Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Gibbon Remedy: Today, I Got Nothin’, So You Get a Short Story!

I’m pretty knocked out from a big week at work, and I’ve been fighting off a tension-induced migraine all weekend. Ergo, I have no scintillating or witty takes on any topics today.  (“But what makes that different from any other day?” you may justifiably ask, but please don't.)  Since I’m drawing a complete blogging blank here, I figured I’d toss up one of my short stories that was published last year in Big Pulp’s anthology, “Apeshit!” I hope you enjoy it!

The Gibbon Remedy

They said these gibbons were special, just for the girls, and to Sweeny this made sense. Girls and monkeys went natural together. The gibbons were going help them feel better about the war, the teacher said.

“They are called ‘therapy monkeys’ and they are very costly to train,” Sweeny explained to her mother, who was having her day in bed. Sweeny had rehearsed this on her way home. It made her feel knowledgeable. “Monkeys have diseases in their spit,” her mother said. “Stay back from the cages.” She signed the permission slip, turned to the wall, and covered her head with the quilt. “Now be an angel and bring mommy an egg-and-toast.”

It was hard for Sweeny to sleep, thinking about the gibbons. The encyclopedias had almost all been used for fire, but they still had F-G. She read that gibbons are frugivorous, diurnal and arboreal. She repeated these words in a whisper: frugivorous, diurnal and arboreal. A mystery. The libraries were long-gone and now Sweeny had to find mysteries wherever they presented themselves: A glass tube of vanilla lip gloss skittering down an alley, two long wrinkled hands cupping a lighter, a blue foam roller stuck in a raspberry bush. But the monkeys would have real mysteries; eye mysteries. Gibbons, she read, went together each morning to the edge of the woods and sang to let everyone know which part of it was theirs.

Sweeny put the book down and pulled the rags out of the hole in the floor to see if it had gotten black-dark outside yet.  The hole was left over from the war, but Sweeny couldn’t remember if had been there years or only months. It was black-dark, and Sweeny smelled the comforting burn of pesticide. Through the hole, she sang a high, meek song about their frailty, about her mother’s days in bed and how little they could ask for nowadays. She crammed the rags back in and fell asleep with F-G open on her stomach, the gibbons hugging her ribs.

They were taken to the monkeys in a dirty mint-green bus with ripped-up seats. Sweeny sat next to Fionna, who wore boy’s plaid shirts and used to chew gum all of the time back when you could get it anywhere. Sweeny had always admired Fionna’s easy-going ways. “What if a gibbon tried to kiss you?” Sweeny asked Fionna. “If he took you in his big fat arms and pushed you against the cage bars and tried to kiss you?” Fionna yawned. “I’d scream,” she said.

They all had to get out of the bus and be counted and put T-shirts on over their clothes before going into the low hut that held the monkeys. The T-shirts were green and yellow and read “Go, Go Gibbons! Experience for Youth.” Sweeny was proud of hers. A full-hipped young woman in glasses and a baseball hat came out from the hut and waved at them. “Welcome!” she shouted. She said her name was Patty! She told them not to strike the monkeys, throw things at them, make noises, or mock them in any way. She told them to keep their hands to themselves and be respectful of the monkeys because they were shy, just as shy as people could sometimes be. She told them that these monkeys were specially trained to be loving towards children, but even they had their limits. She told them that they were not to wander off on their own and they were to do what their guides told them at all times. Sweeny listened impatiently to the woman’s preamble about their cutting-edge monkey therapy program, and finally found herself heading into the odoriferous hut. She looked around for the gibbons but at first there was just museum stuff, a boring man talking when you pushed a button, and a life-sized diorama of monkeys in a rain forest.

But they kept heading down some straw-covered stairs and Sweeny felt dizzy when she could actually hear the snorts and grunts of the gibbons. “Your gibbons,” said Patty, “have been hand-selected for you based on your personality type.” Sweeny didn’t recall telling anyone about her personality, but she figured maybe they watched of that sort of thing now because of the war. “We would like you to interact lovingly with your gibbon. To trust him or her. To explore the joy of sharing with them.”

Sweeny was assigned to Apartment 18, “Roland.” They unlatched the door to his pod and let her walk right in. Two smiling young people in polo shirts, a man and a woman, stood outside, clutching clipboards. The room was empty, but she could sense a lurking, musty presence nearby. She sat down in the thin straw on the floor and ducked her head demurely. Then she began to sing again, her weak, high song. She felt a brightness upon her; a rustle from above the platform, two black eyes. Then, a thick rubbery hand, pressing into her tiny bones. Sweeny was crying from fear now, but the hand stayed. She opened her eyes and looked at Roland. He pulled his lips back and patted her hand. He released her and ran to a wooden box in the center of the room, where he pulled out a blue spinning top and pushed it at her. Sweeny took the top and spun it hard. Roland shook and made hooting sounds as the top hummed and blurred across the floorboards. There was a clatter as the top sputtered to a stop on a soft spot in the wooden floor. Roland clapped and screeched.

Sweeny crawled over to the top, curled her fingers around the rotted wood, and pried it loose. A cold green rush of air filled her mouth. She glanced at the clipboard people, but they were looking down and writing something. She yanked again, and again, and peered down into a windy vacuum through a hole about the size of her nine-year-old head. She quickly grabbed some straw and the old wood and shoved it all back into place, then made the “come here” gesture to Roland, all while watching the clipboard people closely. Roland lumbered over to her and hunkered down. Sweeny pointed to the hole and put her finger over her lips in a “shhh”. Roland hugged himself tightly and sucked on his lips. Sweeney whispered to him and moved back to the center of the room.

“What else do you have to play with, Roland?” she asked loudly. The clipboard people smiled and made a notation. After they had played with a beach ball, an abacus, and a pop-up book, the clipboard people blew a whistle and Roland began dragging all of the toys back into the chest. Sweeny winked at him when she shook his hand goodbye. Afterwards the girls got rice cream and a free book mark at the gift shop.

That night, after her mother had fallen asleep to the radio, Sweeny took the rags out of the hole in the floor and leaned in. This time she sang of Roland the Guardian, the great monkey protector and God of all Guardians. She sang of his devotion and his suffering. She sang of his courage and selflessness. She sang of his cleverness with counting and his gracefulness with beach balls. She stuck her head far down the windy hole and howled for Roland, guiding him with her voice. She shone her penlight into the hole and winked it on and off. But Roland didn’t come, and her mother slept all of the next day, even when Sweeny got back from school.

Sweeny went out the stoop and sat in the cold, sour air, watching for a mint-green bus to take her back to the monkeys. But very few vehicles came down the street since the war, and Sweeny got hungry. She went inside and made egg sandwiches, but when she went to wake her mother, her mother didn’t move or open her eyes. Sweeny covered her back up and went to the living room and sat her on bedroll. She ate both of the sandwiches and fed the crumbs to a trio of ants.

The next morning Sweeny stayed home in bed with her mother, waiting for her to open her eyes. But throughout the day, her mother’s skin grew cooler and her eyes never opened. Sweeny knew that this was death, that this is what it did to a body. She took a clean rag from the basin in the bathroom and carefully washed her mother’s face with it. She brushed out her hair and covered her up to her chest with the quilt. They didn’t have a phone, so she wouldn’t be able to call anyone until she went to school. She would have to tell the teacher. Sweeny made a glass of powdered milk and sat next to the hole in the floor. She wanted to sing but she couldn’t open her throat even to drink the milk. She only wanted to sit as still and rigid as she could. She would not move again. No matter what, she would not sing, just sit. She would take only the number of breaths needed for bare survival. She would not allow thirst or hunger to sway her. She would let the mice scramble over her legs and wouldn’t move a muscle on her own behalf.

Sweeny woke up in the night, cold and uncovered. Her hair was wet and matted, and her eyes were crusty. She decided to try to scream. She sat up and opened her mouth, but she could not make noise. If she could not sing again, Roland would never come. She put her head into the hole in the floor and managed a weak whistle. The whistle gave her strength and she found herself able to make a small grunt, then another, then, finally, a long, resonant bellow. She screamed and screamed into the hole, until she began to frighten herself and stopped.

In the morning, she got on the bus for school. She had not taken her sink-bath or combed her hair or changed out of her clothes. She sat in the back alone and turned her head away from Fionna when she tried to sit next to her. At lunch, she told Mrs. Morgan about her mother. Mrs. Morgan took Sweeny to the sick room and there were phone calls. The other kids got to go to the gym to play for the afternoon. Someone brought Sweeny a cheese sandwich and a sliced tomato and hot chocolate. Mrs. Morgan was crying. When the hallways were clear, Sweeny opened the door to the sickroom and left the school. She left her book bag and ran and ran and ran, stopping only to vomit up the tomato and chocolate.

When she unlocked her apartment, her mother’s bed was empty. Sweeny made up the bed and went back to sit on her bedroll. She imagined Mrs. Morgan opening the door to the sickroom and gasping. Everyone asking where is Sweeny where is Sweeny oh where did Sweeny go. Sweeny thought it would be a good song: Oh where oh where did Sweeny go, well a-hunting with her monkey-oh, heydy-hiedy-hiedy-ho. Where oh where did Sweeny go, well she went a-swimming with her gibbon-oh. Sweeny began to sing. She felt gut-punched with a wild joy. She spun and cackled and did her mad-woman dance, a dance she only did alone in the night when they had a fire and there was thunder. When she began to cramp, she stopped and laid down, her ear on top of the rags on top of the hole in the floor. The sun moved across the ceiling then across the back wall, going sticky and thick then vanishing altogether. No one came for her, but they would. She would be adopted, or go to a Home. There would no gibbons because of their diseased spit. They wouldn’t have a hole in the floor or any mysteries.

In the night, her heart began to thud so heavily that it hurt her ears. Her heart tripped like heavy feet on a bad floor. Thunder sounded in her head but it was not weather-thunder, it was monkey-thunder, blood thunder, it was the song of the gibbons claiming their stake in the world, massing in hordes to sing their song of boundaries, of home. She thrust her hand into the hole in the floor and waited for Roland. When finally his clumsy, dry, familiar hand found hers, she held on.


--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, April 6, 2014

My ADD Book Reviews

I’m scattered and unfocused today, as I’ve been preoccupied by the looming specter of a large work event I’m in charge of this week that’s been eight months in the planning. My mind has been completely annexed by event-related topics like programs, flower arrangements, catering menus, and door prizes, not to mention the nagging fear that in managing all of the details, I have somehow Forgotten Something Major and as such, the whole thing is going to turn into an epic catastrophe. So today instead of my usual musings, I’m going to grace you with the most ADD book reviews ever. What follows will be stream-of-consciousness blathering on books I’ve read or have been reading. Some of them I haven’t even finished yet.

The Underachiever’s Manifesto: The Guide to Accomplishing Little and Feeling Great, by Ray Bennett, MD

This unassuming little tome is one of my favorites. It’s short, it’s easy to read, and it contains bountiful founts of wisdom such as:

“Work twice as hard, burn out twice as fast. Going the extra mile only leads to exhaustion.”

“Despite everything you may have heard about striving for excellence, mediocrity is the key to happiness.”

“It’s a simple fact of life that your successes and failures really don’t matter to nearly everybody alive. And the sooner you realize that, the sooner you can take comfort from it and get on with underachievement.”

“The achievement lobby is powerful, and underachievement is, surprisingly, not as easy as it should be. Our world is so full of messages about being the best you can be that may not have even occurred to you to try for anything less.”

When I start to fret about how little I feel I have achieved in my life and how I’m not good enough, I just pull out “The Underachiever’s Manifesto” and read a few pages. It’s a great antidote to crippling perfectionism.

Patient Zero, by Jonathan Mayberry

This is an utterly absurd novel, overstuffed with every terrible, hackneyed zombie apocalypse/crack military special forces cliché ever invented, and I can’t stop reading it. It’s fantastic. There are secret underground bunkers, stiff-upper lip British military commanders, gruesome zombie battle scenes, and a female mad scientist who actually cackles when she achieves the pinnacle of success with her bioweapon plague…wait for it…Generation not Ten, not Eleven….but TWELVE!!! Bwahahahahaha! She shall now unleash it upon America, and the US will be destroyed in the name of Allah!  I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s a nail-biter. Will a rag-tag band of crack military mavericks be able to contain the outbreak? It’s not looking great for American right now, but I’ll keep you posted.

High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed, by Michael Kodas

Continuing with my afore-mentioned obsession with mountaineering disasters, I downloaded this book to my Kindle shortly after finishing “Into Thin Air” by John Kraukarer. This one I’m not so sure about. It starts off wonderfully bitter and cranky, but then suddenly gets pedantic and dull, going into mind-numbing historical detail about people who appear to be only bit players in the writer’s life. With no context, I’m having a hard time understanding why I need a good tale interrupted by all of these needless details. Or maybe that’s my ADD speaking. I’m going to try to pick it up again and power through these sections, hoping it will gain momentum soon.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, by David Eagleman


I’ve mentioned this book before but it’s definitely worth mentioning more than once. This is shaping up to be one of my all-time favorite books. I’ll do my best to describe it, although it’s best experienced directly. It’s essentially a series of imaginative essays on the nature of God and the afterlife, rooted in philosophy, spirituality, and wild speculation. One of my favorite essays in the book posits that you when you die, you can’t move on to Heaven until your name is spoken for the last time. So after death, you wait in a large, hotel-like lobby, sometimes for years and years, for your name to be uttered on earth for the last time. Another describes God as microbe, not above us but within us, unaware that we exist. I’m not really doing it justice here. You just have to read it. It’s so amazing! Get the hardback. It’s one of those books you’ll want to keep around for a long time. 

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, March 30, 2014

My New Fake Career, “Public About Privacy” Recap, and a Couple o’ Poems

I’m a video game writer now! Well, not actually, but I’ve always had fantasies of writing video games, and I finally got up the gumption to try my hand at creating my own Neverwinter Nights quest using  The Foundry, their content creation engine. It turns out my imagination is far bigger than my technical skills, so the first quest I wrote was too elaborate for me to pull off as a complete novice. I’m working on a much simpler story now, one that doesn’t involve custom map design and epic-level plot complications. The number one rule of newbie quest creation—don’t overreach! Anyone who thinks that video games aren’t art are profoundly wrong. Balancing all of the elements that go into creating a compelling player experience takes enormous skill and artistry. I’d be happy just to create something that entertains someone mildly for about thirty minutes. Things have been heavy in this typist’s life lately, and it’s amazing how a little side project has managed to perk up my sagging spirits. I’m excited to see if I can actually pull off designing a fun, well-written quest that people will want to play.

I’m happy to report that the "Public about Privacy" reading at the Good Shepard Center last Wednesday went swimmingly! It was a nice, quirky bunch of folks, all with very interesting takes on privacy—looking at it politically, spiritually, physically, and even as it pertains to the human/animal connection.  Therapist and novelist Rebecca Meredith read an excerpt from the sequel to her novel “The Last of the Pascagoula”, which addressed the lack of physical privacy afforded to quadriplegics. It made me consider all of the ways in which we lose privacy when we’re severely ill, hospitalized, or otherwise dependent on others for physical care. Sometimes I wonder if the loss of privacy is actually worse than any disease we could get that would make us dependent on others for our care.

The reading organizer David D. Horowitz read a series of poems that ran the gamut, but one in particular stood out for me—it talked about the utterly creepy and apparently ubiquitous practice of putting cameras in the eyeballs of department store dummies, which record data about you such as age, gender, and how long you linger in certain areas of the store. This interfaces with facial recognition data to create a detailed portrait of your movements and your potential buying habits. (Shudders). Victoria Ford read poems that addressed our relationship to privacy and the natural world, Dennis Caswell read a hilarious satire ad for a truly terrifying Google product, (I only pray it remains in the realm of fiction), and one of my local favorites, Michael Spence, a retired Metro driver, read several great poems culminating in one that told the fascinating tale of an altercation between a driver and a passenger that was caught on a bus camera. My poems addressed issues of when privacy is taken from us, and when we give it away. Here for your reading enjoyment (or indifference, as the case may be), are two of the poems I read. (“The Suffering of Others” was originally published by qarrtsiluni.)


True Story

When I was child, I knew how to speak in tongues, but no one noticed. I was terrified of losing control of my gift and exploding during Mass, my jaw opening against my will; spewing forth a frantic, fiery rush of God. How embarrassing, and how furious my mom would be. So on Sundays, I made up stomach aches, and huddled alone on the porch, speaking in tongues to a ceramic snail. He understood everything; in fact, he knew so much about me that eventually, he had to be destroyed. I was heartbroken as I stomped on him with my clean white Keds. I buried the shards underneath the porch, and the next day, when I went to check on his remains, a blood red Devil’s Tongue had blossomed from his grave.


The Suffering of Others

You can protect yourself from the negative
energy of a crowd by envisioning white
light surrounding
your entire body. Imagine this light
enveloping, protecting you.
Imagine this light
filtering out  the suffering of others, the pain
your body is prone to absorb as its own.
Imagine this light
as your shield, your womb, your favored skin,
your dearest armor,
your police dog, your invisible
fence, your power word, your safe house.
Imagine this light
filling you, traveling
from the soles of your feet  into
your spine, through your
core, and when grief

howls in with a vengeance, when you are
bowled over and
bewildered, by the failure of this light,
after the blow
of betrayal, you might well say,
you might  well understand,
that it was never Them at all.
It was never feasible: no skin no light
no prayers saves us for we have,
all of us, swallowed
ourselves, and contain

only one another.

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Well, That’s It. I’m Officially Old and Frumpy.

Recently a friend met me in my neighborhood for a foray into Retro Hipster Thrift Shop (not its real name) where she attempted, with middling success, to sell some of her old clothes. Recalling that I’d stored away some perfectly serviceable pants and dresses after I lost weight, a dollar-shaped light bulb went off in my head. The next day I bagged up a bunch of pants, dresses, and shirts and headed off to Retro Hipster Thrift Shop with supreme confidence, dreaming of how I would spend the fistfuls of cash I was certain they would eagerly fork over for my duds.

The nice young woman at the counter, who sported a Betty Page hairstyle and a sweater set embroidered with cats, methodically took every single item out of the bag, inspected it with an inscrutable expression, and efficiently re-folded it and set it on the counter. It felt surprisingly intimate and vulnerable to stand there while she silently judged my clothes. After about ten embarrassing minutes she finally said, “I really appreciate you bringing these in, but I don’t see anything here we can take for the store. We’re looking for very current styles.” I felt stung, but I left with my head and my bag of frumpy duds held high. When I got home, Mr. Typist asked how much I made off of my clothes, and when I told him I had been summarily rejected, he said with earnest concern, “Are you okay?” “Not really,” I sniffled, shoving the bag into the hall closet. I suppose being subtly condescended to by the hip and young is a rite of passage we all go through at a certain age, but I admit it did rankle me a tad. I mean, I’ve seen the clothes in their store, and frankly, they aren’t that great, so I don’t know what she was on about with my offerings being out of style. Hmph. Whatever. That Betty Page haircut isn’t going to look cute on her forever. One day she’ll be old and out of touch like me, and she’ll know what it’s like to be to be rejected by whatever nineties-retro-wearing hipster judges her clothes.

Now I have the added burden of mild paranoia that all this time, people have been clucking their tongues and shaking their heads behind my back at my dowdy clothing, and that maybe that’s what’s been holding me back from a meteoric rise to the top. I just didn’t know, and nobody told me! What if I’ve been a candidate for What Not to Wear for years, but no one’s rescued me with a credit card and a whirlwind shopping trip to New York City? I guess in the end, I should just take all of this philosophically. I’ve never been one to dress for anything other than comfort and ease of movement, and just get away with the bare minimum needed to look presentable. It’s saved me a lot of time and frustration, and I don’t regret a thing. Do you hear that, Betty? I don’t regret a thing!

On another, less shallow and self-involved note, if you’re in the Seattle area, please come out to see “Public about Privacy: Poems and Stories about Privacy” at the Good Shepard Center on Wednesday, March 26th at 7:00 p.m. I’ll be reading work from “The Acme Employee Handbook” and some other poems, along with stellar poets David D. Horowitz, Dennis Caswell, Victoria Ford, Rebecca Meredith, and Michael Spence. It’s a timely and important topic, and we’d love to have you join us!


--Kristen McHenry

Saturday, March 15, 2014

My Sudden Summit Obsession, Human Guides, and a Dash of Internet Fairy Dust

This week, Mr. Typist and I watched “The Summit”, a documentary about the infamous disaster on K2 in August of 2008, when eleven climbers lost their lives over the course of 48 hours due to a combination of poor leadership, incompetence, and sheer horrible luck. It was an uneven and hard-to-follow film, but it was still incredibly compelling. Since watching it, I dove down an obsessive rabbit-hole of mountaineering disaster porn, reading insatiably about deaths and calamities on the world’s highest peaks. I downloaded John Krakaurer’s “Into Thin Air” on my Kindle, read up on the basics of ice climbing and the minutia of trekking Mt. Everest, and engaged in detailed conversation with my work friend who, as it turns out, is hugely obsessed with the same topic. I don’t know where my sudden and all-encompassing fascination comes from, but I can’t stop thinking about it.

I have no interest whatsoever in climbing a mountain. I’ve always thought that people who brag about “conquering” mountains are silly at best and delusional at worst. The mountain doesn’t give a damn one way or the other. The mountain is not in competition with anyone, so the idea that one can conquer it is fueled by nothing more than deluded ego. Also, I’ve never been outdoorsy. I don’t even like eating at sidewalk cafes. I’m an indoor girl all the way, and the more ways my indoor environment allows me to shut out the world, the better. (I hate the new indoor/outdoor architectural design trend, too, but that’s a rant for another time.) The whole sub-zero cold/physical exertion/altitude sickness thing is completely unappealing. So this obsession is not coming from a repressed desire to scale Mt. Aconcagua. I think it’s related to my deep interest in the intersection of morality, human error, chance, control, and chaos. Also, I can’t get my head around the idea of volunteering for a situation in which you know you have high chance of having to make the morally ambiguous choice of leaving a distressed human being to die, because to rescue them would put more people in danger. I’m fascinated by people who are so fanatical about achieving what is essentially a meaningless goal that they would walk over a dying person to accomplish it. I don’t have all my thoughts together yet, but I’ll blog more about the topic once I have a few more books under my belt…which I will be reading in my warm abode, on my reclining couch, with the shades drawn against the elements.

I believe that if we are very, very lucky, there are people in our lives who, whether they know it or not, are assigned to watch over us. They may not start off understanding this, or even be aware of it when it’s happening, but they are the ones who appear in our moments of crisis, who guide us through our worst suffering, who always just happen to say the right thing at the right time; who are endlessly open to receive us, even in our worst state. This week, I reconnected with my own human guide. I am so deeply grateful for his presence in my life. He and his wife’s compassion and open-heartedness set me on a path to healing in the aftermath of a wrenching situation, and I only hope that I can one day be that person for someone else in need. Maybe I already am, and I’m just not meant to know it.

The internet is a scary place, but every now and then you come across a magical sprinkling of wise “words to live by” fairly dust that you simply must disseminate to others. So if you are a hyper worrier, an over-achiever, a control freak, a neurotic, a depressive, a compulsive hand-wringer, or the just plain worried well,  take heed:

"If the scope of life never extends beyond one moment, that means you never have to deal with more than one moment. You can bring all your attention and resources to bear on making the smartest move right now; there needn’t be any other considerations. This means that there are not a million things to do, or a million people to please. All you ever have to do is observe the moment that is happening, and pick an action that makes sense to you."-David Cain of Raptitude.com


--Kristen McHenry


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Poets on Privacy, Work Pod, and Novel Thoughts

The preeminent David D. Horowitz, owner of Rose Alley Press, is holding a poetry reading on privacy called “Public about Privacy” on Wednesday, March 26th, at 7:00 p.m. at the Good Shepherd Center, Room 202 (4649 Sunnyside Avenue North, Seattle). This is a timely and important topic, and I would encourage you to attend if you can. Participating poets include Dennis Caswell, Victoria Ford, David D. Horowitz, Rebecca Meredith, Bethany Reid, Michael Spence and myself. I’ll be reading poems from “The Acme Employee Handbook” related to workplace privacy issues. It promises to be a fun and illuminating evening!

Speaking of “The Acme EmployeeHandbook”, I took a bit of a risk this week. I’ve been a long-time listener to The Boss Show, a podcast centered entirely around work issues. Hosts Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko are funny, opinionated, and smart, and I appreciate their unorthodox take on workplace issues. Since my book is centered around issues of work, I wanted to share it with them. But of course that involved asking them if I could send them the book, the thought of which tied me up in knots of nervous embarrassment and pre-shame in anticipation of their certain mockery and rejection. Because that’s how I go through life—convinced that even minor requests on my own behalf are jaw-droppingly audacious and that people will go out of their way to make fun of me for no reason. But I managed to get over that emotional hurdle and send them an e-mail request anyway. And I got a really friendly, positive response back! That was a nice shiny light in my week of work drudgery, and a good reminder that there are still kind and open people in the world.

A short story has been rattling around in my head for a while, but I’ve got some good momentum going on the novel and I want to crank out the first draft without further distraction. I’m a just a tad past the halfway mark at 48,000 words, and I’m excited at the possibility that I can actually complete it—a whole, entire novel. What started out as an exploratory exercise in chick lit has turned into a much deeper experience of self-examination and healing. The main characters in most first novels are usually a direct reflection of the writer, and my book is no exception. Even though my main character Harley North is very different from me externally, I realized recently that internally, we’re very much alike. It’s been fun to write a character who presents as bold and brash and impulsive; who does and says things that I never could. But as Harley’s journey in the book deepens and she has to face some long-buried pain, I’m coming full circle back to revisiting my own experience of resistance and denial, suffering, and finally acceptance and healing. It’s not what I asked for, and it hasn’t been always been comfortable, but I’m going to see it through to the end. It’s taken on a life of it’s own, and all I can do now is go along for the ride.

--Kristen McHenry

Saturday, March 1, 2014

We Really Need to Stop Overdoing Everything

There are way too many overachieving businesses out there these days, and I for one would like them all to take it down a notch. Let me explain: This week I met a lovely co-worker of mine for dinner in my neighborhood. We picked a place neither of us had been before. It turned out to be one of those bewildering, high-concept, locally-sourced-everything places with inscrutable menu options. I was so confused I almost ordered a plate of raw beef by accident because I didn’t know what “crudo” was. About the only thing on the one-sheet menu I recognized was pizza, but the toppings were all foreign and most of the vegetables weren’t ones I’d heard of. To make it additionally confusing, they grouped everything in these bizarre plate combinations, so I had to decide if soppressata, gem lettuce, pecorina and frissee in a raw kale bowl was going to be palatable. It got even more upsetting when the server came over to explain the specials. She not only told us what the specials were, but the location of the farms each animal came from, where the semolina for the pasta was “sourced”, who butchered the lamb, and the full life cycle of the Jerusalem artichokes.  

Up until then, I had considered myself a pretty adventurous eater. Not a sophisticated gourmand by any means, but at least someone who was up for trying new things. But this was exhausting. I just wanted to have dinner with my work buddy. I was in no mood to be educated, and I was uncomfortable with having that much intimate knowledge of something I was about to chew, swallow and digest. It seemed pointless. I know this is sacrilege in the era of Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, but I don’t really want to know where my food comes from. (Anyway, Michael Pollan made me mad once for making fun of my beloved canned beef soup on NPR.) I just don’t view food as an intellectual exercise or an “event”. Here are my requirements for food I put in my mouth: It needs to fuel me for my work day, be reasonably tasty, and require minimal thought on my part. Even when I go out to dine, I want to spend that time enjoying the company I’m with. Yes, I love and appreciate good food, but to me, the food itself is beside the point. The last thing I want is to have to puzzle through a confusing menu and engage in a frustrating conversation with the server while trying to suss out what nettle bucatini is.

A few weekends ago, Mr. Typist and I decided to be tourists in our own city. We went downtown and rode the giant Ferris wheel and visited the aquarium and tooled around the Market. We popped into a downtown mall to warm up, and I went into Shop-o-Soaps-That-Look-Like-Desserts. (Not its real name.) My hands were chapped and cold, so I slathered a sample of delicious-smelling hand crème on them, while politely declining help from no less than three hyper-friendly retail clerks who offered to take me on a “scent journey” or explain that their peppermint was purchased from a sustainable cooperative in the Brazilian rainforest.

It was a cold, windy day, and the last leg of our journey was a fifteen block walk to the Spaghetti Factory, so I jammed my hands deep into to my parka pockets the whole way. The next day, I noticed an odd smell coming from the parka. It wasn’t unpleasant, just strange and unfamiliar. Then I realized the cream on my hands must have sweated into the coat fabric. I figured the smell would go away soon. The next day, I hung my parka up in my office and went out for a meeting. When I came back, my entire office was redolent with the hand-cream smell, which had morphed into something sickly and floral, but somehow even stronger than it was the night before. When I got home, I sprayed the coat with Febreeze, but it had no effect whatsoever. For two full weeks, whatever room I hung up my coat in reeked with this scent. What the hell did they put in their hand cream? Why must they overachieve with their products? I just wanted something for chapped hands. I didn’t think it would marry me to a weird, frighteningly tenacious odor for two weeks of my life.

I think it’s time for all this overachieving and over-complicating to stop. I want a return to the days of the simple diner, where the coffee comes bulk in foil bags and you can choose omelets, chicken fried steak, or oatmeal. I want unscented Pond’s hand cream. I want a corner drugstore that sells burlap sacks of flour and penny candy. I want a lack of consumer choices. We’re gotten way to complex with everything and it’s making life one long marathon of absurd information overload. It’s not that I dismiss the importance of having some awareness as a consumer, but it becomes a matter of diminishing returns at some point. Everything is so massively interconnected now that there really aren’t any purely ethical choices left anymore. And darnit, sometimes a girl just wants an industrial, chemical-laden hot dog on a stick cranked out in some anonymous factory in Kanas.

Full disclosure: At the restaurant, I ordered a lamb pasta dish. And it was so heavenly I have thought about it every day since. So I will grudgingly admit there may be something to their annoying methods.


--Kristen McHenry

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Acme Employee Handbook is Available Today!

Out today in e-format is my poetry chapbook, “The Acme Employee Handbook”! All poetry books are ultimately a labor of love (they certainly aren’t profit engines), but this one is especially meaningful to me. It was written over a year and half period when I was adjusting to a job in a radically new environment, and during a time when I was ruminating a lot on the meaning of work in our lives. (I still ruminate on that a lot, but I’ve been writing about other things since I completed the book.)

I hope you’ll take a peek! The e-version is a mere $3.00, and the paperback will be coming out some time in the summer. Thanks to Jaffa Books for taking a chance on a somewhat experimental book, and thanks to Mr. Typist for encouraging me to keep on plugging away at it when I was ready to throw in the towel. You can get your copy at the following link:


I’ll return to regular weekly posts this weekend. It was all routinous interuptus over last weekend when I threw in the towel on my usual to-do list and decided to take some “me time” hanging out with friends and playing Neverwinter Nights.

--Kristen McHenry



Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Trouble with Atheists

I’m not happy that it’s come to this, but I finally have to get some things off my chest about atheists. I’ve stated here before that I think it’s a good thing that atheists are speaking up and gaining more visibility. I think they have an important humanitarian message to share, and their voices are a long-needed counterbalance to the overwhelming, and often destructive religiosity of the U.S. But damn, they are really starting to annoy me.

For the record, as much as I would like to be, I am not personally an atheist. I’m not a Christian, although I was raised Catholic, and I don’t believe in a sky-God or think there is some grand entity “out there” looking down on humanity and performing divine interventions. But I’ve had multiple unexplainable experiences that lead me to describe myself with that vague and lazy phrase atheists detest—“spiritual but not religious.” I suppose in short, I would describe myself as a mystic, a strange, archaic word which I like a lot and am considering claiming unabashedly.

I recently read this interview in Salon with “The Age of Atheists” author Peter Watson. This snippet of the interview really set me off:

“I’ve attended numerous so-called “Atheist Church” services over the last year, and I notice words like “awe,” “mystery,” and “transcendence” floating around a lot. They make me cringe. Does it seem to you that a new wave of “Atheists” is trying to reclaim an awe or mystery that is actually rooted in early monotheism?

I’m very much against the concept of transcendence. One problem we have is that many religious words, like “salvation” and “transcendence,” are firmly embedded in our vocabulary. Some people try to make secular equivalents, which I think is a mistake. Rather than going back to the old religious vocabulary, we should go to a new one.

But yes, I think there is a sort of midway stage with some people; they’re not religious, but they are probably mystical. That said, I do think that a lot of the New Age people are basically religious. They don’t buy the great monotheisms, but they seek some sort of otherworldly feeling, which I don’t think is available.”

I found this exchange to be extremely condescending and dismissive. What is so patently offensive and cringe-worthy about the concept of mystery and transcendence? And what does Watson mean when he says that “some sort of otherworldly feeling” isn’t available? It’s very available to me. But I don’t talk about it much anymore and definitely not with atheists because when I have conversations with them about my spiritual experiences, they tend to be very aggressive about defining them as "delusions" or "neurological blips" which is very frustrating to me. It feels like they're telling me I'm too stupid to understand my own experiences, or that I’m imaging them. (Believe me, I wish I had imagined some of them.)

As I’m writing this, I’m struggling very hard with describing the exact nature of my beliefs, and I realize it’s because I’m very uncomfortable stating them, which makes me sad. I used to be braver about these things. I was deeply wounded by my involvement in a spiritual community a number of years ago, which further complicates my feelings about “spiritual people”,  who are just as capable of heinous behavior as anyone else. As a result, I have spent a number of years in a kind of semi-exile from spiritual activities, but always maintained a belief in humanity’s essential divinity.

I won’t apologize for being someone who believes that humanity has a higher purpose beyond pro-creating and base survival. And for being the sort of person who must believe it, because if I didn’t believe there was a meaning beyond mere survival in this vale of tears and suffering, I would find life to be unbearable and I’d kill myself. Unlike Watson, I don't find the concept of transcendence to be problematic--I find it to be essential.

It’s commendable that atheists have to the courage to live decent lives with the belief that this all there is, but I can’t. And those of us who can’t aren’t stupid or weak-minded. I would ask that atheists to be open to the possibility that people like me experience the lifting of the veil; see beyond the limits of physical reality, connect to something beyond the scope of our scientific understanding. Could these experiences and intuitions simply be the illusions of an overactive imagination or the fever dreams of a high-strung poet? It’s possible, but I don’t think so. I honor the experience of atheists and I don’t extrapolate about their character or intelligence based on their beliefs—I would just ask the same of them.  

--Kristen McHenry



Sunday, February 9, 2014

I'm Now A Short-Haired Man-Hater, and How Pairs Skating Ruined My Life

Yesterday I went mad with self-disgust and decided it was finally time to do something about my outgrown, scraggly hair and shaggy brows, so I nipped off to the nearest salon for a haircut and wax. After several losing bouts trying to maintain a pixie cut, I’ve kept my hair shoulder-length for the past few years, indifferently tying it back in a ponytail or a clip and letting the rest fall where it may. The result was both boring and unflattering, but I haven’t cared enough to do anything about it.

Part of my reluctance to act is that I never know what I want to do with my hair when I go to get it cut. The dialogue with the stylist becomes a weird power struggle, with them trying to get me to commit to something--anything, and me trying to get them to take total control over the situation and chop my hair into a perfect, magical, alluring, yet low-maintenance cut. They seem to have the idea that I should have input. I don’t want to have input. I just want to plop down into the chair and let them figure out what do. What do I know from hair? They’re the professionals. Why are they asking me all of these questions?  

I found myself in the midst of the same power-struggle with my stylist yesterday, until we both finally realized what I was wanted was her cut. It was adorable, but it was…short. Much shorter than I thought I wanted. Since I’ve stopped with the pixie cuts, I’ve become attached to long hair, because frankly, the social cost of keeping a short cut as a woman in this society is just too tiresome. When I had the pixies, men in the streets would literally call me a lesbian (or, once, memorably—“a red-headed man-hating dyke bitch”), and female co-workers would say things like “You’re so feminine, it’s too bad your hair doesn’t reflect the real you”. When I had long hair and I mentioned casually I was getting it cut, people I didn’t even know very well would immediately say, “but not too short, right?” I’ve never understood this desperate attachment to long hair on women. It’s completely senseless. Long hair does not look good on every female. Sometimes, length does nothing to flatter to our faces and we’re better off without it. And I have seen plenty of very feminine women who look stunning with short hair. Look at what it did to bring out the beautiful bone structure of Charlize Theron.

The problem as I see it is threefold: We have made “long hair” synonymous with “feminine”, men resent women with short hair because they perceive us as being more interested in pleasing ourselves than pleasing them, and no one really sees anyone as a whole person, only as individual body parts. So the fact that a shorter cut is much more flattering to some woman’s faces than a lot of superfluous length is lost on most people. But this red-headed dyke bitch likes her new short cut and doesn’t care what the idiots think.


Speaking of femininity, it’s the Winter Games and ice skating is on! When I was a kid, I loved watching the ice skating, and I thought there was nothing more perfectly girly in the world than the beautiful lady skaters in their sparkly spandex, spinning around and emoting all of their delicate lady-feelings through their painted eyes. But what I really loved was the pairs skating. I realized yesterday while watching the pairs competition that my early ideas about romantic relationships were sadly misinformed by my rapt viewing of pairs skating as a child. (Of course I assumed that all of the pairs couples were married or at least romantically involved.) Pairs skating taught me that relationships were accompanied by grand, romantic music, that love would make you automatically beautiful and graceful, that you would be in perfect sync with your partner at all times, and dressing up in sparkling outfits would be the norm. Frankly, I feel totally cheated. It turns out marriage is nothing like that. I’d love to see a pairs routine that centered around snapping at your spouse for forgetting the decaf and tripping over them because they can’t watch where the hell they’re going. Then little girls like me wouldn’t grow up with unrealistic expectations. 

--Kristen McHenry