Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Too Many Ways to Die

There aren’t so many ways to die before time would take you. There are accidents, diseases, natural disasters and violence.

But there are too many variants of each. A friend’s sister who lost her footing on a mountain-top in Mexico. Cancer in its endless incarnations. Hurricanes in the south and tsunamis in the south Pacific.

As for violence, our species wastes too much creativity on ways to kill. In war, as revenge, for sport, for profit.

This week, on LITPARK, Susan Henderson asks which murders have made an impression on people.

Like everyone, certain murders have haunted me. When I was young it was the little girl who left to buy her mother a greeting card and never made it home alive.

Later, it was Richard Speck’s systematic murder of eight student nurses in one bleak night in the Chicago neighborhood where I used to live. Then it was William Heirens’ serial killings. From the web: Heirens was arrested in 1946 for a number of sex crimes and murders. At one murder scene he scrawled a note in lipstick reading For Heaven's sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.

I read the book: Catch Me Before I Kill More.

Heirens was long in jail by the time we moved to his town, but his family’s house sat low to the ground three blocks from my own. It was an old-fashioned yellow frame structure, out of place in the brick-y suburb. The house seemed marked, as if he were condemned to be different, an outsider, a criminal—by its very appearance.

One of the most recent murders to affect me—in life, rather than in imagination—was committed by the doctor who lived across the street.

From the news: "On May 23, 2005 a federal jury condemned a Chicago podiatrist to death for murder. Dr. Ronald Mikos fatally shot Joyce Brannon 54, a disabled former nurse, at point-blank range in 2002, just four days before she was to testify against him in a $1 million Medicare fraud case." Brannon lived in the basement of a church, which is where he shot her.

I first got wind of Mikos’ arrest when I came home and saw a number of cruisers and TV vans parked directly across the street.

Mikos was the boyfriend/boarder of a very kindly woman in a tiny beige brick bungalow across from us. Her daughter was friendly with mine, Meredith. Mikos drove a red convertible, and seemed rather innocuous. I would often see him pulling away from the house when I walked the dog. Once, Meredith attended a birthday party at his ex-wife's house in Skokie. I remember large fish tanks. My daughter was quite young, yet I left her there for the afternoon, unattended.

I never knew, until I mentioned the murder to Meredith, that Mikos used to give her and her friend rides home from school in that little red convertible, two innocent grammar school girls, wind whipping through their hair.

They are grown now. My daughter, 18, hiking in Mexico. Her young friend’s family moved far from the home they shared with Mikos.

Yet in my mind’s eye I can see them still, those innocent and trusting grade school girls, doing what I never knew they had done in life: They perch on the back seat of a red 1994 Pontiac convertible. A man who will become a murderer is at the wheel. Their laughter is lost in the wind.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Rest in Peace

Liam Rector

You sailed down
From Provincetown
And I was to meet you

In Key West. I’d never
Sailed. I dressed
In my best and flew

Down from Manhattan,
Where I had been feeling
Punishing failure

And reading Hart Crane.
I brought a robe
I intended to wear

When I jumped off
Our boat mid-sea. I never
Told you that,

Old friend, and I
Apologize now.
What if I had left you mid-ocean

To sail alone?
In our twenty-foot wooden
Thing with no motor

And a radio that didn’t
Work we barely made it
Through the initial storm.

In the Bahamas we
Were often stood
Free beers for being

As insane as we were,
Coming over those waters
With no motor, pure

Sailing like that, a bar
Of soap floating in the cauldron
Of the Bermuda Triangle,

Where motorized cigarette
Boats sped by at money-making
Speeds, running drugs to fill

American needs.
And on our way back
When we lost our rudder

You, former Eagle
Scout, first conscientious
Objector ever to leave

West Point, captain
Of the ski team, jumped
Over the stern

And fashioned out of oar
And thick rope the thing
That would see us to shore

Before we, becalmed,
Drifted off course
100 miles, 100 miles

Of boredom and sun. I snapped
A black and white photo
Of the sea to remind me

Of my boredom, its boredom.
We made it back
To America, hitting

Shore at Boca Raton,
Pulling in midst the boats
Of the very, very rich.

I lived to write this
And never jumped ship.
It was your kinship

Kept me going those years,
Times of ridiculous
Sailing, riotous beers.

Wives sailed by,
So many boats, and you soon
Left for Bangkok and its

Very distant coast.
Being young: being rich
Among inherited ruins.

(AGNI 61)Liam Rector's books of poems are American Prodigal and The Sorrow of Architecture. A book he co-edited with Tree Swenson, On the Poetry of Frank Bidart: Fastening the Voice to the Page, is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press. Rector directs the graduate Writing Seminars at Bennington College. (4/2005)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


I am at the vertex. The endpoint. That is, the intersection of the angle.

Or perhaps I should call it the startpoint, since the two "rays" emanating in splayed directions are of my flesh. My son and daughter both left Evanston yesterday, to different compass points, both literal and figurative.

One traveled east, one northwest, so the hypotenuse of this triangle (were it not obtuse) would cross Lake Michigan like a ferry, taking the watery shortcut to avoid that long drive through Chicago along I-94.

It’s a shortcut the three of us (plus husband) once took, sailing from Wisconsin to Michigan, letting the wind whip through our hair on the deck of the Badger before debarking for the sandy campsite in Ludington State Park.

But Meredith left by land, at night, in a friend’s parents’ Lexus SUV with a black leather interior for the Ten Thousand Lakes music festival in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. The irony of driving a luxury vehicle to a faux Woodstock likely didn’t register with her carload of friends, so accustomed are they to comfort. They will camp in the woods, afloat in music and greenery.

Wesley and a friend took a bus east to what once was the city of Detroit, to help a pioneering architect build a house in what once was a neighborhood at Pierce and St. Aubin. It is hardly a city, hardly a neighborhood, anymore. They are erecting what will be the 5th house in two square blocks. Across the street is a whore house. Across the street is a crack house. They are different houses. Someone has broken into the shed where they keep their building materials, poisoning the water supply. They are camping in an abandoned apartment building which was filmed for the movie 8 Mile. One of the other squatters claims to have invented Techno Music, and who’s to say he didn’t?

Back here in Evanston, kids gone and my husband napping, I have the family computer to myself. I unpack the ipod I got for my birthday. Ipod rhymes with god, and I've noticed that's the way apple treats it in the literature. Never "the" ipod, only "ipod", as if it is omnipotent, not in need of an article to denote specificity. And now that I finally open the box, and inject music into this deity, I know why.

I spend hours worshipping: loading it with the songs that I don’t think my children already have—Gato Barbieri and Eddie Vetter. I drag myself to bed reluctantly, only stopping because the music isn’t free. I sleep deeply until a fury of crashing and scraping rattles me awake. Above my head, roofers are shoveling off the old roof tiles that were nailed there 16 years before, when Meredith was 2 and Wes was 6 and we were rebuilding our house after a fire.

Here at the vertex, I throw on clothes and strap on ipod to walk the dog—the only child remaining at home. We three are in the middle, ipod, dog and me: music and vernal camping to the northwest; techno and urban squatting to the east.

We are the endpoint, or the startpoint. We walk together, the routes I once pushed a stroller. Or rather, I bop to Toad the Wet Sprocket, dog trots and ipod rides my pocket. Later, my children will call me at work. Right now I follow the sidewalks, explore the alleys and register their absence. I scratch the dog's ears and he laps at my hand. Ipod sings and dog pants. It’s an old, sentimental observation: dog is the mirror image of god.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

(or a shout-out to my gails...)

Dear Gail and Gail and Gail, etc:

Like you, my name is Gail Siegel.

I happen to be a writer, and every once in a while I google my name to make sure that a story has been published, or to see who is linking to my work. Inevitably, I run across one or another of you other Gail Siegels out there. I get your emails, inviting me to a golf game, or a luncheon in New York. I politely decline.

This is not a new problem. Decades ago, in college, Gail Anne Siegel’s grandmother called me one night. I knew it was a grandmother, but she didn’t sound like my grandmother. She seemed a kindly old woman, and I trust she eventually found her granddaughter.

On-line, I will sometimes see a reference very close to what I've done in a past job, and wonder, just for an instant, Is that me? Once upon a time, I, Gail Siegel, worked on child product safety issues! Many years ago, I, Gail Siegel, took photos of an art exhibit for the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations in Ann Arbor! I have been to Israel. I had a boyfriend named Lonnie, in 6th grade. My daughter—whose last name is not Siegel—considered attending Evergreen, where Gail Siegel works.

But the woman out there who is married to Lonnie, or taking photographs, or living in Israel or Olympia, or working on a safety newsletter is not me. They are likely not each other, either. They are some other Gail Siegels, who very well may be living lives just a few degrees removed from my own, like a fraternal twin or fraternal quadruplets, separated at birth--or a postulated parallel universe. Or they may be some Gail Siegels with less in common with me than, say, an Ed Schwartz.

I do know a man named Ed Schwartz who convened a club of Ed Schwartzes years ago. These Ed Schwartzes all had a propensity to write letters to the editor. The potential for confusion was enormous. They get together now and then, and I’m sure they can keep each other straight in the flesh, if not in newsprint.

Indeed, at the local newspaper, I often have to deal with two John McCormicks. There is the young, crabby, John McCormick who has cursed me out in the hallway of the County Building. There is the older, jovial John McCormick, who peppers his chit-chat with jokes. I never mix them up in person, or on the phone.

But the internet—it guarantees bewilderment. Thus, it is because of you, you legions of Gail Siegels out there, that I generally remember to use my middle name (Louise) in order to keep from being confused with you. Certainly, you are kind and decent people, who do honorably by my/our name. Yet, you may prefer to be differentiated from me.

Since your names pop up from time to time, I wanted to acknowledge you, and to wish you well.

And to note this: I'm pleased that I haven't yet read any of our obituaries.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


“Which of these characters is you?” That’s what a critic or a reader—anyone who is likely not a writer him or herself—might ask the author of a piece of fiction. On occasion, one character is the writer’s voice. But my guess is that most fiction writers who are not writing veiled autobiography would answer like me: they all are.

I think about Hannah Tinti, finishing up her writing at Blue Mountain, up in the New York Adirondacks. The last night of the last day. Putting down her pen. In a zone. The story or book has reached a conclusion. An ending, if not the final end. In some ways, it’s as intended. In others, the characters have surprised her, taken on lives of their own. Said things she hadn’t expected. Refused to mumble other lines she’d turned over in her mind like jewels.

Cajoling characters isn’t as impossible as herding cats. But it’s not a military operation where everyone follows orders. Characters who come to life, who become palpable, can have wills, if not absolutely free. Like defiant children. Like all God’s children. Straying from that perfectly planned garden: its weedless beds, its mulched mounds, its cultivated rows. They climb trees, pick and hurl fruit, break down fences. They snap off the tulip tops and threaten to whip their friends with rose stems. They leave, they have sex, they fall in love, they commit atrocities, they die.

So, like a goddess—for what are writers, creators, but the gods of the page, the worlds they create. Omnipotent! At least at the start, and ceding power as their worlds gain traction and rotate. So, like a goddess, Hannah Tinti puts down her pen, be it a TUL or a Univision or a Bic. She finds her way along a path through the old growth forest. She crosses a stream--beckoned ahead by Eminem--and reaches a gathering where all the other supposed recluse writers, hermited painters and shy poets will dance. Lo, they do not rest on the final night of creation. They have been static all week, only exercising their minds. They turn up the music. They kick off their shoes. After creating worlds, they dance and they dance and they dance.

So, which of these people is holy, is God-like? The priest? The monk? The taxi driver? The prostitute? Any honest deity would have to welcome us all, without demanding an admission ticket. No repentance, no sacrifice, no good deeds, no tithing. As surely as Huck’s father belongs to Twain or Raskolnikov to Fyodor, we belong to whatever force set this wet ball in motion with a word and a kick, as surely as we writers string together, out of our own unnamed urges and curiosity, words of good and evil, words of holy and unholy intent.