Stuff I Write, Stuff I Like

Archive for January, 2013|Monthly archive page

Stuff I Like: Zombies Zombies Zombies! (Also, Brains)

In Uncategorized on January 31, 2013 at 3:08 am

I’m from Pittsburgh, the zombie capital of the world — thank you, George Romero — and so of course I’m obsessed with “The Walking Dead.” Especially this guy:


For over a month now, the show’s been on a between-season hiatus, which has left me and millions of others stranded. Sure, there are the comics (ahem – compelling works of graphic literature). There are reruns. There are zombie movie-standbys (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Dawn of the Dead,” “Night of the Living Dead,” etc.). But without Daryl and Meryl, I’m as desperate as a zombie locked in a frat house hunting for one good brain.

I mean, come on already.

Because February 10th can’t come fast enough, I’ve resorted to zombie trivia.

Here are some things I’ve learned (thanks FunTrivia!):


According to folklore, a zombie is a corpse re-animated by a sorcerer.

In reality, historians think zombies were more likely people who’d been drugged, buried alive in a shallow grave, and then dug up to give the appearance of re-animation.

Do What You’re Told

In Haitian folklore, zombies didn’t munch brains. They did only what their sorcerers told them to do.

do as you're told

This made them excellent guards, forced laborers, or fast-food workers.

Salt Good, Salt Bad

Salt won’t just bloat a zombie. It will return it to its senses.


This can be good for the zombie, but bad for the sorcerer who is likely to be killed by his protégé.

1929 Was a Very Good Year

The publication of William B. Seabrook’s book “Magic Island” in 1929 brought the word zombie to the world.


The book describes Seabrook’s experiences with the walking dead in Haiti.

Who’s Your Papa?

Papa Doc Duvalier, the dictator of Haiti from 1957 until 1971, had his own private army, The Tonton Mcoutes. They were described as being in a trance-like state and would carry out any of Papa Doc’s commands without hesitation.


Many people believed the Tonton Mcoutes were zombies. It helped that Papa Doc had his own Voodoo church. He often promised that he’d return from the grave. When he died, an armed guard was posted as his grave, just to make sure Papa Doc stayed down.

Zombies for Realsies?

In 1912, a reporter, Stephen Bonsai, interviewed the head of a local mission church in Haiti. The man officiated at a funeral of a young man and watched the burial. The church official told Bonsai that several days later, the dead man was found tied to a tree, seemingly alive but unable to do anything other than moan.


The now un-dead man was identified by his wife, the doctor who pronounced him dead and others. The man survived in that zombie state for a few months until he died again. Many witnesses corroborated the story.

A Zombie By Another Name

In the Middle Ages, Europeans called zombies Revenants. Not quite as catchy as Walkers, but still. Revenants had no specific purpose in rising from the grave other than to harass people. The preferred way to get rid of a Revenant? Decapitation. Of course.

So there you have it. Only 12 more days until “The Walking Dead” walks again.

Know any zombie trivia in the meantime? Please share!

Stuff I Like: Zen and the Art of The Carry-On

In Uncategorized on January 25, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Back when I was flying, a grown man took a swing at me in the Tampa airport.


It was 5 a.m. I know it was 5 a.m. because I remember sneaking coffee, which I’d hidden behind the ticketing podium against regulations. Besides, it’s hard to forget a grown man taking a swing, especially when it comes before noon.

I was taking tickets and saying the usual, “Hi, Welcome Aboards,” when this man came up with his suitcase. He didn’t look like the kind of guy who’d take a swing. He was dressed in a tan business suit. He used a lot of hair gel. And this was Tampa, not West Palm, and there’s a difference.

But beside him was this suitcase.


This suitcase was huge and very heavy. It had some glittery ribbons tied to the handle to make it easy for him to find in crowds.

The suitcase could have been filled with pork bellies. It could have held a prize-winning pig. This was around Christmas, too, and you’d be surprised at how many people pack hams in their carry-ons.

ham 1

“Sir,” I said, “I’ll just need to check and make sure your bag will fit onboard.”

And that’s when he swung.

He didn’t say anything. He just tried to roundhouse me. I ducked, which was its own kind of miracle. My morning reflexes are pretty much sloth-in-a-tar-pit.

But maybe something in my skin felt it coming. After you work with people long enough, you learn to expect just about anything.

The man was ranting when airport security took him away, calling me the kinds of names that are hard to hear, especially at 5 a.m., especially from a stranger, especially when they echo off down a tropical concourse and everyone turns to stare.

Maybe some terrible things happened to this man earlier to make him go off like this. He probably stood in a long line at ticketing. He probably got frisked by the TSA. He probably paid $3 for an airport cookie. Maybe he was headed somewhere awful. Maybe someone he loved had died. You never can tell.

But one thing was clear: this man did not want to separated from his bag. Whatever was in there was so important to him that he’d risk anything.

Attachment to material possessions, Zen says, is an obstacle to enlightenment and one’s spiritual journey.

Other kinds of journeys, too.

Stuff I Write (and Stuff I Like): New Poems in LA Cultural Weekly

In Uncategorized on January 24, 2013 at 12:50 pm

I really like LA Cultural Weekly. It’s a great magazine that covers everything from politics and pop stars to — woot — poetry.

I have some poems over there today. Poems about parenting and teaching and muffins that quote Shakespeare. Also, ladybugs.


I really like LA Cultural Weekly’s poetry editor, Alexis Fancher, too. She’s a kick-butt poet. Check her work over at The Good Men Project. I like the Good Men Project a lot.

Alexis shows both her editorial and writerly sensibilities by quoting Ferlinghetti: “We have seen the best minds of our generation destroyed by boredom at poetry readings.”

When I visit LA Cultural Weekly, I’m never bored. There’s always great work up, from folks like Ellen Bass and Gerald Locklin and more. I feel honored to be there. You should visit and follow n’at.

Stuff I Like: Flight Lessons and The Zen of Take-Off

In Uncategorized on January 24, 2013 at 1:36 am

I was a flight attendant for seven years. You might know that. I write about it a lot. It’s hard not to write about a job like that. “Flying test tubes,” flight attendants call planes, because of all the things that could and do happen in there.


My favorite thing about flying is take-off. Sure, it’s the most dangerous part of a flight. It’s terrifying enough that strangers will reach across the aisle and hold hands and then avoid eye contact later.

But I love the feeling of throttling down a runway at 500 miles an hour. I love the way the wheels lift up. I love the push of air beneath my feet. I love that something so heavy could become in an instant weightless.

I love every impossible thing about it. I figure if something so huge can fly with all those human hearts wrapped up inside it, anything is possible.

Stuff I Write: An Excerpt from The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious

In Uncategorized on January 23, 2013 at 3:27 am

When I was growing up, we had paintings very much like these in our house:

harlequin twins

It was a 1960s thing, all quirk and kitsch, but I never got over those big eyes, how sad they looked despite those plastic frames, those Twiggy colors.

I think about those paintings a lot. I think about my parents, too. They both loved those paintings, I think, though I’m not sure why.

My parents weren’t big on pounding nails into good plaster. The only other thing my parents ever hung on the walls was this:

last rites

It’s a Last Rites Kit — hollow inside and filled with prayer sheets and vials of Holy Water.

That’s the kind of family we were.

I wrote about all this, of course. Writing is one way to figure things out, or try to. This is an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious. Thanks to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Superstition Review for running it the first time out.


Eyes That Have Seen Every Sorrow in the World


I’m afraid my mother will collapse on the way to the car, but she insists on walking without help.

“I said I’m not an invalid,” she says, and looks across the street to be sure no neighbors are watching. “Bring my bag and my pillow. You know I can’t sleep on those hospital pillows. They’re hard as rocks.”

She’s cranky again, a good sign. I follow behind to make sure she doesn’t fall. I help her into the car, where she pops the glove compartment and takes out a bottle of baby aspirin. She took nitroglycerine before we left and now it’s kicking in. This wipes out the chest pains and replaces them with nausea and a headache.

“I hate all this crap,” my mother says, and leans her head against the window.

We are both calm. We’ve been through this before, many times. After the first moments of crisis, everything starts to feel like a drill, like something we do in the event of an emergency.

“Business as usual,” my mother says to the doctor who meets us at the emergency room. “Just be sure I don’t die in here. I don’t like all these white walls. They give me the creeps.”


For years, three things broke up the white on my parents’ walls at home — two plastic-framed paintings and a crucifix the size of a ham.

The paintings had been on sale at Woolworth’s.

“A steal,” my mother said. “It’s not every day you can get great art at that price.”

“Stupidest damn things I’ve ever seen,” my father said. “My dog can do better than that.”

The paintings were a matched set – two big-eyed moppets dressed as harlequins. One wore pink tights, the other blue. They were sad little girls with mandolins. They had heads like buoys and jellybean feet, and their eyes were black and glossy, as if they’d lived long and seen every sorrow in the world and weren’t little girls at all.

As for the crucifix, it hung over my parents’ bed. It wasn’t what it appeared to be, either.

It was a hollow box. Inside was a bottle of holy water, rosary beads, a vial of oil, two candles, and a prayer book. A Last Rites kit, my mother explained.

“In case the priest doesn’t make it in time,” she said as she dusted Jesus’ nooks and crannies with a Q-tip. Jesus looked like a bronze dragonfly without wings. He seemed to be shrugging.

“It’s good to be prepared,” my mother said.

My father’s mother died before I was born. She had a bad heart and died in her sleep while my mother sat next to her in a chair. One minute my grandmother was breathing. Then she wasn’t. “I want to go like that,” both my parents would say.

The Last Rites kit had been a gift. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, gave it to my parents on their wedding day. She thought this was a good and practical thing. My mother had been sick since birth, and would, years later, have the distinction of being the only person in her family, the only person I knew of, period, to receive Last Rites four times. She’d had her first round when she was eight or nine – heart problems, anemia.

“They didn’t know what was wrong with me,” my mother said. “But they were sure I wouldn’t make it through the night.”

Someone called the priest, who prayed and poured oil on her forehead and consoled her parents, who’d already picked out a burial plot.

Then my mother got better.

Ten years later, she’d get a visit from a priest again – this time for tuberculosis. She picked it up during her first year of nursing school. She was in isolation. The priest came, the family wept.

My mother got better.

And so, when my parents were married, my grandmother thought the crucifix would be the perfect gift. My grandmother even gave a speech at the reception. “I just want you to know,” she said, and raised a glass to my father. “Enjoy her while you can. She won’t live long.”

My mother was anointed two more times, both in a hospital, both because of heart attacks. All of this has made her seem indestructible, even today when she refused the ambulance, even when I ran red lights and we made it to the hospital in minutes.

But my mother has a living will in her purse.

My hand shakes when I fill out her paperwork.


My father died at home, in a spare bedroom that the hospice nurses had set up like a hospital room. To give my father something to look at, my mother hung a calendar on the wall. It had pictures of teddy bears dressed in prom gowns on it. It was ridiculous, but better than the crucifix or a blank white wall, and my father liked to count the days.

I stayed in the room with him and slept on the loveseat. I knew my father was afraid to die because he told me so, and even though I couldn’t do anything about death, I didn’t want him to be alone while he waited for it.

I tried not to cry in front of him, but one day, when he was very sick and moving in and out of consciousness, I couldn’t help it. I thought he wouldn’t notice, and so I sat in a corner of the room and wept. I didn’t try to stop it. I must have been making a horrible fuss because my father woke up. He turned his head to me and his eyes seemed bright and lucid, no trace of morphine. He looked at me and smiled and said, “Don’t cry, honey. I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be around.”

I was a child again and he was my father and I believed him.

That was the last conscious thing my father said to me.

He died two weeks later.

The adult in me, the person who’d been giving my father his medications, who’d made decisions about his care and tried to buffer my mother from stress and grief, expected this. The child in me, who lay awake at night and listened to her father breathe, expected him to keep his word.

“I’m fine,” my mother says as she stretches out on the gurney and waits for more blankets and a glass of ginger ale.

The heart monitor beeps and thrums, steady, sure.

Stuff I Like: P.S. Alternatives To The Giant Chocolate Heart

In Uncategorized on January 22, 2013 at 4:16 am

So now that I’ve poked holes in my own giant-chocolate-heart dreams, here are some fresh Valentine’s (or any-tine’s) gift ideas.

Kiss this:


Nothing says “I love you” or “I’ll have flies with that” like a chocolate frog. Just $12.50 from Vermont’s Lake Champlain Chocolates. Who knows? He might be a prince. A delicious prince.

Sexy Truth or Dare:

truth or dare

A bargain at $10.17, with better dares than the one that gets your tongue stuck to a street sign. Or you can just play Spin the Bottle with that plastic water bottle you meant to re-purpose.

Yummy Gummy:

The equivalent of 1400 normal-sized gummies, this guy ($29.99, over at Vat 19) makes the chocolate heart look wimpy.

gummy bear

And if you don’t believe Gummy Bears are sexier than giant hearts any day, you haven’t seen this:

And yes, he does Gangnam Style.

Stuff I Write: Chocolate Swiss Army Knives and A Heart to Drive Off In

In Uncategorized on January 22, 2013 at 3:30 am

So it’s almost February, which means it’s almost Valentine’s Day. Sorry. I know. But I was in Target today and the whole store is one big Valentine, all red and white, exactly the colors of an emergency or a Swiss Army Knife.

A Swiss Army Knife would be a fabulous Valentine’s gift, by the way. And check out this one. Even better. The chocolate’s Swiss, of course.


In the spirit of the soon-to-be season, here’s a piece I wrote about Valentine’s Day and my lust for one particular giant chocolate heart. You know the kind — it doesn’t fit through the door, it doesn’t fit in the fridge, it has to shop in the Big & Tall section and feels bad about itself.

It doesn’t fit the way a lot of relationships don’t fit, which is the point. And the chocolate is usually lousy, but, well, there you go.

Thanks very much to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and editor Greg Victor for publishing it first, right around this time last year.



I wanted the giant heart box. Forget roses, stuffed bears, those smaller, more civilized heart-pocked boxes with their golden ribbons. I wanted chocolate in a box the size of a ham. I wanted a Super-Size-Me box that would have to be strapped into a passenger seat and protected by an air bag. I wanted a heart that could double as a soapbox my beloved would stand on as he wailed to the world, “Because I love you this much!”

And I got one on Valentine’s Day years ago.

I was living in New York then, working as a flight attendant. I’d been dating D for a while. We didn’t like each other much, but it worked. It worked the way things work when the person next to you on the bus doesn’t smell like moldy broccoli or talk to his sandwich.

I was away a lot. D was a cop and often on duty when I was home. He looked cute in his uniform. We both liked to travel and I had flight benefits. I got a Police Benevolent Association card that helped me get out of parking tickets and someone to call when a roach cuddled my toothbrush. He had someone who could take him to Spain on the cheap and make meatballs on the toy-sized stove in his New York apartment.

“I like our arrangement,” D would say, as if our lives were a bunch of carnations, tacky and bound together out of obligation or necessity, a gesture.

I’m not sure when I became obsessed with the big Valentine’s heart box, but size-wise it probably had something to do with the box of chocolates my father would bring home from work every Christmas.

My father worked in a tool shop in Wall, Pa. His bosses, like most bosses, hated workers, but every Christmas, they’d cough up a hairball of decency and give everyone a four-pound box of chocolates.

The box was huge, rectangular, with three layers inside, an office building full of chocolates, each in its own cubicle. My parents and I would huddle on the couch and watch the evening news. I’d sit in the middle with the box on my lap, and we’d fight for the red-foil-wrapped cherries or the last toffee crunch.

“It’s the least the bastards can do,” my father said.

That Valentine’s Day, D showed up at my apartment, awkward as a salesman in the doorway. We’d had a fight the day before, something about ketchup. I was getting dressed for work. I had a three-day trip, with double layovers in Little Rock.

On the romance scale, Arkansas is not Paris, though Arkansas’ official gem is the diamond and the state insect is the honeybee, and Little Rock was once home to Bill Clinton, and Arkansas’ state instrument is the fiddle and nothing says sexy like a fiddle-round of “Sadie at the Back Door” or “Who Hit Nellie With the Stove Pipe.”

Next to our layover hotel, there was a Waffle House with red shoe-polished letters on the front window that read “Waffles Are For Lovers, $2.99.” The world told me I should be miserable imagining myself alone on Valentine’s Day with a stack of heart-shaped waffles and bottomless coffee, but I wasn’t. It seemed mostly peaceful.

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” D said. He tried to tuck the heart behind his back. He had to come through the door sideways. The box tipped and I could hear the chocolates in there, sliding around.

The box was everything I imagined. Huge, velvet-covered, fake-silk lined. The chocolates were not great, waxy, but it didn’t matter. There it was, finally. A heart I could drive off in.

“Love you,” D said. He kissed the top of my head while he scoped my apartment in that cop way he had, checking for evidence.

Maybe I thought in that minute, in the red glow emanating from a heart bigger than a pizza, that we had something.

Probably not.

“Love you, too,” I’m sure I said back. We both said it like that, “love you,” not “I love you,” but “love you,” as in someone, someday will. It was more of a wish, a blessing, than any kind of vow.

“You shouldn’t have,” I said about the heart, which is what people say when they mean “Thank you. This is both nice and disappointing. This is not what I had hoped it would be. You really shouldn’t have.”

When I tried to put the box of chocolates in the fridge to keep them safe from roaches while I was gone, it didn’t fit, the way D and I never fit. This is what’s often left out of those commercial Valentine’s fantasies — the truth that there are two real people involved and the only thing that matters is how two lives can come together and somehow hold on. It would take me years to learn the miracle of that.

D sighed. He took the heart back to his apartment, to his slightly bigger fridge. While I was on my Waffle House layover, he and his brother would pick through the chocolates. They’d eat all the decent ones and leave finger holes in the bottoms of the leftover pieces, all pink and yellow creams.

“We’ll be waiting for you,” he said, about him and the chocolates and the truth about love I’d yet to learn.

Stuff I Like: Caves, Black Turtlenecks, Johnny Cash and Einstein’s Brain

In Uncategorized on January 16, 2013 at 3:30 pm

A few years back, I stopped at Crystal Cave off Route 22 in Kutztown, Pa. Crystal Cave is a tourist cave, which means the nature there is controlled. Outside, there’s a putt-putt course and an ice cream parlor. Inside, the cave looks more like a rave.

crystal cave

The footpath is set off with velvet ropes, as orderly as a bouncer’s line. There are rainbow-colored spotlights pointed at the stalagmites and stalactites. The crystal formations have homey names like “The Curtains” and “Tobacco Leaves.” I didn’t see any bats. The air smelled like Febreeze.

Everything seemed as orderly and domesticated as the Crystal Cave refrigerator magnets and collectible spoons you can buy in the gift shop. And even though the tour guide wore a hard hat and a safety vest, even though she said things like “watch your step” and “stay on the path,” even though she told scary stories about stalagmite headstones and the undead, nothing seemed even slightly dangerous until she flicked the lights off.

Darkness, true cave darkness, is an untamed thing. Hold your hand right in front of your face and you can’t see it. That kind of darkness has taste, texture, one big opera cape. And because I kept one hand on that velvet rope, it felt almost soothing to shut every other sense down.

I was thinking of the cave today when I opened my closet. Everything in my closet is black.


It’s hard to see individual pieces. It’s hard to see where a pair of pants stops and a turtleneck (o.k., so I own 12 black turtlenecks) begins.

Johnny Cash had the best reasons for wearing black. Here’s what he said:

johnny cash

I agree with Johnny. I also find all this darkness soothing, too, the way I find cave-darkness soothing. Everything matches. Sure, there are shades, textures to consider, but I don’t have to think much about what to wear. This is its own kind of freedom, another way of shutting sense — fashion sense, at least — down.

Einstein, who used to have a closet full of the same black suits, said we shouldn’t waste our brains deciding what to wear. Einstein said we shouldn’t remember things we can look up. People said he didn’t know his own phone number. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s soothing, too.


After Einstein died in 1955, the doctor who did his autopsy stole Einstein’s brain and kept it in a Tupperware container, like leftovers. You can read about it in Michael Paterniti’s terrific book, DRIVING MR. ALBERT: A TRIP ACROSS AMERICA WITH EINSTEIN’S BRAIN . The doctor drove around with it in the trunk of his Buick Skylark, then passed out pieces of it to people he knew as souveniers, like refrigerator magnets in a gift shop.

Nature. Controlled.

Stuff I Like: Pittsburgh’s Homeboy Rick Sebak

In Uncategorized on January 8, 2013 at 11:42 pm

Rick Sebak is as Pittsburgh as Iron City Beer, a sausage sub in the Strip, a Heinz pickle pin, or someone yelling jagoff in a traffic jam. Whether he’s reporting on Lost Kennywood, the chlorinated joy of Ligonier Beach, or where to get the best schnitzel, Rick Sebak’s passion for this city bubbles over like a nice Regent Pop. Which is why he gets his own t-shirt:


You can get your own Rick Sebak Homeboy shirt at Pittsburgh’s own Commonwealth Press, which is a whole other thing to love. They have other t-shirts featuring Myron Cope as The Burghfather, not to mention ‘Burgh-baby onesies that say things like “I Poop Black and Gold” and “Pittsbooger.”

I got to meet Rick Sebak recently when he was interviewing my husband, whose love for Pittsburgh is also big n’at (see his novel Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children, where the city is its own kind of beautiful gritty character).

Whenever I meet someone whose work I love, I always turn village idiot. I end up muttering “I like your work.” Then I run away. Then I come back and try again. “I like your work,” I splurt, then I run away.

I did this with Rick Sebak, too, only before I said “I like your work,” I said, “You sound just like him!” How creepy is that? But when you grow up with a voice that’s been the sound of home for 25 years on WQED, there you go. Rick Sebak, you’re the goods.

Here he is at Kennywood, the greatest amusement park ever, reading “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” For real. A post-Christmas gift to all of us who felt the holiday rush by.

Stuff I Like: Refrigerator Poems, Scott Silsbe, Hikmet

In Uncategorized on January 7, 2013 at 3:32 pm

A poem from Scott Silsbe hangs in a place of honor on my fridge, right next to my kids’ school pics and a magnet that says “Coffee. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” This poem, called “Hikmet” (for the great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet) is my idea of a prayer, a meditation, a reason to go off into the day. Every morning I’m thankful to Scott for it.

Scott has a new book out. It’s called UNATTENDED FIRE. You can buy it on Amazon now and you should, because he’s a beautiful writer and it’s a beautiful book. See for yourself:

scott book

The gorgeous cover is by Paulette Poullet, who is another Pittsburgh genius artist.

And I hope Scott won’t mind, but here’s “Hikmet.”

You should put it on your fridge, too.

Tonight I am thinking of Hikmet. Over 40 years old, a poet
in prison for writing poems, measuring the paces of his cell.

And here I sit trying to write a good poem. It could be that
good poems are only written out of darkness and despair.

But Hikmet said, “Living is no laughing matter” and “live
with great seriousness” and “live as if you will never die.”

I don’t need an ars poetica to say that I write to remember,
remind myself of little things that happened here and there.

Sometimes I curse myself for not writing more, but then
I tell myself that I am just working on material by living.

My copy of Hikmet has burnt flyleaves and page-edges
which leads me to believe it was rescued from a fire.

Some of Hikmet’s poems traveled from a prison in Turkey
through fire, to multiple bookstores, no doubt, to my desk.