Family Category

You’ve Gotta Measure: Ruth Lange Morton, In Memoriam

grandma and heidi

Thursday last week my mother called to inform me my grandmother had passed away the night before.

This was no kind of surprise. All summer she’d been increasingly ill, and from July on she’d been set to die “any day.” She was in and out of the hospital and care center until she never left. She had congestive heart failure; she was swollen with fluid and sometimes out of her mind, confused as to where she was and how she’d got there, insisting my mother had taken her against her will and the nurses were to call the police. For a woman who never left the house without her hair done and jewelry on, she left this world with less dignity than she would have chosen for herself.

My grandfather passed two years and a few months prior to her death, and in that time we have all played various games with the impending end of times. We’ve visited often or stayed away in a kind of denial. We tried to glean stories or “one more time” for so many things. Grandma made little of it easy. She’d never been a particularly easy person, but once the chore of keeping Grandpa alive was over, a lot of her fire seemed to go out. She didn’t want company. She didn’t want to go out. Little pleased her. And so no matter what coping mechanism we chose, most of us ended up largely disappointed.

I was one of the unwise souls who chose denial. In my defense I’ve had plenty going on, but mostly, I can admit, I was terrified of what was coming and so tried to pretend it would never arrive. I told myself all year I would call my grandmother, but I never did. I told myself I would visit, but I did so only once. I meant to write so many letters. I sent none. And now she is gone, and the only thing left to do is write this.

My mother tasked me with making a picture-movie as I did for my grandfather when he passed—since I’d known she was dying all summer, I could have anticipated this request and saved myself a lot of last minute work, but of course even if I’d been asked in July, I’d have waited until Thursday to begin. In fact, it was Friday before I did so much as put out a call for pictures. Because I didn’t want to face this. I never wanted this to happen, but it did, and so here I am.

The movie is done now, and I’m printing out the last of the twenty copies I’ll take to the visitation with me. I’m writing this on Sunday night, but this will post as the visitation starts on Monday evening. If you choose to watch the linked movie from 5-7CST you’ll be watching with me and my family, but it’s okay if you don’t, because it’s likely not going to mean much to you, if you weren’t part of this family. I think the plan is, like they did with my grandfather, to play it in the sanctuary over a movie screen like they did for my grandfather. I’d made the movie and meant to pass it out to family, maybe play it on a laptop out of the way or downstairs, but the pastor had been so excited to show off the church’s technology, my grandfather ended up with a movie at his visitation, which he would have loved. In fact, I had my second lucid dream of my life while I was making it, and he came to tell me he did love it very much, and me too.

My grandmother I think would secretly like the movie, but she will think the showing in the sanctuary a little fussy. I know she’d like the content, which is largely her holding babies. God, she loved babies. I was the first grandchild, and I gave her her first grandchild. I named my daughter after my grandmother and my grandmother’s mother, which she loved so much she ordered a little jumper with both names. Sadly, this got into a basket to lend to a friend and the friend never returned it, something I’m sad for often. Especially this week.

My grandmother was young when I was young. She took me to the mall, to the park, made cookies with me when I stayed at their house sometimes for a whole week, for a vacation. I played in the backyard. Ate wafer-thin pancakes at her high-top table. She came to soothe me in the night when I was convinced my grandfather’s snoring was a dragon and helped me get safely to the bathroom and back to bed. She made me lemon meringue pie because it was my favorite, and red velvet cake. She had a candy drawer and it was always full. She kept a toothbrush for me in her bathroom for when I came to visit, which always seemed like the most warm and precious thing to me. And she always had little toys or quiet games in her purse which I was allowed to play with during church, which she always took me to when I visited.

She wasn’t a squishy, kind grandmother–I didn’t really have any of those. She was actually quite baggy—the title comes from her favorite scold if you cooked near her. “You’ve gotta measure.” But she was stable and solid and omnipresent. She was at every major event in my life. She mailed me cookies weekly while I was in college, so many I had to share them with my dorm floor and professors (and thereby she won me many friends). Later I learned she was why we had food and clothes, sometimes, during some rough parts of our life. And when my nuclear family fell apart first with constant moving and then due to divorce, Grandma and Grandpa’s house became the stable, safe place. The home that would always be. The place we could always go to be safe. And we’ve been fortunate because it’s been exactly that for a long, long time.

Until now.

Holli drawing

My siblings and I have all been quietly aching with one another. One won’t be able to make it back, as she lives in Vienna. She sent along this drawing she made, which when it arrived in my inbox wrecked me utterly. It’s a drawing of their house, the way it has always been, always, with someone slipping in the garage door. That person is only a few steps from the kitchen screen door, and beyond there is heaven. A mixture of smells: clean smells, food smells, grandparent smells. There will be banging of things on the stove, or the sink. Grandma will turn around and smile, a patient smile. From a room beyond, Grandpa will say, “Well, look who’s here!” and will demand you come give him a hug. Wherever you’ve come from, whatever has been happening in your life, it doesn’t matter, because right now you’re at 2240 Brookland Drive, NE. You’re at Grandma and Grandpa Morton’s house, and everything will be all right.

Except, of course, it hasn’t been all right for two years, and now that kitchen will always be quiet. The smells will be wrong. Only for a little while longer will it have Grandma and Grandpa’s things in it at all. Then it will be someone else’s house.

My grandmother’s death is not a surprise, but it is a shock and it is a terrible, aching pain inside me. For her suffering, I’m glad she’s had release, and I can hardly begrudge her the long, rich live she lived. I know how rich because I’ve just spent three days putting together the photographic documentation of it. A lot of babies sat on that woman’s lap, which is just the way she wanted it. She didn’t travel far and wide. She didn’t want to. She wanted to have babies and hold babies and take care of people she loved. This she did, and very well.

I’m putting in the last DVD to burn, though part of me wants to keep burning until the stack of fifty in front of me is gone. I want to toss them out and start the movie over. I want to think of a reason to delay the funeral. I want magic to happen and I want them to be sixty again, or for them to have the bodies of sixty-year-olds and live until the moment I die.

I am sorry I didn’t visit or call or write. I’m also not. Because the truth is they haven’t been the same for a long time. They were both sick. And every time I visited I saw their death coming, and I foolishly thought it would be easier if I didn’t watch it happen. I know they aren’t completely gone, that they have left us with a large, healthy family. That we are capable of making a new place home. I know I’ve done a pretty good job with my own house and my own family. I closed the video by saying “thank you for showing us the way home,” and I meant it. They more than anyone else taught every one of the family members they touched what a home looked and felt like. They showed us the dance steps. Now they wait in the wings, cheering us on from somewhere a little further away.

But it still hurts. It hurts more than I normally allow things to let hurt me. I’m expert at turning away from anything potentially wounding, at least emotionally. I resist attachments so I don’t get hurt. But I never managed with these two. No matter what kinds of walls I tried to put up, these two just loved me anyway. Whether I came for dinner or not. Whether I wrote or not. Whether I sent the thank you notes or not. They got way deep inside even when I tried not to let them.

I’ve been bursting into tears in the middle of sentences for days. I’ve wept while writing this until snot ran out of my nose. I won’t be surprised if I sob so hard at some point in the next 48 that I vomit. Because the truth is despite any distancing I might have tried to do, any logic I’d tried to use, Ruth Ellen Morton and her husband got way, way under my skin and all the way into not just my heart but the core of my being. And their loss cuts so much.

I’m going to do my best to take up their mantle and build that kind of home for my family, their children, and all my friends and loved ones. The safe place that stays, that always is. But right now, this week, I’m going to cry. Especially when I walk into that house tomorrow, full of lots of family and noise and yet so horribly quiet and empty.

I love you Grandma and Grandpa. I hope now that you can see everything I tried to hide from you that you still are proud of me. I will miss you for the rest of my life.






(If you watch the video: the song she’s brokenly singing to the baby is the one she always sang to all of us when we were kids. She sang it like a lullaby, but in making the video I found out it was actually a 1940s pop song. My grandmother’s rendition was so much better.)


Last night, as I snuggled with Dan in bed, I thumbed out a chat with a friend having a hard moment and wanting, desperately, advice on a relationship crossroads. That in itself isn’t so unusual, but it’s worth noting the friend is a sophomore in college and I was on the cusp of my seventeenth wedding anniversary.

That contrast really echoed in me as I gave my fifty cents worth of thoughts, because he’s only a few years younger than I was when I met Dan. This friend is a lot like me too–we aren’t exactly two peas in a pod, but he’s filled with passion and idealism, and I have to say, twenty-two years have worn away some of my vigor and cracked my rose-colored glasses, but my heart has never left that state. He, thankfully, is so much smarter and well-balanced than I was at that age, so I live in hope with a few more years he’ll whiz right by me and he can be my sage advisor.

Last night it was my turn with the cup of knowledge, though, and the thing I kept circling back to was talking about how long-term relationships very quickly become sentient beings. This is true of platonic unions as well, of course. Relationships always start out as an ideal in our head: something about the person in front of us speaks to a need in our own hearts. And while the wild crush of first love is in bloom, the imperfections are washed away by endorphins and other exotic brain chemicals.

Eventually those fade, however, and that’s when the relationship becomes its own thing. Warts begin to appear. Problems arise. Deficiencies become cracks in the veneer and sometimes allow whole sections of our imagined ideal partner to fall away. When this long-term relationship is romantic, sex gets tangled in the mix, as do all our culturally imposed ideals of what the perfect partner is. Now is the grand moment, when we see not who we want to see, but who is truly in front of us.

If you keep going in a relationship, if you spin out not only months but years and then decades, the relationship as sentient being spins and twirls and digs in grooves until it weaves its own DNA. Draw back far enough to look at it and you see the dark whorl where you nearly broke apart, or the shadow where you were distant. During the first blush of partnering, you swore you would never have those moments. You would be the Hallmark couple, someday the cute wrinkled old people holding hands on a swing.

The truth of course is that every wrinkled old couple holding hands comes with eons of moments grand and disappointing. A long-term relationship is a life. It isn’t a game you win or lose, it is a joy and honor to be able to have, whether for a few months or for years. Every challenge and test is a chance to knit yourself closer or admit you should unravel. It’s a story, your story. It is beautiful and ugly and disappointing and strengthening and unexpected and comforting.

When I was young and I dreamed of a partner, I wanted so many things. Someone smart and witty and kind. Someone who would challenge me and lead me and protect me. Even I knew all the things I wanted was such a crazed set of ideals I never dared dream. When I met Dan, however, I remember feeling as if all those things came true and then more. I felt like I’d known him forever and we were predestined and everything.

Then time passed, and some of those pretty scales fell away. More and more all the time. I still can’t say who put them there–me, Dan, both of us, some divine relationship fairy–all I knew was that events would happen, good and bad, and I would see less of the man I’d imagined and more of the man I had. I loved him too. Sometimes I had to learn that love, because sometimes the true human beneath the ideal was a little rough. Sometimes it was thrilling to know only I could see that part of him, that this was a gift only a life partner could get. But sometimes those moments hit me when my own scales were falling away, and it was hard.

Dan and I have faced all manner of challenges in seventeen years, and the thing I’ve learned and re-learned is that the crises, the scale-falling moments are the ones where you weave a new rung in that DNA ladder of your relationship. At first it was the loss of ideals, then it was the challenge of adding a child, and now it is age. Gray hair. Weight gain. Health problems. Scales neither of us had thought much about, things that startle us and make us actively try to cut each other off. Because sometimes the wrenches life throws at us hit our heads, and they hurt. Sometimes we can’t even trust a partner of seventeen years to love us when this many scales fall away, because we’re realizing more and more each day underneath those glittering defenses we are tired, wrinkled, and unloveable.

This is the magic of seventeen: after this much time, after so much practice at the weaving of this relationship, now we reach out and draw each other back. Health problems render us feeling fat and gross and crazy? Come here, sweetheart. No, you don’t get to push me away. Don’t want me to touch you right now? That’s okay. I’ll sit right here and love you all the same. You seem like you could use a massage. How about you make a date with your friend? Why don’t you go buy a book or a record? Here, I got this cookie for you.

My job is to write love stories, of people falling in love. That first rush, those bubbling endorphins, that initial connection. And I do love that moment, never get tired of writing it. I enjoyed living it in my youth, of having that moment with Dan. I still fall in love with friends, still chase that new-relationship smell.

But after seventeen years of caretaking this relationship with my spouse, of peeling away layers and discovering disappointments and joys and strange new worlds, of quiet pleasures and crazy capers–nothing compares. I have someone who thinks I’m beautiful when I’m sweaty and stinky in a bathrobe. Who actually likes it when I get bitchy and ranty, I think even a little when it’s aimed at him. Who is patient when I am moody or weird. Who never turns down a hug or a snuggle. Someone who I want to see more than anyone else, someone who is home.

Seventeen years ago today I was putting on a frilly dress and getting ready to walk down an aisle. We have this silly idea when we get married that the walk down a row of chairs or benches is the real journey–certainly we’re the best dressed for that part. But I am still walking down that path. Just Dan and I for the most part now, and sometimes we’re not as great with the upkeep of the sidewalk as we should be. Except I would walk with this man over hot coals. Anywhere, everywhere, so long as the path doesn’t end.

I love you, Daniel Scott Cullinan. Thanks for seventeen great years. I want seventeen-and-seventy more.

wedding1 copy

And Now For Something Completely Different: What Happens When Heidi Remodels a Basement

I know. The Internet was full of nonsense again, but I’m not going to comment on it. I’d love to, but it’s a morass and mostly it’s Mercury in Retrograde, and there’s nowhere safe to stand because the Internet isn’t discourse, it’s an outrage machine. Instead, I’m going to show what I did the past few weeks to my basement.

Picture 010Backstory: our house is huge. Not in a McMansion kind of way, but in a hobbit house/rabbit warren kind of way. Once upon a time in the 1930s, it was a cute little bungalow, but then in the 1970s someone doubled the size of the house with an addition, including a fully finished basement. I bet even through the mid-eighties it was something to see. You can tell in the way they did the original building and in a few remodels that the place was smoking. I know former owners had many, many children, and I bet some great teenage times were had in our lowest story. But over time this space has lost its luster, and other homeowners declined to update the space and a few unfortunate water events wrecked carpet. Our contribution came from a cat who was sick and pissed and decided to use the basement bedroom for a litterbox, and in the way only cats can, the others decided to join him. The paneling in the hallway was dark and IMG_3223awful. The space was depressing, and while we managed to use the space initially, eventually became where we put stuff we didn’t know what to do with.

Those playing along at home: that was a large den, a hallway with small annex, a bedroom, and two and a half rooms in the traditional concrete block basement, all full of stuff we didn’t even want, just hadn’t bothered to shove out the door. That’s a lot of stuff.

For years I’ve said, “We should refurnish the basement.” I hated the wasted space. It’s large enough for an incredible one-bedroom apartment, with its own private entrance, and I have, often, told total strangers they should come live in my basement mostly because it made me nuts to have a small house full of junk instead of life. (Total strangers are smarter and saner than me, because nobody ever took me up on it, and anyway, Dan would have said hell no.) I always knew exactly what it needed: a coat of primer-sealer, paint, new carpet, new floor in the bathroom. Oh, a new sink/toilet would be great, the sauna gone and a mini kitchen put in its place would be brilliant, but that was icing on the cake. $1500 would give the space an entirely new life.

IMG_3218$1500 and a WHOLE lot of work. Even when we had the $1500, there was no way I was doing that much painting with my body. I did Anna’s room a few years ago and it was The Little Mermaid Paints a Bedroom: every step was a knife, every swath of a brush sent rivers of pain down my arm. I did it anyway, but that was one room, one week. This was two LARGE rooms, a LONG hallway, a bathroom, a stairwell. This was moving all the junk out first. This was figuring out several interlaced color schemes. This was lots and lots and lots of fussy detail work. This was the sort of thing I would have done in a breeze ten years ago, the kind of challenge I would have eaten for breakfast, but my body has been through the wringer since then.

Except…for the past two months, I’ve been on the magic, wonderful drug that is Lupron. And the bitch…she is back.

Dan said, “I know you’re better because Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend we were talking about maybe doing a remodel, and by Sunday night we had all the rooms clear and a coat of primer on the bedroom walls.” This was true, and ten days from that Sunday, the whole thing was done.

There was a beautiful Zen quality to reclaiming that basement. On the one hand, it does something IMG_3252serious to the psyche to transform a space from garbage site to guest bedroom and family bonding area, but for me there were the additional layers of simply being able to work like this again and remembering I used to be able to approach life with the same kind of crazed, focused zeal I can wreak on a manuscript. In fact, at this particular second I’m having so much fun being able to use my body, I have to make myself sit down at a computer and dive into my head. I cannot express to you how radical this is for me.

It was nothing short of magic to take a dark, stinky, depressing space and make it shine. It was cool to see the transformation, but it was a head rush and a half to be the ones doing the work. To know that brilliantly painted wall is there because we did it. That the subtle details of the lightswitch and the knobs of the reclaimed dresser are because you chose them. This was a space we all avoided. No one wanted to go down to the basement for so much as a screwdriver. It was a walk through the broken, discarded bits of our past, an albatross of should that wore at the soul.

Not anymore.

Two specific things prompted this renovation. One, we were wanting a better area to watch TV and movies together in, since this is a big bonding time for us. Two, we wanted a better space for company who stayed overnight, and we had my sister coming mid-June, maybe people during my surgery recovery. It’s hard on Dan to have the spare bed be in his office, which due to space in our bedroom closet is also where his clothes are. Plus he always misses his office, his private retreat.

IMG_3254So we made a guest suite and a movie room. We did it together. I did a lot of it, waking early in the morning with a sore arm, but since I was up I might as well go get more painting done. We shopped carpet and sectionals and bedspreads. We sorted through old things and made runs to Goodwill and made a pile for Craigslist. We had help form Dan’s incredible parents, who came multiple times to help haul, move, lay parts of the carpet, take off doors, build new light fixture bases. We problem solved issues. We made plans for fine tuning.

And now it’s done. My sister has come and gone, and they loved their guest space. They and their two kids had space and privacy and comfort, and Nathan got to watch a ridiculously huge TV while his kids settled down for bed.

I loved doing this work. I loved doing it with my family, for my family. I can’t wait to have another houseguest. I want to have all my loved ones over for a movie marathon. I want to keep adding decorative touches and details. More than anything I can’t stop hanging out in the basement now, and I invent excuses to go down.

Throughout this post I’ve shown before and during pictures. The following are the finished products.

Bedroom (as modeled by Walter):


The above were taken before we finished the shelf. Lighting not as pretty here, but the shelf is done. Also you get a great shot of the LED light.

photo 2


Hallway and bathroom (I don’t have a picture of the old way, but every light surface was dark brown.):

IMG_2403 photo 1

And last but very not least, the movie room. I don’t have any of the stairs, but they’re not that exciting. Just soft. Sidney is the model here, lost in the blankets, feeling yucky because of a bladder infection.

IMG_2405 IMG_2406


In that cabinet under the TV is an electric fireplace, which is very fortuitous as that room will get chilly in the winter. Cool part is we can have  a “fire” anytime we want, without heat. I thought it would be cheesy, but actually it’s pretty cool.

We Cullinans do good work.



The little things matter: how my kid’s school schooled me on reacting to sexual bullying

I just returned from a meeting with my kid’s school counselor addressing an issue concerning her, and while there are others getting a talking-to right now, I can’t stop thinking about what just happened. I’m humbled, and I’m so incredibly glad my kid goes to school where she does.

The essentials are this: my daughter loves horses. LOVES. Horses. We own one. She has a million Breyer models and various toy horses. Half her clothing has horses on it. If she has an assignment and can turn it into something horse, she does. Horses are life. Her dream is to own a barn someday, and a stable full of horses, so much so that she’s basing her career choices on paths which would best fund her dream and still leave her free time to ride.

She draws horses too, and has for years, always trying to draw them better. She’s very proud of her work, sometimes taking hours to work on her pieces. Sometimes she colors them, sometimes she doesn’t. She customizes My Little Pony figures, adds mods to games to add horses. She doodles at school when she has time, and brings pictures to school to show her friends.

She’s also a pre-teen, and she loses her work sometimes. One picture was lost recently, only to be found again, then lost a second time. After that loss, it was returned to her by a male classmate…with an addition.

The texts I received from her bus ride home that day were full of hurt and fury. I was proud of the way she’d gotten angry, not let the incident make her cower and destroy the drawing. She had many emotions, but she understood feeding the fire would make it worse, so mostly tried to convey anger and then ignore it. We talked about it, processing her hurt, and I did my best to explain I don’t think it was personal–I doubted they understood how much that hurt her, that they were simply being dumb boys. She understood and was still hurt, which I said was very normal. I encouraged her to fix the drawing, erasing and then adding background to rub it out completely. I also applauded her new drawing, which was a bit…bloodthirsty. I also suggested maybe don’t take that one to school, just enjoy it at home.

Unfortunately, the incident wasn’t over. When she returned to school, the teasing kept happening. From everything I could gather, it was subtle, infrequent, but just enough to keep the wound open. My daughter was upset, still angry, but her anxiety began to pick up, and she didn’t want to go to school. I suggested she tell her counselor and teacher in the class where it happened, and she sent them an email once she was back home. One teacher wrote her back promising this would be addressed, and it seemed to be over for the night.

But as we went to bed, fears of what the next day would bring haunted her, and talking to her teachers and counselors wasn’t enough. When I offered to go with her, she said that was what she wanted.

I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. I wanted to be passive as much as I could, to let this be her solving the issue, but I didn’t want to leave her to hang out to dry, either. I asked what she wanted me to do, and mostly she seemed to simply want me there. So we sat in the office and waited for her team’s counselor to be available.

First of all, while I’ve talked to this guy before, I’ve never seen him in action with my child. He greeted her with a warmth that came from really knowing and caring about her, and she responded with the kind of ease that said they’d had a lot of conversations and she was clearly glad to see him, to talk with him. I think that’s when I began to understand how serious this was in her head–she felt this comfortable with this counselor, but she still needed me present for this conversation. This point was driven home when she panicked as she found out he hadn’t gotten her email yet and she’d have to relay the story out loud.

She did great, though, repeating the email almost verbatim, her voice only wavering a little. She was calm, cool, and composed.

And that’s when I got schooled.

I am ashamed to say, I expected her to be soothed but told this was how boys are. To say this wasn’t okay but point out this was pretty minor, that this was about defacing property and kids being hurtful and clueless. I thought maybe the boys would be spoken to, maybe, but I wasn’t sure. What I wasn’t ready for was the counselor essentially treating this like sexual assault.

I hesitate saying that, because it feels so serious, implying more invasion than I think my child felt, but basically he took this incredibly seriously, making room for her to feel whatever she felt, to say in no way was this okay. He validated her, thanked her for coming forward, gave her a script to say to her bullies and made it clear the names she gave of those who teased her would be talked to. He explained emphatically any additional teasing especially after they were warned would have immediate consequences. The assistant principal was referenced several times. He repeated these things several times in different ways, made sure my daughter felt okay with how things were going, and when he dismissed her for class, orchestrated an elaborate set of timing so she would not meet her harassers in the hall as they came to the office to be talked to.

Please, please note this is a male counselor, and he’s got at least five years on me. Probably a few more. I’m forty–feel the generation he’s from. Please note the assistant principal referenced is also male. This next bit only matters for the full picture of awesome my daughter is subconsciously digesting: the counselor is a white man, the assistant principal is black. They’re both stereotypical “tough guys.”

My twelve year old was just told, with no blinks, no excuses, no nothing but validation, that they have her back. That she deserves to have strong, powerful people, men included, on her side. That her feelings are valid and her dignity should be protected. That peers, boys or girls, have no write to draw on her pictures, but that when it’s sexual it’s very serious and will be stopped right now. Any attempts to keep things going after the perpetrators have been told to stop will be met with swift justice.

This was the message I watched my girl get. My very pretty, anxiety-carrying, passionate, deep-feeling child. I could not pay money enough in the world to set up that kind of empowerment, and it just happened because that’s a day of doing business at her school. I don’t even think I affected the outcome much by being there. I think this would have happened without me present. I’m selfishly grateful she needed me there so I could witness.

What do I say? Thank you? I did, but it feels so tawdry. I’m ashamed at some of my own thoughts, like I didn’t take it seriously enough. Like I was going to give these guys permission they didn’t deserve. Because I was raised in a different world, in different schools, with different counselors.

For all time, for her life, my child will believe differently. These people pass hundreds of young men and women through their building each year, teaching them this kind of different too. They will carry this into the world. Those boys, who very probably did not mean anything as cruel as it was perceived, will learn they must mind their accidental cruelty. They will live with that message too, and carry it forward to their own children, their sons and daughters.

I just…thank you? What useless words.

What amazing, incredible educators. If only the whole world could go to this school.


Yes, We Got Married on National Coming Out Day

We interrupt this blog to do one of those cheesy eye-rolling I LOVE MY PARTNER THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES AND ALL THE FISH retro photo montages. Sixteen years, bitches. Sixteen years. Thick, thin, sickness, health, chaos and wonder.

Love you, Daniel Scott Cullinan. Thanks for picking me.

Drum Corps Love and Documentary About Them That Needs You

A month ago my friend Caryle posted a call on Facebook wanting to know if anyone wanted to go to Celebration in Brass. It had been forever since I’d been to a drum & bugle corps show, so I said, “Sure, I’m in!” Dan had originally planned to go to see Grease on the big screen at our local theater, but he found out it would be a sing-along and decided no. So all three of us piled in the car, picked up Caryle, and headed over to Waukee.

IMG_1163The weather, for once, was wonderful, and as I milled in the lines and took my seat, I got lost in memories. You see, a million years ago when I was fourteen, I was in the Americanos drum & bugle corps out of Menasha, Wisconsin. I played pit, because my usual instrument trade was piano and flute, and there was no way in hell I was coordinated enough for a flag. I toured all over the country, dipping once into Canada, and slept on gym floors with the rest of them. I remember endless hours on coach buses, constant bickering and support from my corps mates, and the comforting thrum of the drum line as we rehearsed. I remember sitting next to the snares and toms, feeling the kind of excitement from their rhythm and resonance that I have elsewhere found in writing and good sex. I remember wearing polyester uniforms in parades with volunteers squirting water into our mouths and standing ready to pull us if we passed out from heat exhaustion.

Mostly, though, I remember the Madison Scouts.

When I was a corps member, the Scouts were mostly too old for me, but they are my first memory of openly, shamelessly admiring sharp, sleek male form. They were clean-cut, fully at attention, more regimented than any other corps. When our drum majors told us to keep in time, the Scouts were what I thought of as the ultimate example of Doing It Right. I remember one night being able to stand to the side as they marched by onto the field, and I remember my heart pounding, my senses alive in something so much deeper and complicated than sexual attraction. I remember drinking them in, savoring each crisp line of their uniforms, hard line of their jaw. I never noticed one as an individual, only the whole unit.

Last night the Madison Scouts were there, to my great delight. When the show was over, we were all discussing our favorite performances, and Anna asked me mine. “The Scouts,” I said, which surprised her because so many were showy and full of props and flash. The thing was, while Santa Clara Vanguard was great, I’m old school, and I didn’t like how they didn’t walk out to the beat because they were busy screwing with those building parts in the back. It was cute how The Academy had that guy vamping in the front with whatever his accent was, but it was a little too cute if you know what I mean.

IMG_1167The Scouts came out in a militant line, did their thing where they turned in unison, pivoting and expanding at once, and as I remembered everything they did was so precise you could set your watch by it. And yeah, there’s something about them being all-male. I really loved a lot of the female performances in the other corps, or at least the females one could identify (everyone looks the same under those plumey hats). Some of the color guards were ballets, and they were beautiful. I particularly enjoyed the Colts: they felt like the old school corps I remembered, and they radiated family in a way that made me nostaglic. The Scouts, though—God Almighty.

I admit, I had the same reaction last night I did when I was fourteen, except this time the wistfulness was different. Back then I thought I was yearning for a boyfriend, but I think what I really was after was that strong sense of sexuality: as in, “this is what masculinity is, watch this. This is what behaving is, this is what order and form is.” Because then as now, I was never a person who understood who she was. I’ve been a member of many borrowed families like the corps, but I’ve always felt off to the side.  Now I know how to play that—now I wouldn’t trade that for anything, because that distance is what lets me see so I can write. It felt like beautiful closure to see that and acknowledge it, and well worth the price of admission.

The other thing last night that got me was while I watched each core that statistically, a lot of gay men and women were out there, some who knew who they were, some who were out, some who were as conflicted as they could be. Anything artistic I swear raises the odds, and there were a few pit crew and flag corps members with the kind of swish which, if they weren’t gay, were even more beautiful because they were part of that lovely line-blending the younger generations are serving up. I even spied a few women who, I knew now, had I been a little less shuttered when I was young, I’d have been attracted to as well. I loved the idea that these young people have more acceptance and permission to be whatever orientation they want to be.

Naturally, while I was doing all this musing, a plot bunny happened.

Actually it wasn’t so much a plot bunny as the decision that I would make a garden for a plot bunny to call home, and the garden would be corps-themed. Because tell me there aren’t gay romances happening in these coach buses crammed with young and new adults. When they aren’t happening, someone is wishing they would. I sat watching the show, I realized how much inside info I had on a corps, and I knew it had to happen. So I tweeted about it. Many, many people on twitter went BANANAS at the idea, and those who had no idea what I was talking about looked it up and then went, “Oh, god yeah.” I posted pics, confessed I was perving and slashing, particularly the Scouts. It was a great time.

This morning I woke up and my phone told me @ScoutsHonorDoc was following me, and that they’d favorited the tweet about writing a gay romance set in a drum & bugle corps. I peeked at their info, and then I ran to my computer. A documentary about the Madison Scouts.

Hello, bunnies. Look at this goddamned garden.

It’s the Scouts’s 75th anniversary, and to celebrate they’re trying to put the documentary out this year to match it. But movies cost a lot to make, and as you can see, they’re $8,505 short just now. I did my best to send them forward, but I don’t have ten grand to spare. I do, though, have a crapton of you following this blog, another lump on twitter, and all the other social media. And you have friends, etc.

Ten bucks counts. Ten bucks is a deli sandwich, chips, and a soda. Ten bucks is a Chipolte burrito with guacamole and a drink. Ten bucks is a Cullinan Starbucks order. Ten bucks from ten people is one hundred dollars, and takes the Scouts from $8,505 to $8,405 short. Ten bucks from one hundred people is a grand, and that would mean they’re only down $7,505.

If you have ten bucks or more to spare, please send it their way. Think of it as supporting great art, amazing young men, and budding filmmakers. Think of it as making it so I can get that DVD that much faster.

In the meantime, watch their trailer. Check out their website. Follow their Facebook and Twitter. And if you ever hear that a drum & bugle corps show will be in your area, check it out. You won’t be sorry.

(If you want to see if one will be, check this schedule.)

Here’s a great mashup of their greatest hits:

Show I saw last night:

Of Stories and Spines

Scan 6I had this vision when I began my summer of taking time at least once a week to blog, especially about writing process and about being a reader, because I pretty much walk around with essays on both topics blooming in my head constantly. The facebook page has been pretty good, actually, but I meant to get the blog going again as well. June, however, had other ideas for me. First I was busy trying to sort out my preteen’s crazy summer schedule, and at the same time my mother’s side of the family was in turmoil because my grandfather kept ducking in and out of the hospital, nearly dying several times. On June 13 he did pass away, and I took a week to mourn, spending three entire days making this movie for my family, then attending the wake and funeral in Cedar Rapids. That movie is twenty-three minutes long, so feel free to skip it, but if you want to watch it I don’t mind at all, because making it was my way ot saying I love you to him. I meant it to be something I could give to everyone in my family (I took almost fifteen copies to the funeral and have five more on my desk I need to send to my grandmother), but in a move Grandpa would have loved, the pastor of his church showed it in the sanctuary on a big screen on perpetual loop during the visitation, and the last segment of it was shown during his funeral service.  My grandfather was an amazing man: a WWII vet, a husband, a father, a government worker, and a grandfather to what I can only describe as a horde. When you get to the grandkids section with the 1970s fabulousness at 11:11, the baby is me, and I’m there with most of my siblings until about 12:30. He’s one of the reasons I haven’t blogged until now, because writing about him was important to me, but it’s taken me this long to be able to say this much. He was ninety-three, and he lived an amazing life, but I’m selfish and will not be ready to say goodbye to him when I am ninety-three. If you want to skip the video and just peek at a picture, the one above and to the right is Grandpa Morton and I sometime mid-seventies.

That movie is actually a nice segue into the topic I’ve been meaning to blog about, because as I put the memorial together, my daughter Anna watched me work, and at one point said in frustration, “I don’t know how you do that, make those kind of movies.” She says this because she makes her own movies, and please don’t hesitate to visit her channel and leave comments, but she gets paralyzed by the idea of making the family montages that I’ve made for trips I’ve taken and more frequently for Christmas and New Year’s with her godparents. So as I made Grandpa’s movie, I tried to explain my process. The only thing I could come up with was that when I made a video or wrote a story or even put together a playlist in iTunes, I look for the spine.

h8C4DD3E8I suppose you could use theme as a synonym, but it’s not the same thing at all as far as I’m concerned. Theme is umbrella-like: it has veins, but it’s static, and while you’re drafting something, theme is the ceiling that was always there but you often can’t see clearly until you’re done on the ground. The spine is the way up to that canopy, all the vertebrae connected to each other and every individual aspect of the story. It connects everything rather than covers it, and you can use the spine to find your way anywhere else. Also, if you break it or try and do something off the spine, everything goes to hell really fast.

The other cool feature about a story spine is that you can start anywhere. Top, bottom, middle–you can compose out of order, skip things, or start at one end and dutifully work your way along. When you’re lost in story fog, finding the spine will always get you back on track, because it literally is the thing holding your work in place. Sometimes you don’t realize you wandered off until you’re on a limb over a death canyon, but so long as you figure that out before you drop into the pit of death, you can wriggle back onto the track and continue on.

Anna’s next question, of course, was how did she know what a spine was. Naturally, that’s a bit trickier, I’ll admit. I don’t know that I have a pat answer for how to discover it, either. I guess if pressed I’d say finding it feels a bit like fishing. You have to have an active line, and enough good stuff on it to draw your prey to you, but you mostly have to be patient and watchful. Sometimes what you think is a story spine is an old boot, and sometimes what you think is an old boot is the through-line of your story you’ve been waiting for. More than once I’ve thought I was following one kind of spine only to have it morph on me as I reached the end. I don’t think the story altered half as much as my expectations, but it’s always a kind of breathless magic to me, watching it happen.

130201158228Spine is so important because it’s what you as a creator use to make your story, but it’s also what your audience will use to consume your work as well. As a reader, I get so cranky when I find myself in the middle of a hot mess and don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking at, what story is being told. It makes me angry, makes me feel unsafe. When I read kindle samples, I’m trying to find that spine, to see if this writer has a nice path for me or if they’re an elephant clomping about in desperation. A good spine is like a train track, because story is a ride, and the track is what moves a reader through the story. As a reader, when I find one, I’m so, so happy. The best rides, of course, are the ones where I thought I was on one spine and at the end I have that same surprise I get sometimes while I’m writing.

I always try to make my story spine an easy ride, and I try to lay it out looking effortless. I will tell you that never, not once, is it actually easy to put into place. Even when the first draft doesn’t have the equivalent of weird backwards vertebrae and oddball nerve patterns, I always go back over the story spine obsessively, trying to smooth it out. Pacing plays a role here, but pacing like character and plot come out of this central nervous system. If I get to the point where I’m selling a book these days, it goes into submission with me knowing exactly what that spine is, with me having worked so many adjustments on that sucker I could tack a DC after my name.

This is also why, though, I can’t have an alpha reader. I’ve had a few on very rare occasions, but even when it was people I loved and trusted implicitly reading over my shoulder as I wrote, the mere presence of additional eyes made me feel like the house of cards was about to fall. Lately I’ve only done beta readers in rare circumstances: Dan and my agent are always first readers, but unless I’m in a real pickle, they’re usually all I use. It’s too hard to find that spine when I have people commenting on what I’m doing. I’ve written about Sealing before, but I’m more a disciple to it now than ever. Something important happens when I keep my work contained until completion, and so that’s what I do. Some of it is focus, and some of it, I’m convinced, is pure magic.

hF264D314Finding and following the spine for me is a quest. Writing has very much become a job for me–this isn’t a hobby, it’s what keeps my family functioning, and I’m as serious as a heart attack about the business side of my career. When I’m following the spine, though, the door on that side is shut, and I’m hunting for luminescent threads in the dark, trusting they’ll be things I can weave into works I can sell. Those moments in the deep, though, while I’m searching, are precious. Maybe that’s why I’m so determined to go into it alone, because it’s holy, and things like that are best done alone, at least for me. Writing with a partner changes that slightly, yet when I’m writing my section of the work, I’m still down in that deep pool, hunting and gathering in solitude.

The nice side effect of this kind of composition means it’s very rare I’m able to fall into the conceit of trying to write to please, to serve my ego instead of the story. It’s a lot easier to see the difference between those things in the silence. I always have the shore in mind, and because I’ve been blessed to get to know some of my readers personally, I very frequently think, “So-and-so is going to love this part,” and bringing that part of the spine to life is a joy I do for them. Mostly, though, I’m communing with the story itself, trying to find the veins that will allow it to live.

Because really in the end, that’s what the spine does. It allows the structure of the story to stand without me. I can’t hover next to every reader and explain things when I’m unclear. I can’t fill in vertebrae once the copy is set and distributed–once it’s out, it’s out, but if the spine is there, if it’s strong, anyone who was ever going to take that ride in the first place will be able to, with the same magic I used to find it, fill in the gaps that are best for them.

I think that’s why I love books so much, even more than movies: there are so many spaces for the reader in a book. What one person sees and absorbs and projects is absolutely different than someone else’s experience, and yet they’re all happening at the same time. A movie too, I suppose, but not in the same way as a book, at least for me. The spine of a story is the gift I give it, the ladder, the track, the delivery system for everything.


If I tell a story about my grandfather, I think of the spine. In that video I wanted to tell the story of his life via pictures–all of it, as much as I can. I used what I had and put out a frantic all-call to everyone in the family. What resulted from that was an amazing Dropbox cornucopia of images spanning almost a century, coming in from around the world. I learned more about my grandfather and my family through making that video than I did in the forty years I’ve known him. I learned from watching people watch it. I know too that my family learned about me.

I’m less concerned that my readers learn about me through my books, but I do want them to have that kind of communion with the work, to feel when they finish something I’ve written that their life is clearer or easier or happier or richer. I love that each story can illicit seven different reactions at the same time. I love that though the magic for me happens quietly, usually a year before anyone but my smallest inner circle see, it blooms even brighter once it takes its own steps into the world. Though writing is lonely, I love that moment  of sharing the most, lingering in the back of the room quietly watching people open presents I left waiting.

All that happens, though, through the spine. Spine is essential. It is the way in and the way out for both composer and audience. It connects the story. It connects it to me, connects it to you. And when we’re very, very lucky, it connects us to each other too.

Peanut Butter Eggs, My Pelvis, and Bill Cosby: Or, This Blog Post is All Over the Map

I didn’t get to round three of #DABWAHA, and as I told Abigail Roux, since I was tired just watching I think the best woman won. Honestly, it’s a bit of a relief—now all I have to do is finish Better Than Love, which is damn, damn close. I was on a roll until Marie Sexton showed up, which is fine, and then as she left it said, “Nah, we want to chill a little longer. Theoretically I was supposed to start back into it today, but in reality this afternoon I’m pretty damn tired. This is because I have gone back into physical therapy.

Though the whole pain thing has been better of late, it started getting worse again, and the last month in particular has been more than a bit shit. I had a quiet moment where I freaked out and panicked and worried nothing I could ever do would stop it or make things right. Then I got over myself and called my general practitioner. I have a new Vicodin prescription, and I’m back in physical therapy.

If you’re the sort who reads those things, you may have noticed that I thanked the Mary Greeley Physical Therapy Department in the acknowledgements of Dance With Me. This was because all Ed’s PT was my PT. I never played football, but my neck was really stupid. I bawled like a baby while I wrote the pain goals scene, and I had to write Ed’s goals (or have Laurie write them) before I could write my own. Well, now I’m back at MGPTD, and this time we’re playing with my lower back.

Today specifically I learned that my abdominal muscles suck ass, and that the right side is so incredibly bad I failed the most easy, inane, people-with-seriously-fucked-up-bodies-do-this exercise: floating in the deep end with a weight belt on and doing marches and scissor kicks. I kept getting shooting pains in my right piriformis muscle, though it’s actually right on my tailbone so I don’t know what what to make of it. The therapist in the water wondered if I didn’t need an MRI, but we’ll see what Matt, my main PT squeeze, thinks about that before I trip over to the metal tube. What we did suss out is that pretty much never are my right abdominal muscles aren’t doing much of anything. So they’re relying on the left side to do everything and the right lower back, which is pissing off my right hip and right side of my pelvic muscles something fierce. This seems to be the whole water problem.

Anyway, there is a whole lot more body work than writing work right now, and now that I’m at my desk to work, I’m barely able to stay awake. Working in the water is exhausting. I didn’t do much of anything, but tell that to my body.

In the meantime, I have a small addiction to copycat peanut butter eggs. These are vegan and can be made sugar-free. I’ve been eating them quite a bit so might try getting some xylitol, but probably I’ll just use powdered sugar and not think about inflammation. I’ve made them twice already, once with the cocoa recipie, and once I melted Enjoy Life chips. I still have some of the melted chocolate in the fridge, and I still have powdered sugar. I feel it’s my duty to make at least one more batch, don’t you?

I heartily, heartily encourage you to make these yourself, even if you don’t have to be vegan. They’re so much better than the store’s, and probably that’s because they’re fresh.


After a nap, I anticipate getting back into the game of writing and continuing it through the weekend. The bunny will visit our house and hide eggs all over as per usual. I have to get a few more things for Anna’s basket, but that’s about it. I don’t even think we’re doing anything for Easter other than going to the barn for Anna’s lesson.

Speaking of my child. A few weeks ago I introduced her to Bill Cosby: Himself and now she walks around quoting her favorite parts. Last night she was doing the high person at Burger King so well we were falling over with laughter. To that end, I’ll leave you with a clip of the real deal. Happy Easter, happy pelvis, and I’m serious, make those peanut butter eggs STAT.

More Shameless Nepotism: Now It’s My Kid

My daughter's Breyer collection, the stars of her shows.

My daughter’s Breyer collection, the stars of her shows.

I think I’ve done smaller promotions on Facebook, but my child has asked that I try and get her some views and hits, so this is a mom doing her best.

Anna the Fabulous, my number one (and only) kid, makes movies. She started watching other kids’ homemade videos on YouTube and decided, hey, I can do this! And so she does. Fabulously.

She has several different storylines and several trailers. What she’s really looking for are two things: comments and regular viewers. I think it’s safe to say the crossover from m/m romance to Breyer toy videos is low, but I do know a lot of you have children who might find my daughter’s humor and dramatic sense enjoyable. The only warning I have is that there’s a high likelihood they’ll want to make their own movies too.

The filming is an intense process that sometimes takes days. She likes to film outside, so a lot of times it’s weather dependent, though Santa brought her a stable and corral so she’s taken to making a few inside. A lot of her videos become an education, teaching her about filters and effects and how to make a cut or voiceover. She went to Apple camp last summer where she learned about iMovies, which helped her cause exponentially.

I promise in January I will do some actual blogging. In the meantime, watch my kid’s movies. Here are some of the greatest hits, but go to her channel for the full effect. Tell your children and others who like to watch YouTube.

Shameless plug: Go vote for my husband.

My husband entered this contest with the cover for his annual mixtape CD he gives to our family of choice at Christmas. I wasn’t allowed to help him whore for votes sooner for fear they would see the cover before they opened their gifts, and then I just got so busy I simply forgot. I’m trying to make up for that now.

Here’s his entry:image

Here’s the original:


As you can see, he spent HOURS AND HOURS on this in photoshop, soliciting help from several online friends and one in particular really helped him bring it home. (Thanks, Holly!) In my opinion, he deserves to win because everyone else clearly just snapped a photo whereas he put in the grunt work to get ‘er done. So go vote for Dan, and feel free to RT or spread the word or share or whatever. Vote whoring, not true talent, is what will win the day, and if I can’t use my modest fame for nepotism, I don’t know what the hell it’s for.