Stuff I Write, Stuff I Like

Stuff I Write: Intern vs. Scorpion — An Unpaid Life Experience

In Uncategorized on May 2, 2015 at 11:13 pm

In celebration of May Day and workers everywhere, here’s a piece about that sad American tradition — the unpaid internship. It’s also about scorpions, bad-but-paid jobs, and the crazy things some of us do when we’re trying to get by. It originally ran in Pittsburgh City Paper. Thanks, Pittsburgh City Paper!

The scorpion’s name is Cupcake, and Cupcake looks pissed.


“Oh come on,” a zoo official with a walkie-talkie strapped at his waist says. “I mean, how scary can it be with a name like that?”

He’s talking to a girl. The girl is on Cupcake’s side of the safety rope. The zoo official is on the other.

It’s the girl’s job to pop Cupcake’s carrying case open. Then she’s supposed to reach in and scoop up Cupcake like a gerbil. From the way the girl is shaking, I’m sure this is her first time.

I want to say, “honey what are you crazy don’t do that,” but I call my 10-year-old son over to watch instead.

How I became this person, I don’t know.

Earlier, I wanted to hang out at the shark tanks. Then on the rickety bridge over Otis the Alligator. We were on our way to check out venomous snakes when I saw the Live Animal Demonstration sign.

How I justify watching: I read somewhere that most scorpion stings are the same as bee stings.

I convince myself that Cupcake is some sort of eunuch, a domesticated nub where a stinger used to be.

I think if someone’s going through the trouble of picking up a scorpion the size of a Pop-Tart, the rest of us should pay attention.

poptart“You’ve got to see this,” I tell my son, who is a more decent person and who would rather not see this at all.

Cupcake’s whole body is a claw. She’s backed into the corner of her carrying case. Inside the reptile house, under ultraviolet light, Cupcake glows like a club kid at a rave.

club kidsBut out here, in the sunshine, she’s so black she’s almost purple, one nasty oil-slick bruise. Her carrying case is pink plastic, the kind usually reserved for hermit crabs, the kind of thing Barbie would store her shoes in.

“Look, sweetie, she’s going to pick up that scorpion,” I say, and point, like I’ve just said something wise, like I’m the muscle-guy back at the aquarium who flexed, pointed and said, in a low voice, “What we have right here are fish” while his pretty girlfriend clung to a bicep and cooed.

My son doesn’t coo. He backs up, because he’s not an adult, because he still feels things.

“Why would she do that?” he says.

The girl is ponytailed, in a powder-blue polo shirt with the zoo logo stitched on the chest. She looks like summer help, an intern, maybe. Maybe she’s getting minimum wage, or maybe this is unpaid life experience and she’s chalking up college credits she’ll have to take out loans to cover.

“Because she’s an expert?” I say, and of course it comes out as a question.

I’ve had a lot of awful jobs, terrible internships, but none of them involved handling a scorpion.

The closest I’ve come was the time I worked as a flight attendant and a pilot made me hold a door shut during take-off. There was a mechanical problem – the door wouldn’t lock completely and the handle would start to open on ascent. But the pilot had a date that night – one hot blonde, one strip-club steakhouse, jumbo margaritas served up in glasses shaped like boobs.


The pilot didn’t want a delay.


He said, “Did you bring a parachute?”

He said, “You’ll love the way you’ll fly.”

He said, “Just don’t let go,” and winked.

When people talk about survival, there are different degrees.

I was young. I needed that job. I did what I was told. I pushed my weight against the handle and held on and smiled at passengers who looked at me like I knew what I was doing.

It’s been a dozen years since I had a job like that, though.

“You don’t know what work is,” my steelworker father would say, meaning what I do now, pushing words around a page. Meaning: it’s not work if it can’t kill you.

“I mean, seriously. Cupcake,” the zoo official is saying, a punch-line he’s sharing again and again.


He’s probably a nice guy otherwise. The Pittsburgh Zoo is a wonderful place. It teaches people a lot about animals.

Scorpions are sensitive to vibration and touch. Some bats and centipedes hunt scorpions for food. Cupcake is normally kept in the dark fruit-bat part of the reptile house. Her neighbor one cage over is a giant millipede.


Sometimes the whole world seems cruel.

The girl is shaking so much. When her hand goes for the clasp on Cupcake’s case, it’s like she’s about to stick a fork in a live toaster. Cupcake flexes her tail, her very operational stinger. I look down at my son, who’s squinted his eyes shut.

The girl tries to breathe. She cups her hand and lowers it into the case. She nudges it under Cupcake and brings the creature out, a heavy dark heart in her palm.

“O.k.,” she says to the zoo official, who’s proud, beaming. “Now what?”

Writer Chains, The Planet Formerly Known as Pluto, Murderous Tetras, Natural Born Children, Bad Boss People, and The Writing Process Blog Tour

In Uncategorized on August 12, 2014 at 4:43 am

“It’s kind of like a nerdy writer internet chain letter,” my friend William Boyle said when he explained the Writing Process Blog Tour and asked me to join in. So of course I said yes.  (Read Bill’s responses to the Blog Tour interview at his blog here.)

I like to think about all the other writers in this chain  — beautiful, nerdy, linking arms and building a chain long enough to lasso Pluto and pull it down and make scientists call it a planet again because really, what was that all about?




William Boyle is a badass writer.

bill boyle


I do not know if William Boyle has any feelings for or against Pluto.

I do know Bill’s the author of a beautiful planet  of a book – Gravesend.




It’s an unforgettable and devastating noir set in Brooklyn – where spaghetti sauce is gravy and every person on the street, criminal and victim and broken-down beloved and bystander, will break your heart and love it back to life and break it again and go on.  Get it in a New York minute here or better, at a good independent bookstore near you.

So, right. The Blog Tour. Here goes. After my answers, I’ll pass this on to two more wonderful writers. And they’ll pass to two more. And they’ll pass to two more.

And so on and so on and so on.

One big beautiful chain.


What are you working on?

I spent this summer finishing my new memoir.  It’s called Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe. It’s coming out from Atticus Books in 2015.

I’m adopted, so it’s an adoption memoir, but it’s more about family in a bigger sense. It’s about the things people do and don’t do to each other in the name of family. And it’s about families, plural — the ones we’re born with and the ones we make ourselves.

A palm reader I met once in New York gave me that line. She said the lines on our left hands are the maps of what we’re born with. The lines on our right hands are the maps we’ve made ourselves. If you compare the lines on both hands, they’re supposed to show how your choices change your destiny, nurture over nature, vice versa.

I like that idea a lot.  It was worth the fifty bucks.

The palm reader took cash, Visa, Mastercard, but not Discover. I thought this was funny.  “Get it?” I said. “You don’t take Discover!”




She didn’t get it.

This made me question everything.


How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

I think life is funny and heartbreaking all at once. I think truth is important and complicated and I try to honor that. I try not to be afraid of things – getting naked on the page, for instance. I want to write with heart, even though in some circles the heart is as fashionable as a fanny pack and culottes. But all of my favorite writers – Hemingway, Sedaris, Harry Crews, Lorrie Moore, Bukowski, Didion and on and on – have written like that. I hope my work is similar to, not different from, the work of writers I love.

That’s probably a wrong answer.


Why do you write what you do?

I wrote my forthcoming book because I spent the first year of my life in a foundling home. I was adopted by two great but unconventional parents. My father liked to say things like “I could wipe my ass with what you know about love.” My mother liked to dress me as her twin and kick my ass at “Jeopardy.” The three of us loved each other very much.

My extended adopted family didn’t consider me my parents’ real child. The word they used was “natural.” They said my mother couldn’t have a natural-born child. She couldn’t have her own child so she ended up with me.

I grew up thinking, as many adopted people do, that I was not natural. I didn’t think much about what the word natural means.

And now I’m a mother.

I didn’t look for my birth family until my parents were dead and I had children, a family. I wanted a medical history. I didn’t get one. Instead my birth mother wished me dead. It’s complicated, I guess. Maybe not.

Writing helps, but the whole experience still feels confusing, like a 10,000-piece puzzle that is 70 percent sky. It seems impossible to piece all that blue together, to match up pieces of clouds, to sort sunlight.  But it feels important to try.


My life – like lots of people’s lives, whether adopted or otherwise – felt, feels, fragmented. I write to make something whole out of that.

When I’m not writing about family, I write about place and work, which is about family and home, too, so there’s that. I write about work because I come from work, was raised on work. My father was a steelworker. My mother was a nurse. I’m from Pittsburgh, which to me isn’t about the latest charcuterie or $30 cheese plate or the next artisanal whiskey bar that got play in the New York Times. Pittsburgh to me is still the people who built it.

I write to connect with those people and their people. The world to me feels very disconnected. Everything feels upside down. Some of the best people I know can’t find good jobs. Other people, terrible people, the worst kind of people, the ones who love $30 cheese plates, are in charge of a system designed to keep things that way.

I grew up with a union worker, a father who taught me to jack the boss man. Now there are no unions and too many boss men and women to jack.

There’s a lot of bullshit and cruelty out there. I’m not saying I’m not capable of bullshit and cruelty, but I try to write against that.


How does your writing process work?

O.k., so my daughter wanted these fish. She can’t have a dog or a cat – allergies – and so we got her fish. A couple tetras, a catfish named Gus, some snails. There were three tetras, but I came home one day and there were two. No body floating. No fish head, even. I think these fish eat each other whole. I think these fish believe in $30 cheese plates. They want lavender-infused martinis. They want hot towels.

Fuck these fish. They’re evil. Just look.


So my daughter got her fish and doesn’t like her fish and now every couple weeks I have to clean the fish tank. So when I’m up to my elbows in fish-piss, when I’m gagging over the stink and slime, I think about writing. I think about writing over impossible bills and dishes. I think about writing when I’m picking up my son’s socks, which I find everywhere, one sock at a time. Once I found one in the crisper drawer in the fridge. Explain that.

My husband’s a writer, too, and so together we think about writing a lot. We think about writing while we balance the demands of our lives. There are a lot of demands. We think about writing  until we find a tear in the rabbit-proof fence and push our way through out of panic or desperation or fear of death, all of the above.

Usually these days we write together, computers touching, at our dining room table. This is how I’m writing this now.

Our table is an old green farm table. It embarrasses our son because it’s old and ratty and our writer friends have carved their names and initials into it, the way writers have done for a century on that poet tree in Galway. I think it’s beautiful. It warms me to see the names of people I love who’ve spent time here.

So my process is my husband and I sit at our table and write for a couple hours, then we talk and listen to music and drink beer and eat and play Jenga with our kids.

It’s not perfect. There’s no writers studio, no retreat, no treehouse or backwoods cabin ala Thoreau.

In our house, there’s me and my husband, our kids circling us, all this family chaos.

And it feels all right.

Better than that.


Next up:

Double-badass writing couple Ally Malinenko and John Grochalski. Check their blogs on Monday, August 19 for their answers to The Writing Process Blog Tour interview.

For now, get yourselves acquainted:

John Grochalski is the author of The Noose Doesn’t Get Any Looser After You Punch Out (Six Gallery Press 2008), Glass City (Low Ghost Press, 2010), In The Year of Everything Dying (Camel Saloon, 2012), Starting with the Last Name Grochalski (Coleridge Street Books, 2014), and the novel, The Librarian (Six Gallery Press 2013). Grochalski also lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he constantly worries about the high cost of everything.

Ally Malinenko is the author of the poetry book The Wanting Bone (Six Gallery Press), the children’s book Lizzy Speare and the Cursed Tomb (Antenna Books), and most recently This is Sarah (Bookfish Books). She lives in the part of Brooklyn voted to have the best halal truck.


Stuff I Write: The Truth Comes Out When The Spirit Comes In — On Being American, On Being Irish

In Uncategorized on March 17, 2014 at 7:17 pm

Here’s an essay I wrote about being an American and being Irish. It first ran a few St. Patty’s Days back in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Thanks, Post-Gazette!


For one year, when I was a broke and itinerant flight attendant, I lived in a house with six Irish accountants. The house was in Forest Hills, Queens, a few subway stops from Manhattan. Having six housemates meant we could almost afford the rent. Having housemates who were accountants meant that everything from the cost of toilet paper to the heating bill was divvied up.


My housemates called the heating bill the “oil delivery fee.” They used words like gorgeous and brilliant when describing a plate of overcooked spaghetti. They believed, really believed, Guinness is good for you.



These housemates – five men and one woman – were Irish citizens. They found work and housing through an underground network that specialized in exporting Irish accountants. Before this, I’d thought Ireland’s chief exports were beer, The Pogues, blood sausage, and jokes about priests and donkeys. My housemates liked jokes, but hated blood sausage. They had many Irish friends in the city – all of them accountants, all of them living with other Irish accountants, all of them able to do long division and recite Yeats drunk.



A confession: I’d always thought of myself as Irish. And so I was happy to pay $600 a month to sleep on a futon on the floor and be among my own people. I’d been adopted by my Italian/Polish parents when I was a year old, and I knew a little about my ancestry. I clung to the Irish side of my lost past. I wore green on St. Patty’s day. I wore a Claddagh ring. I was proud of my Irish eyes. They curled into commas when I laughed. I read Yeats and Joyce and knew all the words to “Danny Boy.” Being Irish made me feel special, particularly during my teenage years. My parents didn’t understand me. How could they?

And now, all these years later, in Queens, with authentic Irish folk, I thought I would learn who I really was.

“My birth name’s Phelan,” I told my housemate Sinead. Sinead was lovely – blue-green eyes, dark hair, a laugh that could crack plates. We became good friends right away, which meant we told each other the truth.

“You’re not really Irish, you know,” Sinead said and patted my hand. “Americans put on green t-shirts and tennis shoes and say they’re Irish and it’s just not true. Irish people are Irish. Americans are American.”


“She’s right,” Brian, one of the other housemates, said. He’d overheard us from the kitchen, where he’d been frying ground meat. My housemates had dinner together at 7 p.m. every night. They took turns cooking. I never saw any of them make anything other than Spaghetti Bolognese. The recipe didn’t vary, no matter the chef — three jars of Prego, two pounds of ground meat, two pounds of spaghetti, one loaf of Wonder bread. When I wasn’t flying and it was my turn to cook, I’d try to mix things up – Chicken Romano, tacos, fajitas. But mostly, when I cooked, my housemates would nibble politely, and the next night we’d be back to Bolognese.


“Americans always want to be something they’re not,” Brian said. He poked his head out of the kitchen and pointed a wooden spoon our way. “That’s how you get shamrock knickers. You get ‘Kiss Me I’m Irish.’ You get, lord help us, green beer. It’s desecration, I tell you. Who does that to perfectly fine beer? It’s not right. To be Irish is to be Irish, and that’s the end of it.”

Brian was from Dublin. Sinead was from Galway. All but one of the housemates was from the south of Ireland, which meant they shared the same politics and generalized about Americans the way I generalized about the Irish.

One night, after Sinead had downed a few pints and had a fight with Paul the bartender at Yer Man’s pub, I was driving her home. I don’t know why, but Sinead decided to flip off a group of kids on Metropolitan Avenue. She rolled down her window, yelled “Ho there,” and stuck her middle finger out. The kids yelled back. One of them turned around, dropped his pants and mooned us.



Sinead was shocked.

“A finger,” she said, “does not equal an ass. A finger equals a finger. I will never understand you people. Never.”

And there was so much I didn’t understand back.

Take our housemate, Tony, for instance.  Tony was from Belfast. This was a problem, since the housemates carried the troubles from their homeland with them. Sinead’s fight with Paul the bartender was over something political I didn’t grasp. Whatever it was made Sinead, a usually soft-spoken woman, shout. Sinead’s grandfather, I knew, had been a driver for Michael Collins, the founder of the I.R.A. Sinead’s family was deeply Catholic. I had no idea where Paul the bartender was from, exactly, or what his religious beliefs were. It would never have occurred to me to ask. Paul had an Irish accent. He worked at an Irish pub. Drunk women took off their bras and donated them to the collection that dangled like tongues over Paul’s head.


Paul often gave me wooden nickels to use for free drinks. He was kind and funny and called me “Love.”

Back at the house, I’d seen the fury Sinead had directed at Paul. It bubbled up whenever Tony was in the room. Tony was built like an eraser – stubby, with a square head and buzz-cut hair. His room was in the basement, next to the washer and dryer. The basement was concrete. Tony’s bed was a worn-down couch. Tony didn’t talk much. At dinner, he sat at the end of the table, head down. He ate fast, and usually got stuck with the dishes.

One day, because I wanted to understand, I asked a question. I’m not sure exactly how I phrased it, but I wanted to know the state of things between Ireland’s north and south. I knew the little I’d learned from history books and Brad Pitt movies, but I wanted to know the more personal side of things. How it affected people. My housemates, for instance.

What happened next  – Tony lowered his head even more. The other housemates said some things. Brian said, “Isn’t that right, Tony? Isn’t it?” And Tony didn’t say anything. Until he did. I don’t remember what he said because it seemed like nothing, really. Maybe he agreed with Brian. Maybe he said he was finished. What was happening at that table was beyond me, though I’d set it off. Sinead said “That’s enough,” and Tony went trudging off to the basement. I wouldn’t see him for days.

I had a late flight that night, a Vegas red-eye. When I came home, Tony’s face was bruised. One eye was leaky and swollen shut.

When I asked what happened, he said, “I don’t know what you mean.” Then he stumbled back down to the basement.

Later Sinead would say the boys had a fight. They’d been drinking. They’d locked Tony in the basement. There was no bathroom down there, so after several hours, Tony used the washer. Later, when they unlocked the door and found what Tony had done, they beat him.

“That’s the beginning and end of it,” Sinead said. “Let it be.”

It had been my fault. I felt terrible. I’d like to say something here about privilege, and ignorance, what it does to people, but what it comes down to is my privilege, my ignorance, what it did to Tony and what it didn’t do to me.

Years later, I’d visit Sinead in Ireland. We’d travel around the country and Sinead would give me a gift, a drink coaster with the Phelan family crest on it.

“Phelan means little wolf in Gaelic,” she’d say and pat my hand.


The coaster was made out of cork. The crest had a deer head on top, a diamond pattern on the shield. I thought I should feel something profound, holding this link to my past, but I didn’t.

Once, back in New York, Sinead and I had our palms read by a woman in the EastVillage. The palm reader’s studio was all done up in red velvet. She wore bangles and gauze. She told Sinead, “You long for home.” She told me, “There are lines we’re born with, and lines we make for ourselves.” The first line, the one I was born with, was so faint I had to scrunch my palm to see it. Then she charged me $50, cash.

I stayed in Ireland for two weeks.  Everywhere we’d go, we’d play a game Sinead invented called “Spot the American.” Sometimes it was easy – green t-shirt, tennis shoes, bag full of postcards. One thing I noticed — Americans take up a lot of space. We sprawl. We come from a big country, where we’re not used to holding anything, even our arms and legs, in. Our body language is open, as if we can absorb the whole world.

By the time we got to Belfast, that sad and troubled place, I’d order our drinks and food because Sinead was worried about her accent. Our game was trickier. We played until finally, in one pub, the only American to spot was me.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 39 other followers