Monday, December 31, 2012

Where I Have Been: 2012

The last day of the year is as good a time as any to take stock of where I've been. The past year brought challenges--loss of our spiritual community, an over-demanding day job, adjustment to life without the presence of people we loved--as well as rewards, including healthy and happy children, a beautiful home and garden, good friends, weddings and other celebrations, and adventures with family and friends. The year also brought a bit more (and much-needed) diversity to my life.

Hitting the half-centennial mark this year brought several realizations: time on the planet is short; there is no need to rush; small items carry more weight than large. I've tried to take a slower approach to most facets of my life, including writing. My yoga practice has helped in this regard, helping me become more mindful of the instant, and of those around me. But those of you who know me know I have a difficult time staying put, not pushing on to the next 'to-do'; learning to linger is my continuing challenge.

The year in review:

Family: My children are finding their niches, and I am thrilled they find themselves creators: of art, of music, of small bits of beauty. They became more resourceful this year, and independent. My husband also found time to garden, to explore new religious and spiritual practices, to think outside the box. We saw grandmothers, nearly every aunt and uncle, cousins--some several times over. We visited alpaca farms, bowling alleys, home-made ice cream stores, beaches, flea markets and yard sales, and much, much more. We are blessed.

Friends: When my husband lost his church, we lost our built-in community. It has taken some time to rebuild, to find new ways to connect with those I knew in the church context, as well as to develop new friendships outside of a spiritual home. A small group meets monthly to w(h)ine; other friends come from my writing spheres and work. And of course, there are my cyber friends, some of whom I met in person. For all of you, I am grateful.

Work: I am fortunate to work with an amazing team of students, post-doctoral fellows, and staff on two projects with clinical and policy importance: antipsychotic use in nursing home residents, and reporting state-wide use and consequences of alcohol and drugs. But in 2012, work remained the one area that overtook my time; like kudzu, it is difficult to trim back. While grateful for my job, a goal for the upcoming year will be to better manage the expectations of work with the rest of my life. 

Writing: I'd like to think this year focused on quality over quantity. Being a part-time MA student ate into my available writing time, even though the classes themselves produced a lot of knowledge and a lot of words. To quantify: 2 blogs; 265 blog posts; ~60,000 words on THE MINISTER'S WIFE; 39 poems; one proper short story; a dozen micro-fictions; countless revisions of older stories. 

This past year, 16 stories or poems were published (5 in print), netting me $75 and a Pushcart nomination (for COCHINOS, found in the summer issue of MiCrow). I thank the editors of Smokelong Quarterly, Pure Slush, Right Hand Pointing, Microw, Scissors and Spackle, Blue Five Notebook, A Baker's Dozen, The River Poet's Journal, Metro Fiction, and Press 53 for finding merit in my words. Also, thanks to Robert Brewer for selecting a poem for the 2013 Poet's Market, out this past September. Two stories found their way into books: LUCKY in Gorge, a novel in linked stories (Pure Slush Press), and WHITE in the Best of Friday Flash II anthology.

Every morning I try to remember what a gift it is to do just that: wake up. Every breath is a blessing.

And you? Where did you go this past year?


Monday, December 24, 2012

The Loneliest Tree

Once upon a time, high on a golden hill, lived the smallest fir tree. His older brothers and sisters often sent him special gifts: a spider trailing on a silken thread, milkweed spores drifting on a summer breeze, soft pollen that painted him yellow. These presents made the littlest fir tree tremble with joy. But when the spider lifted away, the downy milkweed fluttered to the field, and the wind dusted off the pollen, the littlest fir tree was lonelier than ever.

One Spring day, a wren chose to nest in the smallest fir tree. Mornings, the baby birds chortled as their mother searched for grubs and worms. One afternoon, as the littlest fir tree and the baby wrens drowsed in the wan sun, the wren squawked loudly, rousting her family from the tree. A man and a boy, both clad in overalls, walked through the orchard, throwing fertilizer around the firs.

"There, there.” The boy tossed pellets under the littlest fir tree’s boughs. “Grow strong and healthy and green.”

He squinted up at the nest perched in the littlest tree, his Red Sox cap on backwards. His fingers stroked the needles and the tree shivered.

"So soft, papa,” the boy said. “Like a kitten’s tail.”

"Yup,” said the man. “He’s the youngun here – just like you.”

That summer, the wind smelled of sweet hay. Buzzing bees filled the air with song. The farmer and his son came to the hill almost every day, watering the trees when the sun withered their needles. The boy panted and groaned as he hauled the full pails up the hill, but he always watered the littlest fir tree. Afterwards, he collapsed in the cool shade cast by the littlest fir tree and told stories about the puffy cloud creatures scudding across the sky.

One morning, the farmer came with a machine that whirred and twirled. The smallest fir tree watched the farmer trim his brothers and sisters into triangle shapes. The other trees danced in the breeze, happy with their new look, but the buzzing tool scared the smallest fir tree.

“This won’t hurt,” the boy said.

And it didn’t, the tool tickled. The fir tree shivered with delight.

The leaves of the forest Maples flamed red. Shadows stretched long across the meadow. The man came to the orchard, but always alone; the littlest fir tree missed the boy’s visits. On the first hard frost, the hill sparkled with diamonds. The man walked the orchard, still alone, pulling long red and white and yellow ribbons from a leather bag slung over his shoulder. He tied a ribbon on each tree and soon, the ribbons fluttered like flags in the brisk autumnal air. The littlest fir tree wondered what color ribbon the farmer would tie on him. But when the man reached the hilltop, he paused before the littlest tree and sighed a deep sigh, then walked back down the hill.

The sun dropped behind the forest ridge. The fir tree shivered, sending needles to the ground.

The ground rumbled. Cars and trucks filled the bottom field. Shouts of children filled the air.

“There! This tree!”

“No, this one!”

The children swarmed around the small fir tree, sometimes even saying “This one!”

But the fathers said, “This tree is too puny. Besides, it has no ribbon,” and strode past, saws and axes thrown over their shoulders. The littlest fir tree trembled as his brothers and sisters groaned and fell to the ground.

Snow dusted the stump-stubbled hill. Without the protection of his brothers and sisters, the northeast gusted hard and cold, coating the trembling fir tree in ice. The mockingbird trilled as the wagon, pulled by the man, bumped and creaked up the hill. When the man reached the top, he pulled off his wool hat and wiped his sweat-shined forehead. In the wagon, the bundle of blankets moved; the small boy, pale and drawn, poked out his head. He smiled at the littlest tree, but the smile seemed as big an effort as lugging pails of water.

"This one?” the man asked the boy. “You’re sure?”

The little boy nodded and closed his eyes. The man gazed at the boy for a long moment, then turned away, a tear frozen on his cheek.

The fir tree looked down the hill at the stumps of his family one last time. Then he pulled his limbs tight and waited for the axe’s blow. But the man plunged a shovel into the frozen earth. He chipped a circle, deeper and deeper, around the tree, loosening the dirt around the fir tree’s roots.

The man pulled the tree tight to his chest; more than anything, the littlest tree wanted to stay in his embrace. But the man tugged hard, yanking the tree from the cold ground. The boy clapped his hands, his laugh sounded like birdsong.

“Your little tree will grow strong in the front yard,” the man said. “There, we can see him from the kitchen.”

"And I can visit him in the spring?” the boy whispered.

"Yes.” The man wiped at his shiny cheek. “Yes, you can.”

The man wrapped the trembling tree in burlap and nestled him in the wagon beside the boy. The boy snuggled into the littlest fir tree all the way down the hill and across the bumpy field. When the wagon stopped, the farmer unfurled the littlest fir tree from the cloth and propped him in a large hole. Shovels of dirt and snow covered his roots. The boy clambered from the wagon, falling twice in the deep snow. When he hugged the littlest fir tree, icicles tinkled to the ground.


May your winter nights be full of talk, of laughter, warmth and love. May you never be lonely.

Merry Christmas.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Last Minute Stocking Stuffers: #bestreads2012

Christmas is coming, and it's coming fast. My top 5 book recommendations to fill your favorite reader's--or writer's--stocking.

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (Jonathan Evison): One of my favorite books of the year, when a stay-at-home dad loses his reason to stay at home, he finds work taking care of a disabled young man. A road story, a love story, a coming-of-age story, Revised Fundamentals hits every emotional peak, and then some. I covered Evison's recent visit to Baltimore's Book Festival HERE.

City of Thieves (David Benioff): A love story of sorts between two unlikely young men who become best of friends. Leningrad is under seige by the Germans, and a Russian soldier AWOL and a literary kid caught stealing from a dead German are tasked with procuring a dozen eggs for a high-ranking officer's daughter's wedding--or face execution.

Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann): I read this book every year and always find more to marvel at McCann's mastery. The thread of a tightrope walker balancing between the World Trade Towers in the 1970s makes the present that much palpable and poignant.

The Meadow (James Galvin): A poetic transport to the meadows and mountains of the American West. Non-fiction that reads like the finest fiction.

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Ben Loory): A fabulous short story collection with Carver-esque prose and unpredictable plots. For writers wanting to study the opening line 'hook', read no farther.

And a couple of other short but not necessarily sweet offerings:

Conversations with S.Teri O'Type (Christopher Allen): Goofy, high-camp, and amazingly good fun from one of the most promising emerging writers.

Shortly Thereafter (Colin D. Halloran): Heart-stopping poems about war written by a soldier-poet stationed in Afghanistan.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

April Poem-A-Day Challenge

So happy to place in this year's April Poem-a-Day Challenge. Hosted by Robert Brewer over at Writer's Digest, the April PAD brings poets from all over the world together as they craft a daily poem in response to a prompt. It's a crazy month, but one of my happiest--what better way to celebrate spring than to dedicate a day in one month to crafting a poem?

My poem let's drive north can be found in the comments on Robert's blog. Take time to enjoy the others as well. Peace...

Monday, December 17, 2012

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Working the Shop

Now that class is over, I can finally write.

You would think that a semester-long class focused on writing and critiquing original fiction by students would serve as a catalyst to writing.

Think again.

You hear horror stories of workshops which end up in complete disaster: of writers' egos bruised to shiny purple; of over-bearing professors; of the one student who manages to be the professor's darling; of the workshop hog; of workshops run amok.

This class contained elements of these horrors. At least I have a thick skin. At least I have workshopped before and have a barometer of my writing strengths--and weaknesses.

So now, I am free. I can get down to the real business of writing, of writing unencumbered with doubt. Now I can polish my stories and shop my work.


Sunday, December 09, 2012

Open Letter to Duotrope

My dearest Duie,

Why? Why, after all these years of a mutually engaging affair, are you leaving me? Why, oh why, are you requiring payment, and $50 at that? I've given you gifts, parted with my precious bling.

Fifty big ones is a lot of dough, Duie. Especially for us writers. This past year alone my writing income included $25 for a flash piece and $50 for a poem. And this was a good year.

Sure, you are the dope! You provide us with lots of good stuff on paying and non-paying markets, ideas for similar markets. You let us track our submissions. But what is sexiest about you, Duie, are your stats. You know, the journal's percent of acceptances and rejections, wait times, all those glorious numbers which feed my day job heart.

Duie, I love your stats. I would happily contribute the $50 required to see your stats if I felt assured the rest of your clients will. But I sense a lot of writers aren't going to belly up on January 1, 2013 when your new rate goes into effect, including a lot of us faithful who have provided for your upkeep over the years. And what use will those stats be then?

Yeah, there's other joints to hang out, like New Pages. And I've gotten handy with excel for my submissions. But it won't be the same.

I'm gonna miss you, Duie. At least I've been faithful all this time, tossing you a twenty or more every year. It sure does suck the leeches made it all come to this. But before you go, thanks for the good times. Thanks for championing my successes, consoling me when rejected, providing new havens for my words. Like i said, I'm gonna miss you.

But I can't afford you anymore.


Tuesday, December 04, 2012

What's In a Name?

I think often of my father these days, the grantor of my maiden name, more so than the year after he died. The space and time, I think, have allowed me to remember him as he lived rather than how he died. Inside of me, there’s been a thrumming, a restlessness, to return to what cannot be returned, so I look for him in science and images and words, as well as in those left behind.

As I proceed through the hump of midlife, I ache to know and understand my ancestors. I find myself crawling the internet for clues. Growing up, my last name was a rarity, a funny assemblage of letters few could pronounce. As a family we traveled a lot, and I remember never seeing our surname in phone books. Besides my small New England family comprised of a great-grandmother (Mumu), grandparents, and aunts, uncles, and cousins, we were alone, at least in the United States. 

Near the upper reaches before the Arctic circle, we were more, our name in its Finnish form in phone books. Then, the internet expanded the world, and I find us taking up space in google: a film maker in Canada; a Lieutenant Colonel in California; a physician scientist; and many others. Recently, while in San Diego, I remembered there are people who may--or may not--be related to me by blood who lived in that part of the world. In a way, knowing this made the sprawling city feel smaller. We aren't so numerous as, say, Smiths or Taylors or Changs, but we aren't quite so rare, either. 

This brings me some comfort today. 

William Bruce Wastila
April 6, 1938 -- December 4, 2009

I miss you, Dad. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Yin and Yang of Fame

Matt Potter, editor extraordinaire of PURE SLUSH, wraps up his fame series with Point/Counterpoint stories this week. I am honored to have The Comfort of Friends paired with Relics by the talented Cheri Ause. Please, take a look at the light and dark sides of fame, and the woman who stands behind every successful woman--or not.

Thank you Matt!


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What to Say?

I'm a writer but find myself without a lot to say.

Sure, I could talk about the frustration surrounding my novel-in-progress. How I'm struggling to figure out the container. How for the first time ever I'm boggled by not knowing the distance between the narration and the event. How writing all my many voices in third is freeing and scary at the same time. How I love my characters but they don't shut up. Ever.

And then there's work. The work which never ends. Oh vey! My mind is a constant, growing To-Do list that never stops running. Work crowds out all the other stuff my head should contemplate, like the novel-in-progress.

Of course, it is the beginning of the season. And the season means FOOD--cookies and choclates and wine and eggnogs and special meals with friends and family and even people I work with. In the lunch room there's bowls of chocolates someone brings in, someone with more will-power than I will ever possess. And whoever brought in the Girl Scout Tagalongs definitely should not get a raise.

Then again, who IS getting a raise? I feel the pinch, but even we are so lucky compared to most. Crime's up everywhere, and with night falling earlier, walking 4 blocks to the metro station after work is one way I get a cardiovascular workout. But even in my suburban town, copper wiring, snow-blowers, cell phones, and bicycles get stolen. We have armed robberies here, it seems every week.

Not many businesses make profits these days. But do you know gun stock prices shot up after Obama's re-election? Ruger sales alone went up 86%. Wow. I anticipate a comparable increase in health costs to treat trauma and assault victims.

I don't watch the news. Too depressing. Too apocalyptic. Instead, I hunker down with my family to watch Star Trek. We finished the first season and are now into the second. The Klingons have definitely gotten much better looking since the original series. My daughter is smitten with Spock; when asked why, she says his pointy ears remind her of Legolas, who she would like to marry some day.

Like I said, not much to say. What say you?

Live long and prosper...

Friday, November 23, 2012

Phantom Sister @ Creative Thresholds

A small story about linkages seen and unseen at Creative Thresholds, a new blog that blends boundaries. Thank you Melissa Johnston for sharing my words in your visionary new venture. Peace...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Here, Everyone Smiles

And why shouldn't they--they live in sunny San Diego.

The day job took me west to discuss problems of geriatric health with like-minded colleagues. Although I spent my fair share in dimmed conference halls soaking up knowledge or, hopefully, imparting it, the sun beckoned through tinted windows.

How the heck does anyone get anything done here?

Sure, I can see how washing down your gazillion-foot yacht might be an okay task, or driving the water taxi that takes you to and fro between San Diego and Coronado, or even serving at hostess at one of the uber-nice restaurants doting the harborside.

But seriously? Work?

We ate well, too well--sushi made with snow crab, grilled sea diver scallops, tapas of Rioja-braised ribs and vanilla-lacquered pork belly, house-made spinach and basil ravioli. Topped off with a pilgrimmage to Extraordinary Desserts (and no, I was with friends--we shared the two cakes, one a passion-fruit ricotta, the other a chocolated-up tiramisu cake. But the cappucino is all mine).


 We traipsed to Balboa Park one afternoon, to visit the Marston House, one of the finest examples of arts-and-crafts architecture. Chock full of Stickleys and Rookwoods and Native American rugs and such. There, I found my dream writer's spot.

After my last presentation I made my own mecca--to the Pacific Ocean. I found myself not wanting but needing to walk in the Pacific's cold surf, to hear the roar and tumble of it's waves. I took the ferry to Coronado and walked the 1.5 miles to the beach. The sand fine as dust between my toes, I walked for two hours, pelicans and gulls overhead, the waves crashing hard, the occasional happy shout of someone as they body-surfed onto shore.

I found a sort of peace there, one that quelled a recent restlessness. A good trip, but happy to return home, or at least my family, as we join more family in chilly New England.

Have a restful and blessed Thanksgiving. Peace...

Friday, November 16, 2012

after he failed to wake up

A small story of mine placed in the 12th GLASS WOMAN PRIZE contest. Follow the links--the story itself takes place in 53 words.

Thank you Beate Sigriddaughter for all you do for women writers. Peace...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Some Femmy Fun Up @ Used Furniture Review

Had scads of fun writing The After-Life of a Defeated Politician with brilliant co-writer femmes Kari Nguyen, Faye Rapaport DesPres, and (of course) Meg Tuite.

Thanks to Ms. Meg for inviting me along for this surreal and slightly naughty post-election ride on Exquisite Quartet.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Those Who Serve

I have uncles who have served in wars--Korean, Vietnam--and friends who have served in more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But I must admit--until I began to write about war, I did not begin to understand it. Begin is a key word, for no amount of research, no amount of hearing soldiers' stories, no amount of imagining war can replicate the experience of war.

For most of my life, I have thought of war as a dirty deed done by our government to others' countries. Part of our nation's conquest of capitalism and resources. Parts of the perception may be true, depending upon the war, the countries. Certainly, these are factors considered in the decision of a country to go to war, and strategies employed during engagement.

But if there is one thing I have come to realize, it is this: the reasons to go to war are very different for the average American who enlists in an armed service. The reasons might have to do with patriotism or politics, but more likely have to do with economics, the need for structure, the need to escape things that might appear at face value worse than enlisting: legal problems, loss of love, loss of identity and self-worth.

Indeed, Jeremiah Anselm, one of my characters, enlists only after he finds himself failing at every thing he has ever loved. In researching his character and the war in Afghanistan, I have read and witnessed the stories of a number of men who join for similar reasons.

It takes a lot of courage to serve the Army, Marines, Navy, and other services, especially when America finds itself at war. To those who serve--or who have served--I thank you for your courage, for doing what I do not have the bravery to do myself. Peace...

(Photograph by the late documentary film-maker Tim Hetherington. Photo taken of the inner arm of Sergeant Rice, Second Platoon, Battle Company, 503rd Us Infantry. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, 2007)

Thursday, November 08, 2012

HOME (The Runaway--XXI)

WHEN THE BUS DRIVER DROPPED JOSH OFF at the foot of the drive to the farm, the sun hung low, just touching purple mountains. Two signs, neat and hand-carved from wood, swung from the mailbox: Oglala Clay Works and, below, Anselm Guitar and Repair. The drive twisted ahead, hard packed dirt through knee-high yellow grain that went forever.     
Josh walked for almost fifteen minutes, more than a mile, through wheat that rustled in a breeze Josh did not feel. Patches of uncultivated meadow interrupted the wheat, splotches of green wild with daisies and Queen Anne’s lace. He turned a corner and there it was, the white two-story house he had only seen in photographs. A covered porch wrapped around the side. Smoke smudged the sky from behind the house. In the center of the small front lawn, a weeping birch tree with round, black stones circled the base. Two rocking chairs set on the porch, and between them, on a table, a glass pitcher glistened with water droplets. When Josh saw the pitcher, he realized how thirsty he was, and how hungry.

A sheepdog ran towards him, soft yelps of greeting. Josh squatted and offered his hand and the puppy sniffed him before bounding away.

Beside the house was a shed of grey withered timbers. A low ramp led to a wide door cut into the side. Wood shavings curled at the threshold, on the ramp and grass. Josh stepped into the dark room and inhaled the punky richness of wood just cut. Guitars hung from hooks in the wall. Two instruments covered the long table, surrounded by thin pieces of different colored wood and slices of mother-of-pearl. The afternoon sun slanted through the open door and dust floated in the warm air, sparkling. The room felt familiar, someplace he had been before or wanted to be. A radio played, muffled, an overtone of static, and something in Josh’s chest tightened.

Smoke billowed past Josh. He left the shed, passing cords of wood stacked higher than him against the outside wall. A woman bent over a smoking pit. She was tiny and slight and her long black hair was pulled back in a single fat braid. She prodded a long metal rod into the pit and orange-tinged ashes danced in the smoke. Beside her, a man in a wheelchair, his back to Josh. All Josh saw was the back of his uncle Jeremiah's, golden-brown curls that fell over his shoulder. The puppy ran past them, chasing some imaginary prey, and the woman looked up and turned sideways, her belly swollen, round and hard like a nut. Without moving, she nodded.

The man wheeled around. All Josh saw was the missing leg, gone from above the knee.

“Hey buddy,” his uncle said. “We’ve all been so worried about you.”

Josh looked up, past that hole in his uncle’s body to the smile, broad the way he remembered, and the arms opened wide. Josh stepped toward him, then ran to the man so big, so strong, and for the first time since he and Nikko left Maryland a lifetime ago, Josh let himself cry.  
So, the end of THE RUNAWAY. At last. Of course, revision is next, but only after I have written the others' stories. For a peek into Jeremiah's story, go HERE. As for that mysterious woman stirring up ashes, her Christian name is Sheila, but among her Oglala Lakota tribespeople she is called Maka Proud Tree. I'm writing her now, as part of my annual NaNoWriMo adventure.
Thank you kind readers--I always appreciate you taking the time to care about my stories and, most of all, my characters. Peace...

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Four Years Ago

on the day after the vote, drizzle marred the morning but the city of Baltimore felt electric. A new president. A new future. The subway buzzed with excitement; outside Lexington Market, folks whooped their joy. Horns honked their approval.

Fast forward to today. Another morning of the same dingy sky, the same bottles rolling in the gutters, the same questionable red streak splotching the corner wall (don't think too hard whether it's ketchup or some other liquid). Heads bow against the wind, smiles get tucked into pockets.

Another day. Same old same old. Hope dissipated in four short years, at least here, in Baltimore, the city of believe.


Sunday, November 04, 2012

In Love

                                                                                                      Photo: Frank Ragsdale
How can you not love this face?
We visited an alpaca farm today while visiting in North Carolina. Amazing creatures--gently assertive, huge soulful eyes, necks soft as a downy pillow. But best of all is their ability to make everyone smile. Even me.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

BADLANDS (The Runaway--XX)

THE PLANE FLEW OVER TERRAIN JOSHUA HAD NEVER SEEN: rivers that twisted like mud-colored threads, jagged clots of red earth pushed through yellow plains that went forever, rolling foothills with green at the bottom and snow at the top. When the jet landed at Sioux Falls, he followed the rest of the passengers through the chute and into the terminal in a numb kind of haze.

He arrived at the lower level of the airport, where the noise and fluorescence and movement confused him. Josh retreated to a bathroom, waited for a stall to empty, then went in, sat on the toilet with his knees pulled to his chest, and rocked back and forth, wishing he had Nikko with him, wishing he knew how to get from point a to point b by himself.

But Nikko was not with him, he would never be with him, and Josh prayed again for Nikko—find peace, find peace—his lips moved and no sound came out. Find peace, find peace. Nikko, pale against the white hospital sheets, the hum of the machines, his hands folded on top of each other. Eyes closed, black hair splayed on the pillow, lips pinked up and curved into a faint smile, no, a smirk, he looked asleep. But when Joshua found him that morning, he did not move, his chest did not swell with air.

Too far gone, the doctor had said. Who do we call?

Find peace, find peace.

Josh flushed the toilet. At the sink he splashed his face and hair with water, taking time to keep his bandaged hand dry. He dried himself under the air blower, the air warming him again. He sniffed his armpits. Not too rank, not like he spent the last four weeks-- or was it five?--sleeping wherever his body dropped.

Back in the terminal he surveyed the car rental booths. He went to the one with the shortest line. The man behind the Budget counter read a newspaper.

“How much for a rental?” Josh asked.

The man eyed him. “You old enough to drive?”

“I’m seventeen,” Josh said.

“We don’t rent to minors unless a parent co-signs,” the man said and flipped the page of the newspaper. “And we don’t accept cash.”

Josh stood for a moment. This complication had not figured into his plans. Nikko would know how to sneak around the rules but Joshua didn’t think the way Nikko did.

The way Nikko had.

Josh started to tremble. The man rested the paper on the counter.

“Hey kid,” he said. “Where you trying to go?”

“Hot Springs,” Josh said. “My uncle lives there.”

“That’s clear across the state,” he said. “He’ll have to pick you up.”

“My uncle, uh, can’t drive.”

“You sure you have an uncle?”

“He served in Afghanistan,” Josh said.

The man’s face softened. “Oh, man, I’m sorry,” he said. “My brother was over there. Hell hole of the world. Look, the bus takes you to Black Hills National Park, right outside of Hot Springs. A hell of a lot cheaper than any old rental, too.”

The woman behind the bus counter took his nineteen dollars without question, without even looking at him. He had four dollars left.

“Fifty minutes until we board, honey,” she says. “Don’t miss--there ain’t another bus ‘til tomorrow.”

Josh returned to the bathroom. He cleaned himself again, wetting paper napkins he nabbed from a pretzel stand. He cleaned under his clothes, leaning against the stall door so it wouldn’t swing open. He felt giddy, shaky, from lack of food, from excitement about almost being there, from the anticipation of seeing his uncle, to finishing his trip. Someone entered the bathroom while he scrubbed his feet. The toilet two stalls down gurgled. He slid back into his stiff jeans and stained socks. At least his shoes felt dry. In the trashcan, a half-eaten hamburger nestled in its waxed wrapper. Joshua ate it hurriedly before leaving the bathroom.

This, the penultimate installment of THE RUNAWAY. I do appreciate you reading this massive story/chapter. Already, this story has changed, and after next week, it will marinate for a few weeks or months while I work on other stories in THE MINISTER'S WIFE. Indeed, working on THE INDIAN for NaNoWriMo, and will then focus on THE MINISTER'S WIFE herself. Peace...

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


You've seen the hashtag: #fridayflash.

For almost every Friday for over two years I--and hundreds of other writers around the world--have posted a story of 1000 words or thereabouts.

But #fridayflash is more than a bunch of stories floating around on the wondrous web. #fridayflash is bootcamp--the pressure always on to present a story every week. And it needs to be good, or you don't get the traffic. On average 60 folks add a story to "The Collector" every Friday. That's a lot of great reading every weekend.

#fridayflash also is community. Behind every story is a real peep. And a good, caring peep at that. We've sent jam and books and money and cards and Halloween stories and Secret Santas to each other. Some of us have met in person. We have cried with each other, and celebrated each other's joys.

So the launch of the second anthology of this collective--BEST OF FRIDAY FLASH II--represents more than excellent words by some of the web's finest writers==> Read the TOC for yourself. I imagine reading BOFF II will feel like sitting around a campfire swapping stories with old friends, and new. I'm honored to find my own small story WHITE included in the collection.

A HUGE thanks to J.M. "Jon" Strother, the Grand-Daddy of this phenomenon, not to mention a fine writer and kind friend. The holidays are around the corner, HINT-HINT.


Monday, October 29, 2012

The Abridged Biography of an American Sniper--Up at SMOKELONG

Very, very pleased to share my story The Abridged Biography of an American Sniper at Smokelong Quarterly. A huge thank you to Christopher Allen, guest editor who chose my story, and the rest of the good folks at Smokelong. And an equally gargantuan thanks to Mark Kerstetter, who illustrated the story with this amazing broken stem of wheat.


Saturday, October 27, 2012


A one-two whammy expected to hit Maryland starting Sunday night and through Tuesday: Hurricane Sandy gets down with the cold front blasting from the Midwest. The Governor has already called a state of emergency in advance of 'Frankenstorm' or, as others call it, the Storm of the Century.

I find it _________ (fill-in-the-blank: amusing, interesting, anxiety-provoking) this storm falls on the two days where I--and my colleagues at the University of Maryland--have so much at stake: our five-year accreditation visit occurs. The accreditation process for Schools of Pharmacy is a multi-year long ordeal, with much internal work and reflection and retreats by faculty, staff, and students. Not to mention the planning and coordination. The site visit team, composed of faculty from all over the country, are expected to arrive in Baltimore Sunday. Maybe.

At the same time, the School is hosting an annual endowed lecture on Tuesday, one in which I have personally invested much time. The guest speaker is local, but he will face the same crummy weather the rest of us face. So.

But really, none of these events concern me personally, as I am slated to head an hour south to the Food and Drug Administration early Monday morning. Two days sequestered in the bowels of the FDA to listen to testimony and evidence--and then vote--regarding the rescheduling of hydrocodone products from Schedule III to Schedule II due to concerns of the pain-killer's abuse and diversion potential.

For a few weeks I have been disappointed in my ability to clone myself into three Lindas. Now, it appears all that worry may be for naught, as I will find myself at none of the above.

MORAL: Don't pet the sweaty stuff, don't sweat the petty stuff. Nothing else matters when Mother Nature gets cranky.

Stay safe, stay dry, and hug the ones you're with. Peace...

Thursday, October 25, 2012

THE PHONE (The Runaway--XIX)

JOSH GENTLY RESTED NIKKO’S HEAD ON THE CUSHION. A phone. He remembered the phone hanging on the kitchen wall. Josh’s feet made wet smacking sounds against the floor, but now he wanted someone to hear him, so he yelled “help” as he ran down the hall.  

But no one yelled back. He turned on lights as he flew by the switches. Bright construction paper cut-outs of cheery Christmas trees and green wreathes and silver chalices covered endless white walls.
In the kitchen, in the space by the door, a fire extinguisher, cherry red. Laughter bubbled up his throat, a laughter that tasted like metal. How the hell had he confused a fire extinguisher with a phone? He scanned the room. There was no phone, no phone he could see, so he rushed back down the hall and rattled door knobs, each one locked. On the last door, a sign: Reverend Gilliam. Of course the minister’s office had a phone, so he turned the knob but the door didn’t budge.

Josh kicked. The door shuddered in its frame. The top half of the door was a plastic window, milky and yellowed. He punched with his fist. The window shattered around him, his knuckles dripped red as he reached past the jagged edges. The inside knob slipped in his hand, warm and slick from blood, and then the door popped open. In the middle of the cluttered desk, a phone. He punched 911. On the second ring, a voice picked up.

“My friend, he’s sick, really, really sick,” Josh said.
“Where are you?” the woman’s voice on the other end said. She sounded calm, content, not at all consumed the way Josh felt.

“In a church,” Josh said, and the panic rose again, he had no idea exactly where he was. “A UU church.”
“UU?” she said.

“Unitarian Universalist.”
“Never heard of that,” she said. “Street?”

“I don’t know,” Josh said. He piled through papers and pamphlets on the desk, hoping one had the address, but all he saw were drafts of what seemed to be sermons, mock-ups of brochures. “Downtown. Near a park. I have no fucking clue.”
“I’m tracing your call now,” she said. “Tell me about your friend.”

“He’s got a fever, really high, and when I shake him he doesn’t respond,” Josh said.

“Uh, not now, not tonight, he might’ve shot up this morning.”

“Is he shaking?” she said. “Having tremors?”

“No. Oh Jesus, hurry.”
“Because of the storm the system is slow. Are you with your friend now?”

“No, he’s in the sanctuary. I’m in an office, it’s where the phone is.”
“Is anyone else with you?” she asked.

“No. We broke in, the weather, we’ve been on the street. Nikko, he’s been sick so long, his arm’s all red, all hot—”
“Arlington and Boylston,” she said. “I’m sending the ambulance now. Now listen to me, this is important. I want you to return to your friend. Hold his head to the side, in case he throws up. Don’t let him breathe in his vomit. Okay?”

“Okay,” Josh said, but he didn’t move, just cradled the phone in his hands.
“Go,” she said with an odd gentleness. “Help is coming. I’ll pray for you both.”

The phone clicked. Josh let the bloody phone clatter to the desk. Josh wanted to stay in the office, connected to her, connected to her voice, but he pushed himself up. His feet crunched in the plastic shards in the hall and he started to run, slow at first, blood from his hand spattering the carpet as he ran faster, until he reached the sanctuary.
Nikko curled in fetal position. Josh sat beside him, cross-legged, and cradled Nikko’s head in his hands. Nikko’s breath floated past his wrist, faint and warm.

The chalice glowed from the altar. He wondered if the people who came here believed in God, whether when they lit their candles they prayed for strangers. He hoped so.
Josh slowly rocked Nikko.

“Spirit of life,” Josh sang, a whisper. “Come unto me. Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.”
Nikko moaned. Josh wasn’t sure, but in the dim sanctuary, it looked like Nikko smiled, so he kept singing Nikko’s favorite hymn.

“Wings set me free, spirit of life, come to me.”
Josh stared at the chalice and sung until the words turned husky in his mouth, until they became a prayer of sorts. His throat grew hoarse, but still he sang. The radiator stopped clanging, the draft faded, and Josh stopped, to listen. Silence filled the vast space. Far off, he heard the faint wail of a siren.

ALMOST at the end. Whew. What a ride. And thank you for riding with me. If you're not sure where we are in the journey, read last week's installment of THE RUNAWAY.

Read hard, write harder, live hardest. Peace...

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Prose and Prizes and Punch

Pleased as punch to find out Michael Solender and the other fine folks at Full of Crow Press liked my story COCHINOS (MiCrow 7; Summer 2012) enough to nominate this very small fiction for Pushcart Prize.

I love the annual Pushcart Anthology. So much excellent fiction, poetry, essays, many by familiar writers published in familiar journals. The heft of the volume feels good in my hands. I have last year's on the table by my bed--it makes for a good read when I want to read something dependable and short.

I haven't a chance in hell of 'winning'--I am an unknown, and admit it: the Pushcart judges do not smile too often or favorably upon electronic journals. But the persistence of internet journal editors like Michael Solender and Lynn Alexander, who publish provocative prose, poetry, and art, will eventually wear down the old-fashioned walls of the Pushcart Prize. I am humbled to have my story published in Microw, nominated for the Pushcart, and most of all, to be a small part of the electronic movement changing the face of the written word. Peace...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

FEVER (The Runaway--XVIV)

JOSH WALKED TOWARD THE FRONT OF THE SANCTUARY to the door which he knew led to offices and bathrooms and the kitchen; all churches had the same layout.  His boots squeaked against waxed linoleum, so he slowed down, afraid someone might hear him. Josh passed through the fellowship hall. A long table, set already for coffee hour with two silver coffee urns and white porcelain cups balanced on matching saucers, lined the far wall.
Another door led to the kitchen. A streetlight shone through the only window over the sink, muted by swirling snow. Josh cracked the door of the refrigerator. A loaf of bread and an opened bag of individually-wrapped Colby cheese sticks. Josh dropped the cheese and bread into a plastic grocery bag. A percolator and a can of Italian roast stood on the counter by the stove. What he would give for a cup of hot coffee! Later. After he fed Nikko, got him settled.
Back in the sanctuary, Nikko slept on the floor, right arm thrown over his head as if hoping for a pop fly. His coat sleeve had fallen to his elbow. Angry purple welts trailed down his inner arm. Josh touched Nikko’s forehead. The heat scared him. Josh’s mind scattered, to the snow, to the desolate underpass, to Nikko not getting up off the cold, granite step, to the guitar shining in the storefront window and the coffee, the organ, the eddying white, and the night, the day, the whole last month melted into a white blur.

“Wake up.” Josh shook him by the shoulder. He pushed away the damp hair fallen in Nikko’s face. His friend’s eyes looked sunken. Dried blood caked his lower lip. “You need to get up.”

But Nikko lay there, unmoving. Josh picked up his arm and it flopped to the floor with a thud.

“Jesus, Nikko. Get the fuck up.” Josh wrapped his arms under Nikko’s chest and heaved him forward. But Nikko went limp, a dead weight, and slowly slid back to the floor. 

Josh stood. A strong urge to kick Nikko, anything to get him to move, overwhelmed him, and as he battled the urge, it came to him Nikko was dying, he was dying now, and if he didn’t do anything, Nikko would die there, on the floor in a church in a city four hundred miles from home, and it would be all his fault and how would he, Josh, ever live with himself if his best friend died in his care?

Getting closer to the end. I've decided to shorten each installment (last week's was a bruiser to get through), so maybe 3 or 4 smaller posts. Thank you for reading, Josh and Nikko and I appreciate it! Peace...

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


What is it with all the canes? At the corner by Lexington Market, me and three men--all three carrying canes. Across the street, two men with canes, another in a wheelchair. In the elevator, one man--with a cane. The VA is three blocks away--are all these men vets? It makes my heart ache.

Crummy day yesterday. Long commute, too much work, all kinds of crises. I got cranky. Then, one of my pharmacy students dropped by. To thank me. For doing my job, which is to teach, to mentor. A total mood adjustment--Thank you KC!

Caught the last hour of the debate. That Candy is somthing else, kind of thought she was running for office herself. None too partial, either; then again, is the mainstream media impartial? Methinks not.

Grooving on yerbe mate. Not as jagged as coffee, yet more punch than tea. Though have been enjoying Earl Grey Vanilla lattes of late.

READING... Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. This is a reread, and it is more gorgeous, lush, and heart-breaking than the first time through. A novel in linked stories, this deserves every accolade accorded, including the 2009 National Book Award. Oh, and they're making it into a movie!

WRITING... Gearing up for NaNoWriMo, focusing on getting down the bones of Maryam, the main character in THE MINISTER'S WIFE. November is my annual month to write without the editor, to write from the bones. You doing NaNo?

LISTENING... My son has me revisiting Nirvana. Here, Lithium for your listening pleasure. Kurt Cobain, what a brilliant voice...


Thursday, October 11, 2012


A LOW ROAR, A LOCOMOTIVE, WOKE UP JOSH. Snow blasted through the cardboard box. His teeth clacked in his ears but he was afraid to open his mouth, afraid the snow, the wind would enter and freeze him into ice.

A gust tore the box from them. Josh chased after it, the swirling white pelting his face like barbs, but the box tumbled up the embankment, down the black street. When he returned to the underpass, Nikko swayed on his knees, hugging himself. The others were gone, their fires snuffed by the storm.

“Nikko, we gotta go.”

He pulled Nikko into a standing position. Nikko’s arm hung over his shoulder, a dead weight. They stumbled up the embankment. An eerie hush settled on the street. They passed doorway after doorway, each already filled with bags and blankets. Slush turned Josh’s feet icy wet, then numb. Streetlights illuminated the falling snow and Josh imagined each flake a ghost dancing, a forgotten soul.

He pressed Nikko against a store window to catch his breath. Nikko watched him with sleepy eyes. In the window, surrounded by a stack of yellow pottery bowls, a tarnished flute, rare books, a guitar. A Gibson. Mother-of-pearl inlay twinkled on the fret board.

“Nikko, look.”

Nikko slowly turned. His jacket drooped, exposing the yin-yang symbol tattooed on his left shoulder.

“It looks like my guitar,” Josh said. His lips felt thick when he spoke. “I miss my uncle. I miss playing. He lived here once, went to Berklee College for music.”

Nikko nodded, a single solemn movement. His scarf fluttered to the ground. Falling snow covered it in seconds. “You were brilliant.”

The way he said it in past tense pissed Josh off, made him want to slug Nikko, but instead he bent to pick up the scarf, but his fingers would not bend. He left the scarf and pulled Nikko close. They continued down the street. Snow whipped around them. Josh told him a little further, just a little further, and at the corner, past a black-spiked iron fence that pierced the falling white, they stopped to rest.

“Tired.” Nikko tottered towards the wide stone stairs leading to the building’s entrance. Josh yanked him back, by his bad arm. Nikko yelped.

“Not here, Nikko. You’ll die.”

“Don’t care.”

Nikko slid to the bottom step. Josh’s knees trembled. He dropped beside his friend. Snow slid down his neck, down his back, cold at first but then just wet. Flakes tangled in Nikko’s eye lashes, his hair, the white dusted them like marble statues in the Public Garden, so still, so white, and he closed his eyes, the cold peeled away, and the snow, and the chortle of birds melded into the white hot glaze of summer.

“See him,” Nikko murmured in his ear. “Your uncle. After.”

After. After what? Nikko snuffled through his nose, already asleep. Josh pushed up, certain the storm would swallow him, swallow his friend, and he would be alone.

“Nikko! Get the fuck up!”

Josh kicked him in the side, hard enough to make Nikko swat at him, and that was when Josh saw the sign. Snow covered the front, the bulb from the overhead light smeared snow down the glass but still, he saw the words in proper black: Sunday Services 10 to 11. All are welcome.

He craned his neck to make sure. Snow eddied around the building. The wind ebbed, the church spire shone against the grey night. Josh hurried up the icy steps. Snow cleaved to the heavy red doors. He felt for the handle, found a metal latch and pulled, but the door failed to budge. He pounded against the wood, snow dropping in clumps, until he found the other handle. The door creaked open.

“Oh God, oh sweet God.”

He hurried down the steps.

“Nikko… come on, come on… we’re at a church… just a few more steps.”

He propped Nikko against the railing and squatted before him on the sidewalk. “Get on me, my back… come on.”

Nikko collapsed on him. Josh staggered up. With Nikko on his back, Josh mounted each step with a grunt. The wind pushed against them, against the door, but Josh finally wedged it open.

They stumbled onto the stone floor of the foyer. Nikko lay beside him, not moving. Dim light glowed from far away. Josh made out choir robes draped over hangers, hymnals stacked on shelves, a vase of daffodils, yellow petals fluttering in some draft, rare golden birds or, perhaps, angels, ready to float through the ceiling, the swirling snow, to some warmer, safer place.

All Josh wanted was to sleep on that stone floor, warmer and softer than anything he had laid on in many weeks. Just for a few minutes. But he forced himself up. Light filtered through a glass door. Illuminated stained glass windows lined the sanctuary, casting the vast room in hues of gold and red and blue. Rows of pews led to the pulpit, a hulking shadow. A single yellow beam of light pinpointed a silver chalice perched on the altar.

“Guess what Nikko? We’re in a goddamn UU church!”

Nikko did not move.

“Come on, get up.”

Josh leaned over and pulled him to a sitting position. Nikko’s head wobbled on his neck. Melted snow streaked down his red cheeks, making him look as though he was crying.

“Okay. Okay then.”

Josh laid his friend back on the floor. He propped open the glass door with his backpack and pulled Nikko by the ankles. Nikko groaned when they crossed the threshold, where the stone foyer ended and the carpeted sanctuary began.

Josh managed to pull Nikko onto all fours. Nikko swayed on his hands and knees.

“Crawl,” Josh said “Pretend you’re a dog. A baby. Like this.”

Nikko raised his head, his eyes like coal. Sweat or melted snow dripped down his forehead. He placed one hand out, then the other. His knees followed.

“Good,” Josh said. “This way.”

Nikko crawled after Josh. At the end of the aisle, Josh turned back. Nikko huddled on the floor, curled into fetal position. Josh pulled him up, holding Nikko under his arms, then pushed with his shoulder. The carpet crushed under their hands and knees. They crab-walked together across the back of the sanctuary and down the side aisle where it was darker. Josh dragged Nikko into a box pew hidden behind one of the columns. He placed a cushion under Nikko’s head and in the shadow it seemed as if Nikko rested on a pillow of forest moss.

“Sleep,” Josh said. “I’ll find food.”

Nikko shuddered once. Josh tucked his coat around his friend’s shoulders. The door to the pew clicked behind him. Gold pipes gleamed from the balcony, rising through the dark like a lost city. Josh had always wanted to play a real organ, one with pipes and pedal stops, not the crappy electronic keyboard at church. He imagined the power of the low D, how the windows would rattle when he banged out Kashmir. Josh’s face felt tight and unfamiliar; it seemed forever since he had smiled.


Two more installments until the end. You do want to know how this story ends, don't you? Thank you, as always, for reading my words. Peace...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wednesday Wonderings

Why doesn't Legolas ever run out of arrows in LOTR, the movie?

There's a lot of spit on the sidewalks. Glossy gobs of it. Have you ever noticed?

Why do kids spend an hour kvetching about homework that takes 20 minutes to do?

Socks. Where DO they disappear to?

Lots to feel grateful for: the sun shines (at last); my friend M is kicking her cancer to never-never land; a friend illustrated a story and his work made me cry, it is so perfect (you'll see soon); my crazy day job is a job; busy-ness is much better than the alternative; and look, my poem, on page 160 of the 2013 POET'S MARKET.

What are you wondering?

Thursday, October 04, 2012


BY THE TIME JOSH RETURNED TO THE UNDERPASS, pinpricks of light from flashlights and matches pocked the night. Voices of those living under the highway ebbed to a murmur; his mother’s voice had the same tenor, the same pitch. Josh crawled into the box. The blanket felt wet, as if mud had oozed through the cardboard. Nikko slept.

“I got us some food.” Josh pulled out the cookies and crumpled sandwich and arranged them on a smoothed-out napkin as if they were treasures.

Nikko moaned. His eyes fluttered open. Josh couldn’t remember the last time he saw the green of his friend’s eyes. Nikko winced when Josh touched his left arm.

“Eat,” Josh said.

Nikko reached for the cracker closest to him but his hand fell short. Josh picked up the cracker, placed it between Nikko’s lips. Nikko’s tongue worked, his throat contracted. Josh thought of Nikko as a little bird, getting small pieces fed to him by the mother robin.

After Nikko had eaten almost half the meager amount and curled back on his side, Josh ate. His throat caught on every bite and he could only imagine how hard it was for his friend to swallow. Josh considered asking the other homeless men for water, for anything to drink, but they had not trusted them, at least not Josh. He was not sure what arrangements Nikko made when he scouted for food and money. Nikko might not have had trouble trading his body for food or booze or drugs, but Josh would die first.

He patted together a nest from bags and the ragged blanket. Nikko’s breath trembled above him, a dusty cloud. He strapped on his backpack containing everything he had of value, which was not much, and zipped his jacket up to his throat. Josh curled tight around Nikko, an apostrophe. His friend’s heart slowly banged through his back and reverberated against Josh’s chest. It calmed Josh. He didn’t know what he would do if that heart never beat, he thought he might die without his friend, and Josh kissed the back of Nikko’s neck. This surprised Josh, for he had never kissed Nikko, even though they had slept most nights for the past weeks wrapped around each other.

A breeze blew through the open end of the box. Nikko shivered, and Josh pulled him closer. Nikko threw heat like a woodstove but still, Nikko shivered. He trembled until the full moon shone, a spotlight, and then, when Nikko grew still, Joshua slept.

Heading into the home stretch. To read last week's installment, head ==> HERE.

Very cool--this is my 600th post on this wee blog. And I passed my 5 year anniversary in August and did not even notice. Hmmmm... I feel  a party brewing. As always, I thank you for reading. Peace...