What Does This Button Do? (book review)

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At the time Bruce Dickinson published his autobiography many things were going on in my life that kept it on the back burner. He is one of the heroes of my young-woman and heavy metal life, and I was shocked and prematurely mourned when he announced his cancer diagnosis. A new album was expected but I was still uninspired by the previous album he made when he was healthy. My life was upside-down and I had little patience for much of anything, particularly the band Iron Maiden where I felt their music and tours were, while high-octane, mostly the same.

During another recent bout with insomnia I said, “fuck it,” so I downloaded the book and thought I’d have a look. I page-turned it to the point where mid-morning when I woke I was pretty sure it really happened to me; it wasn’t a dream, I was actually there in his tiny village in their tiny rooms with no televisions and few cars and people were losing their men in the war and little boys fell in love with aircraft. (Perhaps I had my first and only Edgar Cayce moment? )

Perhaps a better place to begin is here: Bruce is an excellent story-teller. Everything happens quickly, goes down easy, and you can see it all. What spoke to me most was his formative years up to when he began performing onstage, then his solo band’s venture into Sarajevo at the height of the war and their orphanage visit. The chapters that described his induction to the music life that introduced him to the Iron Maiden life, the interim years of solo life, and returning to Iron Maiden life had few moments I didn’t already know because I’m a Maiden fan and any fan who didn’t know those moments aren’t worth their salt were okay, and would be more interesting to those of us who don’t already know their story. He goes on a great deal about fencing which tells me it had a lot more influence on his life than any of us knew. I thought it was a hobby he was devoted to and not much more, but no. Same for his desire to learn to fly. I learned that he must keep his mind active, not just focused but laser-focused and full of creating and completing a task so he can feel okay; comfortably sane.

I knew before I read the book that he chose not to include stories about girlfriends and wives. This doesn’t surprise me as he’s always kept family closely guarded. He dedicates a passage to wife and children at the front of the book but that is all. In the epilogue he says he chose not to bring them in because the book was big enough and they didn’t move the dialogue forward. And that, my friends, pissed me off. Finding and falling in love and having children and all the stories in between does not move the dialogue of You, Mr. Bruce Dickinson, forward? Throughout the process of reading this book I kept hoping he would throw out a little mention of a wife or kid moment but no. It was microphones, amps, cassettes, managers, trousers, fencing partners, movie treatments, commercial airline pilot training. Not a word for the woman who stood behind him all those years? This might be a shocking comment coming from one of the Maiden females who wanted him all to ourselves, but leaving out any goodness you had with Paddy and your children makes it less autobiography and more like another Iron Maiden tour. This was my only disappointment with his work.

The casual reader will consume the book quickly because he’s an excellent writer. Here’s hoping he will regale us with more tales from the skies or possibly the stage because he is unstoppable. Not sure I’ll buy another album or see another show, honestly but that’s not why I’m here. I will end with two quotes from the book that spoke to me: “Nothing in childhood is ever wasted,”  and “It didn’t matter what it was that you engaged in, as long as you respected its nature and attempted some measure of harmony with the universe.”  

Eddie Van Halen. This One Hurts.

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Eddie Van Halen smiled like a kid when his hero gave him the thumbs up. He smiled like he saw the love of his life across the room. He smiled like he was up to sumpthin… who me? Oh, yes, you. Then he serenaded or assailed you with the wit of his strings.

There can be only one. And that is cliche. But tonight that’s how it feels when I think and write about Eddie Van Halen. A friend asked for a best memory with a Van Halen song involved.

I’m not sure how I got the cassette (probably borrowed from a friend or my brother). Popped it into the Sears stereo. Heard “Eruption” and just … Did you ever hear a piece of music and wonder what just happened to you? What the hell just happened to me? Never heard anything like it. I’m an 80s Mtv grrl, so I’ve seen a lot (oh my word a lot) of videos. When I went back to wash in Van Halen just now, most of what I see is Eddie playing like “this is kidstuff and I’m having fun.” He played with a joy, a playfulness I haven’t seen in many other bands. He had a guitar made for his creativity because he needed something more, which is not surprising. Many creatives have to have things built or changed for them so they can CREATE because what is in the here and now is just not filling and satisfying. I want us all to smoke that cig and take a swig and write that thing, that easygoing swagger that’s easy as breathing, breathing pie. Eddie, no one is like you. But we gotta try.

To Kill A Mockingbird, A Confession

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I know I read this in middle school, must have. I remember thinking about what a mockingbird must sound like, and also feeling a little spooked thinking about Boo Radley hiding behind Scout’s bedroom door. I must have taken a quiz or test or wrote an essay, fumbling for some kind of understanding of the bird and the Boo. And that’s it. It didn’t stick to me. It just faded away along with many of the stories from dogged-up sun-faded anthologies sitting on windowsills. (Poe was more to my liking, since I’m confessing.)

Read an article recently that mentioned Harper Lee’s most famous story and it sparked interest so I sat down and watched the movie for the first time. That’s right. I have never seen Gregory Peck channel Atticus Finch until a few days ago. Guess I thought that since I’d read the book there was no reason to go there, never had much interest in Peck as an actor or black and white films in general. The brief opening credits began to roll, a picture of a cigar box filled with childhood treasures and so help me I could smell that box and I began to weep. And it’s happening again as I write this. Childhood, it’s all there. The children appeared and acted as children do but spoke in most adult ways. It was an odd mixture and we were asked to suspend our disbelief that children of a widowed lawyer could be sneaky, have wonderful play, but speak in grown-up ways. I was surprised (why?) that Atticus had a colored servant (housekeeper). Where was that in the book? I thought Atticus was more progressive than that; wow, my memory is bad. Then, the revelation that a colored man raped a white woman. Where was that in the book? Wow, my memory is bad. The n-word was used in the film and I guess I read it but didn’t flinch? It was used on the street and by some older relatives, so it wasn’t a shock. (Unless I was surprised at the use of the word in this book and I just don’t remember?) I was most interested in the courtroom scene, watching the witnesses come and falsely accuse Tom of a terrible crime, the African American people in the balcony, Whites on the main floor. Judge, prosecution, defense, witness chair, none of this was like Law & Order SVU but it was still compelling. How is it that I knew Atticus made a good case but Tom would still be condemned? Was it from memory or just my jaded heart? I did not remember Tom allegedly attempting to run from the cops and getting shot instead of being jailed. Why did I not remember? And why do I care so much now that this shit is still going in full color with only a 10-second delay from camera phone to internet?

The film goes on and I was surprised that the white man came to harm or possibly murder Atticus’ children. Where was that in the book? I was surprised that Sheriff Heck Tate allowed the white man’s death during the attack to be chalked up to “he fell on his knife” as justice for the lies he and his daughter told about Tom that led to his death. Heck was a man trying to do a decent thing, and I believe his character and his actions were largely ignored. There are more heroes in the story can be counted and should all be on one line, they’re all first place. Sorry Mr. Peck, but at least you won the Oscar.

Another confession: I did not know that Boo Radley was played by Robert Duvall and it was his very first role. They could have given it to any actor, but I think he did a fine job being a frightened man coming out of his safe place to rescue Atticus’ children.

So childhood and play and innocence are huge in this story. It’s no wonder I largely buried it somewhere. Found it difficult to watch two children who love and care for and stick up for each other; where a little girl’s voice mattered and might have made a difference. We used to play like that once; we had good times; I remember those more than this book. Maybe that’s what I like best about the end of this essay.

Guardians

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When you come to collect me be careful where you step and what you touch
There’s sand on the floor,
slippery and on the couch,
kind of funny
and in the bathroom under everything, grit everywhere
in your hair and I hope it never washes away

When you come to collect me take note and be gentle
Precious cargo here:
Horseshoe crab molts, a seahorse
A green flower he found on the sidewalk and gave to me
Ribbons from gifts long enough to wrap sarcophagus
Penguins and llamas and Piglets,
Empty journals waiting for a smeared knuckle
Hoya and snake plant that thrive against the odds

A mantis, finger long, the color of bark
Who hung on the ceiling outside my door
Biding his time
Guarding my home
His mortal body now in the dish beneath my aloe.

Be careful.

A Letter To Jivey

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Dear Jivey,

It’s been three days since you returned to the Hudson river valley.  I’ve been moping since, but today I find the courage to write aloud. 

I love you and miss you both.  You brought me blessings and laughter and happiness and treasure I won’t forget and thank you.

This morning the cicadae are shirring in the pine trees. (Remember the little guy shuffling off his former coil by my front door?)   The temperature is cool and the humidity is gone: you seem to have taken it away with you. I wanted bathtubfulls of rain to fall sideways or maybe a thunderstorm to impress you while you were here, but all we got was drips, sweat, and static electricity high in the clouds. Tomorrow night the rain will come, courtesy of a hurricane remnant. I feel like I owe you wild weather, Ms. Vine, that we could stand outside and ride and shout out the wonderful chaos. And also Krispy Kremes.

I made a grocery store run this morning and everything I wanted was not there: bagels, rye bread, white queso sauce for a nacho treat. There are little teardrops of grease on my turquoise tablecloth, remnants of the New York pizza you brought, and everything feels out of joint. I fall into the writer’s recollection of how food joins us, humans, in happiness and grief. 

Monday I expected Ms. Vine to come in to the room where I write and felt sad when I remembered.  Last night I felt parts of you still in my room. It was a long night with little sleep. 

Horseshoe crabs come to the beach to molt their exoskeletons so they can grow into their new lives as their ancestors have done for a million years.  We collect their skins and wonder at these ancient arthropods, some intact, some in pieces, but we rarely see them as they continue their journey in the waters. You brought one molt in and prepared it with everything that I love about you. I’m glad the Universe put it in your path. Jivey, may your journeys be as successful, contingent on rising with the tide.

Love always,
Mom. 

Armloads of Anger

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It is two AM and no one is helping you move another armful of what appears to be sweaters down to the U-Haul truck. Glare at me all you want, baby, but you reap what you sow.

Sea green doors, bright yellow walls, white highlights … pagodas in a narrow courtyard lit by soft orange light. People come and go here where I live, revolving doors, no surprise living in a military community while others stay for a long time. I observe everyone (and myself) from the balcony or pagoda or water’s edge when it’s not too hot and not too cold ooh baby it’s just right. I observe kindnesses with each other, our plants, our dogs, our stray cats, and the not-so-kind things like when you let the door slam behind you that shakes my apartment. I’ve seen the mixed bag that is humanity, mostly for good, and I try not to dwell on the nuisances.

Since the first day I saw you I knew you as an angry woman. I’m no bubble of joy, so noticing your anger wasn’t hard. I marked you down as Recognized, Noted, Proceed Accordingly. Still, I waved or nodded or tried to make contact with you, as we all did, but you refused basic neighborliness and concern in general. Eyes forward, stomping ingress and egress, always. Every time I saw you walking from the parking lot to your apartment with your (husband?) all I could hear was you berating him and swearing terribly at him while he just looked forward and took it all. He disappeared and there were rumors. All I know is that I don’t see him or the little french bulldogs anymore and your demeanor has not changed. There were many social gatherings here at the apartment and you did not partake but were always welcome. You remained aloof and angry every day of every year I’ve been in your orbit. Just seeing you has been stressful which is not your problem but mine.

This afternoon a U-Haul truck pulled up and I watched as they moved your furniture. I was surprised you let them move most of that in the bathtub-fulls of pouring rain and wind. Later I saw you and said, “Hi. Looks like you’re leaving us?” Question mark, trying to be nice. She fixed a laser-beam gaze on me and said, “YES. I AM,” as if I was the reason for her pain and need to leave. It was an unexpected reaction, it confounded me, and I’m writing it out here now: Hey girl, I’m not the reason for your pain and suffering. We gave you ample opportunity to relate but you kept your door closed. I’ve been watching you for hours move boxes and bags and armfuls of “stuff” and I wonder where did you put it all in these tiny apartments? I can feel your anger in every box you walk out to the truck — by yourself. Where are your family and friends to help you move? I did that when I was a teenager: “I’m going to pack all this MYSELF and I don’t need YOUR HELP and FUCK YOU VERY MUCH. I’m going to take armloads of all my stuff out to the truck all day and night without your help because I don’t need you!!” She saw me on the balcony and gave me that “Fuck you” look again, and I just can’t fathom why, we’ve only had three words between us. The landlord will need to repave the balcony from the venom she’s dripping behind.

I am typically grumpy and crabby but not always angry. At least I am approachable and I will laugh and smile with you. I recognize my demeanor and try to keep it tamped down so I can be socially acceptable in public while at home I fume and steam in the four corners of my room, alone. It works out pretty well. You, lady, are a steam train that cannot be stopped and no one wants to.

I should light a candle for your brokenness. I should let it be water off a seal’s back. I should ask the universe to show you a way to heal and ask it to help you let that shit go. It’s not hard, but all I got now is just, “Good luck wid dat, hating the world. That’s the stuff that gave me chest pains. Maybe someday you’ll figure out you reap what you sow.”

August, Just In Time.

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Late summer nights in Jersey the council of women would convene beneath the maple tree. Dinner dishes dried and put away, beach chairs snapped open, metal frames scraped to find level ground to sit upon, and after a while they did rest their bones. It was time for us kids to make ourselves scarce, the women were gonna talk. It was lightning bug time, so wandering off wasn’t so bad. And yet…

The women smoked, their cigarettes cherry red targets in the fallen night. When I crept closer to eavesdrop on mom and her sisters and maybe a cousin or two, because nothing could be cooler than whatever it was they were talking about, the chatter stopped. They swished ice in their tea glasses and waited for my boredom to lead me elsewhere or shooed me away, nothing here to see, ma’am, move along. There were no men here at the council, just me snooping and hanging out with my little brother. One woman’s voice frequently rose above the others, edgy, aggressive, often brought the laughter. I wondered who was wearing the admonishment tonight.
***
I padded down to the pagodas half hour before a cloudy sunset. No breathtaking palette here this time. The neighbors were chatting, seated level in their sandy beach chairs. A stray cicada came to inspect us, clearly wanting to bump into us but settled on singing its chainsaw song beneath the pagoda then flew away. One of us smoked. Two of us drank. I didn’t add much because I was feeling like a kid on a late summer night who should probably be off catching lightning bugs. It rained on us some though the sky was patchy, the water was surprising. None of us moved. I speak for the council when I say the little water was welcome.

No Angels Here, They’ve Passed On By.

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I put my gnawing back to bed at the start of the new day,
little pink clock ticking but it sounds so far away
Pearl moon watched high above my window,
uncaring witness to our struggles.
When my eyes finally closed and unconsciousness collected me
right around the witching hour
a small being crashed into my screen and clung there.
I woke and wondered at the odds of a bat finding my window.
My heart fluttered a little, dosed with the tiniest adrenaline
unlike the days when I was young and taut, full of fear
my heart would have battered my ribs,
but tonight I just didn’t seem to care.
Soon its tiny talons tried to find purchase on the air conditioner
scraping and slipping, and I hoped it couldn’t find its way in
and I wondered what I would do if it did
but I just didn’t seem to care that when a bat comes
crashing into your screen
that means a devil gets its wings.
Right about then an invisible cat ran across my bedroom
but I just didn’t seem to care.
I turned my back to stare at the floor hoping for sleep to return
caring less about what lurks past our windows
just a carcass twisted in sweaty sheets and a t-shirt
from the bar up the street that burned down.
“Far From Any Road” the bloodstained tune played on repeat in my head, back gnawing, moon a mute witness in the steaming parking lot.
I’d be grateful not to think or remember or dream.

To Whom It May Concern:

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I’ve been pacing for days trying to sort and decide what to say, if anything at all, about “The Letter” posted in the esteemed Harper’s magazine and the “Rebuttal” that made a little splash by the unwashed masses of social media. Does anyone care what these 153 suffering signatories think? Who asked their opinion on open debate, cancel culture, justice, and fear that their powerful voices will somehow be silenced, vanished from history? Frankly, I’m more interested in reading the responses of the unwashed masses who do not have a Harper’s or a platform of any kind to share their stories of being ignored, bullied, shut out, and surely underpaid for the fruits of their sweaty, wrung-out Word documents?

Chomsky, Rushdie, Atwood and…. Rowling? Who invited her to this “mighty” list of elites where she can shore up support for her (deeply unfortunate) views on transgenderism? In this very same paragraph I must examine my prickling view of The Letter against my bristling reaction to a group of male authors who yawned and called Ursula LeGuin overrated again. On one hand I defend Ursula and her right to shine with the lofty (mostly male) Sci-Fi / Fantasy writers of our time, while the other hides my snickering at JK Rowling’s fear of being cancelled. Both women endured their lumps in the writing “community” for their perceived lack of talent and their personal views, and here I am committing the same sin. In this paragraph I must re-examine my views on true freedom of speech. I must learn how to keep writing while remembering to use my Super Girl Powers for good, not evil, to keep speaking out for inequality no matter where it is found, especially when I find it in my own pages.

My thoughts are ungelled, imperfect, unready to share and certainly without authority. They are an open letter to no one in particular, written in smeared ink, carried away on the back of a rogue dolphin. (He reminds me to write about cultural appropriation in fiction next time, knowing I have a mind full of that and plenty of space to share my unsought, frightfully overrated opinions.)

Morning, July.

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The day is long when I rise at 4 in the morning, before first light. I wake up surprised that I woke, I must have made it through the night.

I pace from window to window watching the light evolve and paint the sky,
the trees, the yellow face, now bright, of these concrete walls.
Swallows will barnstorm us soon. Tony is making homes for honey bees.
The weatherman says it’s gonna be 105 degrees and I worry about folks
in the heat without access to gatorade, a/c, ice, shade and rest. (and love.)

I am open to the idea of being patient today.
Patience feels like watching my dresses dry on the curtain rod in the bathroom, and when I do it right patience smells like a green tank top
left out in the sun to dry, softly touching me.

Will another storm awaken me tonight?