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I saw my father twice.

1. In Virginia, just before he closed his apartment door after saying he couldn’t let anyone in until his wife returned from the grocery store.

2. In court, just before the judge ejected my brother and me from the courtroom because we were laughing too hard while the bailiff cuffed him.

About the first time.

When my trio of a family drove from our home in San Antonio, Texas to visit my birthplace, Alexandria, Virginia, a few miles from D.C. Five-year-olds, my brother and I begged our mother to see him. She knew. Of course she knew. That he lived with a woman who wasn’t the mother of his children. Not us or the two before us. The youngest of twins, I stood back with my mother while my brother knocked. Door latched, my father peered through a sliver of an opening. In a quivering voice he claimed he couldn’t let anyone in until his wife returned from the grocery store. Then he closed the door.

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Your book is about the many birds who live with you—they seem to be in every corner of your house. How does that affect your writing?

Well, it is sometimes strange to have animals talking to me when I’m working. But they can be helpful. For example, our African gray parrot, Mia Bird, often sits in my office and commands me to “Focus! Focus!” as I write. That usually does the trick if I start drifting off. One time, a rainbow lorikeet named Harli was quarantined for a few weeks in my office—we separate and observe new birds before introducing them to the flock. As I worked, Harli would settle on my head and groom me, kindly plucking a hair or two along the way. By the time her quarantine period was over, I had a small, perfectly shaped oval of bare scalp on the top of my head. Still, I did get a lot of writing done during those few weeks.

Raffin_BirdsofPandemonium_HC_jkt_LRI rise every morning just after 4:00 a.m. — gladly on most days — and pad as silently as possible across the terra-cotta- tiled floors of our home. If I make the smallest sound as I pass by the dining room, they might hear. I don’t want to set off our resident clown posse — not yet.

“Hello? Want out! I love you!”

Darn. Shana is awake. I ignore her squawky blandishments, and she tries harder.

“Pretty mama, pretty mama. I love you!”

I smile to myself and wait her out. Finally, silence returns. As I finish a mug of tea and an hour of administrative work in my office, dawn flares over the foothills of the Santa Cruz range to our west. Every morning at first light, I step outside into the bewitching bird music that heralds another day at Pandemonium Aviaries, the home and bird sanctuary that I share with my family, two donkeys, a pair of goats, a collie, a sheepdog, one understandably aloof elder cat, and some of the world’s most remarkable birds.

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So, you wrote about the dead guy again.

You mean my best friend who died five years ago in a mountain climbing accident nearly ten years to the day after he’d been mauled by a grizzly in Yellowstone Park? Yes, I did write about him again. The book is called Altitude Sickness.

 

Why?

Well, we were best friends for over two decades and, like I say in the book, we got together and broke up more times than the earth has rotated the sun, so I’d say his sudden death at the age of forty-two was fairly earth-shattering. We loved each other deeply and his death nearly destroyed me. And I’ve been a writer most of my professional life, so it’s kind of hard to bypass all this.

COVER Altitude Sickness“That funeral ate balls,” my brother Gus said as we walked through the Seattle rain to his car. He unlocked the doors and Dad got in the passenger side, while Mom sat in the back with me. I can be a tad verbose, but couldn’t speak. My mouth, like my heart, felt cauterized.

Mom reached for my hand. “Oh, honey,” she said. “I know this is awful.” She paused. “Where should we take you to eat?”

Usually I’d tease her about Greek protocol, how we hone in on food no matter the circumstances. We’d just left my best friend Neal’s funeral, though, and everything seemed absurd, but not in the funny way.

Saving April

By M.J. Fievre

Memoir

school girlsApril shows me her cuts. Small razor cuts spread on her arm. She’s managed to shape some of them like stick houses—triangles atop squares. Others are words—fuck them. Several of the wounds are still fresh. I want to run the tip of my finger on them, ease the pain, but several years of training stop me—I’m not wearing gloves.

April lets out a short laugh and shakes her head; the silver skulls dangling from her ears slap her jaw. The other students call her Ms. Ugly, but I find a certain beauty in her witchy features: the long, pale face and pointy chin, the crooked nose. The dark eyeliner brings out her daring eyes under ever-frowning brows.

The door of the classroom is ajar, as I never talk to students alone in closed quarters. I’m not teaching middle school for the long haul, but no scandal is going to force me out the door before I decide to call time. April whispers, “I did it to myself, you know. All the pain inside… I have to hurt myself.” Teeny-tiny zits cover her forehead. Her hair, which has been backcombed, is recalcitrant whenever her friend Katrina attempts to fix it in my Literature class.

April pulls down her long sleeves and folds her arms, black fingernails repeatedly scratching the purple shirt—reopening wounds through fabric. “You know what I like about you?” April asks. “You always look so damn unimpressed.” She hides a smile at the corners of her black lips. “I’d love to see your face when the shit hits the fan.”

vedaWhen someone asks me what type of stuff I write, I usually have about five seconds where I think, “How much should I tell this person?”

Should I bring up sexuality and the sex industry? Should I just stick to parenting and gender? What about bdsm?

And to take it even further, how much do I tell people who are already in my life? My parents? My husband, who is not a writer? My friends, most of whom are not writers?

IMG_9879-300x225Always a cauldron of some fleeting controversy or another, the literary world roiled with a genuinely serious scandal over the past two weeks. A number of well-known writers and editors, including Stephen Tully Dierks and Tao Lin, were accused of sexual or emotional abuse.

One of the flashpoints in the resulting fracas was an essay posted to Hobart  by Elizabeth Ellen. In the piece, Ellen offers her opinion on the ongoing reaction to the scandal.

The essay is difficult and troubling, but well-worth reading.

Billy

By Sarah Braunstein

Essay

winona-ryder-heathersI said to my best friend Marie, “I am in love with that boy.”

She screwed her nose. “Why?”

I could not answer—I had no idea. I saw him one day in our high school stairwell and love appeared. It was nonsensical and absolute. It had all the characteristics of a cartoon anvil.

Marie said, “Well, he’s really good at math.”

“And he looks like Billy Baldwin. Have you noticed that?”

Nowadays, Alec is the hot Baldwin. But back then, in 1992, it was Billy.

“The actor,” I cried, “from Backdraft!”

She said, “Yeah, I know who Billy Baldwin is,” and then I wept.

1027 A friend of mine emailed me recently to ask for help with a personal essay. It was a short piece about how all the great stories seem to be about doing heroin or cheating on your spouse.

She’s not imagining that. There are some great stories out there about doing heroin and cheating on your spouse.

The piece reminded me of certain “envy essays” I’ve seen around on writer’s blogs, The New York Times, and in interviews. “I’m so jealous of Lena Dunham/Cat Marnell/Cheryl Strayed.” Very talented and determined people have these feelings.

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I’m a big Steve Almond fan.  I think he’s one of our smartest and gutsiest writers.  His latest book, Against Football (Melville House), is surely one of the year’s most provocative titles.  Almond offers a searing analysis of America’s most popular sport, going deep where most sports writers tend to stay safely in the shallows, challenging the reader’s assumptions about what the game means, and what its massive cultural import says about our society.

Steve and I had a great conversation on my podcast1 not too long ago, and this past week I had the chance to catch up with him via email for some follow-up questions.

Role/Model

By Gayle Brandeis

Essay

young compositeMichael and I had lunch at The Castle today, a new Middle Eastern restaurant in Riverside. The lentil soup was fantastic, spiked with lemon. The Lebanese salad was tart and fresh, a dice of cucumber and tomato and mint. The place is new, but not really. I can’t remember if you and I ever went there together back when it was still Pitruzello’s, back when you were still alive–I don’t think so, even though I can picture you in one of the booths, your pale skin glowing against the black vinyl; I can picture you there the way you looked before I was born, when people mistook you for Audrey Hepburn, your hair in a short beehive, a cigarette between your fingers. I can’t remember if I ever told you I answered the restaurant’s call for lunchtime tearoom models in 1987, when I was nineteen. Probably not. As much as you wanted your girls to be open with you, more often than not, your measuring gaze made us pause .

Even now, at 46, I’m not sure what compelled me to respond to the ad they placed in the San Bernardino Sun. I hated modeling as a kid–I was too shy, too self-conscious in front of the camera. I cried at almost every audition, every photo shoot. At nineteen, I didn’t see myself as the modeling type, either. I was a hippie chick with hairy armpits and legs, a sophomore at the University of Redlands. I had gained the freshman fifteen and then some eating three cafeteria meals a day, the only vegetarian options being cheesy, starchy casseroles like lasagna and enchiladas. My belly stuck out nearly as far as my small breasts; my face was almost as round as it had been when I was on long term steroids a few years before. When I looked in the mirror, all I saw was awkwardness. Flaws.

deskjob TNBI chugged hard on the last of my beer and wiggled the empty can in the air for Mustachio behind the bar to see. Another cold sweaty can arrived with its short shot buddy. Then another. And another. A parade of cans and shots across the bar and the place filled up with people.

A woman I recognized came through the door and pushed her way into the crowd. She walked down the bar and sat next to me on the only empty stool.

indexUp and down Broadway, in and out of journalism, taken by daguerreotypes, transported by opera, gathering gathering gathering experience—but for what? By the early 1850s, Whitman began to feel what he later described as a “great pressure, pressure from within.” With his thirty-fifth birthday fast approaching, he grew pained by the notion that at the same age Shakespeare was “adjudged already to deserve a place among the great masters,” having by then written such plays as Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, and Richard III.

justin_martin_photoSo you’ve written the first book ever about Pfaff’s saloon. Why didn’t somebody write this book earlier?

It’s a daunting challenge, research-wise. My subjects were a group of wild, decadent, and very talented artists, properly considered America’s first Bohemians. During the 1850s, they hung out at Pfaff’s saloon in New York City. They lived loose, unconventional lives, which makes them rich subjects. But they lived those lives 150 years ago. It required a ton of research, but it was also truly rewarding to bring this mostly forgotten but vitally important artists circle back to life. I often felt like a time-traveling cat herder.