Work Hard and Be Nice

By Sarah Eisner

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Ten-year-old Wilson tilted away from me on the two back legs of his chair and balanced there with the ease of a water buoy. He was studying, as I’d begun to notice was routine before he ate after-school-snack, the haphazard collage of our photos I posted to the bulletin board on the adjacent wall. I leaned toward him from across our kitchen-cum-dining room table.

After a moment he plunked down on all four legs and stripped off his favorite white Stanford tee, then seemed to focus on the image I never switched out: a year-old picture taken during a launch celebration at my office. In it my husband, Noah, my younger son, Ben, Wilson, and I are shoveling huge chunks of what looks like bright pink wedding cake into our open smiling mouths; in the background, my co-founder, my employees, my family and friends—nearly everyone I love in my Silicon Valley circle—are grinning at us, blurrily displaying teeth tinged pink with sugar and wine.

            “That was a good cake,” Wilson reminisced.

“It’s good I’m home now,” I said, mostly to myself, though I nodded at the premade burrito I’d managed to heat for him. He looked at me with his deep blue, diving pool eyes.

            “I kind of wish you had a job still,” he said.

“Why…” My stomach sunk and my voice caught, “…do you say that?”

Wilson looked down, poked the burrito, and then his neck lengthened somehow. We had surprised one another, but he was an honest boy. He gazed up at me. “Because then our whole family would be successful.”

“What,” I said, and I wanted to add, the hell did you just say? But I dutifully refrained.

Wilson was assessing my reaction, watching my shoulders, which had begun to droop. “Mom,” he said. “It’s not bad.” His regret was elephantine; I knew I should rescue him. He was ten, and a patch on his smooth white neck was beginning to flush cardinal. His collarbone seemed to curl around his sternum and cave his chest inward, as if in an attempt to protect his whole heart, and he glanced across the floor at his shirt, as if he just wanted to put it back on. But I was angry. Not at him, but at everyone.

“I mean your company was cool,” Wilson said. “I liked it. And Dad’s is cool too.” 

“I know,” I agreed. “But I like this, too.” And I did like being with him. But I hadn’t known it would feel so much like shame.

In the past 20 years, I’d studied engineering, traveled the world training men on Internet routing technology, and co-founded three companies. In the past 30 days, I’d been ousted from my own company, and learned that inhaling hot bacon and salty lard runoff as the sun rises on a well-deserved weekend morning is comforting and heady, but smelling residual animal fat coagulate like candle wax in the dirty glass jar by the microwave as the lunch hour approaches during what used to be a work day with nothing to do and no decisions to make is, for me, oppressive and dire.

This was not real oppression, and to use the word “dire” is too bleak. I had ample choice in the matter; I could afford to stay home. I also could have gone right back to my striving. And yet, I vaguely knew getting another tech job would just make things worse. I wasn’t yet sure why.

Wilson nodded. “Sorry,” he said. “Why’d I say that?” He duck-dived beneath the wave of tension I hated myself for having formed, and brought his face down to the burrito instead of lifting it up to his mouth. He took a bite, and I stifled a sob.

The sign on the wall behind Wilson’s head said, “Work Hard and Be Nice” in big white letters on dark gray wood. This passed for art in our house, and for religion. I had chosen it on a lunch break years ago and hung it in my home’s most visible spot like a cross.

I knew that we need to hold these values in at least equal measure; that success in life is about personal striving, but it is also more importantly about being kind. As an entrepreneur I was known mostly for my hard work: a limited virtue. Once home, I worried that I would be known only for being nice, although I so often felt pissed off at myself and unlikable.

“It’s okay buddy,” I said, thinking I’m sorry, Wilson. I could see that he knew I was lying and he didn’t like it. I wanted to tell him it was not a lie but a half-truth. What he had said was okay. But increasingly, I was not. Because although I so badly wanted to feel good enough, my gut said he was right. I was newly forty, and a failed entrepreneur. Without a title or a paying job, I felt as if aside from my life with my family, I did nothing. I produced nothing. I only consumed. This made me feel both worthless, and extravagantly self-centered. I was not enough for Silicon Valley, and motherhood was not enough for me.

Here is what I imagined Wilson innocently asked of me: Why don’t you have a job like Dad? I thought you were good at it. I thought you loved running a company. So tell me, Mom, if you’re not working and happy now, then what was it all for? What are you now?

“Come on,” I said, “eat.” Wilson had soccer practice in an hour and I needed him to feel strong.

I wondered how long that sign would haunt me. There was no fucking chance I was taking it down.

“The sign on the wall behind Wilson’s head said, “Work Hard and Be Nice” in big white letters on dark gray wood. This passed for art in our house, and for religion.” 

Optimism is our most positive word related to striving: the striving we do to satisfy needs or achieve. When we hear optimism, we think of things we hope for or desire: lasting love, pleasure, and the security of peace. When we hear optimism, we think of upward mobility, ambition, and grit: the requirements to cash in on the American promise of “the good life.” The good life: the ability to pause and be satisfied; to let go, and feel free.

“A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing,” American scholar and cultural critic Lauren Berlant writes in her book “Cruel Optimism” (2011). “It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project. It might rest on something simpler too, like a new habit that promises to induce in you an improved way of being.” These objects are not inherently cruel or harmful, Berlant explains, but become cruel when they actively prevent you from the very thing they promise to enable.


It’s possible that when Wilson said he wished our whole family were successful, he simply meant he wished our whole family were accomplished. But later, I began to wonder if it was something more generous, and also more alarming. I began to think he could see that I wasn’t feeling good, and he didn’t like it. But instead of saying he wished our whole family were happy, he said “successful.” Maybe he chose “successful” because achievement was what he identified with most as making me happy. Maybe the kind of extreme striving for success we worship in Silicon Valley today was already the main thing he’d attached to what would make him happy, and define him as good enough.

That is what scared me.

I asked my children to work hard and be nice, an ethos in which I will always believe. But what did that sign represent, and how might it send the wrong message or be connected to the Silicon Valley ethos of never-enough today?


The American mythology is: work hard and follow the rules and you can achieve “the good life” dream. But while we often equate this ethic with the optimistic sounding platitude “Work Hard and Be Nice,” and a moderate life, it’s worth examining where this ethic actually came from, and the fact that it often isn’t associated with doing particularly good work, or with being kind.

Manifest destiny legitimized the idea that God had ordained the white protestant male as worthy and good with a boundless right to pillage and conquer. This limitlessness inspired a long tradition of dichotomous either-or thinking. If you happen to be able to amass increasing land, power or wealth, you’re good. If you’re not, then you’re told you’re bad. But truly being kind—to ourselves, to our children, to others—requires being open to the fluidity between good and bad; it requires real compassion, and more than a single definition of what success, and “enough” means. The high moral code of Manifest Destiny was and is, instead, less generous, more circular: keep the momentum of white protestant imperialism going.

“Our national faith so far has been: There’s always more,” the American cultural critic Wendell Berry writes. “Our true religion is a sort of autistic industrialism.”


There are many different kinds of religion. There is the kind of religion you are forced to observe as a child and that makes you feel shame. There is the kind of religion that lights you up for God as an adult and makes you want to believe. There is the kind of religion—I am good or I am bad, I am this or I am that—like routine prayer inside your head. There is the kind of religion—Let Go and Let God—you adopt to try to ease I need this or I need that. There is the kind of religion that spreads across the cubicles, break rooms, and happy hours where you work, and there is the kind of religion you practice with your body on a mat, on a mountain, or in a pool. There is the kind of religion you openly reject as extreme or on the fringe, and then there is another kind of religion. It is the kind you don’t think of as religion at all, because it is all around you but not named.


By Amira Shea

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Sweet winds come to me much as before. They bear salt for my lips, caress the nape of my neck. Icterine sun splashes malachite leaves rises to entwine falling drops, each into the other until the union bears a rainbow. Black lava and red clay bind and balance me much as before. Much, but not everything, is as it was. Now there is piss on the breeze. Ray-cut shadows harbor rot and rain wrenches rust forth without consent. The land is more coral than sand, and I, too, am not as I was before. My heart beats less, weighs more.


We stood in cool darkness outside the community center. Patches of wispy clouds drifted past a waxing moon, fading to backlit grey against dull stars. The meticulous landscaping included strategically placed plumeria trees, and their heady perfume, the signature scent of these islands, enveloped and overpowered the smoke from our cigarettes. Night-blooming jasmine growing in one of the fenced yards coyly joined the bouquet, slipstreaming intermittently. We extinguished our smokes in silence and headed slowly back to the waning graduation festivities. It had been a pleasant evening spent among the family and friends of our daughter’s boyfriend, and we were in no particular hurry. From a few steps behind, my husband asked without preface, “Do you think you’ll ever leave Hawaii?”

            Tightening the grip on my purse strap, I stopped and inhaled deeply. Wispy flora wound down my throat, looping my lungs, down to coil in the pit of my gut. “Ropes now,” they whispered, “No, never. You could never…”  I took hold of the slippery vines overrunning my psyche and tugged, hand over hand. I unwound them from my lungs, and pushed them back they way they came. Exhaling into the night, I turned to face him. “Yes, actually. I’ve been thinking about it recently. How about you?” My voice was low, hesitant.

            “Yeah, me too,” he answered. “I don’t see how we can continue to live here.” He bridged the feet between us, and we fell in step, walking silently and slower than before.

            Inside the banquet hall, the blue and white colors of Kamehameha Schools draped tables, chairs, streamers and balloons. 250 people, Kupuna to Keiki, Cousins, Aunties and Uncles laughed along with the comedian and gasped at the hypnotist. Balloon animals squeaked and bulged in one corner, a photo-booth with cheery props was put to constant use. On the back lanai, guests piled plates from a generous buffet of local foods, the graduate’s favorites: Teri Chicken, Sushi Rolls, Lomi Salmon, Ahi Poke, Beef Stew. Lei strung from money, ribbons, yarn, and flowers hung from his neck and the necks of his mother and father. They were good people. The young man treated our daughter well, and his parents welcomed her as one of their own. I’m so glad they are together, I thought first, then immediately, I’ll miss them.  This last part a strange pebble tumbling through my mind. Once unimaginable to me, the idea of leaving Hawaii was now viable, tangible, loosed from the silt of solitary musings and wonderings and presenting itself to the real world. It could no longer be ignored.

            Back at home, we settled into the remainder of that Saturday night: pajamas and movies for our youngest kids; phones and games for the older ones; my husband and me out on the back porch, smoking and throwing darts. Instead of the usual trash talk between turns, we spoke about leaving.

            His reasons were mainly financial, and the numbers didn’t lie. A family of four earning less than $93,000 per year was defined as being low-income, according to then-current (2018) U.S. Housing and Urban Development guidelines. We, however, are raising six children, and supporting a brother-in-law who suffers from a chronic failure to launch – this – in a market where home prices quadrupled in 20 years and milk sells for $10 per gallon. Hard work, sacrifice, and having extended family on the island have sustained us, but even when our combined income topped $200K, we were never more than poverty-adjacent. It was increasingly unlikely that our children would be so lucky. For the past two decades, we had been frogs in a pot, paddling to keep our heads above water as the temperature rose. I paddled the most furiously, staunchly defending the price of paradise. Gradually, though, almost imperceptibly, our skin blistered and our flesh cooked.

            “Look around,” I was fond of saying, “You won’t get this anywhere else. Sure, we could buy a compound in Nebraska for the price of a year’s groceries, but then we’d be in fucking Nebraska!” Then a small, decrepit house in a historically undesirable part of town slid across my feed one day. It was listed for $1 million dollars, and became my proverbial straw. I admitted defeat, if only to myself at the time.

“When the pediatrician’s office called to schedule her annual physical, I was caught off guard. My eyes misted and my tongue grew thick.”

Squaring up to the regulation distance line duct-taped to the concrete slab, I fanned and flared the plastic flights on my custom titanium darts, squeezing the fins between four fingers and twisting slightly to ensure a firm attachment to the shaft. I cocked my right arm and closed my left eye, zeroing in on the bullseye, and let fly. Thup. Thup. Thwack. My shots echoed through the pitch black of our grassy common area, bouncing off the surrounding aged, wooden dwellings. The stale musk of crushed jacaranda blossoms drifted over from the road. I collected my darts under the glare of our focused trouble light, recorded my points on the chalk scoreboard and retreated to the patio table. Lighting another cigarette, I agreed things were getting too damned expensive.      

            “There’s more to it though,” I began, “everything is changing.” I rattled off a list of the ways and was surprised to realize it had been 10 or 15 years since some occurred. A favorite after-hours haunt, the kind that only really got going at 3am was one. Its viscera of shabby barstools, well-worn go-go cages, clouded drinkware, and chipped shelving were unceremoniously dragged onto the sidewalk for bidding vultures. Now million-dollar glass-and-steel condos stand on its grave.

            The sea has reclaimed so much sand from Waikiki beach that most of the current grains are imported from other beaches or from miles offshore. Astroturf-like sod sits demurely a block from the strip, where an armada of flagship stores – Valentino, Hermes, and Tiffany’s among them – are tastefully broken up by Cheesecake Factory and Cheeseburger in Paradise franchises. One block over you can rent a Maserati, if you’re not in the market to purchase one, and escape the hustle and bustle.

            Farmland has yielded to sprawling suburbs, replete with gated communities. The roads and related infrastructure, dormant for decades, now scrambles rabidly to catch up. 24/7 construction guarantees Oahu an annual spot in the nationwide ranking of worst traffic. We left our house in the country to rent closer to work because the 16-mile commute had ballooned to two-hours, one way. 597 square miles has never seemed tighter or more congested.

            Our family was changing too. Our eldest daughter had left home two years earlier, and was doing well in the military, attending the same training and working the same mission as my husband and me had before her. When the pediatrician’s office called to schedule her annual physical, I was caught off guard. My eyes misted and my tongue grew thick. Swallowing hard, I managed to eek out, “Umm, she’s in the Air Force now, she’s an adult…so yeah, she, uh, won’t be coming in this year.”

            “Oh, ok, I see. I’ll take her off the reminder list then,” the receptionist replied crisply, in a hurry to escape the awkward space I’d created. Just like that, I thought, there’s one less thing to remember. One less.  Our next in line graduated this year, and along with her boyfriend, started college in the fall. One day, I realized that since she’s living on campus, I wouldn’t need to pick up her favorite fruit roll-ups. This led to another round of tears and drew a few uncomfortable stares in the produce section. Another thing less. We are far from empty nesters; however, this new, leaner lineup of A Tribe Called Shea is taking some getting used to.

            But children leave home, landscapes change, and places go out of business in most places. The rich eat the poor and crap jacked-up commercial consumerism most days. If it bothers you enough, you leave; if it doesn’t, you stay. I knew these factors played a part, but taken alone didn’t account for the paradigm shift I was experiencing.


The truth was, my existence in the only place I had ever called home now felt like a divorce. Not the white-hot flash paper, scandal-ridden, tearing asunder of poorly planned and hastily built homes. The kind I had in my early 20’s. No, this was slower, gentler, and profoundly more painful. This was looking up from coffee on an otherwise unremarkable morning, to realize that you felt no longer bound to the table beneath you, the person across from you, the life surrounding you. This was not anger, nor betrayal nor the desire to meet new people or do new things. Not a midlife chasing of young flesh and elective surgery and fast cars. This wanting to leave Hawaii was simply the expiration of a forgotten lease, signed decades prior, and covering a specific time of life. It felt as simple and as cruel as turning in the keys and driving away with only the clothes on your back. Somewhere along the way – I may never be able to pinpoint where, exactly – I went from being from here to just here.

            “I feel like I don’t belong here anymore,” I started when it was my turn to speak, “I can’t explain it. We go the same places, we do the same things, and it’s like we’re just going through the motions. January: we go to the park for Martin Luther King day, March: spring break, June: the start of hurricane season and summer vacation, October: pumpkin patch – if it’s not too crowded – and then comes the whirlwind of ThanksgivingChristmasHonoluluCitylightsNewYearsEve and boom! The sound of illegal aerials dies down, the smoke clears and January 1st marks the reboot of our own personal Groundhog Day.” I offer this cobbled together explanation slowly, quietly. I’m afraid to hear my thoughts out loud, breathe life into them with my speech.

            “I mean, it’s been 20 years,” I continued. “This is all our kids know and I feel like we’ve failed them in a way. I never imagined raising root-bound children. There’s a whole big world out there, and they’ve grown up on a rock. Beautiful and lovely but a rock all the same. Fucking 20 years. Now the rock is expensive, and everything smells like piss to me – I mean, I smell it everywhere, and there’s nothing new or fun, at least not enough to lure us out of our rut, and it sucks. Doesn’t help that all of our friends have moved away either.”  I paused.

            My words felt like a betrayal, but I knew this place no longer cared for me. I wondered if it ever did to begin with. My love for this land was tethered in the rosy memories of youth. Maybe Hawaii had merely been a soft landing after a nomadic childhood, and I’d forgotten that the respite was supposed to be short lived.

            “It’s been 20 fucking years, and there’s nothing holding us here,” I continued, “20 years and it’s time to go.” I slumped in my seat—spent, nervous, and at once excited at the possibilities.

            My husband nodded and shrugged in agreement before leaning forward in his patio chair. Gardenia-saturated puffs swept at wayward ashes on the table. Geckos cried out for mates. Stars winked their approval as he called his phone to life. “Siri, find me jobs in London.”


By Melinda Nazario


I couldn’t bear another season of drought, watching others blossom all around me, people content with themselves and their callings—nurses, cops, teachers—while I continued slowly withering away, becoming a person I now barely recognized. 

It was January 2013. I was a lead officer for Transportation Security Administration (TSA), finishing up my 0500-1330 shift. I walked quickly through the employee parking lot to my car, the fresh-fallen snow crunching underneath my boots, my TSA bomber jacket no match for sub-zero temperatures and the brutal Chicago wind. I quickly unlocked the doors to my 2008 Nissan Sentra and climbed in. As the car warmed up in the icy stillness, I found myself sitting in the driver’s seat, staring at the red, white, and blue Puerto Rican beaded necklace dangling from my rearview mirror, its heart-shaped flag swinging lightly back and forth. I was twenty-seven, and so far, my life was not going how I pictured it. The voices of family members filled my head. Cuzzo, you made it, they said. Cuzzo got a government job! She making that cash! She made it out the hood.


They were all so happy and proud of me. And at first I was too. I bragged about not repeating a cycle, how I was working for the government instead of begging for their assistance, how I was able to buy a brand-new car and rent a condo in a better neighborhood. 

At twenty-seven, my life—its purpose—was extremely important to me. But as I sat in my car, silently gazing at my sad reflection, it hit me: I should’ve been happy but wasn’t. The problem: I had been reacting to my childhood, so focused on avoiding what I didn’t want in my life, I forgot to consider what I might want. 

I felt successful when I went to the grocery store and paid with a debit card instead of food stamps; I felt accomplished when my daughter was required to pay for lunch instead of being placed on the free-lunch list; I felt superior when I took my daughter to the doctor and saw the surprised look on the receptionist’s face when I handed her an actual insurance card that read Federal Employee Program Blue Cross Blue Shield instead of a flimsy rectangular piece of paper that read State of Illinois Healthcare and Family Services Medical Card. I was on that card my entire life. I was on food stamps my entire life. I had a hole punched in my lunch card to single me out and place me in the poor group my entire life.

I was so adamant about not being on Section 8 and welfare like my mom because I didn’t want to fall into the same trap she fell in and never climbed out of. It was like that for most people in the hood, where many girls my age wanted to get in the system and would say things like, Girl, I’m trying to get this Section 8, so I don’t have to be doing the most… Let me pay like $20 for rent, I’ll be straight. Others would claim they would use it just until they finished school and got on their feet. But that was rarely the case. Many found once they were in the system they were unable to climb their way out. While others simply didn’t see a need to push themselves out of a comfort zone. That was the case for my mom. One time she tried to take online classes. She was doing her prerequisites and struggled with English 101. I tried to help her, but she insisted it was no use. "I can’t do this, I don’t know what I was thinking,” she said.

I think back to moments like that and wonder if she really had no other choice. If she didn’t have the Section 8 safety net, would she have tried harder? Would she have had loftier-type of goals? 

“I read somewhere that the best time to uproot native plants is when they’re dormant. This minimizes the stress placed on the plant’s root system. I was dormant all right. Existing just for the benefit of others. Barely living. I was ready for something drastic.”  

Christmas had come and gone a week or so before my moment of reflection in the car. Mom hadn’t worked in over a year because she had been diagnosed with Lymphoma and needed treatment, so during that time, I moved in with her. Section 8 took care of the rent; I took care of everything else:  my mom, three siblings, a dog, a cat, my daughter and myself. I worked. I cooked. I cleaned. I drove her to her appointments throughout the year. I did her laundry (I did everyone’s laundry). I did the groceries. I was exhausted, but I didn’t complain. Throughout that entire time, Mom was sweet to me. She said things like, “I don’t know what I would do without you,” “You’re such a great daughter, God is gonna bless you.”

By September, she was in remission, but there was still a possibility it could come back. We lost our grandpa the year before to the same type of cancer, so for that Christmas I wanted to get the family's mind off of Mom’s illness. I used most of my $2000 bonus for presents and a huge Christmas feast.

After Christmas, Mom was doing well, and she announced that she would be going back to work. And within days, her attitude changed from grateful to annoyed.

“Melinda, I’m getting tired of your dog,” she would say just to get an argument started.

Then one day Mom came into the room I was staying in, the one that was once my room, but turned into my sister Breeana’s room when I initially moved out. “We need to talk,” she said.

“What’s wrong?”

“When do you think you can move into your own place?”

“Umm, I don’t know," I said. "I have to save up some money.”

“Well, I’m gonna need you to look for a place, Melinda. I need my space. Breeana has been sleeping in my room this whole time. She needs her room back.”

“Well, damn. You could’ve told me this sooner. I would’ve kept my bonus money to move out.”

“Well, I’m gonna need you to find something within a month. If Section 8 finds out that you’re here, I can lose my voucher.”

“Are you kidding me? You didn’t say anything about Section 8 this whole year. The minute you got a job, and got money, and don’t need me no more, that’s when you wanna use that shit?”

“Melinda, watch your language!”

“I’m sorry, but this is some BS.”

“And," she went on, "I really don’t like having a dog in this home, and I’m tired of you inviting your cousins and friends over.”

“They come over once a week, and it’s just three of them total. Damn, Mom, I need to unwind too. Don’t you see all the shit I do?”

“Well, you can do that in your own home.”

“You always do this, and I always fall into the same shit. You use me until you don’t need me anymore.”

She tried to say something else, but I stormed out. I fled the house, got into my car and drove aimlessly for a few hours. 

When I got back home, she was walled-off in her room and I found my brothers in the living room playing XBOX. Both of them, ages twenty-two and twenty-three, were unemployed.

     Danny paused the game. “Hey, Melinda. Do you think you could give me money for my haircut?”

“No," I snapped. "Get a job.”

He looked wounded. “Why you gotta be like that?”

“Why do I gotta be like that? Do you hear yourself? For the past year, I’ve been paying for everything in this apartment! Get a job!”

“Oooo, you always gotta act like a straight bitch.”

“Seriously? Fuck you! You definitely ain’t getting shit.”

I stomped to my room, slammed the door, fell on my bed. My brother and I had a similar argument a month before, on Thanksgiving. We were at a cousin’s house and Danny asked me to give him money for cigarettes. I said no. And he got in my face and called me a bitch in front of the whole family. So I got right back in his. My cousins had to separate us.

Now, as I was lying there in bed staring up at the ceiling, I thought, This is never gonna change. They grew up watching Mom use me, take advantage of me, make me feel like shit when I couldn’t or wouldn’t do what she wanted. And now they treated me the same way.


And that is what had me sitting alone in my idling car after work on a frigid weekday, thinking about Section 8 and my government job and my family's odd dynamic throughout the years. I thought about how I had to drop out of high school to take care of everyone when Mom’s health declined. I thought about getting my mom through her kidney failure, dialysis, and transplant. I thought about how, when I was fifteen, I was the one who woke up in the middle of the night to take care of Breeana when she was a newborn because that was when Mom’s kidney function went down to 20%. I thought about the time I had to go to Section 8 and welfare appointments at age sixteen, in place of my mother, so we wouldn’t lose our benefits. I thought about the R&B group I was in during that time but had to quit because I couldn’t travel with them to New York; I had a family to take care of. I thought about all the times I chased my brother Giovanni through the hood—sprinting through playgrounds and jumping fences—to prevent him from joining a gang and selling drugs. I thought about all the times I wanted to give up and just be a normal fuckin’ kid, but I couldn’t. I held it in. Kept it together so that I could keep us together. But sitting there in that car, I suddenly thought: And for what? This was what I worked so hard for? This was what I tried to keep together? What did I get out of this so-called family?  We were broken. We were all fuckin’ broken.


I read somewhere that the best time to uproot native plants is when they’re dormant. This minimizes the stress placed on the plant’s root system. I was dormant all right. Existing just for the benefit of others. Barely living. I was ready for something drastic. 

Even when I lived thirty minutes away from my mom, I could never say no to her. I felt responsible for her, her wellbeing and her happiness. She would call me and say, “I know you’re off on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so I scheduled my appointments on those days. You could take me to do groceries and do the laundry on those days as well.” It’s like even when I left the nest, she felt I was still obligated to care for her no matter what.

And I know what you’re thinking: why didn’t I just say no? Well, I did. And she'd hit me with, “Fine. I’m sorry I’m such a burden. I will never ask you to do me any more favors. You know I don’t have a car, and I just need a little help, but it’s fine. I won’t interrupt your life.” It’s as if those words were bounded by an incantation that immediately filled me with guilt and compelled me to fall to my knees and beg for her to let me help her. I had to break this spell, this prayer, this power she had over me. 


It didn’t matter how many showers of opportunities came pouring down upon us, our soil was impenetrable. Our environment was contaminated. Our roots were toxic. Our mentality was limited. The second week of January, I decided to begin the uprooting process. During my lunch break, I walked over to the Online Learning Center, a room filled with desktop computers for training purposes. Officers were also allowed to check their work emails and do other work-related tasks. I sat down and logged into the network. My mouse hovered over several categories on the TSA homepage until I saw the option for a request to transfer.

I thought, thirty minutes away is not enough

My daughter was six at the time, and I wanted to make this transition as easy as possible for her. Then I thought about my childhood friend and a conversation we shared a few months prior.

“Girl, you should really think about moving here. I love it,” she told me.

“I want to, but I’m still not sure. Chicago is all I know.”

“Girl, you would be so much happier here, away from your crazy family.”


Away from your crazy familyAway from your crazy familyAway from your crazy family. Each time her words replayed in my head they sounded better and better while at the same time, scarier and scarier. What will my life look like without my crazy family bringing me down? I didn’t want a life completely without them; I loved them. But I also didn’t want a life where they were the center of it either. I saw the internal damage in us all. The rooted trauma that arose differently in each of us, revealing itself in the form of depression, isolation, rage, and insecurity, and keeping us in a box marked weeds, making us feel inferior to the rest of the world, making us feel as though we would never be able to break free from the rooted blight that penetrated our stems and seeped into every stage of our lives, latching us to a past we all desperately craved to expunge. 

I was ready to remove myself from the dry turf and prune out everything hindering me from becoming fruitful. I knew I wasn’t strong enough to heal my wounds and their wounds at the same time. So solitude a thousand miles away was necessary for a long-term fix, not only for myself, but for them and for all our future generations. I filled out the electronic form, typed MCO—the airport code for Orlando, Florida—took a deep breath, and pressed send. 

Melinda Nazario is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Bus 752

By Todd Richardson

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AUTHOR’S NOTE: This story is about my brother. Out of respect for his wishes, I’ve chosen not to use his name in this piece.

My brother is schizophrenic. He hears voices. When their whispers began inside his skull, it was like they took turns carving up his grey matter with a serving spoon. He’d forget to feed himself. He’d forget to bathe. He wouldn’t sleep for days, and then when he did, he’d wake up in angry fits of paranoid delusions.

I watched the disease erode him, wash away pieces of him, stone by stone. His illness left a perfectly sibling-shaped hole inside me—a cartoon silhouette of my brother’s body punched through my abdomen.

I called him this Thanksgiving, like I do every year. When I first heard his voice through the receiver, I cringed.

“How are you?” I asked.

“I’ve decided to look into our family history,” he said. “Joined the Buchannan’s Scottish genealogical society.”

“Oh,” I said, “that could be interesting.”

“I gave them my first and last name, but when the guy wanted to swab my cheek, I told him no way. I don’t need anybody cloning me.”

On the other end of the phone, I squeezed my eyes shut, pinched the bridge of my nose between my thumb and finger. “You don’t have to give them your DNA.”

“Yeah, well I’m not going to,” he said, “I’m already afraid of what they’re going to find in our family history, because what if all they find are fucked up people like me?”

My stomach tightened as he spoke. I wanted to tell him that he wasn’t fucked up, that he didn’t have anything to be ashamed of or fear, but instead all that came out was: “I’m sure it will be fine.” As soon as the words left my lips, I regretted them. They sounded insincere. Vapid.

“Whatever,” he said.

A moment of awkwardness between us.

It was my brother that spoke first. “Are you safe?” he asked.


“Keep a hammer next to your door,” he said. “In case they find anything in this genealogy thing, you should be ready.” There was a beep as he hung up the phone, followed by empty silence on the other end of the receiver.  My hands trembled as I ended the call and let a wave of grief roll over me.

My brother wasn’t always like that. Most days, I tell myself I can’t recall what he was like before his illness, but that’s not true. I remember him as he was when we were boys: fearless, rebellious, and endlessly fucking cool.

When he was in fifth grade and I was in third, we used to ride the same bus home together, number 752. We’d sit in the back-back with some other boys, fold up paper airplanes out of our homework. My brother always creased the wings up like a fighter jet.

We’d sit and wait for the driver to haul the bus over the freeway, and at the very peak of the bridge, we’d yell “Bombs away!” and send our worksheets sailing out the windows. Then he and I would exchange giggles, reveling in a shared sense of euphoric vandalism as we watched our squadron glide over the railings of the bridge and cruise over afternoon traffic, crash-landing somewhere out of view on the asphalt far below.

My memory of him on the bus is crisp like a snapshot—his open-mouthed cackle as we send our worksheets out over the warm draft of the freeway, me with my first two knuckles stuffed between my teeth in an effort to contain my excitement.


One day, the bus driver, a woman with stiff greying hair, got sick of our antics and stopped 752 on the other side of the bridge. My brother turned to me as she marched her way down the aisle. “Don’t say anything,” he told me, just before her presence loomed overhead.

“Who threw that?” she said. Her gaze was a searchlight in a prison yard, bearing down on unruly inmates. I didn’t dare look at her; I knew my face would betray us. Instead I watched her shadow in the sunlight as she swung her head over the tops of the brown, faux leather seats.

When no one answered, she spoke again. “I’ll write you all up,” she said. “Suspend every last one of you.”

“We didn’t do anything,” my brother said. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my him square his jaw.

“You threw those planes out the back,” she said. I pressed my knees together in an effort to keep them from quivering.

“Nope,” my brother said. “Wasn’t us.”

“I saw you!”

“Couldn’t have,” my brother said, “because we didn’t do it.”

“I don’t—” the bus driver stopped midsentence. “I saw it in the mirror, paper airplanes zooming out through the window.”

“Did you see who threw them?” He cocked his head to one side, a perfect imitation of a concerned citizen.

“I saw them flying out of the back of the bus.”

My brother shrugged and shook his head.

“Don’t bullsh—” the driver held up a hand. “I’m writing the principal.” She turned on her heel and made her way to the driver’s seat, muttering under her breath. As soon as she sat, she shifted the rearview mirror so that its reflection squared perfectly on my brother. Then she started the ignition. For the rest of the ride, the gaze of the bus driver’s hazel eyes watched my brother in the extra-wide rearview mirror. My brother calmly returned her glare, his hands tucked in his pockets, one leg sprawled lazily across the center aisle, until we got to our stop.

  “I’m watching you,” the driver said when the bus pulled to halt and my brother headed to the open door.

He grinned at her as he passed. “Sounds great,” he said, and climbed off the bus, me tagging behind. As he made his way across the street, he shrugged off his backpack, unzipped it and withdrew a folded piece of paper. He turned in the middle of the street  and flung his fighter wing down the length of the bus. It soared past the driver’s side window, the 752 stenciled in black, and well beyond the rear wheels. The driver honked, shook her fists. My brother smiled back at her and flipped her a thumbs up before sauntering his way toward our front yard.


I know he got in trouble for the paper airplane stunt, but I can’t remember what his punishment was, I guess because the consequences didn’t matter to me. What I remember is my eleven-year-old brother’s smile as he flung his plane, its white edges winking yellow against the side of the school bus—like he was James-freaking-Dean.

I don’t know what the genealogical society will find when they trace our family history. But, Brother, I hope they find a slew of people like you. Brazen, bold, and endlessly fucking cool.

Todd Richardson is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

A Thanksgiving Story

By Heather Poulin


Thanksgiving meant burgundy tablecloths and polished silver; it meant everything fresh and nothing from a can; it meant Grandma was up early to start the turkey while Gramps was out in the garden, picking rosemary that hadn’t yet died and pulling sprouted potatoes out of the ground. The herbs and potatoes would be joined later by fresh butternut squash and spinach purchased from the farmer’s market. There’d be paper bags full of blueberries and blackberries Gramps collected for making pies, and loaves of pumpernickel and sourdough bought from the bakery just up the road.

            There’d be whiskey and wine in decanters on the counter, golden-glittered pinecones lining the porch, the soft melody of classical music playing through the speakers of the Bose home entertainment system, and a small glass bowl of Hershey’s Hugs and Kisses resting on the window sill.  Thanksgiving meant my mom and dad would be in the same room and no one would yell. It meant that Gramps and Grandma could show off all the nice things they owned. It meant that I could finally wear the new sweater Mom bought me from JC Penney. It meant that we could eat as much as we wanted. Thanksgiving meant we could be normal for a few hours, one day, every year.

            In those days, there were a lot of us who made the journey to Grandma and Gramps’. It was a long, four-hour drive, especially back in the 90’s, when all we had to be entertained was Mom’s Elton John cassette (Princess Diana had died just months before, so now “Candle in the Wind” was her favorite song) and forced conversations.

            My dad also made the journey—a short, thirty-minute drive for him. His being there thrilled my sister and me. My mom, not so much. She smiled through it, though, as she always did. Dad also brought around his girlfriend—the one he cheated on Mom with—along with the girlfriend’s two kids, one of which we still, to this day, think is my dad’s.

            At dinner, after we said what we were all thankful for, we passed around the food. The girlfriend passed my mom the green bean amandine, and they would smile tightly at each other. My dad would pass my sister the whipped potatoes—the one’s Grandma said tasted best when a whole stick, not a half stick, of butter was added. One of the girlfriend’s daughters would pass me the gravy, and I would pass it right to Grandma. Gramps would serve himself last. And at the end of the meal, like he did every year, he’d proclaim, “Well, I’m just about as stuffed as the turkey,” and we’d all laugh.

            Each year after that specific Thanksgiving in 1998, the dinners got less populated. In 2000, Dad and the girlfriend broke up, so that year it was just Grandma, Gramps, Mom, Dad, my sister and me. Gramps, though, still delivered his turkey line, and I still laughed—too much probably—but it made him smile, and that’s what mattered.

            In 2003, Thanksgiving was even smaller because Mom didn’t want to go, since Dad was bringing his new girlfriend—a stripper named Brenda. So, that year it was just Gramps, Dad, my sister and me. Grandma was there, but said she didn’t feel good and wanted to eat alone in her room. I knew it was because of Brenda, and Dad knew it, too, but no one said anything. The only thing that felt normal that year was the end of the meal, when like clockwork Gramps delivered his turkey line, the one that still made me laugh.

            I was the only one who laughed that year.

            In 2005, I got my license and didn’t want to go up for Thanksgiving. My mom and sister went to see my grandparents without me. That year it just the two of them. Dad got back together with Pam—the first girlfriend—and they had their own holiday that year. I still called Gramps, though, and he repeated my favorite line. I made sure to laugh louder this time because I could tell his hearing was going.

I didn’t see my grandparents again for the next ten Thanksgivings. Even though I always intended to. But it was always something: I had plans; the weather was bad; I didn’t feel like going. Excuses.

            I went back one last time in 2015. My mom and sister had plans—I don’t remember what they were—so I went alone. On the long drive up, I tried to mentally prepare for how much older my grandparents would look.  

            When I pulled into the driveway, I almost didn’t recognize their house. It looked smaller than I remembered. The paint was chipping. The yard wasn’t raked. The garden where Gramps used to grow food was covered in a thick, dark dirt. There were no welcome pinecones, just pine needles that had fallen from a too-tall tree.

            And they did look older. They somehow appeared shorter than I’d remembered. They didn’t stand with the same regality as they had when I was a child, like the passage of time had weighed heavily on them.

            Inside, the house felt different. Colder. The dining room table had been turned into a catchall for clothes and paperwork. The decanters were behind a glass bureau, untouched for years. There were no Hershey’s kisses. The Bose speakers had been replaced with a flat-screen tv, still in its box.

            “The food’s in the fridge, dear. Could you throw each in for a couple minutes?” Gramps asked. I was confused, but upon looking in the refrigerator I saw what he was talking about. There were three Styrofoam containers that lined the bottom shelf, right under the cranberry juice cocktail, next to an old box of girl scout Samoas.

            I unpacked the three containers, each contained a turkey breast and leg, an ice-cream scoop of white potatoes, and a gelatinous cube of cranberry sauce. I did as I was told, putting each in the microwave for a few minutes. While the dinners rotated, I pulled out the three sets of plastic silverware and a couple packets of salt and pepper that were still in the bottom of the delivery bag. Gramps told me he’d ordered the food yesterday.

            We sat on the couch, three in a row, three tv trays parked in front of us.

            “It’s so nice to be here. I know it’s been a while.” I said. I poked the plastic knife through the cellophane wrapper.

            “It surely is,” Gramps agreed, turkey leg waving in his hand as he spoke. His eyes were cloudier than I’d remembered.

            We ate our microwaved meal in silence. After we finished eating, I waited for the turkey line, but it didn't come. Instead, Gramps stood and gathered up the empty Styrofoam containers and started for the kitchen.

            “Gramps?” I asked, puzzled.

            He paused. “Yes, dear?”

            “I’m just about as stuffed as the turkey!” I said.

            He stared at me, baffled, unsure of how to respond.

            “That’s too bad,” he answered, finally. “We have some ice cream in the freezer."

What Ambition Gets You

By Arun Chittur

I was in Pennsylvania this past weekend for my mother-in-law’s surprise retirement party. She spent thirty years working for the school district, accruing a lifetime of stories from successive generations of parents and their children. The party was a clash of worlds, with friends from her high school graduating class meeting old co-workers and extended family who had traveled from across the Northeast. It was the first time I’d ever been to a party where everyone invited RSVP’d “yes.” Thirty-seven invitations sent; thirty-seven confirmed attending. Not even all-day rains dampened the afternoon as we congregated beneath two vinyl canopies and a detached garage. My in-laws’ backyard was crowded with cousins and siblings, toddlers and teenagers, family members by blood and marriage. One of my wife’s cousins and my brother-in-law dominated the ad hoc cornhole tournament. We enjoyed good beer, great barbecue, and an unspoken guarantee that no external force could ruin the experience.

           Last month I hit ten years with my company. I celebrated the expected but modest pay raise with a decision to leave in the next year and move on to pursue other life goals. Making it twenty years entitles you to a stable, if small, pension. As I’ve shared this with friends, they’ve split in their opinion.

           Some argued, “You’re halfway! What’s ten more?”

           Yet others said, “Ten more years? That’s a long time.”

           I’ve been leaning toward the latter for a while, especially with a company that focuses on pre-ordained patterns of progression after that all-important 10-year mark. And so this transition has me thinking about ambition … the kind we feel internally, and the kind foisted upon us by an organization grooming its next generation of managers for its own sake—at the expense of those closest to us who might wish for something else. A life where they see their husband or wife or father or mother more often. Many wish for something better.

"I’ve spent the better part of a year trying to articulate this lesson for myself. Ambition can be healthy, but mustn’t there be a purpose behind it? A reason beyond your own self-interest, your own self-promotion?"

My parents’ generation, wrapped snuggly in a blanket of stability, valued ambition. A desire to rise. Happiness meant a good education and the same job for decades. Predictable income and minimal risk. As a reluctant millennial, I’ve wavered between the safety of a stable, if flat, trajectory, and something more like a sine wave, with ups and down defined by risk and decisions made without a clear vision of the future. Many of our best memories have been born from the peaks and valleys, where we’ve lived and learned the most. None of these moments would’ve happened had I chosen ‘guaranteed’ success and opted for the stable route. The route with all of the questions answered and little left to guess. I don’t regret my last 10 years. But as I look across the backyard, I know that should I choose the stable path, I will accept the promise of a job at the expense of our best memories yet to be made.

           Under the canopy, no one talked about the latest project at work, or what it would take for the next promotion. Whatever ambition was fueling my current state of work, none of it had resulted in this moment. This moment owed no one else, it came to be because of family and friends who outlasted all of our careers and all of our moves. It came to be because it was based on what lasts. Ambition can get you a lot in a short period of time, but it will never provide for you what you need most to be fulfilled.

           I’ve spent the better part of a year trying to articulate this lesson for myself. Ambition can be healthy, but mustn’t there be a purpose behind it? A reason beyond your own self-interest, your own self-promotion? Otherwise what’s left after the experience of life ends? What will there be but the possessions of a life purchased and not lived?

           Ambition gets you money and notoriety: a nice car, a nice house, even a few acquaintances that will pass as friends in suitable moments. But it doesn’t get you the friends you’ve had since college, or cousins willing to drive hours to help you load and unload a moving truck, and certainly not a family that loves you. In the final calculation, ambition can only get you what’s temporary, what’s fleeting in reward.

Arun Chittur is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. He currently teaches organizational leadership and pedagogy in Nevada.


by Margaret McNellis


I always thought my father had great hands. I think I judge people by their hands more than their eyes or smiles. I knew someone whose fingers turned up at the tips and made me think of a spider’s legs; as it happened, trust was never solid between us.

My dad had great hands with strong but slender fingers. His nail beds cradled perfectly trimmed nails—evidence of his fastidious nature. They were short but never cut to the quick. His knuckles were strong, though never bulged, despite years of cracking them. He was capable of the multi-knuckle crack. He would lace his fingers together, turn his palms away from his body, and straighten his arms. The resulting chorus of pops was a can-do-symphony, a sign of strength. Frailty could never withstand that.

Veins and tendons lined the backs of his hands. As a child, I wondered why my hands did not have those veins. Our hands were so alike in almost every way, including the unfeminine hairs between my first and second knuckles. In my early thirties, when I first saw definition of tendons and veins in my own hands while typing, I welcomed them. They signaled a transformation to adult hands, my father’s hands.

We shared other physical attributes as well. My hair has the same wave on my forehead. Not even straighteners can train that wave, and though it results in my feeling like I have an antenna on my head if I let my bangs get too long, I finally accepted it. We have the same eyebrows, which is unfortunate in a society that demands women have perfectly shaped brows. Unable to wax them due to allergies, and unwilling to pluck them because the tweezer makes me sneeze—and it’s never a good idea to sneeze while holding sharp metal near your eyeball—I keep my unibrow at bay with a tiny electric face razor.

We had the same facial structure too, wide at the eyes but not quite heart-shaped. The only difference? My father’s eyes were hazel; mine a chestnut-brown. We both received the McNellis nose, with a significant bump on the bridge that can be minimized only by wearing glasses.

When I was fifteen years old, my doctor determined that I did not have asthma, as previously assumed. Inhalers were doing nothing for my breathing difficulties. The problem wasn’t in my lungs or bronchial tubes, but rather, in my nose. Like most babies not born C-Section, I had a deviated septum, except it was deviated so badly that the left side of my nose didn’t work at all. Add to that seasonal allergies and any kind of sport that involved a good deal of running was out of the question. My parents elected that I should have surgery. I remember at the pre-op appointment, the surgeon asked if I wanted him to straighten my nose. I never believed in plastic surgery except for restorative purposes, so I vehemently refused. I still have the bump, and now, I’m glad for it. I’m glad that whenever I look in the mirror, I see my father. It doesn’t matter that I’m a female and he was not.

The night he died, in the hospice parking lot, my sister said she was sorry I was the local kid, who had to spend her summer at the hospital or beside our father’s sick bed. “But you were always little Jim,” she added. The bump on my nose. The unibrow. The wave in my hair that I can never tame. All of these things annoyed me at one time, but the similarities between my father’s hands and mine never did. After watching him fight and lose his battle with stage IV lung cancer, none of these resemblances cause me discomfort—quite the opposite, I treasure them.


by Mickey Fisher


I wish I’d brought headphones with me. There’s a song I know of that I always thought I’d listen to, here at the end. Nobody plans to be half a world away at times like these, so I sat alone and waited out the night. So the chorus goes.

I sit by my dad’s bed and stitch memories together.

We were all going on a road trip; this was before my mom divorced him. I was in the area of six years old, and sitting in the back seat with Clay. My dad was the only one not in the car; he was looking for something in the house before we left, sunglasses, maybe. I leaned over the center console, plucked his Marlboro Reds from the dashboard, and placed them on top of the rest of the trash in the little plastic bag that we used for car waste. I didn’t bother hiding the cigarettes under the tissues and wrappers that were already in the trash. I figured I’d be in enough trouble as it was. He came out to the car and asked us where his cigarettes were. His voice was already half-raised. My eyes gave the answer away. I thought he’d yell at me, but instead he said, “I know they’re bad for me.” Then he took them out of the trash.

A wedge of light from the hallway fluorescents cuts into his room in the rehab center. There’s no door to block it. No doors means that nurses can flit in like moths if they have to, administering food and water and drugs. I sit outside of the light’s path, next to him. I can’t tell if he’s conscious or not. If he is, his eyes are pointing at a TV set that’s turned off for quiet hours. Who knows what he sees.

He promised a blue Mustang to my brother and me one Christmas, when we were no older than ten. He wasn’t there to promise it to our faces, but he wrote out a note in wobbly black pen on a piece of note paper. He had a friend, he explained, who was going to sell the blue Mustang to him, and then he’d give it to us. I believed that he intended to. Our mom told us not to get our hopes up, and we didn’t.

I smell a false smell of vodka. I’m cycling between holding his hand and using too much hand sanitizer. I’d never known him to like vodka; he’d preferred Budweisers. When we’d worried about the beers, we should’ve been paying more attention to the cigarettes in his shirt pocket. The machine dispensing the sanitizer growls at me as I stick my hand underneath its sensor again.

After I graduated from college, I got a call on a rainy Friday on my way in to work. My dad was sick. I became his proxy. His initial illness led to the discovery of something worse. I got him into Mass General, the best-case scenario. I’d visited him on sunny Saturdays in Boston, watched horror movies with him in his room. I’d pushed him in a wheelchair to the meeting with the specialist, who’d told my dad that if he refused treatment, he’d be dead within a year. He’d refused that treatment thirteen months ago.

I check Facebook, the hotline to Clay. My brother is stationed in England and organizing a flight home with the Red Cross. I’d sent him the rehab center’s number and was waiting for him to call their phone. He wants to speak to our dad before he passes, and I don’t want to see how high the charges will be on my own line. There are no bright red notification badges interrupting the bold blue header of the site. I close the app.

A thin blue curtain hangs between my dad and his neighbor in the room. I hear the other man breathing in his sleep. I hear the calm beeping of machines. I do not hear the ring of the phone at the reception desk. Not yet. So I sit alone and wait out the night.