Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Blizzard

Lisa and I met as we landed at Salt Lake City airport. We hit the ground with a jolt. A moment before we'd been flying through whiteness, and from my window seat I had seen . . . nothing.

No depth. No space. No sky. No ground. It was as if we were buried. Or else suspended. And then all at once, the earth caught me under the chin and I let out a little cry.

"First time landing in this kind of weather?" she asked.

This after hours of silence, both of us quietly reading our books.

"Yes. It's all new to me."

"Where're you headed?"

"Colorado. You?"

"Home. To Montana."

"So you're used to this?"

"Pretty used."

She pulled her turtleneck up under her chin. The flight attendant announced we'd arrived but that we couldn't proceed to our gate because every plane was delayed, since every plane had to be de-iced. We would have to sit and wait.

"I hope you came from some place warm?" I sighed.

"Georgia."

"Me too."

We introduced ourselves. Lisa, it turned out, had been in Brunswick for a long-overdue family reunion. She and her brothers and sisters had flown in from every corner of the country to see their aging parents. All but one brother, who like her lived in Montana.

"He didn't go?"

"He drove. He won't fly anymore."

The flight attendant interrupts again, this time to offer her congratulations to all those on board about to enjoy the luxury of staying in their seats and continuing to Honolulu. Gloating cheers floated up and down the aisle.

"Have you ever been there?" Lisa asks. "Hawaii?"

"It's been years."

"I was there. Just before this trip. And I told my brother I was going, and he asked if I was going to see Pearl Harbor, and I told him no, I wasn't planning on it. He doesn't talk much. He's never been there. But finally he said he thought maybe I ought to go, and if I did, maybe I could take a picture for him. So I said, well, all right."

"And did you?"

She nodded. She didn't expect it to be so beautiful, she said, standing over the water where those men were locked away, never coming off their ship. She not only took pictures, but bought one of the flags that had flown over the monument.

"You know, every day they fly a flag--well I guess more than one--and you can buy one if you want to. So I got one for my brother. Like I say, he doesn't talk very much. We live in the same town, but he never talks about his time in Vietnam, or why he won't fly. He started crying when I gave him that flag, though. That's something at least," she leaned forward, looking out the window.

"You're a good sister."

"I don't know," she said, and looked at the frost growing steadily on our wing, at the ice that would have to be removed before this bird could lift toward the islands.


--MD

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Fixer

"My husband always said, 'My wife can fix anything.'"

Her name was Karen. A moment before, I hadn't known her. I'd stood alone in the crowded waiting room of the hospital--so many people in it I couldn't find any place to sit down, every chair lining the walls already taken, every table encircled by chairs already filled--and looked around, a bit lost. Unless you're in a hospital waiting for a new baby, a waiting room isn't the happiest place to be. People were coughing. People were nervous. People were fidgeting. Otherwise they weren't moving. They were going nowhere. The only seat left open was next to a very well-dressed woman with beautifully braided hair, and her large purse was in that chair. I hesitated; luckily she noticed me, and nodding said the spot actually belonged to her son, but since he had gone down to the cafeteria for lunch I was welcome to have it, at least until he came back. I sat and told her I was grateful, that I was waiting on a loved one, and overly anxious, and that it meant something just to be able to sit down.

"Are you waiting on a loved one too?" I asked.

"My husband."

"And are you nervous?"

"I'm at peace."

We both hesitated. A hospital is a private experience, no matter how public the room. Neither one of us wanted to pry. But at length I asked her how she managed to be at peace.

"It's because I know it's going to be okay."

"But how do you know that?"

"Because I've been through all this before."

With our hands on the table across from each other, most of our shyness slipped away now, and she told me, straightforwardly, that she was waiting for her husband, Curtis, who had already been through a heart transplant. It had started three years before, when he'd come down with nothing but a funny cough. At first, they'd both thought it was just a reaction to the chemicals he had to pick up at the Houston plants where he worked as a truck driver. She was a nurse, and she couldn't find anything wrong with him; and so they went on. Until that one evening when Curtis told her he couldn't breathe out of his left nostril.

"'Oh, don't be a sissy,' I told him, 'you just have a cold.'"

"'No, honey,' he says, 'I'm serious. Something's wrong. I can't breathe out of one side of me.'"

And then he collapsed.

The doctors decided it had been, not a reaction to harsh chemicals, but rather a rare strain of virus that had attacked and destroyed his heart muscle. He was put on the list for a transplant, but wasn't likely to make it, she was told. There just wasn't time. They were about simply to go home, with a portable pumping device attached to him to give him a few more weeks, when Curtis had looked her in the eye with a look that said, No.

"And that's when I said, 'Okay, you wait here'--and I left him and I went down to the hospital chapel and prayed. I'd never even really talked to God before. We were never what you would call intimate. But I said, 'Lord, I know I've always been able to fix everything myself, but obviously I can't fix this. I think I need help. My husband needs a transplant. I don't know what to do. I just don't.' And the next day my husband was given the heart of a nineteen-year-old. I didn't stop to ask questions. I was just thankful. I remember at two in the morning the surgeon came out and he told me that young heart was beating all on its own inside my husband's fifty-six-year-old chest, that it knew just what to do. And a week later, we were sent home. And a few weeks after that, Curtis went back to driving his truck around again."

Her eyes fell. She didn't seem to want to go on.

"Is he . . . in for his heart again now?" I went on, heedless. Because her story had made me forget mine. I had transplanted, substituted it for mine.

"No. Something else."

"I'm so sorry."

"But I'm at peace."

"Because you've been through this before."

"Yes. Yes."

This time--she spoke after a long pause--her husband had fallen down and hit his head. Hard. It had had nothing to do with his heart. He had fallen, and they had done a CT-scan, and discovered that a huge lumpy mass had planted itself on the front lobe of his brain. He was in neurosurgery. They'd taken him in at nine that morning, and he wasn't expected to be out until three that afternoon.

I looked at the clock on the waiting room wall. It was only one.

"But I'm at peace," she repeated.

Then I heard my name being called out. My own loved one was out of surgery. The surgeon wanted to see me. To talk to me. I stood, nervously.

"Honey, thanks for talking to me, what's your name?" she asked quickly. "Mine is Karen." She stood.

We held each other, chest to chest. A long moment.

--MD

Monday, November 23, 2009

On the Road

Kind readers, here is why I have not posted a new story of late: I've been on the road, speaking. And I've been listening, too. A new story to arrive shortly. In the meantime, here is a quick slice of my own life. With warmest and best to all--Em


Monday, October 26, 2009

A New Story Submitted by a Reader

Dear friends, I'm so pleased to share the story below, sent to me by a writer I met through that chattering tree we now all know as Twitter. If I needed any convicing how wonderful social media can be for the sharing of short stories . . . well, actually, I didn't need any. Elegant and earthy, "El Papi" comes to ASN from Naples, Florida; if you'd like to contact the author, feel free to leave your comments here, or find him perched on Twitter at @boudreaufreret. And now, let's all feast together, and enjoy!
--MD

El Papi, by Boudreau Freret


José's El Papi Taqueria is hidden, tucked away in a corner of the Kwik Pick convenience store. The Kwik Pick has no gas pumps. You can purchase a single cigarette at the cash register from opened packs. You can wire money home. A poster in the front window next to the door advertises bus service to a handful of Texas cities, and several more scattered across northern Mexico. Houston is over a thousand miles away.

My town is a haven for seasonal residents who fall into two categories: those from places that get cold in the winter, and need browning by sun and golf; and those from Mexico and south Texas, browned by birth and labor.

The Kwik Pick exists to serve the latter. To the former, both it and El Papi's Taqueria are all but invisible.

Not to me. I am privy to the Taqueria, and the magic José brings to Florida from home.

Today the lunch crowd hasn't yet arrived. Two men sit at one table; their dark blue shirts have lettering over the front pockets I can't read. I have my pick of the remaining half-dozen tables. It's easy to move to the counter without the perdón that, in half an hour, will be necessary to weave just a few feet across the room.

José smiles and greets me with a hearty, “Hello, my friend!” I am the thing here that is not like the others, yet José seems happy to have me. He greets everyone as if they are his favorite guest – his only guest – and still makes it feel special. “You want what you always have?” he asks as he sets down a pan and takes up his pad. José's English is better than my Spanish, and I'm briefly ashamed.

“I don't think so,” I tell him.

“No?” he looks concerned--then smiles broader than should be possible.

“No. I'm at your mercy. You pick."

“Oh, I know just what you'll like,” he says, scribbling on the pad. “Maíz or flour?”

I scowl a little. “Maíz. You know that.” Always the corn tortillas. He makes them every morning.

You can see the street from every table. I'm sitting at one with less sunlight, so I can both stare out the window and watch the telenovela on the tv, high on the wall in the corner. On the screen, a woman is upset with a man in a doctor's lab coat, while a baby wails from its clear plastic hospital nursery bed.

The lunch crowd starts to arrive. Some sit; most stand and wait to take their orders with them back to work. They stand first at the counter, then spill into the room, finding space where they can until they've backed up to my table. We're all in this together now. I've lost sight of José, but I know he's just a few feet away, back there smiling at his customers and taking orders.

Then the crowd parts, and José appears, bearing a plate. He places his creation in front of me, turned just so, then vanishes into the crowd only to reappear seconds later with a cup of salsa verde picante. He leaves it, grins, then is swallowed again.

The plate, the food. Oh my, the food.

This is not just food, any more than Isaac Stern just made sounds from a violin, or Pavlova just moved, or Michelangelo just made decorations.

On this plate is a celebration of all that is wonderful about being human – all that looks pleasing, smells wonderful.

I savor the moment and the thousands of parts that compose it: the tastes, the colors, the telenovella in the background, the window facing traffic. An endless parade starts and stops outside, land yachts toting golf bags to artificial destinations.

I wonder what all those people will eat for lunch. For a second, I almost pity them. Almost.

By Boudreau Freret
Naples, Florida

Photo credit: Bruce Barone

Monday, October 12, 2009

Delicious


It's Deli Day at Temple Israel. In the community hall the stage is piled thick and close with white paper bags, each bag containing a wrapped corned-beef sandwich, a container of slaw, a pickle, and some mustard. The corned beef has been flown in from New York City. The bags emerge from offstage--the Temple's kitchen--and are deposited in white clusters like folded swans along the proscenium's edge. Then they make their way down through the plastic-gloved hands of volunteers to waiting customers, like me.

Stage right, iced-tea cups are being noisily filled.

One of the volunteers, Jerry, hobbles toward me, smiling. His service at the Temple is only one of his many responsibilities as a retiree in this small town; he also helps to bring ballet to Columbus, known more for its army base than for Giselle.

Jerry loves everything about the dance, he confides in me, knowing my background--even if he isn't moving so well himself right now. He points at his knees.

"I'm so sorry. What happened?"

"I just had knee surgery."

"Oh no. Too many waltzes?"

"Just an old army injury. Nothing romantic."

He holds himself very still while we talk, balancing. He tells me how, as a young man in Connecticut, he had first seen the great, ground-breaking modern dancers--Límon, Cunningham, Graham--and that he still tends to prefer modern dance to classical.

"Why is that, do you think?" I take a glass of iced tea.

"Because it's so open and free and improvisational. It's just fantastic. But then again . . ."

"Yes?"

"You know . . . I could tell you the most beautiful thing I ever saw in my life . . ."

I clutch my bag of corned-beef to my chest, nodding.

"It was a classical ballerina. Makarova. She was . . . extraordinary. She was so ethereal. Mesmerizing." He's squinting up into the the blazing light of the Temple's hall. "I sat there watching her . . . and it was as if I could feel myself rising out of my seat along with her. Floating. I've never experienced anything like that in my life, before or since. That feeling of lightness. Of being lifted. I guess that's one of the things we hope art will do for us."

"Yes."

"So, since you were a dancer once, I hope you can recommend a ballet company we could bring to our town?" he asks, guiding me toward the dessert table, filled with dozens of beautifully skirted cakes and pies, being served, in generous slices, to the gleaming, uniformed men of Fort Benning.

--MD


Photo credit: Bruce Barone

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Stake-out

Bill simply got tired of being around the kind of people who weren't exactly happy to see him, and that he didn't want to see. So he quit law enforcement, dead-of-night surveillance, investigations, and watching bad people do bad things--and came to live and work at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Retired, his work is unpaid (his wife, the breadwinner now, directs operations for the Grand Canyon Association). His responsibilities, as he described them to me, were "to do anything asked."

"I build displays," he said as we sat together on the low stone wall lining the rim. "I take people on tours of the Kolb Studio," he pointed to the famous building wedged and clinging to the blunt cliff. I had visited the Studio earlier that day; the Grand Canyon had been a lonely place when it was timbered and mortared, stone by stone, a hundred years ago and more.

Now of course, we were anything but lonely. A crowd from a tour bus passed by us.

But this is what Bill loves most about his new life. He loves being around people who are on vacation, in a good mood. And being around tourists who represent the entire world.

"But don't you ever feel a bit crowded? Overwhelmed?"

No, he shook his Grand Canyon Association-capped head. The rim offered its periods of solitude. During a full moon, in winter, he often didn't sleep. Instead, he bundled up and came out to sit where we were sitting now. For hours.

If it had snowed, the earth around him seemed to glow, before dropping off into phantasmal darkness.

Even more amazing were the mornings when an inversion--he lay his hands flat and tried to describe this for me--filled the Canyon with white cloud. Then, it looked as though you could walk right across, from rim to rim. People, photographers especially, waited their entire lives to see it.

"Of course, the tourists end up complaining. They say they can't see a thing. But they just don't know what they're looking at. That what they're getting to watch is as beautiful as anything you could ask. And now it's one of my jobs," he adds smiling, "to help them understand."

--MD

Photo credit: Bruce Barone

Friday, October 2, 2009

What


"A story is not about a moment in time; a story is about the moment in time."--W.D. Wetherell

Photo credit: Bruce Barone

Monday, September 28, 2009

Dry Lay

He's unloading huge, rounded river stones from the back of his truck. I ask what he's making. The mason, currently of Fort Bragg, California, lately of San Diego and before that a lifetime pitched in Park City, Utah, where he lay rock, mounded fireplaces and bricked walks for the rich and famous, is building a retaining wall for a bright, white cottage in Mendocino.

He puts his fingers to his lips; there's a writer inside the house, he explains to me, so we have to keep it low.

"Do you like this kind of work?" I whisper. "It looks . . . heavy."

"Like doesn't come into it. I tell you what, if you want to raise two daughters, you have to work hard, and that's it."

His passion, really, he confides in that low voice, is carving basins and sinks out of pure red stone. He reaches into the front seat of his pick-up and pulls out a binder full of pictures to show me. The smooth, heavy bowls gleam like coral under their cheap overlay of photo plastic. Meanwhile, the Pacific roars and carves all around us.

Except he doesn't have time for such vessels right now, he tells me; right now most of the time he does whatever he can, in this economy.

"It's beautiful work, though."

"Want to see where I'm building the wall?"

We creep to the back of the house, me glancing up at the lace-curtained windows, curious.

Alice Walker?

Then I see the wall.

"What's holding the stones together?"

The river rock, holding back a bed of fresh garden soil, seems to me to be floating, disconnected.

"It's called a dry lay," he says patiently; that's a process in which very little mortar is used, and then most of what little is used gets scraped away--to make it look, from a distance, as if nothing is holding the stones together at all.

"You're almost done?" I ask, feeling the gapped surface.

"No. She's got some other things she wants me to do around here. Fixing other people's shoddy work." He points to the cracked flag of a back stoop.

"You're working pretty constantly?"

"Seven days a week. Need to get this done 'cause I have other jobs waiting."

"And how are your daughters?"

"Just graduated and out of the house."

"You must be proud. Of yourself, I mean."

He shrugs, as if to say, you only do what's expected, and asks me what I'm doing, wandering around the village, so early.

--MD

Photo credit: Bruce Barone

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why

"My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see. That--and no more, and it is everything."

--Joseph Conrad

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

To Make Time





I have a friend--I'll call her Jennie--who was diagnosed eight months ago with breast cancer. I learned this very recently. Jennie and I are friends whose worlds overlap only along a very particular seam: we meet and see each other thanks to our dogs, who compete in canine agility.

In the sport of agility, dog and handler are required to navigate a complicated obstacle course with the goal of finishing cleanly; the object isn't so much to come in first or second or third, as it is to get through without crashing into a jump or hurtling into the wrong tunnel. When I didn't see Jennie and her beautiful Belgian Shepherds during the spring and summer this year, I didn't think too much of it. One of her dogs was older, I knew, and needed more care than usual, and my travel had taken me far away from our regular stomping grounds.

In southern Colorado I finally caught up with Jennie again: she's a tiny woman with flowing salt-and-pepper hair, and when she competes alongside one of her majestic dogs it's like watching a sprite racing a Lipizaner. She'd just completed a difficult run when another friend came up to me and commented that what Jennie was doing was absolutely remarkable, considering what she was going through. I was stunned. I had no chance to talk with Jennie privately that day. But the next she arrived at the field wearing a black t-shirt with two big, embossed pink boxing gloves dangling from a coiled pink ribbon. I hurried toward her.

I apologized for not understanding why I hadn't seen her in so many months, and she told me it was all right, she'd kept very quiet about it in the beginning. At first, feeling a persistent pain in her right shoulder, she'd thought it was only a bruise where one of her dogs had jumped joyously up on her. But when the ache didn't go away she'd had it looked at. By then the cancer had metastasized to her bones and liver.

The doctors in Colorado gave her a choice: pursue a fast, radical course of treatment that would help her but make her very ill; or a less intense, more methodical one, that would proceed slowly but could still yield positive results. She chose the second route. It allowed her to keep working, she said, and to keep her hair. Now, after many months, the cancer had receded from her liver and her bones, and only remained in the breast, where it had started. Her prognosis was cautiously optimistic.

"That's wonderful," I breathed out. "But . . . you're so brave. I would have gone for the quick approach. I would have been too terrified to do anything else."

"I was terrified," she said quietly. "But I just wanted to do what felt right for me. I wanted to keep feeling healthy. I wanted to feel and look like me."

"And you're feeling okay now?"

"Pretty good. This is my first time back doing agility. I asked my doctor if I could, and she said go for it. So here I am." She told me she was getting a little winded on course, because the cancer affected her lungs and breathing--but that otherwise the weekend was going fairly well.

We had to part because it was Jennie's turn to run her dog again. I watched her take him through the unfamiliar obstacle course, and noticed her loyal companion was slower than usual. I wondered if it was because he sensed something was different, and was holding back.

"Now, whatcha doin, boy? Come on, come, come on, let's go go go go go!" she urged him. Running.

They crossed the finish line--a good, clean run, but not speedy. I couldn't tell from where I was standing if the judge had said they had "made time"--the term for completing a course within a required number of seconds. If you don't "make time," it doesn't matter how flawless your run is. It doesn't count.

I found myself running toward the scoring area.

"Did you? Did you?" I called out.

"We'll have to see," she waved back. "It's gonna be close."

A few minutes later I saw her at the scoring table. Smiling.


--MD


Photo credit: Bruce Barone

Monday, September 21, 2009

Join me on Twitter . . .


. . . for updates from the road and from my current lecture/workshop season:

http://twitter.com/mylenedressler (for writing-related tips, stories and links)

or

http://twitter.com/doctoremspeaks
(for widely ranging inspirational links, tips and stories from "The Art of Inspiration" tour)

And off we go!

--MD

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ron Walks


Ron Wach has been hiking almost constantly for fifteen years--ever since he endured his third car accident while commuting to his job with a large pharmaceutical company in a big city. On that day, he was sitting still, stopped by traffic, when he was hit at 65mph by another car.

"That was it," he told me, leaning on his two titanium hiking poles on the Broken Arrow Trail of Northern Arizona. "I took that as a sign. I quit."

We were talking on a dusty piece of red rock, shaded by knotted and crossed junipers. I was on my way back to the trailhead, and had just left a large party of hikers I'd bumped into on the bluff above us--a group of white-haired, sun-loving retirees from downstate, women and men who'd munched on peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and noisily urged me to buy a house in Southern Arizona just as soon as I was lucky enough to be fifty-five. They'd been as rowdy and lively as Ron was careful and still.

He tended to hike alone, for the most part, he told me. He'd taken a basic survival-skills course so that he would be safer doing so, and in his fifteen years of trekking had hiked in two hemispheres, from Canada to South America. He had to use two hiking poles because his balance wasn't quite what it had been before the accident.

He seemed thoughtful, and a bit lonely to me; eager to talk and yet shy. His face was clear and soft, his curled hair colored a light brown. It was hard for me to tell how old he might have been: whether he was a subdued man in his early fifties, or a spry one in his sixties.

Since he seemed a bit lonely, I pointed up the hill, to where the senior citizens were camped off-trail for lunch, and told him what a friendly, happy lot they were. When I left him, Ron was still standing under the crossroads of juniper, hesitant. In a moment I'd rounded the bend and he was out of my sight. I didn't see whether he'd headed up the hill toward the Sun City crowd, or had turned and followed the trail down to the solitude of Chicken Point.

--MD


Photo credit, Bruce Barone: "When I went to NYC/Hoboken . . . I stopped in Fort Lee to photograph the George Washington Bridge; I had a moment of sadness as my Dad, who passed away a few brief years ago, lived a few blocks from the bridge. It was at that moment I realized I was wearing his shirt and tie, and I had last stood here with him by my side." --BB

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

News from the Road


Dear Friends,

I hope your fall has begun on a cool and fresh note. My thanks, as always, for allowing me into your lives as I share some news from the road. A few delightful things are at hand:

For those of you who have been asking when my next extended writing course will be offered, New Plains Press is sponsoring my workshop, "Creative Living, Creative Writing," in beautiful Taormina, Sicily, June 6 -19, 2010. New Plains' in-depth Writers Retreat promises to be a truly remarkable immersion experience, offering classes and workshops in both fiction and poetry; lectures on Sicilian writing and literature; boat and city tours; and optional offerings including language classes at the renowned Babilonia Language Institute as well as lessons in Sicilian cooking and cuisine. We'll be based in a beautiful, comfortable hotel perched in this lovely island town; in our free time we may sample the screenings at the prestigious Taormina International Film Festival. Now: if you find yourself unable to resist all of this any more than I've been able to, I hope you'll visit

http://newplainspress.com/Writer_s_Retreat.php

to register. I have the feeling I can look forward to seeing some of you there.

And for those who have been inquiring after my 2009-2010 speaking tour, "The Art of Inspiration," I'm so pleased to share with you that it launches early next month. For a detailed appearance schedule, or to make a booking, please visit www.mylenedressler.com. I'm looking forward to sharing this beautiful, interactive talk (which uses story, sense, movement and sound to harness our creative energies, both as individuals and as communities) with a wide range of audiences.

Again, my thanks for your support, your interest, your wonderful friendship and fanship. These are dear to me.

Warmly,
Dr. Em

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Life Touch


"I had a terrible mother," the woman sitting across from me in the Pep Boys waiting room said.

Her own daughters, one eight years old and the other thirteen, clung close to her side. The girls were dark-skinned, small and beautiful. The woman was large and blond, with poodle-thick-curling hair and a quick smile.

We both--this friendly woman and I--had blown-out tires, that afternoon. The Pep Boys waiting room in Fort Worth was our refuge: cool, unexpectedly clean, and with a TV remote resting on the table between us so that we could turn the volume down on the set bulking over our heads. The elder girl turned it very slightly up again.

I asked what it was like raising two children these days, and my companion admitted it was difficult; her elder daughter, especially, didn't like school, and so was required to read books in order to score points to earn her cell-phone minutes.

"I don't see why," the elder girl pushed the buttons on the remote. "I already do chores around the house."

"Which pays for your rent and meals," her mother said simply.

"She doesn't want to give me any privacy," the girl grumbled.

I had the feeling I was hearing a conversation that had wheeled around the block a few times.

"When you sign a lease, you can have privacy," her mother explained. "Until then you are in my care."

That was when I had asked where she had developed such sturdy parenting skills, and she'd told me about her "terrible," drug-addled mother.

"She had me when she was fourteen. She didn't even try to take care of me. So I lived with my grandmother until I turned ten. Then all of a sudden I was sent back to live with her. It was horrible. I left when I was sixteen. I got a job at Jack In The Box, found a cheap studio apartment, paid my own rent, and got my high school diploma. I never went to college but I learned at work how to keep the books--I'm just good with numbers--so then I went to work doing finance for grocery stores. Like Albertson's."

"Is that what you do now?"

"No, I work for a company called Life Touch. It's a photography service for churches and schools and graduations and so on. I'm their head finance person. I like it. I like what I do."

I looked at her girls. "And their father?"

"We're divorced. We have a good relationship, though. He just doesn't speak English. He's Mexican. I tried to help him, to help him get ahead, but he just wouldn't help himself. So. Both of my girls are bilingual, anyway. Me too. I took classes and taught myself."

I asked her then if she still had contact with her mother, and if her mother knew her granddaughters, and how they were doing.

She shook her head, and for the first time looked down at the Pep Boys' blazing white linoleum, and left her gaze there. "I don't want them to see her. I got tired of trying to explain to them why she was always drunk or high and had a different man with her every time. So last time I told her, 'That's it, you've ruined your last Christmas, I am not having you in my house anymore.'"

"That had to be hard."

"It was." She looked up. "But I'm determined to live my life differently than she did, and that my girls will too. Now this one," she touched and stroked the dark hair of the younger one beside her, "loves to read."

"I love it that you love to read," I said.

The girl ducked her head shyly into the sturdy arm beside her.

"She reads because she wants to," her mother said. "Isn't that something?"

--MD


Photo credit: A Friend in Nonotuck Park, Bruce Barone

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Straw





"At present, I am aware, an audience impatient for blood and glory scorns the stress I am putting upon incidents so minute . . . One will come to whom it will be given to see the elementary machinery at work; who, as it were, from some slight hint of the straws, will feel the winds of March when they do not blow. To them nothing will be trivial . . . They will see the links of things as they pass, and wonder not, as foolish people do now, that this great matter came out of that small one." --George Meredith

Photo credit: Bruce Barone

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Bluff


I love duck ponds. The colors flashing on the birds' backs. The way the water divides alongside their carved bodies, with little resistance. I had a chance one afternoon to sit with Gayle and enjoy his reed-fringed pond in Southeastern Utah, and watch the wild mallard, the teal and the wood ducks gliding by. Gayle and his wife, Charlie--no, I'm not making this up, every story I tell on this blog is absolutely true--together have lived in the tiny hamlet of Bluff for some seventeen years, their property stretching from the edge of the lone highway through town to near the sifting banks of the San Juan River. Three hundred-and-fifty people live in town with them--that is if everybody shows up all at once. I'd just been to Cemetery Hill, and it was filled with Mormons, Native Americans, many young children, and the Tibetan-flag-festooned graves of pot-smoking hippies, as Gayle explained them to me. Living in Bluff was still like that, he said, except that the dead got along much better.

"Were you born in this part of the country?" I asked from my lovely rocking chair on his porch.

With the gently lined face of a man who's spent most of his life under the bill of a cap, Gayle told me he'd grown up in an isolated part of Colorado, many miles from where we were sitting now. To give me a sense of how private and remote his family once was, he explained to me that his clearest memory from childhood was of his mother loudly berating his father:

Husband, this going into town once a month has got to stop.

Gayle left as soon as he could, joined the Navy to see the world, then came back to the States and went into the construction business (he still owns his own construction company) and jobs that took him from Montana all the way to New Orleans. Where, he told me proudly, he built a bridge across the Mississippi River.

I asked him if it had survived Hurricane Katrina.

"You better know it."

"Good work," I said.

We rocked in our lovely chairs.

After decades of being on the move, Gayle got sick of traveling and just wanted to be still somewhere. But like his mother he ended up marrying someone who didn't want to be still. As he said this he pointed out a pheasant skulking near the edge of the pond. The ducks were out of sight now, somewhere behind a small, reedy island.

"Do you know, I used to crawl on my stomach for a quarter mile just to shoot a bird?"

He met his wife Charlie when they were both going through painful and difficult divorces. One evening, soon after they were married, Charlie had been sitting right here on the porch, watching the pond at sunset, when an old coyote had come limping out from the brush for a cool drink of water. Just as he'd bent to the surface of the pond and started lapping, he unintentionally scared up one of its wild bass, which leapt high enough for him to catch it--reflex!--between his jaws. Then Charlie had watched as the coyote loped away with flesh dangling from either side of its mouth.

"Sometimes, the good thing isn't where you expect it," Gayle said. His pond lay calm and still in front of us.

--MD

Photo credit: Bruce Barone

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Move Yourself. Move Others.

Cross-pollination/news from my website:

"This fall, Dr. Em continues her longstanding tradition of reaching out beyond the pages of her books to create inspiring, memorable, moving events that challenge her listeners to claim their own stories, light the fire of their own imaginations, and reach for their highest aspirations."

"I speak on a wide range of subjects and meet audiences wherever and however they live, work, breathe and dream, yet two ideas are always central: I believe that as individuals, communities and business partners we must continually find ways to connect powerfully and imaginatively to each other… and that we will only inspire those around us when we have charged our own minds, hearts, voices, and our reaching, physical selves, with hope and courage."
—Mylène Dressler

Talks and workshops for Fall 2009/Winter 2010:

“The Art of Inspiration in Challenging Times” (for all audiences)

Join Dr. Em for her new series of lectures and seminars confronting the reality of the times we’re living in now. Learn what fresh steps can be taken to awaken our creative spirits and re-energize our passion for success. An interactive event that invites its listeners to explore memory, story, sense and sound as a means of sparking, within each of us, "a fiery laboratory of inspiration."

“A Dance With Language” (for all audiences)

"I was once a dancer told she should only dance; a professor told she should only teach; a writer and artist told I had no business with business. I listened to none of it. I empowered my own voice and drew on the many powerful stories and voices that danced around me. Now I help others do the same." Join in this series of events that explores the role of language in our lives and shares the intimate tools writers and artists use to move individuals and create vibrant, shared communities. An evening of imaginative narrative performance "wrapped in language that is crystalline in its clarity."
The Denver Post

"Many students and colleagues told me that her event was the best they had ever attended—and this in a highly successful reading series that typically brings six or seven speakers a year. Intensely engaging and intimate… she has flair and a certain glamour, and weaves her reflections in a flowing and organic dialogue with the public. Captivating."
Dr. Shannan Mattiace, Professor, Allegheny College, Pennsylvania

"Extraordinary… She has an innate ability to reach out and challenge you to think from a different place and consider a fresh perspective."
Cynthia Fodell Mott, Marketing Director, The Houston Club; former Director of Marketing and Business Development, RE/MAX of Texas.

"I connected immediately with her, and left feeling energized, motivated and excited. She is a unique and energizing human being… a speaker who possesses grace, clarity, and offers genuine and effective advice."
Lauren Rosen, filmmaker, The Carson McCullers Film Festival, Georgia


For bookings and further information: speaking@mylenedressler.com

Photo credit: Bruce Barone

Friday, August 28, 2009

High Functioning


Jenny wants, she tells me as I hand my cash over the register to her, to do research into autism. As she says this she's working one of her three day jobs: this one is as a front-desk person at a resort just west of Sedona, Arizona. Her other jobs include waitressing at an upscale restaurant back in town, and peddling Mary Kay Cosmetics. And when she isn't serving wine and tapas or passing around lip gloss, she's attending classes at Northern Arizona University, where she majors in psychology.

"So why autism?" I ask, curious, as she hands me back my change. "Do you know someone who is--"

No, no, she interrupts me, wrinkling her freckled nose. But she's still determined to find out what causes it. She doesn't think, for example, that autism in children can be set down merely to an inappropriate regime of vaccinations. Some combination of factors, she tells me, brushing her short, blond hair behind her ears, must be at work--maybe a genetic component coupled with an environmental factor, which was only then coupled with a problematic inoculation. And then, she smiles at me confidently, there was also the widely ranging nature of the condition itself to consider.

"So you want to work with autistic children?"

"No. Just do the research side. I'm more a behind-the-scenes sort of gal."

We fall to discussing a documentary we'd both seen recently, about an autistic scientist who has done some unusual and very successful work with animals.

"The one who doesn't process in terms of language?" Jenny asks me.

"That's right. She 's thinks in color, I think--and spatially."

"Right. The one who helped cattle processors understand why their cows were so terrified to go down the chute."

"So she went through it herself, and could see exactly what it was that was making them so afraid. The way a certain black, square shadow fell just across the gate. Right before."

"So they fixed that."

"And now the cattle go in calmly. She helped them. The processors, I mean."

"Well, and the cattle."

"If you can call preparing an animal to be a steak helpful . . ."

"Well if it has to go," she shrugged, and I imagined it was the waitress in her pinching her shoulders together, "I'd say it might as well be helped to go peacefully."

Then I confided to her that a member of my own family suffered from a mild version of autism known as Asperger's. My twenty-something relation was able to live on his own, but he had trouble holding onto a job, and with authority, and with his unsympathetic neighbors.

"High-functioning." Jenny shook her head, sighing. "Not always so easy. So . . . what do you do for a living?"

I answered that I was a writer, a speaker, and a workshop leader. Also that I trained dogs, just for fun.

"So you have a degree of some kind?"

"A couple of them."

"Wow. You're lucky. Me, I'm thirty-five years old, and if there's one thing I've learned after fifteen years of no schooling and of having every kind of job you can imagine, it's that nobody pays any attention to what you have to say about anything important unless you have a PhD."

"Then you must be planning to go to graduate school?"

"Berkeley." She shut the front-desk register definitively, almost angrily. "I'm aiming high. So nobody will be able to ignore me because of what they think they know about me. Oh, wait, you want want of these?" she added, and from the holder next to her pulled out one of her Mary Kay sales cards.

In the glare of the bright lobby light I registered its pretty, soothing pink.

--MD


Photo credit: Bruce Barone

Friday, August 21, 2009

Valley of the Gods


"Moki" is a Hopi word for "those who are gone," or "the people who have left." A winding, gravel road that contracts into three miles of hairpin turns cutting deep into the sides of a mesa above Valley of the Gods, Utah, is called the Moki Dugway. Parking at the top to look down into the Valley with its red buttes and eerie hoodoos, I met Dale, from Eastern Oregon.

I told him he seemed to be a long way from home; but no, it turned out he wasn't at all.

As a boy he had lived in a remote corner of Utah called Granite Canyon, and he'd come back many times, he told me, to visit what was left of his family's old homestead. This time he'd brought his wife, Patsy, with him, and his dog, named Bo. All three of them were comfortably retired--Bo napped at our feet as we clutched our sunglasses in the stiff wind above the dugway--and all had recently moved to Oregon to be nearer Dale and Patsy's children. But their hearts were still embedded in red rock.

Granite Canyon was so remote, Dale told me, that in the 1920's it had been a day's ride on horseback into tiny Cisco just to get the mail (Cisco isn't much more than a ghost town even now--I've seen it, and if people are living there, they don't want you to know about it). His mother had met his father getting the mail in this way, as they both crossed the Dewey Bridge at roughly the halfway point. They soon married and settled down in the Canyon to raise their children and cattle. Each time one of Dale's siblings had been about to burst into the world, his pregnant mother had mounted her horse, riding toward Cisco in hopes of catching the train in time to reach Grand Junction, Colorado, and the doctor. Usually, though, she didn't get close.

"In my case, she didn't," Dale grinned. "I was born in Utah."

It was a perfect life for all of them, tucked away in the hidden canyon, he said; but it all began to unravel with the passing of the Grazing Act. Soon "sheepmen," as he called them--I was fairly certain he wanted to spit the two thousand feet down to the Valley floor as he said the word, but was too much a gentleman in his nice clean windbreaker to do it--intruded themselves on the scene. The sheepmen weren't so gentlemanly, and they dynamited the passes that Dale's family used to bring their cattle down from the mountains and into the grazing fields. The ranch couldn't survive this and other explosions of the time, so the family at last gave up, sold out and left.

"After a long time," Dale said, reaching down and patting Bo, "I was finally able to bring myself to go back." All that remained was the chimney of the main house, and the ruins of the old root cellar.

"But the cabins in the mountains that we used to have for our summer camp were still standing, and the local people there still call them by our family's name. They're still called the Wood Cabins. I mean it. If you go there, you can see for yourself."

"So . . . this was definitely worth the climb to get up here, wasn't it?" he straightened and turned to Patsy, and then looked down.

"Yep. We definitely don't have anything like this in Oregon."

"Why our children would want to live in Portland is way beyond us. We won't, will we, Patsy? Not enough sun."

I asked him if the rest of his family had been back to see the old place.

"Oh, yeah. I took my brother there and showed him, and his face just lit up. Just lit up. At nothing but the chimney and the root cellar. Nothing much at all. But it was special. Just to be able to show him that we were still standing." And Dale stood and balanced and looked out over the twists and turns of the blasted pass below us, named for those long vanished.

--MD

Monday, August 17, 2009

Santa Maria, California


I didn't know, until I met Dennis, that you could grow organic vegetables inside a small, ancient, crowded RV.

"These here are my sprouts," he showed me. "And here is some kale. And here," he pulled a Tupperware container from somewhere deep in the dense interior, "just take a look at these." He handed the bowl to me, and I looked down at an orgy of naked, thread-tailed, perfectly fresh beans.

Scraggle-bearded, tanned, lean in short-shorts and rough hiking boots, Dennis is someone I'd just met at a gas station where our two rigs had nearly collided. I'd gotten out and apologized, and he'd tilted his bleached head of hair toward me.

"You're not from around here, are you?" he said. "You're too nice. I can tell from your accent you've spent time in the South. Texas, my bet."

"How'd you know?"

"I can pretty much place any accent, I get around the world so much."

Dennis travels and lives in his battered camper with his surfboards on top, his bike suspended on the back and ladders hung from both sides. Also with a big, yellow, part-wolf, part-Akita named Suki in the cab. Inside his mobile home is his store of vegetables and jewelry. When I told him I was a writer, he told me he was at work on a book about "how to practice organic methods whether on the road or at home," and as we walked our dogs around the littered margins of the fuel pumps he added that he'd just come from three months of very helpful meditational studies down at the Agape Church in Los Angeles.

"I had to. To clear my head. You wouldn't believe how bad it's gotten. That's how I knew you were from out of state. People here are so angry. They spend too much time stuck in traffic, and fighting over the things that are disappearing. What I want is to teach people how to live simply and be at peace. We're going through a dangerously transitional time in this world, and we need to learn to love each other again."

As our dogs stepped gingerly over the tossed Doritos bags and trashed grass, I couldn't deny it.

For fifteen years, Dennis told me, he's been supporting his simple lifestyle by selling jewelry. Every year he makes a pilgrimage to Tucson to the trade show there, and stocks up on, as his card reads, "Natural Stone Bracelets, Hearts and Beads, Amber Necklaces, Pendants from Europe, Coral and Turquoise Nuggets, and Hemp, Coco and Puka Shell" classics. Then he drives up and down the coast selling his wares to surf shops, boutiques, and metaphysical dens.

"I used to make $2,000 a week. Now it's down to $600. People don't necessarily need crystals. Jewelry is a luxury. It's not like enchiladas or tacos."

I asked him if he was happy, and he admitted he had his moments, that it was all hard work. But life was still good. He began every morning surfing. Then, at mid-day, after making a few sales, he went swimming. He'd been on the road for so long he knew every public swimming pool between Santa Barbara and Half Moon Bay.

"And today is like that?" I asked him.

He nodded, and showed me his list of appointments. Then he looked down at his watch, and excused himself and his dog, because they had to get moving. He had to get to San Luis Obispo; the swimming pool there opened at one o'clock. Before he left, he wrote his website down for me, where he told me I could find his delicious recipes for simple, affordable, organic foods. You can read more about Dennis' beans and cookies at:

www.professorsprouts.com

--MD

Photo by Bruce Barone

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A story submitted by my friend . . .

. . . Weezie Kerr Mackey, just a few days ago. Weezie is wonderful writer and the author of the young adult novel, Throwing Like a Girl. Be sure to visit her sparkling website and keep your eye out for her next novel. Weezie lives in Houston with her husband and two sons; you can leave comments on her story, "Honeymoon," below, or contact her directly through her website. Now, let's all enjoy a good snuggle!--MD

Honeymoon, by Weezie Kerr Mackey


During a thunderstorm last night, Matthew, my seven-year-old, came into my room and said, "I'm so scared I could cry." I said to come up and he flew into bed where I was reading.


He said, "Tell me a happy story. Tell me about your honeymoon."

I told him about Copper Harbor, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in February. A story he knows well.

After a while he said, "I wonder where I will go on my honeymoon."

We both watched the ceiling fan. I rested my open book on my chest and said, "It might depend on who you marry."

He said, "Maybe Australia. That's a really big island."

"Also it's a continent."

"I know," he said. "Or Pennsylvania. They've got a lot of interesting things to do there. Like that bell with the crack."

"The Liberty Bell."

"And the lady who sewed the American flag. She has a house there."

Matthew's first grade teacher, Ms. Allen, was from Pennsylvania. A great deal in his life last school year revolved around what Ms. Allen said.

"Or Hollywood. New York City. Are people allowed to go through the Great Wall of China?"

I wondered how to answer the "through" part of that question.

"What kind of girl do you think you might marry?" I asked, moving on.

"Pretty and cool, kind of like you because you love Daddy so much."

When the rain stopped and when he knew the time was coming for him to go back to his own room, Matthew said, "Your bed is so nice."

I remember thinking the same of my parents' bed.

"And I'm so tired," he added in case I wasn't catching his drift.

I don't usually let either of my boys sleep in our bed. I said, "Should you fall asleep here and Daddy can carry you into your room later?"

He smiled in that way children do at night, when they're cozy and happy and feeling sentimental. "Yes," he whispered because he got his way and didn't want to break the spell.

He nestled next to me, warm and damp, locking me in so that it was impossible to lift my book or turn off the light, or do anything but lie beside him.

Weezie Kerr Mackey
Houston, Texas

Photo, "View from my Loft in Eastworks," by Bruce Barone

Thursday, August 6, 2009


"One can travel the world and see nothing. To achieve understanding it is necessary not to see many things, but to look hard at what you see."--Giorgio Morandi

Courtesy of my friend, the luminously talented photographer Bruce Barone.--MD

To see more of Bruce's work, click here.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sandy's Golden

Sandy breeds and raises Golden Retrievers in Grand Junction, Colorado. I met her at the small airport there, while we were both sitting at the gate waiting for a flight. While sorting through her wallet next to me she happened to pull out one of her business cards, and as soon as I saw the embossed dog-in-profile on one side, it was all the opening I needed.

"You run dogs, too?" I asked, explaining that I lived with border collies.

Her face lit up. As she talked, she pushed back her carefully done gray hair, animatedly, touched the bright scarf that partly concealed the wrinkles around her neck, and moved the light sweater she had thrown over her bag. Sandy was 66 years old, I learned, and divorced, and had been "in dogs" since the 1970's, when she was single. She hadn't wanted to be single back then, but well, so it was: "Vietnam took so many of the men of my generation, there just weren't that many good ones left."

The dogs, instead, became her life. She showed and still shows her Goldens in obedience and agility. She very rarely breeds; at the moment she was co-owner of a bitch, she told me, but the dog wasn't a very good parent to her pups, which sometimes happened, and not just with dogs.

"I did eventually get married."

She hesitated, looking down.

"But things didn't work out, Sandy?"

"No. Well. They worked out like this. I left Colorado and went to New Jersey. Why? Because I'd met and fallen in love again with my high school sweetheart. Can you believe it? It sounds so romantic, doesn't it?"

It did, I said . . . and waited.

She adjusted her scarf. "Yes. Yes. It was a wonderful little story to tell people. But it turned out that was all it was."

It turned out her new husband didn't like dogs. Especially males.

"So he made me give up all my dogs, my males, and get rid of all my agility equipment. And do you want to know what? It was NOT worth it. I ended up hating New Jersey, and that man I was living with--he wasn't the boy I remembered from high school. But still, I hung in there for three years."

She touched the sweater beside her. "I am a bulldog."

Eventually she gave up on the marriage and returned to Colorado, where she bought all of her agility equipment back and began raising Goldens again.

"And things are better now?" I asked.

"Oh yes, I am SO much happier. My life is wonderful again, easy again. And just look at this!"

From behind her luggage she pulled out a puppy carrier, which until that moment I hadn't even seen.

"You aren't!"

"I am. I am going to get my newest dog."

I didn't even need to ask:

"A male," Sandy said, with a smile.

--MD

Friday, July 31, 2009

A New Story Submitted by a Reader

My thanks to Dr. Noreen Lape, Director of the Writing Program at Dickinson College, Pennsylvania, for sending in this week's fine guest-story, "Ridgewood." In an accompanying email, Noreen told me she just couldn't shake all the small ironies in the incident below. Nor could I. Read on. Write on.--MD

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ridgewood, by Noreen Lape

A transplanted northerner, I lived until very recently in bucolic Upatoi, Georgia. Unlike the city-folk in nearby Columbus whose homes sit as close as two Alabama cousins, Upatoians tend to opt for two acres and a pool. My middle-class neighborhood of Ridgewood Estates--a community of mainly 1970's and 1980's eclectic-style homes--had as its centerpiece a large, beautiful, white antebellum plantation known as Ridgewood. Every Fourth of July, in honor of our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Upatoians join together at what I always thought of as The Big House for an Independence Day celebration complete with fried chicken, watermelon, live blues, and a spectacular fireworks show.

This summer, not long after the Fourth, my husband and I were at home on our two acres when a Guatemalan man named Romeo knocked on our door.

We thought he was looking for work; instead he was looking for help. He explained that he was stranded in Upatoi, twenty miles from his home in South Columbus. Cruising Victory Drive in the early morning, a contractor had picked Romeo up on a corner where he'd waited along with other migrant workers seeking a day's wages. After Romeo had spent ten hours at six different homes in Upatoi, cutting lawns, mending fences, planting flowers, hauling pine straw, spreading mulch, pulling weeds and pruning bushes, he decided his work day was over. Since the soft light of dusk had not yet given way to the still darkness of night, the contractor begged to differ, and so he exercised his rights not to pay Romeo and not to drive him home.

On hearing this, my husband Dale, a genuinely good guy, decided to give Romeo a lift. Juiced up on indignation and maybe a little testosterone, Dale thought he would swing by the worksite and have a chat with the contractor. As our Mazda Minivan inched toward The Big House, Romeo pointed out a sprawling ranch home on the left. A young black man, shirt sleeves rolled and armits stained with sweat, was trimming hedges in its side yard.

My husband rolled down the window. "Hey buddy, was this guy working for you?"

The man stopped his clipping. "He was, sir."

Romeo leaned across our front seat and demanded, "You pay me!"

The young man said to Dale, "He didn't want to finish the job. He got tired of all the work we had to do. I told him I'd drive him back when he finished. Anyway, I don't have his money. My boss does."

Not quite knowing what to do next, Dale pointed our minivan toward South Columbus. Romeo asked if we had any children.

"Two," Dale replied, "a boy eight and a girl five."

Romeo had left five children and a wife in Guatemala to come with his cousin to America to find work. Prior to that, he said, he'd been in the Guatemalan army.

"Litte pay. Too much gun," he admitted.

For the rest of the ride, Dale tried to convince Romeo to call the police and report how he had been ripped off. Romeo thought he might contact a Puerto Rican officer on the force who had befriended the migrant workers and looked out for them. Dale took the Victory Drive exit in Columbus and pulled into a trailer park populated by the city's poorest blacks and migrant workers. At the site of the minivan, the cautious gawked out of the dirty windows while the brave spilled out of the rusty metal pens that served as their shelters. They watched Dale and Romeo.

"Good luck, buddy. Remember, call that police officer," my husband said.

Romeo pulled out his wallet. "I give you money for ride."

Before Dale could answer, Romeo insisted: "You give me number. I work for you."

"No, man," Dale responded. "It's on me."


Noreen Lape
Carlisle, Pennsylvania

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Health of the Male

I had never seen a kayak fisherman. At first, approaching the beached, bright yellow plastic boat with all its rigging, and the blond fisherman himself in his hefty gaiters, with an official-looking document swinging like a press pass around his neck, I thought I'd stumbled across a researcher. But no, Steve, as he introduced himself, worked construction, and had just come in from fishing on his day off. It was still early, and my walk around Monterey Bay had hardly begun; but Steve, at high noon, was already finished, his thirty-ish face just beginning to burn, the edge of his boat decorated with crusty, dense-skinned fish.

"May I look at them?"

"You bet, " he said, and introduced me to strange mouths and brilliant scales in colors I'd also never seen before: a copper, he called one gaping, wide-eyed corpse; another was a vermilion rockfish; then sandab, redfish, rock cod. All in all there were a half-dozen, and good-sized. I asked how he had caught them, and he showed me the several lines he'd trolled behind him as he'd paddled; he'd also carried a strong rod and reel, but had ended up catching everything the more casual way.

"Did you have to go out very far to find these?" I squinted into the brilliant bay.

"No. That's the amazing thing," he said. "Anywhere else, you'd have to go miles and miles out to catch certain kinds of fish. Here, you just go past the buoys right there, and bam, the shelf drops off. Huge, deep water."

We both looked at and tried to imagine it: the whale-deep water.

I asked him if he got out to fish very often, and he said he did, nowadays. He drove over from Salinas, the more affordable, inland town where he lived. Construction work along the coast had fallen off so badly he had more free time than he liked to think about; but there was no point, he figured, just sitting in front of the television. He might as well go out and catch his dinner.

"So one of these will be your meal tonight? How will you cook it?"

"Well, of course I love anything fried in batter--you too?--but I'm trying to be healthier these days. So I prepare a fillet--I do leave a little of the skin on, I can't help it, it's so good--and fry it in some butter--but not too much--and some garlic powder. I try to keep it simple and light."

"And you'll prepare this just for yourself?"

"Yep," he nodded. "Just me."

I asked him if he was happy with his catch for the day, and he tilted his head, as if, no, he was slightly disappointed.

"The thing is, I forgot my hat. So I couldn't stay out as long as I wanted to. You just can't do that, sit out and bake in the sun out there. You'll regret it later. So I came in."

I thanked him for showing me his fish, for taking the time to talk to me before stowing everything away again in what I took to be his pick-up truck, parked along the seawall above us. I hadn't meant to slow him down.

"No problem," he smiled. He was calm and friendly and obviously happy to have obliged. A family had come down to the sand as we spoke. As I walked away he waved at the children who had strayed over to the rocks, hunting for starfish in the tidepools.

--MD

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Health of the Female

I stood outside the Otter Project in downtown Monterey, California, disappointed. The glass door to the office was locked, and as I peered in no one seemed to be moving around inside. I'd gone out walking the dog and had hoped to find someone to tell me how California's sea otters were doing these days. I was about to pull the leash away when a young woman with sandy, bobbed hair took shape on the other side of the window. She wore sturdy boots, a yellow t-shirt that read "All who wander are not lost," a bright smile--and she carried a key. I was in luck.

Heather let us both in. She'd been stuffing envelopes in the back but was happy to let us sit down at the large oval table with her and talk about the Otter Project (www.otterproject.wordpress.com). The Project is a small non-profit, she told me, that works to protect the otters from oil pollution, sewage and agricultural runoff, and pesticides like DDT and PCB. The chemicals weaken otters' immune systems, with the most dire consequences affecting the females, who are then unable to reproduce, diminishing the population of healthy otters overall. The Otter Project supports international efforts to ban pollutants and contaminants, lobbies local officials to fix sewage problems, and opposes drilling along California's coast. Its office employs three people; Heather is the administrative assistant, with primary responsibility for answering phones, getting materials out, website design and maintenance and social networking on Facebook and Twitter.

She struck me as warm, kind, knowledgeable, patient and excited all at once--I couldn't imagine a better ambassador.

"You must like your work?" I asked.

"It's so incredible," she beamed. "I am so happy, happy, happy!"

She works for the Otter Project for twenty-eight hours a week. At sixteen dollars an hour, she earns about $1400 a month. Her rent in Monterey (one of the most expensive places in the country, if not the world, to live in) costs her a thousand dollars a month. She manages with a little help from her parents, and by doing catering work on the side.

But life hadn't always been so happy, she told me.

"I studied Recreation Services in college and worked for years in the big hotels and resorts in Miami. I made huge money, wore a suit every day, was paid for forty hours a week and worked seventy. Then I moved into event planning, thinking it would be a little better, but after a while it got to feel like all I was was some conduit for funneling money from one wealthy human being to another."

So Heather quit her job, rested in Bali for a while ("the people are so artistic there, so filled with joy and color") until the money ran out, then came to California to work for a Los Angeles youth hostel. In California, she fell head over heels in love, but it ended badly, and she moved north to Monterey. And suddenly, for the first time in her life, she felt at home.

The only problem, she sighed, was that she was now thirty-five years old and still hadn't found someone to mate with for life. She was getting nervous; time was running out. And there weren't many singles in Monterey. "Only," she said, "young students over at the Institute and rich marrieds who are all settled down." But she hadn't given up on marriage and a family. "Something will happen. And I want to be here. It just feels so right."

I looked at Heather and wondered how it was someone hadn't latched onto her healthy, glowing, wonderful spirit just yet, and where she might find the right companion to help pass that spirit along . . .

--MD

In our next post: The Health of the Male

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Stunt Man

With only a few minutes left before take-off, a bear of a man bears toward me down the aisle of this small airplane. He's white-bearded, huge and solid, and he is--I feel this the same way you wince at the arms of a train crossing lowering just as you're about to clear the tracks--clearly bound for the seat next to mine. For a moment, I tense. I'd been enjoying having the arm rest all to myself . . .

But Harry Madsen shared our small space with aplomb, a practiced adjustment of his bulk. He pulled a book from the bag he'd tucked under the seat in front of him, without elbowing me; I glanced at it and said nothing, not until we were in the air and New York had dropped away from us like a crowded plate.

His reading appeared to combine philosophy and horse wrangling. I had to ask. He answered me carefully at first, as if he wasn't sure I was the right person to hear what he had to say.

"This is somebody I helped out with some guns."

"Oh."

"He lives down on a ranch in Arizona. He's got problems there."

"Oh."

"Coyotes. You like books?"

"I do. I'm a writer."

"Me too. At least, I am now. I'm writing a fantasy. Or trying to."

"It's hard work, isn't it?"

"No, not compared to what I used to do."

He smiled, and his teeth were perfect, as white as his beard.

Harry had worked for years in Hollywood, as a stunt man on tv series like Kojak and McCloud, and for Burt Lancaster in his films ("except I was a little too short--he was nice about it though, a great guy"). He threw himself around in comedies like Ghostbusters and, once, for Helen Hayes, wearing a pink blouse and a gray wig. I asked him how he'd found his way into stuntwork, and he waved his paw of a hand and said his father, who'd owned a ranch and silver mine in Oaxaca, Mexico had wanted him to become an educated man--but that four years of college had been nothing but boring, so Harry decided to join the rodeo circuit instead, working up and down the East Coast. One thing led to another, and one summer he found he was stunting in New York on the original The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3.

"I love that movie!" I say, delighted. "Were you down on the train tracks with the electric rail? Did you bite it?"

"That was me, all right."

I told Harry he looked good, considering how rough and gritty the work had to be, and he laughed and said:

"Well, if ribs don't count. I got to know all my other bones by their first names."

The stunt he was most proud of was a perfectly executed hit-and-roll off a speeding car. His timing was so perfect, and the hit appeared so horribly real as the car smashed into him, that when the take was over the film crew, certain he'd been killed, had rushed into the shot, nearly ruining it.

"That was magic," he blinked, remembering.

Over time he became so successful at his work and so well-known that he was hired as a stunt coordinator, sometimes supervising as many as 35 stunt people for a single film, as he did for Martin Sheen's The Kennedy Years. Then three of his friends were killed in a single year. Two died in high falls, and one in a car-dive into the Hudson River. Dives were tricky; you took the engine out of the front and filled the trunk with sandbags and weight, to keep the nose up, but still it was dangerous, especially on the driver's side.

Harry looked down at his book of philosophy and said, "I told him not to do it. My friend. He called me the day before and asked, and I said, 'You can't do it like you're planning, not that way if you're going to be on the driver's side.' But he did it anyway, and the windshield crashed in, and that was that."

Not longer after, Harry was doing a bit of car-work himself and realized, just before the take, that he wasn't feeling anything. He wasn't sweating. His heart wasn't beating fast. That was when he knew he was done. Fear was what saved you. A stunt man had no business being a stunt man unless he was worried.

"So what do you do now?"

"I write. I travel. I live in the East Village with my wife. It used to be so rough in my neighborhood, but it's so quiet now. New York has lost its edge, too," he said, and told me he was on his way to the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, to visit an old friend who lived in a peaceful little cabin, near Truckee.

--MD

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Wedding Day

I haven't posted for some weeks now, and for this reason: my 86-year-old mother-in-law has been struggling all this time, mightily, bravely, with broken bones, a weakened heart, and a blood clot that despite the strongest medicine would not dissolve and let her be. Last week, we lost her. Momma squeezed our hands until the end. She tried to hang on. But she couldn't.

Of all the stories that she told of her life, this is the one I want to share with you now:

It is 1942. She is standing on a station platform in Houston, Texas, waiting to begin the first long journey of her life, reaching up to hold on and get on board. She's dressed carefully in a light blouse and skirt, a short jacket, and a hat that sits over her puffed hairdo. She's a brunette Betty Grable, with full, round lips and shapely calves. She is twenty years old.

She's never been out of state before, and she's nervous, and she wants to look good. Real good. She's on her way to Illinois, to an Air Force training base where she'll be married to a man she's known for a little less than a year--that handsome, square-jawed boy she met on the floor of a local polka hall, even though she came, that night, swinging with another boy. Still, you don't always have to dance with the one that brung ya. Not during war-time. Not with all those hungry, eager faces around.

The young soldiers cramming that train tease and remind her of this through half-a-dozen states. She's the only pretty girl in the car, and so of course, how hard they try, oh how hard they do try to dissuade her, the whole way: Now don't you do it, sweetheart, not so fast, not when you haven't even gotten to know me yet, now don't you go chasin' after some dumb fly boy, honey . . .

And how she smiles and laughs and flirts with them, and how young and handsome and sweet they all are, but they don't change her mind, not for a second, not one of them, because she's going to marry that square-jawed turret gunner.

She's dressed to look good, real good, and she does her best to stay neat sitting up in a stiff seat the whole way.

If only it hadn't been so hot that summer of '42. No air conditioning in the cars, not a breath of fresh air unless everyone kept their windows shoved open, which they did. And so the soot flew in and rolled around the inside of the cars, and gave sweaty boys mustaches over their hairless lips, and any poor girl who thought she might arrive looking spruce for her wedding day black eyebrows and a grimy neck and a layer of dust all over her clothes as if a pencil had been sharpened right over her head. And that was how she showed up at the station. Not to be greeted by the turret gunner--thank goodness--who was busy training. But by another girl, who was already married and on the base and who helped her to get ready and cleaned up. And then it was time to put on the suit she'd brought in her one suitcase, and in a few minutes she was standing in front of all those handsome young boys who were there to be trained, trained to fight, but for the moment stood alongside her in the chapel, amazed by her, and there was her turret gunner, also amazed, and just as handsome as she remembered, and maybe even more so . . .

It was 1942, and it was war-time. You didn't hesitate. You took your chances. You stood up, and you said your name:

"I, Victoria Theresa"

and you said 'I do' to everything still to come.

November 2, 1922-June 28, 2009

Monday, June 15, 2009

Judy's Advice

Judy's advice is to make sure you have a sure-footed animal underneath you.

As she said this we were poised on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I'd spotted her a few minutes before, sitting all alone, away from the crowd, on a shelf of yellow rock jutting a few feet beyond the safety rail. It was still early morning and cool in the desert; she wore a light, official-looking jacket with a corporate logo embroidered on its sleeve; her hair was neatly coifed, every short, brown strand in place, her head erect, business-like. She sat perfectly still, looking into all that airy, layered space, her square chin raised, her hands folded level across her knees. I wasn't sure I should disturb her; she seemed to have found a way to be alone and at peace in a Canyon bubbling with tourists. Then she turned her head slightly toward me, and our eyes met.

Judy, it turned out, was a financial advisor from Bangor, Maine, recently arrived in Arizona for a business convention. She'd come several days early so that she could venture deep into the Canyon, and the day before had completed a mule ride to the bottom and back. And that was how she could recommend solid hooves and steady focus to me.

What I wanted to know was what sort of advice she was giving her clients in Maine.

"Buy, buy, buy," she said emphatically, still with her hands folded across her lap. "Don't listen to the media. Keep calm. Don't panic. Keep buying, if you can."

I thought it best to take all of this with a grain of salt. I mean, that embroidered logo glinting on her sleeve, Ameriprise, 10,000 financial consultants nationwide: what else could I expect?

Then Judy said something else:

"The other thing we have to do right now is listen, listen, listen. But not to the talking heads. We have to listen to our best selves. We have to communicate that to each other. Communicate, communicate. Then we're going to be okay, I think."

I asked her if she thought the mood at the convention that week was going to be as positive and hopeful as her own outlook. She assured me it would be.

"Because the glum people don't come, you know. They don't think to get out and look at all of this."

She swept a hand across the bluish-gold horizon, then pointed down to show me the distant thread of trail where she'd taken the mule ride the day before. The name of her mule had been Maud. Maud, frankly, had been terrifying. Maud, it seemed, had a penchant for stopping and eating snips of vegetation . . . snips that happened to be perched on the edge of sheer cliff ledges. Yet at all times Maud was completely, stubbornly confident. After a while, Judy had to force herself simply to hang on tight and stare down into the pit of the desert while her ride went on about the business of living.

"Sometimes," Judy counseled, "you just have to trust that the mule knows more than you do."

--MD

Monday, June 1, 2009

Of Cows and Men

Priscilla has lost her cows. This is not a good thing, not for a Navajo. For a Navajo, cows are income, cows are livelihood, cows are why you bother to get a grazing lease in the first place. Priscilla's family has had cows for generations. They should have about a hundred head right now. Instead, they have eighty. Twenty of the herd have been playing hide and seek for a while. Well, for about four years.

I met Priscilla in the Twin Rocks Trading Post, Utah, where she works during the day. She lives about seventeen miles from the post; when I asked her if I would know the name of the town where she has a house, she said,

"Nope. Just out in the big wide open. Out on the reservation."

Priscilla had just been explaining to me the difference between some of the Navajo baskets on display at the Trading Post. The wider the weave, the more elaborate the work, and therefore the more expensive, she said. Baskets made with a smaller weave cost much less.

"That's hard to understand," I puzzled over this (they all looked equally beautiful to me). "Isn't the smaller work much more labor-intensive?"

Not the point at all, it turns out. The dramatic, larger weaves are more sought after; the narrower weaves are rather everyday, originally made for household use.

Priscilla's family has lost twenty head of cattle down in Chinle Wash, and now the rebel herd won't come home. Every year her father, husband and son mount an expedition to get the runaways out. The cows simply retreat into the tight weaves of cane and thorny underbrush. "They just go into these little tunnels that are way too small and tight for people to go in," Priscilla told me, throwing her long, straight hair back, "and like, disappear." They take refuge in the harsh desert canyons; but since there was plenty of food and water in the wash, the cows had been doing just fine, year after year. They had no interest, apparently, in the everyday business of being rounded up, sold, and trucked off to die.

Last year, the annual cow-hunting expedition took with it a trained border collie purchased from an expert rancher in Colorado. The herding dog immediately took off after the delinquents, went into the narrow, thorny weave along with them . . . and never came out. Priscilla looked and waited for days, but eventually had to accept the dog had gone AWOL, too.

This year Priscilla and her family are having two Australian cattle dogs specifically raised and trained to work as a team to bring the animals home. At this point the pups are still too young to go into the wash, and Priscilla is nervous about them going in, anyway. She doesn't want to lose any more animals--especially dogs. I pointed to my own border collie, waiting patiently outside the trading post, and told her I could understand that perfectly.

"You know, somebody once advised me," she told me, "that if you lose a dog like that, you should leave behind some material that smells of you in whatever place you last saw the dog, and the dog will come back and lie down on it and wait for you."

I filed that away, just in case. "Do you think your dog is still okay, down in that wash?" I asked. "Do you think he might still come out?"

"That's what I tell myself. I hope so. But I don't know . . . and I don't know how much more we can take," she sighed, sitting again behind the cash register. "My dad is getting real old, you know, and all he wants to do is get them out before they come and take him away into the narrow place too."

I nodded, trying to picture it, an old man being folded into the wash with his cows, a single strand into the coffin of the desert.

--MD

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A New Story by a Reader

It's my great pleasure to share the story below, "Bull," sent in by Dr. Michelle Lee, a wonderful writer and recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, now living in Port Orange, Florida. No need for me to 'pre-read' this powerful story about Michelle and her father confronting cancer together. I will simply say that it is honest and beautiful. My warmest thanks to Michelle for sending it.

If you'd like to submit a story to American Stories NOW, please feel free to contact me for submission guidelines.--MD

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bull, by Michelle Lee

I was with my father the day he was castrated. Not like a young bull in heavy summer when flies would swarm around the open wound in chaotic patterns of gnawing. Not with a sharp knife, a clean cut slicing the scrotum as neatly as a tab of butter. There was no ritual, no blood offering in a brass cup, no chants or blessing, no hands outstretched in a bowl of taking. There were no women swaying hip to hip outside his tent, waiting for the first taste of fertility beating raw outside a body. There was a gray carpet, a bank of televisions tuned to CNN, a receptionist behind Plexiglas, a nurse who called his name and escorted him through a door so he could be weighed first, then recorded on a chart. I sat in the waiting room with my purse in my lap. I counted tiles. I'd felt the needles pushing beneath the rice paper skin of his bicep, five tiny implants, five points of a hormonal star exploding. I counted tiles.

My father came back ten minutes later. His shoulders dipped south as he shuffled toward me. "All done?" I asked, and the corner of his mouth lifted enough to answer, to say he was more than done. In his neck, I could see the map of his veins, a mountain pass of blue roads falling into disrepair, coming to dead ends. I had spent twenty-one days clearing the underbrush from those roads, fighting to prove to my father that he was strong enough, that he could survive. I had held his hand when doctor number one with a degree from Columbia explained the radiation treatment. I had rubbed the soft spots behind his ears when doctor number three with the bedpan face listed the side effects of the chemo drug. I had stopped mentioning the disease. Words left me.

Our walk to the car was quiet. He ambled over to the driver's side, though I asked him if he wanted me to drive. He stuck the key in the ignition, but didn't turn on the engine. Outside, a pair of young trees bent in the wind that had picked up since morning. Their branches clattered together, shook a curl of leaves onto the windshield. My father began to cry.

"It's my fault," he said, his body rolling into itself as if to keep warm. "It's my fault." I protested softly, but my father, who had barely said ten words a day since he was diagnosed, was startlingly clear, almost adamant. "I've ruined her life."

For a moment, I wished he was an Alzheimer's patient and couldn't remember, wished that my mother was a blur in the blink of his eye. She blamed him for getting sick. She blamed him for the weight of his eyelids, for a tongue so thick his speech was curdled. She blamed him for having to come to this office today, for becoming less than a man, for taking away her sex life with the hormone therapy that made no promise to heal.

Yet my father stayed. He slumped in his easy chair with his head cradled in his hands and worried about how this woman who had slept with him for forty-one years was going to survive without him.

The tears beaded in the thread between his lip, spilled down to his chin. I took him in my arms, rocked this man who had shown me how to draw a horse with a piece of charcoal and taught me how to swim in the backyard pool. This man who hummed beneath his '75 Datsun on the weekends and came home every night in a tie at six-thirty. This man whose hands were once large enough to hold a baby bunny found on the back porch. This man.


Michelle Lee
Port Orange, Florida

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Replenishment at Sea

Cornville, Arizona. Five hundred miles from the nearest ocean I meet Kevin: short, mustached, strong, sunburned, with muscled upper arms that show off the edge of a tattoo just under his white tee; he's set aside his long-sleeved red flannel shirt and hung it on a nearby rail. He tells me he's content as long as he's living "the free life of a sailor."

I have to blink. We're in the high desert. And Kevin is finishing up a job scraping and staining the wood deck of a mountain cabin.

"I'm from Wisconsin, see," he says, as if that explains it.

Actually, it does. Kevin grew up near Lake Superior, where he does carpentry work in the summer and fall for about eighteen dollars an hour ("we've still got plenty of Chicago millionaires up there, so there's no shortage of stuff to do"). He could, he told me, charge forty dollars an hour, the way some of his competitors do; but then he'd be sitting around too much waiting. And Kevin doesn't like to sit around doing nothing. He keeps busy up north, working until deer-hunting season is over, and maybe does a little ice fishing; then in January heads south to escape the coldest part of the Midwest winter, which he hates. For a long time he worked on the oil derricks in the panhandle of Texas, even though now and then he got punched in the face just for saying which part of the country he came from. "First time, I never even saw it coming. I just said, 'Wisconsin,' and WHAM!"

When the derricks shut down and the crews were reassigned to North Dakota, Kevin said no thank you. Global warming, he was certain, was making the North even colder--even though, he admitted, every year one or two of the ice fisherman who ventured out onto Lake Superior still had a big chunk of ice break off underneath them and carry them helplessly away. "And then," he frowned, "they have to come rescue you by helicopter, which is completely embarrassing."

Kevin sticks to inland waters, these days.

His land-lubbing life began after his three years in the Navy. All he'd wanted his whole life was a battleship, he said, his eyes hard and still disappointed. "It was a matter of pride, for me, to be on a battleship. That was my whole goal." Instead, he found himself assigned to the U.S.S. Sacramento, a supply ship ("well, with some guns," he allowed), following the nuclear battleship the U.S.S. Enterprise around wherever it went. For three years Kevin stalked the Enterprise, shadowing her every move, dreaming of sailing aboard her instead of merely outfitting her in the middle of the night. This was called "replenishment at sea"--a highly secret process, still a mystery to the Russians and the Chinese, in which a U.S. nuclear vessel was completely resupplied, in darkness, without being in port, and sometimes in high seas.

When his stint with the Navy was up, Kevin left the water and tried to settle down. From time to time he rented a house in Wisconsin and filled it with belongings. But somehow, every two or three years or so, he just couldn't take it anymore and had to sell everything he owned and leave in the dead of night. When I met him he'd just done it again, and was living in a small tent next to his pick-up truck on the banks of a wide, blue, rippling creek. He had no family and no responsibilities, he told me; he could go wherever he liked and do whatever he wanted. "See, hauling stuff around," he said, picking up his scraper and shrugging his shoulders, as though shaking something cold and hard off, but then recovering, "is just not my thing."

--MD