Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Unadventures of Pop and Mop

artwork by Emille Domschot © 2012


I’m guest blogging at Mike Duran’s deCompose today, primarily on the stereotypical Christian wife character in fiction, but also on the husband counterpart. This is both exciting and scary because it’s my first time as a guest blogger. Below, you’ll find a gentle satire that’s meant to be complementary to my article at deCompose.

Pop woke briefly when his wife slid from bed. He lifted the curtain, but the sky still wore white, and he rolled to his side and fell back to sleep. Two hours later, he finally pulled himself from bed at the joyful call of “Breakfast!”

His wife had done it again. While he needed his beauty sleep after working all week, she was beautiful naturally and didn’t need enhancement in any way. Pop hitched up his pajama pants and made his way to the kitchen, where his wife was singing a Fanny Crosby song as she heaped the kids’ plates with eggs and bacon and toast.

“Mornin’, Mop,” he grunted in his just-awake voice, using her favorite nickname that was a combination of Mom and Shop. He kissed her cheek.

“Did you get your rest?” she asked. “I know you’re a real grouch if you don’t. Here, have some breakfast.”

He carried his plate to the table. “Where’s my coffee?”

“I was just pouring it, Darling, so give me a chance.”

“Ah, that’s more like it.” His eyes opened wider to the essence of fresh morning coffee wafting in his nostrils.

What would he do without his Mop? His four children sat quietly around the table in their Sunday best, not spilling a drop or fussing over their food. They were all so well-groomed and obedient. That scripture—the one from the Bible about rubies—described his wife perfectly. As far as disciplining their precious tikes, she left nothing for Pop to do, which gave his life a sense of peace.

“What have you been up to this morning?” he shouted at Mop from the table because she was in the kitchen cleaning up. Generally, she ate the sparse leftovers while loading the dishwasher. She insisted it was the best diet trick ever. “Women,” he chuckled to himself, willing to put up with a few female foibles in exchange for her tactile manner.

“I did my devotions,” she shouted back. “Then I ironed the girls’ church dresses, took a shower, and made breakfast. I think I’ll just have time to put on my make-up before Sunday school. I sure hate being late. I love my Bible study time with the other ladies.”

Pop pointed his fork threateningly at the kids. “Kids, don’t make your mom late!” Although Pop didn’t understand Mop’s need for socialization, he allowed it to be another female foible. He loved her enough to indulge her whims.

“Will you go to church with us this morning?” asked his youngest, Katie, who wore her ginger curls in pigtails. “Please, Daddy?”

“Just as your mom finds God with her friends at church, I find God in my Sunday nature walks. Plus, this is no big secret, but I’ve got a beer in the fridge with my name on it.”

“Oh, Pop,” Mop sighed. “Why won’t you go to church with us just this once?” Her brow furrowed with worry.

Pop knew his wife prayed for him, and for her, alone, he struggled to be the man of God she needed as leader of the home. Being a leader, he decided, didn’t involve going to church. As he yanked on yesterday’s jeans and an old Seattle Sea Hawks t-shirt, he thought very deeply about the world, his wife, his children, his house, and his Dodge Ram. Let his wife be the spiritual one. He was the intellectual of the family, and that was as it should be.

Before she left, she kissed him and gave him a tight squeeze, her Bible and purse pressed against his lower back. Her eyes misted over as though she was sad. Had he done something wrong?

She let him go. “Don’t forget, it’s my turn to cook meals at the homeless shelter after church, so I froze a lasagna for your lunch. Just microwave it on high for two minutes.”

Ah, that explained it. Mop’s eyes always misted over at the thought of helping others. Years ago, she’d helped Pop by pulling him from his hard shell of intellect and strength. She taught him, her green eyes ever-misty, what being emotional was all about. Now, he was a poor, emotional sop.

“I love you, Mop,” Pop choked out. His wife stepped lightly out the front door, gentle as a ballerina ushering her gingery fairies to the waiting sedan. “I love you.”

Then he trudged to the fridge and grabbed a beer, ready to find God in the park preserve down the street, amber bottle in hand.

“Praise God,” he muttered and popped off the cap. With a plop, it landed on Mop’s spotless kitchen floor.

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Searching Out a Memoirist’s Intentions

Recently, I finished Susan Ray Schmidt’s memoir of escaping the fundamentalist Mormon lifestyle she was born into. It was a powerful book. The author emotively describes her circumstances, creating, in me, a compulsion to read through to the end. And most reviewers were also caught up in the story of a young woman who triumphs over powerlessness. But, inevitably, some of the reviewers criticized the author for poor storytelling, and for the the length and structure of the book. To each his own opinion, of course, but I don’t expect somebody who has lived through an incredible experience to write in the vein of an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate. However, I do expect the writing to be grammatical and clear so that the story will speak for itself. In my opinion, Susan Ray Schmidt clearly and grammaticaly tells her story.

This kind of criticism, having to do with story structure rather than the story itself, forces me to consider the intentions of memoir as a genre. Many people have attempted to categorize memoirs into subcategories, and their lists run anywhere from three basic types to numerous offshoots of larger categories. Generally, these categories look something like this: Travel, Confessional, Coming of Age, Survivor. As somebody who has read hundreds of memoirs, I opt for three overarching types or styles, which will, by necessity, blur and overlap. But mine have more to do with intention than with subject.

Memoir of the Incredible/Unusual/Authentic Experience
As I’ve already suggested, this kind of memoir is driven by the story rather than the eloquence of the writing. The authors have lived through incredible experiences and have committed them to paper, either because of outward suggestion/influence or inward compulsion. Multiple, smaller categories of memoir will fit under this banner because the intention is the same with each: to relate an impactful story. The author might have hiked across Africa alone in her twenties (normally called Travel), or survived to tell the world what it means to live with a rare congenital disorder (normally called Survivor). In the book at left, the author lived through an unusual experience, as a Western woman who married a Bedouin and moved into his cave with him. When she fell in love with this man, she had no intention of writing a memoir, but rather of learning to raise a family in a nontraditional way. This is key: these authors experience life without the intention of writing a book about it.

The Journalist’s Memoir (or The Narcissist’s Memoir)
This kind of memoir will have dual intentions. First of all, these are professional writers–or they hope to be. They write book or article proposals, not because they’ve already lived an experience, but because they want to live it. They have a thirst for adventure that prompts them to develop what-if ideas. What if I lived with the untouchable class in India for a year? What if paddled down the Amazon with nothing but a packpack of supplies? I love this type of memoir–I would have to say it’s my favorite because it’s less hit and miss than the category above, or the one below. But, earlier, I brought up the dual intentions inherent to this type of memoir. These authors also need advances to pay for their experiences, and so their experiences are not quite as authentic as those of the previous category. These authors are mercenary memoirists. This occasionally leads to a kind of narcissism I’ve seen of late with the Elizabeth Gilberts of the world, who propose travel adventures for their own self-fulfillment and then stuff themselves with food in Italy and put it on their publishers’ tab, so to speak. I learn less about the world and how to cope with challenges, and more about doing what’s right for me. But the best of this type of memoir I’ve highlighted at left (one of my favorite authors, anyway). Robyn Davidson’s style is to propose a challenge for herself (traveling alone with camels, for example), or to engage with an unknown culture in a faraway land because she possesses that indomitable Viking spirit.

The Creative Writer’s Memoir
This third category is the one my frail attempts at memoir would fall into (click on the tag Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl to read them). The authors of these are often MFA or English department graduates, and their particular genius is in taking ordinary life events and turning them into profound, philosophical experiences that many can relate to. Often, these authors write Coming of Age memoirs: coming of age for a Guatemalan immigrant in the U.S., coming of age in a typical, but crazy American Midwest family, coming of age for a modern Jewish girl in New York. Or these authors might elevate a specific time period into a focused, but epoch look at history. I can’t count the number of memoirs/autobiographies I’ve read that capture the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth. I haven’t yet tired of reading about these pivotal decades, either. There was something magical about the world when it was on the verge of a new technological age. Airplanes used to be magic! But that’s what these authors do: they capture ordinary life and turn it into something profoundly spiritual, even if it’s only about the unstable life of one child who lived through a broken home (see This Boy’s Life at left)–or, ahem, a woman who worked in and hung out at espresso shops in the nineties.

If you’re a great reader of memoirs, perhaps you’re balking at my categories. But, for me, pinpointing the intention of each type of memoirist is important in understanding and rating/reviewing their books. Does the author clearly and emotively tell me her incredible story? Does the author’s thirst for adventure help me to understand the world better? Does the author’s window into the ordinary give me new insight into, or a profound vision of the human condition? Maybe, for the best memoirs, the answer is yes on all counts.

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My Unfinished Life

Finally, summer has begun for me. And, finally, things have settled down to the point where I can work. I’ve sent in my daughter’s grades and checked and packed away the rest of the schoolwork. Since then, we’ve camped and swum and visited the library. We’ve compacted summer into this hot space of June, and now I have a few days, at least, to breathe.

For the last few days, I’ve written enough words to burn holes in my brain. And, yet, for all that, my writing, in the sense of career, feels like the house in the image above. But I should tell you a little secret about that house. That’s mine. It’s my first house after years of living with my family of six, cramped into a single wide. It’s mine, and I’m sitting under the roof as I write this post, and it’s difficult to remember the anxiety I felt then, when the clouded sky spilled through the trusses.

And what about the time before it had trusses? The house was only a concept at one time, a drawing my husband hastily scrawled on paper in a fit of inspiration. I’m guessing approximately eight years passed between the initial inspiration and the completion of the stuccoed structure, with curtains hung and bedding moved over.

I don’t know exactly where I’m at in my writing career. I’m way beyond the hastily scrawled drawing. I’ve laid a foundation, built walls, and added a second story. But I still suffer that queasy sensation of looking up and viewing only sky.

I don’t like to write about writing on this blog. I don’t. Today, however, my mind is unable to work out anything else. I can see the sky! I’m up in the air, staring up and wishing for completion, even though the view is lovely from up here. It’s hard to keep writing books and more books to fill this uncapped space, while continuously wishing for a roof and finishing work. The view may be lovely, but…

How do you keep yourself going? How does anybody?

All my energy has leaked out the top. I’ll back away from my computer now, slowly, slowly, and I’ll find a temporary cap and refill my spaces.

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MapWriter LoveMap: Virtual Honor

artwork by Emille Domschot © 2012

I purchased my LoveMap. So sue me. I thought it would resemble the antiquated match.com, which makes me feel like an antique because that’s how I found my soul mate Gwen at age twenty. We had thirty years together before she died of ovarian cancer. Now that I’m sixty, I’m finally ready to find a new companion, someone to ride off with me into the sunset, our bikes whirring in joyous union.

You know those MapWriter dealies that advise you on your life steps? Yeah, I never bought one because I have all I want as senior librarian at the local library. But the LoveMap sounded all right. Surely, it would work in a similar way to the MapWriter, using its database of my information to link me up with a compatible lady.

As soon as I engaged my LoveMap, I knew something was off. The damn thing looked like a board game. But a sign flashed at me: “Enter Your Moniker.” With the type pad, I punched in Arthur Michael Knight. Yeah, that’s my name. My parents were really clever. Next, a spinning set of dice lit up. “Click to Roll,” it said. I clicked.

The game squares lit up one by one, until the movement stopped on one emblazoned The Ghetto. This message scrolled across the top of the game: “You are a knight of the first order. You must earn your way out of The Ghetto by seducing the seven first-order priestesses.” Priestesses? What?

The game image split in the middle and unfurled to reveal a ghetto scene, complete with a little man in a kind of red space suit, whose back wore my name. A set of arrows indicated I was to pick a direction and search the area. As I clicked my way up a garbage-strewn alley, ghoulish drunks hiding in the shadows reared up and grabbed at my virtual ankles. I sighed. I hadn’t played a role-playing game since 2007 and, even then, work and fatherly demands kept me from getting hooked on them.

At the top of the alley, a crowd of men appeared to be kicking at something or someone. My initial instinct was to turn around and find a safer route, but a small cry emitted from the game. I jumped. So far, the game had been silent. I stopped my space-suit man and hesitated. The cry mewled out again, a pathetic female sound–no yelling, no cries of pain, just a small, shamed noise.

With all the game bravado I could muster, I ran at the crowd, unsheathing a sword from somewhere inside my suit. I knocked the men aside and looked down at the pathetic creature that huddled in the dirt. Her clothing, what was left of it, bore her label: Peasant Dodo. I helped her up.

“WTF?” One of the men shoved me into Peasant Dodo. “Whaddya think you’re doing? She’s yours now, sucker. She’s the punishment dolts like you get.”

“You were hurting her,” I said out loud, and the words strangely echoed from my game counterpart.

“Huh. You must be new here, Arthur. I dub you Sir Biscuit, and you’re doomed. Good luck finding a priestess to get you out of this spell: I call on the spirit Hetch to bind your sword grip and lock your weapons in the lowest level of hell. This I proclaim with the power of darkness, Sir Biscuit.”

“My name is Arthur Michael Knight,” I said before the map face turned black and reverted to the auto game screen.

I grabbed the instructions from the LoveMap case and studied them for answers. LoveMap was a role playing game that involved seducing priestesses in order to earn higher levels of knighthood. Spells, incantations, and false moves could knock me to lower levels of knighthood, even down to peasanthood. The same was true for the female players. And the only way out, once in, was to find a mate and exit the game with her. In the various disclaimers at the end, I found a caution against using real names or other traceable information in the profile section. If attraction occurred between characters, names and phone numbers could be swapped privately. Great. Why had I not read the instructions?

When I logged on the next day, I wandered around the LoveMap world, observing the goings-on of others. The priestesses postured as sex kittens, not the type of woman I would enjoy as a late-in-life mate. Some females didn’t have the essential tiger-like spirit to act as priestesses, and raunchy knights gave them as punishments to errant lower level men. Dodo, it seemed, was the pass-around, worst punishment of all the females. Poor Dodo.

At ten, I gave it a rest and made a pot of coffee. Just as I was enjoying my first cup, the phone rang. I hit the speaker button.

“Thank you for saving me,” a breathy voice said. “You were the first who ever bothered.”

“Peasant Dodo?”

Her breathy voice heaved into sobs. “I used my real info, too. They’ve been tormenting me every day. I can’t get out. Sir Arthur, you have to rescue me. If you don’t, nobody will.”

Her words echoed and faded, as though our verbal communication was as virtual as the game, and then I heard a click. She was gone. I ate a sandwich for mental strength and reentered the game, this time in search of Dodo’s profile information.

Her name was Barb Ackerman. She was thirty-eight years old, never married, and taught French literature at the University of Washington, which was just under ninety miles from my small town. In the picture of her–an actual untampered photograph–her face was plain, but her smile pleasant.

What the hell, I thought. This game was not for me. I sent her a mate request and waited for her to answer. I could do worse than discuss French literature over coffee with a young lady who had a pleasant smile.

Almost instantly, she accepted my request. “Thank you for letting me out of this prison,” she messaged me.

“My pleasure,” I wrote. “Care for a country bike ride this Saturday?”

“I’ll bring the wine!!”

And I’ll bring a rare edition of Voltaire. A book. An actual book. I deleted my profile and stowed the LoveMap away. What a farce.

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: The First Awakening

Do you remember your first hit of espresso? For me, this moment occurred in 1991, the year I graduated from high school. My memories of this time in my life are somewhat scattered and kaleidoscopic, and this is mainly due to the intensity of my ruminations throughout my senior year. I thought so deeply about the world I’m surprised my head didn’t explode. But that would have been terrible because, although I made light of myself as a disembodied mind in The News of the Day, I was the essence of disembodied mind at seventeen. I tended to imagine my head rolling along, dragging my body behind it.

In addition to my pretentious habit of reading the dictionary and smattering my stories and personal ditties with multisyllabic words, I also pretended to believe–to the point that I actually believed–I could hold conversations with animals, and most especially birds. At bus stops, I would lower myself to the sidewalk until I was eye to eye with the pigeons, and I would advise them to praise God with their voices because God would listen to them, no matter their smallness and somewhat lowly status in the city of Portland. Unfortunately, the pigeons never obeyed me, and so much for my career as an animal hypnotist. As for the multisyllabic words, they were the effort of a lazy gardener who dropped them in handfuls of seeds, such that they grew in alliterative clusters–meaning, if I was reading through the Cs, all the big words began with C.

My daily travel, that allowed for advising pigeons and reading the dictionary, as well as singing to myself and reading Great Literature, involved the 57 bus from Hillsboro to downtown Portland, where I switched to the Max train. I proceeded to ride the train all the way to 122nd Street, where I switched to the 71 bus, which carried me to Portland Christian High School. After school, I repeated the same tedious process, although my thirst for adventure often led me to take another bus [the other bus stop was all the way across the street!] to a different Max train station. Also, in my quest for independence, I often exited the train in downtown and failed to catch the first bus back, instead, opting to slip to Powell’s Books on Burnside. Other downtown stops included Pioneer Square–for people watching–and the library, which is an old, building with stairs that lead up and up and up!

But, this time, Powell’s Books is the crux of my awakening, and not because I discovered scandalous, spiritual, or enlightening literature deliciously awaiting me on the packed and dusty shelves. I didn’t devour books. Because of that, delicious doesn’t count as an adjective. I did read multiple books without buying them, though. I would crack their covers and read a new chapter or a new essay. I read through most of Annie Dillard’s books that way, but if you happen on Annie, tell her not to worry because I bought most of her books later, when I had money to spend.

As anti-climactic as this may sound, my awakening occurred in Anne Hughes Coffee Room. Did I ever tell you I had a brother? That’s odd, because I don’t. I have a red-haired sister. She’s beautiful and kind and wears a lot of freckles, but she’s no brother. Rather, she has that thing that redheaded girls possess, that near fatal allure to the opposite sex, and the lovelorn boy of the moment rented a room in my parents’ house. And he–no great surprise–treated me as his little sister.

Yes, he was my brother of the year. His name was Rue, and he was a young biologist who played the guitar, drew exacting symmetrical patterns, and counted spotted owls. He was a San Franciscan and brought his San Franciscan ways to Portland, including his propensity to drink expensive micro-brewed beers. Most important to my life, however, was his taste for gourmet coffee and espresso.

On a lark, one day, he attended my high school as a guest. He took the bus-train-bus with me, bringing his guitar in its battered case for good measure. In photography class, I took portraits of him in his pill box, Guatemalan fabric hat while he sat in a chair strumming his guitar. After school, from what I remember of my memory grab-bag, we hiked over to Powell’s on Burnside. The Powell’s trip may have landed on a different day, but for the sake of my reckoning, allow it to rest on this late spring afternoon.

We carried our respective magazines and newspapers and books we had no intention of buying into the cluttered backroom once known as Anne Hughes Coffee Room*. The coffee room contained a throwback, earthy atmosphere that in no way resembles a modern Starbucks. It was earthy in its essence of old wood counters and deep coffee smell, dust and newspaper fragrance, leather and wool-wearing customer odor. Rue offered to buy me a drink, so I casually said I would like an espresso, in the same way a novice drinker might sidle up to a whiskey bar and ask for a shot of Jack while attempting to maintain the aura of hardened-by-life expertise.

And so began my life of espresso drinking. I don’t know how to explain my instant love for the concentrated, bitter-rich coffee with golden crema on top. It simply happened. I drank a double shot, and suddenly my mind buzzed with an unknown silence. Even Rue was taken aback by my non-jittery state of being, so unusual for me. In that space of Powell’s, filled with the leather-shoed and wool-jacketed people crouched over their mugs and papers, my mind connected with my body, and the rapid movement of my thoughts stilled.

I sat upright, and I don’t know what ideas I conjured while I watched the windows turn black against the night. I knew that I knew nothing. I knew that my ideas were as blank as the windows. And I still know nothing, even as the New Mexico dusk fills the air, and the lights of the distant city stretch across the horizon. I’m far away from Portland. That’s what I know.

*I’ve bought many books at Powell’s over the years–just in case the bookstore police come after me. Also, I have no idea what Anne Hughes Coffee Room looks like these days, or if it still exists.

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