes the next morning, and return to our respective parts of the country. For the first time all week, I feel a twinge of a sadness. I don’t want him to slip away. I don’t want to lose this feeling.
     It is getting late. We can all feel it. “What time is it?” someone asks.
     “11:58,” Lizette says.
     “Oh! My birthday is almost over.” I convince everyone to stay with me for the next two
minutes— “I want to count it down. New Year’s style!”
     “I’m pretty sure that’s not the way it works,” Kara says. “You’re not on the brink of anything this midnight.” But the beers are gone, and they indulge me. We count together: 10, 9, 8, we are yelling, 7, 6, 5, guest reception shoots us a look, 3, 2, 1, as if by magic, gone.

—Rachel Ratner

Rachel Ratner is a nonfiction writer with an MFA from Oregon State University. She has written for the Oregon Stater, Portland Monthly, and participated in live storytelling events like BackFence PDX.





(For more information on the June 21st project, see here; apparently we're still publishing the occasional straggler…)

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Another June 21st from Matthew Vollmer

JUNE TWENTY FIRST, TWO THOUSAND EIGHTEEN

Woke up. Turned on phone. Watched a dead leaf butterfly open and close its wings. Wife announced that she had been up since 3:30 am, at which time she smelled that the dog had had another accident. Went back to phone. Phone told me that quantum mechanics says multiverse is real and that Christina Aguilera posed topless on Instagram and that I should eat these carbs to eat to lose weight and that a woman died in a closet and that a 15-year-old can draw animals from memory and the results will blow my mind and that J. Crew just launched some exclusive, extra-comfy underwear. Why are Americans so sad? Don’t know. Didn’t read article. Also: Canada legalizes marijuana, parasites can mind-control other animals without infecting them, and Ronaldo is grooming himself to resemble goat. Eventually got up, drank a cup of coffee with sugar and half-and-half. Made two eggs. White cheddar. On toast. Checked World Cup scores, watched Ronaldo’s header goal. Got in argument with wife about whether or not I should clean up shat-upon dog bed. Lost argument. Put shit stained dog bed in trash bag. Put trash bag in trash. Tried to wash shit stain off large woven mat that lives—or lived—at back door of basement. No dice. Got email from friend saying “XXXTentacion may have been killed by Soldier Kidd. Then sent something about an article that said Spotify users around the world streamed XXXTentacion’s music 10.4 million times—breaking a record set last year Taylor Swift for the most streams by an artist on a single day.” Friend said “half were just streaming to see what he sounded like.” I texted back: “same.” Drove to office on campus. Noted grandmother of son’s friend at the smoking deck—a place by parking garage where smokers gather—and thought briefly about son’s friend, whose name is Harold and who lived with his brother up the street where we lived during our first ten years in Blacksburg, before his father, who studies sustainable biomaterials, moved the family to Vancouver, where apparently many Chinese billionaires also live, and whose Lambos and Bugattis are parked up and down the city’s streets. In office, tried to read book by woman whose materials I agreed to review in exchange for $100 and the knowledge that I served as a good literary citizen and member of the professorate. Wished I would’ve been given something to read that wasn’t so boring. Took breaks to look at Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, reminded myself that I should take a look at that Chelsea Hodson book. Texted my friend Evan to say hey can I borrow that Chelsea Hodson book and he said yes and I said are you at home or Shanks, and he said I’m coming in around 11. He came in around 11, preceded by Bucky the dog, who jumped up on the couch where I had been lying, wearing a hoodie because I keep the air conditioner turned to frigid in my office. Wife texted, said I had hurt her feelings when I argued with her about not cleaning up the dog bed. Texted her an apology, and she said she was probably tired and grumpy. Talked to Evan about his wife’s head injury. Took a dump in the bathroom. Halls on fourth floor of building where office lives were vacant. Wondered where everyone was. On vacation? At beach? At home? Went home. Transferred boxes of son’s old toys from garage to garage attic. Disassembled tent that son and son’s friend had planned to sleep in but didn’t, found a popcorn bowl plastered with dog hair and butter and earwigs. Thought of son at work installing blinds in building where son’s friend’s dad works as contractor. Thought about blowing off porch, which is always strewn with pine needles, thanks to the neighbor’s towering pines. Didn’t. Ate leftovers from night before: a kind of make-it-yourself taco salad. Listened to two scientists talk about dinosaurs on NPR. Announcer reminded everyone that dinosaur meant “terrible lizard.” Retrieved mail: TIAA-Cref envelopes, junk mail from Suntrust bank, the new David Lynch bio. Read first few pages of David Lynch bio. Read first two essays in Chelsea Hodson book. Got in car. Partially composed email to fellow colleague who wrote prequel to the Godfather but now was waiting to hear back from his agent who was waiting to hear back about novel submitted to publishers. Drove to the ABC store, bought a liter of cheap vodka and a fifth of Maker’s Mark, reminded self to retrieve bottle Evan and I threw into the air the night before so as to shoot with handheld CO2 cartridge-powered BB gun. Dropped bag of liquor at car, went grocery shopping at Kroger. Went home. Paid phone bill via app on phone. Texted with Evan’s kid who said he’d go see Hereditary with me. Said good because your dad is a wuss. Evan’s kid texted back haha and crying laughing emoji faces and wondered if I’d bought any Jordans lately. Told him I’d ordered a pair of black obsidian Jordan 1 Re2pect high tops but had to send them back because they were too big. Evan’s kid said he was more into Vans. Went to the Vans site and concurred that Vans were cool, especially the SK8 HI high tops, which Evan’s kid said weren’t really his style. Wife returned. Said vet wanted to keep dog overnight, blood sugar low. Said ok. Thought about working on book manuscript. Opened Spotify. Listened to a few songs from the “Chill” list, remembered XXXTentacion from day before, and how good it was, so typed XXX into search bar and rest of name came up, hit enter, then clicked “follow” which seemed stupid since he was dead, or purported to be dead, what did anybody know for sure, then thought maybe he had some unreleased tracks or another album in production, so maybe not all that stupid after all. Opened Scrivener. Worked on book manuscript. Went to retrieve son from job where he works installing mini blinds in new town houses. Bought dog food—Taste of the Wild—and wondered if I would need to take it back, supposing dog somehow didn’t survive through the night at vet. Son sized up my clothes—T-shirt, flipflops, Adidas sweatshorts—and asked if why I was wearing pajamas. At home, opened pork chops, cut potatoes and put them on to boil. Chopped broccoli, tossed in olive oil and salt and pepper. Microwaved butter, squeezed minced garlic from a tube into bowl, along with sage, rosemary, and thyme. Salted chops, then slathered them with butter garlic mix, used tongs to place them in hot cast iron skillet heated on outdoor gas grill. Finished dinner, remembered that Evan had the tent we were to borrow over the weekend for a camping trip to Grayson Highlands, where many of the ridgetops are bare, and where I once hiked with a man who, with his big ruddy face and beard and his cheerful demeanor, resembled the character Yukon Cornelius from the stop-motion Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a man who, because his wife didn’t like living where they did, in a round house in the middle of nowhere, and longed to return, with the son to whom they’d recently given birth, to Orcas Island, which they did, after the man quit his position as an Associate Professor of English to become a Harbor Master. Texted Evan and as soon as I hit send a text from him appeared nearly simultaneously. “Wtf” he typed. “Jinks,” I typed. “You owe me a Coke,” he typed. Drove the six minutes to Evan’s. Went down into his basement. Six giant heavy duty plastic bins contained thousands of dollars of camping gear, which Evan and his wife had used when they’d gone to Burning Man. That’s from the playa, Evan said, brushing dust off the tent bag. Upstairs, Evan opened his laptop and found an instructional video. Returned home. Popped corn. Watched Westworld finale on phone while son played Fortnite and wife watched whatever show she was watching. Probably a mystery. Probably something British. Told son not to stay up too late. Son said okay. Crawled into bed, where wife was already asleep. Shut eyes. Slept. 



(For more information on the June 21st project, see here; apparently we're still publishing the occasional straggler…)

Monday, July 16, 2018

July 16: Stayci Taylor • Laura Schuff • Chris McGuire • Joshua Dewain Foster • Craig Reinbold • Carlos Davy Hauser • Heidi MacDonald


Today we present ten more dispatches from June 21, 2018 to you. More details on the project here, but, in brief, we asked you to write about what happened on one day in June, and are publishing the results, largely unedited, through July 16th.
—The Editors



July 16: Stayci Taylor • Laura Schuff • Chris McGuire • Joshua Dewain Foster • Craig Reinbold • Carlos Davy Hauser • Heidi MacDonald





STAYCI TAYLOR

There are fewer options at this breakfast buffet, one of three on this island resort and the closest to the sea. The limited selection brings with it a sense of calm, but there is still panic inspired by the free time ahead. Unlimited choices are dangerous; they pave the way for a day lived incorrectly. Given the environment, this is despicable. A woman, probably here for a conference, asks for warm milk. She is directed to the espresso machine, but this will not do. She needs it for cereal. This request is mildly curious against the backdrop of palm trees, but only half-registered. There is pressing interior business. Don’t be miserable in paradise.
     It’s much warmer than home, but the coldest temperatures here in living memory. The locals are bewildered, and wearing polar fleece – an extreme response, perhaps. The temperature won’t fall below 20° C. Two days ago a lone visitor braved the swim-up pool bar, wading back, everything clenched, to deliver a tinnie to a waiting girlfriend. There is more than one pool, though, and the closest is heated. It can be seen from the balcony. The same balcony from which, this morning, a sunrise was witnessed over the sea. The accommodation, when booked, did not include an ocean view. Don’t be miserable.
     This outside table also affords a view of the beach. The plate is less overloaded than previous mornings but still strangely appointed. When else do fruit and pastries and eggs and toast and mushrooms and chia pudding share the same stage? At a table behind, someone reassures the warmly milked woman that she’s ‘still glamourous’ despite their shared advancing years. She reports she had her upper eyes done five years ago, ‘which is fabulous. It’s about looking fresh’, she says, ‘but not fake’. She’s also lost a lot of weight, on a drug that makes her feel nauseous if she overeats. There’s apparently—and quite literally—a downside to thin faces. You can go too far, she says, but at least she’s not devouring the lamingtons. 
     They do look like excellent lamingtons. They nearly made the plate.
     A cockatoo lands on the table beside and seizes upon the empty butter portions. A deft claw lifts the foil flap and the beak dives into the tiny shallow plastic tray. A tongue, presumably, laps up the remains. 
     Mid-morning, the reclining view from the pool noodle is of alternating knees, slowly advancing and retreating in the heated water. This performance of relaxation is watched and weighed up against activity in the solar plexus. It feels like fretting, but hard to discern amidst the competing sensations of caffeine and the pseudoephedrine fuelling much needed cold & flu meds. To pay this much inward attention feels unforgivably self-absorbed. Sleep is resisted and undoubtedly needed. There may never have been a better bed to accommodate such a task, but yet a bush walk is attempted. The swim-up pool bar is circled warily. Soon, and with no towel required, bourbon is added to the mix. 
     Later, the internet celebrates the birth of the New Zealand Prime Minister’s daughter. Ex pats join in with whisky on the balcony. The booze and the news do their job and the sunset is greeted with decided cheer. But a setting sun is always more promising than a rising one. There are always fewer options at the final hour. Fewer ways in which to fuck up five days in paradise.

—Stayci Taylor

Stayci Taylor is an Industry Fellow with the Media Program at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. She brings to her teaching and research a background in screenwriting, which is still her main professional practice. She has lately become interested in creative nonfiction and critical autoethnography; mainly through an investigation into the performance of girlhood diaries with colleagues from RMIT's non/fictionLab.





LAURA SCHUFF

Katze’s warbling shout of “Myowwww,” the one that descends in pitch and usually means “I just pooped in front of the litter box,” wakes me up. She’s a talented ventriloquist.
     It’s early and things happen in dreamlike succession because I’m pretty much asleep. Lift Katze onto the bed. She purrs a minute before wanting back down, so I help her, fearing for her arthritic joints. Snooze my 5:50 alarm. Justin half-wakes and mumbles that waking up next to me makes him happy. Today is the five-month anniversary of the morning after we got married, when we woke side-by-side to express similar sentiments, snuggling and dozing again, united in contentment, feeling right and whole and excited for each moment of our future together.
     The daylight is dim for summer. It filters gray through the remainder of last night’s thunderstorm, blue through the tarp we secured over our unfinished roof last night. We are sore and sunburned, shards of shingle fiberglass stinging our fingers. I relish some of this exhaustion, or at least the idea behind it. There’s something fairy-tale-like about us literally building part of our home together, almost reminiscent of a pioneer couple hewing themselves a log cabin.
     The rest of the house is a disaster zone of neglect. Sink overflows with dishes. Katze’s litter box has annexed the hallway. Waterlogged raspberries fall to waste in the crabgrass jungle of our garden.
     My first 12-hour work day of the week yesterday provided a welcome deviation from the roofing project, but the novelty was short-lived. I snooze every alarm until 6:25, which is supposed to be my last call to get out the door. I still take more time than I should need to put on scrubs, brush my teeth, snatch a giant box of rice crackers from the pantry (leftovers from our wedding reception) for today’s potluck, and leave for the pet hospital where I work as a lab assistant. The send-off party for a coworker’s last day should take care of the breakfast I didn’t make time for.
     I’m sheepish about getting to work eight minutes late, but no one calls me out on it. The morning rush is sort of a plate-spinning circus act. Keep the ponderous, seventiesesque blood chemistry analyzers (Doom and Gloom), CBC machine (I’ll call that one Abby), electrolytes machine (um… Edgar?), and the Unicorn centrifuge (because someone, probably Lindsey, taped “RN” to the end of the “UNICO” logo) running simultaneously. The goal here is to finish at least the essential bloodwork for each of today’s nine surgery patients as quickly as possible so the surgery doctor knows whether to run more tests, cancel, or start pre-meding. Add in whatever urgent bloodwork the two exam room doctors need and whatever maintenance issues come up. And the ever-abundant heartworm snap tests and fecal samples to be spun down and read under the microscope. I rerun some tests for stupid reasons, like when I realize I’ve probably grabbed the wrong blood sample or misplaced a results print-out on the wrong pet’s paper.
     Edgar, usually one of the lower-maintenance machines, needs a new gas canister and I don’t find replacements where I usually do. Jen locates them quickly in a different cupboard and I feel stupid. I start the electrolytes test for Cosmo kitten, but can’t find his blood sample. Edgar insists that I discard the unused reader I’ve inserted when I take too long searching under Doom and Gloom, behind Abby, everywhere I can think of that a sample tube might roll under or fall behind. Without thinking, I state my frustration to the brusque surgery doctor when she walks by, but of course she is unsympathetic to my stupidity.
     Turns out I accidentally tossed Cosmo’s blood along with last night’s samples. I retrieve it from the trash can and avert that crisis, but then run out of hematocrit tubes. Apparently these are important enough (a recent development) that Loni leaves her surgery prep post to borrow some from another location. Korey tells me I should have noticed when we were down to two containers and ordered more. When Loni comes back, I find her tirade about the traffic amusing. (“Why do so many people live here? It’s not that great. Go back home.”) But then she tells me how I’ve cost our business an hour of her time. She wants me to do a weekly inventory procedure that I haven’t been expected to do before—unless I’ve grossly misunderstood—and I find it confusing.
     I would have figured all this out long ago if I were the sort of go-getter I’m supposed to be to “succeed in life,” but I’m not. Instead I slink.
     A doctor maneuvers the end of a leash on a shrieking, thrashing, teeth-baring chihuahua, careful and attentive while consoling with words like, “I know, you’re so scared. I’m sorry.” An anesthesia-drunk pit bull starts up a lament of dinosaur noises in his kennel.
     Doctors keep asking me, “How’s my [insert name of test] going?” and I keep having to admit I haven’t gotten to that yet, more frantic and drooping each time. Korey asks something I don’t make sense of because I’m tired and distracted. The doctor he’s assisting, who often hovers while I beg the machines to go faster, surprises me by telling Korey not to stress me out. Later Korey says, “I’m not rushing you. Just checking” in a way that reminds me of his doctor dealing with the aggressive chihuahua. It hits me that these veterinary professionals I work with approach me with the same cautious attentiveness to stress levels that they’re trained to use on dogs.
     “Dogwoman” would be the worst superhero name ever.
     My hands keep working while my mind goes to town producing a tabloid showcase of I’m so Incompetent. The feature ties in extensive replays of something I regret saying to Justin two nights ago that sting my eyes, even though that scene is long since talked through and moved on from. The melodrama subsides when things slow down enough to allow a snack run.
     Our makeshift potluck table is actually a freezer where the bagged and labeled bodies of euthanized pets await pickup from the cremation service. There’s a euthanasia today, so I help Teddi move our party to the x-ray table.
     The brusque doctor is a master of efficiency and surgeries finish early in the afternoon. We all cheer on Braden, today’s guest of honor, as he cuts an ice cream cake for all of us and stores the remainder in the pharmacy freezer (not the death freezer) where he has posted numerous “No Food or Drink” signs. The surgery doctor plotted this specifically as a memorable conclusion to several years of teasing Braden for being a stickler.
     While taking lunch in my truck, I discover that my phone’s battery is dead, probably over my failed attempt to record notes this morning, and I don’t have an alarm to wake me up before I exceed my hour. Still, I’m losing my mind for need of a power nap, so I take it on faith that I’ll wake up on time and do.
     The rest of the afternoon is less hectic. I’m witness to a medical miracle—a 26-year-old cat in fairly good health. I’m jealous of this old lady who can still leap onto furniture and keep her fur dred-free while my Katze, only 18, can’t. But it’s kind of ridiculous to describe a cat as only 18.
     Since I’m planning to write about today,  I quantify some of my duties. 25 kennels with no major diarrhea, urine, or pulled IV catheter incidents to clean up today. 12 canine snap tests (heartworm etc.), two feline, two canine pancreatitis, and one giardia, all negative. Instead of discarding the plastic indicators right away, I collect them in a pile to see how big it gets at the end of the day. Emily gives me a weird look and reminds me that they show inaccurate results if you keep them too long. All 20 fecal samples I read today were parasite-free.
     I wrap and sterilize the surgical packs. Sweep and mop the floors. Despite the hectic morning, all the closing chores are done by 7:00 p.m.
     Justin and his dad are working on the roof when I get home. I intend to join them after I snack and write a few notes about today, but I get too comfy and my body turns to cement. By the time I finally drag myself up, it’s getting dark and the roof project is being wrapped up for the night. I feel guilty and relieved that I’ve escaped, and guilty for feeling relieved.
     Justin comes down from the ladder and hugs me for a minute, still in his plumber’s uniform. I’m still in my scrubs. We are fairly well matched in exhaustion and the grossness of our work attire. I don’t know how Justin is still standing, having put every spare moment into that roof before and after going to his job for the past four days.
     My brain is too tired to process much of how I get from outside to crashing in bed. At some point, Justin gives Katze her evening dose of pain medicine and I pop a birth control pill.  It would be much simpler if this really were the end of my June 21st, but tiredness is also a form of drunkenness that impairs judgment into doing fun, but not necessarily practical things. Like staying up any later than we already are when tomorrow is full of work and Dungeons and Dragons and, in Justin’s case, probably more roofing in between. But we start to make out and I tell him that going further might be a problem because I intend to write a truthful-as-possible account of what happens today and I don’t think either of us are very comfortable sharing details of our sex life with the public.
     Katze squeezes through the gap in the door and interrupts with an indignant “Mroooow!” She’s silent once we banish her to the living room. But I have a lingering sense that her meow might be translated to, “Seriously, you two, for all your prudishness, can’t you have the decency to consider me a threat to your privacy?”
     Someday I’ll meet Katze at the gates of kitty heaven and she’ll greet me in fluent Human, reminding me that nothing was actually safe with her. But meeting her eyes will be all it takes for realization to burn in my cheeks.

—Laura Schuff

Laura lives in Oregon. 





CHRIS MCGUIRE

The sun on a spoke toward the eastern corner of my office window heralds the longest day of the year. June 21st finds me hunched over my desk, shell-shocked gaze on the traffic sweeping by on East 5th Street. In my crotch I can feel my father’s hand, a memory shard left over from the 3-day EMDR Intensive I just completed on Bainbridge Island, WA.
     That hand, drenched in callous bone, the brutality of which I’ve always known. But not this. Not this horrible awakening of my flesh, refusing to be silenced, refusing to retreat. I rock with the after-quakes.
     But now there are my clients, needing my attention, needing me to hold space for them, hear them, validate them. My mind drifts to the little red kayak I paddled out around Bainbridge’s Eagle Harbor, seeking rough waves, something edged and raw against which my body could throw itself. The pair of eagles I watched, transfixed, in high branches, shrieking their indignation against an assault of crows guarding nests. My kayak beached as the tide receded beneath me. Me, all at once embodied, trudging knee-deep through the heavy mud toward water to get the little boat afloat again.
     I hear my name, paged overhead. First I see R, who’s here on the advice of her attorney on an asylum case. She’s fleeing Mexico b/c her abusive stepfather waited for her outside her nursing school class and tried to kidnap her. She cries soundlessly while stroking the red sand of my sandtray as if it were her pet cat. I become hypnotized by the gentle, rhythmic movements, my heart breaking for her at a distance, because with the current Administration, her case does not look favorable. In my mind, my father’s voice: “Boys are gonna love that ass” while his hand—
     Next there’s a couple of kids, siblings, jubilantly unselfconscious in their unsuppressed bodies. Sprawling on the carpet, limbs askew as they play with the toys on my shelves. Their untarnished sexuality breathless and innocent. I balk, freeze, grit my teeth through the hour. Curl like a pillbug on the carpet afterward, my door shut against colleagues.
     Subsequent appointments will arrive and depart in a blur, shades of pale passing in and out of my scope of consciousness, accompanied by a low hum. I will wonder if I’m asleep, drifting in dream. Outside the window, the sun will shift along its spoke, growing dimmer as the afternoon progresses. A thought, like shattered crystals: “What did happen today?” My eyes searching the street outside for a response.
     I find a bright bird on a bare branch in the mesquite tree across the street. It is only there for a moment. I watch it lift from the leaves, sweep over the whisking traffic, disappear after the stretched sun.

—Chris McGuire





JOSHUA DEWAIN FOSTER

So I woke up after nine a.m.—which is not something I like to admit but also something that happens a lot so at this point why lie? So I wake up late and I stay there in bed, which is not something I usually do. Usually, I’m up and at them as soon as my eyes are open; most days, I spring from my sheets to my shoes. Normally, I work at a standing desk in the other room. But not today, the summer solstice, June 21, 2018, the longest day of the year. The sun is out in Houston, Texas for another ten hours—or something. I relax. So what if I’m starting late today. I have plenty of time. I scoot away from the warm round ass of my bed-partner so that I can actually get some work done, reach off the bed to the floor and get my janky cheap chromebook.
     I open it up and write an email to my agent. She is in New York City, a place I have visited three times in my life. Once, the most recent, was to meet her. I’ve been telling her I’d have a novel ready since 2014. I’m surprising her with it today, attached as a PDF and shared in the cloud as a DOC. It is 399 pages; 107k words. I told her I’d send her the manuscript by my birthday, July 5, but I’d finished it early, could not stand to read it one more time, so I decided to print it out and put it in a binder for my own edits and to email her and invite her to finally take a look and at least get the good grace of beating my own often extended deadline.
     What did I feel like, after I sent it? Glad, and proud. That email took me like thirty minutes to get right. Happy, I got up to take a leak.
     About then, G rolled over. It was her ass I had been lying beside. Her kids were with their dad for the summer, and we were luxuriating in these slow mornings where modesty could be relaxed and neither of us really had anywhere to be but to our desks, in our books. Except I no longer had a book to write, I’d written it, so I had nothing to do. I asked G if she’d cook us some french toast.
     This is also not something I usually do. Usually, I handle my own food intake, especially for breakfast. Most days, I’m a black coffee banana kind of guy. If I have time to really cook, it’s meats eggs hashbrowns. Never breakfast cakes. Pancakes? Waffles? Too heavy. Those put me back to bed, and that’s something I cannot abide. But the day before, G and I had been in the grocery story together, and she’d been waxing nostalgic re: real New England maple syrup, which I had never tried, so she bought some, and I got a good loaf of five-dollar sliced bread knowing I would try to talk her into cooking French toast for me soon. Which I did, successfully.
     She put on a robe and went to the kitchen and made the French toast. I piddled about, scooped the cat boxes, shit the dog in the backyard, brushed my teeth, took my meds. Extra naproxen, because a bunch of shoulder pain had returned to my left arm, where I had had an operation in 2017. But three weeks ago, this pain had settled on me again, left me wincing any time I reached and turned, pushed or pulled, typed, drove, washed my hair, or anything of the sort with my left. I thought I was better—I’d been pain-free for six months—and clearly I was not. I froze all my summer plans, including a trip home to Idaho for a family reunion, until I could meet with the doctor, which would happen tomorrow, which, as I told the doctor’s scheduler, might as well be two weeks away. As soon as I knew what was up with my arm, I could plan the rest of my life.
     G and I ate French toast together. The New England maple syrup ran thin and warm and washed across the butter egg bread, tide-like. I could see why she relished this great American sap, appreciated that I’d been let in on the secret. I felt the same way about russet potatoes. There, on the plastic table in front of us, was the manuscript that took me four years to write. It was in a hot pink plastic binder, four inches thick. An inch a year—so much for personal growth.
     10:30 a.m. My agent had had my email for over an hour. Had she read the book yet? Did she love it? Already sent the contract? Check(s)?
     I gathered up the dishes to wash them at the sink, my pleasure and gratitude after such a food gift. G removed to her desk to edit and knit. I washed and dried and shined the dishes, put them up. Folded and refolded the dishtowels. Swept the kitchen floor, something I’d been wanting to do for seven months. In the bedroom, I turned on the World Cup—France versus Peru—and rooted for the Spanish-speakers. I always pull New World. I took out my empty luggage and looked inside my closet, starting to plot what I would need up north, back home in Idaho, if we were lucky enough to make it back there. G and I had a secret hope and plan: if the doctor cleared me to travel, we would pack the car and leave by Saturday, be to Idaho by late Sunday so that we could surprise my mother, who was turning sixty on Monday.
     I didn’t see the point in actually packing without knowing what was up with my shoulder, so I hooked up the leash to the dog and took her around the block for some fresh air. Out on Gray Street, I paced and scoped out a palm reader sign that G had told me recently showed up. I had always wanted to have my palm read. I can handle the truth, and am happy to pay for it. Of course, I wanted to buy G a round of hand-reading too, as a late birthday gift.
     So I walked the dog past a sagging peeling house on a main drag in the historic Rosemont district of Houston, with a covered front porch and a beat to shit Ford Excursion in the cracked uneven driveway, a neon OPEN sign in the window, not illuminated, and a phone number on a placard on the sidewalk. In the front window, a shadow appeared behind the curtain. I wanted to make nothing easy, no dead giveaways, no easy outs. I hustled around the corner with the dog and called the number. I wanted to keep everything I could a secret; I had no faith in the palm reader, but had a hope I’d learn something somehow, anyways. I didn’t disguise my voice or give a fake name. I asked if she had time to read the hands of two people as soon as possible. She said she could at one p.m. That was less than an hour away. I said okay.
     She told me to call back in a half-hour to confirm my appointment. So I confirmed something with her then: She wanted me to call her in thirty minutes to tell her I’d be there in thirty more minutes? Yes, she said. I said I’d text her at twelve-thirty, and that we’d be there at one p.m. on the dot.
     The dog rushed me home. There, I informed G of the plan, and she took a break from the editing and fussed about the flat, changing clothes a few times, deciding a hair situation, and wardrobe. I too checked myself in the mirror, wondering what the palm reader might discern and misinterpret. For two months, the temperature hadn’t dipped below eighty degrees, and I was in shorts and a tank-top and a farm hat, always sweaty, far from my element. I decided not to change. The palm reader, like most people, would have no idea who I really was.
     These bustling moment in our relationship when both are readying for a joint event, equally energized, are intensely gratifying, and do a lot to unify. This was still fresh, vibrant, steeped in meaning, cosmic, revelatory. As G and I readied, we smiled and winked at each other, took one another by the waist, danced, swayed a bit.
     What does the future—our future—hold? I couldn’t guess, and didn’t need to know but was asking just because I could, just because I was with someone who wanted to go along with me to find out. I pinched an ass as it went by, kissed a cheek, said thanks and also hurry up or we’re going to be late.
I texted the palm reader and tell her we’ll be there at one p.m. on the nose. Which we weren’t. We’re a few minutes late.
     At the house, half a cigarette smoldered in an ashtray. Oh, how peppery and lovely that smoke smelled. Cigarettes had not been present in our lives for 84 days, according to G’s stop smoking phone app. I had finally stopped coughing long enough to want another cigarette. I didn’t pick it up and smoke it, though. I was past that point. I simply longed for it, reminisced about the good old bad days. I stamped down the nico-urge, knocked hard on the thin front door. Above me, a diamond window cardboarded from the inside shook against the glass.
     A little girl opened the door. Younger than eight, for sure. Cute kid. Looked a lot like any one of my nieces. Pink clothes, long hair, a few missing teeth. I asked her to go get her mom. I didn’t really think about it. Old Mormon Missionary reflex. A young short woman came to the door and shooed back the kid and her little brother, who had been in the shadows of his sister the whole time. The mother, who was our palm reader, A, brought us inside and shut the door. We stood in an empty living room with thin path-worn carpet over a bowed floor. A, chewing gum, speaking English Italian Chicagoan, set the kids up and explained she’d be in the other room, working. Once they were settled, A led us into another front room, behind a white door—her palm reading room.
     A large pink lounger, in front of which A stood, centered, at the back wall. In front of A, center of the room, was a table piece, alter-like. Facing this desk were two fabric covered chairs, nice enough, but with stains. I took the far chair, and G took the near. We sat down once she did.
     A reminded me of my youngest sister E, and my first ex-wife R. A was twenty-four, twenty-five. Poised, serious. Wise but unrefined. No pushover, but easy to confuse. A, who was wearing jeans and a shirt, had three burns or scars on her sternum. They looked surgical, earned, unfortunate, designed. We discussed what services we were looking for, and landed on one in which we could each get our palms read, a tarot reading, and the opportunity to ask any questions we could come up with. That ran me sixty bucks a piece. I paid A through the cash app.
     Transaction sent and received, phones down and away, A crossed one leg over the other, interlocked her hands, mystic-like, and asked who would be going first. I looked at G to see what she wanted, and I could tell she wanted me to go, so I said I would. A got out a deck of tarot cards from the alter desk. She warned both of us that regardless of what we were to each other, who we were in each other’s lives, things might come out in a reading that could damage a relationship, so she invited G to leave the room if I was uncomfortable. I said I’d like her to stay. I could trust G with any bit of information, any secret, any sin.
     I was disappointed with A, incredulous—she was trying to figure out who G and I were together; she was reading us. Which I knew she would do, but didn’t anticipate it being this obvious. Maybe she wasn’t psychically inclined; maybe this was all just jig.
     “So she can stay?” A asked me.
     “Yes,” I said, again.
     A flipped over some cards and arranged them on the table. Then she took my palms and looked at them. She leaned back and interlocked her hands again.
     “Okay, so before we start, I have a message for you. I don’t know what it means, but I have to give it to you from the other side. Did you recently lose a child?”
     I’d never had any kids. It was a strange whiff to start with. I considered my very much alive mother and father, my living breathing five sisters and their husbands and children, G, her two kids, my cat, their cat, the dog—all all good.
     “No,” I said, “Not that I can think of.”
     I looked back at G. She had this look on her face like: Are you kidding me?
     “Who then?” I asked.
     “H,” she said.
     I realized I had been thinking too narrowly about A’s question. Selfishly, I had only been considering my immediate family. But just a few weeks before, my ex-family of my second wife M suffered the catastrophic loss of their youngest member, H, a little girl age three. I had not been in contact with this family since the divorce, but once I heard the news, I texted M and let her know that if there was anything G and I could do, we would. M took us up on that, and brought over her two cats for us to watch so she could return to Idaho for the funeral. She had just retrieved the cats the day before, and was actually coming over to have dinner later tonight because she needed some good company and a meal. G had offered to cook.
     I said to A, “Yes, there is one person, but my connections are hard to explain.”
     “Here’s the message. Celebrate her in her time of death. Don’t blame anyone. Celebrate, and love.”
     I nodded and said that I would pass that along, which I planned to do, but didn’t yet know exactly how, or to whom.
     That gravitas delivered and leveled, A reviewed both my palms again quickly, roughly, and set them back down on the table. She told me I led a simple, but complex, life. I agreed. She said it would be relatively long, which brought a lot of relief. She said I was happy on the outside and sad on the inside. She was so right that deep down this made me quietly weep. But that was all my hands had to say about me, and so I took them away and she turned her attention to the cards.
     She told me to think of three questions I wanted answers to. This gave me pause. I was not prepared to think while at the palm reader. I looked at G. Was there anything I wanted to know with her? I knew she was as solid and beautiful as a person as any I’d been lucky enough to be with, and felt we would be together for a long time, one way or another, and since we spent all our time together anyway, I’d had all my questions answered, whether she knew it or not.
     I told her I had them. She told me to tell her two. So I did.
     What would happen with my book?
     Where would I go next?
     On the first, she said I’d be fine, on all counts. With the book. I asked her how fine. She said fine fine. I didn’t want to jinx anything, so I left it at that.
     And what about the next thing?
     She said she was was really feeling Arizona, Arkansas, or Colorado. Any of those places would be good. Also, I’d have a house for once in my life.
     I trotted out my third question, too, this about G, about us and our future, but I cannot write it here. So I listened to that answer, and felt good about everything and had nothing left to ask.
     G and I swapped seats, and A and G got right down to it; it would not be my place to go into all that was revealed. You’d have to ask her. As for me, I was feeling pretty glowy and golden, having a message to pass on, knowing I still had some life left to live with a person I loved, and a fine fine book situation on my hands.
     G’s future all came back good too. I can at least say that. A made some mistakes on that one, reading her, flubbed a bit. But who doesn’t? G’s a tough nut to crack. We left through the front door, saying thanks to A and adios to the kiddos, time well spent. 
     We talked about everything on the walk home, and for an hour at the flat. It was 2:30 p.m., and once we had rehashed everything a few times, we shut up and got back to our desk work. We had a lot to do if we were ever going to get out of Texas. She edited. I paid all of my July bills and budgeted the rest of my summer money. Transferred cash over from savings to cover the travel and upcoming doctor’s visit. I walked to the bank and took out some road cash, went to CVS and bought heel bandaids for G and toothpaste for me. Returned to the flat. I read the news on my phone.
     Around seven, G started cooking chicken curry, and I made some watermelon juice Mexican-style—watermelon, lime, a bit of sugar, water, some ice, blended it up in G’s kickass ninja blender, served in a pitcher—and set up the table in the back driveway. Soon enough, M showed up and we went and dished up curry and all three of us sat out back and ate like we were starving and talked about her trip to Idaho. She got to sing at the funeral. Sad but good.
     Our upstairs neighbors and their daughter came down and joined us. I hadn’t seen them for two weeks, as they’d been in Utah on summer vacation. I’d been sitting upstairs twice a day, taking care of their birds while they were gone, a cockatiel and two budgies. The daughter and wife caught up with M, who had lived in the flat with me for a month or two, and had started a friendship but paused it, and now wanted it again.
     The kid went to bed at ten, her summer vacation bedtime on certain nights, and after that someone spilled vodka into the agua fresca, and wine and kind bud materialized, and stories were traded, and we all laughed about the north country, which everyone had been to but me and G, and we were pining for it. But it felt like after the palm reader, we both knew our plan was a good one, and we’d be leaving Texas soon enough. We squeezed hands in the dark.
     I told M of the message from A, and she told me to relay it to H’s father, so I said I’d contact my friend and ex-bro-in-law, and let him know to celebrate, and love, and not blame. So much of life is out of everyone’s control.
     M was in great spirits, too, after having come home, because she had met a new man, a twenty-five year old snack-bite, as she called him, a lil nugget. Made us laugh; reminded me of funny sweet things M used to coo about me, back when we were in love. I was happy for her in this new flu. I looked around the table. We all were.
     Then a miracle happened: M produced a half-pack of love cigarettes, bought with her new beau, in Idaho. She didn’t want to smoke all of them, or smoke alone. Well, it was the perfect timing to break us. We were all weak. All the rest of us in the house, upstairs and downstairs alike, had been living healthy for most of 2018. G and I had been clean for over eighty days of the nicotine smoke gum vape et al. But we were all in that transitory summer state, hot and bothered and itchy, and could use a break.
     So the pack went around, and we all smoked one together in the humidity, this at about eleven o’clock. M left the pack, and took off with some tupperwares of leftovers, and drove to her place across town.
     Then it was just the four of us. There were five cigarettes left. We each smoked another one, talked for another half hour. These people were my family, my friends, my tribe. We could do this all night, and often did. But by the time the smokes were up, the neighbors excused themselves to bed. They had dreams to dream about home.
     Eleven-thirty, it was just G and me, out in the back drive, staring up at the new builds looming on three sides. What a sad wonderful joke this neighborhood will be in the future, we thought together, when the palm reader and us are gone. G and I will be in Fayetteville, Show Low, Trinidad, I’m sure. But where will A be? Can she read her own palm and know? The truth was in the backyard, G knew my future, and I knew hers—what else could be said? We were smug, satisfied, content. We shared that last cigarette, puffing and passing, not ever coughing, old pros. It was a real treat.
     After midnight, G and I, happy, horny, needy, tugging at each other, got up and went inside and—technically, what occurred next was on June 22, so I don’t have to mention details, but know that morning I slept well, woke loved, made it to the doctor on time.

—Joshua DeWain Foster


Joshua Dewain Foster is the online fiction editor at Gulf Coast. He tweets @jdfish_9 & instas @jdfish9





CRAIG REINBOLD

My 20th blurs into my 21st: I'm wrapping up an 1100 to 2330 shift and I’ve stocked my rooms and I’ve handed off my elderly fall patient and my abdominal pain with a history of bowel obstruction patient to my nightshift replacement, but I wanted to stay on to discharge the ankle pain who's been here going on three hours. She's a little, off, right, and came in with a previous diagnosis of gout, but the PA on her case tonight ruled that out so she's going home with a referral to an orthopedist, an ace wrap, and a prescription for ibuprofen. He also wants her on crutches and she wants a cane and now, after three hours, she tells me she’s a minister and needs a cane for Sunday’s service, and  what? I tell the PA and he says, No way. She needs to be non-weight bearing on that ankle. Eventually she leaves with crutches, and a cane, and now it’s 0015, June 21st.
     I bleach-wipe my shoes, my stethoscope, my shears, my pens, my nametag, the roll of surgical tape I carry around, and my watch, and while I stand there performing this end-of-the-day meditation, I chat with the third-shift crew about their seating arrangements and why the only guy on tonight has been segregated to the far side of the arena. This group’s playlist is typically Trap Rap or Pop Country, and he apparently resists both, and no one can stand his music, so there he is, way over there. Ten feet away, in a different world. As I’m leaving, finally, fuck it’s late, I stop and ask what he’s listening to. Tool, he says, and I say, Oh. I thought it was going to be something really far out. You know them, obviously, he says. And I say, Sure, I used to listen to them when I was a kid, which I later realize might be an offensive thing to say, but I said it, and I can’t spare much energy to dwell on these things.
     He suggests I dig out those old Tool albums, for the nostalgia, if nothing else. He seems excited at this thought, happily indulging in this nostalgia himself, so I just say the obvious, For sure. Well, take it easy, man, instead of the honest, I have no interest in indulging in nostalgia for that time in my life. 
     I am enveloped, and happily so, I think, in the present tense.
     Home, shower, wind-down with 20 pages of The Fifth Season. Then it’s 0200, and I melt into the mattress.
     Jack, who’s three, is up at 0630, and Angie works today—she’s already in the shower—so I pull him into the bed and try to cuddle with him until he turns perpendicular and, pretending to swim, starts kicking me in the face. Ari, 5, appears at the door. I tell him to go pee, because if I don’t, he won’t. Does anyone else struggle with this?
     I know it’s June 21st today, the solstice, the longest day, the day of this big project, all that, but it’s also just Thursday. It’ s any day, every day. Enveloped in the present tense. A creature of the present tense. This largely means living inside a very comfortable routine.
     Today is a Cathi day, Cathi who runs a small daycare out of our house two days a week. I drag myself to the stove to get the coffee going. Stretch a little. Get the boys fed, dressed, teeth brushed, and then hand them off. Two days each week. Sometimes I work on these days, but today I’m off, so it’s truly a free day 0800–1630. I’m off today, so I suppose I mean 8:00 to 4:30.
     Head to the basement to work out. The aim is two days a week of planking, two days a week of intervals. Today it’s intervals: kicks, pullups, star jumps, handstands, squats, leg lifts. This should take me 30 minutes, but I can’t really pull it off in less than 45. I feel good when it’s done, but also so tired, like I’m being slowly pulled into the floor. All I want to do is go sit in a coffeeshop and read all day, and maybe fall asleep there. But these free days are rare, and I made plans to meet an old friend for lunch. Angie has the car, so I’m already late for catching the cross-town bus. It’s a 10-minute walk and 30-minute ride and a 20-minute walk and I’m at this lake-front café a little early so I just sit outside with my feet up and eyes closed and try to empty it all out, you know what I mean?
     Eventually I open my eyes and my friend is 10 minutes late. I head inside, then outside again, and find him parked by the bike rack waiting for me. He’s newly retired from the cubicle world where we both once worked, and we order BLTs and coffees and he catches me up on his latest workout routine, his latest injuries, books he’s been reading. We’re an unlikely lunch couple, and I can’t quite figure it out myself, but here we sit, every few months, catching up. I value this friendship, it’s idiosyncrasy, but I worry about him a bit, too, and this is good, this seeing him periodically. To see he’s doing all right. He did tell me he’s been wearing elastic-banded exercise pants for the last month. He doesn’t say sweatpants. He just says pants like these. Elastic-banded exercise pants. I make fun of him a little bit, and that’s important, I think, that I can do this.
     I walk back to my bus route, a mile along Prospect Ave., quintessential MKE, East Side. Past coffeeshops I used to frequent, bars I haven’t visited in years. I think about stopping for a drink, a quiet sit by myself, maybe take some notes for this project, but I admit I’m anxious to get home, too, to hang out with the boys, and enjoy that space. Once upon a time I was a stay-at-home dad. I often miss the ease, the easier franticness, of those days. I miss the boys, when I’m not there with them.
     On the walk, I’m so tired, people everywhere, noise, cars, kids biking against traffic with no helmets on, so much happening and my head spins. Some college kids are leaning against the bus stop next to me, texting—texting each other?—on their phones, and I feel a little old. Worn. But really good, too, satisfied, and tired, and satisfied, and heading home having not accomplished anything today, but that was a nice walk and I never walk in the city anymore, and it feels almost foreign it’s so unfamiliar to me now and that’s a wonderful feeling. Rejuvenating. So there’s that.
     I fall asleep on the bus.
     The kids hit me when I open the door, the five of them, grabbing my legs, all trying for my attention.
     I get dinner started, can’t remember what I made, just another dinner, one of the five or six I make all the time. The not-our-kids get picked up, then Angie’s home and she takes the boys outside to water the gardens. We eat, we clean up, walk to the next neighborhood over, then back. The boys on their balance bikes. Ari should probably be on a pedal bike by now, but we haven’t picked one up yet. Never seem to get around to it, but whatever. He doesn’t mind, his days are so filled with everything else. Back home, we get them undressed, they both pee, we get them dressed, teeth brushed. It’s hot, so shirts off tonight. I read the bedtime books—I work the next three days 0700-1930 so I won’t really see them again till Monday.
     In bed, they goof, and we’re in and out of their room for another 45 minutes. Finally, they’re out. I pack for tomorrow, scrubs, snacks, breakfast, lunch, more snacks.
     Angie and I take to the couch with the laptop and watch a Marcella, but seriously, why can’t all of these shows be Happy Valley? She invites my hand under her t-shirt, and this is the best part of my day, it’s the point really, or the pinnacle, I don’t know. It’s as if the day with all its momentum, gears grinding, wheels in motion, is just a vehicle meant to arrive me here. So many lovely moments in the day, most days, all days, today, and here is one more.
     Of course, we start falling asleep almost immediately. Rouse ourselves to brush our teeth, our own teeth, let the dog out, and in again, take off our day clothes, hit the lights, get up again to turn the ceiling fan back on, tuck back in with just a sheet—this is our routine. A little cuddle, a roll away. And there are all those things I’d wanted to accomplish today, emails to finish, other friends to catch up with, words to write, the toilet is still running needs a new flapper probably, the boys’ ceiling fan isn’t going to fix itself, the lamp in the front hall needs a new pull chain, the garden is still carpeted with purslane, the front porch that took a year and a half to build is finally finished but needs staining. Stacks of books, so much reading. I’d love to just hit the lake and do some fishing. There is this constant list, a daily litany, but perhaps my greatest survival trait is my inability to stay awake. I crash hard and sleep easily.
     All of that clutter, I push it aside and focus on a memory from last Sunday—I’ve been falling asleep to this memory all week: We’ve finished dinner with my folks at the campsite, sausages and corn and watermelon, and then we hike to the boat launch on the far side of the lake, where the kayaks are tethered, and where it’s less crowded and everyone’s dogs are let loose to swim, and it’s after 8, the sun almost orange now, the water so warm and peaceful, and Jack is in a lifejacket next to me as I float on my back, only the sky and the green tops of the trees in my view. He can propel himself through the water now, but as I drift away from him, he reaches out and grabs my big toe, and now I’m pulling him, and I look at him, his hair wet and wild, spiked in every direction, and his eyes are wide—he’s thrilled to be getting this ride—and he smiles, such a big smile, and I float, weightless, and I love him, and this, all of this, so much. There is nothing else. Nothing. I will fall asleep to this memory forever.
     And then I'm out.

—Craig Reinbold

Craig Reinbold was once the managing editor of this site and continues to curate Essay Daily’s series featuring international essayists. He works in the ER of a Milwaukee-area hospital. 




CARLOS DAVY HAUSER

Should be asleep already (12AM; long drive tomorrow), but choose to flip through channels. Must first take Clorox On-the-Go Disinfecting Wipe from backpack and sanitize hotel remote from top to bottom; front and back; in the grooves; behind soft buttons, esp. Power and Channel Up.
     Infomercial for Age Spot Cream, Free Naughty Channel, Infomercial for Ab Cruncher. Think about buying one Ab Cruncher w/ Free Exercise Band (Low, low price of $39.99). Last week I jabbed my lil pinky into softness of belly and almost felt one ab coming thru. Soon I will be big and strong.
     Here’s a good one: it’s Dumb-But-Well-Meaning Parcel Deliveryman Has an Angry Wife. (Episode in which Parcel Deliveryman attempts to hide fact from Angry Wife that he has purchased sports car, but she’s too smart for silly Parcel Deliveryman. Wife figures out Deliveryman and fight ensues.) Many laughs. Nagging Wife! Silly Stupid Deliveryman!
     Eek, a gnat has landed on my plush duvet! I kill it and disinfect the area with a combination of bar soap, hot water, and Purell Advanced Hand Sanitizer (kills 99.9% of germs!)
     At 12:30, more laughs!—on New York Sports Writer Has Angry Wife and Lives Across from Overbearing Mom and Lazyass Dad, Angry Wife thinks Sports Writer might liker her better if she gets a boob job. (Episode is called “Boob Job”.) Already seen. Back to Ab Cruncher while I do a crossword on my phone.
     Lights out. Close eyes. Remember that even the most scrupulous housekeeper would not likely think to disinfect the little knob beneath the lampshade, so I double-wash my hands and return to bed.
     Sleep.
     Up to pee. Almost pee usual way (standing), then remember urine epiphany from last week after Friend B.O. and I hiked big muddy mountain. When B.O. and I returned to his house to relieve ourselves, B.O. said:
— Gotta pee like a racehorse.
— Ok, B.O., you go first.
     B.O. only in bathroom minute or so. Now my turn. Standing at the toilet, I see two muddy boot prints facing towards the sink, not the toilet. Did B.O. make a poo in such little time?
— B.O., did you make a poo?
— No, just a pee.
— Then why were your bootprints facing away from the toilet, B.O.?
— I pee sitting down. It prevents splashing.
     Yes it does! Why have I not previously thought to do this? When I was a child I asked my parents to install a low-flow urinal in my bathroom (they said no), but I never thought to just sit down like a lady does.
     So I sit down to pee. Wash hands twice. Can’t be too careful.
     More sleep.
     Up. Shower. Pee sitting down again. (It’s quickly becoming a habit, although I’m still mad I’ve wasted an entire quarter-century splashing myself while urinating.) Pack up. Down to the front desk to check out and turn in my keycard.
— Checkin’ out? asks Needlemark Jim from behind the desk.
— Yep.
— What brought you to Cathedral City?
— Just passing through. On my way to Phoenix from the Bay Area.
— Oh yeah, you from the Bay Area? Me too! What part?
— No, just visiting family in the South Bay.
— Ah, don’t know that part too well.
(A relief. Neither do I. All I know is that down in the South Bay there are many old men on bikes with all their gross leghair overflowing from their wool socks as they pass me. The worst part about them is that when you honk at them, even curse, all they do is wave at you and smile rather than the more customary approach: present you with their finger.)
     Needlemark Jim bids me adieu as he achoos into his crusty sleeve. Bye Needlemark Jim!
     My car’s temperature gauge says it’s 112°, so I lower the thermostat to 60° and turn the fan on high. By the time I reach the Jack in the Box drive-thru a few blocks away, the car is comfortable. Thank jesus for technology. Otherwise he only redeeming thing about this Coachella Valley desert town would be the local oppressive sun’s ability to remove all scent of street piss immediately.
     After enjoying one Chicken Fajita Pita and one Medium Jumpin’ Jack Splash in the parking lot, I drive 275 miles. Along the way, I listen to a few podcasts, including How and Why I Broke Up My Marriage by Killing a Series of Prostitutes and Who Killed Grandma Eleanor with a Blunt Object?
     When I arrive in Phoenix, Young Friend Millicent asks to meet me for dessert.
     We go to one of my favorite eateries, Hipster Diner Where All Waitpersons Must Have at Least Three Arm Tattoos, which has recently added some delicious pies to its menu. Young Friend Millicent orders strawberry rhubarb, but they are out, so instead she settles for blueberry.
     Young Friend Millicent and I catch up.
     I see that Young Friend Millicent has unshaven armpits. In fact they are as furry as the rear end of the hefty hirsute man named Dwayne I see in the gym most weekdays. I know his name is Dwayne because he likes to introduce himself to new gym patrons (—Hi buddy, I’m Dwayne!) in the locker room while naked, but thankfully his hirsuteness and big belly veil his tiny pecker.
     Recently Cousin Nelly told Grandma:
— I am going to stop shaving my pits.
— That’s just silly! protested Grandma. Girls should shave every day. Haven’t I taught you anything?!
     Normally I would side with Cousin Nelly, but I too do not understand why anyone, woman or man, would desire to have unshaven armpits. My pits are currently as bare as a baby’s bottom. This allows my Secret Powder Fresh Solid deodorant to glide on effortlessly.
     I would quite like to be hairless. I imagine that hairless people generally have less stank than the haired, as stank often seems to be a product of sweat mingling revoltingly with arm hair, leg hair, head hair, eyebrows, pubes, et cetera.
     Done with pie, am beat, it’s getting late, return to apartment.
     Am about to slip into bed when I remember that Friend Zander, who was watching my cat and my bird and my apartment while I was away, had been sleeping in my bed. Friend Zander seems to engage in sex quite often, so I don’t know what or whose germs I might be exposing myself to if I choose to lie down on what has surely become a cesspool of dried bodily fluids.
     I strip my bed, place the sheets in the hamper, and walk to the laundry room downstairs, where I spy my dirty neighbor Stanley.
     Will just get a hotel room.

—Carlos Davy Hauser

Carlos Davy Hauser is a poet and photographer originally from Skagway, Alaska. He recently received his MFA in Photographic and Electronic Media from the Maryland Institute College of Art. He shares his apartment with his cat, Tim-Tom, and his parakeet, Brandon.





HEIDI MACDONALD

I'm at the Tucson Botanical Gardens, sitting in Cafe Botanica with my new laptop—an experiment. I'm a member of the Gardens and I told my peer counselor that I wanted to come here one morning a week to start the day elsewhere, because I tend to waft around my apartment in the morning, petting my cats, drinking iced coffee (I make really good iced coffee), sitting at my desk, then on the couch, thinking about taking a shower, and taking a shower, or not taking a shower, remembering and forgetting that my number-one job is to write, and hours later remembering, oh, shit! that's what I was going to do: write! I don't have a job-job anymore because there's no job-job that I can do consistently, or that I can do without making mistakes, because my brain keeps jumping the tracks. When I was at the end of my job-job working life, I got used to feeling incompetent. As the administrative assistant slash receptionist, I’d sit at my desk with pens and post-it notes, a stapler and a 5-line telephone, a list of stuff I needed to do and the stuff that needed doing. I would read my list of stuff to do, start the first thing, but then I would stop, turn my head and read my list again, and then look at what I’d just started, and say, “Okay.” The phone would ring. I’d answer it, talk, write a message, and then I would read my list, again. I felt like I was a third grader put into the 11th grade by mistake and I would cry because I couldn’t keep up. It turns out nobody wants to work with a crybaby, and neither do I. So now I don’t have a job-job, but I get a check every month from the Feds. I’d always wanted more time to make art and write, but this doesn’t feel like “free time,” because part of my brain is on vacation. But now I’m writing. Right now. I’m writing what happens. Today.
     I'm amazed that I made it here. I woke up at 9:00 a.m. and got up. That doesn't sound very impressive, but for me it's an accomplishment worthy of a high-five. I use the alarm app, “I Can’t Wake-up!” to make my phone wake me up. (Really, that’s the name of it.) It has a slew of tasks you can choose from, that you have to accomplish before the alarm will turn off. So once the alarm starts playing the extremely irritating blues riff that I chose to wake me, I have to do three tasks: copy a string of random text, press five buttons in the correct order in a five-by-five button grid, and get up, go into the bathroom and scan the bar code on my shampoo bottle. Waking gently just isn't something I can do. The previous music I'd used was too lyrical and lovely to wake me up, it only served as a weak prompt to get me to consider waking up—it might as well have been a lullaby cooing to me to snooze the alarm again—even after doing the tasks.
     It's not that I need more sleep, but as my prescriber told me, "vivid dreams" are a common side-effect of one of my psych meds—quetiapine—the generic version of Seroquel. In my case, if I open my eyes, do the tasks my alarm requires, and snooze it for any length of time, 10, 7, even 4 minutes, as soon as I close my eyes I enter an instant full-blown vivid dream. They are richly colored breathing scenes that spring out of my unconscious mind like a lady bursts out of a cake at a bachelor party, and I can’t wake up from the party, the lady, the cake, the bachelors. But today, when I heard the irritating electric guitar blues riff, I woke with a growl, started the tasks, put my feet on the floor and stood up.
     Sitting here isn't comfortable, at all. My back hurts like a sling shot stretched too far. Ouch. This is not conducive, even with Bob Dylan on the system. The sound system. I just noticed that the word shoulder has the word "should" in it.
     The lady with the black apron is crouched in the shade of a patio umbrella holding out her arm with something in her fingers. Ooo! A lizard approaches; it's a big lizard, fat and checkered. Hmm, how big? how fat? It’s about ten big blueberries long, and two big blueberries across. She drops the something, the lizard darts and the something is gone. She stands up, and looks into the distance—this is her habitat—she shares it with lizards. I think she's lucky, and I am lucky to have come here today.
     When I first walked into the empty cafe, I asked her how much a cup of coffee was. “$3.50 plus tax,” she said. Geez, that seemed like a lot, I thought, so I didn’t order coffee, but asked her if I could sit and write for a while. She was slow to answer. “You can sit at one of the little tables until it gets busy, then you’ll have to go.” I thanked her. It was so un-busy at the moment, with only me there, that I had my pick of the tables, which is worse than having only one table available, because I had to choose one. Choosing confuses me because it involves considering, and I am a slow considerer. Each table was by a window, so I looked out each window, considering what view I wanted. I put my stuff down on one table, then looked out the window again, and chose a different table. I wanted the optimum table. That reminds me, I stopped at the 12-foot square little Japanese garden on my way to the café. It’s one of the little gardens in this big garden. It’s neat because there is a sand table with miniature monolithic rocks sticking out of it. I picked up the heavy, steel, miniature rake and slowly drug it through the sand, making little sand waves around the rocks. A little girl saw me doing it and I offered her the rake. She didn’t take it from me. As I walked away, the lady with her said, “This is feng shui. I’ll teach you about it when you’re older; how does that sound?”
     I wanted to say, “That sounds horrible. Fuck feng shui. It’s just sand and rocks.” But that wouldn’t have been very Japanese gardenesque of me.
     When I asked her what she fed the lizard, the café lady said, “A blueberry.”
     “A blueberry?!” I said.
     “Yes! I dropped a blueberry once and a lizard ate it. They LOVE blueberries! Now two of them will eat out of my hand. I feed them all day long." I ordered a cup of coffee.
     I told her about my project, "A bunch of people from all over are writing about what happens today." I wondered if the lizards’ tongues turned blue, like mine, when they eat blueberries, and I wondered if I shouldn’t have told her what I was doing, because I didn’t have to, and maybe I’d blown my cover. But no, I’m not an undercover kind of gal. A lady, a lizard, a garden, a stretch of shade, another lady, a computer, a cup of coffee, a saucer, a see-through garden table with see through chairs—expanded metal—lathe. Oh, yes, I always want to add an extra lump of expanded observation to every thought. It is my way. This is not a police report.
     I'm getting out of here. It’s super-hot already: 11:42 a.m. 97 degrees. Tucson, Arizona. The high is supposed to be 106 today. Will I go to the YMCA? That's my plan, and today is today and available.
     I went to the Y. Other stuff happened. I ate. I watched the news and turned it off when I heard that Koko had died in her sleep. Koko the gorilla was dead. I started to cry when I thought of the Mister Rogers episode when he went to visit Koko, and how she took off his shoes and socks, and how little he looked when she held him in her arms. He was very brave. Two gentle beings, both gone. I looked up some articles online. There was an email address. This is what I wrote:
I'm so sad to hear that Koko has died. She was a beautiful being. She taught me about kindness and I thank you for raising and caring for her and never mistreating her.
     You are a wonderful example of how much goodness we bring to the world when we choose to be the best human beings we can be.
     I will never be able to fathom how we can be such a loving and kind species, yet some among us persistently devote their time, their spectacular minds, and our shared resources to invent and invest in a constellation of tools and methods to kill one another and institutionalize cruelty.
     I disagree with people who believe that we humans, specifically the males of our species, are unable to control our cruel and deadly "instincts," that war is a given, and that "evil" is an actual proven "force" akin to gravity.
     Maybe I stray too far from our shared grief at Koko's loss, but I do believe that to live gently, as Koko did, would be a wondrous achievement for humanity; we might even find that it feels natural. And if it doesn't, we can learn to do it anyway.
     Without Koko and without your work, I would not have come up with this version of the (my) truth on my own. Thank you for inspiring me.
—Heidi MacDonald

Heidi MacDonald writes nonfiction and poetry. She has a BFA in sculpture from the University of Houston. She began writing in 7th grade because it helped.





And… that's all folks, at least from our Write-a-Day June 21st project this year. We're back to our regularly-scheduled programming in a week or so. Keep an eye out for the next version of this experiment and some thoughts on what happened. —Editors