Your Own Back Yard – Michael Gillan Maxwell

Visual Art – Creative Writing – Social Commentary


October 2013

Lost in the Matrix Again:A Journey Through the Shopping Mall and the Heart of Darkness

Lost in the Matrix Again:

A Journey Through the Shopping Mall and the Heart of Darkness

Lunch Laddy at the Dirt Track Races
I’m just a guy, tryin’ ta get along……

I know this is out of character for me, but for once I’m not trying to be a smarty pants, take a sardonic tone or criticize anything or anyone. I’m simply making observations based on my experience, trying to make some sense of it and and perhaps express an obnoxious opinion or two. This is about American culture, of which I am very much a part. It’s also about shopping malls and the culture of consumer madness. I am one of America’s great consumers and I’m just reflecting upon my observations. I worked in a shopping mall and so did my son. That almost makes it a family tradition. Please bear in mind that I’m not a trained journalist or sociologist. I’m just offering my “boots on the ground” opinions and observations, for whatever that’s worth. However, when I spot a boat foundering in the surf that appears to be sinking, or a house engulfed in flames, I can’t restrain myself from reacting in some way. Or at least make an observation for posterity’s sake. If this is offensive or demeaning to anybody in any way, it is unintended. I’m just trying to get a grip on what’s going down.

The other day I needed to go to a big box store at the regional shopping mall. I try to avoid going there because it’s an enervating environment and it seems to suck the life right out of me. I find it sad and depressing. It’s not all that far from becoming a humongous ghost town. This is a shopping mall that has fallen upon hard times in recent years as a number of competing strip malls were built in the near vicinity. There was a steady diaspora from the established mall as consumers did more and more of their shopping in the surrounding strip malls and left brick and mortar stores behind altogether to find what they are looking for online. Now the oldest of the competing strip malls are already on the decline as stores have folded or moved down the road to newer strip malls, leaving cavernous retail spaces that will stay unoccupied for years before they are finally repurposed or torn down. One of them has a whopping 146,522 square feet of retail space available and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Who’s going to be able to fill that kind of retail space as it is? The state of the mall and the surrounding strip malls says a lot about the changing landscape of retail stores and consumerism in America.

I never go to the regional mall anymore because there is almost nothing there that I can find to buy. However, on this particular day I did have some business to transact at the mall so I decided to walk around to get a feel for the current lay of the land. It was eye opening. There are still at least six major big box stores that anchor the mall and these retailers compete with each other, carrying many of the exact same lines while trying and be all things to all people. The result is a watered down “sameness” and lack of any truly unique “brand” or personality. Outside of these stores, few of the other old stalwarts remain and there are major swaths of unoccupied spaces, shuttered, dark and desolate. Conspicuous in its absence is one of the old stores with unique personality that was a news stand and tobacco store where you could buy newspapers and magazines, pipes and cigars and get a good cup of coffee. Changes in newspaper and magazine publishing and American smoking habits may have sounded the death knell for little shops of this kind. Add to that, the near extinction of book stores and what used to be known as record stores. One thing that really stands out is how many of the stores that were there for years have been replaced by something totally different or have been repurposed altogether and are occupied by ventures other than traditional retail stores. It seems there are a growing number of places that offer some kind of community based service as opposed to pure retail.

As I strolled through, I was surprised to see that one of the long time clothing stores is a mixed martial arts school and another is a cheerleading academy. You can buy a grand piano in what used to be a purveyor of leather goods and across from that you can buy a granite tombstone and have it custom engraved. The optometry store where I once bought glasses is now a full service body modification studio offering tattoos and body piercing. The calendar store that occupied a corner of the mall is now a pastoral counseling center and church that offers Sunday morning services in the movie theater complex. There are a number of other “community centers” of one kind or another, all with limited hours of operation. I don’t know if this is a nationwide trend or if this is a unique situation. It certainly does reflect a genuine effort to adapt and evolve. In any case, it’s one way to fill these spaces and offer something that people might actually want or need. I think the sheer monstrous size of the one-stop-shopping-big-box-stores is actually its own undoing. In this case, bigger is not better.

Pop up seasonal stores come and go and there are at least two Halloween stores for the time being. Needless to say, even though it’s late October, all the spaces I visited or peeked into were already headed full-on into the Christmas season complete with lights, decorations. and music. Christmas is nice during a couple of weeks in December. More than that and I start to get more nauseous and jaded than usual. I really started to get an overwhelming case of the heebie jeebies and quickened my pace toward the parking lot before I collapsed from sheer ennui and existential exhaustion.

Is this the death of the American shopping mall as we once knew it? I really have no idea. Maybe malls like this are going strong all over the country? Admittedly this is all based on my own limited observation. But generally speaking, what if malls offered goods and services that are more naturally integrated with the needs of daily life, in addition to retail stores that sell clothes,shoes, jewelry, electronics and hair&nail care? What would these places look like with grocery stores, medical arts services, auto repair, health clubs, veterinary services, small cafes, restaurants and a whole bunch of quirky, one of a kind places in subdivided cavernous retail spaces that feel more like warehouses than any kind of intimate space. There are many issues to contend with here, not the least of which is that malls may be located far and away from the day to day lives of the consumers they hope to attract.

I don’t know what the solution is. Maybe it’s symptomatic of a need for a cultural paradigm shift. I don’t know. I’m just sayin’……

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Lunch Lady Cookbook Mumbo Jumbo Chicken Gumbo

Lunch Lady Cookbook Mumbo Jumbo Chicken Gumbo


Hey there boys and girls! This is The Lunch Laddie, Michael Gillan Maxwell comin’ at ya with a new installment of The Lunch Lady Cookbook. As the waning days of October bring crisp temperatures and frost on the pumpkin, it’s time we turn our attention to heartier fare while exploring a rich, multi-cultural tradition. The Lunch Lady Cookbook is proud to present Lunch Lady Cookbook Mumbo Jumbo Chicken Gumbo.

Folklore has it that gumbo originated in southern Louisiana in the 18th century. 18th century Louisiana was the ultimate cultural melting pot, so it seems fitting that this dish would be a melting pot in its own right. Gumbo is like a greatest hits album of ingredients and culinary practices of several cultures, including West African, French, Spanish, German, Choctaw and Public School Cafeterias. Gumbo shares much in common with other one-dish meals like stew, goulash, paella and bouillabaisse. The beauty of it is that there is no single “right” way of making it, you can’t mess it up and you can toss in just about any ingredient you want and call it gumbo. This helps make it a go-to dish for festive gatherings like Cajun fiddle contests, barn raisings and 7th grade lunch periods.


3 Chicken Breasts (boneless, skinless)

1 Green Pepper (large)

Green beans (from last nights dinner)

1 Onion (Large, sweet)

2 Scallions Baby carrots (Maybe a dozen or so ~ they’re little ~ after all, they’re only babies)

Red baby potatoes (Same as above)

Mushrooms (Ginormous handful)

Diced tomatoes (Fresh is good, but I used 2 8 oz cans)

Cream of Mushroom soup ( all purpose secret sauce)

Garlic ( 2 or 3 cloves ~ diced)

Worcester sauce (dash or 2)

Red wine (1/2 cup. Actually pour 2 cups, add 1/2 cup to the gumbo and chug the rest)

Sour cream

Romano cheese


Salt (freshly ground sea salt)

Pepper (freshly ground)

Red Pepper flakes

Garlic Powder (freshly ground)

Basil Flakes


Rosemary (just a pinch ~ this stuff can take over a dish)

Bay leaf (if ya got it)

How we do it:

Combine tomatoes, mushroom soup and about 2 cups of water in stock pot. Heat slowly.

Slice, dice, bend, spindle, mutilate and chop garlic, onion, green pepper, scallions and mushrooms.

Sauté lightly in olive oil (extra virgin please) over medium heat for about 2 minutes. Ease up on this part. You just want to give these veggies a jump start. Add to stock pot.

Slice, dice, bend, spindle, mutilate and chop potatoes and carrots and add to stock pot.

Slice, dice, bend, spindle, mutilate and chop chicken breasts.

Sauté lightly in olive oil (extra virgin please), garlic and Worcester sauce until brown.

Add spices at this point, turning chicken frequently until brown.

Add to stock pot. Cover and let simmer for up to four hours, stirring frequently while reciting voodoo incantations. (Although singing along to a good playlist is acceptable)

This dish is also an ideal candidate for slow cooking in the crock pot. Gumbo on Stove

 Hey genius! It fogs the lens when you hold the camera directly over a steaming vat of gumbo!

This dish can be ready eat sooner than that, but a long, slow simmer really gets the juices flowing and unlocks the flavor of the ingredients. Since watched pots never boil, this is a good time to throw in a load of laundry, split a pile of firewood and print out that manuscript you’ve been working on for the final proof read.

But for God’s sake, before you do any of these things, clean up that Godawful mess you’ve just made in the kitchen before Mom comes home!

Garnish with Romano cheese and sour cream and serve by itself or over rice. Crusty French bread is great for dipping and mopping the gumbo off your chin.

Musical Accompaniment:

Cajun music, of course. (Frankly, I’m surprised you had to ask) Anything by Clifton Chenier, Preston Frank, Walter Mouton and the original “Alligator man” Doug Kershaw will move this along in a lively manner. If you’re really ambitious, this is a great time to start to learn to play the Cajun accordion, or Cajun box as it is known. Just don’t drop it in the gumbo. Cajun Box Suggested Wine Pairing: This dish owes a lot to French Acadian and Cajun roots, so the Lunch Laddie’s preference is a robust and smooth French Rhone. A good friend of mine with a nose for wine once told me that a “good Rhone should taste like dirt!” In my opinion, this is the perfect wine for an earthy dish like gumbo. Gumbo and wine

For God’s sake man. Pour it in a glass. We’re not savages here!

So without further adieu, I must bid you au revoir. Until next time, this is The Lunch Laddie, Michael Gillan Maxwell signing off for The Lunch Lady Cookbook. Happy slurping!

Lunch Lady Cookbook Achin’ For Bacon Mac & Cheese

Lunch Lady Cookbook Achin’ For Bacon Mac & Cheese

Lunch Lady Action Figure
Lunch Lady Action Figure

Hey there boys and girls! This is the Lunch Laddy, Michael Gillan Maxwell comin’ at ya with a new installment of The Lunch Lady Cookbook. Back when the Lunch Lady Cookbook was just a gleam in his father’s eye, the Lunch Laddy was on a quest for the Holy Grail of Comfort Foods, the ultimate Mac & Cheese. I know our thousands of foodie fans out there were dismayed and even outraged by esoteric vegan recipes and gustatory explorations into parts unknown and roads untraveled.

People were saying: “Hey Lunch Laddy! What gives? You promised us Mac & Cheese and you give us recipes for vegan burritos and free range goulash. You bask in all the glory and we get bupkis! Enough already! We want the Mac & Cheese we were promised!”

The people have spoken and the Lunch Laddy has heard. I am here today to deliver what was promised. The Lunch Lady Cookbook is proud to present Achin’ For Bacon Mac & Cheese!

The Lunch Laddy will be the first to tell you he’s not a doctor and the last to offer medical advice. However, due to the rich nature of this particular dish, all of us here at The Lunch Lady Cookbook offices recommended that you schedule an EKG and a stress test to determine if you still have at least one available unclogged artery before proceeding. It’s like having enough available memory on your computer before taking on a software update.

Achin' for Bacon

You will need the following: 

  • 1 package Gluten Free Brown Rice Elbows (Hey! Shut up! We need something healthy in this dish!)
  • 2-3 cups of assorted cheeses ~ sharp cheddar, colby, jack & Romano for starters.
  • 3/4 cup skim milk
  • 5 slices cooked bacon ~ sliced, diced & chopped
  • Garlic powder
  • Red pepper flakes

How we do it:

  • Cook pasta for 2-3 minutes and drain. (It will be super el dente, but this is what you need because it’s gonna bake for a while. It’s called Mac & Cheese NOT Mush & Cheese)
  •  Lubricate baking dish with butter. This is no time to be shy. Grease that puppy up!
  •  Pour in pasta and stir in cheese, bacon and spices, saving some of each for the coup de grâce topping.
  •  Cover and bake at 350 for 45 minutes.
  •  Brown, uncovered for the last coupla minutes.
  •  Cover and let stand for at least an hour.
  •  Serve with copious amounts ketchup.

A Lunch Lady Cookbook Repast

Musical Accompaniment: Todd Snider station on Pandora

Libation: A rich full bodied red wine with undercurrents of blueberry jam and hot dogs. Jug wine from the bottom shelf will be the prefect accompaniment to this prosaic dish.

Until the next time, this is the Lunch Laddy, Michael Gillan Maxwell signing off and saying: Eat hearty me hearties!

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When Bad Things Happen To Good Appliances

thinkerPeople use all kinds of different sources of wisdom to help predict the future and guide their decisions. Some methods of divination include reading the flights of birds or searching for answers to the mysteries of life in oracle cards, yarrow stalks, coins, tea leaves or the entrails of animals. For the ancient Greeks it was the Oracle at Delphi. The Vikings were big on reading rune stones. For some it’s the Bible. For others it’s the daily horoscope in the newspaper or Dial-a-Psychic. Me, I draw old folk sayings from a hat.

Old folk sayings have guided me through many of life’s tough choices. Here are some of my favorites:

A poor excuse is better than none at all.

Better late than never.

Better weak beer than lemonade.

Better bowlegs than no legs at all.

Bad breath is better than no breath at all.

Good things come in small packages.

Bad things happen in threes.

Go all the way on the third date.

More on this later.

We were doing a load of laundry last week. It was business as usual until the final spin cycle which sounded like the space shuttle lifting off from a launching pad in the utility room. The entire house vibrated with the sound and fury of a star going super nova. After it wound down and stopped, I unloaded the laundry and spun the basket around a few times. It sounded fine. So I thought this might be a small hiccup and it would go away by itself. This is where folk sayings come in handy to help me justify sheer insanity. Let sleeping dogs lie, I thought. This kind of logic is like hoping a flat tire will repair itself while you’re driving. This is why I’m not a mechanic or a surgeon.

A few days later I mustered the courage to do another load of laundry and everything sounded good until the final spin. This time it was the starting line at a NASCAR race or an F-15 taking off from the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. The machine was vibrating like a jackhammer and walking across the floor under its own power. This was as close to poltergeist activity as anything I’ve seen in this house. With another nugget of folk wisdom blazing in my brain, All good things must come to an end, we put in a call to a repairman.

The repairman arrived at the appointed hour looking every bit the part of Dan Akyroyd’s classic depiction of the Norge repairman. I did not, however, look at his ass to see if his crack was showing. It took him less than 30 seconds to diagnose the problem as a bad bearing which probably caused collateral damage to the fleegywinkle, bearing straits and various and sundry other parts. He hammered away at his iPad for a few minutes and handed me an estimate for parts and labor. After I recovered from my apoplectic episode, I stammered: “It would cost less to buy a new machine.” “Exactly,” he replied. “Too bad you didn’t have the extended service contract. This would have all been covered.” I have always thought that extended service contracts were like buying protection from the mob and that stuff should last beyond it’s warranty period. But still, I was silently kicking myself for not buying protection from the mob.

“You know” he said, “there’s an old saying that appliances break down in pairs.This dryer is a ticking time bomb. Could go anytime.” Yeah.” I thought, “ Washers and dryers mate for life like black vultures, gibbons or albatrosses.” 

“I’m just sayin’,” he said, “If that fleegywinkle goes bad it will be like a claymore mine exploding in your utility room. If the shrapnel doesn’t kill you, cleaning up the flood will be like Love Canal exploded in your house.’

After he left I briefly contemplated going back to washing my clothes by beating them on rocks in the river. Then I realized there is no nearby river and that I had never beaten my clothes on rocks. I started shopping the internet for a washer that would mate with my dryer for the rest of its troubled and uncertain life. I also needed a washer that would stack underneath the dryer.

I quickly found one that I thought would work. It was also the least expensive. I was starting to feel like a mail-order-bride broker. I was also haunted by the old folk saying that a man who marries twice is a two time loser. I started to get the creeping feeling that it might not be possible to remarry my old dryer to a spanky new washer.

Armed with internet quotes, a newly approved store charge card, coupons with guaranteed rebates, perks and discounts and the resolve to drive a hard bargain, I entered the store. I had a quote for a washer for $599. With all the rebates, coupons and Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free cards, I thought I could wheel and deal my way out of there for about 500 bucks. I figured I could cover that by recycling my empty beer bottles.

What happened next will always be one of the darkest events in the voluminous annals in my personal Hall of Shame. It is why you should NEVER allow me to negotiate the final price of a new home, new car or a double de-caf, half-caf latte at Starbucks.

A sales associate came to my assistance with iPad in hand. He was quite near sighted and asked for my help inputting data into his iPad. Of course, luring me into this “helping” role immediately sucked me into letting my guard down. It took mere minutes to go from driving a hard bargain on a washing machine for $599 to the purchase of new washing machine, new dryer, (They mate for life, you know. Just like albatrosses.)  and all the hoses, fittings, duct tube, mounting brackets and five year service contracts for just under two grand. I’m using the term two grand because that’s how we roll when we’re playing the numbers in the back alley gambling houses of Detroit.

I left there with my head reeling and wondering if I need to enroll in a 12 step program for gambling addiction. I’m taking delivery on my new appliances tomorrow. Sometime between 8AM and 5PM. I’m waiting for my man.

At least, this time, I did purchase protection from the mob. For five years. We’re gonna drive this thing ’till the wheels fall off! Even if a fool and his money are soon parted, maybe by that time, I’ll be living in a Buddhist monastery on some bleak hillside, dressed in an itchy woolen robe and won’t be needing a washer and dryer.

Self Portrait
Self Portrait

I Ain’t Dead Yet

Rock and RollBot

I had surgery yesterday. Why, yes, it was a penis operation. Well, not a penis operation per se. It was a procedure on my bladder, or more accurately inside my bladder. With a camera. And a laser. And two Star Wars action figure robots to operate the laser. And a flashlight of some sort. Kind of a hard place to get to for a tune up, but all that had to get into my bladder, through my urethra, which is technically part of my penis. So in many ways, it was a penis operation. In any case I think “penis operation” sounds edgier and more bad ass than “bladder procedure.” Actually it would have a more distinctive military vibe in keeping with the times if it was just called “Operation Penis.”

Apparently I had a bladder stone the size of Mount Rushmore (without the presidential faces) and a possible foreign body in there. By “in there”, I mean my bladder.  All complications from an earlier surgery and radiation treatments from another situation some time ago. Not unheard of, but it can lead to some awkward moments when an explanation is called for. Like when your checking on for the procedure.

“Hmm. I see we’re going to laser a bladder stone and remove a possible foreign body?” Eyebrows raised, waiting expectantly for clarification.

“I know what it sounds like. I wasn’t smuggling illegal immigrants in my bladder and it’s not like the urban legend about the guy coming into the ER because he shoved a gerbil up his rectum and it wouldn’t come out. I mean it’s not like I’m going to hide my apocalypse stash of South African gold kruggerands in there. I hide those where nobody would dream of looking. Like my sock drawer or under my mattress.”

The night before, I downloaded a living will form from an online legal site and feverishly started checking boxes to pull the plug on any and all life prolonging efforts if the ship is going down and it’s all over but the shouting. BUT the one about NOT administering pain medication gave me cause to pause. I mean why would I NOT want to have pain medication if I’m suffering a painful, screaming death. I can’t see any upside to that. Strikes me as a real lose/lose situation all around. If I’m going down swinging I might as well go down feeling like I’m dancing my ass off at the Last Rave. To make it all legal and above board, the form required two witnesses who were not related to me. I only had one. We forged the other. Won’t say who, but one of the possible contenders was my dog Chauncy. He’s known me for six years and he’s not a blood relative. In the end it was not necessary anyway because I already had a Living Will on file from my last medical misadventure. That one was properly drawn up in my attorney’s office, and I was relieved to see that I’d had the presence of mind to include the proviso that I would go out in a lime green mohair jumpsuit yelling “One more time!” with Donna Summer blasting through blown speaker cabinets.

Checking into the ambulatory surgical unit was surreal. I registered my arrival with a rather stern looking volunteer in the hallway. I appreciate the work she does as a volunteer in a hospital, but she had a rather unnerving air about her. Kind of like my piano teacher when I hadn’t practiced the week’s lesson. Not one bit. Her eyes were shocking blue and her gimlet gaze made me feel like I was trying to sneak something through customs (in my bladder) or like I was trying to get back into homeroom without a hall pass. I was shown to a room where I was issued a change of clothes for surgery.

Hospital clothes are the embodiment of the. most. tragic. fashion. choices. ever! A flimsy, threadbare, assless gown with horrific floral prints, skin tight extra small robe more like a straight jacket, powder blue paper shoes with matching powder blue paper hat. I suppose it’s all part of breaking me down so they can build me back up again.

More check-in questions.

“Did you take your meds today?”

“Last night.”

“How ‘bout your Viagra?”

Stunned by the personal nature of that question but even more so by its absurdity I wanted to say:

“Why yes. I took a double dose of Viagra about 15 minutes ago. I thought it might be easier for the surgical team to find my penis that way.”

“We need an X Ray. We’ll take you down in a wheel chair.”

Apparently you can ambulate in but not ambulate out. So feeling resplendent in my new get up, off we went through the public hallways. I just couldn’t wait to run into someone I hadn’t seen in ages.

Much of the hospital was built during Pre-Columbian times and some of the hallways look like they might have been used as a set for Shutter Island. As we tooled through the hall way leading to X Ray I marveled at the flesh colored walls and wondered if Stephen King might have served as their interior decorating consultant. A technician wheeled me into X Ray and told me to hop up onto the table, which was a hard plastic table about 5 feet off the floor covered by a slippery white towel. Suddenly I went from being wheel chair bound to feeling like a performer in Cirque du Soleil.

Before I knew it, I was in the OR, counting backwards from a hundred in German and giving up all my secrets to the Russians before slipping into unconsciousness. I came to  in a curtained cubicle in recovery with an overwhelming need to pee. Needless to say, I was alarmed that my pee was the color of a vintage cabernet sauvignon, but assured that it was quite normal and that at least I was able to pee. Anyway, even though my body feels like it was used as a piñata everything came out fine, and we all lived happily ever after.

All kidding aside, THANK YOU to the compassionate and extremely competent medical team that helped me through this.You guys are the best and I couldn’t be more awestruck by what you do. I owe you one!

Happy Buddha

“Editor’s Eye” on the Blog of the Fictionaut ~ Guest Editor ~ Michael Gillan Maxwell

Apologies to those who received an earlier version of this post with malfunctioning links.

I am honored this week to be guest editor of Editor’s Eye on the Fictionaut Blog. This installment of Editor’s Eye features prose from writers Vincent Fino, H. L. Puaf, Dallas Woodburn, Carl Santoro, Bud Smith, Glynnis Eldridge, Ron Burch and Deborah Oster Pannell. Check it out!


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