Friday, September 2, 2011

The Brisket Bender, or Too Much of a Well-Smoked Thing

My love affair with barbecue started late. I grew up in Michigan, not exactly the land of smoked meats, and spent seven of my formative years as a vegetarian.

It will seem blasphemous to residents of Texas, Memphis, and North Carolina to read what I am about to write, but it is true: I first gained a taste for barbecue in New York City. It may not be the birthplace of barbecue, sure, but New Yorkers have the will and the resources to bring pretty much anything worth eating—and the chefs who make it—to their metropolis. (And it doesn't stop at food either. I learned to surf in New York City. Yes, really surf. And I'm sure you could learn to tango from an actual Argentinian, and how to sumo wrestle from a master if you wished.)

I first tasted BBQ at a place where one of my publishing colleagues worked part time. (It's debatable which job paid better.) They served all the guilt-inducing sides, from cornbread to fried green tomatoes, and the meat was unlike anything I'd tasted. They smoked it overnight, and when it ran out, it ran out. Brisket was the first to go—which was okay, because I didn't know what brisket was anyway. (I hadn't been exposed to Jewish cuisine either; my family pronounced the “r” and "l" in yarmulke.) That first trip I probably had chicken, maybe some pork—we all shared. I came home raving about the food, wanting to taste it again soon. There was something in that smoky flavor, like a drug, that kept me wanting more.

Monday, July 25, 2011

This is a story in which no animal dies.

This is a story in which no animal dies.
A child does not stone a kitten, to demonstrate the casual cruelty of youth.
No one takes an axe to an injured deer by the side of a road, to make a point about euthanasia.
A man is not forced to watch as his master drowns his beloved dog, in order the show the evil, the inhumanity, of slaveholding.
A small bird does not die in the jaws of a predator, whereby expressing the wildness and unsentimentality of nature.
In this story, a family of rabbits will not be crushed by a bulldozer in a commentary on the shortsightedness and destructive power of human progress.
Horses will not be shot, whether they are lame, sick, or overworked by a cruel master.
A sack of puppies or kittens most certainly won't be tossed from a car window, or drowned in a river, in order to show a character's disregard for life and other creatures'  suffering.
Circus and zoo animals will not be shot or starved in order to show the depravation of a war, or a depression, or some other disaster.
In other words, in this story, the family pet will not be left to fend for itself when Hurricane [fill in the blank] hits.
No, this story will not contain any manner of canine, feline, equine, avian, et al, abuse, neglect, or mortality.
As a result, it will not win any prizes, nor will it be published in any preeminent literary publications.  No editor will hail this story as edgy, raw, or real.  It will not become a piece of classic children's literature, because it lacks the tearjerking scene of a boy losing his beloved hounds.
And why should this story, or rather, this author, be so adamantly against the fictive deaths of fictive creatures?  Shouldn't said creatures instead be lauded for their contributions to fiction?
And so the scene shifts to an awards ceremony--and certainly there would be a large enough pool from which to cull the nominees--that honors animal deaths in fiction.  Even there, however, the long-suffering beasts would be the first to be forgotten.  The writers would accept awards based on the grittiness of the scene, how the violence propelled the plot, and what it revealed about the character who perpetrated the malevolent act.  Kudos would be given for best supporting adjectives--the gruesomer, the better--and achievement in editing.  Because sometimes the best (or worst?) violence is the kind that the reader can extrapolate for himself.  And so the fictive animals would be neglected once more, fading from the awards auditorium--if they were even allowed in in the first place--and into the background.  They were useful only at the height of their suffering and the moment of their demise, but beyond that they were no longer required.
Until someone bursts on stage--perhaps while Sarah McLachlan sings her sad song while sad video images of sad furry paws reach out to the audience from behind the bars of a cage--and declares a stop to it all.  Calls all this fictive animal suffering excessive, cliched, overdone.  Deems all the nominees hacks for resorting to such a common trope.  And when the cry rises up from the audience, "Well, what shall we do instead?" the auditorium will go silent, waiting.
And the agitator will say, "Why not just mess with the human characters?  It's their kind you're indicting anyway, in the end."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Buying Tequila at a Texas Liquor Store: A play in one act

N* and I were at a liquor store here in Texas, buying supplies for margaritas.  As we were checking out, the cashier asked us what tequilas we liked, so we told him.  

"So what do you drink?" N asked in return.

"Well," he said, "I like Milagro, and 1800, and [blank], the one over there that comes in a bottle shaped like Texas."  

We nodded; he continued, "I used to drink Patrón. But I don't anymore," he paused as he put our purchases in a bag.  "Do you know," he said, "who owns Patrón now?" 

"No," we said, shaking our heads.

"Paul Mitchell. The hair guy." 

...and scene.  The moral of the story: real men don't buy tequila from men who sell hair products.

*My fiance/life partner/father of my cat objected to being called the "Big F," a nickname I experimented with in a previous post.  He suggested instead, "The Voice of Reason."  I've decided to just stick with his first initial from here on out.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

I Quit. Or, it Sucks to Suck.

Growing up, I did well in school, but outside of academia I was a mess.  I danced for a handful of years, dabbling in jazz, acro, and ballet.  All that remains of those years--as my friends who've seen me on the dance floor can attest--are a few snapshots of me in overwrought costumes and garish pancake makeup.  I took up horseback riding for a year or two, played basketball for two seasons, made two attempts at track, and survived one year of cross country.  And if there is a common thread among all these activities, it was that I sucked at all of them.

During horse camp, I was given Buddy, one of the most seasoned and calm horses they had.  During an exercise in the indoor ring, he bolted, and I clung on for dear life.  One of the adults stopped us before we made it outside.  When playing rec basketball, it took me almost a whole season to make my first bucket during a game, an occasion so momentous that my coach (also my best friend's dad) leapt up from the bench and hugged me.  Track was forgettable, and cross country became a months-long mind-fuck.  We pounded the pavement day in and day out--no cross-training--and it got to the point where I couldn't distinguish between what was just soreness and what was an actual injury.  I sat out a few races, and placed in the bottom in others.  Running is not a contact sport, yet I still managed to sustain a head injury.  During our summer camp, I collided with two of the members of the boys' team while playing ultimate frisbee, landing on my head and neck (or one or the other--I don't remember because I blacked out for about a minute).    My coach was pretty concerned; the boys' coach, who pretty much thought I was a waste of space, berated me for skipping the next run over a "pinched nerve."

So yes, I was terrible at all these things.  But the other common thread among those pursuits was that they didn't last very long; I never gave myself enough time to be un-terrible.  I was a quitter; I probably knew it then, and I definitely know it now.  It's a big regret; what if I had stuck with one of those activities for the long haul?  Maybe I would have improved, earned my varsity letter, earned a medal other than "Participation."  But in the back of mind, I can't help thinking that I still would have sucked at whichever pursuit I chose, no matter what.

I've written extensively about CrossFit in the past, what it is, and why I do it.  Since writing those posts, I've changed gyms--twice.  I started at CF Pittsburgh in the fall, and have been coming to CF Central while I'm here in Austin.  In total, I've been doing this thing for two years and--surprise--I still suck.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

My Jury Experience, or, Why I Can't be Outraged by the Casey Anthony Verdict

When I checked facebook and twitter this afternoon, everyone was abuzz about the Casey Anthony verdict. Some were cracking jokes (um, too soon?) but most were indignant, espousing variations of, "How is this possible?" and "It's unbelievable!"

I haven't followed the case very closely, though I will admit to clicking on a few of the more sensational headlines.  Shockingly--or perhaps not so much--many of these stories appeared on "entertainment" sites like  However, I'm not intending to write about the murder-trial-as-entertainment issue, as that's been covered frequently elsewhere, and by people with more experience and credibility in that arena.  All I will say is that if Nancy Grace is covering it, I probably want to stay far, far away.

Rather, hearing about the verdict and reading the subsequent reactions remind me of my time as a juror on an attempted murder trial--an experience I haven't felt comfortable documenting publicly until now.

To set the scene: it was my first time being called to jury duty: one of those natural rites of passage that everyone complains about.  Anytime someone I knew--family, friends, co-workers--got called for jury duty, their immediate response (at least, the first one they expressed) was either one of, "I hope I don't get picked" or, "I'm going to try and get out of it."

Now, in most cases, I am a play-by-the-rules kind of gal, as I know many of them are in place for a reason.  For example, I always power down my electronics on airplanes when told.  (I freak out when I see others using their cell phones during takeoff and landing; I have to restrain myself from screaming, "DEAR GOD, DO YOU WANT US ALL TO DIE IN A FIERY CRASH, YOU ASSHOLE?  TURN THAT PHONE OFF NOW!")  Perhaps the term I'm looking for is socially responsible--like, the reason I follow traffic laws is not simply because it's "the law" or I don't want a ticket, but because I don't want to run over someone's Gran while she's on her way to church.  So when I got picked for jury duty, I felt the same sort of responsibility.  I resolved to be honest, to not actively try to get out of it, because it was the right thing to do.  I thought, well, if I were ever put on trial, I would want someone like me to be on the jury.  It's a terrifying thought that you might be wrongfully accused, and then convicted, of a crime because you didn't get a fair trial.  (Though, let's face it, the odds of me, a white, middle-class female, being accused of a felony are pretty slim.)

Suffice it to say, I went in there, answered honestly, and was picked.  Apparently I'm not the only person who'd want a middle-class white female on their jury.

My juror experience was fascinating and, at times, terrifying.  The defendant was accused of shooting a man in broad daylight over a silly argument.  At the outset, we were told that there were witnesses, including the victim himself, and that we'd be hearing from them.  We were also told there was no forensic evidence, that this wasn't like CSI or other TV shows; this was reality, and we'd simply have to use our best judgement, based on testimony, to come to a verdict.  That was slightly disheartening--who wouldn't want "scientific" evidence?--but it seemed reasonable enough.  This wouldn't be so bad.  I was completely unprepared for what followed.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

On Writing: Ur Doin it Wrong

Lately I've been using the hash tag #lifelessons on twitter*, which is a term that I use to highlight things I learn after doing something dumb.  Like, how to use the soap sprayer at the do-it-yourself car wash without getting hit in the face; or, if you take apart the vacuum cleaner to clean the filters, you should remember how it all fits together.  I've been doing a lot of these "dumb" or mundane things recently because I am currently without a job.  School's out for the summer--cue song--and I chose to come to Austin with the fiance and work on my novel while he goes to his real job and gets paid real money.  It sometimes gets a little awkward when people ask what I'm doing here (not to mention where I'm from--see earlier post), and I've even had one person refer to my role as the "trophy fiancee."  Har har.  I decided to take that one as a misguided compliment.

Of course I do tell people that I'm here working on my book (or "my novel," or "my writing," depending on my mood) which inevitably makes me feel like a fraud.  I'm not lying; I am working on something that I hope will become a novel...someday.  But the state of "being a writer" seems like such a lofty concept that I'm never sure if I'm embodying it now, or if I ever will.

It's a topic that often comes up among my peers and in my writing workshops.  One of my professors (a "real" writer, she has two books that one can actually purchase from booksellers) is fond of saying that the writing process is like masturbation--everyone does it, but no one wants to talk about it.  In other words, it's highly personal.  You'll sometimes see depictions of writers in movies or on television: set to a manic score, a solitary person (usually male), pounds out words on a typewriter (more dramatic, more tactile than a computer), balls up papers and throws them into the trash, and then....montage over, writer magically delivers bound manuscript to agent/publisher.

The problem with these romanticized visions, and the highly personal and individualized nature of the writing process, is that when I'm working toward that finished product, I'm constantly thinking: am I doing it wrong?

Hence the reason for feeling fraudulent, and for being annoyed, and then evasive, when people ask, "How's it going?"  "What's your book about?"  "How much is written?"

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Book Review: Gryphon

I'm not sure why books of short stories aren't more popular, considering that today's collective attention span is so limited.

I recently reviewed Charles Baxter's story collection Gryphon for Hot Metal Bridge and I highly recommend it.  Check out the review here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Who are You, and Where are You From?

Where are you from?

It’s an innocent question, an easy one. People ask it expecting a few words in reply, a simple answer: I’m from Chicago. I’m from Branson, Missouri. To which they can respond: Oh yeah, I’ve been there. Or, Oh, what’s that like?

But when someone asks me this question lately, I freeze.  What do I say? And how much do I share?

To get you up to speed, I’m currently (living in? residing in? visiting?) Austin, Texas. The Fiancé accepted a summer internship here, and I tagged along, because: a) it was a chance to spend time together after eight months of long distance, b) I had nothing going on employment-wise, which meant I sure as hell wasn’t staying in Pittsburgh, and c) I’ve never been here, and I was curious.  I love going new places; it’s like an adventure.  (Though living in a characterless condo and going swimming every day isn’t exactly backpacking in Patagonia, but you take what you can get.)

But back to the question at hand. The obvious answer is that I’m from Michigan. I was born and raised there; I went to school there. Yet “Michigan” isn’t really significant to my adult life, other than being the place where my family lives. I never worked there (my adolescent stints at Meijer and The Pita Peddler don’t count), I’ve never paid my own rent or mortgage there, I haven’t directly been affected by its economy, its recent pains.

Actually, I'm from farther east, closer to the thumb.  But you get the idea.

Now, I suppose, I’m “from” Pittsburgh, though that doesn’t feel right either.  Three-quarters of the year I go to school there and am employed there, and I rent my own apartment—just me!—for the first time ever.  I have friends, a place where I volunteer, “my” gym, “my” stores, “my” places I go to write. But it feels temporary, secondary.  Temporary because once I graduate, I’ll move on to—I don’t know where. Secondary because it’s not really where I want to be (no offense to the University, and my incredibly intelligent and awesome friends). But, if this were Pretty in Pink, Pittsburgh would be Duckie (Jon Cryer, forever the second banana): he’s cool and nice and all, but you don’t want to date him, or take him to prom.

So who’s Blane (as played by Andrew McCarthy)? New York, of course, and Brooklyn specifically. I’m well aware I can’t technically say I’m “from” New York, or, God forbid, that I’m a “New Yorker.”  There are rules about making such claims, and being that I only lived there for four (I’m ashamed just by typing that paltry number) years, I can’t take ownership other than to say I lived there.

But when I’m standing in front of someone new, and they are politely waiting for an answer—so they can start to form a connection, and begin to piece together who I am—to say “Brooklyn” seems more telling than any other option. It’s where I ended one career and began another (and another), where I made my first real adult friends, where I grew my first (and only) real adult relationship—essentially, it’s where I became an adult.  And Brooklyn remains, in relationship terms, the One Who Got Away—the one who is the measuring stick for other relationships, other cities.  Which is why poor Pittsburgh, with its bad food and Midwest sensibility, never stood a chance. And why I keep fantasizing Austin to be Brooklyn—it’s just that someone shrunk it down and turned up the heat.

So what do I really say when people ask that deceptively simple question, Where are you from?  Inevitably, too much. That I’m from Michigan, but worked in New York, and now I’m a grad student at Pitt… And then their eyes glaze over, or they look at their watches, or gaze longingly at their cars, their escape.  And I realize I really need to keep it simple or I’ll never make new friends.

But I guess that’s the problem with clinging to a past relationship—it makes it that much harder to form a new one.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Caption This Photo

"Oh no, Grace, don't look now!  That heroin addict from across the street is wearing your wedding gown; I think she's trying to steal it!"

I've started buying (and receiving) wedding magazines.  So far I haven't found them exactly...useful.  All the stuff about choosing themes and bridesmaid dresses--it's just not my thing.  But they can be (unintentionally) hilarious at times.  Who wants to look like this chick on their wedding day, really?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Words Matter

I am agitated.

I'm trying my hardest not to be--it's unhealthy.  I can feel the stress taking over my body, causing me to shake.  But some issues are worth agitation.  Or downright anger.

Yesterday, there was a flurry among many of my friends on facebook about a bill put forth in the House by Republican Chris Smith, called the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act."  Whether you are on the side of pro-life or pro-choice, the issue with this bill--the issue that agitates me--is how it is attempting to redefine rape.  The bill says: "cases of 'forcible' rape but not statutory or coerced rape," are the only cases in which federal funding for abortions will be allowable.


As a writer, I am obsessed with words.  Words matter.  And in this case, the word "forcible" is being used by politicians in a manner that is so demeaning, so backwards, and so hurtful...I'm speechless.

Essentially what this stipulation is saying is that unless a woman is forced into the act of sex in some physically violent manner, federal funding for an abortion will not be available to her.  One has to wonder--will she have to show proof of her physical injury?  Will there need to be bruising of some kind?  The message that's being sent is that even if you didn't give consent, unless your rapist slapped you around, you're not deserving of public support.  Your rape, what you endured, doesn't count in the eyes of the law.  Those psychological scars?  The mental anguish that will last years after any physical bruises have disappeared?  That is not proof enough.  Perhaps you didn't fight hard enough.  Perhaps you weren't even raped at all.

I try not to be too reactionary, especially when it comes to politics.  Perhaps this bill is not something to get too bent-out-of-shape about.  In fact, Democrat Daniel Lipinski, a co-sponsor of the bill, said: "The language of [the bill] was not intended to change existing law regarding taxpayer funding for abortion in cases of rape."  Okay then.  But then why, Mr. Lipinski, include that word "forcible" at all?

At some point, I feel one has to say something.  Because what's next?  Perhaps legislators will decide to place the word "unprovoked" in front of the word "rape."  Were you wearing a short skirt at the time of the assault?  Yes?  Well then, you were asking for it.  No funding for you.

Here's a link to a petition against the bill:

I object to their phrasing it as "dangerous GOP legislation" since some Democrats support the bill as well.  I understand where they're coming from, since a majority of the backers are Republican, but I hope an issue such as this would transcend any political affiliation.  If you are a woman, or if you love and respect women, I hope you'd consider signing.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Nothing Has Changed, Everything Has Changed

I got engaged two weeks ago.

The proposal was expected (after six years of dating) but also caught me off guard (so much so that I pretty much collapsed in the snow when it happened). Since then, nothing has changed, and everything has changed.

I say nothing has changed, because it really hasn't. At some point I realized I loved him and always would, that I wanted to be with him to the exclusion of anyone else. Though I should say "points," because if love is anything, it is cyclical.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Not-So-Breaking News

Why "symbolically" attempt to repeal health care reform?  It's just that the Republicans are so darn sentimental...

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Season of Self-Loathing

So, January.  It’s cliché, I know, to talk about New Year’s resolutions.  But I don’t have much else to discuss (and I must discuss something, as “posting on the blog once a week” is one of my NYRs), and it beats all the other topics my friends are discussing these days: the doomsday scenario of the Republicans taking over the House, the doomsday scenario of the Michigan coaching situation, etc.

My problem with NYRs is that I already feel the pressure, almost every day, to be perfect in all aspects of life.  I touched on this idea in my last post—the struggle of trying to be a successful student while maintaining a rigorous workout schedule.  Do I really need another push, telling me I have to better myself in some way?  A nagging voice telling me I must make up for my positively slovenly behavior of the past few months?  (I made Christmas cookies, yes.  And I ate quite a few…GUILTY!)

The other problem with NYRs is that they’re often contradictory.  Last year at this time, I embarked on a Paleo Challenge, where I ate nothing but whole, real foods for six weeks.  No sugar, wheat, dairy, beans, legumes, or processed anything.  I felt great, I looked pretty good (if I do say so myself), and I felt pretty darn virtuous.  The problem was, it was really difficult to maintain, not least of all because it was expensive.  And that’s where the contradiction comes in: I want to eat well, but I also want to spend less money.  I need to spend less money.  I currently make negative money.