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thumb_DSC04715_1024 (2)Aren’t you afraid to ride a motorcycle?

Terrified, actually. And that’s kinda the point. My life kept getting smaller and smaller as I let my fears gain traction. Then one day at age 48, I knew I had to face those fears or my life would shrink up to nothing. It started with the motorcycle, which I bought the day after my father died. Soon I was able to confront other, bigger fears that had been constraining my life, like dealing with my falling-apart marriage, then becoming a single woman and learning to date in midlife. Along the way, I became willing to risk being raw and exposed and vulnerable in my life and in my writing work. Somehow, I felt invigorated by that shift and that inspired me.

 

harley-and-me-front-cover-v3.inddPrologue

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

—T. S. Eliot

 

The day is finally starting to soften with the onset of evening as a storm assembles to the southeast. The sun has been scorching my retinas all day and is just now starting to dim. I’ve been riding my motorcycle more than eight hours today, winding first through the stunning canyons of Utah, veering into Idaho for a bit, and now entering the spectacular open range of western Wyoming. My forearms are leaden; my shoulders sag. I vaguely remember the tasteless lunch I ate hours ago, but now I’m hungry. The air is hot, even hotter inside the road armor I’m wearing. I am saddlesore and this is only day two.

Rebecca and I are trekking by motorcycle from Los Angeles to Milwaukee and back, a sixteen-day, five-thousand-mile adventure, the first extended road trip for either of us. We originally met in the mommy realm, room parents together at the small, parochial grade school our kids attended. Now, our children are mostly grown and both of us have only recently left long-term marriages. Having fled the cocoon of the suburban world we’d long inhabited, we find ourselves at midlife, crossing the country on motorcycles, unsure of the road ahead but determined to move forward anyhow.

preggers no

 

Chapter 1  – “The end.”

When I—we—struggled to get pregnant, and I’d read a story about infertility, I’d skip to the end to find out how an individual or couple resolved their infertility. If you want to skip to the end, then yes, I got pregnant. I had a baby who is now a happy, healthy, bright one-year-old. It took three years, and it was super fucking hard.

 

Chapter 2 – “We can’t make a baby, but we can make our own language.”

A brief set of terms you’ll find in this essay:

IF – Infertility

Infertility is known as IF in online support lingo. (Can we send that back to committee? Of all acronyms, is this the best we can do?)

RE – Reproductive Endocrinologist

Fertility doctors make a shit ton of money.

TSH – Thyroid Stimulating Hormone

The thyroid is a butterfly shaped thing in your throat that controls multiple functions in your body and if it’s off in the slightest, your body is fucked.

Pool Boy

By Tatiana Ryckman

Essay

pool boy1

I knew I would soon be seeing my family because of an illness, or maybe worse. I distracted myself by wondering what sports were in season. Deflected my frustration by watching some physical display of strength.

That same day I was due to see my family, I was yelled at by a man at the gym when I tried to learn how to share a lane in the pool. I don’t use the word “yell” lightly here, but literally. The scolding dragged on for some very uncomfortable minutes with a small audience. It reminded me of the people I was traveling across the country to see, my uncle had already worried to my father and aunt that I’d be in the way at my grandfather’s hospital bed. Like a child or an idiot. I was not feeling sad for the loss of a patriarch. I assumed the sadness would come later with understanding.

Matt-1Your first book, Vellum, was a poetry collection. Why the shift to essays with your new collection A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape?

A couple of years back, I wrote a poem about the Trinity Site—where the first nuclear bomb was tested—but the piece never felt as if I’d adequately addressed either the history or issues linked to the place. Trinity is just a few hours drive from me, and, years after my failed poem, I subsequently visited during one of their Open House days. I came home rattled and stewing, and with a notebook teeming with details and questions I had jotted down. When I started putting the notes down on the page, I pretty quickly realized that a poem just wouldn’t serve me as a vessel, given everything that I now wanted to fit in. It was liberating and exhilarating to not worry so much about line breaks and compression in the same way, and instead make use of the place’s history and what I encountered during the visit. It was a much wider field of play, and writing that piece ended up whetting my appetite for how I might be able to make use of lyric prose within the essay form.

House of the Large Fountain

Here, not much remains. Among other things, there are a few sheared-off pillars and some grass-covered stairs, a pebble-strewn atrium, four marble thresholds of four bricked-up rooms, some nettles and a bowing brick arch. Yet the back garden’s eye-snaring fountain is still fully intact, with its patterns of stones and glass and shells, its mosaics of wing-spread birds and half-moon bands and a baffled looking river god with a scraggly beard of reeds, and its two stone-carved faces – a mask of Tragedy, a lion-hooded Hercules – gap-mouthed and flanking the sides.

anngreengables

In high school I aspired to be anorexic or bulimic, but the truth is I just wasn’t motivated enough. I would join a sport for a semester—basketball, gymnastics, soccer, track—but I’d quickly lose interest and find myself exactly where I’d begun: lying on the floor with a Smiths album on repeat while thinking about boys. It was the only activity I was able to dedicate myself to. And because my weight was really not the reason boys were not interested in me—it was likely a host of skin and personality flaws—I could safely misdirect my attention without accidentally fixing myself. I didn’t want to do the soul-searching or book-reading that would make me realize the person I really wanted to be. I just wanted to be thin. And then I wanted that to be enough.

 

commission_meadows_1

 

God possessed Father Michael during mass. I was sure of it. I knew if I squinted hard enough, I could see beams of light shooting from our priest’s body, making him convulse in a sort of spiritual shiver signifying the exact moment God settled into his bones. ‘Go in peace to serve the Lord,’ God would say, raising His arms at the conclusion of mass. And then, following His somewhat self-serving farewell, He would return to Heaven in a flutter of robes, leaving a shinier and slightly steaming Father Michael.

When I explained this theory to my mother one day after church, she didn’t clarify, didn’t point me towards a bible or suggest I pay more attention in CCD. She only looked at me like she wanted to power-of-Christ-compel-me before saying, “No, that’s not right.”

3b

 

My California is the smell of eucalyptus trees in ocean air. Even salted essential oil can evoke for me whole swatches of my childhood: My father in his crazy wigs, my grandparents’ conch-shell silences on the Carmel beach, the thick grove where I got lost behind my schoolyard collecting the trees’ bell-shaped silver pods.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that eucalyptus is nonnative to California—“invasive” even though they didn’t ask to come here. They arrived in the late 1840s and early 1850s with prospectors from Australia—those Gold Rush days brought an onslaught of mostly European-American and Chinese immigrants that would triple the state’s population in the space of a few years.

Now my local newspaper prints detailed instructions on how to kill the invasive eucalyptus.

I am also invasive.

 

I'dRatherWearPajamas_CoverFront_OnlineFormat (1)Is it Just Me, or Does Everybody Want to Go to Law School?

One night while I was in middle school, I came to the family dinner table and boldly announced out of the blue that Bert (of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie) was holding Ernie back. The record player scratched, dinner paused, and my entire family looked up at me completely confused. Their baffled looks didn’t discourage me. I continued with my prepared rant about how Ernie was the real show-stopper of the duo, and could do so much more if Bert wasn’t around with his negativity and unibrow. I have no idea where these thoughts were stemming from, or why I felt it so important to relay them at that moment, but I just had to get it off my chest. For the record, I still stand by my arguments. Ernie, I know you love Bert, but you could do better. Do you really enjoy finding pigeon poop all around your house? I’m just saying.

Allow me to interject here briefly with some advice for all you parents (and aspiring parents):

Boys

By Stephanie Austin

Essay

 

Image

 

My first sexual experience happened with a popular neighborhood boy when I was five and he was six. We huddled under the covers of my twin bed. He goes, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” He showed me. I showed him. After, we went back to what we did in 1983, which was listening to Michael Jackson’s Thriller on a record player and running back and forth across the room. My poor mother downstairs watching a Dennis Quaid movie unaware of her daughter involved in a glorious right-of-passage cliché.

Discovery of a boy’s attention. Discovery of the body. Discovery of worthiness.

Rutecki_Sensory lens_Fig 3

My father and I are both introverts. We have blue eyes and the terrible habit of smirking when other people say stupid things. We were both chain smokers well into our 30s, both managed to quit.

My father lives far away from me in a city in Southern Thailand that’s famous for its Dim Sum, but he prefers to eat at Dairy Queen.

He reads William Carlos Williams, likes to scuba dive.

When he was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young adult, doctors blamed my grandmother for bad parenting.

The myth of the “schizophrenogenic mother”—a mom who is at once cold and anxious—got its start in the 1930s when researchers observed a few cases of maternal rejection and more cases of overprotection among mothers whose kids struggled with schizophrenia. The theory that mothering styles can cause schizophrenia has long-since been debunked, but if my kids ever develop symptoms, there’s no denying it will be my genes they got it from.

Schizophrenia affects one percent of the general population worldwide—making it twice as common as Alzheimer’s and three times as common as insulin-dependent diabetes. But in my family, we’ve got a 10 percent chance of experiencing the world in this taboo way.

 

Do you think you have special talents or supernatural gifts?

Pick one:

Not at all

Just a little

Quite a lot

All the time

 

When I was growing up, my father made stream-of-consciousness experimental animations in my grandparents’ basement apartment and wandered the streets of the Monterey Peninsula wearing a Louis the XIV wig and playing his trumpet.

He never got much treatment that I know of. When I asked him about it once, he said his doctor told him, “That one’s incurable. You’re just cuckoo.” He shrugged and didn’t say anything else for the rest of the night.

We watched strangers sing Karaoke.

saturn devouring his son

There are seventy-nine minutes left in the day. I am clinging to consciousness as I write, half drunk, half sleepy. At least it’s almost over, my birthday that is. I didn’t have an official cake, so let this be the proverbial frosting, the telling of my forty-first birthday. I’ll tell it in one long unedited inhalation, the opposite of blowing out candles, that morbid ritual of extinguishing light with one’s breath, but not before making a final wish, followed by a gasp, and then an emptying of your lungs resulting in darkness. Blowing out birthday candles (tiny flames symbolizing each year of your even tinier existence) is a metaphor for death, right up there with a raven shitting on the Grim Reaper’s hoodie. There’s some luck in that, just as there’s luck in surviving another year. There’s also humor, but mostly the kind that laughs at you, which is fine by me. I have zero delusions of grandeur. I entered the world hysterical and naked, and I intend on dying like that too.

the alley motel

Walking uphill in Westlake, a neighborhood just north of downtown Los Angeles, I paused at the site of the most intriguing whodunit in local lore, save the Black Dahlia case. Here, on February 1, 1922, in the living room of his duplex bungalow, one of sixteen units at the Alvarado Court Apartments, William Desmond Taylor, an Irish-born film director and former actor, was shot and killed by an unknown intruder, though a number of likely suspects have been identified by professional and armchair detectives, based partly on the eyewitness account of Faith MacLean, who, with her screen-star husband, the since-forgotten Douglas MacLean, lived next door to Taylor. Shortly before eight that night, Mrs. MacLean said, she heard what she thought might be a “muffler explosion,” and when she opened her door to investigate, she saw, standing in Taylor’s doorway, a “funny looking man” dressed “like my idea of a motion picture burglar” in a checked cap, dark suit, and “something tied around his neck.” He—or possibly she, since Mrs. MacLean later allowed that this person could have been female—seemed ready to leave through the garden courtyard that led to Alvarado Street, but he hesitated, as if “Mr. Taylor [had] spoken to him from inside the house.” Then, in perhaps the eeriest detail of the case, he met Mrs. MacLean’s gaze in the darkness. He didn’t panic or advance on her. “No,” she said, “he was the coolest thing I have ever seen,” and in that unruffled spirit he closed Taylor’s door, “then turned around and, looking at me all the time, walked down a couple of steps that go up to Mr. Taylor’s house,” disappearing in name but not deed through an alley that led to Maryland Street.

Stephanie's T-Mobile Phone 120

Do you know that two-thirds of all the divorces that are filed in our country are filed by women?—Michelle Weiner-Davis[1] 

 

Do you know how fast I got married? Less than ten minutes. Six of those minutes involved me standing at the back of the “aisle”—we were married outside, upscale casual—with my dad. When I was younger, I always said I’d walk my own self down the aisle because I was the one who earned the privilege, not my dad.  Too chickenshit to go through with a statement like that so when the time came, I opted for tradition. My dad wore a suit jacket over a nice pair of pants and made a joke he didn’t look this nice for his own wedding. He married my stepmom on a beach in San Diego. She shared the same first name as my mother prompting the family to refer to her as Linda 2. My cousin and I drove to the Linda 2 wedding together, and on our way to California, we stopped off for tattoos. We smoked cigarettes and listened to Madonna and stopped at every rest stop to peek inside our bandages. When we arrived, my soon-to-be stepmother greeted us and suggested we store our suitcases in the closet because her family would be staying at the house, and she didn’t want our things in the way. Linda 2 didn’t have children, and at the rehearsal dinner for their wedding, her sister told me she didn’t like them. I’d just turned 21, so I bought a bunch of booze that weekend—in that gross, blustery way most 21-year-olds on the brink of being out of control do—and drank until I couldn’t walk. My dad’s only response to the tattoo-binge-drinking-too hungover and sick to go out to dinner with them on the last night-attention-seeking behavior was to remind me not to drive when I was fucked up like that. Growing up under the umbrella of alcoholism means eventually those who you enable will come to enable you.  Circle of life.

My dad, six years later and teary at my own wedding, told me he thought I’d make a good wife. This was his way of telling me he thought I looked nice. We side-hugged. He walked me down the aisle and handed me over to my soon-to-be-husband. The ordained minister asked us if we did. We did. It was over.

“May I present Mr. and Mrs., etc., so on,” the minister said.

My husband leaned over to kiss me, and I turned away. Why did I do that? My husband asked the same question. Everyone was looking. My nerves felt like they’d been chewed up. I said I was sorry, and I laughed, and said sorry again. It was hotter than it was supposed to be that day, and I was thirsty.