Sunday, December 8, 2013

Revisiting Flash 397, and Millie's Lucky Seven

From June 2010 to July 2011, I wrote at least one piece of flash fiction (or very, very short fiction) for 397 consecutive days. I wrote a couple a few days, so I ended up with 405, all ranging anywhere between 7 to 397 words. (Like I said, they were very short stories.) I called the project Flash 397.

After over two years of putting it off, stop and starts, tinkering with the stories here and there, and then not looking at them for several months at a time, I'm in the middle of preparing to publish a relatively small number of them - 97 - in a strictly digital format. The working title is A Moment of Honesty Before We Destroy Each Other: 97 Flash Fiction Stories.

Below is one of the stories I was to originally include, but one I'll probably end up cutting; one of the many stories that dabbled in the oddities of time travel. Not that I don't love it. It just doesn't fit the tone of most of the others picked for the collection.


Millie's Lucky Seven

Millie walks into the bar with a new guy on her arm, her left ring finger bare, and I see that not only is she split, she's already moved on to another guy.

"Dude. You see that?" My high school self has appeared on the bar stool next to mine, looking over my shoulder.

 "Yeah, I see it," I mutter under my breath, and take a sip of my Miller Lite. As I do, High School Me takes a drink of his Zima. I shoot him an embarrassed and disapproving look, but then grin in spite of myself.

"Missed our chance," he says. Millie is now sliding her hand down the backside of her beau's faded Wranglers as he orders their drinks.

"Calm down, kid. She's on her fourth divorce."

"Dude. Really?"

"This guy probably won't last very long."

"Dude. I can't imagine anyone dumping her."

His comment sounds naive, but I remember: I was head over heels for Millie fifteen years ago. Now? I'd be happy just to bed her once. Satisfy the curiosity.

"No matter how hot she is...," I mutter only the first part of that cliché and trail off.

"Dude, go talk to her."

"What am I supposed to say?"

"Steal her from him!"

"You steal her," I retort, jabbing him with my elbow. Great. I'm arguing with Junior Me on his level.

"You know I can't. The rules..." he fires back.

"I know," I say. "Now's not the time."


"Would you believe not for another eight years?" The speaker of these words steps to the bar, obstructing our view of Millie, his back to us.

"Eight years,” we both repeat.

"Eight years." He turns to face us, and our hearts leap momentarily from our chest, but we can’t be all that surprised, really.

"Lucky us. We're husband number seven," he says, lifting his glass of Old Forester to take a sip, a gold band on his ring finger, and a twinkle in his familiar, wrinkled eyes.


Stay tuned . . .

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Never Been to Spain

I am applying for my first passport. I'm 34 years old.

I've never been outside of the United States.


"He had never even been to Canada! How is that possible? Even drunk, on a dare, you make it to Canada!" - Lewis Black, discussing that George W. Bush had never been outside of the country prior to being elected president.


This is not something I'm proud of. If I'm with a group of people, in fact, and the discussion turns to international travel, I either get quiet, or try to change the subject the next available opportunity. I'm ashamed of this, actually.

It's not that I've never had the desire, I've just never gotten around to it.


The discussion turned to international travel on our second date. We were a couple drinks in, at a bar waiting to watch my friend's band play.

She had been to London, Mexico, Dublin, Nicaragua. She tended to eschew the typical tourist locations, favoring a more authentic experience.

"What about you? Where have you been," she asked.

"Well, that's my dirty secret," I said. "I've never been out of the country."

I was afraid this would make me appear much less appealing, and kill my chances with her.

"Well, we can work on that," she said with a smile.


My family did not go on vacations when I was growing up; we rarely went outside twenty miles of our rural town in southern Illinois. My first trips outside of Carmi were church trips: An hour or two away to perform our Christmas show at another church. When I joined the youth group later, we would take summer trips to North Carolina, or Gulf Shores, Alabama, or to Kansas City, Kansas.

I remember being awkward on these trips for a variety reasons. One was, my family rarely went out to eat, not even to fast food places like the McDonalds or Dairy Queen in our town. So the first time the youth group went out of the city, and I sat down at a Cracker Barrel somewhere near Springfield, I stared at the menu and wasnt sure what to do.


Ironically, maybe, my favorite TV shows growing up were all about travel: Quantum Leap, Sliders, Star Trek: TNG.

Time travel, parallel world travel, space travel. Not realistic travel, but travel nonetheless.

These shows weren't enjoyable to me strictly for the content of their episodes. They unlocked my imagination in powerful ways. I fantasized about traveling to the past, to different versions to our world, through the stars to other worlds.


It occurred to me only some months ago that maybe the reason I enjoyed these shows so much - especially Quantum Leap - is that their heroes were people who were otherwise brilliant, but often awkwardly interacting with their surroundings because they were the proverbial fish out of water that didn't quite have a grasp of what was going on.

I often felt like the funny, smart, friendly person I felt like I was in private was frequently locked away in public, in situations where I apparently didn't understand the social rules. 


Let me be straight with you: This experience does not exist entirely in the past; I still sometimes feel this way. But I do feel like I'm now more akin to Sam Beckett from the latter seasons of Leap: I've gotten better at faking it.


The realization came to me some years ago that for someone who apparently loves the idea of traveling so much, and seeing strange new alien worlds, its unfortunate that I havent taken any opportunity to explore the amazing destinations of our own world.


Betsy and I had been planning for the last several months to go to Mexico, either sometime this fall, or in the spring of 2014. Then a couple of months ago, the airfares to Dublin, Ireland dipped low for trips in the spring. Travel sites started sending out e-mails. Betsy forwarded one to me in the afternoon, and we exchanged a few not-serious, wouldnt this be nice e-mails about it. But we got home from work that night, started drinking, started talking about it, and before we knew it, we had figured out a way we could make it work.

Before we booked the tickets, Betsy asked if I was sure about not going to Mexico, because I had seemed so excited about it. I told her, frankly, I had just been excited about getting out of the country, finally. Mexico would be nice, sure, but that it was kind of an easy destination. If we could go overseas for a comparable price, I would much prefer to do that.


I do have my fears about traveling outside of the country, being a fish out of water being awkward and potentially embarrassing myself somehow. But I cant imagine going another year and not getting outside of the states.


Im applying for my first passport. Im 34 years old.

I plan to get good use out of it. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Old Trailer

That old trailer was manufactured in 1959. When my old man bought the lot it sat on in 1975, it wasn't his intention for his family of four to live in it. The family was to live in the house on the corner lot next do it. He bought the lot with the trailer because he could afford it, and he liked the idea of no one living immediately next to the Frymire clan, at the corner of 8th Street and Sycamore. The trailer would be used for storage.

Dad didn't do his due diligence, however, and the foundation of the house was rotted, and inhabitable. (He also never took his wife by to look at the place before buying either lot.) The family moved in the trailer, and the old house was eventually torn down. For the next 22 years, though, remnants of the house's foundation remained. Rows of concrete about two feet high and a substantial number of bricks left from the house made for a veritable personal playground for my sisters and me, and my friends. We would play catch and tag and frisbee in the yard of that corner lot. As a grade schooler, I would imagine the fortress I would build on that lot once I had the means, a fortress that would have several floors, with an elevator large enough to carry my car - something of a mix between the Batmobile and Kitt from Knight Rider - up floor to floor. The inside looked somewhat like the batcave from the 1960s version of Batman in my mind.

For a few years, between 1983 and when my sister, Susan, went off to college in 1987, six of us lived in that trailer. You can imagine the shape it was in, being so old. Neither the "front" nor "back" door (both were on the same side, of course) locked properly, but we did the best we could with padlocks. It was never burglarized, but could have easily been. Whenever there was a thunderstorm, wind would sweep around the metal of the structure with a sound that terrified me. But the sound the rain made on the tin roof was beautiful. When the weather got really bad, and there was the threat of a tornado, sometimes Dad would have us go to Wal-Mart, sometimes to the concrete structure of the grain elevator where he worked.

By the time Dad passed away in 2002, the degradation of the structure was severe. Mom soon after moved into a house that Susan and her husband, Mark, bought for her. Susan took ownership of the lots and within a couple of years, the trailer was demolished, all remnants of the garage was removed (which Dad and Mark had torn down in the 90s when the old man feared the next good snow would cave the roof in), all the of concrete from the corner lot was taken away, all the trees were cut down, and all their stumps were removed. Susan still owns the property to this day. My other brother-in-law, Matt, regularly mows it and keeps it maintained.

Even though the lot is just a few blocks from the house Mom moved to, now the house where my oldest sister, Kim, lives since Mom passed in 2008, I had not been to the property in years when I decided to walk down and visit it on Christmas Day, 2009. I walked over to the lot around nine o'clock at night.

I can't tell you what compelled me to do so, at that hour, but I can tell you that growing up, I loved taking walks around town at night, especially down Main Street, and try to imagine what the city looked like in older times, decades earlier; what it would be like to time travel and walk down the mostly empty sidewalks of downtown at night during its different eras.

I guess you could say my walking down to visit the lot that night was an attempt at time travel.

As I approached the lot, I tried to determine where the sidewalk had been, the one that lead from the curb up to the concrete steps and the front door. With all the trees and stumps gone, with the driveway that divided the two lots overgrown and gone, it wasn't easy. I made my best guess, and walked up the sidewalk that was no longer there. I stepped in the area where the trailer had been. Moving around in different memories, unstuck in time.

I was vaguely aware of the front door of the house across the street opening. The red brick house directly across the street had been, and as far as I know, still a rental home, all my years growing up. A number of families came and went from there. It's current resident, probably a guy my age, but one I hadn't grown up going to school with, was watching me.

"Hey, can I ask what you're doing?"

Now, on one hand, I can see this from this guy's point of view. Nine o'clock at night, middle of winter, here is this odd guy in a big winter coat and hat pacing without clear purpose in an empty lot, in a not-all-that-great neighborhood.

It would have been very easy for me to turn to him and say, "Hey, my name's Dennis. Yeah, this probably looks weird, huh? I grew up in a trailer that used to be on this lot. My sister still owns the property; she knows I'm here. I'm just taking a way down memory lane, as lame as that sounds. Sorry, I didn't mean alarm anyone."

But on the other hand, now, fuck this guy. I grew up here. He was probably just another renter who had been there maybe a few months, and would probably be gone in a few more. What the fuck business is this of his?

And that's the hand I went with. I wasn't confrontational. I didn't even look at him. I just held my arm out, pointed to the ground in front of me, and said in a way that indicated this was the only explanation I intended to give on the matter, "I lived here." I was aware that I was adopting the stand-offish, stoic tone my old man often had. I was channeling him. As I've aged, I've been aware of adopting certain mannerisms and phrases of his, but I've never felt more like I was becoming him than in that moment.

"Okay," he said. "If you don't leave, I'm going to call the police." He wasn't angry or confrontational himself, just a guy concerned about the strange person stalking around the empty lot in his neighborhood.

I ignored him, kept pacing.

He went back inside.

I walked around a little more, still lost in my own world, but I knew the guy was right, I was in the wrong, and I should leave. Even if I did have permission from my family to be here, I was scaring at least one person in the neighborhood, and if the police came, the officer would probably tell me to get some damn common sense, do you know what time it is, I don't care if you have permission, get the hell out of here. So I walked north, up through where the concrete and bricks that had been my childhood fortress, and I turned and headed down Sycamore.

As I came to edge of the lot, I heard the guy come back out on the porch. "Hey, I just want to let you know, I called the police." My back to him, I just held up a hand acknowledging that I heard him, and kept walking. About three blocks later, sure enough, a Carmi police car drove past, headed to answer the man's call.

My attempt to time travel back to the home of my youth that night thwarted.

I haven't tried again since.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Happiness, Revisited

The shaving habits of the chrome-domed Frymire:

I've been shaving my head regularly since 2002. I've let it grow out for the occasional show, and it looks awkward as hell. It looks like this:

For the most part, however, I've been bald for eleven years. 

I shave two to three times a week. On one hand, it's inconvenient because it adds about fifteen minutes to my morning routine. On the other hand, there's something very therapeutic about it. The feel of the shaving gel on my scalp, the feel of the razor scraping against my skin, sweeping away the stubble and foam in neat rows. 

After getting some particularly bad news a few years ago, I found myself in the bathroom, showering so the steam could open my pores (a necessity due to my sensitive skin), and standing in front of the mirror running a razor over my head before I was fully conscious of what I was doing. 

I buy the best brand named razors and shaving gel, because I don't fuck around with my best asset, appearance-wise. 

A few months ago, I finally bought a tablet, an iPad mini. Now a part of my shaving routine is watching something on Netflix. I recently watched almost the entirety of the third season of "Louie" while shaving.  


There are various Ted Talk series on Netflix. This morning, I stumbled upon one from the "Life Hack" series of Ted Talks. This one is one the science of choosing to be happy instead of trying to let your work or career determine it instead of the other way around. I found it to be a great compliment to what I found myself reflecting upon yesterday.

The secret of happiness for better work

I recommend taking the time to watch it in its entirety. Mr. Achor is a funny and engaging speaker, and I found myself laughing out loud several times through this (sometimes a less-than-smart thing while shaving. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Happiness Pie

Last night, I was pondering out loud what to write today. Betsy suggested I write something light-hearted, pointing out my recent posts had been somewhat heavy. 

"When you write, you tend to spread your sad around," she said. 


I've blogged off and on the last few years. I've long ago recognized that while my Facebook updates tend to be light-hearted, and clever (hopefully), and happy, my blog posts tend to be more contemplative, and yes, sad. 

The same goes for my live storytelling as well. Some of my tales are light, happy fare, but most gravitate towards the darker parts of my life. 


I spend a substantial time scanning my news feed on Facebook most days. There are plenty of happy posts and pictures to go around, but if I had to put a name to the overall trend I sense, it would be "Making the best of a bad situation." Even in the clever and witty updates, there's an underlying sense of dread, anger and sadness. 

There are posts about the national and world scene, about injustices carried out by the better off, murders at the hands of those sworn to serve and protect us, flailing legislation from old white men threatened by the inevitable equality of women and minorities. 

On the more intimate level, there are passive-aggressive missives against the bit players in our lives; the guy on the train who wouldn't surrender his seat to the eight-month pregnant woman, or the BMW that almost mowed us down in the intersection. Posts about the bosses and co-workers who use their stations to belittle us and make us feel less than. 

And, of course, posts suggesting hurt brought on by the ones closest to us. Posts about lost and unrequited love. 

All the while we post profile pictures of us looking our best, cover photos of the exciting places we've been or the incredible things we're doing, and Instagram photos of the delicious food we're eating. 


Late in the movie Cool Hand Luke, Luke (Paul Newman) escapes from prison. Months later, he sends his buddy on the chain gang a photograph of him on the outside. He's wearing a black tux, the tie undone, drink in hand, surrounded by beautiful women in cocktail dresses. 

"Living the good life," or something like that, the short note attached says. 

When Luke is recaptured, the first thing his buddies ask him about is that photo. When they won't shut up about it, he confesses: The photograph was a phony. The outside had been a couple of horrible bosses, a crummy life. But he spent a month's pay on having that picture staged so he could fool the guys into thinking his life on the outside was otherwise. 

Sometimes, I think that's the best metaphor possible for how we use social media. 


In 1996, the sketch group The Kids in the Hall released a movie called Brain Candy, which is either brilliant or claw-your-eyes-out horrible, depending on your sensibilities. The premise of the movie is a scientist who creates a pill that, immediately upon swallowing, locates your happiest memory, re-creates the elation you felt in that moment, and locks it in permanently so that's how you always feel. 

The best sequence in the movie may be its opening, which introduces a number of characters who reflect on the infinite sadness of life. Some memorable quotes I can remember form that sequence without have  to look it up on YouTube. 

"Life is short, life is shit, and soon it will be over."

"(translated from German) The nipples of Mother Hope have run dry."

Most succinct: "Fuck Happy."

The guy who says this last one later gets on the drug and releases a joyous song called Happiness Pie

Of course, there wind up being disastrous side effects to the drug, and you can guess how the story goes. 

The moral: There is no such thing as permanent happiness. 


[Insert a Tyler Durden quote of your own choice here.]


As a rule, artists tend to be the saddest, most contemplative people I know. On the flip side of that, they also seem to be the people who are able to express the good, and happiness and joy in life most beautifully. 


Things that make me happy:

Going to a job every day that's a little off the beaten path, not sitting at a small desk in a cubicle. 

The fellowship of funny, talented bad asses, both in-person and online. 

Living in a city where my cultural and entertainment choices are virtually unlimited. 

Coming home at the end of the day to a beautiful, thoughtful fiancé waiting for me with a smile and a kiss.

Falling asleep with her, and rolling over in the morning to see her lying next to me. 


We're all doing our best, but underneath, there's some sadness and anger in all of us. 


I can't start to trust a person until I see a little of their sadness show through. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Thoughts On Touch

This I believe: We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth. 

- Virginia Satir


Carl McVey was coroner of my hometown for over thirty years. He was the pillar of the community, maybe more so than any other person from Carmi in my era.

He came to speak to my junior year journalism class once, and he told us the toughest part of his job was having the unfortunate duty of going to someone's home to inform them of the unexpected death of a loved one. One of the students asked him, what can you possibly say to someone in a situation like that to comfort them. 

His response was "in times when all words fail, I'm a huge believer in the power of touch." 

I'm paraphrasing, of course. It's been over 18 years. But that sentiment has stuck with me since.


The first time I really experienced the power of touch, however, was when it was absent.

When my wife and I separated in 2006, she left Chicago just two months after we arrived. The only people I knew in the city were through improv, who were great to joke and drink with, but not much for emotional support and all that. After only a couple of weeks of being alone, night after night in a one-bedroom apartment that now only had a futon and a couch, the muscles of my body physically ached. When I slept at night, I clutched a pillow tight to relieve the soreness. This was reflex; I didn't really think about what I was doing, but I knew why it was happening.

The first woman I held after my separation was a one-night stand set up by a mutual friend. The friend knows me well, fortunately, knows that one-nights aren't really my thing, and knew sex was was a distant second to my simple need for touch, and communicated that to my date. 

At one point during our encounter, I squeezed her so tight, she stopped and said, "It's been a while since you've been held, hasn't it?"

"Is it that obvious?" I asked.

The look on her face was all the answer I needed, but she still said, "Um . . . yeah."

The sex was almost an afterthought.


I've always been particular about how I am touched. I like solid, firm touch. In some situations, I enjoy light, feathery touch, but not often. A point of contention in one of my past relationships is no matter how often I explained this, she would give me light touches repeatedly, as if she did it enough, I would eventually like it.


Betsy's and my bed time routine: She lies with her head on my shoulder and my arm around her until she senses I'm nodding off, because I always nod off first. She'll then kiss me good night and roll over to her side of the bed, most nights listening to a podcast on her iPod. (Stuff You Should Know, with hosts Josh and Chuck, is her favorite. "Go listen to your mens," I'll say. And yes, I say 'mens' with an 's', but I'm not sure why.)

We may touch briefly if we wake up throughout the night, maybe even hold hands a short while, but most of the night, we're on our own sides of the bed.

One of the many reasons Betsy and I work is we're similar in how we like to be touched.


I don't give Betsy as regular massages as I should, considering what I do, but I'll usually rub her back for a minute or two while she sits in bed and writes in her journal. She offers to return the favor, but I know I would start getting particular about hitting this point and that, so I usually decline.


work in a profession that is complicated because people often have a difficult time delineating between caring touch, therapeutic touch and sexual touch. This is particularly the case in America, where massage establishments are often a front for prostitution. This often results in even otherwise intelligent people feeling they have license to degrade me and my profession. 

Even employers I've had. 

Even friends of mine. 

I used to call friends out on this, but I don't anymore. Partly because it's a headache, partly because it occurred to me some time ago that those most egregious in this regard have non-existent or unsatisfactory sex lives, and their words are merely a display and a by-product of this. 

When I taught at a massage school, I had a Hungarian student that was baffled by this aspect of American culture. In my country, there is no such nonsense, she said.   


Being a male therapist, my appointment book is almost always the last to be filled compared to my female colleagues. I have to be hyper-aware how my touch is conveyed when I work with female clients. It's known at one clinic where I work that if a female client makes an accusation of inappropriate touch against a male therapist, the clinic will likely have to take the side of the client, for liability reasons.  


It just recently occurred to me that the last time I felt my healthiest was four years ago, when I was in massage school, and getting massages regularly. As much as I preach the need for massage, I am not good at taking care of myself. This is common among therapists, and I'm resolving to change that in myself. 


It is my belief the world would be infinitely more peaceful if everyone gave and received a daily back rub, if even just for five minutes.


Touch has a memory. 

- John Keats

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Show Must Go On

I was sitting at my desk in customer service when Nancy called my cell. She had been calling with regular updates on Mom. I stepped into a storage room a few feet away and took the call.

Earlier that morning, Mom had another stroke, this one massive, and she wasn't going to wake up again. It was just a matter of time before "the body catches up with the soul", as she said one doctor put it. Everybody should get there as soon as possible to say goodbye.

I  left work immediately to go make arrangements to get to the hospital in southern Indiana.

It was the beginning of March. Just a month shy of the sixth anniversary of Dad's passing.

My first call on the Brown Line train to Lakeview was not to an airline or to Amtrak. It was to the director of the show I was in. It was a Friday. I had a show that night.

I told the director the situation. I needed to leave town right away to go be with my family. He asked me to give him a few minutes while he made a call to the artistic director of the company. He called back just a few minutes later. Unfortunately, he said, they had to ask me to stay that night and do the performance, and they could find a replacement for me for Saturday.

I said okay.

That night on stage, I had simulated sex with two drag queens, bared my ass wearing a hospital gown, and was told I had herpes in a scene that may have garnered a snicker or two out of the twenty audience members in attendance.


In the five years since, I've told myself at various times I agreed to stay that night as a coping mechanism, or more accurate, an out. That I hoped Mom would pass away before I got there, because I had stood at Dad's bedside and watched him pass, and I didn't want to go through that again.

That's what I've said at times, but I don't think it's the truth. I think the more pathetic truth is my sense of theater professionalism was so strong, I thought it was my job to stay in town and do a show despite my family's tragic circumstances.

My pay for this "job" I stayed for was more or less the standard for a small, storefront theater production in Chicago: A $75 stipend for a six week rehearsal process and a four week run.


My mom passed, we put her in the ground, I came back to Chicago, and the show went on. At the conclusion of the run, I was the only non-company member to help with strike. A few months later, they asked me to join the company, which I did.


The situation with my mom's passing wound up being moot, in a way: She held on for several days longer than the doctors thought, and my sisters and I were sleeping at her bedside when she passed. But years later, it's hard to wrap my head around how I handled the situation. If, God forbid, something tragic happened now while I was in a show, there would be no discussion with anyone about whether or not I could leave town, I would just leave.

My sense of what theater professionalism means, at least in regards to non-paying storefront, has changed. Yes, of course, treat the work and your colleagues with respect and dignity. But real life comes first. 

I am no longer with that company. For the last few shows I was with them, I did not show up for strike because they were always on Sunday, which I worked, and I couldn't justify sacrificing a day's pay for such, particularly at a time when money was tight. There were other factors in why the company and I needed to part ways, but I sensed this was a point of resentment towards me from some. 


A show I was in closed yesterday. Set strike followed immediately after, and the entire cast and crew chipped in to help. I stayed for about a half hour, and then I took my leave. My reason was simply no more than this: Betsy had been out of town all weekend, I work seven days a week, and our time spent together is usually a stolen hour or two at the end of the day. So I wanted to get home before she did and have dinner waiting for her. I loved this show I just finished. The group of people I worked with were amazing to play with, and I felt a twinge of guilt as I left them still working. 


One of the things I love about Betsy is that she is not involved at all in the theater scene. A couple of her best friends, as well as me, are heavily entrenched in it, so she knows how it goes. She's supportive of what I do, but simply being with her - living with her, being engaged to her - I see the storefront actor lifestyle through her eyes, and I find myself becoming more and more discretionary in how much time I give.

I know this tends to be the natural progression, the way things go. Maybe it has a lot to do with working on one show or another since last March, while also working seven days a week much of that time. And most of the performances of these shows were for audiences of ten or fifteen people at a time. 

The reality of the Chicago storefront theater scene is that it's not only a question of how much talent you have, but how much time and willingness do you have to give that talent away for practically free. 

Right now, I'm not sure how much more of that I have.