Monday, September 15, 2014


You’ll find few soft things on a U.S. Navy ship. The outside of the ship tells you little, other than its sheer size, which causes vertigo as you stand at the edge of the pier and look up to the towering antennas, and the color—which is gray. There are varying shades of gray. Gunmetal gray, deck gray, light gray, dark gray. But they’re all gray and it is a hard color. When you step onboard, you begin to duck—if you’re a fast learner. The tight oval holes of the hatchways sneak up on you in an obvious way. The tops of these ovals hang down from the oppressive ceiling, lower than you expect. Short people, who have never had the need to duck for anything in their lives, will start ducking. It becomes a reflex. Unfortunately, it’s not a reflex you lose once off the ship. Sometimes years later, you can still identify a sailor by his duck-walk. He will duck at the slightest provocation. A low ceiling? Duck. A ceiling fan hung a bit far down? Duck. A doorway that isn’t at least three feet higher than the head? DUCK.

But it’s not just the ducking. A sailor develops a sort of high-stepping shamble. It might sound contradictory, but once you try it, you’ll find it is possible, and quite valuable on a ship. Hatchways have a rim, and that rim will ensure you learn to pull your knees up as you make your way through the ship. The steel rim has an edge—a hard, sharp, unbelievably painful edge. When your shin makes contact with this rim, you will invent new curse words just to increase the variety in your blue-streak. Learning to pick your feet up while you duck is vital to your well-being. As a beginner, you may get a few bloody noses when your face inadvertently connects with a knee, but that's a price you pay for wanting a life at sea. So you start to walk in a kind of Hitleresque goose-stepping march with your shoulders hunched and your chin tucked to your chest.

During your head-ducking-goose-stepping routine, you notice the deck. It is gray, with spots of dingy brown from drips of coffee and dirty boots. The rest of your surroundings are white. Not a bright, clean white. A yellowed, sad, creamy off-white you can tell just isn’t the right color. What it isn’t the right color for, you’re never quite sure—but it’s not the right color. When you dare to pick your head up for a brief moment, a ladder materializes before you. The ladder is metal, and gray—a sort of dull, gleaming gray. It looks unstable. Nevertheless, it insists you climb it. The first step shows it’s steeper and narrower than it looks. It is unstable. But you quickly forget the rickety sway in the loud din that envelopes you with the first contact. The horrible noise rivals the sound a toddler can make with a few spoons and some pots and pans. It is loud and metallic and booming. It only bothers you for the first few ladders, however. After that, your hearing is gone and it doesn’t matter.

When you reach the next deck, you can’t resist the urge to keep climbing. You goose-step-duck around the ladderwell to the foot of the next noise-maker and continue up. As you climb, you notice a difference. The odor of paint and oil and grease and bodies lessens. The air feels cooler against your skin, which is damp with sweat from climbing these infernal ladders.

After eons, you reach the last of the ladders. This ladderwell is pitch black, not gray. Like the moment in the early morning just before dawn when the moon drops and the night closes around you, the void smothers you in a vacuum of color and light. You catch your breath. The alcove somehow both mutes and heightens the rumble of metal as you climb the last ladder. You reach the hatchway and pull the bar to unlock the door. You’re desperate to plunge through the doorway. But this is the sneakiest hatch of all. Its rim is even higher than the others. It thrusts up from the top of the ladder, counting on you to maintain your body’s reflexive movement and step only as high as the last step. As you crack the hatch, bright light streams in, preventing folly and saving your shins—sometimes.

The deck here is gray, of course. The few pieces of equipment and rooms for storage are gray. But when you look up, the cool breeze caresses you and it’s a clear blue sky. The blue eases a burden up those many ladders, one you never realized you carried.

Monday, September 8, 2014


I am paralyzed. My toes wiggle and my legs carry me when I wish to move. Lifting a burden poses no problem; my arms and back remain strong. My hands and fingers may deftly weave a warm garment, or concoct a nourishing meal, or repair a broken home. Better yet, they can still caress my child’s face when he seeks reassurance and comfort.

No, my paralysis lies deeper, in my brain, my heart. If I looked inside, I would see no damage. The structures are intact. They hum with electricity and pulse with every beat.

Inaction persists. Tending the garden, walking in the woods, driving a car…. Motion means nothing when the words refuse to flow. They dance just beyond my reach, tantalizingly close yet achingly far.

Why? What inner demons hold the words at bay?

Fear paralyzes me. Doubts eat every line. Indecision drags me to and fro, forcing me through a maze which has no outlet.

You think you can write? Ha! Your trivial musings have no value.

You are wasting time, wishing for validation, hoping for acceptance, aching for praise. Give up.

You will never reach such a lofty goal; your wings of gossamer, they cannot carry such a pathetic burden.

The whispers rise into screams, echoing to a crescendo of agony.

How do I silence them? They hammer and pound, an endless drumbeat of defeat, failure, and insignificance. My eyes roll in their sockets, a frantic search for the source of the cruel phantoms. Panic envelops me in its cold embrace. Ragged breaths ripped from my chest are the only sign of life.

I am paralyzed ... but I refuse to give up. Quitting is not an option. My body still moves, my brain fires, my heart pumps. My gossamer wings flutter, battered by howling winds.

Still, I fly.

Image courtesy of  Victor Habbick at
Image courtesy of  Victor Habbick at

Monday, September 1, 2014

Cancer of the Hamper

Sometimes I think nudists have the right idea. They’ve simplified their lives. I haven’t managed to take that leap into territory where no clothing hides the various bulges and quirks of my decaying body. Eventually my wits will abandon me, and I’ll no longer mind the scorn and mockery bound to follow if I venture out naked. Until then, laundry haunts me daily—the bane of my existence.

About once a month, I gather the courage to face the heap of clean clothes which reproduces like rabbits on top of my dryer. I stand in the claustrophobic laundry area for an eternity and fold clothing I didn’t know I own. My hands move in a tedious monotony, shaking out a shirt and smoothing it into a somewhat tidy square. I set it down and grab another superfluous garment and repeat the process…. Over and over and over. This is the moment I can’t help thinking, “How on earth did I get so many clothes? Where did that skirt come from? Why can’t I find anything to wear?”

Apparently I do find things to wear, because a tumor grows in the hamper at light speed. It is cancerous, contagious—frightening. And since I have a child, it reeks. The menacing lump swells, and I cringe each time I see it. It spills out like the noxious slime oozing from alien pods in a sci-fi flick.

I brace myself and confront the growth. I open the washer and turn the knob to select the correct cycle, sharp, rattling clicks grating on my nerves. The water streams into the tub, slowly, ever so slowly, filling it. Detergent poured in, then I excise a chunk of tumor and sort the pieces, hurling a tornado of garments until the drum is full. Dark, white, color, white, towel, dark. Most often, the procedure ensues due to the lack of a certain item which must be worn on a certain day, or perhaps my son finding some new, foul way to soil his clothing.

The groaning, rattling, swooshing, gurgling of the washer drills my brain for forty minutes and then, if I don’t forget I’m in the middle of doing laundry, my hands pull the cold, soggy mass out and wrestle it into the dryer. Inevitably, a wet pair of undies splats on the floor in an effort to escape. I close the door and hit the button; the dryer rumbles, the mound thumps in protest. Desiccation separates the mass, and the sound softens with time, but for one button that tinks, tinks, tinks. Or maybe it’s a penny. Not loud enough for a quarter or tinny enough for a dime. After a while, the buzzer sounds, the jolt of a cattle prod interrupting one of the other hundred tasks I've attempted.

But by this time, my fortitude has waned. The scourge prevails, awaiting another load which requires its removal. Yanking it out, I try to balance a sodden load in one arm, sodden socks plopping at my feet. I mash the dry clothes into the already full basket sitting on the dryer, crushing them into compliance and wrinkles. There the clean clothes remain, the pile shrinking by a shirt here, socks there, replaced by ten more until the malignancy overwhelms.

Thus, the cycle begins again. I wish had the strength to face the process more often, but instead I avoid it. The cancer mocks me. I turn my head and pretend it’s not there…. Until I gain the courage to battle it once again.

Despite my loathing of the process, I admit I do enjoy the outcome. The sense of accomplishment in a chore conquered provides relief and satisfaction. The clothes hang neatly in the closet or lined up in organized rows in the drawers.

The warmth of a plush, fleece shirt fresh from the dryer provides comfort few things can. I rub the fluffy material against my cheek, inhaling the scent of flowers, as if deprived of oxygen. It transports me to the simplicity of childhood, when I took for granted the clothes arranged in my old oak dresser. I remember lying in my mother’s soothing arms, the softness there, the perfect serenity, and the crisp, summer-wind smell of her blouse.

Maybe I won't throw the clothes out just yet.