Lost in the Mall

It was December 23rd and the Neshaminy Mall was packed. The shops were overflowing with deranged shoppers. The food courts were like Valhalla sans booze or war hammers. The mall staff looked crazed and exhausted, as if they’d just been on a weekend bender with Charles Bukowski. The walkways of the mall were jammed with people trying desperately to get last minute gifts to bolster Christmas piles. It was all happening to a soundtrack of Christmas music, store announcements, and screeching children.

My mom and I had made a morning of it. Well, she makes a morning of it every day. My mom rises at about 5 a.m. every morning and begins a day that would flatten a senator. She is the most active person I have ever known. Three decades raising four kids and five decades raising my father has left my mother in a perpetual state of activity and motion. I have never known her to not be busy. She shops every day, works every day, and does a number of activities within our little community. When she is at home she’s cooking, cleaning, reorganizing, and building. This is in direct contrast to my dad, for whom a bank run and a nap in the same day requires another nap.

Since my mother would be up and out early, I knew I would be too. And sure enough we were up at 6 a.m., caffeinated, organized, and out the door by 8:30. Once at the mall, we had a bagel and coffee and made a game plan. Her priority was to get me a coat for Christmas. My priority was to buy 97% of my Christmas gifts. We started at Boscov’s. Boscov’s is a department store where my mother dragged me each August for a decade to buy back to school clothing. She brought me and my siblings here before countless Christmases to shop in the evenings after work. The ground level is immense, aisles cut through uncountable racks of clothing and accessories sectioned off in age-old classifications: ladies, misses, juniors, men, young men, intimate apparel, active, LL Bean. Upstairs is kitchen and dining room, downstairs is living room and bedroom.

Department stores are my mom’s natural habitat. Today she read the crowd and store conditions the way a Sioux tracker might observe a valley or a forest perimeter. She grabbed a cart three times her size and swerved it down the aisle in the same way she drives the SUV that is fourteen times her size. She clipped me in the hip twice and then took it off-road without warning. She squeezed it through the racks of clothing into nooks and crannies where carts aren’t supposed to go and, thusly, do not fit. It was like watching someone maneuver an airboat through a miniature garden pond. She whistled the whole time until she shouted my name from some invisible locale. We then had a disembodied conversation.

“Damien?”

“Yes?”

“What about this one?”

“This one what?”

“This coat?”

“I can’t see the coat.”

“Why not?”

“I am not with you!” I looked around wildly. My neck began to heat up. She was nowhere to be seen and I ran into a rack of shirts more expensive than my rent. I took several deep breaths and listened for my mother’s response. When it didn’t come I offered: “Mom?”

“What about this one?”

“Holy shit.”

“Oh that’s real nice language.”

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Happy Christmitzvah

Christmitzvah

Get Christmitzvah

My sister Amanda and I were huddled beneath the wall in our living room. The Christmas tree stood to our right, kept precariously erect by fishing line tied to various sections of banister post. We had belly crawled from the foyer and then gingerly tiptoed between gifts that had come in the mail or from my parents’ work contacts. I hushed her with a finger. Above us, in the kitchen, my mother played Mah-jong with her friends. Their discussion jumped from Oprah Winfrey to the seasonal financial concerns. When the talk finally turned to gifts my sister and I made eye contact. This was exactly the point of our intelligence mission. Gifts. Our two younger siblings were upstairs sleeping or watching Christmas specials, but as the oldest I had a responsibility to get information. Amanda was next oldest, my second in command. So, we listened.

“I’m going to pick it up this weekend,” my mom said.

“Who’s it for?” one of her friends asked.

My sister and I goggled our eyes. The mother lode. But before my mom could say anything further, one of her friends laughed a short horrific cackle and said, “I had to give Michael the talk last week.”

“Oy, how did that go?” one of them asked.

My sister’s fledgling OCD thwarted our plan when she reached out to right an errant Christmas ball and upset the house of cards equilibrium keeping the tree upright. It listed, we were forced to hold it in place or become impaled by hundreds of pine needles, and my mother and her friends were alerted to our eavesdropping. I managed to convince my mom and her cross-armed Mah-jong partners that we were just snooping around the gifts under the tree. And, left without proof of any further misdeeds, she sent us upstairs where we joined the other two watching one of the dozens of Christmas specials on television in late December.

My external environment during the 1986 holiday season was probably the same as it had been in 1985 and 1984. My family and I lived just off the teardrop of a cul-de-sac on a hill high in a suburban development. We were surrounded by trees and fences and other houses. It was in that cul-de-sac, compacting snowball ammunition that my friends and I – Skip, Joe, Eddie, Mike, and Ben – were engaged in our seasonal debate on the rivalry between Hanukkah and Christmas.

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I’m Better than you Because I Travel

So, it’s no secret that we all should be travelling all the time. Go into debt if you have to, but travel. You’ve seen the memes. It’s very enriching. And don’t mistake me for a tourist. Tourists go to Ocean City and Disney World, two places I don’t go to unless my parents are footing the bill. I carry a backpack, not one of those rolly thingies. I hate buses. I would rather wrap myself in banana leaves than stay in a famous hotel. Also the places I travel to are usually filled with people who don’t speak the same language as me. Or brown people. Or Asian people. And these things make me a much better person than you. Here are some ways that travel has made me a fantastic person.

I spent two weeks in Africa a few years ago and now I totally understand racism. People looked at us the whole time. We stood out like a sore thumb. It was so annoying. People kept asking us for money. It was probably really stressful for the hotel security who had to keep scaring those kids away from the other side of the fence at the pool. It was so annoying. But afterwards I did what I always do. I sat under a tree indigenous to the country, took out my moleskine, and searched my soul. I demanded that I learn a lesson from the experience. The lesson was that now I totally and completely 100% understand what it’s like to be black in America. Maybe in the northern states. I understand what it’s like to be black in Milwaukee. I am one with my brothers. Fist in air.

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Obituary for my Season Spirit

Photo courtesy of Andy Thomas at Wildlifeprints.com

This last Sunday morning, at 8:13 am, my Season Spirit passed away quietly in his sleep. He was twenty-seven days old.

We did everything we could for him. He was tucked chest-deep under The Holiday Aisle comforter I’d bought him which depicted Christmas trees and wintry homes. A random selection from Spotify category Autumn Road cooed at us from my laptop, which simultaneously played Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (on mute). I was chanting a list of fun autumn activities from realsimple.com.

We tried everything, but by the time we got his pumpkin spice muffin to him, he was gone.

My Season Spirit was born in late October, when the daytime sky was brilliant blue and the evenings still conveyed a feeling arguably that of cozily creepy and not yet morbidly depressing. He was born on a Thursday before a long weekend, perhaps the most optimistic day of the week buffered by the boost of an extra day off. He was born after the leaves had just started changing, but before they lay around the city in soaked clumps. He was born while we prepared for the season’s first screening of Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin. I was donning my favorite roll-neck sweater, testing out a bourbon spiced flavored coffee, and gazing out the window at the leaves and baring trees, enjoying the season’s last reflection on the cycle of life that wouldn’t focus intensely upon my death.

Or maybe it was indigestion.

So ripe were the conditions that my Season Spirit just came out with a big smile on his face. Sort of like that thing that Craig T. Nelson pukes out in Poltergeist II, only it was wearing a scarf, a jauntily tilted newsboy cap, and he was humming the rhythm to Autumn Leaves. And now he’s gone.

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The Haunted Toaster

Professor Percival Plumefeather and Paperfeet the Cat.

Sunday sucks. Sure, I can sleep in and eat a leisurely breakfast. But after that the hours storm by as I watch helpless. This feeling of angst (read: epic morbid depression) is worse in the autumn, when the sky is gray all day long, thus making it seem about 4 in the afternoon from 8 am until the actual 4 pm, at which point it then appears to be about 8 pm.

Making all of this even worse is a pressing deadline for a writing or editing project. Now, I do enjoy writing and editing work. Usually. Often. OK, sometimes. More often, I come up with creative ways to avoid the work, just like everyone else.

And so my procrastination mission begins. I start by checking my email 9 times in 23 minutes. I groan through a smile when I have an email. Then it’s to my normal stomping grounds. Mental Floss, AP News, Twitter, Facebook. The Book is filled with football predictions and statements of either support or aggression. You can only look at so many GIFs of hot girls winking on Twitter. I check my email two or three dozen more times (both email accounts – work and private), but nothing doing. I visit a site of ill-repute for about 129 seconds. I have a sandwich and read some more articles. Trump’s still a nit. Today he’s being a nit in France. I write an unflattering post about his self-promoted tough guy image vs. the fact that he doesn’t want to stand in the rain, but then I cancel it.

It’s the haunted toaster that saves me.

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Shape

This summer I was driving into the city when I saw a moderate green and white sign: Belmont Plateau. Belmont Plateau is a green area with fields and some picnic areas. If you were going to a picnic at the plateau you would be happy to see this sign and its helpful little arrow. If you weren’t looking for the plateau there’s a good chance you would miss it altogether.

I did neither. I lost my breath, my train of thought derailed and, just like in a movie, I stopped speaking in the middle of a sentence. My companion asked what was going on and I told her in a faraway voice that this was where I used to practice football in high school. In said movie, we might cue an eighty minute flashback. It would show a younger me about to go through something trying, something I wasn’t suited for, but in the end gaining something important from the experience.

If you’re worried now that this is going to be a post about past glories on the football field, then we obviously have never met in person. In the first place, there were exactly zero glories on the football field with which to regale you. There were, in fact, two debacles. Second, even if there were some glories, I wouldn’t want to be that middle aged male caricature, whose [enter sport here] career as a young man somehow gets more and more glorious with each passing year and each inch added to the waistline.

The fact is that while many I knew look back with great warmth and nostalgia at their high school career, I do not. Rather, high school football was the first time I remember hating being active. It was when exercise stopped being fun and became work.

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A British Man Buys Books

There’s a new English bookstore in town and I have found myself there several times in the last four months. This bookstore has everything I could possibly want. It’s a large room filled with cheap English books, those selling said books are young, attractive, and clad in boxy glasses, and it’s literally across the street from one of my favorite pubs.

Last Saturday, I brought three books up to the counter. Life couldn’t be better. It was Friday and I was about to leave my second favorite venue for my first favorite one.

Perhaps in anticipation of that mecca I looked across the street at the pub’s entrance.

“Dobrý den,” the woman behind the counter said. She was early twenty-something, guardedly chipper, and wore glasses which suggested a knowledge of Sartre.

“Dobrý den” I said back.

“Oh,” she stuttered a second. “Um…hello. Is this all?”

OK, this happens. Sometimes Czechs switch to English upon realizing their interlocutor isn’t a native Czech speaker. It has upset me before, both morally and conversationally. Morally I sometimes take it as an indictment on the quality of my Czech. Conversationally I get flummoxed as to what language I should speak back. I have had entire conversations with a Czech person speaking English and me speaking Czech. It’s like being in a David Lynch dream sequence.

“Right,” I said, “that’ll be all then.” The words themselves aren’t as notable as the fact that I spoke them in what my brain tells me is a British accent. I clipped the ‘T’ off of the ‘Right’ and based the rest on Inspector Morse, Tiny Tim, and what I’d always imagined Mr. Bean would sound like.

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Folkloric Villain Support Group Discusses the Concept of Blame

Big Bad Wolf: Thank you, Wicked Witch of the West, for your thoughts on modern day beauty expectations and our collective role as scapegoat. Agreed that there is something to be said for the physical representations we’ve been put into. I am, after all, a massive wolf. Big eyes, big teeth. You know the deal. I do think it’s best you don’t sit next to Rumpelstiltskin next time. I think his short stature make you a bit squirrelly.

Wicked Witch of the West: Yes, I think so. Thank you.

Rumpelstiltskin: Bitch.

Big Bad Wolf: That’s enough.

Evil Step Mother: I’ll put on another pot of coffee.

Big Bad Wolf: Thank you. Rump, I’m recommending a course of sensitivity training for you.

Rumpelstiltskin: But she started it!

Big Bad Wolf: (Growls)

Rumpelstiltskin: Fine. But she goes too.

Big Bad Wolf: We’ll talk about this later. (lights cigarette). OK, Hideous Old Witch, you’re up. Everyone give her your attention please. We’re talking today about the concept of blame, how it’s affected us all, and perhaps the unfairness of our perception in everyday society.

Hideous Old Witch: Thank you. Hello.

Everyone: Hello, Hideous Old Witch.

Hideous Old Witch: I’ve been having trouble recently.

Ogre: It’s OK. Just tell us what’s happening.

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Ten White Guys Who Speak English

You have no doubt seen some of those “challenges” around Facebook now. Which ten album covers most influenced your fashion choices as a teen? (sadly, Harry Chapin) Which ten Bob Dylan songs are your favorite to sing in the shower (obvs, Desolation Row).

The one I was nominated for was simple enough: Your ten favorite books. What the hell, I thought. I love books, talking about books, and making lists. This was a win-win. Naturally I took the opportunity to enjoy the nice autumn air (at my local pub’s garden) and make a list. And while I was making the list, I made a decision: I would not lie.

I am not saying everyone out there is lying about this stuff. But I do feel there’s a tendency for people to lie about these things so as to look more sophisticated and worldly than their actual choices might suggest. The things we like vs. the things we think we should like. I have a friend who gushes over the brilliance of Citizen Caine and 8 12, but he could do every character from beginning to end in Groundhog Day as a one man show.

And so I wrote my list. Each writer on that list have three things in common: they’re all white, they’re all male, and they’re all native English speakers.

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Screen Time Rules

My Menagerie Anxiously Awaits the Return of the WiFi So They Can Watch The Muppets)

I walk back into the office in my flat. I click the WiFi settings. I refresh. The horrendous yellow traffic cone is still there’ its message conveys no WiFi yet dude.

As I have two computers now, I go to the computer in the living room. It’s older and makes the same sounds my neighbor’s dog used to make when he’d gone blind and start an argument with the wall. Still, it’s hanging in there by a string and a prayer and we use it as our television for Netflix and streamed shows.

I click WiFi. Refresh. Yellow cone. No! It’s official, I’m offline.

As someone who groups words into stories, I am often looking for a little more time. I get up at 5 a.m. during the semester in order to get my writing in first thing in the morning. If given the opportunity, I would get up at 7:30, but I have no control over my schedule and I have to deal with what I’m given.

If a school task or a proofreading job takes up time that should be spent on fiction or blog, I can get quite testy. I feel uneven if I can’t get the words in every day. I snap at the cat. It’s a bad scene.

So on this lovely Saturday afternoon in which I am home alone, have exactly no obligations in the immediate future should be a godsend. I could hole up in my office and work for two hours, go out for a beer in the evening with the creative juices brewing in my cortexes.

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