The Power of Habit


Emma wonders if any of the others are thinking of Macbeth and his witches. The kindling takes hold with a loud crack. Sparks flash, and rise into the night. Someone has thought to bring food this time: a pot of chili in a small cast-iron cauldron. Emma cannot imagine anyone will taste it. Their hunger is not for food. The pipe sizzles at the touch of the lighter. The itch of anticipation glides along her forearms. They all say they want to kick the habit. But, they’ve all been through rehab, at least once. It’s where some of them met.



For Tara’s 100Word Challenge… the prompt this week is Habit. So many interpretations… what’s yours?




Lowest Common Denominator



Dear Mary,

Thank you for the card after the delivery of my twin girls. I appreciate your congratulations though I somehow think a Good Luck card might be more appropriate. Already, I find the need to steel myself against the lowest common denominator of our society that seeks to undo all the gains our gender has worked tirelessly to secure. Have you read the Twitter comments on a recent Jeopardy contestant’s breasts? But, I must not despair. With luck, hard work, and fine role models my girls will not be cheerleaders, and will eschew every hue of pink.



For Tara’s 100-Word Challenge. The word is Luck. Try it… Join in the fun!


Thanks for reading!

Caramel Macchiato and a Kick in the Shins

2015-08-03 08.41.08


7 a.m. I’m standing in line for coffee in the hotel lobby. This is no ordinary lobby. A cathedral ceiling soars to the second story. A couple of birds, I don’t know what kind, little brown birds, sit on the beams watching, every half minute tweeting a critique that I imagine says: look at all those addicts waiting in line for their caffeine fix.


At one end of the room a massive wall of glass frames a panorama captured on canvas, and postcards, and digital film countless times. The window glass is dusty, pocked with dried raindrops. But it does not dampen the view. The scene is like an IMAX film. I feel the vertigo. It sails across the green of Willow Flats to those jagged masterpieces of volcanic activity, the Grand Tetons. I feel the religion emanating like heat from the peaks.


I was raised Catholic. Believing it was the right thing to do, my parents dragged us to church on Sundays without much enthusiasm. Their parents had performed the same tired ritual. One of my great aunts was a nun, but I didn’t know her. I met her once or twice at a family gathering, but I was too young to do anything other than stare at her outfit. Dutifully, my parents sent their first three daughters to Catholic school.


Sadistic nuns administered my elementary school. A little known fact about Catholic nuns: they are mind readers. Anyone whose thoughts veered toward speaking in class had her ponytail yanked to the level of whiplash, or his shoulder tweaked by the Vulcan death grip until he slid off his chair, and under the desk.


Catholic high school, slightly more tolerant, was still strict enough to require pleated skirts of a length that grazed the floor when you kneeled upon it. Walking to class it was not uncommon to discover a girl kneeling in the middle of the hall, a sister bent at the waist to examine the length of a rolled up skirt.


This is my history as I gawk, wide-eyed at the mountains older than any of the nuns that heaped abuse under the guise of discipline, and the direction of young minds toward a healthy fear of Hell and God’s wrath. Seeing the Tetons, and the specks in the distance that I know are elk make me think that maybe there is a god after all. A positive force, not the punitive entity I was taught assembled us out of his image and likeness.


Ahead of me in line is a woman holding a leash. At the end of the leash is a toddler sitting cross-legged on the floor paging through a Good Dog, Carl picture book. Her mother is paging through her Facebook timeline on an iPhone. I look over her shoulder to see photos of breakfast muffins and fettuccine Alfredo, cat memes, a split screen of Donald Trump and an orangutan. What’s missing are the stories of migrants flowing like sea water into Europe. Of children not on leashes drowning in the Adriatic. The mother flicks her thumb and the images fly. She does not click on any link.


I love Carl. He really is a good dog. I would have liked to sit next to the girl-child on the floor, and have her read to me. Instead I read the Tetons taking into consideration their mood. Clouds lift to greater heights unveiling their stoic exterior. Sunlight streams, slowly, as the minutes tick, until the wall of rock is entirely illuminated, and invites us: Come closer!


And then I hear someone order a caramel macchiato. Turns out it’s the mother. Her girl-child, having felt a tug on the leash, stands up without a word, moves a few steps toward the mountain view, plops down, opens the book, and starts again from the beginning.


I wanted to kick the mother in the shins. For a number of reasons. But mostly, because I’m a judgmental asshole. The caramel macchiato was the last straw. Who orders a caramel macchiato at 7 a.m. with twenty people behind her in line? Who orders a caramel macchiato at all? Ever? There is no god. We’re both assholes in a coffee line. She for her lack of awareness, me for my hyper-awareness.


Good and evil, right and wrong, are they equal opportunity, one size fits all? Should they be? To some God exists, to others she’s a speck on the horizon in the form of an elk.


Thanks for reading…












The Dead Never Stop Talking



The dead never stop talking.

On my trip to the eye doctor this afternoon I drove through my small town as the high school spit out students onto the curved asymmetrical streets. Cliques of girls waited at crosswalks for the signal that indicates it’s ok to cross; in this town that signal is the white outline of a figure like the sort you see on police dramas chalked around a dead body.

Watching the girls I hear my mother, dead twenty years, say, “You’re not leaving the house like that.”

If I were the guardian of a girl child, she would hate me. I would not allow her out of the house wearing shorts so short the underside of her butt cheeks, lighter-skinned than the rest of her exposed flesh, peeks out, jiggles even, as she strolls down the street.

The girls not wearing shorts go for skin-tight jeans, and tank tops with visible bra straps, and perky cleavage so in your face you can’t look away.

Is my town a town of motherless children? Or is that battle not worth the effort? Pick your battles, my sister says. Easy for her to say. She has a 13-year-old girl child who has no interest in short shorts, or skin tight jeans. Her daughter’s wardrobe consists almost entirely of black yoga-type pants and oversized Marvel t-shirts. She doesn’t obsess about her looks. Not yet, anyway.

The girls at the crosswalk are slightly older. I wonder if that’s the difference. My niece will start high school next September.

At the eye doctor’s office my chin is cradled, and my forehead pressed against the metal headrest. An intensely bright light glides across my right eye. I try not to blink. I am thinking of germs, of contagion, and all the people who have pressed their faces into this contraption before me, when unexpectedly, the doctor, whom I’m seeing for the first time, rolls his stool closer. His crotch presses against my knees. I attempt to pull my knees back, but I have nowhere to move.

The doctor’s female assistant sits inches away. Surely he didn’t intentionally press his genitals against my knees. He makes no effort to alter his position. I have long legs; his are short. It must be that.

The words of my dead grandmother float through the bright light: “Always sit like a lady, with your knees together.”

She never considered knee fetishes.

On my return through town a cluster of short shorts and bra straps sit cross-legged on the lawn in the small plaza. A dark-haired girl pulls up an errant strap while a pale blonde rearranges a jacket beneath her bare thighs on the cold grass.

If her grandfather were alive he’d encourage my niece to become an engineer. He’d hoped one of his six daughters might follow in his footsteps, but none have. His granddaughter certainly has the smarts for it. She and her crowd are nerds. Her word, not mine. It’s impossible to say whether she’ll start wearing short shorts in a year, much less predicting where her talents will lead her.

My sister, like our father, tells her daughter that she will go to college. She pronounces it as fact, as our father did.

The dead never stop talking.

A sort of journal entry… I hope to keep it up… we’ll see how that works out…

A Sacrifice on the Altar of Parenthood



I was fourteen on the night I was bushwhacked by my father as he sat sipping his Seagrams 7 and 7-Up in the unlighted living room.

I tiptoed downstairs in the dark with the intent of reaching the basement, where the television lured with its single channel, WGAL-TV 8 (NBC). (In our household WGAL entertained, including our mother, seven “gals,” our father rounding it off to 8 viewers in the household, as if we were preeminent in the station’s study of its demographics.)

I tiptoed hoping to avoid any chance encounter with a parent. A couple of my sisters had preceded me downstairs, and all I wanted was to negotiate for space on the couch, knowing that would require a fair amount of pushing, pulling and pinching, before settling in to watch the antics of James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock.

I did not see my father sitting in the dark. I did not hear the clink of ice cubes rearranging themselves in his glass, so common a sound that perhaps I no longer heard it.

Slurring his words, he beckoned to me. “Steph, c’mere a minute.” Explaining that Captain Kirk waited for no one would be futile. I did what I was told.

I slumped next to him in the dark living room. My drunken father placed an arm around my shoulders, and, deeming it the best possible moment to enlighten me as to the limitless happiness he experienced when I was born, he said: “You were the first. I knew I could do it. The rest didn’t matter.”

I knew he didn’t mean he loved my sisters less, only that never again did he experience that jolt of joy as he did when I popped out healthy and whole. Been there done that.

Not for the first time, with fourteen years experience of my father’s parenting techniques, I thought: there are people in the world not cut out to be parents. My father was one of those people.

I may be another, possibly due, in part, to that particular evening.

I receive both sympathy and criticism for not having had children. In my travels, particularly in rural areas of the Third World, it was always the first question from friendly, curious women: “How many children do you have?” In India and Indonesia, these women stroked my hair, and told me how sorry they were that I was unable to birth children. Never would it occur to them that it was a conscious choice. Or, if not exactly a choice, an absence, of that maternal pull that enveloped so many women, and pitched them into paroxysms of grief if they are unable to conceive. I have not experienced that particular heartache.

I had a prescription for contraceptives, and eventually married a man who’d had a vasectomy before we met.

There are some, mostly women, who believe women like me are selfish. We are not willing to sacrifice aspects of our lives to raise a child. I’ve read this many times on mommy blogger sites, heard it shouted by pundits on quasi-news shows.

In 2007, Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize for her novel, The Gathering. It’s a dark, but beautifully rendered evocation of family, and grief. In it the main character resents her parents for having too many children. Unaware and unthinking they never considered the consequences of their selfish behavior on all those children.

Reading this was a revelation. Finally, someone put into print, the equivalent of speaking aloud, something I’d felt for a long time.

Because you want something doesn’t mean you ought to have it. I have a friend who suffers from severe, debilitating anxiety. It’s in her family, in her DNA. She and her husband would like to have a child of their own, but have made the decision not to, for the child’s sake, not the mother’s. They won’t take the chance of having a son or daughter experience the turmoil the would-be mother has endured throughout her life.

How do you feel about the Duggars exploiting their 19 kids on a reality show to pay the bills? How do you feel about the older kids raising the younger kids because the parents lack the time, and the energy?

Those who choose not to have kids, whatever their reason, or however it came to pass ought to be celebrated, not criticized for our lack of ability, according to someone’s standards, to “sacrifice” our selfish lifestyles. We’re a counterbalance to those who have too many kids. Yes, there is such a thing as having too many kids.

So many parents have kids for the wrong reasons. My father had his first kid as evidence of his sperms’ macho motility. The rest came along with little thought. My mother was very young, very fertile, and Catholic.

The childless by choice are not lazy, or selfish. The child bearers are not self-indulgent at the expense of their kids. Or are we, or are they?

One thing I do know is that I’m an awesome Aunt. If any of you moms feel you’ve been sacrificing too much send your darlings to me for a summer break. I’m happy to sacrifice my summer for their enjoyment. As my nieces will tell you we have a blast!