Thursday, August 20, 2009

On Motherhood: Let's talk about zombies

I'd like to think I'm not one of those women who, once she has a child, can only talk about her kid(s). Because I'm not. If anything I bring him up only in passing. But I do tend to tell what have been labeled as "Dude Tales," and they are almost always guaranteed a laugh or a "wow, he used that word?" And people are constantly telling me that I need to "write that down." So, here I am, writing it down. I hope it amuses you, at the very least.

The Dude and I have some of our best talks while he's in the bathtub. Granted, the bath invariably starts out with me sitting on the closed toilet seat, reading either Entertainment Weekly or whatever novel I'm plodding through at the moment. Last night was no different, with The Dude splashing and jabbering to himself as the tub filled up. Then, inevitably, came the questions:

"Mommy, what do zombies eat?"

"Hmm?" Turns page in On Beauty.

"Mom! What do zombies eat?"

"They eat human brains, honey."

"Oh. Why?"

"Because they don't have brains of their own, so they need human ones. See, they're not completely dead, but they're not all the way alive either. They're pretty empty inside, and they need to feast on the energy of other people to survive. Some people call them zombies, some call them politicians." I shrug. "Same thing."

A bit of splashing, some muttering about a shark "plunging to the deepest depths of the deep dark sea." I put my fingertip in my book and say, "Honey, you know zombies aren't real, right?"



"Yes ma'am?"

"Zombies. They're not real. They're like the people in your shows, the superheroes or whatever."

"And supervillians?"

"Yes. The same type of thing. There really aren't zombies. Just, you know, so you know."

"But they don't eat human brains?"

"Oh no, they do."

He nods slowly, cocking his head to the side and squinting, a gesture I find disturbingly familiar. "Oh. Okay."

I return to my book and am completely enthralled with Kiki and Jerome's mother/son relationship when I hear: "Mom, did I ever tell you about the time I shot the zombie?"

"Mmm-mmm," I answer, reluctant.


"Shot a zombie, right, I'm with you." I tuck my bookmark against the spine, sighing, and say, "What did you shoot him with?"

To see that round little almost four-year old face say, "With a gun," is almost as disturbing as the story that is about to spill from his imagination.

"Oh, I see. What kind of gun?"

"A laser gun, of course. It's the only kind that will stop a brain-eating zombie."

"Of course. How could I be so stupid."

"I don't know."


"You're welcome. This happened a long time ago, before you." Many things happened to The Dude before me, apparently.

"Oh? And how did you get the gun?"

"At the gun store."

"Who did you buy it from?"

"The gun man."

"He sold it to you? How'd you pay for it?"

"With money, Mom."

"Of course. And he didn't think you were a bit young for a laser gun?"

"Well," I can always tell he's about to get the story ball rolling when the hands raise, palms up, "he didn't ask me how old I was, and I didn't tell him. He just sold it to me, so I was like, whatever."

"Mm hmm. And where was I?"

"Mom, I don't know where you are all the time."

"Right. Fair enough. And where were you living again, at this point?"

"At the old house."

"With who?"

"With Baby J, of course."

"Yes, of course. So, you bought the laser gun, and then what?"

"Then I went to Burger King. But they were all out of the Transformer toys."

"That's unfortunate."

"Yes, it was. So," hands up, dripping, palms and fingertips wrinkling, "I went back to our house? And Baby J was fixing supper? And I went back downstairs and was getting ready to do the laundry and that's when I heard it."

"Oh my. Heard what?"

"Heard the scuffling sound."

"Good word."


"Then what'd you do?"

"I turned around," swirls in the bath, water sloshing up, "and there it was...."

I gasp, hands to my mouth.

He nods sagely. "The zombie." His back straightens, eyes widen. "So I jumped up!" Jumps up in the bathtub and I instinctively lean forward, one palm out, to steady him. "And that zombie turned and looked at me, and I said HEY ZOMBIE!" He stomps one little foot, water splashy soapy, spraying my hands.

"Oh! And then what happened?"

"And then? Then I shot him in the head! And he didn't have any brains, he just had dust or something. And I said HEY YOU ZOMBIE!" One tiny index finger pointing at the tiled shower ceiling. "You need to get on outta here!" He plops back down into the bathwater, picks up a plastic octopus, studies it. "And you know what that zombie did?" He trains his eyes on me, beneath lowered lashes.

I feel myself leaning forward. "What?" I whisper.

"That zombie," he drops the octopus, never breaking eye contact with me, and lowers his voice. "That zombie walked on out into the field out there and disappeared."

He smirks, sits back, smug.

I sit back as well. "Wait. Into the field?"

He nods, points toward the window on the far wall which overlooks our backyard and the 24-acre field beyond it. "Yep, right out there into that field and he's never been seen again."

"Never again?"

"Never. Again."

I nod, too, gazing out the window. "Hmm. Just one problem."


"You said this all happened before me."

"It did! It was before you, you weren't there."

"Right. At the old house."

"Yeah! And I..." I glance over at him, see his face drop. "I...Oh."

I smile. I can't help myself. "The field is here, at the new house."

He smacks the surface of the now cold, almost scummy water. "Yeah."

"You have to stay consistent with your story-telling." I toss my book down, stand, grab his impossibly soft horsey towel and move toward the bathtub. "But it was a nice try."

He stands, head down. "Thanks, Mom."

Was it wrong of me to shoot down my child's zombie story with laser-like precision? Perhaps. But if he's going to craft such stories before he is four years old, with the compelling magnetism that he has to draw in and keep the listener's interest, by God I'm going to ride his ass to make sure he tells the best stories he can right from the beginning.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On Mayhem: The "What If" Factor

Ah, the "What If" Factor:

"What if I hadn't bloodied that girl's nose in the third grade? Would she still have gone on to be governor of Alaska and a Vice President candidate?"

"What if I hadn't had that burrito for lunch? Would I have still been turned down for that job?"

"What if I hadn't moved to Florida immediately after college? Where would I be now?"

Only one of those three actually pertains to me, by the way.

A "What If" hit me on the drive to work this morning - I've thought of it before but never to the extent that I did today. I have a major "What If" choice that I consciously don't think about, that I have buried, but like most major "What Ifs" it refuses to go quietly into that good night of my memory. Instead it waits until I am weak to pounce, until I am distracted or lonely or driving and at its mercy. I have seriously considered running my car off the road to get away from it, but that's just prolonging the inevitable - it would pop up over my face as I lay on the emergency room gurney, I'm sure, with a toothy grin, big innocent eyes, and pipe up, "Hi! Remember me?"

I had the opportunity to travel to India for a month back in February. I was invited to be a goodwill ambassador with the local Rotary Club (I'm not even a member) and spend the month of February in India, all expenses paid. A month of this:

And this:

When I was in college at UT, I took a core class in world religion. I became very interested in the mythologies and creation stories of different cultures, so much so that the following summer I took on the study of ancient Greek mythology (I gave myself projects to study and research during the summer months because I am a complete and utter nerd who couldn't stand the thought of not studying something during the span between my college summer classes and the beginning of fall term). Later I declared my minor as the Classics and learned more about the Etruscan social structure (and developed a glorious crush on Dr. David Tandy) than anyone should ever know.

It was during that world religion class that I fell in love with the Hindu mythology and the seemingly lush and glamorous lifestyle of the Indian people: the Saris! The red dots! The sensual methods of eating with their hands - the sheer amount of curry used! I even wrote a (rather long) short story centering on a Greek assassin and her Indian fiance as a final project for a creative writing class, which no less than half the class thought I should develop into a screenplay. (I still have the tattered envelope full of critiques of that story - as a matter of fact, just blew the dust off it on Friday, when I did my office "spring cleaning" in August.)

So, the prospect of spending a month in India was more appealing to me, perhaps, than it would be to your average person. And to travel with all expenses paid? That seemed to be the clincher.

Everyone around me gave the same emphatic "YES!" when I asked for advice. The same rounds of "It's the chance of a lifetime," and "Think of all the inspiration you'd have to write," and "My god, you know how much you love curry, you'd be a fool not to go," and "You could email dispatches back every week for the paper, expound it into material for a book" played out as I continued to poll and pester and pepper my friends and family with suggestions and advice.

All except one. My father. And he made the one point that I had overlooked - and I can't say unconsciously.

"But I don't know how you could leave Draper for a month."

I argued and made points (sometimes loudly and violently): He was so young (at the time I had to make the decision, well before the February journey, Draper had just turned three) he probably wouldn't even remember my absence. It was such an amazing opportunity for me, he'd be proud, once he was older, to tell people his mom spent a month in India. I'd bring him presents, lots of them, elephants - he loves elephants and tigers, and India's lousy with 'em!

But my father simply shook his head: he had said all there was to say on the subject and would, in his infuriatingly diplomatic way, allow me to fume and fester and consider and come to my own decision. But he would not approve of my trip nor fund me in any way - I knew that much without asking.

I knew he was right. Deep down, I knew it. I knew I could easily go on the trip, make arrangements for my son in my absence, gather up my selfishness into a ball and swallow it like a sedative. Because that is what I had always done: put myself first. And when I stopped to consider, even in the brief flash of imagination it took to illuminate my choices and solidify my decision, my son's small face wet with tears and crying for me, missing me, a month an interminable amount of time for a small child, I completely broke down. I could not do it. Something inside me snapped, broke, and scattered. That last tenuous hold of selfishness, of "me for me," let go, and I felt it ebb away like a bottle on the Indian Ocean surf.

The trip coordinator expressed his disappointment that I wouldn't join them but said he would keep me in mind for another venture, when my son was older and occupied in school, perhaps. February came, and I wish I could say I stared balefully out windows frosted with ice and snow, wishing for warm weather and a mouth stinging with too much curry. But I can't say that because I was completely happy in February. Happy and in love.

If I had gone to India I wouldn't have reconnected with a man from my past, the brother of my ex-fiance no less, and we wouldn't have fallen so quickly and devastatingly in love with each other. He wouldn't have searched for a job in Nashville, visiting me weekly, driving from Knoxville to Mt. Juliet and Nashville on job interviews, wooing me and my family and friends and colleagues. He wouldn't have accepted a job, left his family and rented a weekly hotel room. I wouldn't have built my life, and that of my son, on his smile and his honey'd words and promises.

He wouldn't have changed his mind, packed his things, quit his job and moved back home. He wouldn't have broken my heart with an email and never spoken to me again. I wouldn't have gone silent for a week, I wouldn't have had to struggle for breath, I wouldn't have let myself give in.

I wouldn't have fallen in love. With him.

I wouldn't have come out of it stronger without him.

I wonder a lot, about so many things. I'm naturally curious - I think that's part of what makes me a good writer and reporter. I always want to know why, and I always want more. So naturally I wonder what would have happened to me in India. There were natural disasters and a Valentine's Day protest that turned "nightmarish" for lovers across the country. Later someone would follow through with a suicide bombing at a hotel, killing nearly 20 people. If I had been there, would I have been involved? Would I have been caught in a field during a monsoon, trapped at the business end of a terrorist's rifle, reprimanded for mistreating a cow?

If I had gone to India, would I have a completely different life now? Published a book of essays on my experience, written blogs and articles for magazines, become a travel writer, a photographer, a local celebrity touting my trip and insight on local news channels and feature spots?

Would I have returned here at all?

Of course I'll never know, because that's the high and low of the "What If" factor: you're left forever wondering, wandering in your own mind, kicking over thoughts and possibilities, peeking beneath to see what may scurry out. I turn the choices over in my head, examine my reasoning for cracks and faults, the fatal flaw I may have missed, but I always, always come back to this:

and this:

and this:

And the "What If" Factor of not having him never even factors into the equation. Not a possibility. Instead I allow myself to wonder, and I wander onward.

Monday, August 17, 2009

On Media: Old writing made new

The following is a blog I posted on Myspace (which I have quit almost entirely except for harvesting and revisiting old blogs such as this one) almost exactly one year ago. It's fun to see what I was up to this time last year and how some interests and projects pan out and others don't - it's also a startling view of my priorities and personal advancement.

In short: I need to get back to reading that book and doing the exercises. It's on the desk in my bedroom - apparently it was important enough to me to remain out of a box and within arm's reach during and after the move to our new house. That should tell me something: it's worth enough to me, even on a subconscious level, to keep nearby, so I should get back to it. Soon.

Right after I write these three feature pieces and one hard news piece for the paper this week.

Originally posted on August 10, 2008:

I've started this new book called "Fiction Writer's Workshop," and I'm really digging it. It includes exercises to get the creative juices flowing, and they're different, more thought-provoking than the other "starters" I've read and worked on. The first one I did today: "One page: According to Henry James, one writer wrote from a glimpse of a seminary students' dinner party. Write a scene of a story from a glimpse you have had of a group of people - in a cafe, in a zoo, on a train, or anywhere. Sketch the characters in their setting and let them interact. Do you find that you find that you know too little: Can you make up enough - or import from other experiences - to fill the empty canvas?"

This is what I came up with - more than a page, but I do tend to run a little long. It's not exactly what was suggested, and I'm not sure what's going on here, exactly, but I like it, for some reason. It feels edgy and comfortable to me, sort of like spending time with someone you loved long ago, and thoroughly enjoying yourself even though you know there is no future in it.


Alice nearly tripped over the kid in the stroller as she rounded the end of the long table, crowded with people. For an instant she saw herself sprawling headfirst over the stroller, tipping from it the sleeping child, and managing to catch herself with one hand on the edge of the table only to upset a basket half full of tortilla chips, the greasy white wax paper lining it fluttering to cover someone's half eaten enchilada dinner like a raincoat tossed over a puddle.

But she didn't trip, the child remained sleeping, the stroller tipped back on its back wheels like a recliner. The child's cheeks were flushed and somewhat sunken, his face a chalky muddle, and she wondered if he had a fever.

She rounded the table and when she turned to open the bathroom door with her ass she caught a glimpse of the young man at the end of the table, his shoulder pressed up against the faux-adobe wall, who was looking at her. Glaring at her, really, with the intense focus of someone attempting to call to her through ESP.

She paused, her fingers trailing along the door, groping for the knob. They slid along the long handle and twisted. It was locked. She was trapped.

The man blinked rapidly, now possibly attempting to relay his message through Morse code. She shook her head and closed her eyes, knowing his face without looking, hearing his message in her head without him speaking, knowing the heft and cadence, the long drawled vowels of his muddy bayou speech.

Alice was feverishly jerking the handle on the bathroom door. The woman inside yelled "Just a second, gawd."

"Baylor," called the woman at the end of the table, beside the feverish sleeping child in the stroller. "Baylor, isn't that Alice?"

Alice knocked her head against the door, her eyes closed, seeing the twist of Marla's mouth, her short neck straining as she squinted all the way down the table to Baylor, his shoulder against the wall and his black hair swinging down to cover his eyes.

Someone turned in his seat, Alice felt it without seeing, without moving.

"Alice?" Uncle Bob. "Alice, is that you?"

She had always hated how Uncle Bob stressed the first syllable of her name. She opened her eyes. Baylor's temple was pressed against the prickly pink wall. Mexican chic.

"Alice, why honey it is you," Aunt Geraldine. Or Gerry, as she preferred to be called. "Why honey, aren't you a sight for sore eyes. Baylor, look honey, it's Alice."

"I saw her, Momma," his voice so low Alice couldn't hear it through the din of the Thursday night Mariachi band as they swung into the low-celinged room where Baylor's family's table fairly dominated the space, sprawling in a tangle of hardened white cheese dip and scattered orange rice.

"Alice, honey, why'ont you come join us," called Momma. Or Big Momma. "We's just finishing up, but there's half a pitcher of margarita here, come on now."

"Momma," Baylor barked. "Momma, Alice don't drink any more."

Alice blushed to her hairline, the heat making the room sparkle. Her hand went slack on the bathroom door handle. Her eyes hurt around the edges.

"Lord, she looks like a scared animal," commented Uncle Bob. "Alice, come on over sit down, honey. It's been so long, come on now."

"Well, I hate to see all this here margarita go to waste," Gerry said, reaching for the pitcher across Maude and Lindsey, the unfortunate twins joined at the hip. "Might as well drink up."

"Might as well," Uncle Bob agreed, holding out his glass.

"Alice," Baylor said suddenly, as if he had only now glimpsed her. He struggled to scoot his chair away from the table, his bare chestnut arm scraping against the raised ragged stucco of the wall, his eyes on her, all over her.

The door behind Alice opened, and she tumbled backwards, into the emerging woman. The two of them fell in a tangle of arms and legs, the woman's wet hands snagging in Alice's hair. The woman broke Alice's fall with a whoosh of breath, and the bathroom door swung shut just as Baylor appeared on the other side.

Alice scrambled to her knees, crawled to the door and twisted the lock.

"What are you doing," the woman asked from beneath the white porcelain sink hanging from the wall.

Baylor's fist pounded on the door, rattling it on its hinges. "Alice, open up."

Alice glanced around. It was an open bathroom, no stalls, one toilet and a chair squatting in one corner, an afterthought. Above the chair, a small window. Alice crawled over to the chair, climbed up. The window opened without protest, and Alice hoisted herself up, hung her head out. The ground was a mere five feet down.

"What in the world," the woman breathed from the floor.

The windowsill scraped against Alice's bare stomach as she wriggled through. She allowed herself to fall, curling up against herself, to the ground. She was up and gone before the stunned woman inside could unlock the bathroom door.

Monday, August 10, 2009

On Media: Book review of "Probability Angels" by Joseph Devon

Every once in a while I start a book that, a few pages in, I feel the need to turn back to the first sentence, slow down, take my time and truly enjoy. Because I read so much for work, and there are never enough hours in the workday to see the bottom of my Inbox, I tend to scan, to skim, to let my eyes slide over words, digesting them enough to get the gist of what I’m reading without actually tasting it – more like chewing gum than enjoying a snack. Rarely do I find reading material, particularly that I’m reading for pleasure, that forces me to slow down, to cock my head and consider each sentence, each description, turn of phrase and idiosyncrasies of dialogue – Joseph Devon’s “Probability Angels” is one such book.

The concept of the novel is intriguing and original - mortals who give up their own lives to save that of a loved one and in turn spend eternity “pushing” other mortals to go as far as possible and create new ideas, art, and technological innovations: such examples in the novel are Isaac Newton, Bram Stoker, and Shakespeare. These “angels” are trained by masters, such as Epp (Epictetus), a one-time slave from Ancient Greece who has pushed mortals and trained angels for centuries. Epp is powerful and smart, tough and brave – and other elder angels think his time as a deified master has come to an end, sparking a battle between the angels and the “other things,” described as zombies, for the soul of Epp and the position of power he holds in their eternal universe.

I won’t go into the details of this novel because I think everyone should read it for themselves, but the themes of this fascinating, thought-provoking read have been tackled and tossed about through the ages: the choices we make affect more than just our lives and create a ripple affect, touching the lives of others for years to come, and making difficult choices – or choosing not to make them and allow life to just “happen” – are how people grow, change, and adapt.

The choices the angels make to forfeit their lives as mortals and spend eternity “testing” other mortals is one of immense, eternal pain and sorrow, but, as Epp tells Matthew, the reward for the excruciating decision long outweighs the temporary pain.

"The upside is that you can be greatness itself. You could be Shakespeare's broken heart, Beethoven's deaf ears, Van Gogh's madness. You could be Kellar's scarlet fever, Roebling's crushed left foot, the color of Dr. King's skin. You could be the entry for light to pass into the soul. You could be the reason everything worth doing on this rock ever gets done."

While the notion that our most difficult decisions, and their life-changing results, are “pushed” by angels who are constantly surrounding us and interacting in our lives in ways that we never realize, is not a purely novel concept, Devon’s characters and methods are original and wholly captivating. His ear for dialogue and knack for character development is to be admired, and I closed the book feeling not only as if I knew the characters but felt invested in their lives. Succinctly, I wanted more but was satisfied in the moment with a fully realized experience. And like any good meal savored slowly and carefully, relishing each moment and morsel, I can’t wait to return for a second course.

You can order "Probability Angels" by Joseph Devon at