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I have participated in a number of political demonstrations, but few as memorable as the March for Women’s Lives in 2004. More than 1.15 million people converged on the mall for the largest march on Washington in U.S. history. But what I am starting here—it is not the memory of a massive protest, or a recollection of the Bush Administration’s use of women’s rights as a political bargaining tool.

Writers do this. We begin with something approachable, something we trust we might get onto the page or screen correctly. We try for a moment to hold the story in our heads, even as we know we have to let it go.

I marched with my sister, Stephanie, and our friends, Emily and Kristine. I was two months pregnant at the time, pale, surviving on ginger ale and Saltines because everything else induced nausea, and excited about the new bump–even if it was too small then for others to really notice—under my This Is What A Feminist Looks Like t-shirt.

Emily was a new friend. She and my sister had become comrades on the nightclub scene in Los Angeles. Emily is British, a media executive working in the United States on a green card. As a US resident but not a US citizen, she could not cast votes for pro-choice candidates. The march represented for Emily a rare opportunity for her view to be counted. Representatives from more than 57 countries carried their national flags that day.

I have known Kristine since elementary school. We used to jump rope in her driveway; we played softball together in middle school. I remember going to the lake for her birthday, loving the same songs in high school. Kristine had taken the train from Philadelphia to meet us in Washington.

Kristine was three years away from being diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, a cancer that affects the body’s soft tissue. Flash forward to summer 2009. Kristine has paralysis on the left side of her body; the result of a blood vessel rupture caused by a brain tumor.

Of all the incredible moments to take away from that spring day in 2004 in Washington, this is what I remember most: laughing with a healthy and vibrant Kristine, admiring her wise and off-kilter observations, her sense of adventure, all of us believing in so much—in strength and unity and time.

This is the sorcery of creating prose. You see, I have tricked myself into writing about Kristine’s cancer. We know what happens after the March for Women’s Lives. Fox News reports no one was there. CNN reports everyone was there. Progressives go home to campaign for John Kerry, to see another Democrat win a record number of women’s votes but not the White House. Our nation suffers four additional years of runaway-train Republicanism.

I refuse to include George W. Bush, President on the “Year You Were Born” page in my daughter’s baby book. Instead I paste ticket stubs from the Kerry-Edwards fundraising events my sister and I attended just before my daughter was born.

This is what happens with Kristine. She faces seven rounds of intense chemotherapy; severe hallucinations; heart and vascular surgery to remove tumors from her Superior Vena Cava and the veins behind the clavicle; 37 rounds of radiation on her back; a metastatic tumor in her lung and brain; brain surgery to remove a large tumor from her right frontal lobe; a blood vessel rupture caused by the brain tumor, depression, and (hopefully temporary) paralysis.

Most days her sense of adventure remains intact somehow; the infectious quality of her kindness and laughter endure. She tries an experimental treatment center in South America. She and her boyfriend maintain an excellent blog (kristinebecker.blogspot.com) tracking her progress. She turns 38 and dares to believe she might celebrate her 40th birthday. She is fierce, without need of our admiration, yet she has it in endless supplies.

Would you believe I intended to write about bull fights? This is the emotional chance a writer takes. You sit in front of your computer screen inspired to challenge the slaughter of a bull. You recall another protest, and another, and suddenly you’re gulping back tears as you fail to properly describe the bravery and failing health of a treasured lifelong friend.

 

It is with a heavy heart that I repost this entry today, originally written in September. Kristine Anne Becker passed away at 3 p.m. on Christmas Day 2009, in the arms of her boyfriend, Ryan MacDonald, her partner in a brave battle against leiomyosarcoma. Kristine asked that there be no formal funeral service. A friend has posted a Facebook update that says, Right now, this minute, go out and do something fabulous in honor of Kristine, and certainly that is the type of remembrance Kristine would prefer. The last time I saw Kristine she had traveled to Los Angeles to volunteer at a fundraiser for Fertile Hope, an organization she admired, one that provides fertility counseling to young women whose cancer is treatable, but whose treatments threaten to leave them unable to achieve future pregnancies. I remember Kristine waving from the curb as I picked her up at LAX. Although Kristine had committed to a strict raw diet, although she must have been tired from traveling, she was in my sister’s kitchen making my little girl her favorite Kraft macaroni and cheese before I was even inside the door. My sister visited Kristine in Philadelphia in October. Kristine was doing well then, but knew, of course, that with another tumor in her brain, every good day was a gift. To say Kristine will be missed does not quite seem adequate. It seems at this moment, words should weigh so much more.

What did you do for a living before becoming a writer?

I was a supermodel and scientist. Just kidding. I can’t even put a TV tray together, and the closest I came to modeling was being a Winnie-the-Pooh children’s clothing model at Sears. I worked as a writer and reporter after receiving my master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School Of Journalism, freelancing for various Chicago publications (like the Chicago Reader), before working as a business reporter. It was then I sold out, as we said in J-school, and went to the “dark side,” where I went into educational PR, working for nearly the next two decades as public relations director for some of the nation’s most prestigious private colleges, universities and prep schools.


What made you want to be a fulltime writer?

Ummm, the above. I always wanted to be a writer, specifically a memoirist just like Erma Bombeck, who was and still is my idol. I journaled as a kid, about my life in rural America, but I felt I shouldn’t or couldn’t write, due to fear (fear that I would fail, not make enough money), so I went into a field that I thought would make me happy. And it didn’t. In fact, it was my final job – as PR director at an elite prep school, a job I chronicle in my second memoir Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler, where I realize my real duties were to cater to a wealthy Lilly Pulitzer-clad clique of “Mean Mommies” and keep them out of the school’s hair – that made me start writing again. It was the only thing – just like as a kid – that helped me make sense of the world. And I realized when I was writing that I was truly, achingly happy.


Why do you write memoirs that are this mix of hilarity and heartbreak, humor and pathos?

It’s truly how I make sense of the world. It’s the voice that springs forth. And I think we all try to limp yet laugh our way through this world. I love the insanity and fragility of life, the foibles and flaws of people, and think the strongest are those who can laugh, especially at themselves.

Long story, but I think why I write what I write is best told in story-form.

As I mentioned, I was born in the Ozarks, which is not the best place to grow up for a chubby little gay boy with a fondness for ascots and dreams of being a writer. But, largely thanks to my grandma, an early Walden/Thoreau devotee who I write about in my current memoir, At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream, and who always dreamed I’d follow my destiny to be a writer, I used to journal about everything going on around me in my tiny Ozarks town: Whether I was forced to go cowtippin’ with the country boys or watch my brother nail rabbit pelts to our giant oak tree, it seemed to be only the only way I could make sense of the world where I lived.

For a while when I was young, I called my mom, who was a nurse, “Digit,” because she became infamous in our little town for being the go-to gal whenever a local cut off a toe with a lawnmower, or whacked off a finger with a chainsaw.

My mother would answer our giant red, rotary phone, the kind presidents use in comedy skits when they are about to launch a nuclear bomb, and calmly say, “Do you have your big toe? Well, can you locate it? Good!”

And then she would rush out of the house, often barefoot, in a nightgown, with a little Igloo cooler filled with ice. She would retrieve the detached digit, and personally rush the injured idiot to the ER of the neighboring hospital where she worked.

While cleaning my room one morning, she, of course, stumbled upon these journal entries about her, and – one morning when I was inhaling a bowl of Quisp cereal for breakfast – simply shoved our little weekly newspaper in front of my nose and said:

“You need to read Erma!”

From that point on, I was devoted to Erma Bombeck’s column, “At Wit’s End,” in our small-town newspaper, and even clipped a few of my favorites to adorn my corkboard wall, need I say not something many boys in the Ozarks did.

Though I was very young, maybe 11 or 12 at the time, Erma connected deeply with me.

She was a humorist and human who made the mundane memorable. She wrote about family and food, laundry and life. She wrote about everyday stuff with which I could relate. And for a chubby little boy in the middle of nowhere who had a fondness for ascots and dreams of being a writer, I found a role model in a middle-aged suburban mother who seemed to be dealing with just as many self-esteem issues as I was.

Actually, make that two middle-aged mothers.

From that day my mom led me to Erma, I wrote and journaled more earnestly about my life, yet I always tried to do it with a fairly outrageous sense of humor, just like Erma did. I found laughter softened the pain, made life seem so much more bearable, even through incredible tragedy.

And that would be a fortuitous lesson. The summer my older brother graduated from high school, he was killed. That was followed in subsequent years by the deaths of my mom’s father and sister, something I document in my first memoir, America’s Boy.

When my mother seemed no longer able to laugh, or joke, or to dream, I made it my sole goal to bring her back to life. I read to her from Erma Bombeck. I read to her from my journals. I held her hand as we floated in innertubes in the creek in front of my grandparents’ log cabin. We became more than mother-son, we became best friends.

And, slowly, my mom began to laugh again … to come to life.

Flash forward to New Year’s Day 2005, where I vividly remember standing in front of my mailbox clutching a fistful of query letters to literary agents after I’d spent two years completing my first memoir, AMERICA’S BOY. It was cold, and I was shivering, but not because of the temperature. I was nearly 40. I hated my job. And my mom was tired, after having lost a son too early, of her only remaining child being unhappy, unfulfilled, not living his dream.

“Here’s to dreams coming true!” my mom had said.

She forced my hand into the mailbox, made me drop the letters, and then promptly slammed the slot on my fingers.

“Thanks, Digit!” I said to her. “I’m glad you’re here, so you can save my fingers.”

“This is meant to be,” she said, laughing.

Two weeks later, I had seven formal offers of representation from literary agents.

“People are going to read about you now, mom,” I told her soon after, since my first book was largely about her and my entire, insane but loving Ozarks family. “And some of it’s not pretty.”

“Good!” she roared. “Life isn’t pretty, sweetie. That’s why it’s called life. That’s why you better have a damn good sense of humor.”

My mother passed away of cancer this June, holding on long enough to see my current memoir, At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream, featured on NBC’s Today Show as a Summer Must-Read, after reading my first-ever review in USA Today, after seeing her son – time and time again – compared to his idol, and hers, Erma Bombeck.

At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream is not only about trying to simplify my life in today’s consumer society – a lesson I honestly failed, considering I still equate Kenneth Cole to Gandhi for his contributions to the world – but it’s also about surviving raccoon attacks, lake-effect snow, and nosy neighbors with night-vision goggles. All of the insane stuff that just tends to happen to me – and to all of us – in life. But most of all, it’s a book about believing in myself, pursuing my passion, following my dreams, and asking myself – as I do in the book – What Would I Do If I Could Not Fail?

It’s a question we all, sadly, rarely ask ourselves.

“You didn’t fail!” my mom said proudly from her hospital bed. “You did it! And I’ll make sure tell Erma and your grandma you did it, although I think they already know!”

And, just as I was about to cry, a preacher with a ukulele walked into her room.

My mom stared at him, and then at me, smiling, trying not to laugh.

Because it is moments like this that not only summed up our life but sum up all of our lives. It is why, really, I became a memoirist, a humorist, just like Erma Bombeck.

So, I simply turned to the preacher with the ukulele and said, “Do you know Tiny Bubbles?”

And, of course, he did.

My mom broke into hysterics, grabbed my hand, and said, “You keep the world laughing … even through the tears, deal?”

Though my mom, grandma, and Erma are all gone from my life much too soon, they remain with me: They continue to make me laugh, think, dream, and appreciate the fragility and foibles of people and life.

Because those are things that are most beautiful: The imperfections in each of us.

And that’s what I still try and remember every day, focus on in each and every memoir: I write about everyday life from a unique perspective – with a whopping dose of humor and cynicism – touching upon those themes that touch us all, be it unconditional love, loss, family, sex, relationships, jobs, self-esteem, neuroses, dreams. I believe that the very best books force us to hold a mirror up to our collective faces and take a good long hard look at what’s reflected back. And that image always looks so much better if we somehow manage to smile, even through all those damn tears.

Tell us about your third memoir, At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream: Misadventures in Search of the Simple Life (June/Harmony Books-Random House)

It’s a memoir (shocker!) that chronicles the misadventures of my partner, Gary, and I, a highly neurotic urban gay couple who uprooted our lives, quit our jobs and left the city, cable, culture and consumerism behind in order to move to the woods of Michigan in order to recreate a modern-day Walden (to hilarious, disastrous but life-changing results). My move was prompted by the memories of my late grandmother, whose two favorite books were the Bible and Walden. I grew up going to my grandparents’ old log cabin on the water, and my grandma read to me, always telling me that the Bible was for her after-life but that Walden was for her “here-life.” Those words remained with me forever, and challenged me — when I hit 40 with a resounding “THUD!” and was in a job I despised (which I chronicle in my second memoir, “Confessions of A Prep School Mommy Handler”) — to make a better life, no matter the risk. So, we uprooted our lives and moved to a knotty-pine cabin in the woods near Lake Michigan, where we gave up People and Starbucks and malls, and committed ourselves, like Thoreau had done some 160 years earlier, “to survive…living a plain, simple life in radically reduced conditions.” The result, considering the fact I consider Kenneth Cole, Kathy Griffin and Saved by the Bell to be on par with Gandhi for their contributions to the world, and Kashi to be a fundamental food staple, was not pretty. And to say that this transition to a more rural world tested me deeply would be a massive understatement.

The memoir was a Spotlight pick by B&N, whose signature review summed up the memoir perfectly:

Wade Rouse is an unlikely modern-day Thoreau. Sure, he’s quit his high-powered job in St. Louis and struck out for the territory on the sparsely populated shores of Lake Michigan, with nothing more than his partner, their dog, a healthy dose of hope, and Walden in hand as a guidebook. But the self-professed neurotic urbanite’s attempts to renounce big-city addictions — Kenneth Cole shoes, Starbucks triple-shot-no-fat-no-whip white mochas, among others — are not always successful. Take the first chapter of this chronicle on adjusting to life in the woods, in which he fends off a wily raccoon’s assault on his trash can, and then his head, with the only two things he never leaves home without: lip shimmer and breath spray. Turns out the latter serves double duty as pepper spray, thwarting the beast long enough to release its toothy grip on Rouse. From there, Rouse ticks off the ten lessons he’s determined to glean from his new life, such as “eschewing the latest entertainment and fashion for simpler pursuits” and “participating in country customs,” both of which he tries desperately to embrace (the ice fishing scene is truly laugh-out-loud funny) and decidedly fails to achieve. His attempts to rediscover religion and redefine the meaning of life and love, however, produce poignant epiphanies. The true success in the book is how Rouse manages to toe the line (feet encased in stylish slides) between hilarity and philosophy, proving that enlightenment can be found in as unlikely a place as a karaoke contest, where he’s reminded of his mother’s teaching, “It’s not where you choose to live; it’s how you choose to live.”


How did the concept and title for this book come about?

I actually set out to write a very earnest memoir, ala Barbara Kingsolver or Michael Perry, about living in the country, like Thoreau, living off the land and without culture, but then things began to happen like that raccoon attack. I missed cable. I missed restaurants. I missed “me.” I realized I needed “Saved by the Bell” and Paula Deen and shopping trips to malls. I learned that didn’t make me a bad person, just a real one. And I realized that it’s OK to fail, to understand your flaws, that it’s not about reinventing yourself, it’s more about – flaws and all – becoming the person you always dreamed you could be. And I’ve accomplished that; I’ve slowed down, reconnected to my partner, enjoy nature and the beauty that surrounds us. I followed my passion. So, the book unfolds around my humorous adjustment to rural life and these 10 Life Lessons I set out to accomplish in order to have a “simpler life” at Wade’s Walden. In many ways, it’s sort of a Sex and the City Goes Country, if you will.

And the title is actually a line Gary uttered to me the very first night we moved to rural Michigan. We were awoken by something scampering around our woods, and then in our yard. We went to the window to watch, and Gary became convinced it was, at first, a “Melon Head,” these mythical creatures we’d read about in a gag book before we moved that supposedly have giant noggins from being tortured in a mental facility that closed down. They were then released into the woods, angry, to feed on “normal-sized headed” people. After I calmed Gary down, he then became convinced that there were “country killers” in our woods, killers who stood in our woods and sharpened sticks into death-knives. I tried to tell Gary that we used to live in the city, in a neighborhood that once had a murder and car-jacking, and that the odds of us being hurt there were statistically much higher than being harmed here, since no one was around. And he just looked at me and said, very seriously, “At least in the city, someone would hear me scream!” And, you know what? He was right. My editor read that line, immediately e-mailed and said, “We have the title.” It works perfectly, I think, especially with the great cover art.


How did you develop the idea for your second memoir, Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler?

Worst. Job. Ever.

I mean it was hard not to write about my job at the prep school. In fact, I started writing the memoir as all these insane things were being done to me by all these crazy, wealthy matrons (being asked to dress as Cupid for Valentines, or Ronald Reagan on Halloween, crashing a Botox party where I’m pushed into a chair for a “little-pick-me-up”). Again, it was the only way I could take a step back and get some perspective. That’s when I thought, “What am I doing with my life? Am I happy? What would I do if I could not fail? What would my grandma think?”

I also wanted to write a deeper book about the pressures that kids face in today’s society, especially on privileged children to succeed. There is so much pressure on these kids to be perfect; their parents start planning for the right college when the kids are three, starting with the perfect pre-school, that will lead to the perfect prep school. I witnessed firsthand that kids don’t have time to be kids any more, they don’t have a chance to fail. And that’s such a shame. That’s what being a kid should be all about. I went to a rural high school, and when I first started working at the prep school, I thought these kids had it all, that I had been cheated: And then I realized I’d had control of my future, that my parents let me experiment with my life, do what I wanted. I wasn’t forced into being a doctor, or lawyer, or engineer; I saw lots of unhappy kids. And I saw even more unhappy adults. It’s the juxtaposition of the humor and horror that I always like to write about in my memoirs, the laughter through the tears, and, in this instance, finding myself in one of the oddest places possible.


What inspired your first memoir, America’s Boy?

My childhood was surreal. I mean, as I said, I grew up a little gay boy in rural America (the Ozarks) who had a fondness for ascots and dreamed of being a writer: Hello! I always said me growing up there must be akin to working as an overweight Vegas showgirl: There’s really nowhere to hide. But, thankfully, I had an unconventional family who loved me unconditionally. I grew up with all of my grandparents within spitting distance of me. And I spent weekends and summers with my grandparents at a log cabin. We had no TV, or indoor shower, a radio that was as big as a Buick, so we only had games, the creek, and each other. Their stories were our entertainment. But that’s how and when I got to know my grandparents as people – real people – and not just as grandparents. And, looking back – despite how difficult it was for me at times – I realized how blessed I was, how loved I was.

My entire family was and is funny; wickedly funny. You have to be funny in our family to survive. The funniest person I ever knew was my late great aunt Blanche, this sort of bigger-than-life Bret Somers/stand-up comic personality who ran from the Ozarks to California and would return dripping in gold lame and jewelry and make-up, and she used to emcee mock Miss America pageants for our family, dressing people up in seashells bikinis, and pineapple tiaras. The two of us used to try and make each other laugh in this cave that sat beside our log cabin, telling jokes (many dirty, even though I was young), and she used to tell me, “You’re special. Don’t ever forget that. The world here is black and white, and you see everything in vibrant colors.” She made me see the world beyond my world.

America’s Boy is still my baby, my firstborn, and I still cherish it deeply.


What are you working on now?

My next book, a holiday memoir tentatively titled, Why Is Santa Taking Daddy’s Lipitor?: And Other Heartwarming Holiday Tales (a title which will most likely change … maybe to How Come the Only Thing My Family Tree Ever Grows Is Nuts?) will be out in February 2011. It’s about my and my partner’s loving but highly dysfunctional family holidays (Christmas, Easter, Arbor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day), and America’s fascination with holidays. Nothing sums up the love, dysfunction and evolution of family more than the holidays. The book also explores the eccentricities of American holidays, the unorthodox manners in which my family celebrates the holidays, and the fact that it is those eccentricities which unite all families and yet make each family’s holidays wholly unique. I am also working on a memoir about my mom and Erma Bombeck, paralleling their lives, their impact on me, and how humor buoyed us all through the tragedies in life.


What inspires you as a writer?

Everyday life. People. I think there is nothing more fascinating than what each of us go through each and everyday just to make it through this thing called life. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and maddening and hilarious.  I mean, you can’t make this crap up. And I think it’s how I stay sane, and try to understand the world, and help others make sense of their lives and this world, too. You can only find your voice by writing what inspires you. If you try to write a version of Twlight or the Da Vinci Code just because you think it’s hot and will sell, you’re doomed.


What do you want to accomplish through your writing?

I want to make readers laugh and think. I want them to spit out their water one minute, cry the next, and then think, “Hmmm.” My goal with every memoir is to write about the universal themes that unite us all – work, family, culture, relationships, self-esteem, self-acceptance, unconditional love, discrimination, sex – but to do it from my unique experiences and viewpoint. Every memoir I write deals with these issues, and I try to write as honestly about my experiences as I can. I try not to hide behind a shield of cynicism, or view life from a distance, like many memoirists. I feel deeply. I laugh a lot. At others. But especially at myself. I want my writing to be heart wrenching and humorous, poignant yet funny. I think that’s what sets me apart … that laughter through the tears thing, which is what we all do, in order to survive.


Describe a typical day in your life?

I treat writing as if it were the job I always wanted and finally got. I get up every morning at 6:30 a.m. and write for six hours. I typically am working on two “big ideas,” two memoirs, at the same time. Within that context, I write each day about what hits me, what inspires me. I do not write chronologically. I am what I term in the writing seminars I teach a “puzzle piecer,” meaning I know that I can go back once I have a core amount of material and make it flow narratively. If I felt I had to go page by page, 1 to 2, 10 to 11, every day, I’d be creatively paralyzed. I never have writers’ block. I break for lunch and to work out and then return to do the business of the day, such as media, interviews, web site, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, outreach, fan and reader e-mails, and I typically end each day going over what I wrote earlier, taking that time to tweak, to edit, to refine.

In today’s publishing world, every author must be his or her biggest advocate, cheerleader, PR person, spokesman, marketing machine and viral outreach-er. You must wear your writing cap and your business cap. And you must never forget that. Write what inspires you, what drives you, what aches to come out, and then promote with that same spirit. I tell every aspiring writer that I was picked from the slush pile, that I had no connections in publishing, and that if you have heart, talent, drive, determination, a stomach for rejection and a belief that if are not writing, well, then you might as well just curl up and die, then you can make it in the literary world.


Do you live on Lake Michigan?

Yes, we live roughly a mile from Lake Michigan, which truly resembles the ocean in beauty and grandeur. It’s just gorgeous, and the beaches and dunesland are protected and undeveloped. It very much has the feel of Cape Cod. We literally live on the beach in the summer and fall.

Our home is a knotty pine cottage on almost four acres of woods, filled with sugar maples and pines. I write in At Least in the City about how we stumbled into this resort-y area of Michigan and this cottage quite by accident and just fell in love with it. It resonated with us so deeply, personally and creatively. And the cottage reminds me, in a way, of the log cabin my family used to have when I was a kid. It was a huge transition going from city boys to rural men, quitting our jobs and moving, and I learned that the simple life ain’t so simple. But I also learned that there’s never a wrong time to believe in your dream, take a deep breath and leap off a bridge without a parachute.  I feel you have to get lost in the woods before you can really find yourself. My partner and I have two beloved mutts, Marge (a 12-1/2-year-old, 85-pound, Husky-Ridgeback-Scooby-Doo’ish sort of dame) and Mable (a 2-year-old, 32-pound-but-supposed-to-weigh-about 26-pounds Labradoodle-beagle inbred who looks like an insane bat). Both are rescue dogs, and the loves of our lives. Marge is the master of manipulation. She can open any door with her snout, including pocket doors. She also loves to unwrap gifts. If you have a birthday or Christmas, Marge better have a few presents of her own, or she’s coming after yours. Love to watch her gingerly unwrap the paper and then open the box with her mouth and paws. Mable really has no discernable skills, except unless you count eating and licking herself. Which I do, since they are basically the only skills I have.


What are your hobbies?

Running (best marathon time was 3:28:38), working out, hitting the beach, hiking, going to movies and the theatre, cooking and grilling, reading, spending time with Gary and our friends and family, and trying to get my teeth as white as possible without looking like the Cheshire Cat.


Who are your heroes?

Personally, my mother, who just passed away in June of cancer. She taught me the meaning of unconditional love, and – as a lifelong nurse and hospice nurse – that life is precious and that you must follow your passion. Professionally, my writing hero has long been Erma Bombeck, She was able to write about everyday life – from laundry to dinner, from her family to her neighbors – with incredible humor and poignancy. She was, I often think, one of her first true memoirists, before that genre became en vogue.


Final advice?

Don’t ever use Sun-In? Honestly, that life is short and that you must follow your passion. Life must have some calculated risk in it, that you sometimes have to get lost in your own woods before you can really get a clear sense of where you’re going in life. I have learned that there is never a wrong time to do something meaningful and courageous in life, like Gary and I did … something that makes you deeply and achingly happy. There is only a right time: a  moment to hold your breath, close your eyes, and jump. I hope everyone will take a jump once in their lives, without parachutes. I guarantee: It will be OK.



If we were created in God’s image
then when God was a child
he smushed fire ants with his fingertips
and avoided tough questions.
There are ways around being the go-to person
even for ourselves
even when the answer is clear
clear like the holy water Gentiles would drink
before they realized
forgiveness is the release of all hope for a better past.

I thought those were chime shells in your pocket
so I chucked a quarter at it
hoping to hear some part of you respond on a high note.
You acted like I was hurling crowbirds at mockingbars
and abandoned me for not making sense.
Evidently, I don’t experience things as rationally as you do.

For example, I know mercy
when I have enough money for the jukebox.
You know mercy whenever someone shoves a stick of morphine
straight up into your heart.
It felt amazing
the days you were happy to see me

so I smashed a beehive against the ocean
to try and make our splash last longer.
Remember all the honey
had me lookin’ like a jellyfish ape
but you walked off the water in a porcupine of light
strands of gold
drizzled out to the tips of your wasps.
This is an apology letter to the both of us
for how long it took me to let things go.

It was not my intention to make such a
production of the emptiness between us
playing tuba on the tombstone of a soprano
to try and keep some dead singer’s perspective alive.
It’s just that I coulda swore you had sung me a love song back there
and that you meant it
but I guess sometimes people just chew with their mouth open

so I ate ear plugs alive with my throat
hoping they’d get lodged deep enough inside the empty spots
that I wouldn’t have to hear you leaving
so I wouldn’t have to listen to my heart keep saying
all my eggs were in a basket of red flags
all my eyes to a bucket of blindfolds
in the cupboard with the muzzles and the gauze
ya know I didn’t mean to speed so far out and off
trying to drive your nickels to the well
when you were happy to let them wishes drop

but I still show up for gentleman practice
in the company of lead dancers
hoping their grace will get stuck in my shoes.
Is that a handsome shadow on my breath, sweet woman
or is it a cattle call in a school of fish?
Still dance with me
less like a waltz for panic
more for the way we’d hoped to swing
the night we took off everything
and we were swingin for the fences

don’t hold it against
my love
you know I wanna breath deeper than this
I didn’t mean to look so serious
didn’t mean to act like a filthy floor
didn’t mean to turn us both into a cutting board
but there were knives sstuck
in the words where I came from
too much time in the back of my words.
I pulled knives from my back and my words.
I cut trombones from the moment you slipped away

and I know it left me lookin’ like a knife fight, lady
boy I know it left me feelin’ like a shotgun shell
you know I know I mighta gone and lost my breath
but I wanna show ya how I found my breath
to death
it was buried under all the wind instruments
hidden in your castanets
goddamn –
if you ever wanna know how it felt when ya left –
if ya ever wanna come inside –

just knock on the spot
where I finally pressed STOP

playing musical chairs with your exit signs.

I’m gonna cause you a miracle
when you see the way I kept God’s image alive.

Forgiveness
is for anyone who needs safe passage through my mind.

If I really was created in God’s image
then when God was a boy
he wanted to grow up to be a man
a good man
and when God was a man
a good man
He started telling the truth in order to get honest responses.
He’d say,
“I know.
I really shoulda wore my cross
again
but I don’t wanna scare the gentiles off.”



Would you like a food?

Yes.


Have you ever been old?

Once, when I was 34.


Do you have sex with me?

Yes.


Are you sure?

Yes.


What questions do you have?

What’s your angle?


I want to ask about your favorites. May I ask about your favorites?

A lot of things are 100% to my mindbrain. 100% is my favorite.


Examples?

Vipassana meditation, large organic markets, Where the Wild Things Are, cooled quilts, naps, Greenlake (Seattle), Muppets, when babies/puppies laugh, The Shawshank Redemption, waterslides, go-karts, harvesting, mixed martial arts, trading jokes, recliners, restraint, moderation, cultivating joy, absorbing grounding, lifting up.


Which is more fun: practicing or knowing?

When I want tragedy, I know. When I want joy, I practice.


How do you feel about…

You mean like if it’s dark in the room?


No, I wasn’t finished with the question. How do you feel about your fashionable unoriginality?

You don’t like my hat.


You’re not wearing a hat…?

Exactly.


May I have word with your roommate?

Sure… SETH!


Why don’t you girl salvation?

(Seth): I’m afraid of shaving.


May I stop speaking to you?

(Seth): BUDDY!


Wakefield isn’t the name you were born with. What was it?

Kenneth Zane Beasley III.


That’s not the name you had before Buddy Wakefield. What was that name?

Buddy Marshall Stevens.


Where do you love to be?

On a porch stoop in Oakland with my producer and Joe.


Tell me something I don’t remember sometimes.

I accept you for who you are.



‘Coon Skin Cap

By Wade Rouse

Humor

There’s a raccoon on my head.

And I don’t particularly look good in hats.

Especially when they’re still moving.

I certainly wish this were one of those, “Hey, look at me standing here on vacation in The Wall Drug Store wearing a $15 coon skin cap pretending to be Daniel Boone, so hurry up and take the Goddamn picture!” moments, but it’s not.

No, my cap is very much alive, very much pissed off, and very much sporting a bad stink, a head filled with razor fangs, and a lot of painfully sharp claws.

But I guess I’d be pissed off, too, if someone interrupted my late night dinner reservation.

Who knew that in the woods you simply can’t shove a forgotten bag of trash into your garbage can?

I didn’t.

That’s because I’m a city boy, a self-obsessed gay man who intentionally bedazzled himself in roughly $1,000 worth of trendy clothing just to walk the trash out in the middle of fucking nowhere!

I honestly believe, deep down, that I am like K-Fed in Vegas, or some pseudo-celebrity on vacation who just might be ambushed by the paparazzi at any moment.

But I’m really just a lost soul, in every possible way.

Not long ago, I moved to the woods of Michigan from the city, because I wanted to be a modern-day Henry David Thoreau.

My goal? To find myself, to find my modern-day Walden Pond, by stripping away superfluous luxuries, and living a plainer, simpler life.

Thoreau famously wrote:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

And he is right. The woods have already taught me something of great value: I am going to die. Specifically, I am going to die after being disfigured by a raccoon.

But at least I have had a life-changing epiphany, albeit a bit too late. The epiphany, “Never go to a place that doesn’t have a Starbucks within arm’s reach or you might find a wild animal clinging to your scalp” has already edged out my all-time favorite epiphany, the one I had in eighth grade: “My God, my thingy doesn’t seem to work when I kiss girls!”

The raccoon digs its claws into the side of my head, and begins to burrow, like it’s trying to bury the apple core it still has in its mouth into the middle of my brain.



Please explain what just happened.

I saw three deer go running through the woods out my window

So, Marisa, your first book is coming out in a few weeks.  To someone who hasn’t read it, how do you describe Drenched?

Ok, I’ve been working on this answer.  It’s a collection of offbeat love stories that are all interconnected. And by offbeat, I mean strange things happen.  It takes place in a recognizable, natural world, but there are impossible elements folded in.  In the story “Hotmouths” one of the main characters has teeth made of rose quartz crystal.  When this character gets turned on sexually, his teeth fire hot and he burns his girlfriend when they kiss.  Why his teeth are rose quartz and why they get hot is not addressed, it is just a fact of the world.

As soon as we entered the aquarium, I heard a familiar yet unidentified sound. As we got closer, the little hairs on my forearms stood on end. I could see what it was before we crossed the threshold. An indoor waterfall. That’s really cool. It was aesthetically pleasing. Many people find the sound of water soothing.

So why was I beginning to quiver? Why was I sweating? Why did I feel compelled to run?

In order to keep my toddler from falling headlong into the exhibit, I approached the waterfall. For some reason, I looked up. The nanosecond I spied the juxtaposition of the waterfall and the timber ceiling, my knees buckled a little and the room began to spin.

I felt certain that I’d vomit if I did not get out of that room and away from the sound. I corralled the kiddo and, in a fake sing-song voice, calmly encouraged her into the next room. But the sound was reverberating in there, too. And the next one. Finally, I spotted the river otter exhibit ahead and bribed her along with the promise of furry cuteness.

It worked, but I couldn’t stop shaking. I tried to breathe. I took an overly generous dose of a homeopathic remedy I carry in my bag for the babe. I knew I was having a PTSD moment and I knew exactly why: Hurricane freakin’ Katrina.

I was supposed to be done with this. Katrina was four and half years ago. I was cured of my helicopter and breaking glass-related PTSD symptoms years ago by cranial sacral therapy. Fuck.

************
I rode out Hurricane Katrina in a turn-of-the-20th-century warehouse near downtown New Orleans with my then fiancé, my mother, my fiancé’s friend, two dogs, and four cats. It wasn’t just a random warehouse mind you. It had been renovated into an arts center in the 1980’s, and my fiancé worked there.

Since we were in an interior gallery space with no windows, the majority of my memories of the storm itself are aural rather than visual. That is except the waterfall, which is traumatically both.

I can’t say how long Katrina raged. It felt like days, weeks, months, but was likely only a few hours. During the full fury of the storm, the wind made a crazy whooping noise. It would start slow and relatively quiet. It sounded circular. The level and speed of the sound would eventually reach a crescendo that felt completely intolerable and then there would be a loud crash of windows shattering followed by a moment of eerie silence. Then it would start again, low and slow on its way to crazy loud and the inevitable crash.

At one point I realized that my joints ached from my clenching in panic. I harkened back to a friend’s story of her highly successful natural childbirth experience, where she relaxed more and more in direct opposition to the intensity of the pain.

I tried it, and it worked. I was impressed with my new-found ability to remain clam and self-soothe.

At one point, something above us exploded. I mean really exploded. The huge, century-old brick building shook as if made of paper. I wondered if anyone knew the identities of everyone sheltered in the building. They knew about my fiancé (he worked there), and they knew I was with him, but what about my mother? Would they have to identify her body through comparing her DNA to mine? What about my fiancé’s friend? The dogs and cats, would they be buried properly or scraped into a dumpster?

My relaxation techniques were much less effective after that.

Toward the end of the storm, we heard the craziest sound ever, like rushing water. We gingerly made our way to the door of the gallery where we sheltered and peeked out of our second floor perch into the four-floor foyer of the building and saw… a four-story indoor waterfall. It was one of the most extraordinary things I’d ever seen.

We wouldn’t find out until later that the water had come from the sprinkler system reservoir that was located on the roof, which had exploded during the storm, most likely from pressure or wind. But without this knowledge, we were pretty dumbfounded. It was so much damn water.

I have to admit, I didn’t think about the danger of the situation or the potential damage to the artwork. Instead, all I could think about was the shattered windows and water, water everywhere. They would never get this cleaned up and repaired in ten weeks.

Why was ten weeks so important, you ask? Well, we were supposed to get married in the exact spot where the thousands of gallons of water were landing and pooling.

Was this a bad omen? Why, yes. Yes, it was.

A couple of weeks later, while exiled in North Carolina, I would walk away from this relationship and into a future I could never have imagined.

************
Four and a half years later, I was in an aquarium on the North Carolina coast with my two-year-old daughter, and yet I wasn’t there. I was back in that warehouse with the four-story waterfall. The space-time continuum was disrupted.

Not for long, of course. The river otters calmed me. Plus, the mommy role trumps PTSD. I was back to doling out her snack, wiping her nose, and discussing fish poop in no time.

But the experience left me wondering, how many other ticking time bombs are out there? Will I one day freak out while sitting my rocking chair at the old-age home because I hear or see something that reminds me of Katrina? I guess I won’t know unless it happens. Until then I’ll just make snacks, wipe noses, and talk about poop. After all, how often do you encounter an indoor waterfall?

In the fall of 2002, after a brief stint in LA, my wife and I moved back to Michigan. We realized as soon as we got there, that it had been a mistake. Then winter settled in, and we really, really knew it had been a mistake. We had a big apartment, little furniture, and a lot of life to kill.


TNB Hall of Fame
In an essay entitled “Life is Better When You’re a Giant Wiener”, author Laura Waldon writes about her decision to take a seasonal job at a party supply store during dire economic times. In this case, it was Halloween season. “So that’s why I took a job that severely underpaid me,” she writes. “I could dress every day in a different costume and walk around showing other people cool costumes. It’d be like playtime, like I wasn’t even working. During my five weeks’ employment at iParty, I indulged in a prolonged Halloween celebration and dressed at work as an angel, a witch, a cowgirl, a Greek goddess, a hot dog, a giant chicken, a Saturday Night Live Spartan cheerleader, the Cat in the Hat, Tinky Winky, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz (complete with a stuffed Toto in a basket), the Scarecrow, Captain America, and Snow White. Customers loved it.”


We were going to have sex.

Not right then and there, I mean. But it was in the cards. We’d been together a month, taking it slow, but things were steadily becoming more aggressive physically, with hours spent mapping the terrain of each other’s bodies with hand and kiss. We would have done it already, except for that particular monthly quirk of her biology. It was inconvenient but not earth-shattering. I’d already waited twenty years, so it wouldn’t kill me to wait a little longer. Especially when the sex was quite literally a promise.

My lack of experience wasn’t for a lack of trying. But when you spend your adolescence as the only “out” atheist in class after class of conservative Christian kids, conjugal invitations are not exactly forthcoming. College was a much better environment for that sort of thing, even if it did take me a while to wind up with a girl who was interested in more than just some marathon make-out sessions and heavy petting.

She had been sexually active for a couple of years, which was a huge relief; at least one of us would have some idea of what she was doing. For myself, I was confident my immense enthusiasm would compensate for any lack of skill (note: this is my go-to policy for most situations in life). It helped that she was sweet about my virginity, and seemed to relish the prospect of deflowering me.

But my masculine pride would not go completely unappeased, and I still felt obligated to bring something other than a can-do! attitude to the table–er, bedroom. After a little time pondering the issue, it hit me: birth control. There was no reason I should leave the onus for protection on her. If I was going to engage in sexual intercourse, it was my job—no, duty—as an enlightened male of the new 21st century to actively pursue and engage in responsible birth control.

A rare non-square high school pal had given me a three-pack of basic Trojan condoms as an off-to-college present but they were past their expiration date, so I threw them out. It would be a simple matter, I thought, to procure some more. So I shrugged into the full-length black trench coat I wore at every opportunity back in those days, and set out to walk the mile or so distance to the nearest Walgreens. It was a serendipitous wardrobe choice, as I’d left my umbrella at home and halfway there the winter clouds unleashed a torrent of rain, huge frigid drops lashing against my face. I kept walking, head down into the wind, coat wrapped around me, refusing to retreat in the face of the unforgiving elements. I was a man on a mission.

My bravado collapsed the moment I reached the store. For starters, I had no real idea where the desired item might be located, as I’d never had cause to purchase them before. Searching for the aisle marked “Birth Control” proved futile, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to ask. I finally found a section euphemistically labeled “Family Planning” at the far end of the same aisle as the feminine hygiene products. An inordinate amount of female shoppers seemed to be in the area, so I circled the store a few times, collecting a basket of household items I didn’t need as camouflage for my real goal. When the coast finally seemed clear I made my move.

As usual, I was unprepared for what I was getting myself into. The selection was more than I’d bargained for, column after column of brightly colored boxes, each advertising some different flavor, texture, or scent. Trojan Magnum. Durex Xtra Pleasure. Lifestyles Tropical Scents. Condoms that advertised raised ridges, bumps, reservoir tips, vibrating rings, additives like spermicide or benzocaine. Natural condoms claiming to be made out of lambskin (lambskin?! Eww!).

Like every other California public school kid I’d had my mandatory Sex Ed classes and witnessed the ritual with the condom and the banana, but I was woefully unprepared for phrases like “zesty mint” and “ecstasy twist.” Did these things matter? Was the female reproductive orifice actually endowed with such a discriminatory sense of touch (and apparently, one of taste as well)?

And the lubricants! All those little bottles, lined up like soldiers on the shelves below, ready to be sent into the sexual battlefield. What in the hell were they for?! Did some people really need a ¼ gallon of personal lubricant at a time?

And most importantly, should I buy some?

I stood there, frozen in a state of priapic doubt in the middle of the drugstore aisle, befuddled by the sheer volume of available options for my sexual needs.

Other shoppers tossed wary glances at me as they passed by, and they were right to do so. I was damp, disheveled, wearing a black trench coat, and staring ardently at a wall of prophylactics. The basket at my feet already contained ballpoint pens, shoe polish, razor blades, rubber dishwashing gloves, and a jar of peanut butter, so who knows what kind of deviant evening they thought I had planned. Even I thought I was some brand of pervert, and it was certainly only a matter of time before the employees showed me the door. Or just called the police.

I finally settled on a 12-count variety pack, trusting to my girlfriend’s greater experience in the matter to make the final selection when the time came.

As soon as the choice was made and the box was in my hand, something came unlocked inside me. In one instant I went from being the poster boy for anxiety, self-conscious on cosmic levels at being seen with my purchase, and in the next I completely quit caring what any asshole thought about it. Because it was in that moment, box in hand, that the reality of the situation finally crystallized:

We were going to have sex.

I had condoms, and a girlfriend, and would soon be enjoying both in tandem. Let the world envy my fortune!

I abandoned my basket of unwanted items there in the aisle and strutted up to the register, “Stayin’ Alive” spinning on my mental jukebox. The cashier was a bored-looking girl about my age, who only made the bare minimum eye contact with me when she saw what I put in front of her. Her eyes flicked up to my face once, and then away, but long enough for me to see the light of curiosity in them. Oh, yeah, I thought. She knows.

“Is this is all for you today?” she asked.

“Damn straight,” I said. I paid cash and told her I didn’t need a bag, and she blushed as she handed them back to me. I didn’t. I held up my hand for a high-five. “C’mon!” I said, “Give it up for safe sex!” With another blush and an embarrassed smile she did, lightly slapping her palm against mine.

“Have a nice evening,” she said.

I didn’t answer. Slipping the box into my coat pocket, I ambled out the door, strutting all the way home. I didn’t give a damn that it was still raining.