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You hit 40. You quite literally hit it, when your knee gives out and you lunge across the kitchen—flinging a handful of Ikea cutlery and then placing your hand squarely into the green frosting numbers on your birthday cake.

Marilyn, your best friend, appears in the doorway. “What was that?” She’s the one who bought the cake, one of those perfectly rectangular jobbies from the supermarket—Marilyn never bakes, or cooks at all, actually, as it would ruin her nails. This particular cake had had an image of a semi-nude man on a bear skin rug.

Fear, Karma

By Abby Mims

Essay

I read an essay a few months ago by David Rakoff called “Another Shoe,” which details his second bout with cancer at 49. His first was lymphoma in his twenties, and now there is a tumor in his shoulder, probably caused by the radiation he had the first time around. This newest cancer threatens to cause the removal of his entire left arm, which, you can imagine, is a particularly daunting notion for a writer. (The best part of the essay comes when he practices what life would be like with one arm, literally tying one hand behind his back and trying to go about his day.) The biggest thing he takes away from the experience is extreme gratitude for not losing his arm, and this: the decision to live without letting the fear of death swallow him whole. He also accurately observes that we are all dealt a fair amount of crap in this life, and the best way to respond is to simply get back to the business of grocery shopping, getting our hair cut, paying our parking tickets, and loving the people we love—because life continues on, whether we are participating or not.

In June, roughly an hour after a brain biopsy revealed that my mother had a glioblastoma and would be lucky to live a year, she shook an IV’d hand at her handsome Bolivian neurosurgeon and said, “I know you’re married, but now this is officially serious. We need to find my daughter a husband, and we haven’t got a lot of time.”

As said daughter, I was only mildly horrified. This new persona of my mother’s had mostly to do with the steroids she was on to control the swelling in her brain, and our whole family had adjusted to the side effects. Essentially, they had turned my meditative, soft-spoken, yoga-doing mother into something of a manic, bossy chatterbox.

I did, however, wince at the handsome neurosurgeon. He laughed and said, “Well, I don’t usually cross those lines, but I’ll see what I can do.”  Then he smiled at me like he knew what it was to have a mother who loved you in this way.  My sister, lucky girl, is already married.

Pre-cancer, my mother always wanted me to meet that right person but she didn’t obsess about it, never saw it as a shortcoming of my character. That was my job and it was something I talked about almost constantly.

“Build the life you want,” she’d say when the topic came up. “Then you will attract the love you want.”

“Ok, ” I’d say. “I’ve built it. Now where the hell is he?” I said this at 19, 23, 27, 31, 34 and 36. And probably every year in-between.

“Patience,” she’d say. “It will happen when it’s right, and you will never see it coming.”

Now, it is July, and almost her birthday. It is a sunny afternoon, and we are sitting in the backyard of the house where I grew up in Portland.  I have a present for her, in the form of a possible man in my life. He has, as she promised, come out of nowhere and it seems to be impossibly right. I’m trying to figure out how to tell her in a way that will encourage her but keep her from getting too excited.  It’s so new that it’s not anything but a thought, an idea, a piece of blue sky.

She is restless, still a little amped up from the steroids. She shifts from side to side in the wheelchair she’s had to use since a massive seizure rendered her right leg useless a few weeks ago. She shifts and touches the silver chain around her neck. The spectrum of her beliefs hang there — an Om medallion, a tiny blue Mary Magdalene medal, a picture of her guru, Mahrajji, and a small icon of the Hindu elephant god Ganesh.

And then I tell her. He is a friend of a friend, I say. He is my age and he understands what’s happening better than anyone, because bizarrely,  his father died of the same brain cancer she has less than two years ago. He lives near San Francisco and this mutual friend referred him to my blog;  he read about her diagnosis and emailed me. This is about all I know, aside from the fact that he is single. We have only emailed back and forth two or three times, have never met, never spoken.   This is all the information she needs. She’s instantly convinced it is fate, karma, kismet. The stars have aligned.

“This is your guy, this Matt. Good name. He has to be your guy.  How could he not be?”

“Ma,” I say. “We don’t know anything yet. Not one thing, really.” And we don’t, but I’ve allowed myself to fantasize about it, the idea that he will comfort me and guide me through this unfathomable time.  When I can’t take it anymore, I will be able to press my face into his chest and bawl.

“I mean, can’t you see how perfect this is?” she says. “This missing piece of your life is falling into place.” I shake my head at her, knowing I can’t stop this speeding train of consciousness that she’s on. “Listen,” she says, grabbing my hand. “Right now, I’m clearer than I’ve ever been in my life and I know that he is a part of why this is all happening.” She means her cancer, and I shake my head again.

“Ma,” I say. “Let’s just see what happens next.”

“Alright,” she says. “Alright. Now you need to listen to me. I realized something yesterday and I need to tell you about it.” I lean back in my chair and take her in. “If I die quickly, I know that I’m coming back in India.  It will be a fast reincarnation.”  She tells me she will be reborn in the mountains of Kainchi, the former home of Maharjji.  She and my stepfather traveled to the ashram there last fall.  She wants my sister and I to go there after she dies, she says, and we will find her in those mountains, adopt her, bring her back here.  Her brown eyes flash and mine fill with tears. I know in part, this is the steroids talking, but the sentiment and beliefs are at the core of the mother I love with everything I have.

My mother is 63 and I am 36 and from start to finish, everything that has happened since her first seizure less than two months ago (a shaking in her leg that she said felt like a stroke that went as fast as it came) has been so surreal that I find myself thinking, yes, yes, this is fantastic plan. She can die and  just like that, she will be back in our lives as a beautiful black-haired Indian child that my sister or I will raise.

~

“Hold on to hope until it’s taken away,” Matt says to me the first time we talk on the phone. And that’s the moment it happens, the moment I start to fall in love with him and my mother is right along side me, falling just as hard. She cannot believe he is real either, from his love of Kerouac and Ginsberg, to the typed letters he sends that have been banged out on his Underwood. When she meets him for the first time, only a few hours after I have, she squeezes my hand and shakes her head in wonder. “I love him,” she says. “I just love him.”

By winter, we have seen each other three times and are in love. I find myself doing something slightly disturbing – referring to him as my soul mate, a term I’ve always thought was kind of a crock of shit. But the rub is, he’s exactly that. From his sweet face to the sound of his voice to the way he talks about writing, books and family; the way he makes me laugh.  Then there is the way he and my mother are so alike  in so many ways:  loving, kind, sensitive, both  possessing an uncanny, innate understanding of me.

He is also the only person I can really talk to about what it will be like when she dies. She will be here one day and gone the next, I tell him. And that will be it. He says it will be different than that, it will be something you will help her do and in the end, something she achieves. Being with her through it will change your life and although you won’t be ready, you will let her go.  It will be the hardest and most beautiful time, he says.  I know he is right, but then there is the question that no one can answer:  How will I continue to exist in a world without her in it?

In the early fall, a grand mal seizure lands my mother in the ICU for two days. When she comes back to us, she opts to have surgery in the hopes of ending the seizures and buying some time.  She comes through it all beautifully and in the months after, her mania fades without explanation. We tease her about it, her excessive demands for scotch tape, the constant rearranging of the living room. Some things she remembers doing or saying, some she doesn’t, but she never waivers about Matt.

“You’ve found him and that’s all that matters. It makes all of this worth it,” she says. This is the one thing I can’t abide her.  No matter how much I love Matt, I could never make that trade.  Some days, though, I feel like this is exactly what I’m doing.  When I tell her this, she has a ready answer. “Don’t you see?” she says. “It may not be how we would want it, but it’s all entirely perfect. Everything  is happening just the way it should.”  She should die 20 or 30 years before her time? How in the fuck is that perfect? “In Hinduism there is the belief that each death happens not one minute too early or one minute too late,” she tells me. To that, I have no response.

Soon, it is the day before Thanksgiving and I am flying to San Francisco to spend it with Matt. He cannot get the time off work and although she understands, he feels guilty for taking me away from her on the holiday.  My mother, however, is thrilled that the two of us are spending it together. A few days before I leave, we go over the dishes Matt and I plan to make. She has been teaching me to cook since her diagnosis (I’ve  always just been a baker) so she was particularly invested. I told her there would be apple pancetta stuffing, Parmesan mashed potatoes, spinach with crispy shallots and sage butter for the turkey.  As we talked and laughed, and she oohed and ahhed over my choices, I was suddenly struck anew by the fact that she won’t be here next year or the year after that, or any year in the future.  She won’t see me get married or kiss my children. Thinking about all of this, I asked her something I’d been wondering about since our conversation in July.

“Ma,” I said. “Do you really think you’re coming back in India?”

“Oh,” she said. “Well, that could have been the mania. But you never know.  Could be India, or – who knows? I could come back as one of your babies.”

I take off for California, a pecan pie at my feet, baked in my mother’s kitchen for Matt as a surprise. I wonder how it is that this has become my existence, living between the two loves of my life, having to leave one to be with the other.  As I fly away from her, what she has said soothes me. Not that I necessarily believe she will come back as my child or that we will find her reincarnated in an Indian village.  It is moreover, the feeling that there is a seamlessness and continuity to what is happening, from the unconditional love she’s given me all my life to Matt’s love coming along just in time.  It is this love, her love,  that will continue on. In this way, she will never really be gone.

I am sick of the fucking internet. I’m not supposed to say this because I am a child of technology. When I was 12, my big brother got us on AOL. He was in a chat room for fans of the Allman Brothers Band and introduced me to all these people. As they all said hi to me, I felt shivers running up and down my spine. I was so excited I couldn’t stop moving.

Chat rooms felt like a dark closet full of strangers, outrageously intimate. I liked to engage in religious debates the most. I also wanted a boyfriend but found teen chat rooms annoying. I would stay home when the neighborhood kids went out to play because I didn’t like them and preferred to talk to strangers on the internet. I mailed my cheer-leading pictures to a boy in New Orleans who may or may not have been a real person.

I hang out with real geeks because I wish I was one of them. I am uncool in the non-hipster way of being uncool. As in, I’m too awkward to get along with normal people but I don’t know any programming languages. I taught myself HTML once upon a time and thought I was pretty badass, but I couldn’t stay afloat once CSS came on the scene. I know how to crimp a Cat 5 cable, and I can put together a PC. I married my husband because I thought it was hot when he wrote code.

Every now and then I get this need to be well informed about the world, and I go on a news binge. Last week, it was a combination of Norway, Lulzsec, the debt ceiling and Google News Badges. Those badges don’t update properly. The thing says I read 5 articles about Norway, so I started reading a lot of articles on different topics. Then I read like 20 on Anonymous, but it wouldn’t update. I have a bronze Norway badge. I am disappoint.

Although it damn near made me kill myself over the weekend (only a slight exaggeration), I go back to Google News on Monday like an addict looking for inspiration. There are people out there breaking the law and pissing people off and making a difference in a way I can never do. It’s totally possible that the things they’re doing all completely wrong. I’m not convinced anyone is doing anything that’s not completely wrong.

I am a project manager. I am a rule follower. I respect authority.

Every few months, I decide I’m not really a writer. I am angry that I went to college and even more so that I went to grad school. I wish someone had told me how worthless it was. I’m not saying it wasn’t fun or that I didn’t meet lovely people and learn some stuff, but look, I discovered yoga at age 16, and I knew I wanted to teach yoga at age 17, yet I dropped that idea and went to college because that seemed like the appropriate thing to do. I am so tired of the appropriate thing.

If I had followed my instinct, I would have a career by now.

I try to tell myself this is my dharma, that karma put me here. I tell myself I’m here to learn something, and I’m working extra hard to learn it as fast as possible so I can get the fuck out of this cubicle and start doing what I wanted to do all along. Did I really need all those student loans to have this realization, karma? I am $32k in the hole for a degree I will never use.

I don’t mean to be such a downer about it. I mean, I can use a semicolon like nobody’s business, but I rarely do because most of the time it’s pretentious. I fucking love run-on sentences.

I’m tired of buying things. I hate things. I hate stuff. I hate clutter. It’s not just the laptops littering the living room but also the server racks down the hall from my bedroom, and also the ones in the basement, and the miscellaneous cables scattered around the technological wasteland that is my house. It’s also the unwashed underwear, the piles of recycling, the perpetually half done renovation projects, the stacks of unread books and magazines on the floor and dust bunnies, my god the dust bunnies. And furthermore, it’s Twitter and Facebook and Google + and Google Reader and Google News and my two blogs, one of them disused. It’s also IRC and GChat and once upon a time AIM and ICQ. It’s also Skype and Ventrillo and Stickam and Daily Booth and Youtube.

There is a BMW being born on my behalf and a loan check to prove it. I feel like a teen mom except I’m not a teenager, not a mom, and not a reality TV star, but my life does have that familiar ring of this is not really- this- this- this is not really happening

You bet your life it is.

I am often afraid that if I said what I really thought about the world, I would be burned at the stake. Maybe I should just make peace with that. After all, this flame proof suit will not last forever. Maybe sometimes it’s better to douse yourself in gasoline and go for the fucking glory.

Maybe I should be a little less dramatic.


Some days I just want to get a lot of tattoos and become totally unemployable as a way to force myself out of the corporate world. One day I will. If I achieve only one thing in life, it will be becoming unemployable.
I hate the way journalists on television say “hacktivists” like they’re trying to drive home a clever pun. They deadpan the news like the world’s worst comedy troop telling grand sick joke. Why hasn’t anyone hacked Congress yet? Those guys are the real assholes, right? I wonder what kind of delicious secrets they’ve got. Just a thought.
A guy walks into a universe and says “God? Is that you?” and the Pope says, “Yes, son, take off your clothes.” The headlines spew sex scandals and it’s all the same to them whether you’re a rapist priest or a member of congress who fails to grasp direct messaging. If there are genitals involved, they’re all over it.
Sex crimes are our favorite joke, but trading legal tender for an orgasm will cost you your career. Sometimes I hate the world.
Every generation has its drama. We all think we’re in the middle of something new and brilliant. They had Kennedy and Nixon and all those poor dead boys, and we have about half the world protesting, a handful of countries with no governments, and a digital revolution that is not at all what we were hoping for, no matter what you were hoping for.
Tomorrow. I swear. Tomorrow I’m getting that tattoo.


Here’s a secret: Everyone, if they live long enough, will lose their way at some point. You will lose your way, you will wake up one morning and find yourself lost. This is a hard, simple truth. If it hasn’t happened to you yet consider yourself lucky. When it does, when one day you look around and nothing is recognizable, when you find yourself alone in a dark wood having lost the way, you may find it easier to blame someone else—an errant lover, a missing father, a bad childhood. Or it may be easier to blame the map you were given—folded too many times, out of date, tiny print. You can shake your fist at the sky, call it fate, karma, bad luck, and sometimes it is. But, for the most part, if you are honest, you will only be able to blame yourself. Life can, of course, blindside you, yet often as not we choose to be blind—agency, some call it. If you’re lucky you’ll remember a story you heard as a child, the trick of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, the idea being that after whatever it is that is going to happen in those woods has happened, you can then retrace your steps, find your way back out. But no one said you wouldn’t be changed, by the hours, the years, spent wandering those woods.


***

(2005) A year after the Abu Ghraib photographs appear I wake up in Texas one morning, in love with two women, honest with neither. I am finishing up my second semester of teaching poetry at the University of Houston, getting ready to fly back to New York, where both these women are waiting for me, or so I imagine. I’d been “dating” for a few years, since the breakup of a long-term relationship, and more than once it had been made abundantly clear that I was not very good at it. For me, “dating” often felt like reading Tolstoy—exhilarating, but a struggle, at times, to keep the characters straight. The fact that the chaos had been distilled down to two women—one I’ll call Anna, the other was Inez—felt, to me, like progress. For months I’d been speaking to one or the other on my cellphone. Her name (or hers) came up on the tiny screen, and each time my heart leapt. It was the end of April. I’d come to the conclusion (delusion?) that if I could just get us all in the same room we could figure out a way it could work out. Another part of me, though, would have been perfectly happy to let it all keep playing out in the shadows.

The book A Field Guide to Getting Lost came out around this time—it is, in part, a meditation on the importance, for any creative act, to allow the mind and body to wander. The title jumped out at me—maybe I could use it as sort of an antimap. Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing…. Another book that came out around this time was Why We Get Lost and How We Find Our Way, but I didn’t pick that one up—perhaps I wasn’t ready not to be lost. Lost, at that moment in my life, manifest itself as feeling bewildered, confused, bereft—it’s not that I didn’t know where I was, I just didn’t know what I was doing there. On a deeper level, I knew that my bereftitude was only partly due to my self-inflicted disasters of love. Beneath that surface tension was the inescapable fact that I’d just crossed the threshold of being the same age my parents had been when they’d imploded, each in his or her own way. My mother had killed herself when she was forty-two, shot herself in the heart. When my father was forty-five, he fell—drunk—from a ladder while painting a house, an accident which may or may not have left him with a permanent head injury. A year later he’d enter a bank and pass his first forged check, the start of a small-time run that would eventually lead him into federal prison. After doing his time, after being released, he’d drift even deeper into this life of wandering, until he ended up living on the streets for a few years, which is where I got to know him.

And now, here I am, waking up in Texas, just past the age my mother never made it beyond, the same age my father was when he went off the rails. The dream I’m having is already dissolving, and I’m left, once again, with my unquiet mind, which for some months now has been straddling these two beautiful women. It has nothing to do with fate, karma, or bad luck.

Free?

By Slade Ham

Humor

A friend of mine called with a free ticket to see a sneak preview of District 9 the other night and I naturally took him up on the offer. Free? Of course. I had plenty of time to get there before the movie started. “By the way” he says, “they’re not allowing cell phones into the theater to make sure no one leaks footage, so unless you feel like sneaking it in just leave it in your car.”

No worries. Being without my cell isn’t a sensation I’m comfortable with, but I’d rather leave it in my car than with some minimum wage Edward’s employee. I pulled in, parked on the side of a strip center parking lot, and walked over to the theater. Even on the worst day, two hours of things blowing up never ceases to put me in a slightly happy mood, and a lot of people exploded in the movie. A LOT.

It was a welcome reprieve. I definitely needed the distraction. By nature, I operate on anything but an even keel. Things are either remarkably smooth for me or incredibly testing. I rarely seem to have long stretches without volatility. It keeps me on my toes. This was one of those stretches where my month’s schedule rearranged itself a thousand times, dates fell out, other dates moved, unexpected bills popped up, and personal stuff wouldn’t get out of my head long enough for me to deal with the rest of it. One of THOSE days…

But I just watched people blowing up for two hours. I walked back through the night air stepping a little bit lighter than when I walked in. Hakuna matata. I could not be happi-

Where the fuck is my car?

Are you kidding me? I walked over to the patio of the café next to where I parked and approached the way-too-flamboyantly gay manager. I say that because you need a visual to understand exactly what I was dealing with. I had essentially walked up to a thirty-something year old woman on a power trip, cleverly disguised as a male panini cook.

“Did you have a car towed from here in the last hour or so?” I ask.

“I couldn’t tell you,” he said.

“Meaning you don’t know? Or you are not at liberty to? Or what exactly? Because it looks to me like you face a wall full of windows that look directly at where my car was parked, and I would think that you would remember, I mean I know I would, if a big tow truck showed up in the last hour or so and hauled off a blue car.”

“All I know ith they have camerath all around here, and if you leave the premitheth they can have your car towed,” he lisped. “Maybe you shouldn’t have parked there.”

“Wow. Really? A man in a box that watches video footage and calls in tow trucks? That’s the story you’re selling? Or… maybe it was you. Can we just admit that? Maybe YOU called because exercising power makes you feel validated somehow? Maybe screwing up another person’s day makes you feel
better about the fact that you still wear a name tag to work? Am I close here?”

“I don’t have to explain mythelf. You need to call thith number.” He then produced a phone number and address written, I swear to God, on a hot pink Post-It-Note.

I had thus far done a really good job of not committing what would certainly be misconstrued as a hate crime. I grabbed the piece of paper and fired off some clever parting shot that was followed up by a “whatever” from the gay guy. “You’re right,” I think to myself. “Whatever. I’ll just call a cab and get a ride to the tow yard and get my car back.”

And then I remembered my phone was in my car.

It is 10:00 at night and I am standing in a parking lot in a part of town nowhere near where I live, with no car, no phone, and no phone number for anyone I know because I rely solely on technology to keep track of my contacts . Fuck.

Anyone who has ever traveled with me, either here or overseas, knows I navigate by what can only be called “the Force”. No rules, no maps, sometimes no game plan at all… I just close my eyes and pick a direction and go. And it generally works. I did exactly that that night. I just started walking. I needed a cab but didn’t have a phone or even the number for a cab company. One will show up, I tell myself. Watch. I need money first anyway. I have twenty dollars in my wallet. That’s not going to get my car out.

Then I walked into a gas station, pulled out my last $200, and walked back out the door at the exact same second a cab pulled in to get gas. I climbed in the backseat and handed the driver the address. It could have been a scene from a movie. A really stupid, boring movie, but a movie nonetheless.

The cab took my twenty and the towing company, which is essentially just a legalized theft and extortion ring, took my $200. I drove away trying to figure out the right way to look at it. On one hand I managed to resolve the entire issue in under an hour with none of my usual tools at my disposal, AND I pretty much made a cab show up with my mind. My luck, or whatever it is, held out long enough to get me exactly where I needed to be as quickly as I could have possibly gotten there.

On the other hand, I ended up paying $213 to see a free movie.

Nice one, Karma. Nice one.

I want a rematch.