Next week, I’m set to help the locals dig up an ancient Chinese cemetery.  Or something along those lines.  I know there will be digging and clearing and probably some metaphysical protocols observed, at least beforehand.  I know there will be graveyard nightmares to follow.  Hopefully, the cool horror-movie kind.  I know there will be good food and an entire community coming together to do this work for free, just because it needs to be done.  I know I’ll discover the rest when I get there.  For most people, an adventure like this would fall on the peculiar side of disturbing.  For Hakalau, it’s just a day in the life.

Two days after the election, I arrived in the dark.  A deserted local airport after a layover in Honolulu, the only souls around dressed all in white to administer my second Covid test of the journey, the new welcome ritual.  They drifted through the enormous empty terminal meant to hold multiple tour groups and one of them stuck a six-inch Q-tip up my nose.  30 minutes later, I was pronounced negative.  I could have told them that ahead of time and saved them the trouble.  I’m usually pretty negative.  Then: straight down a long, lonely highway and into the forest.

I’ve been staying in the village for a week and a half.  I feel like I’ve fallen off the world and landed someplace better, but not someplace normal—if by “normal” you mean the venomous meltdown of 2020 election America.  And thank goodness for that.  This village is old.  It’s in a jungle.  But that doesn’t quite describe it.  It doesn’t feel like America.  The houses are aged but well cared for with creaky floors and screened-in windows that haven’t been closed in 50 years.  Bright green geckos abound.  Beetles crawl the ceilings in the middle of the night.  Spiders bigger than your thumb.  Chirping coal-gray coqui frogs until dawn. 

During the day, you’ll catch the scent of jasmine and you’ll decide to quit buying so much food.  It’s too humid to overeat and oranges, papaya, limes, and breadfruit dip down over the paths like a constant parade of gifts.  You’ll immediately realize that all you’re missing is tea.  And there happens to be a lot of that around as well.  Now and then, you might make an extraordinary effort to get some rice.

Tea and incense.  Rice and ulu.  At 3:00 AM, I wake in order to write fiction at a rickety wooden table in the corner of my enormous empty living room.  Enormous for me.  Perhaps less so for the wealthy tourists who sometimes rent the place to get away from it all—not realizing that you can’t just stay in Hakalau for a week and say you’ve been there.  It’s like learning “French for travelers.”  All you remember a month after your visit to Paris is oui and Où sont les serviettes?  There’s an ageless feeling here, some kind of eddy in time, and it defies easy answers.

How I came to this place and where I’m going next, whether it’s back to Kyoto or Northern Thailand, has to do with my other life as a writing instructor and communications specialist.  And I’m still a fiction writer.  I look in the mirror and still see my tired fiction-writing face, the writerly gray coming in over my ears, but now there’s something else.  I spend time looking at the old hand-carved statue of a Buddhist monk by the door.  He’s holding a begging bowl.  His eyes are half-closed and he’s smiling gently, aware that everything is in its proper place.  Maybe that’s it.

At ten-after-five, I walk across the road in the dark to practice an hour of Rinzai zazen in the village zendo.  Later, I’ll walk down a series of abandoned flower-strewn trails and condemned bridges to an inlet of broken rocks and stare at the ocean.  And I always have the same thought: if this is all I do between now and the day I die, which could be in the next ten minutes or in the next 30 years, I’ll go with a smile.  I don’t need to get into paradise.  Just let me stay in Hakalau.

My latest on Splice Today.  Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/politics-can-be-civil-in-spite-of-the-media

News this good doesn’t arrive every day.

My third collection of stories, Living the Dream, just got accepted by Terror House for publication in 2021. I will be updating my websites when I have more information.

Thanks to everyone for following my writing. It matters.

Michael

One of the many reasons I love pulp fiction from the early 20th century is that writers like HP Lovecraft can have a line like, “the moon was gleaming vividly over the primeval ruins” (from “The Nameless City“) and actually get away with it. If I wrote something like “gleaming vividly,” my teachers would have beaten me publicly for about an hour. Is it gleaming? Really? Do you have any idea what that is? Vividly? What does “vividly” look like? Do you even know? If you know, how come you’re not showing it in concrete terms? If you don’t know, fuck you, why are you writing it? Oh, the beating would be vast and terrible.

Instead of telling the reader that the moon was gleaming vividly, the harder, more powerful, more evocative and immersive technique, is to show the gleam, show how it’s vivid, show how the ruins might look primeval using descriptive language. That’s the way I was taught. But HPL can get away with lines like this because he’s consistent. And this brings up a deeper lesson about fiction writing: stylistic consistency is more important than any given stylistic choice.

In other words, Lovecraft will write a line like “the moon was gleaming vividly” and we will have to either accept it or shut the book. If we accept it—okay, it’s pulp fiction or it’s HPL or we’re just feeling generous that day—then he hits us with “It poured madly out of the dark door, sighing uncannily as it ruffled the sand and spread about the weird ruins.” Wow. Take it or leave it. Do you want to enjoy the story or not? It’s no fun if you have to complain about the writing. So you take it. And then he’s got you: you’ve decided to let him have as many adverbs and vague adjectives as he wants. You’re going to let him tell you that the sigh was uncanny (what does “uncanny” sound like, eh?) and the ruins were weird (can you think of the last weird ruins you’ve seen?). He has trained you to read and appreciate his fiction rather than trying to meet your expectations.

Some great fiction writers can do both. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, can write idiosyncratic prose and also ground those weird (!) choices in hard-edged concrete description. People think he learned this through his association with Hemingway, but that’s according to Hem in A Moveable Feast—a great book but likely packed with exaggerations and a few outright lies. Hem might have learned it from Gertrude Stein, but the idiosyncratic flourish we’re talking about is less evident in his work probably because he had such a strong background in news writing. He had to make his prose acceptable to the reader (something that also helped him support himself by selling stories to LIFE and The Saturday Evening Post in an era when you could live that way).

Lovecraft is great in other ways. Still, when I read a passage like this, I have to smile: “In the darkness there flashed before my mind fragments of my cherished treasury of daemoniac lore; sentences from Alhazred the mad Arab, paragraphs from the apocryphal nightmares of Damascius, and infamous lines from the delirious Image du Monde of Gauthier de Metz. I repeated queer extracts, and muttered of Afrasiab and the daemons that floated with him down the Oxus.”

I know HPL sets himself the very difficult task of writing about states of consciousness that have only a tenuous connection to everyday life. So maybe that’s the reason for many of his writerly choices. I do take a certain daemoniac enjoyment of how he disregards certain modern conventions.

A story about volunteers.

Of all the things I’d hoped to accomplish that fall, digging a six-foot-deep moat around the family house wasn’t one of them.  But the governor decided to end all Covid restrictions in the middle of the pandemic, causing the state’s heavily armed population to take it as a sign and go berserk.  When that happens, you dig a moat.  So I couldn’t argue with Uncle Red’s decision to fortify the premises.  Nevertheless, there were problems. 

My own troubles started a week before I moved in.  Hauberk College cancelled its spring semester in the interests of social distancing and good hygiene.  So instead of moving into the dorms the second half of my freshman year like I’d planned, I found myself staying at the house my mother once described as “a ramshackle pit” and trying to spend as little money as possible.  I was supposed to have received a dining hall meal plan along with my freshman year scholarship.  Given my Aunt Phoebe’s cooking, I think losing that meal plan depressed me the most.

“Put your back into it,” Uncle Red said, “or I’ll make you mask up!” 

I nodded and tried to approximate what “putting your back into it” looked like, but I was tired.  I’d been shoveling my assigned section of moat since morning, my back hurt, and I’d gotten blisters on my hands.  This, I thought, is no way to start an adult life.  If I’d wanted to dig moats for a living, I could have joined the Peace Corps like my brother.

In my uncle’s view, masking up was the ultimate dunce cap, fit only for democrats, Marxists, social justice activists, and professors.  In this branch of my family, wearing a mask to protect against Covid was a sign of weakness, wrong thinking, unworthiness, and shame.  I had a pack of five N95 masks in my suitcase, but I hadn’t taken them out. 

It was enough that everyone knew I was attempting college.  Anything more and I felt the generosity of my relatives would become strained beyond the bounds of credulity.  As Uncle Marty liked to say, I’d be just another “freak peckerhead.”  And nobody wants that.  More importantly, I’d also be out on the street.

“That’s hardpan you’re digging!” yelled Aunt Phoebe from the porch.  “Too hard for you!”

“No doubt about it!” yelled Uncle Marty.

“You got that right!” yelled Uncle Red.

I said nothing and kept trying to look like I was putting my back into it.

Uncle Red was called “Red” because his first name was “Redding.”  There was a story behind it that no one ever talked about.  He was short, had a beer belly, small eyes, and a round face.  He was also completely bald and never had anything close to red hair.  Uncle Marty looked completely different: tall, muscled, with blue eyes and a thick blond goatee that made you think of King Arthur. 

Aunt Phoebe, on the other hand, was completely gray and starting to develop a stoop from osteoporosis.  She liked to say her bones were getting smaller along with her brain.  None of them looked like each other.  And none of them looked like me.  I sometimes wondered whether any of us were actually related.

The moat was wide enough for two grown men to stand on the bottom shoulder to shoulder.  We knew this because that’s exactly what my uncles did.  They checked the depth with a wooden yardstick as we progressed.  We dug our way clockwise around the house; past the corner of the porch; past the enormous red-brick chimney that started at the base of the foundation and went up six feet above the roof; past the completely rusted propane tank, which everyone agreed would someday explode; past the back porch and the far corner of the house, gray and disintegrating like the old barns you saw from the highway; and back around to the front.  It didn’t dig like hardpan.  The ground was relatively soft.  Still, it was an enormous project to attempt in one day.

When we found our way back to the front yard, the ouroboros could almost bite its tail.  So we broke for dinner.  It was ham and cheese sandwiches, brought out by Aunt Phoebe on her Franklin Mint 2016 commemorative platter, featuring  Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln healing the sick of Bombay.  Above them, the good Lord smiled down from his golden throne in the clouds.  Aunt Phoebe liked to joke about it, but I also noticed she kept the platter on a decorative stand by her boom box over the sink.

My uncles and I sat on the edge of the moat, our feet dangling down like kids at swim class taking a break.  There was a festive air, a certain delight that Uncle Red and Uncle Marty never seemed to show.  But when they looked at what we accomplished they smiled and high-fived each other.

Back on the porch, Aunt Phoebe turned and yelled, “Eat up, boys, but don’t take too long!”

“Not a chance!” yelled Uncle Red.

“We’re on it!” yelled Uncle Marty.

Then the three of them looked at me.  I raised my fist in solidarity and took another bite.

Uncle Red, Aunt Phoebe, and Uncle Marty, lived together in the house about 40 miles northeast of Hauberk, Missouri.  It was a two-story Coronado foursquare build by the Louis Company for my great-grandfather in 1912.  He moved there from Kansas City with the expectation that the town of Hauberk would eventually grow along the railroad in his direction, raising the value of the land.  That proved, however, to be a precipitous assumption.  The property was the last bit of an unproductive patch, which before the Great Depression had been optimistically designated as farmland, but which was now just a flat plain of grass and birch trees with dry creeks and too many crows.

The house had been going to seed for the last 80 years, just like our family, and was known to be an area where you might get threatened with a .410 for trespassing.  Still, Uncle Red, Aunt Phoebe, and Uncle Marty, having survived their respective spouses, retired together to the old house in the late 1990s.  Since then, they seemed to have given themselves over to the kind of melancholy one feels when the good old days are unquestionably gone forever. 

When they weren’t digging moats, they were a fairly morose bunch and they were avoided at all costs by the rest of the family.  I’d learned that the feeling was generally mutual; though, the three of them maintained a reverence for our grandfather and his property that bordered on religion. 

They did not keep the place up, but they did admire it greatly, if only in the abstract and usually in the evenings after a certain amount of alcohol.  The house signified the last good, common, family thing in their lives.  They were not well off, but they treated the old homestead not unlike one of the great estates of a lost European nobility, a sad reminder of a grander, more glorious age.

“You’re never gonna get it done!” Aunt Phoebe yelled.

“I know!” yelled Uncle Marty.

“Damn shame!” yelled Uncle Red, pitching his crumpled can of Bud into the open leaf bag in the center of the front lawn.

I looked at the remaining distance we had to cover, maybe about 15 feet, and realized that Aunt Phoebe would have said that even if we’d only had one shovelful left.  That was just her style, the same way that my uncles agreed with her no matter what she said.  I was a guest in the house, yes, but I was also a spectator.

When the George Floyd protests came to Hauberk and someone tried to burn down the Walmart Megastore a block west of the college, Uncle Red, Aunt Phoebe, and Uncle Marty defaulted to the fatalistic, medieval siege mentality that had been lurking in their DNA all their lives.  They ran up their credit cards at the gun shop and patronized whichever local box stores were still open in order to prepare for the worst.  They figured the End Times had finally arrived.  It cheered them immensely.

All Hauberk was on edge.  Everyone was talking about what had recently happened in Nirvana, just over the Arkansas line, where an anti-police brutality protest turned brutal and an entire strip mall went up in flames, including a bank, a nail salon, a Mongolian restaurant, and a storefront sculpture gallery featuring Remington reproductions and assorted objects of rodeo art. 

Though the editors of the Hauberk Gazette condemned the violence in the strongest possible terms, stressing the need for dialogue and down-home midwestern tolerance, there was an abiding sense that anything could happen.  One worried that the civil unrest, which had so recently and shockingly boiled through the country on the coattails of the pandemic, might rush inward from the coasts once again, burning everything in its path, until it all coagulated in the center of Hauberk’s main drag.

“Knees!  Dig from the knees!” yelled Aunt Phoebe.

“That’s what I keep telling him!” yelled Uncle Marty.

“Absolutely!”  yelled Uncle Red as he tossed another can of Bud into the bag.

Unfortunately, the moat had not been dug from the knees and it was decidedly not watertight.  The 50 gallons of bituminous tar specified for that purpose in Uncle Marty’s Medieval Siegecraft for the Modern Home was not obtainable from Amazon Prime in less than a month, the local Home Depot having sold out of it two weeks earlier.  We weren’t the only ones digging moats. 

Things got more difficult when Aunt Phoebe strained her back boiling crab apples in an enormous cast iron cauldron behind the house.  This took most of the joie de vivre out of the moat digging experience, seeing that she then parked herself on the front porch swing with a Mason jar full of ice water so she could critique Uncle Red’s and Uncle Marty’s shovel technique.

“The knees!” she yelled.  “It’s all in the knees!  If you don’t hurry it up, you won’t get finished before sundown!  And then what?”

“I know!” yelled Uncle Marty.

“Dig like you got a pair!” yelled Uncle Red—I think to me, since he had his back to Marty and it wouldn’t have made sense had he been addressing Aunt Phoebe.  But I’d learned to take nothing for granted while staying at the house.  And though we hadn’t talked about it, I think we’d all seen enough zombie movies to know what happens after dark when moats are only half-dug. 

Mercifully, Aunt Phoebe left me alone.  Yes, I had bad shovel form.  I knew it.  At 19, I’d already developed what some might call “rickety knees,” which ended all career paths involving well digging, trench maintenance, basement retrofitting, pool resurfacing, and freelance latrine management well before I could investigate those brochures at the Hauberk Job Center. 

Sometimes, Uncle Red called me, “boy” or “the kid,” not in a condescending way but because, to the three of them, that’s what I was and probably what I’d always be.  Uncle Red often said, “A man busts his ass.”  By that calculus, I was just a kid with an unbusted ass and weak knees, who’d therefore gone to college to study Marxism and smoke dope.

“You’re hopeless!” yelled Aunt Phoebe.

“Truth!” yelled Uncle Marty.

“No kidding!” yelled Uncle Red.

I did my best to put my back into it and dig like I had a pair.  I shoveled as fast as I could, thinking we’d have to engineer some sort of pit trap or at least a deadfall with broken rocks and shards of glass at the bottom to stop the house-invading hordes of liberals my aunt and uncles expected any time now.  In case we didn’t get the tar, my Uncle Red said they had a backup plan; though, none of them felt inclined to share it with me just yet.  And I knew better than to attempt to pry it out of them.  They had their secrets, jointly and severally, to be sure.

Still, in spite of the fact that none of us pleased Aunt Phoebe with our shovelry and my uncles took regular piss breaks, constantly bringing more Bud Light out from the pantry, we completed the moat by nightfall.  They completely filled the plastic yard bag with their empty cans.  By the end, they were, as Aunt Phoebe put it, “drunk as two otters.”  Nevertheless, it was a magnificent moat, yawning, black and ominous as a skull in the dark.

I felt we would all sleep well that night—my uncles from an abundance of beer, me from physical exhaustion, Aunt Phoebe from her nightly Halcion crushed up and taken with warm milk.  In the upstairs hallway, she grabbed me by the arm as we passed each other on the way to our rooms.  It was dark, but we paused in a slant of light from the circular window over the stairs.  Fingers digging into my arm, she warned me not to go outside if I woke up before dawn. 

“Why?”

“Cause you don’t know what’s out here,” she whispered.  “You never know.”

I thought Aunt Phoebe was going to caution me against falling into the moat, but I couldn’t imagine what caused her to think I might be wandering out there in the middle of the night.

“Bears?”

“Ain’t no bears in Missouri,” she said.  “Leastways not around here.”

“Democrats?”

She sighed, frowned at me, then let go of my arm and shuffled down to her room at the end of the hall.  One day, Aunt Phoebe would tire of my sarcasm.  Then there would be hell to pay.  Until then, it would be either liberals or bears or perhaps liberal bears, and hell could wait. 

It was a big house, two stories up on a high footprint.  The wood and flagstone front porch was painted dull clay red on a gray concrete foundation about six feet off the ground.  The top floor—four bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a solarium full of cardboard boxes and miscellaneous dusty junk—felt more like a third story. 

I opened the bedroom window and felt the night air on my face.  The window was more like a set of narrow doors with yellow glass panels.  It had little French handles made of pewter and, when it was fully open, it framed my body from mid-shin.  No screen.  You turned both handles at once, swung both sides inward, and then it was just you and the night sky.  No one, to my knowledge, had ever fallen out and broken his neck, but it was the first thing I thought of as I stood there listening to Uncle Red snoring two rooms away. 

The flat blue-gray plain of dead farmland stretched out under the moon.  Here and there a black copse of birch broke the monotony.  Uncle Red called them “volunteers,” because the birds had dropped the seeds.  The saplings grew tall and thin together like groups of people mingling at a party.  My uncles were too superstitious to cut them down.  When I asked, Uncle Marty just said, “You don’t fuck with the land.”  And that was that.

I looked for the moat, but I could only see the edge of it if I leaned way out, which scared me when I did it.  I’m not afraid of heights and old creaky houses, but there was something about how the stands of trees cast long shadows in the moonlight that made me think no one would ever notice me out there if I fell and broke something. 

The room smelled like they hadn’t vacuumed since the Kennedy Administration and I wondered how many people had slept in the lumpy queen bed over the years, what their lives had been like, and how many of them might have stood at the window on a moonlit night and watched those dark stands of trees sway in the wind.

In the morning, I came down to the kitchen, feeling groggy and sore from the previous day’s agricultural labor, all that putting of my back into it and digging like I had a pair.  Aunt Phoebe set out a bowl of Cream of Wheat for me with a slab of butter in the middle like a tiny radiant sun.  She was in a good mood, doing the dishes, whistling, had the local conservative radio show going full blast from her ancient boom box over the sink. 

I noticed she’d washed and replaced the Franklin Mint platter beside the radio.  After I’d been sitting at the table for a minute, Aunt Phoebe fell back into her unconscious habit of answering the show under her breath—“Right” or “Not a chance” or “That’s for damn sure” as she moved around the kitchen.  I thought it was a holy roller radio service at first.  But it was just an agitated republican.

“We’re pretty much stocked up,” she said.  “Nothing can touch us now!”

“What about the crab apples, though?” 

Aunt Phoebe gave me a sour look.  “I dumped ’em.  Too much work.  And I was short on jars.  The squirrels’ll get ’em all before the end of the week anyhow.  You’ll see.”

The speaker on the radio had a feverish, almost breathless way of spitting out his words, as if each one were a bullet.  The question under debate was what the violent liberal rioters were going to do when Trump won again.  A group of illiberal Marxist dissidents was supposed to be holding a sit in that evening in downtown Saint Joseph and the local militia was set to come out and prevent various statues from getting beheaded.  The speaker paused, then asked with great intensity: “Will they burn YOUR town next?” 

“Not this damn town,” muttered Aunt Phoebe; though it was unclear which town she meant.  It was all a bit hard to take with a bowl of greasy porridge after a day of engaging in medieval siegecraft.

The moat, as I have already mentioned, was lacking a sealant, at least one appropriate for a crusader stronghold.  But the backup plan was sound and had already been put in motion.  My uncles returned in Marty’s Dodge Ram just as I was forcing myself to swallow the last spoonful of breakfast.  Roped steady in the truck bed was a 50-gallon drum of self-hardening fiberglass resin they’d bought that morning at Complete Building Materials over in Columbia.

Uncle Red explained the plan as we looked down into the moat.  “This turns to stone and it’s watertight.  When we have to, you know, pour Greek fire in there and light it up, it won’t burn extra hot like with the tar, but it’ll keep it going.”

“Greek fire?”

Uncle Red lit a cigarette, squinted, gestured at the moat with his smoking hand.  “An incendiary weapon first used in Byzantine warfare in the seventh century, Anno Domini.  What’d they teach you at school?”

“Napalm,” Uncle Marty said and grinned.  “They never expect napalm.”

“Isn’t that against the Geneva Convention?”

They laughed.

Later, we sloshed the self-hardening resin around the entire inside of the moat, got harangued from the porch by Aunt Phoebe for sloshing it wastefully and not bending our knees (“I know!” yelled Uncle Red.  “Yeah!  Exactly!” yelled Uncle Marty.), and got dizzy from the fumes.  Then Uncle Marty took me out to see his cattery.

Two things are always true in this existence of toil and servitude, no matter who you are and no matter what you do for a living: one never expects napalm and visiting a cattery will change you.  The former is true because napalm, like moats, is something out of myth and legend, something we only see on TV.  No one says, “It’s looking like rain tomorrow, Bob.  We better roll out the napalm.”  It just doesn’t happen.

The latter is true because feral cats are sons and daughters of the goddess, Bastet, and therefore inherently divine.  And 38 furry divine beings peering at you from the roof and through the slats of an ancient collapsing barn will deliver such pagan grace as to make you rethink certain fundamental assumptions and generally reconsider your life.  Uncle Marty explained this to me when we got there, which also made me reconsider Uncle Marty.

He had a large black cat statue, which he’d positioned at the edge of the roof overlooking the broken side door.  “Soon as I put the statue up,” he said, “they started coming.  They told their friends.  I’m well known.”

“You’re a cat celebrity.”

“Don’t joke.”  He nodded at the Bast statue, which had been carved so artfully that the black cat sitting next to it looked identical.  “She’s a goddess.  She’s kind.  But she’s got her dignity.  You know?”

I didn’t.  I also didn’t know whether he meant the black cat sitting next to the statue or Bastet herself.  When we got out of the truck, the cats started meowing.

“Ancient Egypt’s always called to me.  I got a ton of books on it.  Started having these dreams.  Then one day, I came out here to shoot some cans and I saw a cat sitting right over there.” 

He pointed to a cement block sticking up about a hundred feet away, part of an old house’s foundation, what they used to call a “ghost basement.”  The house got torn down and all that was left were concrete basement walls sunk into the earth.  But the barn had remained, slowly listing until a tornado or maybe just age and termites caused it to definitively collapse sideways.  From the look of it, one more bit of harsh weather might do it in completely.

Uncle Marty opened up five large tins of cat food and positioned them around the doorway.  He talked as he washed out and refilled two aluminium water dishes of the sort the local farmers used for goats and alpacas.  “I followed the cat inside here but it was gone.  Then, about a week after that, I had a dream of cats in a golden temple and I knew.”  He straightened up and gave me his King Arthur smile as if the rest of the story should have been self-evident.

A large crowd of cats had now formed around my uncle, some taking sips of water, some rubbing against his jeans, or nibbling at the food.  A row of them looked down from the edge of the roof like vultures.  Pairs of eyes stared at us from spaces in the wood.  The meowing was prodigious and incessant.  I’d never seen feral cats act like this.  Then again, I’d never seen an ancient Egyptian cattery barn dedicated to a goddess before, either.

“You knew what?” 

“I knew I touched on the infinite.”

In the evening, Uncle Red got drunk up in the attic, watching C-SPAN on the house computer.  Uncle Marty disappeared to his room.  And Aunt Phoebe put on the AM ballroom station, twirling around the kitchen like an ingénue of the early cinema.  Contrary to what one might initially think, this was their usual routine. 

It was also why I hadn’t asked Uncle Marty to explain what touching the infinite meant.  After many nights of watching my aunt bow to an invisible dance partner, whom she referred to as “Mr. Godfrey,” and listening to Uncle Red have heated drunken arguments in the attic with his dead wife (Aunt Paula—I met her once when I was very young), an Egyptian cat shrine in backwoods Missouri didn’t seem unreasonable.

Aunt Phoebe and my uncles weren’t stupid.  They weren’t insane.  They were simply ingrown, weird, haunted by people or things long gone, by memories or regrets or fantasies.  And to watch them in their evening pursuits, to pass judgement on them, even silently, seemed indecent, made me feel as though their loneliness could add to mine.  So I gave them as much room as I could in that dusty old house, retreating to my bedroom after dinner to read.

My great-grandfather’s bookcases were still in the basement, preserved under dusty drop cloths and I liberated the complete Dickens in hardback, the stories of Guy de Maupassant, an illustrated Moby Dick.  I kept a diary on my laptop; though, I was often uninspired and only tapped out a few lines.  And that was the circumference of my nights when I wasn’t recovering from digging like I had a pair.  I’d hoped to study English at Hauberk College, since reading was the only thing I ever truly enjoyed, but given a long enough timeline in that house, I felt I, too, would be holding seances, talking to ancient cat goddesses, and sharing a Coke with Mr. Godfrey.

I’d never been normal, if normal meant barbeques and baseball games.  I wasn’t fond of team sports, wasn’t voted most likely to succeed at anything.  Toward the end of my senior year, as I was getting ready to go away for college, after noting loudly and critically that I didn’t have a girlfriend, my mother pronounced me too smart to be normal and cast her own form of divination, part curse, part prophecy. 

I would, she said, be lonely and miserable in the years to come.  But there would be a time when the tables would turn and all those kids who seemed to be having fun now would despise themselves and their lives.  Then it would be my turn as long as I studied very, very hard.  She had that angry righteous light in her eyes when she said it.  But she never foretold that a virus would sweep the world or that I’d wind up living in “the ramshackle pit” instead of taking British Literature at Hauberk College.  My parents hadn’t returned my last three calls.  I could only assume that they didn’t want me coming home so soon.  Maybe they thought some moat digging would be good for me.

We were about ten miles out from the house on a dirt road without a name.  I asked Uncle Marty if the barn was part of the family property, but he just smiled and shook his head. 

“Somebody owns it,” he said.  “Or nobody does.”

“Maybe the cats.”

Uncle Marty laughed, nodded.  Maybe so.

Today, after all the Covidy Trump ups and downs, the questions about Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation, and the hard questions about whether there should even be a VP presidential debate, I’m thinking again about Chris Beck’s excellent piece in Splice Today, “The Media Reports Narratives, Not Facts.” 

We all live online now. We look at the world through electrified windows. All we see in our non-digital lives is our homes and immediate neighborhoods. Maybe we travel some, but we don’t get much of an overview of what’s going on unless we use digital media.  This is good and bad.

The Good: we live in an information society where communication, news, and knowledge can be produced instantaneously.

The Bad: we live in an information society where communication, news, and knowledge can be produced instantaneously.

He / She / It who controls the location and size of the digital window (and do take a moment to learn about the “Overton Window” as well) controls what is seen. Is it true that the United States is collapsing? What does the New York Times say about it? More importantly, how, when, and to what end does the NYT cover the “decline of America”? You can’t just think about the content; you have to think about how it’s framed and marketed to you.

All media is a product. This is capitalism. And the truth (often much more complex than how it is presented in one “window” or another) is out there, but it is always, always beholden to the bottom line for any media platform. Of course, they all say they’re dedicated to the truth.

Is Fox News a legitimate news source? Sure. It’s about as legit as CNN. But it will seem more or less reliable depending on your assumptions about the world, your values, your community, and your culture. How about the Daily Wire? Take a look at it (especially if you consider yourself a liberal) and you won’t see a whole lot of variation between what’s in there and what’s showing on the Wall Street Journal on a given news day.

You might notice that certain stories are emphasized more than others or are framed to imply certain conclusions (the “secret message” in a news story that used to be called “slant” or “an angle” but which is now called “news bias”). But the Daily Wire is considered to be much farther to the political right on the American spectrum than the WSJ. Why? Probably because conservative pundit, Ben Shapiro, founded and until recently ran DW. But that really isn’t a good reason. It’s just perceptual media bias.

Do this comparison between The Washington Post and Mother Jones. How about The Daily Beast and Vox? How about any of these and Breitbart or The Drudge Report? Products. Marketing. Stoking controversy in targeted audiences. Know why I don’t watch Russia Today news? Google it and the reason should jump off the screen. Even search engines have slant, bias, implicit preferences that show the world a certain way. You can’t escape slant.

But you can do this: read conservative news if you’re a liberal along with your liberal stuff. Read liberal news if you’re a conservative along with your conservative stuff. Look at Media Bias Fact Check and search your favorite media sources there. Do this in order to see the world through more windows, even though you’ll never get a comprehensive view of anything.

Don’t let any media source trick you into thinking that what you’re seeing is the whole truth or the entire scope of something. You have to work to get that on your own.  As Beck puts it in his Splice Today piece: “It’s no surprise that Americans’ trust in the media is minuscule. The New York Times can’t even recognize third-rate journalism. As a consumer of media, the only way to be well-informed is to remain skeptical about the media’s competence, understand that they’re reporting a narrative instead of the facts, and get your news from a variety of sources.” 

Here are some questions to ponder for yourself:

  • Is there a problem with the stories on Zero Hedge? What might it be?
  • What makes The National Review a “libertarian” publication? Is it?
  • Why aren’t more writers for Quillette publishing in The New Yorker and The New York Times?
  • Is the NYT’s “1619 Project” history or speculative fiction? How can you tell?
  • What is the primary difference between Rachel Maddow’s and Ben Shapiro’s coverage? Why might this be a pointless question to ask?
  • I say above that “you can’t escape slant.” So why do all this thinking and reading about media? If bias is inevitable, why try to see past it?
  • Does believing a QAnon conspiracy theory indicate that you are intelligent, stupid, or just misinformed? How do you know? How about believing in the tenets of the religion of your choice? Smart? Stupid? How about believing that Critical Race Theory realistically depicts power relations in the world? Smart? Something else? What do these three belief systems have in common?

Read my post-debate thoughts on Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/how-does-america-recover-from-this

Amis is one of my favorite comic prose writers.  This is from Everyday Drinking, a book I wholeheartedly recommend, even for the specious and questionable breed of degenerates known as “non-drinkers.”  Abbreviations: “P.H.” means “Physical Hangover.”  “M.H.” means “Metaphysical Hangover.” – M


THE METAPHYSICAL HANGOVER

1. Deal thoroughly with your P.H.

2. When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is, and there is no use crying over spilt milk. If this works, if you can convince yourself, you need do no more, as provided in the markedly philosophical

G.P. 9: He who truly believes he has a hangover has no hangover.

3. If necessary, then, embark on either the M.H. Literature Course or the M.H. Music Course or both in succession (not simultaneously). Going off and gazing at some painting, building or bit of statuary might do you good too, but most people, I think, will find such things unimmediate for this— perhaps any—purpose. The structure of both Courses, HANGOVER READING and HANGOVER LISTENING, rests on the principle that you must feel worse emotionally before you start to feel better. A good cry is the initial aim.

HANGOVER READING

Begin with verse, if you have any taste for it. Any really gloomy stuff that you admire will do. My own choice would tend to include the final scene of Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines 606 to the end, with what is probably the most poignant moment in all our literature coming at lines 624–6. The trouble here, though, is that today of all days you do not want to be reminded of how inferior you are to the man next door, let alone to a chap like Milton. Safer to pick somebody less horribly great. I would plump for the poems of A. E. Housman and/or R. S. Thomas, not that they are in the least interchangeable. Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum is good, too, if a little long for the purpose.

Switch to prose with the same principles of selection. I suggest Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It is not gloomy exactly, but its picture of life in a Russian labour camp will do you the important service of suggesting that there are plenty of people about who have a bloody sight more to put up with than you (or I) have or ever will have, and who put up with it, if not cheerfully, at any rate in no mood of self-pity.

Turn now to stuff that suggests there may be some point to living after all. Battle poems come in rather well here: Macaulay’s Horatius, for instance. Or, should you feel that this selection is getting a bit British (for the Roman virtues Macaulay celebrates have very much that sort of flavour), try Chesterton’s Lepanto. The naval victory in 1571 of the forces of the Papal League over the Turks and their allies was accomplished without the assistance of a single Anglo-Saxon (or Protestant). Try not to mind the way Chesterton makes some play with the fact that this was a victory of Christians over Moslems.

By this time you could well be finding it conceivable that you might smile again some day. However, defer funny stuff for the moment. Try a good thriller or action story, which will start to wean you from self-observation and the darker emotions: Ian Fleming, Eric Ambler, Gavin Lyall, Dick Francis, Geoffrey Household, C. S. Forester (perhaps the most useful of the lot). Turn to comedy only after that; but it must be white—i.e. not black—comedy: P. G. Wodehouse, Stephen Leacock, Captain Marryat, Anthony Powell (not Evelyn Waugh), Peter De Vries (not The Blood of the Lamb, which, though very funny, has its real place in the tearful category, and a distinguished one). I am not suggesting that these writers are comparable in other ways than that they make unwillingness to laugh seem a little pompous and absurd.

HANGOVER LISTENING

Here, the trap is to set your sights too high. On the argument tentatively advanced against unduly great literature, give a wide berth to anyone like Mozart. Go for someone who is merely a towering genius. Tchaikovsky would be my best buy in this department, and his Sixth Symphony (the Pathétique) my individual selection. After various false consolations have been set aside, its last movement really does what the composer intended and, in an amazingly non-dreary way, evokes total despair: sonic M.H. if ever I heard it.

Alternatively, or next, try Tchaikovsky’s successor, Sibelius. The Swan of Tuonela comes to mind, often recommended though it curiously is (or was in my youth) as a seduction background-piece. (Scope for a little article there.) Better still for our purpose, I think, is the same composer’s incidental music to Maeterlinck’s play, Pelléas and Mélisande: not to be confused with Debussy’s opera of that name. The last section of the Sibelius, in particular, carries the ever-so-slightly phoney and overdone pathos that is exactly what you want in your present state.

If you can stand vocal music, I strongly recommend Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody—not an alto sax, you peasant, but a contralto voice, with men’s choir and full orchestra. By what must be pure chance, the words sung, from a—between you and me, rather crappy—poem of Goethe’s, Harzreise im Winter, sound like an only slightly metaphorical account of a hangover. They begin, “Aber abseits wer ist’s?”—all right, I am only copying it off the record-sleeve; they begin, “But who is that (standing) apart? His path is lost in the undergrowth,” and end with an appeal to God to “open the clouded vista over the thousand springs beside the thirsty one in the desert.” That last phrase gets a lot in. You can restore some of your fallen dignity by telling yourself that you too are a Duerstender in der Wueste. This is a piece that would fetch tears from a stone, especially a half-stoned stone, and nobody without a record of it in his possession should dare to say that he likes music. The Kathleen Ferrier version is still unequalled after twenty years.

Turn now to something lively and extrovert, but be careful. Quite a lot of stuff that appears to be so at first inspection has a nasty habit of sneaking in odd blows to the emotional solar plexus; ballet music (except Tchaikovsky) and overtures to light operas and such are safer—Suppé, if you have no objection to being reminded of school sports days here and there, is fine. Or better, Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, which would make a zombie dance.

Jazz is not much good for your M.H., and pop will probably worsen your P.H. But if you really feel that life could not possibly be gloomier, try any slow Miles Davis track. It will suggest to you that, however gloomy life may be, it cannot possibly be as gloomy as Davis makes it out to be. There is also the likely bonus to be gained from hearing some bystander refer to Davis as Miles instead of Davis. The surge of adrenalin at this piece of trendy pseudo-familiarity will buck up your system, and striking the offender to the ground will restore your belief in your own masculinity, rugged force, etc.

Warning: Make quite sure that Davis’s sometime partner, John Coltrane, is not “playing” his saxophone on any track you choose. He will suggest to you, in the strongest terms, that life is exactly what you are at present taking it to be: cheap, futile and meaningless.

A Bit of Sage Love Advice From Master Po

A former co-worker of mine called me on Skype a few months ago.  After a certain amount of hemming and hawing, he got down to it: I’m really into so-and-so and, now that we’re all working remotely, I want to let her know.  But I have no idea what I’m doing.  Tell me how.  I’m summarizing about 2000 words of wind-up, preface, and self-obfuscation, but the heart of the matter, like all truths, came out relatively simple.  He has an office crush in a time of no office.  Ah so.

I lied and told him I was busy.  He Skype-called me a few days later and wanted to talk.  I told him I had no idea and suggested he ask his therapist.  He told me he didn’t have a therapist and called me an asshole.  Then he started crying.  He’s in his 20s.  I’m in my 40s.  Gen Xers don’t cry.  But I felt bad.  I know.  I really am an asshole.  And to be completely honest, a small part of me was flattered.  Nobody asks me for advice about anything and probably for good reason.  I’m a horrible misanthrope.  And I know nothing.

Why he came to me I will never really understand.  Maybe I was the only person he could trust, since I’m also acquainted with so-and-so but I don’t work there anymore.  Maybe he sensed some sympathy on my part—a shared belief that, in a perfect world, they’d be wonderful together.  I suppose they would.  But we don’t live in a perfect world.  Some of us don’t even live.  I’m not sure what you’d call the day-drinking lockdown existence many people are leading these days, but I suspect “living” ain’t it.

After some awkwardness, I agreed to entertain his tale of woe in exchange for him not being upset if I wrote about it.  A devil’s bargain was struck.  Consummatum est.  I feel like people of my generation, having grown up before thirst-trap selfies and Onlyfans side-gigs, would never have agreed to such terms.  But Generation Z seems less inhibited.  That’s probably a good thing.  I’ll shoot my mouth off in writing, but if you know me in real life, you’ll find me to be pretty quiet and withdrawn.  Call it the Gen X split personality.  I remember a time when there were consequences for revealing too much of yourself.  Now everyone has closeups of their nipple rings on Instagram.  I guess that makes me an old fogey.

Fogeyism aside, I really didn’t know what to say.  Apparently, the stress was killing him.  He couldn’t stop thinking about her.  And he wanted to know if I thought he should unburden himself, if that would at least provide some kind of catharsis.  And then they could avoid each other in perpetuity on Zoom.  I thought about it for 30 seconds and this is what Master Po said.

First, don’t come on to co-workers.  Just don’t.  My thinking on this has evolved over the years.  I used to be romantic about it, asking, who am I to stand in the way of love?  But now I believe I have an answer to that question: an adult.  Adult self-control, being the basis of all civilization, requires that you keep it in your pants in a professional environment.  It’s right up there with germ theory, running water, and not frightening the horses.  It’s how the pyramids got built and why grandpa never had to go to prison.

So that’s the first premise: nay, lad, control thyself and petition Venus in her proper temple.  Here’s the logic.  If it turns out so-and-so isn’t interested in you like that, it’s a problem.  If she is interested, it’s an even bigger problem.  Keep work at work and don’t go looking for love in all the wrong places.

Second, there’s always a reason when it’s hard to talk to someone.  Yes, you’re shy and that’s something to consider, but there’s more to it than that.  When people are interested in you, no matter how shy one or both of you are, you will eventually feel that affinity.  This why the pre-Covid-19 handshake was so useful.  It was like taking a reading of the other person.

Between men and women, the nonverbal interaction can be subtle, but it’s always there, for better or worse.  And if it’s positive, it will eventually bring the two of you into proximity.  If it doesn’t draw you together, that means, on some level, there is resistance.  And that, Grasshopper, should not be overlooked.  If she’s nice but keeps her distance, respect that resistance.  It’s telling you how she feels, at least right now.  If she’s an adult, the resistance may also be there because she wants to keep work at work.  Respect that, too, and take a lesson.

Third, stop thinking strategically.  You can’t think your way from how you feel into her life.  There are no formulas.  Dating formulas and methods are, without exception, worthless and designed to part clueless men from their money.  They nearly always treat women like objects, complex puzzles that can be solved with a series of deft manipulations.  So-and-so is far more like you than she is like a combination lock.  And like you, she will resent it when she realizes you’re trying to game her.  So don’t do that.  Don’t confuse her with a boss fight in a video game.  Analytical thinking has no place in this.

Fourth, stop taking lust for love.  Master Po recommends large helpings of both, but he cautions you not to mix them up.  When you work with someone to whom you might feel attracted and you’re looking at that person every day, it’s easy to tell yourself that you’re developing feelings.  Maybe you’re just sexually frustrated.  It happens.

Here’s the test: picture Monica Lewinski being interviewed on Oprah.  After visualizing that conversation, revisit your feelings about so-and-so.  Do you like her just because you work with her and she’s the president (at least, the president of your heart) and has strong masterful shoulders?  Or do you actually have something that might qualify as two adults at the beginning of a romantic relationship?  Be honest.  Don’t change your name to Monica.

Last, I offer the relationship advice given to me by an older woman when I was in my 20s and lacking a clue: don’t start anything you can’t finish.  In other words, don’t trap yourself in a situation that you can’t walk away from if it makes you miserable.  This is a more general version of “keep work at work,” and it applies to just about everything in life.

We’re always telling ourselves stories about who we are and what we do.  Society is always telling us who we should be and what we should do, even though society could care less if we’re happy or fulfilled.  Everybody wants to be in charge, enforce their values, boss people about through the power of storytelling.  It’s almost a fact of human nature.

But nearly everything that makes us consistently happy involves a degree of antinomian rebellion against other people’s narratives, against should.  We’ve got should stories running all over the place designed to trap us into particular behaviors or commitments.  Consummatum est, as Mephistopheles said to Dr. Faustus.  But obligation-inducing narratives and reality are two different things.

Never start something if you can’t finish it, which is to say, if you don’t control the narrative and have to accept “shoulds.”  That includes research projects, reading books, baking pizzas, and starting up ill-conceived office romances that take place in a situation where you don’t have power and alternatives.  I know talking about power is unromantic.  But a huge power differential usually dooms a relationship from the beginning, especially if it’s situational.  Even if the situation has gone remote and online.  

After I told him all this, there was a moment of silence.  He said, “Thanks” and that he had to go.  I haven’t heard from him since.  I don’t think he took my sage advice.  It’s probably for the best.

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

— Andrew Marvell

The United States is still pretty great.  Read about it on Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/the-illusion-of-american-deterioration.

With idle tales this fills our empty ears;
The next reports what from the first he hears;
The rolling fictions grow in strength and size,
Each author adding to the former lies.
Here vain credulity, with new desires,
Leads us astray, and groundless joy inspires;
The dubious whispers, tumults fresh designed,
And chilling fears astound the anxious mind.

— Ovid, Metamorphoses, XII 56-61

(Trans. Jonathan Swift, for his essay, “Political Lying,” 1710)

Supernatural has come to an end after 15 long seasons.  That’s probably for the best.  No TV show should run that long.  And it had multiple corny, goofy, b-movie impossible-to-believe arcs that sometimes made us groan.  But when it was good—and it usually was at some point in every season—especially when it got back to the fable of two brothers taking ghost-hunting road trips in their muscle car through middle America—it was really unique and fascinating.

I found myself keeping up with the show over the years, even at times when there were ostensibly more serious things I wanted to watch.  I even read some of the scripts in order to figure out how, exactly, they pulled off certain nigh-unbelievable episodes.  I even talked with a teacher of mine about a few of them. 

I learned TV writing from a very smart, funny woman who taught me a lot about the business and the machinelike precision that often goes into making a TV episode.  It changed the way I thought of television as a creative medium and sharpened my sense of how to make something happen in a scene.  Literary fiction writers often have a hard time with plot.  They tend to think more about the inner landscape of their characters.  But from a TV writer’s point of view, inner upheavals, quiet moments, and realizations emerge in the acting.  Good TV writing is plot.  And Supernatural’s writers never forgot that.

Often, I’d be watching an utterly goofy episode about a swamp monster eating cheerleaders in central Iowa and I’d realize the immense skill being employed to pack a fully formed dramatic arc into a single episode with surprisingly good character actors filling in the blanks.  Nothing about that is simple or easy.  Good TV never is.

Say you’ve got 50 pages of script for about 30 minutes of content in a tripartite dramatic structure.  An episode needs to sustain tension across commercial breaks, involve most of the cast regulars, and keep within the boundaries of the “series bible,” the style book for the show.  In a continuing series, it has to do these things while advancing the broad dramatic arc of the season.  Nothing can be wasted.  Every available minute must be used.  In this highly commercial form of storytelling, time is always money. 

There were a few episodes that astonished me in that respect.  And I started to follow some of the show’s writers on social media.  I’m not much of a fan, but sometimes I’d see some particularly acrobatic bit of dramatic structure and think, damn, who wrote this?  Who can build that sort of clockwork mechanism episode after episode, show after show well enough to make a career out of it?  I’d describe such a person as highly disciplined, precise, and obsessive.  She has to have all the skills with language that every writer has plus a fanatical work ethic, the willingness to commit to someone else’s creative guidelines, and an overwhelming amount of determination to dust herself off and get back into it when Hollywood inevitably hands her a beating.  Supernatural seemed to have a number of these ringers in its rotation.  You could see the craft.

As someone who stepped into that world, realized how harsh it is, and stepped back out just as quickly, I harbor a deep respect for what goes on in a show’s writers room.  I try to hold myself to a similar standard in my work and always enjoy discovering other writers who do the same, even though I’m writing stories and novels and not building three-act chronographs.  But a work of great craftsmanship is a wonderful thing to see, whether it’s pretending to be TV b-horror or something more serious.

I’m going to miss Supernatural, as much for these writerly things as for how entertaining and fun the show could be.  People talk about the Battlestar Galactica reboot, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and Dexter as being really well-crafted shows in the new golden age of streaming television.  And I think they are.  But a show like Supernatural sneaks in the back door.  It comes dressed as lowbrow pulp, as a jester that doesn’t take itself seriously, and it does such a good job pantomiming and parodying that we overlook its immense skill.  Of course, that’s what we were meant to do all along.

I met a traveler from an antique land
who stopped me with a blue-gloved hand
and said, “That’s close enough.
You might be carrying viral lint in your trouser cuff.”
I could tell from the smell in the room
he’d been having sex on Zoom.
It was a shame we were so out of phase.
It was a shame we met in these dog days.
The parks are brown.
The rich are out of town.
I walk across Boston Common, forgetting people’s names,
and one by one behind me the trees burst into flames.

I look back at the stressed-out writing I did four years ago after Trump was elected and recall what my European friends were saying at the time.  They were a bit blasé about the new administration, a bit cynical about whether anything had changed or would change in U.S. geopolitics. 

They wanted to know why I was so upset.  They saw Trump as a slightly more pungent embodiment of the same old repellent post-WWII American hubris.  Yes, he lacked Obama’s varnish and capacity.  But, in that sense, they seemed to think Trump was a little better—take the makeup off the beast and you can see it more clearly.  Take off its camoflauge and you can more easily track its movements.  America, they felt, is evil, uneducated, childish, and wrong.  Let’s be honest.  Let’s reveal its true nature.  Why not accomplish this by letting Trump flail about and demonstrate American dysfunction on the international stage?

But the imperial, crass, clumsy, adventurist America that colored the perceptions of my friends abroad wasn’t what I was mourning.  Countries, like the people that create and sustain them, are not simple.  Reducing them to an exploitative foreign policy (which their people may not even fully understand or approve of) and the philistine values of their nastiest and most brutish citizens is disingenuous at best. 

The America in which I grew up was liberally and tolerantly Democrat and Republican.  People voted locally, believed in civil rights, valued humanistic education, and, incidentally, were not part of anything that could be considered “systemically racist.”  Higher education and health care were expensive but were seen as inherently good and worth working for.  My southern Californian neighborhood was diverse.  My childhood friends were Hmong, Vietnamese, Italian, African-American, Polish, Mexican-American, and every other ethnicity you can imagine. 

This is not to say that the country (including my small part of it) didn’t have serious problems or that there was no racism or crime.  It’s to say that America was seen as a decent place in which to live, in spite of those things.  And I grew up in a fairly poor neighborhood in a house with the roof always falling in.  I wasn’t dirt poor, but I wasn’t “rolling like a hog in the fat house,” either.  So, with deep reservations, I voted for Hilary in 2016.  I was well aware of the evils in my country.  But it was the good that I cared about and wanted to protect by voting Democrat.  I suspect most who voted Republican felt the same way.

The reason I was upset four years ago, and why I disagreed with the pessimistic view of my European friends, was that Trump brought a vision of “American carnage”—a distorted view of failure and fallout that didn’t square with what I knew from firsthand experience as a citizen.  He encouraged us to envision ourselves as a nigh-failed state.  And I knew that what you envision eventually becomes real.

But none of us could foresee the damage that this would do to the political continuum in the United States and, by extension, to American society.  The last four years have been tragic, convoluted, and intense to an almost unbelievable degree, such that the best analysts and political commentators now seem occupied with catching up or doomsaying instead of predicting what’s to come or offering solutions; though, one can admit that foreseeability is always an issue.

The complexity of this moment in American history is as broad and deep as it is disturbing.  And we might forgive the pundits for having a hard time with it.  It’s hard to think of any moment in American history simple and clear enough that we can say it’s open and shut, that we can easily understand it without much discussion.

For example, it’s not enough to argue that Truman dropped the bomb in 1945 to curtail protracted war in the Pacific and ultimately save lives.  It’s not enough to say that he was spineless and unduly influenced by hawkish generals and politicians looking for payback and glory.  It’s not enough to say that the American public had grown hardened by the war to the extent that the mass-murder of Japanese civilians seemed like an acceptable trade-off for victory.  If we’re in search of the broadest, clearest, most unvarnished view, we have to say all these things and more. 

Such considerations and a hundred others like them, existing side by side, are what make American history so confounding and fascinating (and are what make the New York Times’ dubious “1619 Project” more race-oriented speculative fiction than history, on par with creationist textbooks and What If the Nazis Won the War fan fic).  History is not simple because we are not simple.  The breadth of a cultural, historical moment is always hard to grasp, even in retrospect.  And, at the time, suffused as it is with emotion and rhetoric, it’s nearly impossible to fully and clearly understand what’s going on, even if we have a great deal of information. 

Nevertheless, we all agree that it’s the job of journalists, philosophers, artists, historians (even politicians) to set aside the fear and make sense of things.  When they succeed, we can arrive at maybe a partial understanding of what’s happening, maybe to the extent that we can act in accordance with best possible premises and mitigate the damage.  But after four years of American carnage, we seem to have unambiguously failed in that respect.  And we can’t pin it all on Trump.  We’re the ones who fed him tequila and acid and took him off the leash.  We’re the ones who burned our own neighborhoods.  Political writers, in particular, share the blame.

What we unfortunately have now is vicious black-and-white thinking across the political spectrum, the sort of irrationality that greenlights violence, tribalism, feuding, and revenge and thinks it’s all for the best, the sort of illiberal extremism that forgets how to come together and resolve differences.  And foreseeability remains a key problem—even the partial sort that sets aside the Huxlean herd poison in favor of the common good. 

The vision of American carnage is coming to pass when we could have imagined and brought forth something far better.  Such is the root of my discontent—what I felt in 2016 and what I feel now.  It’s why I regard political conventions as rituals of death worship, paying homage to dead systems and broken ideologies, rigidly entrenched in old enmities and feuds, and enslaved to a partisanship so obsolete and toxic that it has become clownish and absurd.

Cynicism and black-and-white thinking are too easy in times like this.  My deepest wish for the United States is that it will let go of those things and embrace classical liberalism—the radical notion that the left and the right can come together in the middle, take the best of what they are, and form a more perfect union.  We’ve done it before.  I don’t see why we can’t do it again. 

Read my latest in Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/watching-political-conventions-is-like-worshiping-the-dead

Read my new piece on Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/magazine-rejections-and-learning-to-love-the-hate

A profound bit of wisdom from Alan Watts.

I want to believe in the system, its language and agency, even as I distrust it.  Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/compulsory-education-might-be-a-necessary-evil

A story about everyday heroes and the good people who egg them on.

 

“God,” Cecilia said.  “It’s him.”  She gripped my hand. 

Lynette leaned forward and exhaled a funnel of smoke.  “You think he’s gonna call somebody out?” 

“Shit yeah.  Look at him.”

Everyone in the courtyard was.  Tenants stood in the Langston’s windows, waiting for Esteban Dominguez to pronounce what they assumed would be his next sentence of death.  He stood in the center beside the stubby bird-shit-covered fountain, staring up at the apartments, his fists clenched. 

12-year-old Jeannina, who lived up on the fourth floor and whose mother wisely never let her play downstairs, yelled, “I love you ’steban!”  Doubtless she was telling the truth.  The ecosystem of the Langston Apartments was very sensitive.  Drop someone like him into it and people immediately ran to the windows.  It was better than TV.

“Lip!” he shouted.  “I don’t want to do this in front of your grandpa!”

“It’s Jackie,” Lynette said.  “Esteban warned him last week.”

“Come on, Lip!  Get out here!”

Cecilia shook her head at Lip’s foolishness. “Kid better do it.”  “He’ll never live it down, he doesn’t.  He’ll be a story forever.”

“He won’t be a story.  People around here are too tired to make up stories.”  I took one of Cecilia’s Camels out of the box.  She lit it for me with a tiny Bic that had Hawaiian flowers on it.

Lynette nodded.  “They’ll make up one for Jackie, though.  That’s for damn sure.”

Jackie Lipson was 16 and thought he was some kind of gangster.  He lived in the Langston with his senile grandfather and his girlfriend, who’d dropped out with him the year before.  They spent a lot of time at the rec center a few blocks over with the other juvenile delinquents.  The only thing I ever heard about Lip was that he did a lot of graffiti.  I couldn’t imagine what Esteban wanted with him. 

But I almost loved Esteban, too.  For as much as he liked to strike heroic poses and be looked at, he seemed to lead a charmed life.  He didn’t carry weapons.  People said he’d never been shot.  And in his own, weird, comic book way, he was trying to make the neighborhood a better place.  In all the depressing penury, he was a bright spot, bigger than life, and I’d be lying if I said that some part of me didn’t agree that he deserved the attention.  Esteban got an A for effort.

The neighborhood needed someone, especially the Langston.  So why not him?  In order to lead a decent life, the Langston required a herculean amount of self-discipline—more than most people had.  My room, for instance, had an ongoing cockroach scenario.  They were large, intelligent, and had acquired a certain immunity to poison.  They ate it right up.  But as long as I didn’t leave out any garbage, standing water, crumbs, or have any open cuts, they treated the room as a staging area for other more critical maneuvers. 

Perhaps because of this or because of something known only to them, the rats stayed out.  People complained about the supposed building-wide rat infestation, but in the five months I’d been staying at the Langston, I’d never seen one.  Just the pitter-patter of little feet in the kitchen at 2 AM.  Otherwise, my hot water worked.  My neighbors kept quiet.  And I took care to be mindful of life’s merciful trade-offs.

“Hey Esteban!  Hey!  Over here!”  Cecilia waved like she was flagging him down on the highway, leaving zig-zags of smoke in the air.  She had a particular obsession with Esteban that ruled out anyone short of People or European royalty.  They were destined to be together.  He just didn’t know it yet.

I looked at the curling flowers tattooed on Cecilia’s forearm.  She’d briefly put her hand on mine, and it had felt good in a secret way that would never show on my face.  I’ll admit that was the reason I didn’t listen to my better judgment telling me now was the time to go up and deliver a speech to the roaches.  When was the last time a pretty girl held my hand, even for a minute?

Esteban looked over, grinned, waved, then nodded at the Langston.

“Lip!  I don’t got all day!  Be a man!”

He was, without a doubt, the angriest person in Missouri, but he loved the ladies.  If you nominated him for the angriest ladies’ man on the face of the planet, he might win.  That was just his style.  Esteban had been arrested for murder twice.  But, because he lived in a different reality, some cross between the old West and 18th century Spain, where one could engage in lethal street fights and be considered a neighborhood hero instead of a killer, he got off both times.  The story was he’d killed a pimp and a drug dealer.  Everyone said, “Good for ’steban.” 

All I knew was that he worked out a lot, didn’t seem to have gainful employment, lived with his mom on the other side of Nimcato Cemetery, and was impossibly, devastatingly handsome.  At 6’3” with wavy black hair, a square jaw, and the physique of a proletarian hero in a Communist propaganda poster, Esteban seemed like he should be wearing a cape instead of starched khakis and a white dress shirt.  But that was the only way I’d ever seen him.  I imagined his closet: half white dress shirts, half khakis, all starched, ironed, and perfectly aligned by mom to aid him in his fight against crime.

The cigarette was good.  I never bought them, but my lunch break friendship with Lynette and Cecilia was giving me lung cancer anyway.  Still, there’s something incredibly pleasant about a social smoke.  If you can control yourself, put yourself on a meter, all kinds of drugs can be enjoyed, even the coffin nails.  My grandma, who smoked one pack of Luckys a month, used to say nobody who smokes once a day is a smoker.  By that definition, she wasn’t.  And now neither was I.  But most people can’t regulate.  Most people run like wild dogs over the hills.  Grandma said that, too.

“You think he’s some undercover cop?”  Lynette winked then glanced at Cecilia.

“You mean like Charles Bronson or some shit?”

“Chuck Norris back in the day.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “Like in The Octagon.  Maybe he knows kung-fu.  Catch a bullet in his teeth.”

“Nah, that was The Last Dragon,” Lynette said.  “Maybe The 36 Chambers of Shaolin.”

Esteban pointed up at a window.  “There you are, you little shit!  You want me to come up and pull you out?”

Cecilia groped for her pack of cigarettes.  I slid the pack against her hand.  She didn’t notice right away.  Then she extracted a fresh cigarette with two fingers, keeping her eyes on the drama, a smile on her face.

Far above, there was a faint high-pitched cry, as if muffled by several mattresses, the ghetto version of “The Princess and the Pea” where the pea talks shit: “Ima kill you, bitch!”

That was all Esteban needed.  He ran for the Langston’s lobby.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “You sure that wasn’t Buckaroo Banzai?”

“You both need to shut the hell up.”  Cecilia turned back and frowned at each of us in turn. 

Lynette grinned.  “Buckaroo Banzai was a classic, man.”

The Langston Apartments was a dirty place, no doubt about it.  It was dirty from the William Lucy House next door on the western side, a skid row nursing home like you’ve never seen.  Dirty because clean is next to impossible in places like these.  Clean living and the downward spiral don’t mix.  And I knew someday there would be an accounting, some kind of judgment that would clear it all away. 

It wouldn’t come from the street, from the likes of Esteban Dominguez.  Instead, the good people of Hauberk, Missouri, would simply kick the tenants out and tear the structure down.  Put up mirrored glass, a Pilates studio, a bistro with garden seating.  They’d install an uncomfortable college girl dressed in black to remind you that a reservation is necessary.  Then the sorrows of the Langston would be gone forever, along with the unfortunates who called it home.  For the moment, however, they all still lived there, locked tight on that downward spiral.

“Lunch break’s almost over.”  Cecilia sighed, flicked ash onto the table.

“Shit,” Lynette said.  “We can be a little late.  Nobody’s gonna die.”

The days were still warm.  Because I’d studied English in school, I now had a job in a call center that required my presence four nights a week.  I spent afternoons reading in the courtyard, mocking the world at lunchtime with Lynette and Cecilia, who were care nurses in William Lucy House.  They were the hardest cases I’d ever met.  They regularly egged each other on, competing to see who could be the toughest, coldest, most cynical misanthrope on the block. 

Today, however, was special.  It was as if the gods had preordained it to be particularly awful.  I suppose this is because the downward spiral is a spiral and some days are therefore better than others.  As soon as I saw Esteban Dominguez walk through the courtyard’s open wrought iron gates, I knew this wouldn’t be good.  And now he was in there, doing something horrific to Lip, cleaning up the neighborhood. 

No matter how they tried to erase the Langston, even if they burned it down and shot the ashes into space, the sense of it, the sheer echo of its presence, would linger like the scent of something rotten.

“What about all those old folks shambling around like Day of the Dead?”

Cecilia rolled her eyes, took a drag, blew smoke in my face.  “They’re like bumper cars.  They just go bump up on everything.”

“Then we put them back in their rooms,” Lynette said.

“Yeah.  They get tired bumping up on tables and chairs.”

By now, everybody in the building or the surrounding area, even some of the residents of William Lucy House, had come out to watch.  With the exception of Art the drug dealer across the courtyard, Esteban might have hospitalized or otherwise exiled every other dealer, pimp, or toy gang member south of 32nd Street.  Maybe Lip was the only one left.  But he wasn’t really a gang member.  He was just a dumb kid.

Art sat all day, hoodie up, across the brick courtyard at the farthest patio table, blinking into his cell phone.  Lost souls came in through the courtyard’s wide-open gates on a regular basis, did a hand-off with him, and were out in a flash.  Nobody cared.  Few noticed.  His side of the courtyard was dark for half of every day because the U-Pack-It Self Storage facility on the eastern side blocked out the sun. 

I absently watched the torment on his face as he no doubt considered making a run for the gates while Esteban was up in the Langston delivering justice to a 16-year-old.  Art’s perplexed expression and little mustard beard seemed to float in the shadows, illuminated in his hood by his phone’s screen, like a monk discovering the Grail.  He was definitely discovering something.  But what Art had come into this life to learn, only he could know.  Maybe not even him.  Shadows on shadows that September afternoon in the Langston Apartments.  And nobody knew what lurked in the hearts of men, least of all the men.

Someone started screaming incoherently out one of the open windows.  A little girl.  Could have been Jeannina, but there was no way to tell.  Lots of families lived in the Langston.  Then a single shoe, an old, ripped up Nike running shoe, sailed out and bounced next to the concrete fountain.  A comment.  Some kind of omen. 

Lynette giggled.  “It’s on now.”

That it was.

I hoped the next thing to come flying out wouldn’t be Lip and wondered if anything went balls-up like this over at William Lucy House when the bumping finally stopped and one of the residents had a moment of hideous clarity.

From my interactions with Lynette and Cecilia, I’d come to understand the nursing home next door was place to pay grandma back for all those years of criticism and meddling.  Undead geriatrics shuffled into the apartments’ courtyard, two or three a day, not knowing where they were, heavily medicated or needing to be, sometimes covered in their own feces. 

Nobody wants to end up like that.  At least, nobody wants to know they’ve ended up like that.  And so, as they wandered in, staring down at the courtyard’s broken bricks, muttering at the sky or at the dry concrete fountain filled with trash, I liked to remind myself that there must be a modicum of grace left in the world.  If you’re going to spend your last days talking to stones and covered in shit, better to think you’re somewhere else.  Or not to think at all.

It took Esteban approximately five minutes to pull Lip down the stairs and out into the courtyard.  Esteban’s white dress shirt was ripped open, exposing his perfectly sculpted hairless chest.  Lip’s girlfriend, Susan, who I imagined was always up there doing high school dropout stuff, came out, too. 

She’d caught something in the eye, a streak of blood smeared down her cheek.  But that didn’t stop her from shrieking.  Susan was clearly a master shrieker.  She sounded like some kind of flightless waterfowl at the time of year when they pick fights with each other and pound their wings on the surface of the river.

In the present case, Susan was pounding on Esteban’s shoulder with her right hand while she kept her left fixed in a death grip of Lip’s hair—Lip, who was screaming, “Ima kill you” over and over, rather unconvincingly, I thought.  Esteban had Lip in a headlock, his other hand tangled in the front of Susan’s sweatshirt to keep her at arm’s length and prevent her from being able to hit him in the face.

They came lurching out like a highly mutated, six-legged beast that shouldn’t exist, but, due to the inhumanity of post-industrial life, the spiritual pollutedness of the Langston, and the essential radiant evil at the heart of urban Hauberk, they screamed, they staggered, they forced themselves toward that Nike running shoe like destiny. 

And the onlookers cheered.  Cecilia and Lynette cheered the loudest.  It didn’t matter whether Lip deserved this.  He was going to get it, which made people happy, their own pain alleviated for a brief moment of someone else’s: straight-up Schadenfreude in the afternoon.

Esteban had done this exact thing before.  I’d been sitting in the courtyard the day he dragged out Timon Washington and beat him senseless with a heavy rubber dildo in front of his screaming mother.  Whether the dildo belonged to Esteban, Timon, Timon’s mother, or to some other unnamed party was never decided. 

Why the beating took place also remained mysterious.  People cheered nonetheless.  They simply concluded that Timon had it coming.  Misbehave and you get the dildo.  Bread and circuses.  Public lashings.  Picnicking at Bedlam to watch the tormented lunatics act like beasts.  Nothing new. 

Timon left town after that.  You don’t get your face rearranged with a sex toy in public without the next step being a bus trip.  Someone gave Esteban a sack of oranges to thank him.  Jeannina professed her love.  He was a hero.

Just like today.  He kicked Susan about five feet to the side.  She landed on her knees and fell over, still shrieking with a handful of her boyfriend’s hair.  She couldn’t stand up and just assumed the fetal position.  Meanwhile, Lip was trying to struggle out of the headlock.  But Esteban was bigger.  He’d been an athlete at Hauberk Technical High (baseball, but still) and had about a foot-and-a-half and 60 pounds on the kid.  Now that he didn’t have to deal with Susan, he could reinforce the headlock with his free hand.

“Fuck him up!” Cecilia screamed, then plucked a stray bit of tobacco off her tongue.

“Yeah!”  Lynette added, coughing, shaking her head.  “Do it ’steban, you hunky stud!”

She was red in the face from laughter.  She looked like a demonic chain-smoking leprechaun.  Whether she was laughing at Cecilia, at the sad drama unfolding in the courtyard, or merely at the vicissitudes of life that had conspired to bring such absurdity to bear in this particular time and place was unclear.  Reasons didn’t matter.  Quality entertainment did.

I felt like I should do something, but what could I do?  Esteban was now punching Lip in the face while holding him steady in the headlock, and one of those things was making the kid purple.  I didn’t know how to fight.  And for all I knew, Lip really had done some shit. 

At least, that’s what I told myself.  Another part of me—the lover, not the fighter—was watching Cecilia out the corner of my eye.  She was flushed, really into it the way people get when they sit in the front row at a boxing match.  They want to taste the blood, feel the sweat.  They get involved.

Was there a civilized, non-lethal way I could get her that involved with me?  Unlikely.  I had more of a chance with Lynette the Chortling Leprechaun, which was to say, no chance at all.  I thought Lynette might have been married.  Cecilia probably wasn’t, but who could say?  The fact that she was getting off on seeing a young man be severely beaten suggested marital involvement.  Marriage often seems to produce avid boxing fans.

Susan crawled towards us and tried to stand, but couldn’t manage it and slumped down on her hip.  Maybe she’d broken a knee.  Cecilia leaned forward as far as she could and flicked her cigarette butt.  It bounced off Susan’s forehead, but the girl didn’t notice.

“That’s not nice,” Lynette said, still grinning.

“I’m not nice,” said Cecilia.

And that was the truth.  Though usually not-nice people, I said to myself, have a secret heart of gold.  You just have to get to know them.  Salt of the earth.  Do anything for you.  Right?  Lip was probably like that.  He probably had a great sense of humor.  When he wasn’t high or threatening to kill people, he was probably a pretty cool guy, probably knew all about The Punisher and the X-Men, probably drew a lot.  Most graffiti guys like to draw.  And Susan was basically very pretty with long black hair that shined, almond eyes, olive skin.  She probably had nieces and nephews who thought she was cool.  Who wouldn’t want to drop out with a girl like that?

I wanted to say to Cecilia, “The world is a wonderful miracle and everyone is beautiful.”  Instead, I watched Esteban punch Lip again and again until the kid’s face got smashed in and you couldn’t tell a bloody cheek from a bloody lump. 

The headlock had probably saved his life.  If his head had been against the courtyard bricks, it would have been all over but the shouting.  Across the courtyard, I noticed Art slipping out the gates like a nervous lizard, grateful, no doubt, that his time had not yet come.

Esteban dropped Lip straight down like a bag of rocks and started to piece his shirt back together with what buttons remained.  That’s when the applause really kicked in.  I finally got off my ass and tried to help Susan up, but she just frowned, told me to fuck off, and dragged herself over to Lip, who was lying on his back with his mouth open, bleeding a lot.  I sat back down.

87-year-old Martín del Rio, who lived on the second floor, owned a .357, and liked to say people could break into his place but they’d never come out, walked over to Esteban and shook his hand.  I heard him say, “Estamos agradecidos. Necesitamos ayuda.”  We’re grateful.  We need your help.  And I knew that, also, was the truth.

They looked down at Susan, her cheek resting on Lip’s chest.  Then the old man clapped Esteban on the shoulder and walked back into the apartments.

Cecilia leaned over to Lynette and whispered, “Should I go say hi?”

Lynette nodded.  “If you want to, now’s the time.”

“What do you think?”  Cecilia said to me.  “Should I do it?”

“Never stand in the way of love.”  My eyes were calm, my mouth relaxed, the horrible octopus buffeting the insides of my heart with its dark tentacles remained imperceptible to the ladies of William Lucy House.  Cecilia nodded as if I’d said something profound instead of a line I’d read once on a Hallmark Valentine’s Day card. 

Susan was sobbing loudly and it was clear that Esteban was about to stride away triumphantly into the late afternoon.  If Cecilia was going to do anything, she needed to do it now.  Nancy Cortez, one of young Jeannina’s aunts, came out and handed Esteban a paper sack of potatoes.  “Hey ’steban!” Jeannina called from her open window.  He smiled and waved up at her.  But Cecilia stayed in her chair, paralyzed, staring at him like he’d descended on a cloud.

“He’s just so beautiful.”

“For fuck’s sake.”  This was turning out to be the funniest day ever for Lynette.  “Just go talk to him.  What are you?  Ten?”

I got up again and, for a second, terror passed over Cecilia’s face when she thought I was going to bring Esteban over.  But I felt like if I didn’t do something for Lip, the octopus might escape.  Susan helped me roll him over.  He was gurgling.  When we got him on his chest, a river of blood flowed out of his mouth.

Esteban glanced at me, then turned and walked out the courtyard.

“I don’t got a car,” Susan said.

“It’s okay.  I got bus money.”  Everybody knew the walk-in clinic was four bus stops away down between the Providence Cinema and the Kodiak Hotel, another apartment building just like the Langston but uglier. 

Windows were closing.  Life was already falling back into its usual rhythm.  Lynette and Cecilia didn’t want to get near Lip.  So they just waved on their way back to the bumping oldies.  Lynette winked, blew me a kiss.

That afternoon, sitting in the waiting room of Urgent Care next to Lip and Susan, I decided not to take any more cigarettes from Cecilia or Lynette or even to have lunch in the courtyard again.  The roaches might get frisky if I brought a sandwich up to my room, but theirs was an honest frisk. 

I felt that Lip would be alright, eventually.  Maybe this was a turning point.  Someday, a dumb kid just like Lip would probably put a bullet hole in Esteban Dominguez.  Of that, I was sure.  I didn’t want to be around when it happened or have to go to his funeral and listen to what a great guy he was.  Everybody would be sad that day, which would be as funny as it gets.

A new story in Terror House Magazine.  Click here and read it on their site: https://terrorhousemag.com/two-women/ 

A story about spiral dances.

 

I threw the beer can.  It was half-full, just like Dorian’s head.  So when it hit him, the damage was minimal.  A brain in a half-full head is a self-parking mechanism.  It floats—not in intelligent space, not in some New Age cogito-esque void full of purple smoke and glittery points of cosmic consciousness—but in an oily brine exuded by all the old lizard desires.  In Dorian’s case, this meant racism, football, bros before hoes, and the ability to quote Rush Limbaugh chapter and verse.  Dorian was an idiot, a bully, a formulaic high school tyrant.  And I hit him with a beer can in the summer of 1992.

Only we weren’t in high school anymore.  And Dorian had fucked himself up on oxycodone so bad after senior year that he now had a lazy eye.  And I couldn’t afford college.  And it had therefore become manifestly unclear who was having the last laugh, since Dorian was making five figures selling Toyotas with his dad on I-49 and I was pushing a mop in Kansas City three nights a week.  Ha ha.  Right?  Modern life.

So the can.  I’d never thrown a football straighter than a piece of cooked spaghetti, but the Miller can hit Dorian behind the left ear with military precision.  And then he turned, about to hulk-out, with that lazy right eye probably giving him enhanced peripheral combat vision and his girlfriend, Lorena, shrieking like an agitated monkey: “No, Dor, don’t kill him!” And so there we were.  But why I threw the beer can is somewhat more complicated and has to do with Ally and why we were angry and always dressed in black.  (At that moment, Ally was in the car, watching, dressed in black.)

Black was our color and zero was our number.  Nowhere was where it happened and nothing was the result.  Our unspoken credo since 10th grade.  Ally and I lived it like two little nihilists until we finally had sex in her attic and became something else.  On October 14th, 1990, to be exact.  Probably around 2:00 AM.  And it wasn’t bad at all.  I don’t think it’s strange to have recorded the date in Herr Diary.  Strange is relative.  And we were definitely strange according to everyone else in our school.

Dorian crossed the distance between us in a flash as soon as he saw who’d thrown the can.  Because, a year after graduation, our high school pecking order was still hanging over us like some podunk Great Chain of Being. And the bros half of bros before hoes would have invalidated his status as a higher-order lifeform if said bros learned he backed down from me.  But maybe that unique moment in time, in the Silver Hill Mall Parking Structure B, was part of the greater anomaly that had begun to warp my life, losing me the only woman I ever loved, and blasting me out of the Midwest forever like some doped-up chimp shot into space just for the yucks.  Who’ll ever really know anything in this fallen world?

At the moment, though, the only monkey sounds were being made by Lorena.  Ooh, baby, dooon’t!  He came on like the Amtrak.  And later I’d write in Herr Diary that I wasn’t sure exactly why I hit him with the car door of all things.  But now I’m fairly convinced it was because I was terrified, realizing what I’d started, and I’d been trying to get into the car as fast as I could.

Force met force in a Newtonian kneecap singularity in which the 1965 Malibu door prevailed as the immovable object.  I’d never seen someone’s leg buckle backwards at the knees before, but the Chevy had an oblong ridge along its doors at just the right elevation for hulkamania.  Too bad for Dorian.  It hurt him.  But I regret nothing.

They called us freaks because we didn’t know goth from shinola.  But we did have a one-tone wardrobe.  We took German instead of Spanish, philosophy instead of P.E.  Black coffee in the mornings and The Cure’s Disintegration, Ministry, KMFDM on cassette in the upper parking lot. 

Toward the end of junior year, Ally got into Anton LaVey and started wearing an enormous goat-head pentagram, referring to herself as the Übermädchen.  We got matching tattoos in Fraktur on our left shoulders that read, “Nichts.”  I read The Virtue of Selfishness, Philosophy: Who Needs It, and Return of the Primitive.  I decided that the world was cruel and nasty and that being able to accept this truth without stepping in front of the Amtrak on it’s 6:00 AM rumble outside our little town of Hauberk, MO, meant I was a superior being.  Then Ally discovered an essay called, “Bitchcraft” and declared that she was a Satanic witch.  And we had more sex.  And she called it black magic.  She cursed the whole football team, her mother, the principal, and “others.” Who those others were, Ally said she’d never reveal. We were seniors, then.

Dorian writhed on the ground, screaming, holding his knee with both hands.  Lorena was so upset she stomped her feet, making her tan lines jiggle as she wailed in simian grief.  I stood behind the door for a moment, looking down at Dorian.  In the passenger seat, Ally lit a cigarette.

Then I snapped out of it, jumped in the car, and shot through the parking structure, bottoming out at the end of the B-level ramp and swerving into the night.  We never did see Lethal Weapon 3.  To this day, I can’t bring myself to watch it.

“That was . . . um . . . manly?”  She rolled down the window because the ashtray was full.  Ally’s hair was long and eggplant purple.  It whipped around her head, hiding her expression.  But I knew what it was.

“Just don’t, okay?”

“Go ahead.  Drive faster, Mike.”  Her way of saying I was driving too fast.  She called it “lesser magic,” some speaking-in-opposites thing to control you.  If I drove faster, I did what she wanted.  If I slowed down, I did what she wanted.  Then she could say to herself, See?  Sheeple are easy.  In truth—and I have admitted this to Herr Diary more than once—I threw the beer can because lately Ally had moved me from the people village to the sheeple pen.  And I didn’t like that.

“What do you want from me?  I know your fucking tricks.”

“Oh, really.”  She flicked the cigarette out the window.  “I don’t want to go home.”

“Well, I don’t want to take you home.”

“I’m not completely fed up with you, Mike.”

I punched the gas and ran the stop sign at the entrance to I-49.  “I’m not fed up with you, either.  I feel great.  It’s been a great day.”

I had half a tank of gas and I was thinking of driving all the way to Kansas City at suicide velocity just to prove I couldn’t be manipulated, that I was the immovable Newtonian object that moved where it pleased.

But then Ally said, “He’s never going to walk right.  You’re aware of that, aren’t you?” 

I began to feel low, like I was worse than Dorian, roids and Rush Limbaugh notwithstanding.  Now I’d never rise up on any Great Chain of Being.  Never go from mineral to vegetable to mop-pusher to night watchman or whatever modicum of ascension I could have achieved if I’d only controlled myself in Parking Structure B. 

So I turned around and took Ally home like good sheeple do.  When we got there, she smirked, gave me a big theatrical wink, and said, “Catch ya later, tough guy.  Call me,” which I think meant she never wanted to see me again.  But you couldn’t be sure of anything when lesser magic was involved.

I sat in the car until the lights in her house went out, breathing in what I imagined were the last traces of her cigarette fumes.  Though, it could have just been the ashtray.

I went to jail.  And it wasn’t funny.  When I got out, I needed a new job.  I got temp work with a company that repaired farm buildings that had been damaged by tornadoes.  Part of my job training was memorizing interesting tornado facts.  Like, did you know that tornadoes have been reported in every state of the Union?  Did you know that a tornado can occur at any time, but they are most likely to occur between 3:00 PM and 9:00 PM?  That every tornado has its own color, sound, and shape?  That the safest place to be during a tornado is far underground or in a foreign country or, optimally, far underground in a foreign country?  That tornadic winds can accelerate a piece of straw up to 300 mph, effectively turning it into a toothpick projectile of death that can tack your guts to a telephone pole? 

You don’t know these things because you’re normal.  But having gone to jail and emerged as a tornado specialist, I had entered the paranormal.  We pulled a lot of straw out of the corrugated metal walls of barns and granaries.  The sun shone through the holes like god’s shotgun blast.  We rebuilt houses, gathered the appendages of farm animals that had been torn apart and deposited on roofs, and inspected bathtubs for tornado durability.  Missouri is in Tornado Alley and if you don’t have a sturdy bathtub, you’re asking for death.  If you get caught in your house, the bathtub might be the last resort for shelter; though, there have been accounts of people being hurled extremely long distances while hiding in their tubs.  There is no easy solution when your bathtub is hurled. You’re sheeple at that point. You’re Nichts.

Through all of this, I thought about Dorian, about Ally, about the future.  I had regrets.  I wished I could give Dorian back his knee.  I wished I had told Ally I truly loved her and wished I’d suggested we take a break from backwards-talking bullshit and Ayn Rand and Die Übermädchen.  I confided these things to Theo, an anorexic dreadlocked hippy who I worked with and who got me the tornado job because he also attended my court-mandated anger management course.

We’d be re-stuccoing the side of some farmhouse and he’d say, “Mike, are you mindfully releasing your anxiety triggers by allowing an abundance of positives into your conscious buffer?”  And I’d say, “Yes, Theo, I’m trying to actualize as many focused positives as possible in this segment.”  Only, we’d be using compressed-air stucco blasters.  So it would sound more like, “Mye-SHHKEEREEYIT-allowing a-SHHHKOYIP-ositives into your-FLISSSHOP-uffer?” 

But I’d know what he was saying because people in the anger management course always said the same things.  I could have just talked about my “uffer” and Theo would have nodded.  After a week of power-stuccoing, you’re half deaf.  I wanted to feel good by confiding in Theo.  Instead, I think the parts of my past he did understand just made him smoke more weed on break in his truck while trying to bring positives into the current segment.  I think I was depressed.  I think I was trying to give myself a “consciousness upgrade” as my anger coach called it.  But jail, the thing that wasn’t funny, had changed me. 

Dorian’s father got a lawyer who got the district attorney who got the police who got me.  Dorian probably had the most expensive legal team in Missouri.  The judge called it a “neutral street fight” in the hearing.  The state chose not to bring assault charges against me.  But there was the matter of battery with a car door, which was mitigated by it being my first offence and by the fact that it was impossible to prove I wasn’t just enveloped in white-knuckle terror, trying to get away from 268 lbs. of enraged ex-lineman hulkamania; though that’s not exactly how the judge put it.  On my public defender’s advice, I pled down to “public affray” and got two months in Moberly Correctional, a year of anger management, and a $3000 fine to be paid in monthly instalments of $50 for the next five years.  My public defender told me I was lucky. In retrospect, I think he might have been joking.

Ally never visited me, but she could have.  The level 2 minimum security unit in Moberly Correctional was very relaxed.  It was a mellow incarceration and the pepper steak was okay.  I shared a cell with a nice Italian kid not too older than me who’d forged a bunch of checks in Saint Louis and got in a high-speed chase with the Highway Patrol while tripping balls.  During the day, I mopped, cleaned the toilets, and did groundskeeping.  In the evenings, I read books from the tiny prison library: Eat, Pray, Love, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Great Gatsby, The Razor’s Edge, How to Score with Women Under 30—the most used book there but strange, I thought, for a male prison—and The Spiral Dance by a New Age feminist in San Francisco who called herself Starhawk.

We were doing clean-up on a corporate dairy farm outside St. Joseph after a twister had de-legged five or six Holsteins, which meant we had to wear hazmat suits.  It was just me, Theo, and two guys doing community service, which meant they disappeared as soon as we started unloading the biohazard bins from the truck.  So it was basically just me and Theo.

“Damn.  It never ceases to amaze me how much there actually is inside a cow.”  Theo heaved a carcass into one of the big red bins.

“Hey.  You ever hear of some chick named Starhawk out in California?”

Theo thought for a moment, scratched himself through his hazmat.  “Yeah, I think so.  She’s cool, right?  Witchcraft.  But the real militant feminist shit.  Give us equal pay or we’ll hex your balls off!”  Theo wiggled his fingers like a cartoon wizard.  Only he couldn’t do it very well with heavy gloves on.  So he added, “Ooooh,” and walked around with his arms sticking out straight like Frankenstein’s monster.

“I’m serious.  You ever read The Spiral Dance?”

He stopped doing the monster and looked at me through the clear plastic visor of his suit.  I wasn’t joking.  I wasn’t releasing my anxiety triggers. 

“No.”

“You should.  It’s good.  You ever read any Ayn Rand?”

Theo looked at me a moment longer.  Then he dug into the dirt that had been under the carcass with his shovel.

“You can keep that shit.”

Back in Moberly, The Spiral Dance had started me thinking.  What if Ayn Rand had been wrong when she claimed that guns or logic are only two ways people can deal with one another?  Starhawk’s vision was different—a single universal yoni constantly becoming aware of itself in greater degrees of particularity, a spiral dance of vaginal creation in which love was the force of individuation, the glue between the “myriad separate things of the world.” All in, that sounded pretty fucking reasonable.

Sitting in my cell, listening to the Italian kid snore while I read, I suddenly wanted to believe it more than Rand’s “Judge and prepare to be judged.”  I’d been judged.  Now I wanted to be a Wiccan vagina-hippie in a fairyland San Francisco where public affray wasn’t a thing and I didn’t have to imagine Dorian walking with a cane for the rest of his life.  But in the margin beside Starhawk’s passage in which she called us all unique “swirls of the same energy,” someone had printed in barely readable ballpoint: So how come my brother got no hands?  Because of swirls like me, dear friend.  I’m a bad swirl. A bad, bad swirl.

After a month of upgrading my consciousness and de-tornadoing farms, I decided I had to find Ally.  I didn’t know what I’d say.  But I felt I had to say something.  Instead, I’d find Dorian, which was not what I intended—or would ever intend if given the choice anywhere on a timeline between now and eternity.

But before that could happen, Theo blew up on me.  He hadn’t said much in the week since I’d asked him if he’d ever read Ayn Rand.  Then an Enhanced Fujita EF-3-level twister came through Hauberk at 165 mph.  They called it the Marlena Tornado, after the small town just south of us that took the brunt of it.  Like Marlena Detrich—a hot dead blonde now resurrected as a killing wind.  Another bad swirl.  It took off several roofs, but luckily nobody got hurt.  We were in the truck, headed to a cornfield run by some genetics company, when Theo pulled into a ditch, got out, started screaming and pounding on the hood.

“What you don’t fucking understand, Mike, is that Ayn Rand completely disregards the question of metaphysics!  That’s her first basic stupid fucking problem!”

I locked the truck’s doors.  Happy pot-smoking Theo had become a werewolf.

“What about Descartes, huh?  What about Hume?  What about motherfucking Kant?”

“Theo?  Hey man.  I think you need to, you know, inventory your anxiety triggers.”

“Critique of Pure Reason, asshole.”

I was torn.  Did I leave my best and only friend on the side of the highway raving about Ayn Rand failing to account for the Existentialist position on concrete human values?  Or did I need to subdue him somehow, tie him up with strips of clothing and put something in his mouth to keep him from swallowing his tongue?

He rattled the driver’s side door handle.  “Open up.  OPEN THE FUCKING DOOR YOU OBJECTIVIST.”

“I am not, nor have I ever been, an Objectivist.”

“Don’t LIE to me, Mike.”

“Truth!  Kant is logically consistent in his argument that human beings are valuable in themselves!  But Rand contradicts this assumption when she argues that altruism is immoral!  Breathe, Theo!  Breathe!”

After a moment, his therapy kicked in.  He held up his hands as if to say okay, okay, and took a few deep cleansing breaths.

“You are a white cone of joyful light!”

He closed his eyes, breathing, mouthing the words: I am a white cone of joyful light.

“Your anger is not you!  It is a feeling passing through you!”

My anger is not me.  It is a feeling passing through me.

“Anger is a choice you can decide not to make!”

Anger is a choice I can decide not to make.

The mantra seemed to work.  Mr. Vignus, my high school philosophy teacher, used to say that philosophy could save your life.  Only now did I understand.

What was a book like The Spiral Dance doing in a prison library anyway?  It made less sense than How to Score with Women Under 30.  Starhawk’s book had a creased spine and dogeared pages.  It had been read a lot of times since—according to the stamp inside the front cover—making its spiral way to Moberly Correctional back in 1979.  Maybe all people, no matter how deviant, are in search of some kind of connection.  However, it is worth noting that on the shelf directly above The Spiral Dance, right beside For Whom the Bell Tolls, were four tattered bright orange copies of Mein Kampf.

Theo didn’t speak for the rest of the way.  I just sat in the truck, staring at the fields outside Hauberk, bewildered. I felt sure of only two things. My anger was not me. And lesser magic was a bitch.

The Old Guard is a vampire cliché without the fangs.  Read about it here: splicetoday.com/pop-culture/garlic-and-bitters.

There are libraries in this world so beautiful that the visitor can almost believe humanity has a chance.  One thinks of sweeping architecture, polished stone, cool quiet atriums, deep stacks, the smell of old paper.  One imagines a certain reverence for knowledge, for words and learning, in a place dedicated to the best of what we are. 

Even the dingiest, poorest library can convey that sacredness, which is nondenominational and therefore inherently optimistic.  In that sense, a library can be an island of decency, democracy, and culture in an unkind world.  Unfortunately, decency, democracy, and culture seem to be on the wane.  I believe I’ve already written enough about that.

The libraries, which is to say structures committed to the veneration of knowledge, can burn if that’s what the people want.  And I’m no longer interested in arguing that they must be preserved, that humanistic inquiry lies at the heart of the democratic ideal.  I’m no longer interested in trying to develop some taxonomy of toxic political subdivisions or in outlining the internecine schisms that have come into being across the current spectrum. Nor am I interested in the pushback, the spite, the purity spirals that must lead to deeper ignorance and iconoclasm.  Those things will be obvious to the reader already or they won’t.  And if they aren’t obvious, no one will enjoy reading about them for the first time here.

Instead, my goal is to mention a non-obvious, highly personal belief: the idea of knowledge as not just a product that can be bought, sold, or otherwise transferred in the marketplace, but as a metaphysical verity that seeks expression in the world generation after generation, cycle after cycle—the concept of knowledge as something that transcends its material media and therefore cannot be burned.

I’ll admit to being influenced by Neo-Platonism, but this idea is not, strictly speaking, Neo-Platonic.  As I mentioned above, I’m not interested in formal taxonomies and categorizations.  An uncharitable critic might say that I’m simply forming an ungrounded new-age assumption about what knowledge is and how it functions.  That might be true, but I’m not here to convince anyone that my beliefs are authoritative or even slightly true.  This is personal writing that I’m making public—a journal entry reframed as a blog post—because I think it’s interesting.

In my opinion, the non-materialistic concept is interesting because it does not view knowledge as residing in a book or a library or a university or a city or a culture.  Rather, it sees knowledge as an essence always seeking entry into the world, a creative, constructive potential in all human contexts.  So an ancient architect creates an aqueduct.  Three hundred years later, a playwright completes a satire.  On a different continent, writing in a different language, a historian completes an essay.  And so it goes.  The ways of knowing may all be unique and priceless, specific to their time and place.  But the impulse to know will be constant and knowledge of all kinds will emerge.  Therefore, one upholds the arts and humanities because it is very important to be able to curate and study each particular “emergence,” each way of knowing bound in human space and time. But one also keeps the faith: there will be new drawings and operas and comedies.

For example, there was only one van Gogh, even if painting as a way of knowing emerges again and again in culture after culture.  Consequently, we admire van Gogh’s work as an impressive part of human history and a unique window on the human condition.  At the same time, if all the van Gogh paintings in the world caught fire, we know that someone, somewhere is expressing himself or herself through paint.  It won’t be van Gogh, but it might be just as significant.  If we think this way, we might say that we have the optimism of a librarian.

In other words, you can’t kill knowledge.  You can’t kill art.  You can’t kill philosophy or history or literature.  And you can’t eradicate the deep-seated human impulses that lead to the production of these things—idealism, joy, the love of freedom, inquisitiveness, the constructive power of language, the alchemy of color and perspective.

All you can do is attempt to outlaw certain ways of knowing, repress their expressions, lock them away in favor of whatever less enlightened ideology happens to be in vogue for those with power.  You can burn the library, yes.  And you can execute the librarians.  And try to erase the histories.  And exile the philosophers.  And make the novelists eat their novels, chapter by chapter.  And in such a generation of fools, the arts and humanities may become meaningless—for a time. 

But it’s precisely when no one is looking, when the library has been reduced to ashes and the inquisitors have moved on, in the pre-dawn hours, while the town’s political officer still sleeps in his villa on the hill, that someone will light a candle, sit by the window, and, on a blank sheet of paper, write, It’s curious what I felt . . .

I rarely repost to this blog, but I feel that this issue is so critical I’m going to make an exception.  If you’d like to view this as a PDF, I have made one here: https://app.box.com/s/m8znyevfwkkllpyowtut3xmvtd3vifao

The URL of the letter is here: https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/

Harper’s describes the letter like this on social media: “A statement signed by 150 people incl. Bill T. Jones, Wynton Marsalis, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Noam Chomsky, J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, and Salman Rushdie expresses concern over the illiberal trend intensified by our national reckoning.” 

My compliments to Harper’s for publishing this.

This is the text:

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

July 7, 2020

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

Elliot Ackerman
Saladin Ambar, Rutgers University
Martin Amis
Anne Applebaum
Marie Arana, author
Margaret Atwood
John Banville
Mia Bay, historian
Louis Begley, writer
Roger Berkowitz, Bard College
Paul Berman, writer
Sheri Berman, Barnard College
Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet
Neil Blair, agent
David W. Blight, Yale University
Jennifer Finney Boylan, author
David Bromwich
David Brooks, columnist
Ian Buruma, Bard College
Lea Carpenter
Noam Chomsky, MIT (emeritus)
Nicholas A. Christakis, Yale University
Roger Cohen, writer
Ambassador Frances D. Cook, ret.
Drucilla Cornell, Founder, uBuntu Project
Kamel Daoud
Meghan Daum, writer
Gerald Early, Washington University-St. Louis
Jeffrey Eugenides, writer
Dexter Filkins
Federico Finchelstein, The New School
Caitlin Flanagan
Richard T. Ford, Stanford Law School
Kmele Foster
David Frum, journalist
Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University
Atul Gawande, Harvard University
Todd Gitlin, Columbia University
Kim Ghattas
Malcolm Gladwell
Michelle Goldberg, columnist
Rebecca Goldstein, writer
Anthony Grafton, Princeton University
David Greenberg, Rutgers University
Linda Greenhouse
Kerri Greenidge, historian
Rinne B. Groff, playwright
Sarah Haider, activist
Jonathan Haidt, NYU-Stern
Roya Hakakian, writer
Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution
Jeet Heer, The Nation
Katie Herzog, podcast host
Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College
Adam Hochschild, author
Arlie Russell Hochschild, author
Eva Hoffman, writer
Coleman Hughes, writer/Manhattan Institute
Hussein Ibish, Arab Gulf States Institute
Michael Ignatieff
Zaid Jilani, journalist
Bill T. Jones, New York Live Arts
Wendy Kaminer, writer
Matthew Karp, Princeton University
Garry Kasparov, Renew Democracy Initiative
Daniel Kehlmann, writer
Randall Kennedy
Khaled Khalifa, writer
Parag Khanna, author
Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University
Frances Kissling, Center for Health, Ethics, Social Policy
Enrique Krauze, historian
Anthony Kronman, Yale University
Joy Ladin, Yeshiva University
Nicholas Lemann, Columbia University
Mark Lilla, Columbia University
Susie Linfield, New York University
Damon Linker, writer
Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
Steven Lukes, New York University
John R. MacArthur
, publisher, writer
Susan Madrak, writer
Phoebe Maltz Bovy
, writer

Greil Marcus
Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center
Kati Marton, author
Debra Maschek, scholar
Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago
John McWhorter, Columbia University
Uday Mehta, City University of New York
Andrew Moravcsik, Princeton University
Yascha Mounk, Persuasion
Samuel Moyn, Yale University
Meera Nanda, writer and teacher
Cary Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Olivia Nuzzi, New York Magazine
Mark Oppenheimer, Yale University
Dael Orlandersmith, writer/performer
George Packer
Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University (emerita)
Greg Pardlo, Rutgers University – Camden
Orlando Patterson, Harvard University
Steven Pinker, Harvard University
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Katha Pollitt
, writer

Claire Bond Potter, The New School
Taufiq Rahim, New America Foundation
Zia Haider Rahman, writer
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, University of Wisconsin
Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution/The Atlantic
Neil Roberts, political theorist
Melvin Rogers, Brown University
Kat Rosenfield, writer
Loretta J. Ross, Smith College
J.K. Rowling
Salman Rushdie, New York University
Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment
Daryl Michael Scott, Howard University
Diana Senechal, teacher and writer
Jennifer Senior, columnist
Judith Shulevitz, writer
Jesse Singal, journalist
Anne-Marie Slaughter
Andrew Solomon, writer
Deborah Solomon, critic and biographer
Allison Stanger, Middlebury College
Paul Starr, American Prospect/Princeton University
Wendell Steavenson, writer
Gloria Steinem, writer and activist
Nadine Strossen, New York Law School
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., Harvard Law School
Kian Tajbakhsh, Columbia University
Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University
Cynthia Tucker, University of South Alabama
Adaner Usmani, Harvard University
Chloe Valdary
Lucía Martínez Valdivia, Reed College
Helen Vendler, Harvard University
Judy B. Walzer
Michael Walzer
Eric K. Washington, historian
Caroline Weber, historian
Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers
Bari Weiss
Sean Wilentz, Princeton University
Garry Wills
Thomas Chatterton Williams, writer
Robert F. Worth, journalist and author
Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Matthew Yglesias
Emily Yoffe, journalist
Cathy Young, journalist
Fareed Zakaria

Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.


[Edgelord:] Even from its earliest uses, the word carries the connotation of eye-rolling skepticism.  The edge in edgelord comes from expressions like cutting edge or the idea of being edgy, applying a sense of boldness or unconventionality to such behavior; the lord half elevates such a person ironically with the rank of a deity or member of British nobility, with echoes of Voldemort, Sauron, and other dark-spirited, villainous characters who hold that title. — “Doing the Work of the Edgelord,” Merriam-Webster.com

Lately, on political news blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, we’ve been seeing a lot of summary dismissals of arguments, particularly those which are racially or pandemically charged.  This might suggest people are more stressed out than ever.  One rarely sees argumentative moves like this when times are calm, even in the divisive cesspools of social media and in the freewheeling comments areas still permitted by news sites. 

Only when people begin to crack under sweeping emotional strain do they start to become rhetorically evasive and nihilistic.  They want to appear as though they’re open to reasoned discussion and debate, but really they want to close down the conversation and talk about their cats.  In a sense, I don’t blame them.  We’re in a very emotionally difficult moment right now.  And no one wants to admit to having an exploding head.  

We might classify this particular evasion as a form of “rhetorical edgelordism”—an attempt to disingenuously self-protect by dismissing an argument while also trying to seem like the smartest, most incisive person in the room. 

If someone says, “It could be A or it could be B,” the edgelord adds, “No, A and B are a false choice because C,” which invalidates them, ostensibly ending the discussion.  Usually the person bringing C is upset with having to choose between A or B and wishes to redefine the choice as (A vs B) vs C—where C is much less controversial, threatening, or applicable.

C is usually something exotic. In order to function as a blanket dismissal, C can’t use the ideas from A or B (because then it falls into the scope of original discussion).  It has to be from a distant discipline or sphere, so far outside the purview of A or B that the core argument gets derailed. 

Here’s an example: “COVID-19 originated in fruit bats” (A) vs. “It was bio-evolved in a Chinese lab” (B). Then (C) pops up: “Actually, statistics have shown social attitudes to pandemics track according to political party affiliation, if you want to talk relevance when it comes to the virus.”  Ironically, C itself is immensely and obviously irrelevant to what’s being talked about.  But unless it is instantly ignored by everyone, it’s work is done.

People who see this move might point out the scope creep.  But by then the thrust of the original discussion has already fractured.  In our example, we’re now talking about at least 3 issues: (1) the bat theory vs the lab theory, (2) the new political party theory, and (3) whether the new political party theory matters or is an irrelevant digression.  Now it’s much easier for the edgelord to divert the argument, self-soothe, and still pose as the edgy freethinker not caught up in the preoccupations of A vs B conformist thinking.  At this point, we’re about three or four rhetorical steps away from looking at a jpg of his cat, Waffles.

In healthy discussions (with psychologically healthy people), this is sometimes called “reframing the issue,” and it’s a perfectly legitimate way of clarifying a subject under consideration—when it focuses on getting at a deeper point significant to A and B.  In the example, this might be something like, “The issue of whether the virus originated in fruit bats or in a lab actually raises the deeper question of whether determining the origin will matter to developing a vaccine.”  Here, the reframe is aiming at a link between both A and B and trying to enhance and clarify the discussion by pointing that link out.  The test is relevance: A and B are both compelling because they are interested in how we know and therefore can control the global outbreak.  But when reframing is done as a way to distract and dismiss by bringing in an extraneous consideration, there are usually disingenuous motives at work.

People who didn’t live through the online evolution of bulletin boards, newsgroups, and discussion forums (all of which disappeared eventually into the reeking maw of social media), might not recognize this tactic as a largely online way of posturing and pseudo-arguing.  Like most rhetorical strategies born in the disinhibited, critical-thinking-starved world of the internet, it’s largely an empty, counterproductive tactic, an emotional time and energy sink best avoided.

Still, during a lockdown, when we’re spending more of our lives online as opposed to in person, pointing these things out might be worthwhile.  They’re no longer the sole province of trolls, basement dwellers, loudmouths, and fakes.  As we move toward the 2021 US Presidential election, social tensions flare, and the virus dances in the streets, stress levels are likely to soar.  And, in cases where public discourse is critical, we might even see close friends and family posing as the edgelord in the room while surreptitiously looking for the exit.

In Splice Today, I wonder about the meaning of Trump’s Mt. Rushmore address.  Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/how-real-are-the-culture-wars.

A story from my first collection, Gravity.

It was hot. That was foremost in my thoughts. A sheer, raw, violating hotness that wobbled on the cement quad and in the still dry air above it. I focused on getting across without fainting. I fixed it in my mind. I didn’t have to ask why there weren’t any birds in the Flushing sky. I knew they all had heatstroke, carpets of passed-out sparrows under the campus trees. Even the shade pulsed with heat. I’d accepted the hottest day in Michigan history the way one accepts an incurable disease or a prison term or a bad marriage. I stopped fighting. I let it own me.

As I reached the rusted double doors of Animal Science, the world seemed to tilt. Darkness rushed into the edges of my vision, and the numbness of heat prostration began to twist through my skin. Panting, I sat down on one of the benches in the building atrium, wondering if my three-mile hike from the adjunct lot was destined to put me in the hospital. The central A/C was broken, but there were box fans every 30 yards, and I felt truly grateful to the Animal Science secretaries for providing the hot air current. Hot air that moved felt better than hot air that didn’t.

I would have thanked one of them, but the secretaries seemed oblivious, radiating a certain continuous misery—large, overdressed women with pained expressions, drifting slowly through the halls. They seemed to move in a complex pre-set loop from one office to another, leaning in doorways, fanning themselves, adjusting their clothing, their bangs stuck to their foreheads. It was clear they’d set up the box fans because they’d been ordered to—not due to some hidden motherly goodness or basic human decency. One of the fans had already blown over. It rattled facedown, blowing air against the floor.

The Animal Science atrium was an enormous vestibule beneath a dirty glass cupola that read FLUSHING CC in green block letters. There were graffitied wooden benches at the four corners of the area where the classroom wings intersected, and there was a vaguely Cubist fountain of burnished steel rectangles in the center. As it hadn’t worked since the Ford Administration, the students used it as an enormous trash bin. Today, it had been covered by a red drop cloth as if it were the hidden reason for the President’s speech, some miracle invention to be unveiled, a secret weapon destined to eradicate everything old and broken, and bring perfection to the unwashed of south central Michigan.

The summer students of Flushing Community College were nowhere around. They’d no doubt been dispersed hours earlier by campus security, all class meetings in the building summarily cancelled. There was an important occasion underway, which meant no sideways ball caps and bellybutton rings, no heavy eyeliner, no tribal barbed wire tats and low-rise revelations. Everyone in the atrium wore business attire but me. And if the portly assistant deans and accountants and assorted adjusters in their suits and pearls seemed uncomfortable—secretly perspiring in their boxer shorts and pantyhose—they at least tried not to show it when the President looked their way.

This was the President’s Hour and the only attendees were apt to be those on the President’s administrative staff or those hoping to ascend. About 30 of them were present, milling, casting furtive glances in her direction. It was a yearly reception held for an hour in the middle of summer session for any employee with a grievance. Naturally, it was catered. A long cafeteria table held pyramids of crullers, nickel-plated salvers of creampuffs, watermelon slices, cheeses, eight different types of cracker, fancy lion-footed tureens of Guatemalan coffee with upside-down cups on saucers.

The President was currently holding forth at the far side of the atrium. Her voice carried over the hum and rattle of the fans—all peaks, no valleys, a voice that stayed in the higher octaves as if it resonated from a rare ornamental glass caught in the wind. She was talking about austerity and solar panels.

“In 25 years,” she said. “An amazing ROI.”

Helen, a tall pale woman in her early 30s, who managed the Presidential office and dressed only in dark primary colors, smiled and nodded vigorously. Oh, yes. The ROI was amazing, wasn’t it. Just amazing.

All of the food was free and nearly all of it would go untasted. The President’s Hour spread was legendary at the college. And it remained the stuff of legend, probably due to the fact that no one dared raise a grievance with Madam President. It seemed that there could never be a good reason for an employee of FCC to speak with “All Heads Are Bowed,” as a colleague of mine had named her.

No one in the English Department knew I’d come. It would have been scandalous if they’d discovered me crossing over for crullers and cool slices of peppered roast beef with avocado spears, an unforgivable violation of the general surliness expected in all dealings with the administration, doughnuts notwithstanding. But I was an adjunct, unemployed through the summer, and it was there. Food. Whole platters of it that would be dumped by College Catering Services as soon as the President got back in her blue Mercedes and drove home to her house on the river. Eating trumped solidarity just as the transmission of my ancient Honda had trumped groceries earlier in the month.

I raked my hair back and re-tucked my soaked button-down. I was sure I had no more liquid left in my body. I looked like I’d fallen in a puddle, my shirt and the tops of my khakis half-soaked through. I stood slowly, waiting for the dizziness to recede, my hand on the back of the bench.

“Reprioritizing,” said the President. “Austerity measures? Absolutely.”

She was a small woman, though extremely vigorous looking with short gray hair and piercing blue eyes. One could see that she’d once had normal human feelings and responses. But, at some point, she’d made the choice to rebuild herself as the perfect weapon—the way people will in law and finance who attend seminars on how to win through intimidation. Her page on the college website said that she admired Ayn Rand, Walt Disney, and Davey Crockett, trained privately with a sifu of Bak Mei Kung Fu, ran marathons, did Pilates every morning. She was currently enrolled in an online course for developing a photographic memory. When her eyes swept the crowd, people shifted their weight, looked away, put their hands in their pockets.

I undid the clasps on my shoulder bag. It was just about time to execute the mission. Normally, my shoulder bag held course texts and student papers. But today it only contained three extra-large heat-resistant refrigerator bags. The plan was to fill them as quietly and quickly as possible. The hike back to the car would melt everything in the bags down to a hybrid food substance that, while unpleasant, would remain reasonably edible. I’d eat a slice of it every day with some tap water. If all went well, it would sustain me for two weeks.

They were talking about money, which made them dangerous but wholly focused on each other like lions circling a dead impala. I could hear their bestial roars: “efficiency review,” “resource management,” “new Gant charts,” “reapportioning our assets.” Soon the President would say something that would draw everyone’s attention with a veiled reference to layoffs—trimming the fat off the impala of some department’s temporary employment. And the rest of them would lick their chops with glittering eyes. It was as inevitable as any herd ritual, the instinctual pattern of it written deep in the DNA of the college administrator. Perhaps it was just as inevitable as the appearance of the wild adjunct, impending starvation having made him foolhardy around the larger predators.

I squeezed out my shirt cuffs and rolled up my sleeves. I would have to be fast and smooth, unremarkable, bland. Most of all, there could be no hint of intellectual or academic energy about me. That was as dangerous as a deer arriving late to the watering hole with a cut on its rump.

Marvin Wilson, one of the assistant deans, smoothed the ends of his moustache and patted his tie. “Yes, indeed, Madam President,” he said. “You got that right, for sure.” Marvin was partially deaf and once said during a faculty address that hearing aids gave him headaches. So he went without and compensated by using a Victorian hearing trumpet and speaking very loudly. At close range without his trumpet, Marvin could give off a nervous cheerfulness that made him seem about to snap. The possibility of a violent psychotic break was his only natural defense against other administrators with more formidable capabilities. Though, as Marvin was also unseasonably fat, one wondered whether a right hook from him wouldn’t result in immediate death. I imagined that the President often made him cry.

When the heat rises to such a degree in Flushing, crying is hardly out of the question. Even if a grown man like Marvin were to strip down right here in the atrium, weeping and running his hands over all his slick white corpulence, no one would blame him very much. No Michigander would do aught but invoke the usual curse on all things democratic, homosexual, and Californian—concluding that good Marvin must have been at least one of those things in the closet after all. Of course, the fact that I was born and raised in southern California hadn’t helped my job prospects in Michigan after getting a PhD there the year before. But so it went.

The President took her place behind the podium set up before a bank of 30 folding chairs padded with white cushions that read FLUSHING in the same block letters as on the cupola. She cleared her throat into the microphone and said, “I will speak to you now,” causing everyone to immediately stop their conversations and take seats.

“Let us bow our heads in thanks for surviving another fiscal year.”

All was silent except for the rattling box fan that everyone continued to ignore, since righting it would have meant getting up and moving out of the President’s aura. It would have meant performing an overt, subservient act. During the President’s Hour, all visible actions took on an amplified significance in the pack logic of the administrator, signs of how the pecking order would be for the upcoming academic season until the great migration back to the atrium next summer. So the fan stayed face-down, rattling loudly. Even Madam President ignored it.

“Let us be thankful that the state subsidy has increased by 4.6% and that enrollment has remained consistent, giving us a projected windfall of 6% per annum.”

All heads were indeed bowed. The President closed her eyes and extended her hands over the seated administrators like a charismatic minister delivering a holy benediction. No one saw me glide up to the food except one of the Animal Science secretaries way down the east wing hallway. I could see her staring, frowning. At that distance, she could probably only see how I was dressed and little of what I was doing. She no doubt thought I was a student drawn like a stray hyena to the outskirts of the kill.

“And let us remember how fragile our jobs are, how easily we could be made redundant or be replaced. And let us give thanks that our good attitudes and hard work have not yet brought this upon us. Amen.”

“Amen,” replied the crowd.

“Well,” said the President, “it is encouraging that in the five years we have been holding the President’s Hour, not one grievance has been voiced. It shows how committed we are to solving our own problems. And in this economy, with nothing certain, that’s the right way to be.”

A round of light applause rose up from the crowd and Marvin’s thunderous, “Here, here, Madam President, here, here!” Then she looked right at me, but I almost had my third bag full. I’d turned such that, from her side of the room, my actions weren’t visible. I had my back to her and appeared to be staring intently at the dropclothed fountain, while my hands moved quickly and efficiently out of sight at waist level. I didn’t have time to worry.

Besides, the President was right in the middle of the yearly spell of intimidation she wove over her subordinates. She wouldn’t want to jeopardize it for a cheese plate. Then again, the approaching secretary had no such compunctions.

“My subject today, as you may already know, follows from the email I sent all of you the day before yesterday on the matter of austerity measures—finding out what isn’t, who isn’t, working and applying the right corrective metric.”

The Animal Science secretary wore white, a voluminous blouse and skirt meant to conceal the unflattering parts of her body. But its effect was rather to make her seem even larger than she was. The woman moved forward like a gunfighter, hands held open by her sides. She led with her stare, her expression fixed in a pointed frown. She came down the east wing hallway, stalking me, not looking away for a second.

I filled the third bag just as the President broached the subject of faculty hiring freezes and dispensing with non-essential adjuncts, which made everyone applaud feverishly. I’d cleared out the back quarter of the table. Bag three was cheese and pastry—the most problematic bag, given the heat. But I couldn’t allow myself to think about that. Thinking about the food spoiling before I got it home would have made me cry like Marvin. Bag two was all cold cuts. Bag one held rolls and crackers.

I might have even tried to guzzle a few cups of black coffee if the secretary hadn’t noticed me. But there she was about 30 yards away and closing. As I crossed the atrium, casually (yet quickly) walking behind the fountain in the direction of the west wing hallway, I kept my eyes on the floor in front of me.

“These are hard times,” said the President, “which means you are going to have to be hard. When we institute District Plan 44, you’re going to have to do some difficult things. And you’re going to have to face some members of our community who unfortunately think they’re indispensable.”

I’d almost made it across the atrium when I looked up and saw Marvin half-standing, turned, one hand white-knuckling the back of his chair. He was staring right at me, his big watery eyes wide with shock, his mouth slightly open under his light brown moustache.

“Now there are going to be cuts. And it will be up to you to speak to those being cut in language they can easily understand. You will not be using institutional jargon”—polite laughter from the crowd—“or financial terms that someone with a Masters in philosophy can’t be expected to wrap his head around.” More laughter broke out, this time with some clapping. “Instead, each and every one of you will have prepared a simple statement of fact that you will repeat if confronted in the office or hallway or elevator. Moreover—“

It was then that she noticed Marvin, who was now fully out of his seat, fumbling for his inhaler with his right hand and gesturing frantically with his left.

“Marvin? Did I give you permission to stand?”

Marvin sucked in a blast from his inhaler and I disappeared into the west wing hallway. Half of the crowd had probably seen me. But no one wanted to join poor Marvin in the place of judgment and scrutiny. As soon as I entered the hallway, I broke into a jog. The secretary had almost crossed the atrium behind me. There were no fans down at this end and the air itself was a barrier—a hot thick cloud pressing in from all sides. Formaldehyde from some of the laboratory rooms gave off the rich odor of old urine. And the deep bouquet of cow dung from the student dairy seeped through the walls.

In the distance, the President’s voice boomed: “Sit down, Marvin!”

I could hear the secretary’s shoes flapping, gaining ground behind me. I wasn’t sure exactly what she’d do if she caught me. But I had a feeling it would result in campus security, public humiliation, no employment in the fall, and—worse—having to give the food back, even though no one would want it now. No one had wanted it in the first place. But the secretary came on anyway. It was the principle of the thing. The rules. The food had to be dumped. And no other creature in the college ecosystem believed, ruminated constantly on, lived and breathed the “principle of the thing” more intensely than the department secretaries. At Flushing CC, the rules were all they had. It was harsh, but it was the Law of Nature, cruel and beautiful and wild.

But knowing all this didn’t stop me from ducking into an open classroom once I was around the corner and out of her sight. Hopefully, the secretary would pass by and assume I exited the building way down at the end. Each wing of the Animal Science classrooms had two hallways connecting to each other at 90-degree angles. Since there were four wings, if you pictured the building from above, the only image you could imagine would be a swastika. I tried not to dwell on this.

It was an old stadium classroom dedicated apparently to farm animal biology. A sign on the wall said the capacity was 300 people. I wondered if 300 people had ever, in the history of the planet, converged in a single room to discuss the innards of cows and sheep. I ran down the aisle, looking for a place to hide just in case the secretary got wise and doubled back.

Luckily, the room hadn’t been refitted with motion sensors that automatically turn on the lights. There were shadows made by the red exit signs glowing above the doors I’d just come through and on either side of the stage. And the stage platform was illuminated by a feeble ceiling light directly over a plaster cow the size of a small truck. Next to it, in a cardboard box, were detachable portions of its hide, half of its skeleton, and various oversized plaster organs.

The cow’s enormous glass eyes looked as if they were about to begin rolling in agony, the beast suddenly realizing that it had been taken apart and left there on display. Bathed in hot shadows that smelled of formaldehyde and animal excreta, the room seemed more like a vivisectionist’s chamber than a classroom—a black hell where the insides of living things are slowly removed layer by layer before a stadium crowd.

I hesitated for a moment, looking up at the cow, and then ran to the exit doors on either side of the stage. They were both locked. I was about to run back up to the top and peek out into the hallway, when I heard the door I’d come through click. Someone was slowly opening it, talking back to another person in the hallway. It was the secretary speaking to someone male. How could she have gotten campus security so quickly? I climbed up on stage, but there were no curtains at the back of the platform, no other doors.

Standing beside the cardboard box that held the organs and one side of the cow, I considered the complete absurdity of my life. After 15 years of higher education and two advanced degrees, the best job I could get was that of a temporary employee at a community college in rural Michigan. Now I was stealing food because there was no more money in the bank and I’d eaten all my backup lentils. Once the lights came on, there would be nowhere to hide, no way out. I put my arms around the cow and tried to steady myself.

Should I try to eat as much of the food as possible to fortify myself for the impending ride to the police station? A wave of dizziness passed through me and I felt a bit nauseous. I began to breathe heavily and worried that I might pass out, that I was starting to hyperventilate. I hadn’t hyperventilated before. If I was about to hyperventilate and lost consciousness, this would be the place—hanging onto a gigantic plaster cow in a dark room that smelled like shit.

“Okay,” the secretary called, “you look in there. I got this one.”

And then I got an idea. It was a really large cow.

The secretary found the light switch just as I snapped the outer hide of the cow into place. With the internal organs and half of the ribcage removed, it easily accommodated me as long as I was able to maintain a fetal position over my shoulder bag. The inside smelled like mold and half-melted crullers. The permanent part of the ribcage that didn’t detach pressed into my back. And the hard plaster mold of the chest cavity had a painful ridge directly beneath my knees. But the important thing was that I was completely hidden.

Light streamed in through the hollow nostrils of the cow and the tiny cracks and spaces that had formed after years of animal science. I listened to the footfalls of the secretary on the nylon-carpeted steps that ran down the aisles between the bleacher tables. Luckily, she didn’t approach the platform, didn’t smell the melted chocolate or hear me breathing.

I followed her huffing and cursing as she moved from one door to the other. Evidently, she hadn’t exerted herself this much in some time. But there she was: one condemned to a life of stapling documents, changing toner cartridges, and taking petty condescension, going out of her way to stick it to someone even less fortunate. The king of the beggars is always a tyrant. The prisoner in charge of the work detail always makes use of the whip.

She came back to the open space before the stage and paused. I held my breath. She must have been staring straight at the cow. The pain in my knees was intense, and I tried not to think about walking again would be like.

“Motherfucker.” The way she said it told me both that she hadn’t caught on and that she was giving up. A motherfucker with emphasis on the second part—more fucker than mother—a spontaneous cry of universal frustration. All hunters know that sound. Raptors probably made it when their quarry found a hole in the rocks. Tigers might have roared it at the cruel sun while apes shook the branches of trees and motherfucker-saying humans fired rounds into the mist just so the report could sound the depth of their anger. No blood today. Today, the impala goes free.

I heard the door up at the top of the stairs click and I forced myself to count to 20 before I popped the side of the cow off and lowered it to the stage. After being enclosed in there for a few minutes, the outside air tasted pure and sweet. There was a lesson: even a cup of dirty water is welcome in the desert.

My knees buckled and shook when I put my weight on them, taking my first steps into the light like a newborn calf from my plaster mother.

Motherfucker.

The question was: who was the father? By the time I got back up to the hallway, I had my answer. It was the President. The secretary and campus security were nowhere to be seen, but the voice of the President echoed down the hallway. She was still back there, the Mother of Abominations fathering monsters with all heads bowed and a metric for every inappropriate erection or eructation.

“Let us go forth,” she was saying, “and remember what it is we’ve been hired to do. And that, above all else, we must be hard if we want to be good.”

The administrators streamed out into the heat and I with them. No one looked at me twice. I did not exist, which was just as well. Sometimes insignificance has certain advantages. I walked around the front of the building, avoiding the barbwired student dairy pasture. The administrators were dispersing quickly, a cloud of navy broadcloth and silk untwisting in every direction like a drop of coloring in a glass of water. No one wanted to stand in the sun no matter how much more gladhanding and social jockeying remained.

I took the most direct route to the adjunct lot, a narrow cement walk that ran from Animal Science, around the weed-choked amphitheater that hadn’t been used in years, and down the line of parking lots ordered in terms of importance—administration, permanent faculty, staff, campus police, plant operations, students, farm equipment and machinery, and then adjuncts and seasonal help.

On my way through the administrative lot, I saw them: the President striding forward ahead of Marvin and two young women in business suits and identitical bobbed haircuts. The three of them were struggling to keep up, speaking over each other, trying to get the President’s attention. Then another wave of vertigo passed through me. The President and her courtiers seemed to grow smaller as the edges of my vision grew dark. I put my hand against a tree and thought about dehydration. Even the parking lot trees—selected expressly for their hardiness and ability to live their whole lives in small concrete rings in the asphalt lots—seemed about to go up in flames. The bark felt as if it were burning the palm of my hand.

I closed my eyes. When I opened them, a short balding man in a coal gray suit stood facing me beside the open door of his Acura. He tossed his suit jacket onto the passenger seat, pulled off his blue clip-on tie, and tossed that in after it. Then he whistled.

“Need a ride?” He smiled, looked me up and down, nodded at his car.

“No.” It came out in a dry croak. My throat felt swollen, raw.

He shrugged, ran a hand over the top of his head and flicked off the sweat. “You might like a ride.”

I was afraid to let go of the tree. I said no again and looked down.

He squinted hard at me. “How old are you, anyway?” Then he got in his Acura, whipped the car in reverse out of the parking space and, with one last hard look, shot down the row towards Campus Drive.

I sat down three times on the walk back to my car and drove home in the slow lane. When I got there, I opened the windows in both rooms of my apartment to catch the faint draft that sometimes reached the sixth floor. Then I put my shoulder bag in the empty fridge and lay down on the hardwood next to my bed. It was cool there, the only cool spot in the place. I stared up at the pocked white ceiling, listening to my downstairs neighbors have their daily screaming fight. They’d go until someone slammed a door and something broke against it. And then she would sit right beneath me and sob as the birds of Flushing woke up from their prostration beneath the trees and the neighborhood cats stretched awake, their tails twitching in the heat.

* Note: this story originally appeared in The New Ohio Review, 12 (2012): 101-109.

A rhetoric professor of mine used to amuse himself by saying, “The truth is always simple.”  By this, he usually meant that accurate-seeming propositions are built from small assumptions, arrayed around a central premise easy to accept as common sense.  The central premise is simple.  The rest is usually a complex rhetorical exoskeleton designed to protect it.  He didn’t believe in a single monolithic truth.  A genuine sophist, he looked for the validity of persuasive discourse.

It took a while to understand that his “simple” was shorthand for this idea.  But that’s how some people communicate, by elision, ellipses, implication.  It gives them room to persuade, to demonstrate, to marshal sources and mould arguments without being hampered by culturally prescribed truth narratives, attestations of belief, professions of faith, declarations of what is real, what all respectable people of good character are expected to think.

I find I’ve increasingly come to resemble my teacher in this way—not in his preference for indirect expression, but in his distrust of the “true” and the “correct.”  There seems to be no shortage of sacred truths and respectable opinions in the United States right now.  Everyone is suddenly in church.

Maybe it’s the Coronavirus.  Maybe it’s the emotional fallout from the recent protests and riots.  Maybe it’s because I’m turning 47 this year—not yet old, but no longer young—that I feel like I’ve had enough.  Enough newsfeed.  Enough hypocrisy.  Enough banal evil.  Enough stupid authoritarianism and reflexive outrage.  Enough identity politics.  Enough lip service and moralizing.  Enough monetized nostalgia.  Enough sadomasochism, dread, and consequences.  Enough fake performative virtue.  R. Crumb was fond of asking in his underground comics, how much can one man take?  I’m at a point where I feel I can answer that, at least for myself. 

I’m sick of being told what’s true and false, right and wrong—as if anyone actually knows.  I think I’ll need to find a mountaintop soon, or a subterranean cavern, someplace quiet, away from all the respectable people telling me what to do, what to think, and how to feel.  America is obsessed with propriety but unwilling to admit it.  And it’s only getting worse. 

I just read about the Arctic explorer, Augustine Courtauld, who, in 1931, was trapped in a polar weather station for months.  The biography made it seem like a dreadful ordeal, and I suppose it was.  But the idea of that much solitude is very appealing right now.  I suppose I might feel differently after months of it.  Then again, maybe not.  At least, in that deep isolation, I wouldn’t be waiting in line at the confessional.

For the last few days, I’ve been thinking about Mark and Patricia McCloskey, now immured forever in the pages of the New York Post, which is where I first read about them, along with every other newspaper and social media platform in existence.  They are the suburban St. Louis couple who recently brandished their guns at a crowd of George Floyd protesters. 

Not a very nice look.

Since first seeing the McCloskeys’ terrified vacuous expressions, I’ve felt that the fact pattern in their dumb predicament is all rhetorical exoskeleton.  What really happened?  Two mousy attorneys thought their house was going to be burned down by a mob and overreacted.  They also happened to be white, irritating to look at, and apparently prone to making terrible decisions—just like four cops in Minneapolis not too long ago.  And they could have killed someone.  It seems like sheer luck they didn’t.

They said they were defending their property.  They said they’d only touched their weapons twice since moving in.  They said they were afraid of a “storming of the Bastille” situation (they thought of their home as an 18th century French prison?).  They said they were afraid of terrorism.  They said they had guns in order to keep mobsters away (The Untouchables in suburban St. Louis?).  And they said they support Black Lives Matter.  Of course they do.

I imagine them saying all these things in a single exhalation, without pauses, then dabbing their faces with perfumed handkerchiefs.  Honestly, Valmont, it sounds like an ordeal.  Howsoever did you survive it?  Well, dearest, they’re called the underclass for a reason.  You have to be fair with them but stern.  Violence is all they truly understand.  Oh, Valmont!  You ravish me!

The central premise, on the other hand, is something easy to accept: white people are afraid.  It dovetails nicely with the abundance of twitchy columns and articles steaming out of the New York Times, The Atlantic and, to a slightly lesser extent, The Washington Post, which often seem more like professions of faith instead of reportage: this is what good people everywhere now believe.  Rich white people are dangerous.  Proof positive of what we’ve been saying all along right here in St. Louis.  The truth is always simple, isn’t it?

As a white moderate liberal who believes in the marketplace of ideas, humanistic inquiry, literacy programs, diversity, the possibility of equal opportunity through non-violent reform, and the continued applicability of certain quaint democratic ideals, I’ve been accused by those to my left of willingly perpetuating a racist system (as if I were something more than a nobody with a laptop).  Those to my right have called me a snowflake, among other unpleasant things, and accused me of writing thoughtless garbage.  I’ve even gotten a few death threats in the post-apocalyptic hellscape of Twitter, which now just seems par for the course, especially on social media.

What I haven’t found is anyone willing to agree with me that the riots made perfect sense but the fanaticism of critical race theory does not.  Kill people and their friends, families, and communities will respond in kind.  They should protest.  Everyone should when the police have gone feral.  It’s understandable that when people feel oppressed, they’ll act out their frustration until they see changes.  At least, they’ll destroy some monuments, burn some cop cars, throw the butt urn down the courthouse steps, and spray “ACAB” on the windows of the local network affiliate.  Well, it’s something.

But the current woke gamesmanship being played by our corporate, managerial elite willing to indulge in the worst excesses of critical race theory in order to be on the right side of profitability is repugnant.  As a fellow writer at Splice Today put it: “lots of white guilt and centering individualistic narratives of change,” a venting mechanism meant to preserve the status quo: “Class and socioeconomic privilege are preserved and movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too can only exist to support class status.”  Put the right slogan on your T-shirt and you can have your BLM cake and eat it, too.

Maybe it’s better to say that, while I don’t know what’s true, I have a sense of what isn’t.  It’s a sense that tells me certain perspectives are more profitable than others right now for celebrities, politicians, and brands.  It tells me the only way positive changes come about is when people stop trying to leverage the trends, set aside their differences, and work together in the spirit of common humanity and good will.  And it adds that such changes are never going to happen if you’re preoccupied trying to storm the Bastille or if you’re out on your front lawn with an AR-15, trying to defend it against the mob.

Mostly, I’m just as tired as anyone in this pathological country.  Every government is somewhat horrible and evil.  But I’m not interested in pulpits and commandments.  I’m not trying to be virtuous or right.  I’m not interested in today’s purity test.  I didn’t even plan to be in the United States for more than two weeks.  It’s been almost four months.  I’ve had enough American exceptionalism and respectability to last me at least until our brave new police-free utopia hits its stride sometime in November.

A short short about mistakes by lakes.

 

Hockel knocked once, softly.  Louis knew it was him, but Louis didn’t get up.  He stared at the rain on the window.  It had been raining for eight days.  After six, Louis found that he could almost believe it was going to rain forever, a cold, greasy, stinking rain coming down on the city for all eternity. Cleveland would never get clean.

He folded his hands on the unfinished wooden table, felt Hockel waiting silently on the other side of the door.  It was late afternoon on a Tuesday and, in the waning light, the rusted tube-chimney on the opposite building’s roof looked warped and blurry through the wet windowpane.  Louis had been staring at it for—he wasn’t actually paying attention to how long.

Hockel knocked again.  He’d keep knocking until Louis answered.  Hockel was as predictable as the rain.  Louis stood and quietly moved down the short hallway that connected the room that served as a living room, cotroom, and kitchen to the closet bathroom and the front door with five deadbolts and three sliding latches.

“What.”  Louis spoke softly, his left hand hovering over the dented copper knob.

“Louis?  That you?”

“Who else would it be?”

Hockel lived two doors down.  And, in the year Louis had rented the tiny concrete-box studio on Euclid Avenue, Louis hadn’t said a cheerful sentence to anyone other than Gina. 

Now Gina was gone.  But, unlike everyone else in the building, Hockel couldn’t take a hint.  He regularly appeared at the door with that soft, insinuating knock of his.  Eventually something horrible was bound to happen to Hockel, given his lack of sensitivity.  Then Louis would be free.

“Can I come in?”

Louis shut his eyes and took a breath.  “What was it you wanted?”

“Open up.”  The knob jiggled.  “It’s dark out here.”

The light in the hall outside had been broken for weeks.  One had to walk down from the elevator in complete darkness and know where the right door was.  But it wasn’t difficult.  Louis had gotten used to it.  He opened the door a few inches. 

“You mean to say you can’t find your door?”

Hockel pushed in, turning around the edge of the door like a gust of wind.  “Of course not.  I’m not an idiot.”  He sat in the other chair at the little wooden table beneath the window.  “I just don’t like waiting out there in total darkness for someone to answer their door. You know there’s roaches in this building, right?”

Louis sat back down and sighed.  “I’ve never seen any.” 

“You wouldn’t.”

At 34, Louis was short, wiry, already balding with a narrow face and a delicate pointed chin.   Hockel was five years older and at least 20 pounds heavier.  Everything about Hockel seemed swollen, from hands to lips, his shock of jet more like a mane.  He was just starting to go gray and his hair stood up in places though he always tried to slick it back.

“I’ll have a coffee.  Black is fine.”

Louis looked at him.  “You came over to order me to make you a coffee?”

“When you hear what I have to say, you’re gonna want to, I don’t know, pass out or scream or something.  Before that, let’s have a cup, alright?”  Hockel thought for a moment, then grinned, which involved his entire face, making his eyes open wide and his forehead wrinkle.

“It’s about Gina, isn’t it?”

Hockel shrugged and pursed his lips, resting his chin on his hands.  “Only one way to find out, eh?”

Gina.  What could be said about her that hadn’t already be said already, over and over, from Louis to Hockel, from Hockel to Louis, from Lewis to Gina’s voicemail, from Gina’s voicemail back to Louis as he replayed her outgoing message in the middle of the night?  If Hockel had something more to tell, it might mean that she had come back from Lithuania.  Should Louis let himself hope that somewhere in the frozen dark of Vilnius, in the decrepit condominium Gina inherited from a grandmother she’d never known, her affection for him had somehow returned?

He got up, went to the sink, and started to fill the kettle—as much to hide the anxiety at the corners of his mouth as to make coffee. 

“Come on, man.  Did you really think I’d hold out on you if I knew something?”

“I don’t know what to think,” Louis murmured. He lit one of the gas burners with a wooden match.  The ring of blue flames wooshed into being and gripped the bottom edge of the kettle like little blue hands.

“What?”  Hockel was still half-smiling when Louis sat down again.

“Nothing.”

A few moments passed in which neither of them said anything.  The rain clattered against the window.  The cheap aluminum kettle began to wobble and hiss.  Maybe it was the way Louis stared at nothing or the lack of conversation, but after a few minutes, Hockel started to drum his fingers loudly on the table.

“This rain.  It’s crazy, yeah?  How do you sit in here all day with that racket going on?”

“I don’t sit here all day.  I have a job.”

Hockel nodded slowly.  “Oh, right.” 

The kettle began to shriek.  Louis got up slowly and turned off the burner but leaned against the stove, listening to the kettle’s long wail die off.  He dumped a spoon of instant into a cracked yellow mug and poured the hot water.  Then he set it down hard on the table before Hockel, the swirl of undissolved grounds twisting on the surface.

“Instant.”  Hockel sighed.  “My stomach will never get used to it.”

Louis sat back down and folded his hands again.  “So talk.”

Hockel took a long sip then licked his lips, smiling down into the cup.  “Still, you do buy the good stuff, Louis.  I’ll give you that.”

“Gina.  If you’ve got something to say about her, say it.  Or am I going to have to wait for you to finish the whole damn cup?”

Hockel paused, the cup halfway to his mouth, and nodded solemnly.  “You know, I get it, Louis.  I know what it feels like to be put under the bus by a woman.  By many women.  All kinds of women.”  He took another sip, shook his head.  “Damn.  It gets better with every sip.  I have to get some of this shit.  What’s the brand?”

“Lucky Instant.”

He set the cup down and grinned again.  “No way.  You’re definitely messing with me now.  This is the good shit.  I know you wouldn’t make me a cheap cup of coffee on me.  You’re too classy for that, my friend.”

Louis looked out at the rusted chimney.  It stood all by itself at the edge of the opposite roof, condemned to be assaulted by all the rain and snow of Cleveland’s unforgiving winters until the day the wrecking ball took it down.

“Remember how Gina used to come over to my place and bum cigarettes off me?”

“Yeah.”

“Those were the days, eh?”

“What’s so amazing about that?  She was your neighbor.”

“She was your neighbor, too.  But you don’t smoke.  That was something she had in common with me.”

“Guess it was.”

“Yeah.  Guess so.”  Hockel tipped back the cup, then set it down and pushed it towards Louis with one finger.  “I appreciate the coffee.  Generous of you.”

Louis looked at him, then back out at the rain.  “I think you better get going, Hockel.  You know the way.”

Hockel stood, grinning again.  Louis looked at Hockel’s brown short-sleeved shirt with a lighter square where the front pocket used to be, his frayed gray pants, his bare feet in rubber sandals.

“Okay,” Hockel looked down at him.  “If that’s how you wanna play it.  That’s cool.”

When Hockel got to the door, he turned back and wagged his finger at Louis as if the latter was a misbehaving child.  In that moment, in the Louis’ peripheral vision before he turned his head to look, Hockel gave the impression of a large grinning bear.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Hockel said.  “Something my mother told me on the day I got let go from the plant.  You know, I got caught up in some stupid shit out there.  And, when I came home, all pissed-off and full of bitterness, she said some broom factory bullshit is not why you failed, son.  Cleveland’s why.  Cleveland is why you fail.”  He nodded to himself, then smiled again with his whole face.  “She goes, you get out of here and you’ll do just fine.”

Hockel fished a bent cigarette out of his pants pocket and put it in the corner of his mouth.  “She wanted me to join the Navy.”  He laughed and shut the door behind him.

Louis looked down at his hands still folded on the table.  He thought of the four dates he’d had with Gina and imagined her buying a plane ticket to Vilnius, dropping her good-bye letter to him in the airport mailbox.  The letter didn’t say much—goodbye, was nice living next door to you, you’re a decent guy, sorry things can’t work out but a condo is a condo. 

Louis went to the sink and washed out the mug he’d given to Hockel.  The kettle was still hot.  Its curl of steam still twisted up from the spout.  He spooned some instant into the cup and went to pour the water but hesitated and poured it onto his left hand instead—white hot pain so intense he dropped the mug and kettle in the sink. 

Louis collapsed where he stood, back against the sink cabinet, burned hand between his thighs.  But he didn’t make a sound.  Instead, he looked up at the window.  Rain was still pelting the glass.  The rusted chimney was a faint silhouette in the glare of the drugstore across the street. 

A story about pain.

 

When I rolled into Missoula, Jim Donlon was waiting for me in dark glasses and a black cardigan with a white T-shirt underneath.  He looked drunk.

“Davis,” he said, as if my return was the last in a long line of depressing accidents, “what the hell is this?”  His way of saying welcome back.  I took the cigarette he offered, and we walked out of the bus station through the snow.  He was parked five blocks north.  We stopped in at the Old Sod along the way.

I was exhausted from my three-day bus ride from San Diego.  And neither of us felt like talking right off—which was fine by me considering that these were the first drinks I’d had in almost a year.  Jim was closed-mouthed when he drank, the sort who made it seem alright for you to quietly let alcohol simmer in your veins.  We must have looked ridiculous that afternoon, sitting in the empty bar without talking: me with suitcase and laptop satchel and Jim still wearing his sunglasses.  We used to come to the Old Sod a lot.  And here we were as if I’d never left.  In the months I’d been gone, nothing had changed.  Nothing good would ever happen in this lousy bar.  The fat bartender would be eternally reading the paper.

“I thought you quit drinking.”  Jim blew long shoots of smoke out his nostrils. 

“How’re things?” I asked.  “What’s new?”

Jim sighed.  “Look at this.”  He took out the smallest pistol I’d ever seen and put it on the table between us.  The barrel was two inches long, lighter than my drink.

“Careful,” he said.  “It’s got a bullet in there.”

“What do you need this for?”

Jim finished his drink, lit another cigarette.  “You’re back in Montana, Davis.  Didn’t you notice?”

“These things kill people.”

“So do these things.”  Jim held up his cigarette.  “And this thing.”  He stood and grabbed his balls.

There weren’t many people in there.  Two mustachioed old men in the corner staring into their beers.  The jukebox had Broken on it.  There was one woman in the place—redhead, mid-forties, plastered.  Jim hid the gun in his waistband under his cardigan and walked over to her table.  They talked.  He held up his hands and asked, “Why not?” loud enough that I could hear it.  Then he came back and sat down. 

We looked at each other.

“Jim?”

“You don’t know a thing,” he said.

We drank until we both ran out of cash, switching to pitchers of Pabst at the end, when we got to our last.  Then we staggered out into the snow.  It had begun to glow with the gray-white luminescence that only the streets of Missoula have in the late afternoon, like cold ashes.

He destroyed one of his own plastic garbage cans, when we got to his apartment, sending two weeks of trash into the air, over his car, and out into the cul-de-sac.  Two wheels of his Acura were up on the curb.  I laughed and slipped on the ice.  Everything was funny.

“What about all this trash?” I asked as Jim walked to his front door.

“Forget about it, “ he said and I found this funny, too.  I’d ripped a hole in the right knee of the only pair of trousers I owned.

 

In October of 1999, I was determined to rethink my life. 

A letter came from Yugawara, chair of the English Department, asking if I would be available to work as a private tutor for a high school kid.  The pay, he wrote, would justify my return to Montana.  I believed him. 

I packed a small suitcase and called a cab.

I’d been taking a year off in order to write; though, the real reason I’d left Missoula had been to dry out.  A graduate student at the University of Montana and twenty-three years old, I already had arrests in two different states for driving under the influence.  I was not proud of this.  Perhaps because I am an only child or because my parents both came from broken homes, I have always been indulged.  But, whatever the case, my mother and father did everything they could to help me with my drinking problem when I should have been disowned.

In order to help myself financially and morally and I think to, as my mother put it, take some time to develop a spine so you won’t always let everyone walk all over you, I moved back to San Diego on leave of absence, promising teachers and friends that, when I returned, I’d have my novel finished and be ready to take my degree.  I fully intended to do this, but I didn’t work on the novel at all in San Diego.  I produced one frivolous, eight-page story that I threw out. 

So when Yugawara’s letter came, I jotted a short note that said I was going and left it on my bed.  I took the cab downtown, to the Greyhound Bus Station, bought a eighty-dollar ticket one-way to Missoula, and sat down to wait.  My parents wouldn’t ask questions.  Still, I felt like I was abusing their hospitality by leaving so abruptly in the middle of the day with a stack of library books on my bureau that needed to be returned and no explanation whatsoever. 

I told myself that, even though I was worthless, I was doing what had to be done.  I needed to go, and I was never any good at good-byes, usually getting soppy and melodramatic enough that I made a fool of myself and embarrassed whoever I was with.  My family hated public spectacle, so at least in that sense, I told myself, I was doing them a favor by disappearing.  I would write to them from Missoula.  Though, deep in my weak, self-centered heart, I knew I was a rotten son.

It was October.  At least that much was certain, an unavoidable fact.  Winter in San Diego meant that days stayed in the upper seventies instead of the lower nineties, and palm trees swished slightly more in the wind.  But that didn’t mean winter couldn’t be just as hard there as anywhere else.  I always felt that it wasn’t the climate that killed so many homeless over the holidays but the hardness of everyday people around the world, taking out their petty frustrations on the less fortunate.  I knew that was a sentimental way of looking at things, but sitting in the Greyhound terminal can bring out the sentiment in anyone.  It seemed like all the homeless people in the city were sleeping in there that day.  And it made me sad to look at them curled up around me in the black molded chairs, stinking, talking out loud in their dreams. 

When I got up to board the bus, I left a ten-dollar bill on my seat.  Money never meant much to me.  I had a tendency to give it away if people asked for it—which someone usually did.  Or I’d fall into one of my sentimental fugues, insisting that they take it for their own good.  And I never saw the point of fashion.  It took too much of my energy, too much money, too much space in my life. 

But Jim was different: two years older, tall and thin, like me, but with better clothes and style.  He seemed to move through other people’s lives, through entanglements that would side-track any normal person, with a certain effortlessness.  Years ago, he’d inherited a lot of money, had an apartment in Montana, one in a Vegas suburb—where he’d go sometimes on weekends.  In Missoula, Jim was a graduate student in my writing program.  He took the bare minimum of units and taught classes like everyone else.  And he made having money and everything that came with it seem a given, seem easy, even the day after a drunk. 

As soon as we got into his apartment, we polished off the better part of a bottle of Absolut; though, I don’t remember doing it.  I passed out in a small wicker chair in his living room, my suitcase and satchel placed neatly by my feet.  In the morning, I woke up, still in the chair, with my legs straight out, crossed at the ankles.  My body was stiff.  I felt like I’d been dead for a thousand years.

I opened my eyes to a full-length cherrywood bar, an entertainment center, a few miniature indoor palms, an Italian leather couch, and a blonde on the end closest to me with a lit cigarette and one breast hanging out of Jim’s bathrobe.  Jim was sitting on the other end, in black pajamas, also smoking a cigarette and there was hockey on TV. 

I felt the vast, horrible waves of nausea that come from mixing types of liquor.  So I didn’t say anything.  I sat there quietly and looked at them.  Jim was staring at the widescreen.  The blonde was staring at me.

“It’s a breast,” she said.  “Want to see the other one?”

“Show him the other one,” said Jim without glancing away from the game.

“Fuck off,” sighed the girl.  She yawned, looked me over, took a slow drag.  “You look like a sick rat.”

“Darcy, this is my friend, Davis, from San Diego.”  The only way to tell Jim was hung over was that he’d let his cigarette burn down to a crooked finger of ash.

There was a silver dish of cigarettes on the coffee table.  Darcy picked one out and lit it on her old ember.  The ash tray sat on the middle cushion between them on the couch. 

“He’s breaking up with me, you know.  He broke up with me yesterday.  I’m moving out.”  She raised her eyebrows at me and took a drag.

Jim changed the channel.  “I’m sorry I was so erratic last night, Mike.  I could have gotten us both killed.  It’s stupid to drink and drive.” 

“He doesn’t care about anyone or anything.  He’s not your friend.”

“I think I might vomit,” I said.

“Darcy, be a doll and go get him the wastebasket from the kitchen, would you?”

“I fucking hate you.”  She tied the bathrobe more tightly around herself and went into the kitchen.

Jim looked at me for the first time that morning and smiled: “What can you do?”

I shook my head.  I didn’t know what you could do.  First I was a drunk.  Then I was sober.  Now I was a drunk again.  The guilt hadn’t even started, but it was stalking me.  I could feel it.  It was being sportsmanlike, waiting for me to vomit a few times before it sprang on me in all its demonic fury.  I did vomit several times—but not in the wastebasket.  I weaved along the hallway and into the downstairs bathroom.  The act was painful when I got to it: a thin gray fluid hanging like a cloud in the center of the bowl and then the dry heaves.  For all the drinking I’d done in my short life, the day after never got any better, only worse. 

Half an hour later, I made my way back down the hallway, feeling like I was swimming through an underground cave to the light.  I stopped before entering the living room.  Darcy had shed her bathrobe and was straddling Jim, who hadn’t moved from his sitting position at the end of the couch.  Her cheeks were full of tears.  She whispered things and ran her fingers through his hair while she rode him.  He still had the top of his black pajamas on and his right arm stuck straight out to the side over the armrest.  One of them had put the ashtray on the floor beside the couch so Jim could ash in it while they did their thing.  I walked back to the bathroom, sat on the closed toilet, and put my face in my hands.

This was two and a half months before the millennium. 

Jim went to school to teach a class.  With nothing to do that day but wait until my appointment with Yugawara, I sat around in the coal-gray suit Jim had lent me, smoking and imagining how the world might end on New Years Eve.  I didn’t see any reason to go to the university early and have to explain my life to my former colleagues.  So I stayed on the leather couch and stared back at Darcy, who was wearing a pair of Jim’s shorts and one of his T-shirts.  All of her possessions were now packed in her car, but she wouldn’t go.  She sat in the wicker chair looking at me blankly.  Maybe she was looking through me.  There was an open Ziploc full of large pink horse-pills on the table between us.

“Christ,” she said.  “I’m getting so thin.  It’s like my bones are growing out of my skin.”  Darcy had a fake tan, but it looked good on her.  Her body wasn’t too thin; it was just right.  Her eyes were a pretty blue-gray, even though there was too much white around them at the moment and she was sweating.

“You look fine.”

“Look at my hands.  I’m a skeleton.  You can see the bones coming through.”

“What are you worried about?  You’re beautiful.  You got everything going for you.”  I handed her a cigarette, but she couldn’t keep the lighter’s flame on.  I lit it for her and sat back down.

“What am I worried about?”  Darcy puffed quickly, not inhaling, sending fat milky clouds into the air between us.  “Wow.  Yeah.  Wonderful.  That’s wonderful.”

We sat in silence, listening to her breathing.  I thought about taking one or two of those pills, just so we could be on the same planet, but I had no idea what would happen.  I wanted to stay straight for Yugawara and the high school kid’s parents who’d be there to interview me.  So I went behind the bar and made myself a whiskey sour.  Just one.  Just for steadiness.  Darcy watched me with a sick, detached expression—like those pills had made everything horrible, everything disgusting.

“Look,” I said, “you’re making me nervous.  Why don’t you have a drink.”

She half-nodded, so I brought her mine and made another.  But she let it sit on the coffee table in front of her, condensation puddling on one side of the glass.  I sat back on the couch and loosened Jim’s black silk tie.

“I’m gonna kill myself,” she said to the drink.  “You might want to leave.”

“How many of those pills did you eat?”

“Who the fuck are you?” 

I brought her over to the couch and put my arm around her.  She was shaking.

“Shit,” she said, hugging me and resting her head on my chest.  I held her tight and sipped my drink.

After enough whiskey, you forget you ever had problems.  You forget what a failure you are and how you’ve let everybody down.  I sat there holding Darcy, waiting for Jim to get back from teaching his class, and the only thing I could do was drink.  The first whiskey sour was my first mistake and, having made one mistake, it was all too easy to make another and another.

I laid Darcy down and got a blanket off Jim’s bed to cover her with.  Then I began to pace.  I paced around the living room for so long that soon pacing was all I could concentrate on.  After a while, I didn’t concentrate on anything.  I looked at my track in the carpet, walked around the room, looked out the windows, and sipped whiskey.

“You look like hell,” said Jim when he came in the front door.  “Even in an expensive suit, you look like a drunk.”

He was right.  I’d wrinkled his suit at some point and combed my hair over with some water, but it hadn’t done any good.

“Your girl.  I think she od’d.”

He went over and looked down at her.  “She’ll live.  She say she was going to kill herself?”

I nodded and the room tilted.  I steadied myself against the bar. 

“Happens all the time.”  Jim put his arms around her chest and dragged her off the couch.  We put her in the backseat of his Acura, then got two unopened bottles of Irish whiskey from behind the bar and took off down the street. 

I was drunk but I was wide awake—enough to know there was no way I could do an interview and not seem like an idiot.

“Yugawara.  I can’t see him.  I’m not up to it.”

“You’re a mess,” said Jim.  “Open this, would you?” He handed me one of the bottles.  Speeding up the I-50 felt like we were on a rollercoaster.  Misty, snow-covered mountains were all around, but the highway could have been going up, over the top of the world.  Jim kept one of the bottles between his legs and only slowed down when he wanted a drink.

“I heard about this kid up at the Black Creek Lodge.  People stick things in his body for money.”

“That’s where we’re going?”

“Shit,” he said, “what are you, a genius?”

“What about her?”  Darcy was in the middle of the back seat, head back, mouth open.

“Forget her.  She’s stoned.”

The road was covered in ice.  It made a sound like air escaping from a giant puncture.

By the time we got there, Jim had gotten drunk enough and I had gotten sober enough that we were both tired and quiet.  Before we left Darcy in the car, I took off my coal-gray suit jacket and covered her with it.  I couldn’t see why we’d brought her.  But I was sure that if we didn’t cover her, she’d freeze.

“Davis, you’re a saint,” Jim said.

At the Black Creek Lodge, there was an annual bull testicle eating festival of international repute, which made it a meeting place for freaks of all kinds year round.  But, on that day, the parking lot only had a few cars in it, and we both slipped twice.  I was shivering violently from the cold and almost dropped the unopened bottle of whiskey.  Jim held the opened one to his chest.

We walked through several large empty rooms, one that had been the inside of a barn.  Then we came to a lounge that had a full bar in it and large bay windows looking out on a pasture.  The pasture was covered in snow.  A cow stood in the middle of it, staring at the windows.  An old woman was waitressing and serving drinks behind the bar.  The low wooden tables looked just like her—brown, cracked, not long before they’d collapse.  In the corner sat the kid who got things stuck in him for money—bird-thin with a light blue sheet around him like a Roman senator.  His hair was shaved down a centimeter from his head and his face showed no emotion.  He sat completely straight in his chair.

A few locals were sitting in a semi-circle in front of him, laughing and drinking.  A man in a bowl-cut and two flannel shirts, missing his left index finger.  A blonde with a nasty puncture scar on the side of her neck.  And another woman with no teeth at all; though, she couldn’t have been more than 35.  A few others.  Everyone but the kid looked at us when we walked up and sat.

“Look at this.  Whiskey for everybody,” said a fat, bearded man in a thermal undershirt and jeans.  Jim smiled and toasted them with his bottle.  The men sitting there looked like loggers and so did their women.  I wondered if they’d come for this or if they just happened to be drinking here.

The old woman from behind the bar walked up.  “I’d ask you two what you want but it looks like you got that covered.”

I opened the full whiskey bottle and took a sip.  Jim asked the woman for cups and, when she brought a stack of plastic tumblers, he poured out whiskey for everybody, brightening spirits all around.  Jim even poured out one for the kid, but the fat bearded man held up a hand and said, “No, thanks.  He don’t drink.”  The kid didn’t do anything but blink.  He was completely still.

After everyone had some whiskey, the bearded man stood.  “This is Colter and he only does this once a day.”

Too much whiskey: I felt stupid, my thoughts dissolving in to Montana nothing, as if I were no different from that cow in the snow-gray pasture.

“Is he gonna scream?” asked one of the women.

The bearded man slapped Colter hard across the face and said, “See?  He don’t feel nothing.”  He took the sheet down and pooled it around Colter’s waist, leaving the boy’s upper body exposed.  The skin was pale and curiously unscarred.  Did it matter that he was sixteen or fifteen or fourteen?  He had nothing in his eyes, dead stare, vacant.  Then the bearded man brought out a black dish containing hatpins, a long thin paring knife, an assortment of thumbtacks and small pins. 

In San Diego, my parents’ yard would be covered with plum blossoms.  I thought of them and wished I was there.  California was a bright complex of light and heat that was beyond us here, in this place, after we’d given the bearded man ten dollars each—where we took turns silently pushing hatpins into the boy’s arms and chest—where even the snow looked like ashes.

When we finished, thin strings of blood ran down Colter’s torso where silver thumbtacks had been stuck between his ribs in graceful arcs.  The pearled plastic drops at the ends of the hatpins looked vaguely like peacock jewelry, an ancient beautification method, difficult and prized.

“Shit,” said one of the women, “I want a picture.”

“Five dollars,” said the bearded man, getting a Polaroid from behind the bar.

Like the lady bartender, this woman had nut-brown leathery skin, and it was hard to tell how old she was.  She leaned over Colter and did a 1950s-style cheesecake pose as if she were on a float—Miss October.  When she grinned, she was missing two of her teeth.

Jim had been drinking steadily from the bottle and staring at the boy, who was still expressionless with arms and chest full of pins.

The bearded man stood.  “Okay, that’s good.  We’re all done now.”

“Wait a second,” said Jim.  “What about that knife?”

“Oh,” said the bearded man, “the knife.  If you want to do that, it’s fifty dollars.”  He smiled and looked at Jim as if he were seeing him for the first time.

Jim inserted the paring knife sideways, right under Colter’s left nipple.  The kid hardly bled at all.  Everyone cheered—whether for Jim or for Colter was unclear—maybe just for the spectacle of the thing: the kid, a human pincushion, so much metal sticking out of him, and some drunk bastard adding that thin knife, as if it needed to be done to make the effort complete.  But I remember Colter’s exhalation, the sound of it—long and gradual as if from a great distance.

Darcy woke up, when we were half-way home, screaming as if someone had just jumpstarted her heart.

“Where the fuck am I?” she said.

“Don’t worry,” said Jim, squinting intensely through the snow coming down in thick, moth-gray sheets.  He gripped the wheel with both hands.  The engine made a steady whine and the wipers could barely keep up.  We were doing seventy, seventy-five, outrunning the distance as the car fishtailed and hissed.  He raised his eyebrows and flashed me a look as if he expected me to object.  But I looked out through the snow, thinking of Colter’s expression as the knife went under his nipple, when he slowly began to smile. 

Later, we’d drink until we both wept.  Jim would cut himself on a broken whiskey bottle, bleeding all over the top of his cherrywood bar.  He’d shoot his pistol off twice into the floor and scare us both.  The next day, he’d lend me another suit.  I’d make apologies to Yugawara and get the job tutoring a slow, yet very wealthy, fourteen-year-old girl with a vision problem.  And all that winter, I’d dream of plum blossoms that settle in the heat like parade confetti, making my parents’ back yard look covered in snow.  I’d step through the ice to the laundry at the corner, where I’d buy my parents postcards of blue mountains in summer and scrawl I love you on the back. 

“What’s going on?  Where we going?” hissed Darcy, holding onto the back of my seat for dear life.

“Don’t you worry,” said Jim.  “We’ve got you.  Nothing’s gonna happen.”

White men are horrible, straight men are horrible, white straight suburban women are especially horrible, oven cleaner is white adjacent, history is horrible, you are horrible, look at my dog.

Racism, hillbilly violence, iconoclasm, the anarchy must be put down, but isn’t it about time, anarchy is okay, anarchy in the UK, anarchy is not about you, anarchy is you not me, Antifa burned my house down, love me.

The media sucks, IQs are dropping, the virus is rising, white scientists suck, fake news, a febrile bodily stench, take your medicine, we can never go back.

Kellyanne got a face lift, replace the skeleton with surgical titanium, love dolls are the solution, blood from a 12-year-old injected daily, who are you to judge?

I won’t take a knee, why you should take a knee, liver damage, unemployment, poverty, citizen journalism, pepper spray is not a crime, unicorn riots, win this 18-bedroom smart home in Beirut, it’s hopeless.

Inject this insect paste into your knee if you want to live, admit that you are fragile like an Easter egg, will we really make it to Easter I don’t know, buy this jade spoon embossed with the face of Benjamin Franklin before they light it on fire, racial slur, it can’t be a racial slur, banking conspiracy, violence, Kellyanne put down that puppy.

Easter apocalypse up in your grill, every day, violence, violence, violence, disease, you deserve to suffer, you don’t deserve to suffer, you deserve violence, and disease, and this delicious curbside fruit delivery, buy an intimate massager, sterilize the poor, the worst week of Trump’s life is today.

Greta Thunberg? Don’t you say a goddamn thing about Greta Thunberg.

10 best novels by cave-dwelling anabaptists, Walmart, no-touch orgasm, we replaced her knees with industrial springs and now she jumps a lot higher, Kellyanne is why we can’t have nice things.

Trump, Trump, Trump, Trumpety, Trump, Trump, don’t touch me like that while I’m sedated, the left wants aliens in your sandwich, the right wants to kill art, do you know where your Easter eggs are being dipped, can we stop with all the Trump, Biden’s in the basement, space junk will rain down fiery Mayan death upon our children.

Cops with broken hearts, shit cops don’t know the meaning of heartbreak, white fragility, cop fragility, black fragility, heartbroken asian fragility, cops gone wild, Jim Henson was a Nazi, Kellyanne is why I wear this sailor suit, it’s not okay to say these 756 words, racist orgasms, systemic orgasms, systemic racist orgasms on the dark web, but who will pay reparations to the hundreds of undocumented sidhe living in Torrance, California, it won’t be North Korea this time.

I don’t want to visit North Korea, I need the New York Times like I’ve never needed it before, hold me Kellyanne like you did on Naboo, and bring the light inside the body, it’s not a riot if it don’t got that febrile bodily stench, don’t talk to me today, Kellyanne, I need a haircut.

Trump, please make it stop, just put me on the rocket ship, I don’t care, I just want to go.

A short story about voicemail, voyeurism, and stupidity.

Sea-Tac at high noon is a cold saucepan, everyone sitting in it and the burners waiting.  The occasional flash-boom of a jet outside.  Blue-white daylight through ceiling-high windows.  Static crackle of dust remover on plastic.  The burnished coffee stand curdling the air around it with sour French Roast.  Far away, someone shouts into a phone.  It’s always like this. 

Waiting for the next thing in the Seattle airport is like waiting for the saucepan to cook.  Major airport, major risk: one moment, cold metal emptiness; the next, shitfire and everybody burns.  Terror.  Screaming.  Bullets.  Anything could happen at any time.  Jim Fowler sat up in the black plastic seat and thought this as calmly and easily as he thought of anything, whether he should take a flight sedative, for instance, or whether to call his voicemail before boarding.

Today, Jim was wearing a coal-gray three-button DKNY, one of his traveling suits—really decent, actually, but not impressive.  The impressive suits, the ones he’d bought through a consultant, were too good to wear on the plane.  The two Jim had taken to Seattle were wrapped in plastic inside a reinforced Kevlar valise that could withstand a three-hundred-pound anvil dropped on it.  Jim knew this because he’d gone to the corporate demonstration where they’d dropped the anvil. 

So far, he’d noticed two other men in the airport wearing his same coal-gray suit, but that wasn’t why he was sitting in a desolate part of Sea-Tac, staring out a wall of windows.  Jim was three hours early for his flight and no one else had arrived at the gate.

He opened his cell and speed-dialed: his voice, There is no one here to receive your call, in sterile monotone.  Had he taken something before recording the outgoing message?  It was possible.  Something to make him sleep.  And then the permanently programmed machine girl sounding more human than Jim: You have . . . zero . . . messages.  He loved her voice: frowsy, smart, with just a touch of humor.  You have . . . zero . . . messages, as if it were a personal compliment.  They knew something over at that cell phone factory.  Or maybe they didn’t.  Maybe there was no girl like this on any other voicemail in the known world.

Girls.  The trouble with girls.  He never knew what to say.  They made him nervous, shaky.  Always judging, picking out his mistakes, noting the every hard swallow, every flat joke—always on record.  Jim kept his hands in his pockets and avoided eye contact: they’d see him again somewhere, sometime—and they’d know: he was the creepy one, the one with that look.  The windows rattled as a 757 shot down a runway.

That morning, Jim had woken up at 5:00, as always, unable to go back to sleep, and soon got bored with the Weather Channel loop from the edge of his hotel bed.  So he called a cab and wound up watching the sky over Seattle lighten from the inside of Sea-Tac. 

Jim had wandered for a while, glancing in the tourist stores and the lousy restaurants, at the determined expressions of people already in a hurry.  And he’d stopped to look up at a 15-foot steel sculpture of a praying mantis that had been temporarily installed by his gate.  It was burnished just like the coffee stand, the railings, the oblong strips of metal that had replaced whatever bland paintings used to line the jetways. 

Beside him, a little girl with rings around her eyes and a dirty-looking teddy bear stared up at the mantis as if it might suddenly bound off its circular metal platform.  Its front legs were pressed together in the classic mantis pose, sharp spines sticking out sideways from its body—hundreds of tiny daggers waiting for someone running late to trip and fall over the red velvet stanchion-ropes.

“What is it?” the girl asked, pointing at the mantis.

Jim squatted down beside her and looked up.  “That’s a sculpture.  Somebody made that and put it in here so we can look at it.”

“Did God make it?”

From the girl’s vantage point, the mantis seemed twice as big.  It’s blank stare passed through him and Jim imagined it springing to life, its steel claws ripping him in half.

“Yes,” he said.  “How did you know?”

“No,” said her mother, putting her hands on the girl’s shoulders from behind and staring down at him.  “It’s a bug, honey.  Just some bug.”

Jim stood and watched them go to a far gate.  He’d seen the mother in the leper smoking room, where the glassed-off air looked pale gray and so did the people sucking down their morning tobacco.  She had frosted hair, gold rings, and a faint desperation in how she’d crossed her arms and concentrated on her cigarette.  They’d made eye-contact as Jim passed by the room. 

She was pretty in a removed, angry sort of way, and he’d gotten ideas.  What were the chances of them being on the same flight, in the same row, sitting together?  He’d let the possibilities play out for a few moments, then forgot all about her.  And this is what it came to: Jim transformed to an insect, squashed under a forty-dollar pump.  How often could this sort of thing happen to one person?

Now, in the empty block of seats facing the windows, Jim didn’t have to speak to anyone.  If he stayed medicated for the flight, he’d be able to avoid any further human nastiness.  Of course, he didn’t always try to avoid people.  His real reason for coming to Seattle was to meet someone.  But, as usual, things didn’t work out that way.  The National Convention of Law Librarians had been something. 

Frenzy: everyone single paired-up immediately, then everyone married-but-open-minded, and then anyone else who got a randy thought toward the end of “Comparative Search Diagnostics” or “Alternate Systems of Citing Primary Authority.”  Unfortunately, there were a small number of people who always missed out on the librarian bacchanalia.  Jim had now been in this group two years in a row.

Bored, he watched a fuel truck creep like an orange beetle through tarmac heat wobbles.  The truck didn’t look like it was moving very fast but, if he aligned a wingtip in the foreground with a distant pole out on the airfield, he could measure the fuel truck’s progress.  Jim did that for a while, imagining how it would be if the truck suddenly exploded, how it would look from his position—the flames curling up around the tank in wreathes or maybe shooting around the truck in all directions, hanging in the air for a heartbeat, like a fiery octopus.

By expecting the worst, you’re prepared.  Lose all hope, lose all fear.  Jim wouldn’t mind losing fear.  He was turning thirty-five next month, had no family left, and the college girlfriend who had once come close to marrying him was now an interior decorator in Singapore and no longer returned his calls.  His hair was gray above the ears, which seemed to have already put him in the geriatric crowd.  When he looked at girls in their early twenties—long hair, midriff, belly button ring, little tattoo over delicate ankle—he saw worlds forever closed to him.  After thirty, he no longer showed up on their radar.  Or, if they had to deal with him, it was the thank-you-excuse-me, the pasty smile, the consolation laugh right before they escaped to the other side of the room.

But what to do.  Back home in Irvine, Jim tried to face it.  Mind over matter: he answered personal ads and went on nightmarish exploratory dates.  The single mother who left the pictures of her ex-husband face-up on the restaurant’s table like a challenge and spoke earnestly to him about becoming a lesbian.  A bird-thin waitress with strands of colored string braided into her hair who cried at Neruda’s love poems and had dreams about the devil.  A middle-aged professor of economics who said she’d never orgasmed and wanted to know what he thought about pissing. 

“Pissing?” he asked.

“It can be a lot sexier than you’d think,” she said.

In the end, they all seemed as disappointed with him as he was with them.  And now Jim had just wasted all three convention nights in his hotel room and voicemail was still his best friend.

Behind him, the girl had wandered back to the praying mantis, seemed fascinated with it, staring up into its metal face like it was about to tell her something.  Jim felt the urge to walk over and talk to her again, but he didn’t want a second encounter with the mother.  The girl was right at the edge of the red velvet ropes and was reaching out tentatively toward one of the mantis’s folded-down claws. 

Jim turned back toward the wall of windows.  It wasn’t his business if she cut herself.  When he looked again, she’d slipped under the ropes and was standing directly under the claws, looking up.  The sharp leg-spines pointed all around her, only an inch on either side of her face. 

Jim turned and vowed not to look anymore, staring at the fuel truck, now an orange speck in the distance.  He was sure that soon the screaming would start.  He fished a sedative out of the plastic pill case he always kept in his vest pocket and swallowed it dry.  His hands were shaking slightly so he crossed his arms and closed his eyes.  It would take a moment for the pill to kick in.

***

Irvine.  Yuppietopia of southern California.  Yet, there was something about it, thought Jim, something to love.  The palm trees were bio-engineered.  The streets were angled for maximum runoff.  There would never be a major septic horror.  There were no alligators in the sewers.  Or, if there were alligators, they were ecologically appropriate.  Maybe there were no sewers.  In Irvine, the sun was sunnier.  The kids were kiddier.  Birds cartwheeled through height-zoned eucalypti. 

Whatever wasn’t working was cavorting and every car came internet-ready.  Jim looked down from the 22nd floor and listened to the absolute silence of Gould, Dien, and Strunkmeyer’s law library, his library.  Mirrored office towers flashed in the new light and Newport Beach glittered in the distance, blue like a perfect sky.

Today, he was wearing a rust cardigan-slacks combo with pale cream button-down and burgundy Ungaro tie.  On the fashion e-calendar provided by his consultant, this ensemble was dedicated to putting a spin in June’s gloom with the earthy tones of fall.  Theoretically, one was supposed to stay just ahead of the season: when everybody was still wearing grays, you crept into the browns.  At this time, said the calendar, accessories with polka-dots are recommended.  Recommended but not required, thought Jim.  That was key.  Not everybody could get away with polka-dots.

Dark thoughts on this Monday morning: where was Scafandra, his assistant?  He got to work at 7:00; he expected her at 7:30.  Lateness was the devil, the root of all vice.  Jim was never late.  Even this morning: mesmerized by the Weather Channel again for a whole hour, then the sudden shock of lost time, the pressured zip down the 73 from his condo, Prussian blue Acura revving 80, barely making it, iced coffee through a straw, email on car-screen, no messages, no messages.  It was too soon to start calling his voicemail.  But now, sitting at his desk in the library, he felt like he’d left something back in Seattle.  His watch read 7:34.

The library’s holdings were extensive—as good as any public law library, in some respects better—and when Jim ascended from assistant to head librarian, he redesigned the floor plan: Federal Cases to the north, California Appellate Reports to the south, taxation, intellectual property, Uniform Commercial Code to the east, transactions, forms and business practices around the big window in the west. 

GDS rented a storage annex in the basement as big as a supermarket for everything else.  And in the center of the library: his oak desk on a raised dais flanked by both editions of the Annotated California Code.  If the lawyers needed to know the law of the land, they had to approach—supplicants at Jim’s altar, where a fat brass desk lamp made him glow like Moses fresh off the mountain. 

Then Scafandra came in through the library’s oak double-doors, her eyes already shrink-wrapped in tears, and Jim knew it would be like this.  He could have predicted it.  Forecasting Scafandra’s tears on a day she was late was about as hard as guessing rain after a week of darkness.

“You have no idea what I’ve gone through this morning.  It’s . . . I can’t even talk about it.”  She was a thin woman with delicate pale features and auburn hair, the sleeves of her mustard knit sweater rolled up into gigantic cuffs.  Her sweaters were psychic shields—always massive, always making her seem like she was dissolving into them, in need of assistance.

“Oh?” 

Scafandra Theory 101: any reaction at all will feed standard traumatic breakdown.  Any little cooing sounds that would normally mean sympathy and commiseration will cause one to be immediately sucked into 30-minute-long lateness-justifying vortex of pain.

“I was read-ended.  Rear-ended.  I don’t know what I’m gonna do.  I love that car.  That car is my life.”

“Oh?”

“My god.  What is this world coming to?  It’s just . . . life is just . . . sometimes, it’s too much.  Sometimes, I think I could, you know . . .”

“Rear-ended you say?”

Her cheeks were wet with tears.  Scafandra had skills, but there it was, the split-second glance, scanning Jim’s expression to see if she was making progress.

“Weren’t you listening?  It’s alright.  I don’t expect you to understand.  No one ever does.”

“You’re right,” said Jim.  “Some things are more important than being on time.”

Scafandra nodded, daubing her eyes with Kleenex from her purse.

He watched her go to her desk in the glass cubicle near the east wall, where the architects had originally meant the head librarian’s desk to be.  Jim knew that by lunch she’d be chipper again, tapping out messages to internet chat friends and humming to herself.  When he could see her sitting at her computer in the little glassed-off space, he unlocked a drawer and took out a sheet of GDS letterhead.  Below a long list of excuses, Jim made another entry complete with date, time, what she’d said, and how he’d responded. 

When he got to the bottom of the page (one more excuse to go—he hoped it would be good—lightning setting her dog on fire, all four tires blowing out spontaneously, abduction, smoking fissure opening beneath her straight to Hades) Jim would type a memo, circulate it to the partners of the firm, and that would be the end of Scafandra.  Until then, Jim would wait, serene, detached: 22nd floor law library bodhisattva.  Nothing bothered him.  Kung Fu.  The e-calendar’s icon, a radiant sun, smiled and winked at him from the corner of his computer screen.

It was strange the way he felt about Seattle.  Unpacking, he’d gone over everything.  All his bags had arrived, plastic-wrapped shirts layered and locked into place.  Nothing heavier than an anvil had been dropped on his valise.  Nothing lighter than socks came out.  No surprises.  No unsolved mysteries.  And yet, driving through Newport, Jim felt dreamy, detached, felt a nagging something in the back of his mind.  He called his voicemail.  You have . . . zero . . . messages

No emergency phone calls from the hotel or Sea-Tac about lost credit cards.  So . . . what?  Jim didn’t know.  But there was something going on here.  Something bothering him.  He called his voicemail again, as if the solution might have been in the beautiful scrollwork of her voice.  First, his own: There is no one here to receive your call.  The more Jim listened to it, the more it seemed like he had taken a sedative before recording the outgoing message.

Newport Center Drive was wide and full of BMWs.  Being on it was like docking at the galactic spaceport—everything huge, slowly pulling you in.  To the right, huge white office buildings like great latticeworks of bone with mirrors in the sockets.  To the left, a shopping center bigger than a city: Relax, we have you in a tractor beam.  The streets were full but traffic circulated with a low pulse.  People instinctively knew when it was their turn to glide.  They didn’t have to check.  At the light, a pigeon-haired man in a 745i gazed absently into his AC blast.  His face looked creamy tan like his leather interior.  He glanced at Jim, then shot ahead. 

Jim parked and walked into the mall—past the Towne Bistro that had waiters with white dinner jackets and its own domesticated tiger, past the koi pond, past the Venetian fountain with marble cherubs climbing over each other in a gigantic heap, the topmost one spitting up at a non-offensive slant, past the store that only sold toys guaranteed to raise a child’s IQ by a minimum of fifteen points.  It was Consumer Never-Never Land: Peter Pan, all grown up, buys a cell phone and a Bimmer, spends his time in boutiques with names like Anthropologie and Un Petit Cadeux

Jim didn’t mind the ambiance, always a faint tinkling in the air, a freshness, trellises of red Bougainvillea and tiny ornamental catwalks that only a cat could walk on.  But there were no cats, no birds, nothing that might offend.  Even the kids were well-behaved.  Something in the atmosphere weighed them down, made them walk dutifully, quietly beside their parents.  A group of them stood around the koi pond in silence, watching the thick golden fish swoop furiously back and forth without making the slightest ripple.

The shopping center was called Fashion Island, and it had one really great quality, one thing that made it different and better than most of the hulking malls of the world: Dream Houses.  Jim spent a hundred dollars there every time he visited.  Dream Houses was nestled on the other side of the rose atelier between Middle America and Anja’s Day Spa

He stopped at Middle America’s floor-to-ceiling window.  Inside, a fat, red-faced man in shirtsleeves was all smiles as he drove a pair of oxen across a plot of land.  Off to the side, his wife and son cheered.  He’d stop to wave and get his picture taken or have the attendant put new bandages on his hands—already bleeding from the wooden plow handles.  He loved it.  Off to the side, the manager, looking like she’d just stepped out of Anja’s in black Von Furstenberg chiffon, her hair at a wicked slant, sipped a cup of coffee and stared into infinity. 

People paid to help cultivate the land then got a gift basket later in the year full of the beets or turnips or kohlrabi they’d helped produce.  You could hear them happily going on about their crop in the Towne Bistro over a light wine and spanakopita, fresh white gauze across their hands.

But Dream Houses was different.  Ultimately, it was about people, about real life and its challenges.  Deep down, Jim liked to think of himself as a people person, and Dream Houses was where he interfaced with humanity.  This was the human condition.  And, for the price of a gold-plated sink faucet or a pair of high-toned brass knobs, it came dirt cheap. 

An extremely thin girl with burgundy hair sat at the DH front desk.  Her name was Leda.  In the year and a half he’d been a customer, Leda had never said more than two words to Jim, but those two words were enough.

“How long?”

“An hour would be good,” said Jim.

She smiled as if that was just right and gave a little Asian nod, even though she wasn’t Asian, tapping something into a computer that was part of the flat surface of her desk.   It looked like she was practicing scales, her purple-black nails ticking.

Jim walked past the desk and sat down on a twisted Sköna Hem sofa with green and white stripes.  This week was part of the Hide-a-Way Den series and the furnishings had a lush sink-into-me feeling, despite the pastel motif.  There were two sofas, a pale blue Italian divan, and a Yamakawa end-table engineered to slowly change its elevation as the wood aged.  Somehow, the designers had managed to sink the floor two steps down, and Jim wondered whether they’d built a whole new temporary level above the old one or simply exposed the original floor.  He stretched his legs and crossed them at the ankles. 

It started as a small home furnishings outlet with a different set interior every month.  But it grew into something more.  Now time inside was billed and there was a new interior every week.  One was expected to buy something, but that’s not why you came to Dream Houses

It was, quite simply, the best way to meet people.  Voyeurs and the occasional tourist excepted, DH had its regulars—people who appreciated style.  And the designers were gods.  Most of Dream Houses Online was dedicated to the twists and turns of their dramatic lives in exotic cities—Casablanca, Monte Carlo, Biarritz, St. Croix—one was cheating on his wife with a Finnish model; one might have been gay or a woman or a gay woman (10 gigs of posted speculation said the photos were fake); one had a club of Japanese schoolgirls dedicated to group suicide if he ever stopped cheating. 

Actors showed up at Dream Houses.  Rock stars got photographed in the secret exclusive DH franchise that operated by invitation only.  It wasn’t just a showroom, it was a way of life.  And, for one or two hours, you could become witty and graceful on your molded Italian chaise lounge; you could flirt provocatively over Ting dragon-cisterns filled with white roses and come away with a handsome mother-of-pearl sconce or an authentic Karastan throw as a memento.  The idea was to bring a little bit of it home with you every time.  Someday you’d reach perfection.

Jim knew he was far from perfect, but he also knew that the blonde on the other sofa was named Tiffany.  At least that was the name she used in Dream Houses. And, every week, they bridged the gap to perfection together.  Always, at their time, she’d be waiting—long straight hair, blue eyes, some cream Atsuko Kudo polymer shift that revealed just enough as it clung to her curves.  Was she married?  Did it matter?  Contact wasn’t allowed.  DH had its rules: no touching, no smoking, and no food—nothing that would jeopardize the merchandise.  It was that simple, and it was never a problem.

“You’re late,” said Tiffany.

“No.  You know that’s not true.”

“I’ve been waiting here forever.”  Her smile became a pout.  She tilted her head to smell roses in an onyx vase beside her without looking away.  “Where have you been?”

“Around,” said Jim.  “Why does it have to matter?”

“You know it matters.  It matters to me.”

“I’ve been at work.  Where else would I be?”  He folded his hands in his lap and looked down the long interior.  Beyond a silk partition of cranes in flight, a different couple was having a conversation, voices only murmurs in the stillness.

Tiffany and he had carried on this romance for nearly a year, and she was incredibly talented at keeping him interested.  One week, she’d be jealous, the next, bubbly and vivacious, the next, depressed.  The situation encouraged this behavior.  Relationships in Dream Houses depended on talking, on never letting things rest, never letting the conversation get predictable.  Boredom was a constant threat and mood swings, unlike in the outside world, were an asset here.  Tiffany was brilliant.  Sometimes Jim admired her ability so much he thought he actually was in love with her.

“Did you get my email?” 

Sometimes they sent each other email as a way to keep things going.  It was a good way to stay consistent or to let each other know of a time conflict.  But in her last message, Tiffany had very tentatively asked him out, said there was a mime who did the Rodney King beating to Japanese Butoh music.  He was exclusive.  She had tickets.  Did Jim want to go?  Et cetera.  She’d been off-hand, embedding it in a long discussion of DH’s bleached llama carpets and whether they were treating the llamas right. 

Jim was getting vaguely interested in the issue—whether Dream Houses ran clandestine llama farms, exporting glue and steaks to South America when the animals stopped putting out quality fiber—until she popped the question.  It sickened him.  Tiffany was willing to throw it all away, to violate the purity of what they had.  And for what?  Dinner and the usual?  She was missing the whole point.  He wrote her a long response, saying as much, then re-wrote it, then deleted it.  All he had to do was not respond, right?  He’d stay quiet, and things would continue.  Right?

“No,” he said.  “I haven’t checked.”

“You’re distant.”

“I am the way I’ve always been.  I don’t change.  I’m like the ocean, always there.”

“Like the distance, you mean.  Always over there.”

“Close your eyes.  You can sense me.”

“I’d rather feel you.”

“Don’t.”  He stared at the silk cranes.  The other couple’s conversation rose and fell like quiet tide.  Jim wished Tiffany and he could stop talking and just listen to it.  But she was changing.  Their situation was changing.  He tried to focus on a set of long black-dipped teak chimes that didn’t really chime, though they always looked about to.  And he knew that what had been good about Tiffany was drawing to an end.

“Well.”  She looked toward the lime-tinted storefront windows, where Leda was talking to what looked like three gigantic Swedes in jogging suits.  “I don’t know what I’m getting this time.”

“I’ve had my eye on that brass curtain-rod,” said Jim.

“I could say a lot . . . in response to that.”  Tiffany smirked—inappropriate on her porcelain features.  Women like her, thought Jim, should be cold and poised, removed, like high mountain snow that never melts.

And then, completely without warning, Tiffany did the unthinkable.  She sat down next to him and planted a wide warm kiss on the side of his neck.  It was a direct violation of the rules.  Jim froze.  They could both be permanently banned for something like this.

She had her arms around his neck and kissed him a second time before he thought to tell her to get back to the other sofa, that Leda might see them through the surveillance camera.

Leda was already standing there when he looked up.

“This has to stop,” Leda said, “right now.”

Tiffany sneered but let go of him and sat back.

“Wait.  It’s not what you think,” said Jim.

“I’m putting a violation in both of your accounts.  And I think your time is up.”  She stalked back to the front desk, her purple-black skirt swishing.

Jim sighed.  A violation meant no more discounts, no more updates, no more promotional offers or exclusive events.  Another violation and he’d be barred permanently, worldwide.

“I have to be somewhere,” he said and stood up.

Tiffany crossed one knee over the other and gave him a blank stare. 

Jim bought the brass curtain rod from Leda without looking at her.  He told himself he wouldn’t come back for a long, long time, but he knew that wasn’t true.  In the car, he started shaking, so he took a Hydrocodone from the plastic pill case in the glove-box.  One of the lawyers he worked with was a walking pharmacy and Jim helped bankroll his habit.  It was amazing how steady and calm he became with the help of synthetic opiates.

Voicemail told him he had zero messages; Jim stood in his darkened entryway and listened to the voice repeat a few times.  His apartment complex was shaped like a honeycomb—twelve-inch-thick cement walls, units angled so you didn’t have to look at anyone else.  Everyone had a balcony and could, in theory, see a shred of Newport Pacific; though, the apartments started on the fourth floor and went high enough that braving the balcony would have been a major undertaking for most of the retirees there. 

As far as Jim knew, he was the only resident under fifty.  His complex was always completely silent.  Everything was sound-proofed.  But tonight he couldn’t relax.  He kept thinking of Seattle.  What had he accomplished there?  He hadn’t met anyone—hadn’t even had the opportunity.  No one had paid any attention to him.  He’d passed through the convention like a heavily medicated ghost.

He went into the bedroom closet, took off his suede windbreaker, and hung it up.  It was half-past nine, almost time for bed.  Jim had let dinner drag out, sipping jasmine tea in Bao Voce—a new restaurant that served Vietnamese and Italian dishes together—and pretended to go over a research file from work, while eavesdropping on three drunk lawyers from Quill Collins, one of GDS’s rivals.  He hadn’t learned anything useful, but it helped pass the time.

He took off the rest of his clothes, folded them neatly, placing the stack in the sky-blue hamper at the back of the closet.  His apartment was completely dark except for the weak moonlight that glanced across the carpeting, making everything black or pale gray.  He never closed the drapes.  His unit was on the fifteenth floor.  Besides, the windows were an inch thick, didn’t open, and polarized automatically on sunny days.  He took down a shoebox from the closet’s top shelf and carried it out to the bed.

This wasn’t something Jim did every night, but he did it often enough that it had become like tacit punctuation at the end of a hard day.  He sat on the bed and took out a pair of Newcon NZT-22 hands-free night vision goggles.  They were SWAT issue from the 1980s: secured by a head strap, starlight technology, could be rotated up, away from one’s eyes along the canvass strap, which came down to Jim’s forehead and made his hair stick out to the sides like a cartoon scientist.  He clicked them on and the world turned bright green.  Jim looked strange in his bedroom mirror, naked and goggled with glowing green eyes, which, he knew, were being magnified by the starlight effect and were actually tiny points.

He’d bought them through a catalog years ago but hadn’t used them until he moved into this apartment.  Now he used them all the time because the old man who lived one unit down and two to the right was great entertainment at night.  Jim walked out onto his balcony.  It was warm, no wind.  Most of the other units were dark.  You could do anything on that balcony.  No one would see—commit murder, seal the body in the apartment; by the time anyone checked, it would be dust and teeth.

Jim had to stand at the very edge of the balcony and lean over in order to see into the old man’s unit, but it was a small price to pay for such good entertainment.  Jim didn’t know what the old man did during the day; no one ever saw anyone in the building coming or going. 

The dim hallways seemed to absorb all sound, and movement wasn’t easy—every floor required a numerical pass code, as did the elevator, the parking garage, the trash chutes.  Jim figured most of the residents simply stayed in their apartments, had their groceries delivered, kept their televisions turned up.  But the old man led a double life.  During the day, he did whatever he did, and at night he became a railroad magnate.

Without the night vision, Jim would still have been able to see the electric train moving through the hills and forests.  But he would have missed the important details: the small dog running beside the tracks while a boy called to it and waved his hands; the miner on a stretcher being carried out of an opening in a hill; a wooden bridge sagging and broken over the river; hobos hunched around a campfire behind the rock quarry. 

Above it all, the old man hovered in a tie and a pressed suit, keeping track of everything, wringing his hands, squinting through the gloom of his faintly lit apartment, talking to the train and then listening to it intently.  His entire living room had been turned into an electric set, and he noted all changes on a green chalkboard that was propped up at one end of the room—precipitation, supply and demand, date, time in fifteen-minute increments, profit, loss, employment, and “Projected Expenses for Next Fiscal Term.”

The train curved into other rooms where, Jim assumed, there were other wooden towns like the one in the corner of the living room—something like depression-era Kansas: old dirty buildings, drifters shuffling through the streets, shadowy train yards and tumbleweeds. 

The detail was astounding.  Jim was sure the ceiling of the living room was painted.  The walls were done as perfect three-dimensional extensions of the landscape, hills like the old man’s balding head sloped up from forests.  There were four bridges: two of wood, two of rusted iron.  And the river that ran beneath them went all over the landscape, widened where logs floated down toward the mill outside of town, and carried a boy on a small skiff.

The old man was deeply involved in the lives of his people.  He gestured dramatically to the hobos, gave advice to the boy on the skiff, moved the dog farther down the tracks and then consoled its owner as best he could.  He was the guardian spirit of the world he’d created.  The real entertainment wasn’t the train or the set.  It was the old man himself. 

When he’d turn the speed all the way up, the train would eventually derail, and he’d weep at the destruction—pine trees smashed, one of the drifters knocked to the other side of the mountain, the miner clattering down the slope with his stretcher-bearers.  The train would go over the half-broken wooden bridge and the old man would cover his mouth in worry.

Jim could watch him all night—how he held forth like Cato before the senate, making passionate speeches, gesturing, long unruly wisps of white at his temples and his fingers stained with chalk.  He’d been someone in his life, probably someone with a lot of responsibility, thought Jim.  And now he went through a full range of emotions every night. 

Buildings were destroyed and rebuilt the next day.  Hobos and drifters moved around the terrain, disappeared into other rooms, showed up days later at the edge of the trees or leaning against the wall of the train station.  Occasionally, the old man receded into the background so that, even with the night vision, Jim could only make out his silhouette, black-on-black, in the short hall that went to the other rooms.

And so it went: the old man in a pressed suit and the train circling through the rooms.  It did occur to Jim that he was equally ridiculous, perhaps more so, standing buck-naked on his balcony wearing night vision goggles.  But who cared?  A day in the life.  Jim only knew these things amused him.

This was a night when the old man wouldn’t stop the train to unload or link up new cars.  He just let it go and followed it around his apartment, drawing a hash mark in the corner of the chalkboard every time it made a complete circuit.  Jim wasn’t sure what the hash marks were supposed to accomplish, if they were building up to something or not. 

It didn’t matter.  The important thing was that the old man was there, doing what he loved, in deep conversation with the train.  Every so often, he’d gesture at it with an open hand, admonishing it, as if to say What did you expect?

Jim watched until he got his fill of smirking at the old man’s pained looks as he bent over the train and clasped his hands together, full of anxiety.  Jim leaned out over the balcony railing, enjoying every minute of it, the glowing green eyepoints of his goggles like tiny anonymous stars.

Of course, he was wearing a double-breasted Zegna with classic pleats today.  The e-calendar had laid it out in no uncertain terms: the moment is auspicious for Prada, Fendi, or Zegna as surely as Gladiolus blooms like the midday sun.  Jim was not completely sure what that meant, but his wardrobe Feng Shui was clear: Zegna in, everything else out.  The e-calendar’s radiant sun icon smiled and winked at him from the corner of his computer screen: friendly guardian spirit.  The ancients lit incense at the feet of icons, Jim double-clicked them.  It made sense.

The real question was why Scafandra had suddenly been possessed by the Daemon of Work.  She’d already cite-checked and proofed a 40-page pleading that one of the lawyers had left in the to-do tray the night before, and it didn’t look like she was even going to break for lunch.  This was not normal Scafandra behavior. 

Jim unlocked his desk drawer and looked at his List of Scafandra’s Excuses.  Had she picked the desk’s lock and found it or had she just reformed?  This morning, for the first time ever, she’d come in before Jim.  There she was behind the glass partition, eyes riveted on her computer screen, sections of the pleading in neat stacks across her desk.

But, of course, nothing ever changed; people certainly didn’t—always the same, whether cite-checking into the blurry gum-eyed afternoon, running only on coffee and the fear of getting axed, or banned from Dream Houses.  People, Jim knew, were as reliable as the California sky, static, dedicated body and soul to the usual—which presented certain fundamental truths about Scafandra, certain unquestionable realities.  Jim wondered if the stacks of paper on her desk were even real documents. 

Catlike, he made a long circuitous path through the oak-paneled stacks, suddenly pretending to be interested in California Real Estate Law 3d, then pirouetting through California Jurisprudence into the Federal Supplement shelves.  Pure stealth.  He snuck up behind her glass cubicle, walking only on the blades of his shoes so the carpet wouldn’t swish, and peered over her shoulder at the computer screen.

There was the pleading in all its tedious majesty.  Could it be that she was actually working?  Impossible.  He cleared his throat.

“Yes?”  Scafandra kept typing, didn’t turn, the day’s voluminous sweater making strands of her short auburn hair stick to her neck.  She’d had too much coffee and was sweating.  Jim stared at the back of her neck and imagined kissing it but banished the thought.  Scafandra was a problem.  One didn’t fantasize about kissing sweaty problems.

She stopped and swiveled.  “Yes?” 

“Aren’t you hot in that?”   

She cocked her head to the side.  “What do you need?” 

Jim hadn’t planned in advance.  “Well, I’ve been thinking.”  His mind raced. 

“That’s always good.”

“Right, well, do you eat?  Lunch?”

Scafandra glanced around the cubicle then back up at him.  “Is there a problem?”

Problem?  What did “problem” mean in this context?  Jim tried to focus.

“Are you alright?”  She crossed her arms and rolled back a few inches.

“No, I mean, are you going to take lunch?”  He noticed her eyes were the same light brown as her hair.

She frowned.

“Look,” he said, “I’ll buy you lunch.”

Scafandra seemed wary, half-shocked, like he’d just offered her a deal on some stolen TVs.  But she said okay and they were both suddenly relieved, each retreating back to their private spaces—Jim to his desk, furiously reading a random section of the California Code on dog bites, Scafandra making busy noises and clicking her mouse. 

How had this happened?  His nerves.  Suddenly Scafandra had morphed from irritating assistant to woman.  What did one do with a woman?  What would it mean to see her every day now that this had happened?  Jim thought: if I’m going to have a nervous breakdown, now would be the time.  A few minutes later, Scafandra sent him an email and disappeared with her purse in hand. 

Jim’s inbox bleeped just as the library’s double-doors closed silently behind her.  She said she’d meet him at Gordon Yow’s, an all-Hawaiian grill, just off Irvine Spectrum, where you could eat poi out of wooden bowls.  Jim made a mental note to surreptitiously check her car for rear-end damage when the moment presented itself.

He stared blankly at the email until the screensaver blinked on and passworded itself.  He was going to have to do this.  Any possible excuse Jim could have cooked up was now worthless.  There was no way she could be expected to check her email in the thirty minutes until they were supposed to meet. 

Jesus, he thought, spending social time with Scafandra . . . it was crazy, unthinkable.  Jim ordered his desk, locking his briefcase in a bottom cabinet.  He’d never been to Gordon Yow’s.  He didn’t know the terrain, possible distractions, possible escape routes.  At least at the Towne Bistro, they could watch the pet tiger and not speak.

He walked out of the library, between the glass-partitioned offices.  The world was busy sending faxes and barking into cell phones.  No one looked at him.  All internal walls were glass and Jim always got the feeling he was walking through a cross-section cutaway entitled “Law Firm.” 

One of the associates paced back and forth running his fingers through his hair over and over.  Another sat on the corner of his desk, gesturing at a webcam mounted on top of his computer screen, papers across desk and floor like a carpet of snow.  On the far side of the room, the smoked glass walls of the partners’ offices stood out like blackened teeth.  Jim saw the outline of someone leaning back in a chair, speaking to a silhouette on the other side of a desk.

Absolute truth: visiting the restaurants of Irvine is like visiting the smaller cities of eastern Europe one at a time.  You’re aware of the differences until you aren’t, until all the minarets and cathedrals look the same, until the soul-deadening sameness of the landscape signifies exactly that and nothing more. 

So: poi in wooden bowls.  There was a luau at Gordon Yow’s and Jim suddenly realized this wasn’t foreign terrain.  He knew everything about the place without ever having been there: the bartender, who he knew, knew, was named Chaz or Troy or Blair, who used to be a pro skater and now, you know, was, uh, trying to break into the entertainment business. 

The waitress in the silver ass-pants, just this side of whorish, who’d snap if you went a hair over her line—a line re-drawn so often she was practically occult.  But Jim didn’t want to flirt with her.  Jim didn’t want to flirt with anybody.  And, luau or not, lunch would have to be short and crisp with a straight shot clear back to the loading entrance if Scafandra started to make any sort of scene whatsoever.  Somewhere in the back, there would be a busboy willing to keep her busy for a twenty while Jim hit the freeway at speed.

He almost hoped it would come to that, peeking around an oversized fake palm at Scafandra, who was trying to do the same thing from a different palm ahead of him.  She hadn’t seen him yet.  Jim had arrived a half-minute before her and, instead of taking a table, he’d said he was meeting a friend.  The one who sat first would be the one who got observed, the one under the scope.  Hence this double-sneak, while grass-skirted Kanakahanaleya did a greased-up belly dance under a platter of roast pineapple and the coconut was flowing. 

But minarets, they keep pointing. 

And cathedral bells, they ring. 

And this landscape was never going to change.  Absolute truth.  Look at it forever, he’d see the same thing.  The sad part was that Jim knew it, maybe he’d always known it, like knowing burnished Sea-Tac in an upbust of fiery dawn when none of what happens is new and none of it any good.  Jim walked.  It was all too much.  He found three pills at the bottom of his pocket and swallowed them dry without looking. 

The energy was all wrong, nerves in his face twitching, hands getting cold like he was about to hyperventilate.  Wooden left-right, one step then another.  The glass doors, etched in gigantic Gordon Yow’s, opened to harsh parking lot light.  The moment was auspicious for escape as surely as Gladiolus dies in Orange County hardpan.  And his Acura: a glittering Prussian blue lifeboat amid all that space.

It was hot.  Shimmers reared up at the street’s vanishing point, making the distance look wet.  Jim pulled over.  He’d drifted across Irvine in a haze.  Somewhere along the way, his hands had started shaking bad.  Nerves.  Scafandra was back there under a latex palm, now hating him twice as much.  A parti-colored mass of University High students moved across the street.  In the shade of the tree-lined sidewalks, they looked like gumballs in a quarter machine, all the bright colors clumping through patches of light. 

Jim dialed his apartment: There is no one here to receive your call.  It felt like the vents were blowing hot air but the AC light was on.  Tiny fires kept starting inside his veins.  He didn’t know if it was nerves or pills.  Jim clicked the AC off and on, rolled down his window.  You have . . . zero . . . messages.  Someone a block over was pissed, beeping long streams of angry car horn into the air.  Jim got out, left his cell phone on the seat.  Now there would be a message to play back—a long sustained car horn.  It was something.

And then there was Hegemon: a store-front café, now owned by Starbucks, that was filled with loud furniture and no longer sold coffee.  He sat at the wooden counter and ordered a carbonated chocolate sundae.  It looked like normal ice-cream but, when you put it in your mouth, it had a faint fizz.  At least that’s what the little chalkboard over the register said. 

The pink-aproned woman behind the counter repeated a dollar amount for the third time, but Jim couldn’t focus.  He put down the loose bills that were in his pocket.  He wished he’d brought his phone.  It would’ve been really nice to hear her voice right then, to murmur something sweet back to her.  Yeah, baby, I know, I know.

The place was full of senior citizens.  In a puce loveseat, a skeletal grandmother spooned heaps of carbonated ice-cream into her mouth, mobile oxygen machine parked next to her like a robot companion.  On the stool beside Jim, an old man with wisps of white hair and a pressed blue suit sat down with a Register and a tumbler of peach frappe.

“Don’t I know you?” said Jim.

The old man unfolded his newspaper and scanned the front.  “Nope.”

Jim leaned toward him.  “No.  I do know you.  You live in my complex.”

“Nope.  Sorry,” said the old man, turning a page.

“You’ve got this incredible train—”

“Look, sport,” said the man, still not turning toward him, “I come in afternoons for a quiet frappe.  I don’t know what you’re on.”  He glanced quickly at the woman behind the counter.  “Excuse me,” he said, taking frappe and paper over to a purple velour sofa, where he sat between a cadaverous 80-year-old man in a straw hat and a fat woman in a sweat suit with an unlit pipe clamped between her lips.

I don’t know what I’m on.”  Jim thought: Valium, Xanax, Librax, Tranxene, baby-blue Vicadin, apple-green Hydrocodone.  The floor tilted when he stood up. 

The woman behind the counter stared at him.

Out front, the bus from the old folks’ home was still unloading.  Jim staggered around a woman’s walker toward his Acura.

Valium, Xanax, Tranxene, baby-blue Vicadin, apple-green Hydrocodone: the mantis was gone and Jim was stoned.  These are the facts of life in Sea-Tac at dawn when you don’t know what you’ve taken.  The pinwheel of memories behind him was still rolling through disjointed hours of the flight-time dark that put him here.  And nothing, nowhere, at no time would ever be auspicious again.

Jim had lost track.  He didn’t know how much of what he had taken pre-flight, during-flight, in what combinations.  Somewhere, in a medical reference, there was probably an entry for what was working inside him, but the mantis was gone so it didn’t matter.  He’d never know whether the little girl had blinded herself, impaled herself on the sculpture or not.  Or maybe there had never been a combination of chemicals like this in any person’s body in the known world.  Maybe he was beyond reference, off the map.  Maybe he’d become the map.  Jim staggered back a step, hugged himself.

He stood in front of the spot where the mantis had been.  The velvet stanchion ropes were still in place, cordoning-off a circle of empty carpet.  A passing janitor gave him a look.  His Zegna jacket had an ice cream stain up the right sleeve.  He’d gotten a few nosebleeds, and there were splotches of blood where he’d used his tie to wipe.  Jim’s shirt was out, left shoe undone.  He thought he should sit down; he had nowhere to go.  The familiar bulge of his wallet was missing from his pockets.  All he had left was his phone.

Jim walked to the same bank of plastic window seats he sat in before.  Had the mantis ever really been there?  If he turned around right now in his seat, would he see it again, all burnished chitinous mandibles and razor-sharp spines?  If the girl had killed herself, had tripped against it or gotten pushed back against the spines in his dream, would it have been any less tragic?  Jim would have asked someone, but there was nobody around—empty seats to vanishing points, black morning-dark windows—and words weren’t moving right in his mouth anyway. 

He speed-dialed home.  If this was all a drug hallucination, maybe this time she’d say something to him, something affectionate, understanding.  The phone slid out of his hand, down his wrinkled shirt as the peal of a miniature car horn came out of the speaker.  In the distance, the first flight of the day touched down.  And a fuel truck on an empty stretch of tarmac suddenly exploded: a marble-sized fireball from where Jim was sitting.  But he didn’t see it.  He was asleep.

A short short in the Tibetan sense.

Can you cover my shift?

No.  I got my grandfather’s funeral.  He’s died and been reborn so many times he’s just about Hindu.  I love him.  He’s magic.  He’s died seven times this semester alone and might go ten if I need an extension from Dr. Iltis on my Media and Society paper.   

He keeps on giving.

Yeah, but I’m in class with some of the guys here.  I can’t be coming to work if I’m saying I need to be at the crematorium in Lemoore.  The illusion must be preserved.

You mean the lie.

I’m an illusionist.  Lying takes no skill.  Any idiot can lie.

But it takes a special kind of idiot to do what you do.

Exactly.

My girlfriend, Francine, she’s gorgeous.  She took Media and Soceity three years ago.  So I might use her paper.  She’s really smart.  She had a Cowgirl Up! sticker on the back of her F150 until Iltis.  Then she got into State and got that internship at KFSR.  Now she knows everything.  It’s amazing.

No more Cowgirl Up?

Well, she got a hybrid.  She doesn’t know EVERYTHING, but she can explain anything.  Like, she knows why class polarization has created a false consciousness in the economically intersectioned urban underclass.

Damn, dude.

Right?  I don’t even know what the fuck that means.

She still bartending at the club?

Yeah.  I go out there on Friday afternoon and I drink for free.

The world is a wondrous place, my son.

Actually, grampa’s still alive.  But, you know, any day now . . .

And you won’t have to lie about it.

I’m not lying, actually.  Francine says we’re already dead in the Tibetan sense.  The minute we’re born, we’re dying.  And if we’re dying, we’re dead.  Think about it.

That’s pretty fucked up.

That’s the Tibetan sense.

Don’t send me to Tibet.  Where did she learn all that?  Media and Society?

I don’t know.  Maybe.  I haven’t learned anything in that class.  Then again, I haven’t bought the textbook, done any reading, or gone to it after the first meeting.

[laughter]

Man, I needed the credits.  Had to pull a jack move.

That’s all you do.  Pulling jack moves.  You’re a jack puller from way back.

You don’t even know.

I don’t.  And I don’t want to.

Ask Francine.  You know what she did?  We were in bed and—

Is this something I need to hear?

Just relax.  So we’re in bed and she rolls over and says, “Tell me about me.”

Tell you what?

That’s what I said.  But she’s like, “Tell me all about me.”  I mean, what’s there to say that we don’t already know?

About Francine?

Yeah.  I’ve been thinking about this.  If I told her something she knew I knew, it would have been pointless.  And if I told her something she didn’t know I knew, I’d be saying I was some creepy stalking motherfucker.  You know?  You can’t win.

So what’d you do?

I said it would be unromantic.  It would ruin the mystery.

Damn.  You’re good.

That, grasshopper, is a jack move.

So what’d she say?

She said she knew I’d say that.

She probably did.  In the Tibetan sense.

Doesn’t matter.  The situation was circumvented.  With a girl like Francine, with a mind like she’s got, you’ve got to stay awake.  You’ve got to keep her entertained.  She gets bored and it’s all over.  You wouldn’t believe the shit I have to come up with.

One slip and it’s back to Bob’s on Friday night.

I’ve got nothing against Bob.  Or the fact that I know you sad fuckers get shitfaced there three times a week.

We talked about you the other night.

Yeah?

Bob came out at bar time and we sat up maybe ’till five.  And somebody was like “Where’s Les?”  And then Bob goes, “I bet he’s with that college cutie works out at the radio station.”

That all?

We were pretty drunk by then.  It’s kind of a haze.

I go to college, too, you know.

No, you don’t.  City college doesn’t count.  And you have to attend your classes and actually learn things.

I’ve learned plenty.

You ain’t learned your ass from a hole in the ground.

[laughter]

Well, I know one thing.  This dock won’t sweep itself.

See, that’s your problem.  You think small.  I bet Francine would come up with a bunch of drones with little brushes on the bottoms and they’d sweep the dock in like 30 seconds.

You think you know what she’d do.  But you don’t know shit.  Sweep, my young apprentice, sweep—if we want payroll to work this month. 

Exactly.  Only then.  Only then can we get paid. 

[laughter]

A short story in B-flat minor.

To wake to the sound of dragonfly wings is a rare pleasure usually enjoyed only by dragonflies.  The insects were moving in.  Great powdery moths like slivers of cake stuck upside down on the lights.  Caravans of black ants.  A cricket under the dresser.  Creamy brown roaches dazed on the carpet, crawling slowly toward the wall.  I saw a millipede slither down the bathtub drain, its legs as thin as hairs.  The humidity had come and, with it, all manner of flyers and crawlers, web-spinners, egg-layers.  I expected nothing less; the house had been built in the middle of an old riverbed at the bottom of a canyon.

Eventually, it would rain.  A tide of thick, greasy mud would swallow the front steps and climb a few feet up the sides of the house, leaving curlicue hieroglyphics flaked over the chipped white slats when it dried.  With every rain, the hieroglyphs changed.  If only I could have read them, I might have finally learned something.  But I didn’t know a thing.

Thankfully, dragonflies do not change like the weather.  Waking to the sound of one perched by my head was a sudden moment of grace.  I watched it fly to the ceiling and land upside down as my Swedish girlfriend, Elli, blew into the living room.

“I told you not to open the fucking screens,” she said.

“Hi.”

She looked at me and dropped her purse on the carpet.  “How do we live like this?  We don’t.  That’s how.”  She began to blast the corners of the room with the palm-sized can of bug-spray she took with her everywhere, guaranteed to kill anything smaller than a mouse.

“Hard day at the office?”

She didn’t dignify that with a response, leaving me there on the couch under a cloud of pesticide while all the lesser carnivera rolled on their backs in agony. 

I looked up, but the dragonfly had disappeared.

When she finished purifying the room, Elli did what she did every day when she got home from work.  After long hours having sex in front of a webcam for money, she had to scrub every inch of herself under smoking hot water.  She’d emerge from the bathroom with a vehement look on her face, her fair skin poached red and steaming, the burgundy streaks in her swept-up black hair like dim veins of fire in an ash cloud.

The emeralds of the world take flight and, with them, horseflies, fruit beetles, the slow flap of a pigeon’s wings, jeweled eyes with legs hanging down in the buzz of the early evening.  I went outside, stood in front of the house, and looked across the canyon at a cloud of pale gnats churning over a burned-out car wreck so old it had no color beyond its rust—a sedan someone crashed years ago and left to cook on the canyon floor—and I wondered what died in it this time.

Having cleaned herself, Elli sat in the front window in her white bathrobe.  She lit up and blew smoke at the back of my head through the screen.  “Talk to me,” she said.  “I hate it when you don’t talk to me.”

“In the Mississippi Delta, a dragonfly in the house is good luck.  We had one today.  I hope you didn’t kill it.”

“You’ve never been there.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It’s a hoodoo thing I read about.”

“Hoodoo?  You don’t know fucking hoodoo.  This is Oregon.”

I nodded, looked at the sky, and thought, once again, about leaving.

Above the thorn bushes and poisoned fir trees, above the cracked stones at the canyon’s lip like bad broken teeth that should never be seen, pigeons and ravens fought over the air.  Behind them, gray sky and nothing but.  There’s no outside world when you’re living at the bottom of a canyon in a house from 1910, quarter-sunk in the mud of an old riverbed.

A friend of mine once wrote a haiku and gave it to me as a going-away present:

Murmuring traffic’s so far from the sea,

Still, you go farther, friend.

I thought of that poem and of the sea—not here near the Oregon coast, but in the southern California of my childhood—deserted Huntington Beach on a workday, yellow-white sand combed smooth by the wind, not a footprint, just the folding and refolding of the surf, the water’s blue-green shimmer, a seagull hanging still on the air like a kite.  I was 11 or 12.  If I left now, that’s where I’d want to go—to that time, not just that place. 

But the beach had changed.  California had changed.  My family, dead.  My fortune, lost.  Years, wasted.  The moment I left Elli, I’d be a genuine bum—no place of residence, no legal tender.  I had no job, no bank account to speak of, a suitcase full of clothes, and a $15,000 violin made by Sebastian Klotz of Mittenwald in 1743.

I played it for 5 hours a day—for free.  I played to the canyon and to the wrecked car and the gnats.  I played for the patronage of dragonflies and the largesse of cockroaches.  The broken rocks looked down from the balcony and the poisoned firs in the third row suffered a little bit less, I imagined, with LeClair in the air, a little curative Handel, Mozart after a rain.  Actually, the Klotz wasn’t worth a cent because I would never sell it.  So come, dear gnats, a little later, and we’ll have a nice Passacaglia in G-minor for your digestion.

Elli walked up next to me and squinted at the old wreck.  She’d put on a pair of cargo shorts and one of her tight T-shirts that had sassy, hep expressions across the tits.  This one said, ROCKSTAR, with a big gold star underneath.

“You going to come inside or stand here all night?”  She lit another cigarette off the remains of the previous one.  She smoked long, thin cigarettes and never packed the tobacco down.  A few unruly strands would sometimes stick out the tip.  I hated watching her light a cigarette when it was like that, seeing the strands of tobacco turn orange and curl.  I imagined them screaming in pain.

“You smoke like an old man in the park.”

“You think you’re funny,” she smirked, “but you’re not.  Come inside.”

Elli was only half-right.  I wasn’t funny.  But I knew I wasn’t.

The night unfolded the way it wanted to unfold, with Elli as the sexy, affected, Swedish center of the universe, and me as a half-bystander who knows he is not funny.

We played our game of cutthroat Monopoly, in which she insisted, as always, that I double-mortgage every one of my properties.  When I couldn’t make the rents, she offered me a one-time loan at 500% interest—and laughed.  When my hand accidentally brushed hers, she recoiled.  Tonight there would be no touching.  I was unclean.  Do not pass GO.  Advance token to nearest utility, but do not touch the owner thereof.

Later, I went outside and played to the rocks in the heat of our portable floodlight.  It immediately brought out the music lovers among the local moths and gnats, an  occasional cultured mosquito. 

Elli fell asleep in bed over her 2000-page fantasy novel, in which dragons with psychic powers take on human shape to save the world.  I came in and sat at the kitchen table in the dark.  Having opened every window screen, I felt things fly past my face, a sudden brush against the skin of my neck, the back of my hand.  I stayed there, drinking beer until I fell asleep with my forehead on my arms.  Sometime in the night, a coyote howled and I wished him well, one musician to another.  But it might have been a dream.

Elli was gone before I woke up—gone to have sex with another woman in front of a webcam for the gratification of adolescents all across the internet.  My friend Moe came by.  We smoked a very large joint, and I listened to him bitch about his English comp. students, but I knew he came around just to catch a glimpse of Elli.  Too late, Moe.

“I’m like, hello,this is not rocket science, you know?  Fucking junior college students, man, all they want to do is smoke out and get laid.”  Moe, with baseball cap on backwards, T-shirt, and beer belly, looked like the frat brother with the one-syllable nickname in all the college party movies.

“I should go back to school.”  I held in the smoke.

“All my students work at Taco Bell.  All of them.  You want one of these kids making your tacos?  That’s some crazy shit, man.  They can’t even set their margins right.  Too STONED.”

The trouble with Moe was that he had two masters degrees, a 3-page vita of academic honors and publications, and enough drugs in his body at any given moment to make him sublime—a pharmaceutical bodhisattva.  I couldn’t do anything for him.  I didn’t know what to say. 

All that enlightenment couldn’t keep him from falling in love with Elli.  And so the basis of our friendship had shifted from “we’re-two-losers” to “we’re-two-losers-but-you-don’t-appreciate-your-girlfriend-like-I-would-if-only-I-could-figure-out-how-to-let-her-know.”  When Moe wasn’t around, she referred to him as “den smutsiga svin,” the dirty swine.  When he was around, she didn’t refer to him at all.

“You know what we need?  We need a road trip.  When was the last time you took a road trip?”

“I think I was 19.”

“Exactly.  Why don’t grownups take road trips anymore?”

“Maybe they do.  I don’t know what grownups do.”  I smiled at Moe to calm him.  He was getting agitated, talking with his hands.

“You get married, right?  Your wife pumps out a kid or three.  You quit drinking and going to parties, lose all your friends, start clipping coupons.  It’s sad.  It sucks.  You get a fat ass.  You have to fight it.”

“Right.”  I picked up his tweezers and used it to hold the last smoldering bit of joint to my lips.

“Yeah, just the 3 of us, just get in the car some weekend, say fuck it, drive to Vegas.  What’s Vegas?  17 hours?  17 hours is child’s play.”

I nodded.  “Just the 3 of us.”

Moe stopped gesturing, his hands in his lap, palms up, like two pale crabs that had died at the bottom of a tank.  He looked down at them and blushed.

“You got any chips?”

“Let’s get a taco,” I said.

Parlance means a way of speaking, but nobody in Parlance, OR, seemed to talk much.  Locals drifted the main street like old reeds traveling vertically on the wind.  Fog in the mornings.  Overcast with drizzle in the afternoons.  Christmas lights on a combine harvester blinking a mile out every night.

Drive 28 miles east from The Dalles off the 84 and you hit Parlance.  Actually, you don’t hit it.  You miss it.  It’s too small to hit.  But, if you’re trying for it, if, for example, you’ve got good aim and a reason and a car that won’t get stuck in the mud, then you might succeed where so many lack the presence of mind to even fail: our town of Parlance.  It seemed more like the collection box at church than a town, a few sad-looking bills crumpled on green felt, a destination that, one feels, won’t do the bills or the box any good. 

Still, the town is there.  Somebody went ahead and put it on the map.  And, sitting in the Dixie Diner, contemplating the Russian sandwich I didn’t really want, I knew that Moe and I were two of those somebodys—two random fools supporting the local economy in cheap beer and Russian sandwiches, toilet paper, and sometimes a tank of gas.

Moe looked like he fit in, but he didn’t.  Once you got past his belly, his Harley T-shirt, the Orioles ball cap with the curve he’d put in the brim, all the drug talk, and the lewd comments about assorted women, you started to see the edges of his personality.  You started to see that all this stuff was only a smokescreen he threw up so people wouldn’t realize how angry he was with just about everything. 

He should have been sitting in the faculty lounge at NYU in a half-buttoned Brooks Brothers with a world-weary expression on his face, listening to some over-privileged student pitch a line of bullshit.  I should have been back in southern California, 10 years old in my uncle’s little pink stucco house with a tree outside my window and the Klotz singing in my hands.  But I didn’t have the Klotz back then. 

Moe was saying something about how happy he was that we forewent Taco Bell this time so he didn’t have to see his students, and I was nodding, but I was thinking about how life could have turned out differently if I’d owned the Klotz when I was young.  Would I have been sitting in the Dixie Diner?  Would I have ever polluted myself with a Russian sandwich? 

Moe said something inconsequential, yet another thing.  I looked at the watery depth of his eyes, at his own inner-self—which was also far away, thinking about something else—and tried to forgive him for all his anger and horniness and desperation. I thought about Elli, wondered if she was home yet, killing insects and scalding herself back to goodness, then picked up the Russian sandwich and examined it from various angles.

The question, posed: how does one live at the bottom of a canyon in Oregon?

The answer: an access road.

It wound down the side of the canyon and had enough boulders in it to support Elli’s Jeep even after a rain.  The trouble was that after a rain—like the one that had just swooped down two hours ago, disappearing as suddenly as it came—thick, greasy mud formed instantly.  Elli had to drive slowly.  There was no other way.  Her Jeep had to creep down the rocky slope like the water beetle currently vacationing in our sink.  Maybe that was what frustrated her so much: she had to drive like an insect.

“Ha-ha,” I said to the large white cat that had come to clean its fur while I tuned up for the day’s practice.  It wore a sky-blue collar that had a metal tag underneath shaped like a heart.  The cat scratched itself and the heart jingled.

“Don’t you see the irony?” I asked no one in particular—maybe the air or the cat.  I decided either the whole insect-killer-becoming-an-insect-metamorphosis-thing was lost on the cat or it had no sense of the absurd.  It looked up at me and blinked, then went back to its grooming.  It kept itself pure white while everything else, including my shoes and the cuffs of my jeans, was covered in dark mud.  How did it accomplish this?  Practice, I thought.

I drew out the opening to Spohr’s Duo Concertante in D-major as a warm-up, violating the phrasing but enjoying it.  I’d learned both parts; though, the prospects of getting a second violinist down through the mud were no doubt very slim. Elli drove too far to her left and the left rear wheel of the Jeep spun, fanning ropes of mud into the air.  The cat looked at her, then at me, and blinked.  Elli needed more practice.

I nodded: “My thoughts exactly.”

The cat and I had an understanding.  If it had had opposable thumbs, I’d have taught it the violin.

It took Elli a shower and a comprehensive house-purification before she was ready to speak in non-cusswords.  Later, I sat on the couch and smirked as she strafed the corners of the room and stomped whatever tried to reach the cover of the hassock or the old floor-heater. There was something enticing about motherfucker said in a Swedish accent that I couldn’t explain.  Occassionally, she’d shoot me a dark look.

“I saw the swine at the market and had to talk to him.  It pissed me off.”

The white cat stopped in front of the screen door and stared in at us with a wary look on its face.  Elli had scared it earlier when she’d gotten out of the Jeep, cursing, half-covered in mud, and tried to give it a kick.

“There’s something wrong with him,” she said.  “I don’t know—he’s weird or something.  I hate him.”

“Let’s not talk about him, okay?  He is who he is.”  If there were a composer named Scales, he would have been the most famous musician who ever lived.  “Know who wrote this piece?”

“You’re playing a scale, you idiot.”

“Ha ha ha, I make joke,” I said, letting B-flat-minor roll up two octaves and back down, playing legato, making sure each note caressed the one after it like perfect little cushions all in a row.

“But can you say what do you get being friends with him?”

I looked over at her.  “What does anybody get?  What could anybody ever get?  What do you get hanging out with me?”

Elli raised an eyebrow, looked away.  “That’s a good question.  Somebody asked me that a few days ago and I didn’t know what to tell him.”

“Is this where I get sad and withdrawn?”  I felt myself smile and I turned my attention to the scale.

“I’m moving out if you don’t get a job.”

“You say that every week.”

“You have to be a man.  I mean it.”

I shrugged and stood up, still working B-flat-minor.  “It’s your house.”

She did mean it.  But the thing that kept me from getting a job was the same thing that kept her from leaving.  It was a thing, an invisible force, a blanket of inertia.  It wasn’t the house.

“You’re the worst part of my life,” she said.

“Worse than your job?”

“Fuck you, asshole.”

I opened the screen door with my foot, having transitioned to D-major.  The white cat gave me room, blinked, looked away.

I went for days without seeing another dragonfly.

A short short in the style of Tony Earley.

It was time for the end of the world again.  We thought it was going to end in December of 2012, but in our exuberance, we’d miscalculated the date of our ultimate annihilation.  Now, eight years of heartbreak and trouble later, we were informed that we’d been using the wrong calendar and that the end of the world was actually next week.  The cosmic numerology seemed to work out if we took the differences between Julian and Gregorian calendars into consideration.  So there was some cause for optimism.

We’d come to understand that very soon the Bolon Yokte Kuh, the nine Mayan underworld gods, would initiate an endgame scenario with the 13 Deities of Heaven, rendering the earth as naught but a pile of feathery ash expanding through the void.  And we felt we were ready for that, all things considered.  Though it may have seemed impulsive and irresponsible for us to get our hopes up yet again, we felt this apocalypse might be the one.

After the last armageddon came and went, we were inconsolable.  We never quite got over our disappointment.  So this time meant a lot.  Ibrahim still had to work 15 hour days in Crown News & Liquor because his grandpa had the gout and there wasn’t enough space behind the register for the old man to sit. 

Ibrahim’s girlfriend, Katrina, got trapped in the middle of a riot a few weeks earlier.  Now her hair had gone bone-white and, we thought, probably would stay that way forever.  She’d stopped crying, but now she stared a lot more, which made me feel uncomfortable, and sometimes her mouth hung open.  Ibrahim said it was a phase, that his Uncle Maheer was like that after the war back in Beirut, but he got over it.

I lived over the shop, paid rent to grandpa, and had nothing to do with my unemployed lockdown-riot life, since all English courses at the high school were now taught by a secretary and a computer program.  Therefore, I spent my nights helping Ibrahim rebuild the place while Katrina sat in a metal folding chair by the shattered cold cases and watched.

The day we heard the good news about the earth’s impending destruction, Crown News & Liquor also got custom-cut plywood to fit in the empty spaces where there had once been front window glass.  So there was more than one reason to celebrate. 

That night, we took off our surgical masks and had a beer together before getting back to it.  Katrina was also in attendance (I mean, of course she was) with no mask, in her folding chair, staring hard.

“You’re gonna get us all covided,” I said, half kidding but not really.

Katrina looked at me, then said, very slowly, “I’m not infected.”

I nodded.  Yes. Not infected.

“She speaks,” I said.

“It’s okay,” Ibrahim push-broomed a drift of shattered storefront glass into the big pile in the center of the room, where Doritos bags and Snickers bars used to sit on steel display racks.  “She’s not really looking at you, bro.  More like through you.”

“Through me? At what?”

He went to the door to cuss out some kids who didn’t read the sign and thought the shop was open.  Then he resumed sweeping.  “At the sadness.”

We’d been working on what remained of the shop for days and it looked like we hadn’t even started. Grandpa was depressed. Now his shop was in the Temporary Autonomous Zone. There were no police allowed. Hold back the Doritos and hungry arsonists might flambé you in your sleep.

“The sadness must be something.”

“It is,” Ibrahim said, looking out the door, holding the push broom with both hands like a pike designed to unhorse knights.  “It really fucking is.”

Out in the street, we saw the kids get chased by three guys with bats and kitchen knives.  Even if the world was finally, thankfully coming to an end, I decided I’d better look around for a gun sometime soon. The Bolon Yokte Kuh would understand.

“To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.”

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

My latest on Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/what-happens-to-the-good-cops

Read about it on Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/healing-and-rage-don-t-mix

Write seriously for any length of time and you learn that it’s a lonely business.  Whether you’re writing essays, stories, poems, scripts, or novels, it’s just you and the page every day with no guarantee that your enormous investment of time, emotion, and energy is ever going to reach a satisfying conclusion.  As Charles Bukowski wrote, you’re “betting on the muse.”  And the muse is a cruel mistress.

Even if she’s the love of your life, sometimes you find yourself wishing the two of you had never met.  Maybe, you think, if I hadn’t gotten addicted to writing, I might have made real progress in a day job.  I might even have reached a point where I could have moved out of my tiny apartment, started paying off my student loans, and bought a car less than 30 years old, a respectable adult at last.

Instead, I chose to take all that energy and put it into words.  When I’m lucky, when the muse deals me a good hand and I play it for all it’s worth, the words seem like they’ll never stop.  There’s no better feeling than that.  But no one can be lucky all the time.  And sometimes you just go bust.

It doesn’t matter whether writing is a hobby or the way you keep the lights on.  All writers have to face the same ups and downs, the same uncertainties, the same droughts, the same bad runs, the same unforgiving emptiness of a blank page with the muse nowhere to be found.  Even the most talented among us can feel like imposters when we bet it all on one hand, fold, and leave the table with nothing but pocket lint and remorse. 

But now we’re in a new abnormal.  There’s a virus and civil unrest in the streets.   Everything’s shuttered or broken.  And our homes have become sci-fi biodomes where we drift through the day in a weird online approximation of the lives we used to lead.  Lockdowns do that.  Pandemics can change everything, even our writing habits.   

Attending a poetry reading or just walking through a bookstore can feel like playing chess with the reaper.  Surgical gear is the new black.  And we can’t waste time in a coffee shop anymore, glowering at a blank screen over a latte with enough sugar to induce an intracranial coma in an elephant.  That was the old world, old rules, old normal.  Now everyone’s socially distanced and weird.  Now everyone’s living like a writer. 

We wait for life to reacquire some semblance of normalcy.  We grieve for those who’ve died and want to safeguard the lives of those who haven’t.  We keep in mind that all life is precious and that we’re in this together.  And we hope that those who are now unemployed or alone or going into debt because of COVID-19 can find a way forward.  We hope this for ourselves, too.

Yet, as with any pandemic, riot, or plague, there are darkly amusing dimensions.  As a friend of mine put it recently, “This can’t go on for much longer.  It’s just too stupid.”  I had to agree.  It is.  Then again, he’s not used to betting on the muse, to leading a solitary hidden life with no assurance that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t just an oncoming train.  Writers are especially poised to continue work through a pandemic.

 

State Dependency Writing Works in a Lockdown

Ever wonder why you can’t seem to get into a good flow state without your bagel and cup of coffee?  Why the little rituals and routines of settling down to write seem so essential?  When you look at them rationally, they’re really nothing—small mundane comforts, little observances in your personal space, that pink bathrobe with the embroidered toucan on the back you only wear when you write. 

Was it grandma’s?  Did you get it at a yard sale in 1993?  Or was it always waiting for you up there in the attic, waiting to become the key element that helped you finish your first novel manuscript?  You don’t want to think about it.  It’s your magic writing bathrobe.  If you look at it too closely, the magic might go away.

I understand.  I’m not here to gainsay your magic.  But I will suggest that memory and brain chemistry are part of it.  And this is why it still works when the rest of the world is stuck at home, day drinking and fantasizing about haircuts.  Therapist and licensed counselor, David Joel Miller, calls it “environmental context-dependent memory” or “situational memory.”  And it’s probably why I’ll be acknowledging Krispy Kreme when my third story collection gets taken.

Miller explains it as “an ability to remember information in one situation that you are unable to remember in another.”  It’s closely related to state-dependent memory, which has more to do with internal chemistry than with location.  Generally, we can say that both types of “state dependency” are invoked by our little magical writing habits. 

 

Are We Talking About Trance States?

Yes and no.  If “trance” is defined broadly as an altered mental state, then yes.  We go into trances all the time—driving our kids to school, washing the dishes, binging five seasons of a show we can barely remember a few days later.  When we do anything familiar enough that it becomes rote, we’re probably doing it in a light trance state.

This is not inducing a David Lynchian out-of-body dissociative episode where we have a conversation with a dead prophet on top of an Aztec pyramid and realize the existential meaning of our lives.  We’re awake.  We’re functional.  We’re just in the flow state that Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the founder of Positive Psychology, describes as a period of total absorption.

He calls flow “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”  That sounds like my compulsive writing habit, my ongoing love affair with the muse.  I also know that, when she deals me a bum hand, flow is impossible.

So just as a gambler will blow on the dice, keep a lucky talisman in a vest pocket, or say a quick prayer to Our Lady of the Full House, we fire up a triple espresso and get a chocolate iced glazed donut.  We creep up to the attic and put on our toucan bathrobe.  Because these invoke our situational memory of having written, of being in that enjoyable flow state.

 

Speaking of the Devil

Legendary writer and Iowa Writers Workshop professor, Madison Smartt Bell, recommends everything from post-hypnotic suggestion to binaural beats.  In a 2011 New Yorker interview about his novel, The Color of Night, he notes that  “Normally most writers don’t say, ‘I’m going into a mild hypnotic trance.’ Typically they don’t know how they do it. . . . Most people, when they have a good experience writing, they’re well placed in that state, which is also sometimes called a ‘flow state.’ If you don’t have trouble, you don’t have to think about it. But if for some reason you can’t get into that state, then you start to have writer’s block.” 

Most of my pragmatic fiction writing teachers didn’t like to talk about writer’s block.  Often, they denied its existence completely.  I think it was because they were superstitious.  Speak of the devil and he might appear.  The most instruction I ever got along these lines was in the last year of my MFA, when the leader of our advanced fiction workshop said: “Your job as a writer is to go into a trance such that, when you come out of it, there are words on the page.”

So here we are in this afraid new locked down world with non-writers drinking wine in our attic and sad news on television.  In times like this, writing is as essential as any form of art.  And we’re the ones to do it.  

We simply have to remember that even though the muse is fickle, even though sometimes we’ll hit a bad run, we can improve our odds by sticking to our rituals.  When we can forget what’s going on in the outside world and enter flow, we won’t be writing in spite of the lockdown.  We’ll just be writing.  And that’s a wonderful place to be.

The time will come—I don’t know when but sooner than we’d like—when many in positions of authority are going to have to decide what orders that they may receive should be considered unlawful by statute, by the Constitution, and even by international law. Start thinking on it now.

Seth Abramson, 1 June 2020

 

 

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/navigating-literary-siberia

A short short about interpretive horticulture.

 

Over lunch, Luke tells me about the murder, how he looked up and saw a black cow standing all by itself in the field.  And how that was what made him cry.  After everything.  The cow standing there all alone, completely black.

Luke says he’s not afraid anymore.

I look for a cigarette, then think I must be losing my mind since I’ve been quit for over a year.  Luke has switched to vaping.  So I can’t bum one off him.  Instead, I ask why he came to San Diego, but he only adjusts his sunglasses and shrugs.

Life fell apart, he says, when he quit drinking.  Marianne got promoted.  He couldn’t go out anymore.  His sponsor relapsed, disappeared.  He spent a lot of nights alone.

“So that’s why—it happened?”  I can’t bring myself to say it.

The waiter comes over and asks if we want anything else.  I order another beer.  Luke gets a club soda.

“That’s just it.  I don’t know.  It wasn’t me.”

The wind blows a plastic bag along the sidewalk by our table and we both look down at it instead of at each other.

“She was beautiful that day.”

Two blocks west, Pacific Beach rolls white static in the heat.  We can look down Chalcedony Street and see the thin line of the break coming in.  Everybody here is tan except Luke, who’s a waxy Missouri pale.  He got thin since I left Hauberk.  He grew his hair long, dyed it black.

“I don’t understand,” I say.

He looks at a waitress inside the cafe laughing at a table with three blond surfers.  “I don’t understand, either.”

But Luke says he remembers everything.  He’ll never forget how happy Marianne was when Bulldog moved her desk into his office.  Bulldog has a real name.  Everyone just calls him that out of affection, but everyone hates him.

“Marianne hated him.  But she was so happy.”

“She always seemed happy.”

Luke takes out his vape pen.  It’s chrome, has GOLIATH down the side in a space-age font.

“You met her twice,” he says.

She started going out after work with guys from the office.  To Nene’s, the Burmese Lounge, the Five Dimes.  He’d call around until he found her, ask her to come home.  Luke was never invited.  What was he going to do?  Sit there and drink 7-Up?  He tells me nobody liked him.  Bulldog made fun of him, called him Sauron.  Marianne thought it was funny.

“She didn’t really think it was funny.  She just said she did.”

“Is that why—”

Luke exhales a thick cloud that smells like a chocolate liqueur dissolved in alcohol.  “Stop.  Can you please?”

I feel embarrassed even though I didn’t do anything.  I don’t know where to put my hands now that I’m done with my salad.  So I put them in my pockets, which still feels awkward.  But Luke doesn’t notice.  He’s watching the waitress talk to the surfers inside.

I’ve never met Bulldog, but I’ve met Marianne and I can imagine: up goes her desk to the third floor right next to the Dog, who’s taking her out to Nene’s later with the lucky few who can’t say no.  And Sauron isn’t coming because, frankly, he’s embarrassing and uncomfortable and not too stable.  And what’s she doing with him anyway?

I picture Luke next to Marianne in the dark, eyes open, maybe whispering her name, maybe putting his hand on her arm.  That’s great, but their lives, like their stuff, are all mixed up together because they’ve been living with each other for three years.  Situations like that don’t get solved by calling around at bar time or touching someone’s arm in the middle of the night.  Maybe she says, “Luke, let’s get some sleep.”  And maybe that’s what they pretend to do.

He tells me how numb he feels.  “Like I’ve been away somewhere for a really long time.  Like I’m someone I don’t know.”

“That’s how you seem to me, too.  No offense.”

“None taken.”

He vapes.  He watches the waitress inside the cafe.  I look at the V of ocean down at the end of Chalcedony Street and think about how the water is pale jade but it looked gunmetal a week ago and how this is a lesson of some kind.

Luke could have learned to accept Bulldog in Marianne’s life.  “He has this five-story house in north Hauberk.  One of the old Victorians.  It used to be the girls’ school.  He has a refrigerator that plays music.  His wife, Kathy, she wears a lot of gold.  She’s a treasury.  That’s what he says, my baby’s a treasury.  But he means all the gold.”  And it could have been okay like that.  But the one time Luke and Marianne came over for dinner, Kathy’s old shih tzu pissed on Luke’s leg.  So Bulldog threw Luke out.

“Funny that he’s named Bulldog and he has a dog.”

“Marianne thought so.”

“Sorry.”

Luke looks at me.  I can’t see his eyes behind his black aviators.

“Nobody’s ever sorry,” he says.

He’s not the kid I knew in high school.  Piers Anthony novels at lunch and Judge Dredd comics and too much Black Sabbath and his dad on duty in Gavin Long Men’s Facility five nights a week.  His mom died before he got to know her.  Maybe that’s what we’ll say in the end—that’s what fucked Luke up.  But in the end no one will probably say anything.  Marianne’s dead.  I don’t know what it means.

“So I ran over the dog.  It’s name was Scruffy.  I ran over Scruffy.”

“Did you kill anything else?”

“No.  Just the dog.”

I nod, like, that’s good.  It’s good you only murdered one human and one dog.

“It didn’t suffer.”

Two years ago, I went back to Hauberk for my uncle’s farewell.  Luke came and it was good to see him.  He was quiet, stood in the back of the church, and tried not to stare when my aunt collapsed on the coffin.  Who will go to Marianne’s funeral?  Will Luke stand in the back and try not to stare?  Will I?

“Where are you going now?”

“Mexico, I think.  Maybe nowhere.  I stabbed her.  With a bread knife.”

“Jesus Christ, man.  I mean—”

“I stabbed her and she was wearing this Hawaiian sun dress.  It was white but it had huge red flowers on it.  You couldn’t see anything.  She didn’t suffer.  I promise.”

“Alright,” I whisper.  “I guess that’s good.”

Tears run down under his aviators, but his mouth stays flat, his voice level.  “You believe me, don’t you?  That she didn’t suffer?”

“I believe you.”

“We were having a picnic by this little stream.  It was a good place.  It was peaceful.  You could hear the water on the rocks.  Then I looked up at that black cow.  And it didn’t seem nice anymore.”

My throat’s too tight to speak.  I drink some beer.  Then I look at Luke and say, “Yes.  I understand.”

The first time I realized I didn’t have the temperament to be a concert pianist, I was sitting in an enormous practice hall at San Diego State University with my teacher, Dr. Conrad.  I was 16 years old.  Eight years before that, through a serendipitous confluence of family connections, happenstance, and generosity on the part of my mother, I’d started taking piano lessons from him at $10 a week.

Even in 1989, that amount seemed considerable, given that living in San Diego ate up most of my father’s middle-class teaching salary and my mom wasn’t working.  So I felt rightly privileged to learn from a professor of piano and composition, who I discovered many years later, actually had a reputation as being one of the most difficult, ferocious members of the music department. 

To me, he was a kind gentle person, always willing to cancel a session to talk about the lives of the composers or take me down to the recital hall to look at the harpsichords or just tell jokes.  One day, we took an upright piano apart, piece by piece, to look at how it worked and produced its range of sounds.  The experience had me fantasizing about becoming a professional piano tuner for years. 

But really I was just in awe of Dr. Conrad, who seemed surrounded at all times by an aura of brilliance and gentility and yet had a goofy sense of humor and a love of children.  I learned more from him about music, teaching, and life than anyone I can think of.  He was an important person to me.

But the day he told me I just didn’t have it, I took it very hard.  I knew a number of kids at my school who were into theater and music, many of whom had formal training like me, but who always seemed better, sharper, one step ahead.  It kept me up at night.  I wanted to be like them, as good as they were. 

Having been surrounded by poets, painters, and professors throughout my short life, I thought creative artists, especially classical musicians, were a breed apart.  My idol at the time was John Field, an Irish pianist who studied under Muzio Clementi.  He was considered a weak student early on, but he rose to greatness later in life, praised by Beethoven, and even mentioned in War and Peace.  The reasons I took him as a model should be obvious.

That improbable dream seemed to melt away the day I asked Dr. Conrad the ultimate stupid question, one that I have since been asked many times by young (and more than a few older) writing students: Do I have the talent to make this a career?  It’s a horrible question, one that should never be asked by or of anyone, not even of oneself. 

Unfortunately, it’s asked by everyone at least once, and it’s something every art teacher hears over and over.  Do I have it?  Am I good enough?  Am I worthy?  Will Béla Bartok let me into heaven?  Will Gustav Holst discourse with me on the nature of the spheres while Mozart packs my bong?  I know das Leben ist kurz, aber die Kunst ist lang, but I’m ready to go the distance.

Up to that day, I’d had no idea Dr. Conrad smoked.  Besides, it was forbidden in the practice halls.  But before he answered my question, he motioned me outside.  The hall with about 50 grand pianos was on the second floor and, from the balcony walkway outside, we could see the women’s gymnasium, the campus tennis courts, and the great parking lot beyond, packed with cars glittering in the late afternoon.

It was windy that day.  I remember Dr. Conrad setting a lit cigarette in the corner of his mouth, crossing his arms, looking into the distance, and thinking for a moment.  He had the habit of stopping to think, as if he were listening to a voice only he could hear, and I knew not to interrupt him.  But it only made the moment heavier, more dreadful, as if my entire future depended on what he was about to say.

After what seemed like a very long moment, he flicked ash over the metal railing, looked at me, and said, “Michael, you’re very creative and I have no doubt that you will find the right way, but you lack the temperament for serious musical study.”

I nodded.  What could I do but nod?

Then he said, “I think we’re through for today.”  Because he knew that if you’re going to tell someone what you consider to be a hard truth, you have to allow them time to mourn their lies, their comforting illusions.

Of course, I was crushed.  But there was nothing but honesty and kindness in him when he said it.  And even then, I knew that when someone speaks the truth at that level, with that much transparency and, actually, compassion, you should accept it at face value.  You might not agree with it, but you cannot disagree with the sincerity behind it. 

A very deep part of me knew that he was right.  It would take years for me to fully accept it, years spent both struggling with music and becoming fascinated with English literature and essay writing.  It was me finding my true will, that path Dr. Conrad said he had no doubt I would eventually discover.  But it wasn’t pleasant; it took a long time; and it demanded a lot in return—the general template for most things in my life.

I was a weak music student, but not because I didn’t practice hard.  I practiced so hard that at times it affected my health.  I had the obsessive nature of a musician without the bifurcated mind necessary to be both mathematician and sculptor at the same time.  In retrospect, even then, I thought more like a writer, but I wouldn’t realize this about myself for almost a decade.

At the time, my dedication to piano, though misplaced, brought me a certain amount of instructive grief.  I took a long time to analyze pieces; I was often deeply, inconsolably frustrated at my technical inability; and my adolescent self-doubt was only amplified by these things, rendering me morose and miserable much of the time.  Add to that, my lack of social development and the fact that my heroes weren’t celebrities or pop stars but 17th and 18th century composers.  And I had the perfect recipe for spontaneous teenage bridge jumping.

Though I came close a few times, I would not trade those grueling hours in the practice rooms or my loneliness—as much due to the other facets of my life as my musical studies—for anything.  I learned discipline.  I learned what it is to do everything right and still fail.  I learned compassion.  I learned to revere the creative life as one of invisible risks, enormous sacrifices, and sometimes rewards that make those things worthwhile.  And I learned the value of telling the hard truth as I understood it to my own future students.

Dr. Conrad never told me I didn’t have talent.  He always said that’s something no one can know, not even about oneself.  He told me I didn’t have the temperament.  And that’s why he was correct.  I have the temperament of a writer, something he recognized but didn’t know well enough to name.  His world was music.  And because of him, I was able to exist in that world long enough to acquire some of its virtues and vices.

When I do play piano these days, it’s for my own amusement.  And I can only be amused at my ability (and lack thereof).  In the fullness of time, when I get my Roland out of storage, I think I’d like to start practicing again, maybe learn some Professor Longhair.  If I manage it, one day I can be that grinning old man with long white hair, playing boogie woogie on his balcony. 

Who’s that up there?

Just some old creep, honey.  Don’t look at him.  Get in the car.

A short short about an epilogue.

 

You want a book and a blanket, warm shoes, a strong cup of coffee.  You want interesting birds at a comfortable distance, flowers nodding in the sun, forgetfulness at least for a time.  You even want redemption, relief, the past to stay past—even as it reaches out somehow to the present—symbolically, perhaps in dreams or in the figure of shadows beneath the trees—to reassure you that it’s going to stay put.  You want the world to stop ending for a minute and the mountains to stay purple under their white peaks.  And, yes, you very much want to be in love. 

Of course, as your body expels a month of agricultural pollution, you mostly want to breathe straight.  You decide you love clean air more than anything else.

Coming out of the San Joaquin Valley in the high-pollution days of summer is like being reborn.  You don’t remember how it was the first time, but can’t you imagine?  Screaming, covered in slime, a slap on the ass, and then the first ragged breath: this is what it’s like driving north on the 5 and looking back at Gustine, Newman, Patterson, Westley.  You stop for gas in Lathrop.  You consider taking a detour out to Manteca because someone in your PhD program said he once ate a good enchilada there and you’ve been chewing old jerky since Buttonwillow.  You didn’t want to get out in Los Baños because breathing there makes you want to brush your teeth.

But you don’t do the detour.  You push north, feverishly.  Maybe your fever isn’t only because of the gallons of chlorpyrifos being dropped on orange groves by the freeway.  It tastes like talcum powder.  It’s on the windshield, turning the sap of dead butterflies light gray.  As with the butterflies, so with your lungs.  Enchiladas de Manteca are one thing.  Getting out of the Valley—really getting out without an engine fire or a family emergency or a carjacking or the strange magnetic pull of Fresno simply yanking you back to the Tower District—that’s an enchilada of a much higher order.

So you get out, and it’s quietly amazing.  You spend the night in Sherwood and dream about a forest.  You go up to Portland and you look at a tugboat.  People walk past you with hands in their pockets.  Someone laughs at a joke.  The Willamette is clean beneath grey steel bridges and pillars of rust.  You decide this is where people go when they figure out what matters in life.  You buy a silver Ganesh pendant on Burnside Street and spend hours in Powell’s Books reading about Mikao Usui.

Finally in Washington, you make your first journal entry in weeks: I think I feel healthy—what happened?  When you blow your nose, the tissue isn’t stuck with black.  You no longer have a smoker’s cough after walking outside.  You think this might be something.  It might be momentous.  Your lungs don’t feel like ten pounds of water.

You are inspired to meditate for the first time since you left Michigan.  You are inspired to sit for hours at the edge of Puget Sound and not think about the doctoral program you left behind like a messy divorce. And you don’t think about the virus much.

You’re still running—both to and from some other life you could have, should have, would have been leading.  But you might take a little time to watch an orange spider in its web.  You might read a novel.  You might close your eyes in the sun and breathe clean air for a while and, just for today, let everything slip, moment by moment, into evening.

A letter story after Bret Easton Ellis.

The funeral was horrible.  And you want me to say it wasn’t.  And I want that, too.  But every time I lie, I feel worse.  I don’t blame you.

What to do.  Where to be.  What we should have done.  How it all might have been better.  Or different.  Or maybe just not so bad.  I think about this shit all the time.  I should stop thinking. 

So you’re out in Spain.  That’s cool.  Spain gets you away from all this.  It’s a good choice.  Seriously.  And I hope Patty’s making it.  At least, I hope she’s physically alright.  Have some gazpacho for me, okay?

This morning, early, I drove out to Mount Lee, hiked up behind the Hollywood sign, looked out between the L and the Y where it happened.  The air was pretty clear and I could see all the way to downtown.  Of course, Bella didn’t come.  She won’t even say Alisa’s name. 

Bella’s been drinking a lot more now.  She looks pissed off all the time.  But you understand, right?  I mean, you and Patty went to Spain.  Drunk is Bella’s Spain.

There’s nothing up there now.  No police tape.  Not even trash since it rained.  All gone.  I thought I’d put some flowers down, but I forgot to get any.  So I just stood there and thought about the funeral.  I can’t begin to explain how depressing it was.  Trust me, Spain was a good move.

One thing Bella said two weeks ago, when we had our first big relationship-defining fight that we’re still calling a conversation: “Alisa was a money-hungry talentless slut and this was about attention.”  That was Stupid Drunk Bella going on.  You know. 

I broke my hand that night after she took off.  I don’t know why because we weren’t even screaming.  I had some klonopin.  We were in the living room with the lights off, trying to talk about boundaries or some shit and whether I should get my own place.  It seemed like we were making progress for about 10 minutes.  But now the Toyota needs a new passenger window.  

I think about Alisa for no reason at all.  About all of us, really.  You two were hooking up and, no, you don’t have to deny it.  We’re beyond that and you’re in Spain.  So don’t worry.  Nobody’s going to tell Patty.  I think that’s why Bella hates Alisa.  I keep telling her it’s ridiculous to hate a dead person.

I was fucking Bella behind Alisa’s back and you were fucking Alisa behind Patty’s back.  And all we did was sneak around and fuck each other and lie to each other.  We were so much better when we were friends just living together and failing at life.  What happened?

They had an open casket.  It was a bad decision.  The bullet did things to Alisa’s face that makeup couldn’t fix.  I thought her cousin was going to puke when she walked up to view the body.  Alisa was too pretty to have an open casket like that.  I don’t know what the logic was there.  I can’t get it out of my head.

Bella and I are still together, even after everything, because I think it’s just easy.  It’s easier than sleeping in our old bedrooms and having to be polite and pretend.  I guess we’re sleeping in the same bed and doing that.  She’s auditioning all the time.  I think she’s in a commercial for some kind of bean dip.  You should google her.  She’s good.  But she doesn’t make me want to buy the bean dip.

I’m still waiting tables at Earth.  It’s boring, but I don’t have to be home a lot that way, which I know is a fucked up kind of therapy.  But I guess it works well enough.  I go up to Mount Lee a few times a week.  I can’t sleep.

I found the video of the camping trip we took last summer.  I’m attaching it in case you care.  I don’t recommend it unless you actually like feeling bad, but I looked at it a few days ago.  I was in the living room, playing it on my laptop and crying a little, when Bella came in.  She just got the lead in the new Mata Hari opening at the Vantage because someone poisoned the person ahead of her.  She was in a good mood for once, singing, twirling around the room, which made me break down in a complete mess.  Things didn’t really go anywhere that night in terms of human decency.  She says she still wants to be with me.  She just doesn’t want to live with me.  I don’t want to live with me, either.

If you were here, I guess I’d ask what you think, if you have an opinion on any of it.  But I seriously do not want you to write an email back to me like this one and talk about Alisa’s suicide.  I know you don’t want to.  I don’t even expect you to have read this far.  I wouldn’t.  Just enjoy Spain and be nice to Patty.  Drink a lot of beer.  Go to a museum.

I keep having this thought.  I keep thinking that I knew Alisa was going to do it, that I was watching her slip away, and I didn’t do anything.  Why?  I don’t understand how we could just let her get worse and worse.  Like when she didn’t get the part in Veracity and took all your valium.  I mean, what the actual fuck was that? 

Bella says it was  about attention, but why weren’t we paying attention?  It fucks me up.  And how did she get a gun?  Nobody knows a thing.  You want to guess about that one for me?  Because I know it wasn’t mine.  I’ve never owned one in my life.  We were up our own asses is the answer, which is no answer at all but still absolutely true.

Last week, I hiked Mount Lee just before dawn.  L.A. looked like a bunch of orange stars under a black sky.  I was thinking that more people have killed themselves in this town than all the lights you can see from there.  It’s morbid and it’s also beautiful.  Like Alisa.  We should start naming the lights the way we name the constellations.  I’m probably going to keep going there.  Because what else is there?  Maybe some morning I’ll be able to figure out which light is her. 

After years of teaching creative writing and going through many creative ups and downs of my own, I’ve developed a very simple philosophy to guide what I do: don’t think about it; just put it out there and move on to the next thing.  Or, as a professor of mine once liked to say, be quiet and take your lumps.  If you develop a regular writing habit, I believe this is what you absolutely have to do—that is, if you intend to stay sane.

Consider that any amount of time a reader spends on your work is a compliment and a gesture of implicit encouragement.  Got a bad review?  That’s a lot more than the 10,000 other writers standing behind you got waiting for theirs.  Got a magazine rejection telling you not to quit your day job?  Do you realize how many submitters just got the form rejection or nothing at all?  Many.  Got panned on Twitter by a journalist with a chip on her shoulder?  Great.  You wrote something compelling or irritating.  That’s very good.  She’s helping you out, amplifying your message. 

You broke out of the silent apoplexy that turns most writers to stone.  You made someone feel something for a change.  That’s the point.  No matter how hostile or kind, excited or blasé readers act, the end result is the same: they spent their precious time considering what you wrote when they could have been doing something else.  The more you think about that, the more it will seem like a remarkable gift.  The only real failure, in that sense, is to misunderstand what you’ve been given.

Many writers misunderstand.  They’re so busy flogging their platforms, soothing their fragile egos, and vehemently promoting themselves that they start to act entitled, even if they don’t truly feel that way deep down.  It gives them a brittle exterior.  They risk being crushed by a bad review or even an apathetic response from their audience, which is a shame.  When they started writing, it wasn’t for applause.  It was to find creative satisfaction.  But over the years, they forgot about that.  Now they’re like a raw nerve.

So it can be helpful to remember that indulging in self-entitlement is a very bad idea.  While talk is cheap, words happen to be your business.  You have to be a word factory, constantly producing, constantly submitting and posting.  And if you can do that, you will realize yourself through that consistency, not by appealing to the fickle vagaries of taste.  But this also means sometimes you will take a public beating.  This is the meaning of take your lumps.

Of course, you don’t have to submit everything you write.  Conventional wisdom tells us to sit on a draft until we get some distance and objectivity.  I did it that way until a few stories I thought would never get published got taken right away and a novella I’d slaved over and considered and re-drafted and polished remained in submission turnaround for several years.  It taught me a valuable, counterintuitive lesson.  I realized I’m the worst judge of my own work and so is everyone else.

We never know if we’re any good and no one else knows, either.  We know what we like.  We know what our aesthetic values tell us is and isn’t quality work.  But those values are arbitrary to culture and conditioning.  They’re not immutable Platonic forms.  There is no universal objective standard for quality in the creative arts.  There’s only what I’m seeing from where I’m standing and how I got there. 

Maybe I’m a library or an archive or the Pulitzer committee or an English department.  And so I have a certain amount of status and gatekeeping authority conferred on me by said culture and conditioning.  But that doesn’t change anything.  It means some writers will have their scrolls preserved in the basement of Cheops and others will see their words crumble on the wind.  The “test of time” is no test of quality.  There is only what is being spoken, written, and read in this moment by these eyes.  The rest is a dream of something written in that past or a vision of something to be written in the future.

What an upsetting idea!  If that’s true, why do we even have English studies?  The answer to that is what the legendary Dr. Richard Kroll gave me in his office at UC Irvine when, as a naïve undergraduate, I asked a version of that question: we study English to be able to read and write with clarity and intelligence.  The rest is work for archaeologists, curators, and antiquarians—good work, valuable work, but not the work of words themselves.  Writing exists in the reader right now or it doesn’t at all.

For people who write stories, poems, essays, and plays, this has radical implications.  One is that critical feedback, while sometimes interesting and useful, is more like a eulogy than a prescription.  The work has been read.  The moment has passed.  And whatever rhetorical effects have been created, whatever ideational structures rose up in the mind of the reader, either accomplished their work or didn’t.

Another implication is that taste—especially publishing taste and the marketing that oozes from it—is a creature of recent history, not really of the moment.  By the time you finish taking that class in commercial screenplay writing that guarantees you’ll be producing blockbuster scripts by the end, the gaze of the industry has already shifted.  Writers constantly producing derivative work in the service of whatever is supposed to be commercial are always playing catch-up.

The answer to this can be a bit scary: don’t worry about it.  Flying blind is the only real way to fly.  It means taking a horrendous risk with your time, emotions, and energy every time you sit down at the desk.  But you wanted to be a creative artist, not a scholar of other people’s past art, right?  Then shut your mouth and take your lumps.  There will be lumps, many and various, if you’re doing it right.

On the other hand, it’s a reason to be joyful.  If you’re committed to the idea that you cannot objectively judge your own work and neither can anyone else, you reach a point where it’s not about them.  It’s about you finding your subject matter and your voice.  It’s about pursuing the development of those things as a way to realize yourself.  This is incredibly freeing.

My mom, who was a brilliant painter and sculptor, put it like this: once you finish a work of art, it doesn’t belong to you.  It’s not your baby.  It’s separate from you.  Whether or not you formally submit it to others makes no difference.  In an existential sense, it has entered the world.  It’s now a syllable in the dialogue of creation, for better or worse.  So get over it.  Once the ritual is complete, the magic has been sent forth to cause change.  And it will.

After the fifth movie in the series, Kate Beckinsale said she’d never be in another Underworld sequel, which was wise.  The trouble with Beckinsale wasn’t that she got old or outgrew the original concept of Selene, the heavily armed boarding school goth, who falls for a hunky ER doctor in the middle of a werewolf war.  It’s that she never seemed young.

At first, Beckinsale was perfect for the role because, although Underworld played up her waifishness and had her dress like Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, she radiated a natural depth of character that went beyond Blade cosplay into actual acting.  Unfortunately, as the highly stylized sequels dragged on, actual acting seemed increasingly verboten

By the fifth, Underworld: Blood Wars, everyone seemed fatigued, even the new additions to the franchise.  They were all a bit glazed, as if they’d been frying crullers in hot grease and were now told they had to put on the leather, bring out the fangs, and make with the sexy banter.  No one wants to sexually titillate adolescents for pay in a monster movie sequel that follows three consecutive stinkers, certainly not Kate, who impersonated driftwood for most of that last film.

Part of what made the original Underworld seem like such an artifact of late 1990s / early 2000s pop-culture (and made its sequels come off like shoddy tin replicas) was the casting.  And Beckinsale, who attended Oxford University and went on to act in many stage plays, radio productions, British costume dramas, and about six feature films before donning the Pfeiffer bodysuit, did a good job with what they handed her.

She always seemed slightly elsewhere—which is oddly consistent with her character.  Only in a movie equivalent of Vampire the Masquerade meets La Femme Nikita in gothed-over Budapest could there be a character like Selene, who comes across as two parts slick fashion model, one part roleplaying game convention nerd.

She’s an interesting mixture of traits and tropes, carefully designed, no doubt, to appeal to the movie’s general demographic: frustrated guys who dig pale girls majoring in English and the pale girls who would prefer to meet Mr. Darcy instead.  Guys who never miss a Comic Con.  Guys with a fantasy life all out of proportion to the topography of obstruction and despair that they consider to be “real life.”  Trust me.  I know this group well, having been in it for most of my youth.  For this type of young college guy, Selene represented the Hot Girl With a British Accent Who is Unbelievably Into Nerd Culture and Therefore Understands.

Ah, yes.  That.

And while I like to think of myself as being immune to that kind of Hollywood syrup, I have seen all the Marvel movies; I did take my sad self to Van Helsing (when I knew it was bound to be a flaming train barge of crap); and I did think Underworld was pretty cool the first time around.  I even found a way to enjoy Blade: Trinity after a bit of fair-minded self-talk and some alcohol.

So can I automatically conclude that Selene—the girl you really want to invite over to play Dungeons & Dragons but won’t because maybe she’s busy reading The Mysteries of Udolpho in the library and doesn’t want to be bothered and anyway probably has a boyfriend in a band—wasn’t part of my subconscious calculus?  Evidently, I cannot.  The jury remains out, 17 years and running.

But this is the heart of the problem, isn’t it?  This is why we have to return to these films and think about them, even if we’ve since dismissed them as insubstantial Hollywood distractions.  We’re hearing messages in films like Underworld that are phrased in a language we only partly understand, subliminal messages crafted by experts who know us better than we know ourselves, who speak to the inner Dungeon Master instead of to the slumbering adult.  The only way we can truly understand is in retrospect.

Underworld, like The Matrix, could never have been made in our viral, post-covefefe 2020s.  These movies are too sleek, too manicured, too self-satisfied and sure of their own epic stylishness.  It’s the super-sweet junk candy you liked as a kid but now can’t tolerate.  It’s finely crafted garbage.

Oh, sure, the werewolves, I know.  One shouldn’t overlook them.  On one hand, Selene was a “Death Dealer” vampire ninja, capable of throwing rigid hand strikes to the temples of giant, slavering, vaguely Neil Young-looking beast men in spite of her delicate wrists.  On the other, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman) is so impossibly dreamy and sensitive that what upper-division English student wouldn’t fall hard? 

He’s a doctor (smart, admirable) but just might be the chosen one (special) who, by virtue of his DNA (gifted), could unite the werewolf and vampire bloodlines and end the war.  And so, unto this, the two dark, star-crossed lovers, cast about on seas of passion and uncertain destiny, risk all to unite their people.  That’s pretty special.  It doesn’t get more special than that.  It’s also grossly saccharine.  It makes you want to focus on the violence as a palette cleanser.  Bring on some more of that sweet vampire-on-werewolf sewer-tunnel violence so I can push down my gag reflex.

As someone who loves science fiction, I think carefully about what it means when a vampire movie from 2003 sticks in my memory beside Romeo and Juliette.  As someone who loves vampire stories in which the vampire is evil and not just a form of relief from post-industrial anxiety, I think carefully about what it means that early vampire myths and films depict the creature as a hideous cannibalistic corpse, while modern ones turn him into a Dionysian sex god or an introspective Byronic sufferer or her into an immensely relatable, dateable, heroine.

We all want to be special, to be beautiful and admired, to be gifted and immortal—because we’re trapped in our lives and we feel time passing.  Most days, we do not feel special.  We know we aren’t beautiful.  We doubt our gifts and (quietly, secretly) believe our lives will be too short to have romantic adventures with all the people we’d like (or, in some cases, anyone—save vs. despair).  But we won’t admit that, even in our most private moments. 

We’ll go to a movie like Underworld instead and project all those grinding anxieties and unfulfilled desires onto the characters, who’ve been put there precisely with that in mind.  Maybe the actors just fried up the dramatic equivalent of a glazed cruller.  But, to us, they’re a magic mirror: “My Queen, you are the fairest of them all.” 

You know, mirror, I like you.  Tell me more . . . 

So go put on your black leather catsuit and ruby earrings.  And don’t forget to load up on Uzis and Ginsu knives and long spiked whips.  We got us some lycans to kill and I’m feeling sexy.

Leftist infighting versus right-wing herd mentality will doom progressives indefinitely. Read about it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/the-right-has-its-messiah-the-left-will-never-find-theirs

A short short for Wynonie Harris.

 

It was then that he had a horrible moment of clarity, standing in the kitchen, listening to the clock.  Normally, he didn’t hear it or didn’t pay attention to what he heard.  But tonight, with only the soft whisper of rain against the roof, the second hand sounded terrible, like it was chipping away at something—inexorable, unconditional, tiny-but-relentless chipping.  And the horror of it, of everything it implied, rooted him to the spot.

Perhaps that was the only place he could have one of his moments of clarity, the only confluence of space and circumstance—breaking a glass in the sink three hours before; gulping the last bottle of red wine to get the hateful, spiteful, self-critical voice out of his head and promptly vomiting; lying awake beside his sleeping-pilled wife, administering the old self-accusatory review of all his failures back to age eight—which could open his mind now to the hard truth. 

One day he’d be too old.  One day he’d run out of ways to hustle up the meagre scratch that kept them going.  And then, when the juice ran out, it would be the street.  The small mercies of the little house owned by his in-laws, to which he and his wife had repaired when they both lost their jobs, would be long gone.  And then the street.  And all the street would entail.

He could already see the signs: gray streaks in his hair, his wife’s chronic pain, the litany of sacrifices they’d had to make increasing steadily, incrementally, over time.  His moment of clarity was a moment of dread so deep and profound and undeniable that he felt tears almost come.  But crying was something he never did.

Still, one might cry, all alone in a kitchen, thinking about the future to a ticking clock.  Daddy’s ghost wouldn’t bar his way to heaven for a transgression as small as that.  Would it?  Then again, if Daddy’s ghost were anything like Daddy, it would be a puffed-up, arrogant, critical, contemptuous sonofabitch.  So maybe yes, Daddy’s ghost would bar the way for shedding a tear.

As Daddy’s cruel voice had reminded him not long ago in bed, as he’d learned the hard way growing up, all failures are accounted for, all sins recorded, all capitulations and weaknesses tracked with Newtonian precision.  The world does not forgive.  The world does not forget.  And the only law the world has is that of Motion, of cause an effect, action and reaction, crime and punishment.  And then the street.  Where even this whispering rain, so quaint while one is safe indoors, becomes the executioner’s song.

This is why he drank, to stop that cruel voice and it’s precise accounting, to stop the dread.  This is why he drank a whole bottle of his father-in-law’s discount red, since the beer ran out days before, and the lockdown meant getting to the store entailed days of advance planning and a depressing conversation about expenses. 

But the voice didn’t care, that part of him that sounded like Daddy and hated him, that wanted him to suffer.  He had to drink it into submission.  And all he had now was the unopened fifth of Jim Beam he’d gotten for Christmas two years ago and was afraid to open.  If he drank that, then the voice would tell him about his stupid, crazy things, things that he’d regret for years, that his wife would be sure he never forgot.  Because he was weak.  Because he’d lost his job.  Because the Law of Motion.  Because consequences.

And the voice, the cruel presentiment that kept him awake on nights he gave in to thinking.  Its horrifying clarity about what would come.  His failure to find more work.  Their struggle to pay her strict disappointed parents the modest rent on this house and the sheer certainty that he and his wife would then be turned out of doors.  The juice running out.  Better, said the voice, not to think at all.  Better not to wake up and have to face the payments and punishments of another day.

He walked to the sink.  The razor-sharp Japanese paring knife was there, drying on a cloth towel.  Don’t think about the electric bill you can’t pay, about the choices you’ve made, about a virus in the streets, dead bodies piled in the morgue, the juice all gone.  Don’t think any of it is right or wrong—because you’re still going to pay, one way or another. Don’t think about Daddy’s ghost or the seven steps to heaven the song says are just too steep.  Don’t think about what will become of your wife.  Don’t think about the street.

Dead plants on the window sill over the sink.  Dark blacktop glistening from the amber streetlight at the corner.  The old willow just beyond, waving in the wind like it knows, dense with amber shadows.  Don’t think about the street, the relentless ticking of the clock.  And don’t cry.  The doorway to eternity resides in every moment.  Tell yourself that.  Pick up the knife.

A spontaneous short short, written at midnight.

One dreams of an enormous bird of night, shaped out of a cloud, its edges illuminated, because one saw it at midnight and remembered. 

A bloodstain above the horizon or a fume of ink, with surrounding moon and constellations, and the 12:40 freight to Gary, Indiana, pushing through the black landscape, its headlamp an angry earthbound star.

One dreams of the bird while sleeping on the dock of Vu-Tech Logistics—the only place it’s possible to sleep on such a hot night in Missouri—big spiders and moths up around the floods doing their dance and five more nightshift hours to dawn.

One guards nothing at Vu-Tech Logistics and gets paid for it, gets away with it, a job only a human could possibly have and only a robot could possibly do.  Someday, they’ll invent a machine that can process nothing, contemplate nothing, scan through vacant warehouse space on an algorithm of emptiness, accomplishing nothing. And they’ll love it. And then the world will truly end.  But until that time, nightshifts will pass hour-by-hour and fools will dream on loading docks in summer.

So why not dream?  Dream anything but a horrible bird of night. 

Dream the cloud of blood expanding, edges bright from a sodium-vapor sign above a dirt lot in Triton, Arizona—a landlocked town named for a sea monster, a town whose first mistake came long before its name and whose last would come long after it called its only bar, MOM’S. 

The dirt lot behind the bar.

The bar, a filthy violent place.

A place you might someday forget, along with the blood.

And the blinking sign above: EAT . . . AT . . . MOM’S.

You roll on your side and watch the train pass by, as you have many times before, as you will again, listening to the crickets beneath the dock’s crumbled lip.

One day, there will be no bird of night, no bird-shaped cloud, no cloud-shaped blood. No memories of a dead drunk in the sodium light. Only passing freight to wake you up. And no more MOM’S burning in your dreams, making the wings above glow red.

I lead a mostly inward existence.  The part that isn’t, my small public-facing side, is bound up with my art, with what I write and submit for publication.  In this way, I’m constantly reinforcing and reiterating my identity, performing it.  I have to do this.  We all do if we expect to survive, immersed in the strange demimonde of the writing life. 

Since you never know if you’re any good and there is always someone saying you aren’t—including your own inner sadist—you have to affirmatively decide that you’re a writer and reject all arguments and criticisms to the contrary.  When you can do that and put words on the page, you are one.  If you can’t do that and you’re still waiting for permission, you’re not.  Not yet, at least.

A big part of making that decision and then constructing your identity publicly involves not letting respectability get in the way.  In 2013, feeling like I’d discovered this and that it was true, I wrote “The Discipline: In Your Head, Off the Street, and Away From the Club.” At the time, I thought I was articulating a set of beliefs and practices that could make it possible for creative people to continue in spite of the ubiquitous, overwhelming pressure to stop. 

Here is the concluding paragraph.  My sentences tend to get long and loopy when I’m writing Something Very Serious:

People enmeshed / immobilized in a fugue of “respectability” (in my opinion, a parasitic set of social mores and strictures that slowly consume the time and energy–life–of innocents whose only mistake was doing what they were told from an early age) will say you are crazy, unambitious, stupid, a loser.  They will do this because you haven’t had the time and wouldn’t spend the effort to become a stakeholder in their hierarchy of values.  I have experienced this first-hand and still do from time to time when the ripples of life-decisions I made in my late 20s come back to me.  But I do not have regrets.  I have largely overcome my personal demons, the emotional, familial, social fallout associated with owning my life.  That’s why this is a discipline.  You have to practice it.  It’s not something you do once.  It’s a way of life.  And I want that for you if you want it for yourself.

Seven years later, I feel less certain about this.  I think I was shoring up my identity for myself, talking to myself in the mirror, convincing myself.  While I’ve had a considerable amount of positive feedback from writers about that essay, it now seems more like a lacuna than a manifesto—a place where the reader can deposit her anxieties and, if only for a little while, dismiss them.  But the question remains: was I talking myself into or out of something in that piece?  What was the real opportunity cost of deciding to set foot on this odd, widely misunderstood, extremely demanding path?

Over the years, I’ve stayed faithful to the discipline, mythologizing my life in the way of a writer trying to buffer himself against the world.  A lot of creative people do this, using their imaginations not only to produce work, but also to perform their identities as artists in order to keep the cynical, draining importunities of late-stage capitalism at bay.  Unfortunately, just as an actor can get lost in a role, forget himself, and believe he is the character, it’s easy to mistake self-construct for reality, map for territory.

I’ve often lost myself, performing a writerly persona.  And I’ve had to return to the great voice-driven modernists I’ve always loved—Celine, Henry Miller, Hemingway, Bukowski, Hunter Thompson, Melanie Rae Thon, Brett Easton Ellis, John Fante, Denis Johnson, Isaac Babel, Osamu Dazai, Ryu Murakami—as a corrective.  In their fiction, the “constructedness” (“artificiality” isn’t quite right) of idiosyncratic first person always reminds me of the distinction between map and territory, between the “author brand,” or as Foucault says, “the author function” in discourse, and the unknowable human beings who’ve disappeared behind their texts.

As the constructed persona, I’m perfectly fine with the discipline “in my head and away from the club,” living on the edge, by my wits, freelancing and being a ghostwriter in a plague year.  I’m even writing a novel based on it.  I maintain a fierce, self-aggrandizing positivity and narrate myself as the protagonist of the story, on my hero’s journey, making the raw material of my life into text I hope people will find interesting.

But this is a plague year.  Millions are out of work.  The economy is flatlining.  Although it may seem like that would have less of an effect on someone leading the introspective writing life, I’ve realized that without society, there’s nothing for me to eschew, no place get away from.  Self-isolation means something different when everyone’s doing it. 

The pandemic has changed everything in the course of a few months and we have changed, are changing, along with it.  As Guitar Slim liked to say, “The things that I used to do, lord I won’t do no more”—not as a matter of preference, but as a matter of survival.  Like most people, I want to live past next month.  Yet, in order to do that, I need society to play along.  And right now, society just isn’t up to it.

In The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk, a professor at Johns Hopkins, published a very dark, pessimistic appraisal of our future with COVID-19, observing that “After weeks in which it made sense to hope that something would happen to end this nightmare, the prospects for deliverance are more remote than ever.”  He might be right.  If he is, what then?

I read about drug cartels, poachers, and conmen taking advantage of the lockdown hysteria.  I get into online discussions with fellow writers about whether Andrew Cuomo is doing the right thing and whether Bret Stephens knows what he’s talking about.  And I ask the question everyone’s asking: if it all goes dark, what will become of us, of me?

It’s necessary to offer something to the world and receive things from it if you intend to function outside a monastery or an ashram.  But, practicing my creative discipline, I’ve always felt I could be happy sitting in a small room, surrounded by books, with a narrow-ruled steno pad, a laptop, and a small refrigerator.  I have a lot of memories and thoughts to explore.  I have the voices of other writers always drifting around in my head and a very small circle of friends in the world who write to me.  I’ve never wanted much more than that.

But these days I feel transparent and weightless, untethered.  In one sense, it’s fine.  I’m not afraid to die.  I’ve accomplished most of the things I set out to accomplish in my life.  But I would like to finish this novel.  I’d like to see my third book of stories find a publisher.  And even teach story writing to a few more people before I go.  Those things would be nice, but they’re contingent on systems that are undergoing radical changes.  I fear the old world is slipping away.  I fear I am, too.

“Everything was all right for a while. You were kind.” She looks down and then goes on. “But it was like you weren’t there. Oh shit, this isn’t going to make any sense.” She stops.

I look at her, waiting for her to go on, looking up at the billboard. Disappear Here.

— Brett Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero

Secrets that involve state actors or politically important individuals are frequently hidden in plain sight. Most people don’t have the time, energy, or research skills to see them, which is what keeps the issue unexamined and quiet.  But those of us who are indefatigably curious often can’t help ourselves.  And, like a black cat in Vietnam, poking our whiskers into the wrong place can get us into serious trouble, even if we are committed to writing about such things.

In general, state secrets seem to originate in very abstract, political (industrial, military, territorial), and bureaucratic forms of aggression, fear, and greed.  These concerns inevitably trickle down to horrific policy decisions that have the potential to hurt people and create insecurity and some degree of social chaos if pointed out.  Unfortunately, there is no country immune from this.  It seems to come standard with the power of jurisdiction and geopolitical boundaries.

The only way to make diffuse information hidden in plain sight comprehensible is to pull together the disparate data and write a convincing story about how it all probably came into being.  Stories are how we’re primarily conditioned to understand what’s going on.  And a writer’s job is to facilitate the emergence of that truth for the public, even if it turns out to be just one of many “competing truths.”  Even in explanatory journalism, exposing secrets is rarely open-and-shut.

State secrecy exists because it needs to—because the decisions being made are contemptible (though sometimes necessary) or because the truth would create serious vulnerability in certain influential groups and individuals.  History is rife with examples.  Current events are also full of them (implicitly, sometimes explicitly) if you know how to look.

I’m not talking about conspiracy theories that involve secret cabals and cartoon evils.  I’ve never witnessed anything like that.  Instead, I’ve discovered very mundane things, real life horrors, birthed from unethical entities making self-serving, highly ambitious choices and fortified with time, encouragement, and usually immense resources.  Anyone with the inclination, research skills, and time can discover as much.  But not everyone can write well enough to help people understand.  More importantly, not everyone wants to or thinks they should.

You not only have to do your homework and be able to write about it, but you have to be mature enough to ask Cui bono? and consider the most quotidian possibilities, because that is usually where you discover useful threads.  The story you tell needs to dramatize the subject matter enough that people can stick with it to the end.  Dramatic tension is the delivery mechanism, even if the final impact of your writing proves too far-reaching and explosive.  In most cases, it will be.  The truth rarely sets people free.  More often than not, it burns a wide swath through everyone involved. 

The first step to being a good investigative writer is being fascinated with details and a good student of history and media.  Read everything.  Keep copious notes about anything that draws your attention.  When you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about something, don’t just roll over and go back to sleep.  Turn on your laptop and start writing those thoughts and insights down.  Then keep writing.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also encourage the use of a good research library in addition to the internet.  Research libraries are invaluable.  They contain a lot that isn’t retrievable online (microfiche, microfilm, archival data, FOIA queries, information stored only at state and federal levels or in restricted archives).  When someone out in the world refuses to talk to you or send you information, chances are what they’re holding back can be found in a newspaper or magazine archive.  And they don’t even know.

When a researcher draws the right conclusions and has an insight that makes a serious secret visible, it’s usually a life-defining moment. She can collect her findings and then write about it and attempt to expose it to the world, risking personal ruin (or murder). Or she can decide that being a martyr for exposing a secret—that may be subsequently covered up or otherwise made invisible anyway—is a bad outcome and that other very good work can be done without making herself so vulnerable.

States will always have their secrets.  It’s a fair bet that most will seize any advantage, regardless of the ethical implications and will then need to cover up what they can’t bury.  Key individuals may refuse to get involved in unethical projects and activities, acknowledging that simply following orders or following the funding is no excuse.  But they can be side-lined or removed.  One wonders whether it’s usually better not to know.

Personally, I take a moderate approach.  Most things I discover, I write about, even if those pieces don’t always find a publisher.  But my life is important to me. So there are a few items, uncovered through methodically correlating public domain, trade publication, and records searches, that I will not talk about.  It’s better to live and write another day.

Mitch McConnell: Gorsuch filibuster is a ‘new low’

We know there’s a recurrent problem throughout this Administration: people who are chosen fundamentally for their utility as loyal Trump soldiers are usually not the most capable for running the country, especially if you take their previous careers into account.  They tend to be, in the most direct sense of the term, Trump apparatchiks at best—trustworthy and agreeable, if not capable, functionaries.

This is obvious.  And yet it’s likely going to be fodder for many history and government essay exams in the future (if we have a future): Explain the high level of attrition in the Trump Administration in terms of the President’s consolidation of power, presidential scandals, loyalty purges, and information control before and after the Mueller Report.  Mention how the Administration’s ideas about professional competency changed or stayed the same relative to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020

I can see the essay exam flop sweat breaking out behind the undergraduate personal protective face shields as they scribble away.  But no matter how clear or murky these interesting times become in retrospect, right now Mitch McConnell’s maneuvering makes him look like an apparatchick par excellence, who mistakenly thinks he’s nomenklatura.  Or, in non-Soviet terminology, a petty bureaucrat who thinks he’s part of the ruling elite.

In politics as in the game of chess, someone used primarily as a blocking piece is called a pawn.  And that’s what McConnell is in the career-warping aura of our very own Boss Tweed, who, for some reason most of us can’t clearly divine, is still President after a major corruption investigation and an impeachment.  Lots of pawns on the board these days, even if the king himself is beholden to other powers.  But COVID-19 might change that.

McConnell’s always been a game-savvy obstructionist.  In any field, some people are keyed in to the essential spirit of the thing, romantic visionaries who create new parts and reinvent others.  Then there are the classical proceduralists, the technicians who are far less dramatic but often just as effective as their visionary colleagues. 

They are the apparatchiks who game the system, moneyballing their way from small victory to small victory, which, over time builds up to bigger things.  This is Mitch McConnell, whose efforts toward sabotaging Obama’s health care and banking reforms have become particularly legendary.

Unlike most of Trump’s people, McConnell is clearly intelligent and capable.  He does not come across as overly charismatic or even popular in his own state, but he writes well and is an avid student of history.  Unfortunately, he’s been drifting right for so long that he now appears incapable of bipartisan compromise.  It seems his unique technical skills as a creature of the Senate have become primarily useful to this Administration as a way to antagonize and obstruct the Democrats. 

So I should not have felt shocked this morning when I opened the Times op-ed section and saw one by McConnell from 2019—one thinks, back in the feeds primarily in light of his recent, wildly ill-considered comments about letting states declare bankruptcy as opposed to providing them emergency funding—entitled, “Mitch McConnell: The Filibuster Plays a Crucial Role in Our Constitutional Order.”  The piece could have been subtitled: Honestly, what do the liberals expect? 

McConnell writes “No Republican has any trouble imagining the laundry list of socialist policies that 51 Senate Democrats would happily inflict on Middle America in a filibuster-free Senate.”  And, given the hyperpartisan state of the nation, one must reluctantly agree.

At the same time, he exposes the central flaw in his argument when he invokes “founding tradition” in the voice of a procedural technician as opposed to someone creatively in line with the spirit of its aims and intentions:  “The legislative filibuster is directly downstream from our founding tradition. If that tradition frustrates the whims of those on the far left, it is their half-baked proposals and not the centuries-old wisdom that need retooling.”  This conveniently overlooks the fact that the filibuster was never intended to be used as a blunt, blatant tool of obstruction. 

If McConnell wants to start talking “centuries-old wisdom,” he would do well to account for the broad scope of historical context instead of cherry picking his emphases.  As Alec MacGillis notes in The Cynic: the Political Education of Mitch McConnell,

In 2007, after Democrats reclaimed majorities in both chambers in 2006 and Mitch McConnell ascended to become his party’s leader in the Senate, the use of the filibuster soared. . . . By 2009, when the Democrats gained back the White House, the use of the filibuster spread, far more than ever before, to block presidential nominees of even the most pedestrian offices.  ‘The idea of a filibuster as the expression of a minority that felt so intensely that it would pull out all the stops to block something pushed by the majority went by the boards,’ wrote Orenstein, the congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in 2014.  ‘This was a pure tactic of obstruction, trying to use up as much of the Senate’s most precious commodity—time—as possible to screw up the majority’s agenda.’”

Operating primarily as a technical savant insensitive to the world beyond his procedural manoeuvring and its often harmful, lasting consequences, McConnell seems to lack the greatest benefit that accrues from reading history: an encompassing view that allows one to stop scrutinizing each tree and take in the shape of the forest.

In a stunning display of myopic partisanship that amounts to whataboutism, McConnell cautions us that “the Democratic Party is racing leftward, with presidential debates that make the 2008 exchanges between Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards look downright conservative by comparison. The party is rallying around the very kinds of radical schemes that the Constitution intentionally frustrates.” 

If this is true, it must be equally true that there are some things the Constitution did not foresee, such as opportunistic rules pharisees willing to depart immediately from the broadminded spirit of the document at a moment’s advantage. 

No “liberation” is possible from the necessary public health guidelines in a pandemic. And the virus doesn’t care about the Bill of Rights.

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/a-partisan-pandemic

It’s certainly starting to look that way. Read about it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/david-brooks-has-become-a-sadomasochistic-performance-artist.

You can read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/all-tomorrow-s-lockdowns

Consider this hypothetical.  You’re standing in your kitchen, cutting slices of cheese with a razor-sharp carving knife.  You realize there are such things as cheese knives, but you don’t have one.  For those readers currently languishing in suburban opulence, who can’t imagine someone not owning a cheese knife, I’m here to tell you such people exist, and they are probably more numerous than you have imagined.

Anyway, you’re cutting some cheese.  It’s not difficult because the knife is a diamond-sharp Japanese “Zebra” blade, perfectly weighted for carving your burned pot roast, which is otherwise as uncuttable as second base.  Now let’s say you drop that knife in a moment of privileged carelessness and it goes point-down through the top of your foot.  Stop screaming.  You’re not going to die.  But there is quite a bit of blood welling up in your slipper.  Better attend to that.  You limp to the bathroom, whimpering and cussing, and start looking for the antiseptic.

In spite of what you plan on telling your spouse (My hand was wet.  It just slipped.), you really have no idea why or how this could have happened.  All you know is that it hurts.  Did you deserve it?  Think about this.  Did you deserve to have a skewered foot?

One argument says, yes, if you hadn’t been worrying about your Bitcoin investments at that moment and whether the new walnut end tables really express your essential joie de vivre, you might have paid closer attention to what you were doing.  You might have taken better care.  Now small ripples of dread and frustration will radiate through your life for the next few weeks the same way pain radiates through your foot. 

Your mindset will be affected.  Your spouse’s mindset will be affected.  Maybe your acuity at your job will temporarily decrease.  Your irritation levels with Ralph, your neighbor, when he decides to fire up the lawn mower at 5:40 AM next Sunday, may run considerably higher.  You might even speak harshly to the cat—a small thing, like the cat himself, but surely not something he, as a fellow living being, deserves.  You’re the one who dropped the knife, you careless dolt.  There are consequences for everything.  Close your mouth and own up to them.  Be an adult for a change.

But another argument says, no, accidents will happen.  No one wants to injure themselves and no one ever truly asks to be hurt.  There are so many opportunities in modern life to harm yourself or others that it’s likely to happen, now and then, even if you aren’t naturally accident prone. 

No matter how much care you take, there are acts of god; there are times you break your foot stepping off the train, even if you’re minding the gap; a tree hits your bedroom wall; a texting teenager rear-ends you 45 feet into an intersection and you almost get hit and have to wear a neck brace for a month; you drop your phone in the airport toilet; you forget your wallet at the register. 

These sorts of things happen whether or not you look both ways, don’t inhale, read Consumer Reports, wear three condoms, and keep your windows triple-locked.  Feeling ashamed and responsible for unforeseeable disasters is just adding insult to undeserved injury.  Sit down.  That’s right.  Have a cookie.  And tell me where it hurts.

Two good arguments: one about responsibility, the other about compassion.  One is not better than the other, but here we stand on the diamond edge of that Zebra knife between them.  Which one seems more persuasive on its face?  Well, that depends on our emotions, doesn’t it?  The argument that resonates more powerfully depends on who we are as emotional beings.  The one we choose says volumes about us and very little about the event itself.

Hold that thought.  Before we decide which argument style we prefer, let’s talk about how this distinction applies and let’s take it even further, foregrounding the discussion by characterizing the “baby boomers.”  Because the boomers have been the deciders, standing on that diamond edge since 1946.  And much of what terrifies us today was authored expressly and overtly by them choosing a flimsy kind of emotional “responsibility for the responsible” instead of the more compassionate feels—which tells us a lot about them, if not everything we need to know.  

The boomers spent the precious freedoms their parents bought for them as traumatized adults in WWII and before that as traumatized children of the misunderstood, alcoholic, Silent Generation—and the boomers act like they earned it all themselves through true grit and moxie. 

Actually, the boomers are the ones who economically fucked over Generation X.  The boomers built the nuclear stockpiles, created the student debt crisis, lusted after Gordon Gekko and Ayn Rand, and are the ones who currently despise millennials more than any others.  Well, we all despise the millennials.  But still.  We know who the boomers are.  We’re still dealing with their fuckery.

There’s an internet catchphrase going around these days, “Ok Boomer,” which the dictionary tells us is used “often in a humorous or ironic manner, to call out or dismiss out-of-touch or close-minded opinions associated with the baby boomer generation and older people more generally.”  Ah.  That sounds about right for the generation that established our current ruinous, self-serving climate politics. 

As Sorya Roberts puts it (quoting Michael Parenti) in “Happily Never After,” as the environment collapses, elite panic in “strong states with developed economies will succumb to a politics of xenophobia, racism, police repression, surveillance, and militarism and thus transform themselves into fortress societies while the rest of the world slips into collapse.”  Isn’t that a lovely vision of the future?  Most of the boomers won’t be around to see it.  They’re going to die on the golf course well before that.  But the rest of us might live to enjoy it.  That is, if we’re the lucky ones.

In the art world, particularly in creative academia, worsening since about 1975, boomer narcissism has taken this form: there is always room for talented people.  Oh, there are no jobs for you?  You must not be one of the talented few (like me).  Too bad.  Even though, in the boomer generation, you could get a tenured position with an unpublished manuscript and no teaching experience.    

“Always room for good people” is a veritable baby boomer mantra, the meritocratic fever dream of those steeped in imperial luxury, who turn beet-red when someone points out that the they got where they are because they were born into a fortunate time and place between global catastrophes; that the emperor is not a god; that the empire is not eternal; and that its luxuries were founded on a pylon of human skulls.  Boomers comprise a large part of Donald Trump’s “base,” the leering retirees in the MAGA hats.  And though academics generally despise 45, they conveniently overlook that he has more in common with them than any other generation.

So you’re a millennial or, hell forbid, a gen-Xer in your 40s and the socio-political-economic Zebra blade has now gone straight through your foot.  Are you trying to stay interested in the impeachment?  Are you crying “Why me?” when you realize that halving global greenhouse emissions by 2030 is neigh impossible at this point?  Have you been taking solace in Oprah’s self-care philosophies and burning Gwyneth Paltrow’s special candle?  Are you ready for what comes next?  Are you one of the anointed few like dad was?

You’re not.  You can’t be.  But why not just pretend you are, just for a bit, after the Bactine and the Band-Aids, while the Parthenon burns?

 

 

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/the-new-york-times-is-rotting-at-the-seams

Vintage circus photo sad clown antique photograph poster wall

 

If you’re a writer, you’ll live your life not knowing if you’re any good.  And you’ll die not knowing.  I think John Berryman said that. 

After Phil Levine published his first book of poems, people said, yeah, but can you do it again?  Then he did it again.  Then they said, yeah, but have you been featured in the New York Times Review of Books?  Then he got a review.  So they said, yeah, but have you won any major awards?  He won several.  Then they said, yeah, but we remember you back when you were broke in Detroit.  You’ll always be a bum

There is no escape.  Nobody from the old neighborhood wants to see you get ahead.  It’s a law of nature, the Bumfuck Reflexive Property.  You can ruin your life if you burn your emotional energy wondering whether they’re right.  Every moment you spend doing that is a waste.  But all writers do it.

Hang around with writers and artists and you realize they’ve got a particular tangible proficiency at their kind of art.  Maybe they were born with it or, more likely, they worked hard at developing what little gift they had into something presentable.  The gift, whatever it is, is real and observable.  But whether they’re mediocre or brilliant, derivative or original, a flash in the pan or someone whose art is set to be preserved in the basement of Cheops, you will never know.  More significantly, they will never know. 

If you like their work, great.  If you don’t, you can always recall the time they were broke and living in the projects across from Wayne State.  HA.  HA.  HA.  Let’s all laugh at the sad clown.  Some people and their lousy choices.  Am I right?  If they were any good people would want to pay them for their work.  I mean, that’s just common sense.

I suppose it’s sad when an artist hasn’t learned how to fail (or how to stubbornly and angrily reject failure), when she takes the Bumfuck to bed and makes love to it, when she’s covered in despair, when she finds herself thinking about her choices.  The rest of us chose to avoid that humiliation early.  We were smart and didn’t even try.  Or if we did, we never let anyone see it and gave up shortly thereafter.  And look at us today.  We just got back from our annual trip to Florida.  It’s a good life.

But she has to spend some nights staring at the wall, probing for answers that will never come.  Because her friends and family don’t know what to tell her, even though they have many strongly held opinions on her work and direction in life.  Her teachers didn’t know (even the ones who praised her back at clown school).  And ultimately, she doesn’t know, can’t know, even if she wins a Golden Bozo next year and gets to put “Genius” on her resume.  She might just be a lucky clown, a clown of the moment, a one clown wonder.  How do you ever really, truly know if you’re any good?

Genius.  Hell, she can barely afford lunch.  And so the questions: am I actually a no-talent, deluded ass-clown?  Was taking out a loan to go to clown school the worst decision of my life?  Should I have listened to my old high-school friend who went straight into an apprenticeship as a waste management professional and who is now debt-free, pumping out the city’s shit everyday for a middle-five-figure salary?  The dude owns his own house.  He loves reminding me how debt-free he is.  He loves it.

Can I say the same?  Do I love being a clown?  I thought I did.  But now that I’m out of clown school, I feel so alone.  At least back there I had a useful amount of social friction, mutually shared productive spite, the catty competitiveness of nervous art students to hold me up and distract me. 

Now I only have these four walls and the dirty mirror over the sink and the constant message that if it doesn’t make money, it’s a hobby, not a calling.  A life spent vacuuming out the municipal sewer, by that definition, would be the Grail Quest.  But that tract house and the vacation package in Florida speaks for itself.

How good do I have to be to take clowning seriously, to argue that it is my reason for living and not just a lukewarm pastime that regularly torments me.  Sometimes, I wonder what good is—if it is something metaphysical, some hidden imprimatur, some mysterious proof, like divine grace received only through predestination.  Do we know it when we see it?  Or do we see it because we only know what we’ve been told? 

How much telling is good?  How much showing?  If I get the emotional effect I want by the last line of my story, does that justify anything I do along the way, any narrative impropriety—like Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of the most structurally verfucked stories I have ever seen that nevertheless works?  It works because it moves me.  Me.  Not necessarily you. 

What’s more, when I get to the end, I know in the way that comes from having spent too much time with fellow ass-clowns, that “Hills Like White Elephants” would have never gotten a pass in clownshop.  Poor sad clownbear.  Put on your hardhat and gas mask.  There’s shit pumping needs to be done.

I read the New Yorker and The Paris Review.  For clowns, those are basically trade publications.  Those clowns really know how to do it.  They know what’s good, what’s right and wrong about art and culture, what should be published, what should be condemned.  The people they feature—man, that is some serious clown shit.  They really push the clownvelope.  In fact, they are so serious at times that their work transcends everyday clowning and enters the Mime Plane.  It’s a micro universe.  All the mimes who ever existed and who ever will exist live there in an eternal limbo that can fit on the head of a pin.  And yet it’s enormous.  Space and time.  You know.  Like warm bubble-gum.

But I stay away from the mimes, like Alice Mimero and Jonathan Mimezen and Jeffrey Eumimedies and Mimeberto Eco.  Their work is—I don’t even know how to describe it—it’s mysterious.  Like pushing the wind or the transparent box or juggling the invisible chainsaws.  Somehow, it’s supposed to seem dangerous or terrifying.  Risky.  But when an invisible chainsaw slips, there’s only invisible blood.  Hard to see.  You have to pretend it’s there.  Mime stuff, you know.  Everyone acts like they get it.

And yet they’re held up to us as the cultural elite.  How does that work?  Why are we still encouraged by the Big Six to think of these clowns as mysterious and compelling?  I guess only those who put out effort to remain mysterious will continue to be seen that way.  And perpetually wrapping yourself in a glamour of mystery is a lie.  Because no one is actually that.  But we lionize our artists.  The publishing industry runs a lion circus.  We want to believe they know something we don’t when they jump and roar.

Them lions is pathological.  All they know is that gazelles are tasty.  And us?  We don’t even know that much.

I might know that shit stinks and pumping it for a living is a bummer.  I know I’d give a hundred tract houses and a timeshare in Pensacola not to have that be the substance of my Grail Quest.  I’d rather squander my life writing, even if I am a no-talent ass-clown.

But you?  I’m not so sure about you.  Maybe you’re not one of the Cheops Basement All-Stars yet.  Maybe you’ll always be a bum somewhere in municipal Detroit, freezing in your bloodied clown suit.  But I can tell you one thing.  You’ll never really know if you’re any good.  And you won’t be able to look at others for the answer.  They’re all a bunch of ass-clowns, too.

All you can do is keep at it, day after day, hoping somebody somewhere sees what you see.  All you can do is show up.

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/trump-impeachment-syndrome-and-the-uses-of-political-theater

Writers on the pain of hindsight in publishing: 'It's like a bad breakup – you have to move on ...

If I could tell you the number of stories and novels I’ve begun writing and not finished, we’d be here too long.  But “not finished” doesn’t mean “discarded.”  It means what it says. 

The difficulty comes when I’ve convinced myself that I’m one sort of writer (the consistent, cheerfully productive kind) as opposed the other, less glamorous (or, at least, less visible) sort—a slave to the vicissitudes of the moon or some shit, the guy with 25 ongoing projects and an inability to stop working on any of them. 

I know this about myself.  I tell myself that it’s all part of the bigger creative process.  I imagine all these incomplete pieces fermenting, cross-pollinating, mutating.  Nothing lost.  Everything in motion.  And I take refuge in those ideas and metaphors so I can keep working.  Being a writer, I tell myself a story.  But it might be bullshit self-deceit.

The Romantics smoked opium to get closer to the moon and further from the Victorian head trauma of  “productivity.”  And when my genre writer pals do highly Victorian social media posts that go, “Sigh.  Only 10 pages today,” I wonder whether they’re writing from inspiration or simply turning a lathe in some Dickensian word factory.  Productivity equals commercial success, while moonbeams are their own reward.  Still, I have word count envy no matter what I do. 

The problems of productivity and self-deceit are at the center of trying to write the hard thing.  They are the essential obstacles in making the fiction I came here to make instead of clocking in and lathing out a bunch of words to satisfy something or someone else.  I don’t want to produce that which has been assigned to me by industry, necessity, or convention.  I hate obeying.  But am I achieving anything in my disobedience?  For that matter, is achievement even the point?

When yet another publishing industry blog post comes out sounding like the vehement Alec Baldwin scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, I feel repulsed.  I don’t want to spend time creating a fucking audience platform.  Being an artist is not about “closing.”  Just doing the actual writing takes up all my energy.  I don’t want to frame pieces of my fiction as marketable units.  I want to sit in a moonbeam and make something that arises from my own unique imperatives and disposition.  I want the serendipity of inspiration.  I live for it.  And I resist the overtures of commercialism dedicated to consumption and to bullying artists into seeing themselves as part of a service industry.

Unfortunately, I also can’t avoid wanting the world to read my work and maybe give me some money so I can feed and clothe myself.  It’s terrifying sometimes.  Years ago, at an AWP conference, talking with a publisher after I put out Gravity, my first collection of stories, I felt like Nunez in “The Country of the Blind”—faced with the choice of getting what I loved if I voluntarily blinded myself or seeing clearly and climbing out of the hidden valley forever.  In the end, I chose to keep my eyes.

“If you want to get a second book out using the momentum of your first,” he said, “you need to complete the manuscript in less than a year.  More than that and people forget who you are.  You won’t be able to position it.  You’ll be starting over.”  Six years later, my second book was done.  And he was correct: from the marketing, word factory standpoint, I was starting over.  From a creative-process standpoint, those six years were predicated on the six that came before.  I wasn’t starting over.  I was writing something hard that had emerged from my ongoing creative process, something I couldn’t have written in under a year.

Finishing writing in one’s own time instead of in service to the word factory is difficult.  Discovering one’s limitations as an artist and then transcending them is very difficult.  Putting in the years is difficult.  Doing this up to and beyond age 30 is not only difficult but scary.  Nevertheless, all can be accomplished if one is willing to believe in something greater than the word count.  One says, it’s all part of my creative process and tries to calm down.  One decides not to read (or write) certain self-aggrandising Facebook posts.

Of course, there might not be a bigger process.  Maybe there is only Random House, Amazon, AWP conference ugliness, building a platform, positioning and branding, and Best American Monotony.  Maybe.  Maybe we exist in a world full of cynical anti-creative money-making ventures, cautious art, and nothing else.  It’s always possible.  The thought of it sometimes keeps me up at night, especially in those blocked periods of worrying and not writing.

It’s like reading about nuclear war or the earth dying from climate change: you have no agency, no option to mitigate the damage, soulless politicians are making horrible decisions, and there is only one way this can end.  Apocalypse.  Tragedy.  No one at the wheel.  Inhuman corporations controlling everything.  And death, ignominious and unnoticed, unless you get with the program and start churning out formulaic units. 

Capitalism wins.  It usually does.  But if there is a bigger process at work in your struggle to be an artist, it can’t have anything to do with metaphors of productivity on a factory timeline.  That is a reality you must not accept.

How does a writer know what’s real?  Is it moonbeam or production line?  Is it both?  Can it be both?  Andy Warhol, Ernest Hemingway, and David Bowie say yes.  For the rest of us, maybe not.  For every Warhol, Hemingway, and Bowie, there are multitudes who weren’t lucky enough to have their unique artistry coincide with commercial demand. 

Hugh Howey likes to write about Wool the way Elon Musk talks about launching a roadster into space: let me tell you about my unique genius and the origin of my success.  But self-publishing fame and running a car company have one thing in common that never gets discussed: they exist because they are timely.  So it is with any highly lucrative creative effort.  And that intersection has to do with luck.  Meanwhile, someone out there is no doubt making Peking opera, but they are unlikely to be buying villas on the Riviera anytime soon.  Nobody cares.  Their units don’t ship.  And yet they also have the favor of the moon.

Writers are especially predisposed to misunderstand what is real—what is objective versus just a moonbeam.  They spend a lot of time deliberately thinking in metaphors, some more useful than others.  And if they’re not paying attention to their minds, they can mistake such metaphors for objective reality (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with capitalist realism).  Over-absorption in a world of imaginative metaphors can become a source of anxiety when the non-make-believe world reaches out and reminds us that we can’t live totally in our imaginations.  Make your Peking opera, sure, but also accept that the six years you put into it mean nothing in terms of branding and positioning.

A writer will see something and begin to imagine things about it—everyone does this, but writers seem to do it with particular intensity—and before long the writer starts to feel like he or she knows it or, even worse, is it.  Then something from the world of physics and money communicates: no, you are not that.  You can’t imagine yourself to fame and fortune if you’re doing original work.  You might get lucky, yes, and I hope you (I hope I) do.  But commerce and true creativity exist in different spaces.

So I look at my 25 open projects with a bit of trepidation as the days go by.  I’m turning 46 this month.  I’ve published a lot of stories in magazines and two books.  These have been hard things.  Are they enough?  Will they ever be enough?

Don’t worry, I tell myself.  There’s bigger process at work.  There must be.

I don’t often reblog other writing here, but this one is worth the trouble.  The author is Soraya Roberts. — M

If the most financially and critically successful artists don’t feel successful, maybe there’s something wrong with how we think about success.

Source: The Myth of Making It

Read my latest in Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/jonathan-franzen-can-t-solve-climate-change-for-anyone-who-matters

 

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/jeffrey-epstein-and-the-usual-media-hate-porn

impressions

A travel-blog post on my first impressions of Wales.  Read it here: https://bkk-writing.blogspot.com/2019/08/impressions-of-wales.html

When I began teaching as a graduate student, publishing in magazines, and generally moving my life forward in visible ways, I learned a difficult lesson that accompanies progress: people don’t like it when you succeed. 

They don’t want to see it.  They don’t want to know about it.  And if they become aware that you are bettering yourself, they will do whatever they can, exert whatever influence they have, to change that.  They really would prefer that you sink back into a swamp of stuckness and frustration.  And they find it highly offensive if you don’t accommodate them in this.

Somehow you moving forward makes them more aware of their own sense of inadequacy and stasis.  And they will not stop trying to convince you, themselves, and anyone willing to listen that you’re really not so special.  Your achievements, however modest, can cause friends, family, colleagues, and sometimes people you don’t even know, to behave defensively towards you as they attempt to safeguard their fragile egos.  This is especially true if you’re doing something that they wish they could do.

Granted, nobody likes to feel bad about themselves.  But it can be shocking when you notice who your detractors are.  Uncle Bob?  You heard he got drunk at the reunion and offered up a loud unkind opinion about your novel, citing various incidents from your childhood and early adolescence to prove you “aren’t such hot shit.”  What did you ever do to him?  Juniper, that girl in accounting who wears the big sweaters?  You talked to her, what, twice?  Why is she spreading rumors about you?  You might expect it from a direct competitor (even if there is a modicum of professional courtesy that can dial it down in most cases), but Millie from high school, talking trash about you on Facebook?  You haven’t interacted with her since at least 1990.  Has she been ruminating about you for 30 years?  Maybe so.  Or maybe she just looked you up yesterday.

There’s a word for this sort of person: hater, and the first thing you need to know is that haters can be anyone, given that the hate is not really about you.  It’s about them.  You’re just a convenient projection screen for the hater’s unflattering (and probably distorted) self-image.  Unfortunately, the more visible you are, the more you seem to be getting your life together and doing what you want to do, the higher resolution those lousy images will have in the hater’s mind.  And it’s far easier to tear someone else down than it is to engage in determined self-work.  Some people are born with the efficiency and drive of the domestic land slug.

As much as I agree with Tim Teeman—that “haters gonna hate” is a fundamentally stupid expression “born of our social media addiction, especially Twitter, where brouhahas and firestorms burst into existence, and everyone eventually leaves the arena feeling unfairly targeted and victimized”—there’s a reason it became a viral catchphrase, functioning as an updated version of the old “dog will hunt.”  It’s simple.  A thing behaves in accordance with its nature.  And envy is ubiquitous.

Perform successfully—even in something as minuscule and transitory as getting your creative work published—and someone, somewhere, is bound to suffer as they compare themselves to you.  That suffering breeds resentment.  And, though it is inherently unwise, resentment often demands a soapbox.  Publicly trashing someone can provide a moment of relief, a brief pause in the constant fecal downpour underway in the hater’s inner world.  Who wouldn’t seek shelter from that storm, from a grinding sense of inferiority that never lets up?

Still, if you put yourself in front of the public in any way, you’d better be ready for this.  Since at least 1880, with the rise of vaudeville, the cheap seats were situated in the top rear sections of theaters.  If people up there didn’t like the performance, they heckled the actors and threw peanuts at the stage.  It’s where we get the term, “peanut gallery.”  And peanut throwing still takes place, only the gallery has now become synonymous with the broad scope of social media.  So try not to take one in the eye if you can. 

And because flying peanuts are inevitable, perhaps contemplate the enduring wisdom of Father Baltasar Gracián y Morales, Friedrich Nietzsche’s favorite Jesuit social philosopher: The envious man dies not only once but as many times as the person he envies lives to hear the voice of praise; the eternity of the latter’s fame is the measure of the former’s punishment: the one is immortal in his glory, the latter in his misery.

 

Recently, I had a moment where I thought someone couldn’t possibly be for real and I was about to use his face to sharpen my claws . . . and then he responded with disarming sincerity.  It’s wonderful when that happens.

Sincerity—not honesty but the good-faith attempt to be honest, which seems far more powerful and important—is like a force of nature. It’s a technique of relating to other people and to oneself that supersedes all the usual forms of vanity, deceit, coercion, and betrayal we regularly inflict on each other just to make it through the day.

It’s something I tend to forget, since the vast majority of people I deal with are usually cynical, conniving, lost souls.  My economic survival often means, as a freelancer, staying one step ahead of them and being prepared for the worst they have to offer.  I’ve been burned in most ways you might imagine and in some ways you might not.  And, because it is necessary to be a student of human nature, I usually walk away, saying, Fool me once . . .

But people can surprise you.  When they do, it’s worth noting—not only because it’s rare, but because sincerity is like water in the desert.  You don’t know when you’ll see it again but, for the moment, it’s a relief.

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/mob-justice-for-jeffrey-epstein

 

Read it here: http://www.decompmagazine.com/preponderanceofthesmall.htm

When you are over-committed, say it with me: “The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles. But, strangely enough, it will all come out well.” Repeat.

 

http://www.westtradereview.com/

The quiet introspective ferret feels he has only been to two kinds of parties: those where people assess each other from behind smokescreens of shallow small talk and those where people get as drunk and as high as possible to avoid being aware of such assessment.  Office / department parties tend to be a blend of the two, with clever coworkers staying sober so they can capitalize on the rare opportunity to interrogate / insult the drunkards or make time with someone normally uninterested in them.  This is not misanthropy on the part of our gentle introspective ferret. He has simply learned that he likes individuals way more than groups.

Staying home is nearly always a better choice.  It keeps our ferret from having to dwell on the loathsome behavior that inevitably comes out in people after a few hours of drinking and frustration.  It’s way better not to see it, not to have to recall it, in those the ferret would prefer to otherwise respect.  But if he must attend, our ferret prefers to bring his own non-alcoholic beverages and disappear after about 90 minutes of watching people force smiles and reposition themselves feverishly around a room.  Also, having a palette-cleansing activity lined up, like a movie or some other distracting event, helps an introspective ferret shake off the bad vibes.

No one cares about what a ferret does at a party anyway. No cares that his drink is non-alcoholic.  In fact, they probably don’t even notice.  And no one really cares that he left after 90 minutes, unless they came to the party on a mission with the poor ferret in mind, in which case he should definitely scamper out with a quickness after no more than an hour and preferably by the back exit.

In the following days, the drama and innuendo about what happened between various drunkards at the party will become known.  But our gentle ferret will be an innocent child of the earth, oblivious and free, a wild polecat in the grass amid the butterflies. For he will be able to tell the simple truth: “I’d already left when X-horrible-thing happened between Bleary Mule and Angry Snake.  So I really have no idea.”  And people will turn their boredom and obsessiveness on someone more entertaining—Squawking Rooster, perhaps.

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/letting-go-of-game-of-thrones

air and light and time and space

“–you know, I’ve either had a family, a job,

something has always been in the

way

but now

I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this

place, a large studio, you should see the space and

the light.

for the first time in my life I’m going to have

a place and the time to

create.”

no baby, if you’re going to create

you’re going to create whether you work

16 hours a day in a coal mine

or

you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children

while you’re on

welfare,

you’re going to create with part of your mind and your body blown

away,

you’re going to create blind

crippled

demented,

you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your

back while

the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment,

flood and fire.

baby, air and light and time and space

have nothing to do with it

and don’t create anything

except maybe a longer life to find

new excuses

for.

— Charles Bukowski


The story of my inner critic begins when I was very young, perceiving the unrest between my mother and father.  Money was always a critical issue.  My father lived in the same house but was generally unavailable, emotionally and otherwise.  At the same time, my mother held powerful feelings of resentment against him for not taking part in anything, ever.  For several years (until my parents mutually agreed to remain together for my benefit but lived as if they were strangers to each other in the same house), there was so much tension that I would vomit from stress at every meal.  It was a great relief when my mother allowed me to eat alone in my room.

My mother watched a lot of local news.  She was convinced that the public school system in our San Diego neighborhood at the time was a breeding ground for criminality.  She made a point of telling me that I wouldn’t last 10 minutes there and constantly reminded me of my responsibilities—that I was attending a private Catholic school and all the tuition money would go to waste unless I did well.  I was a very stressed-out kid.

Moreover, my mother put me into programs (swim class, piano lessons) and bought me a lot of toys (which always made me immensely guilty as much as I liked them because I knew how broke we were), but with each thing came the enormous imperative to excel at school.  Nothing was ever without an emotional string attached.  I gained a lot of weight around ages 7-10, had trouble making friends, and preferred to spend most of my time alone with books or with our dogs out in the canyon below our house.  I was very lonely.  My father’s mantra was “Leave me alone.”  And my mother’s was “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

At school, I got into regular fights (with the crazy maladjusted rich kids around me) and lost most of them, causing me to be mocked by the boys, then punished for what I often felt wasn’t my fault.  I got punished first at school, then got punished by my mother at home on a weekly basis.  I was always either entering or leaving a period of punishment.  My father had no idea (and preferred it that way).  My mother wanted to know why I was ruining my life.

Getting spanked with the unscrewed wooden strut from the back of one of our kitchen chairs eventually transitioned into hours of house chores, yard work, and being grounded, which was a great improvement.  But the psychological difficulties remained.  I was always made to understand that every time I slipped up, I put the financial health of the family and my own future in jeopardy.  My mother, for all of her great qualities (and she had many) had no sense of humor about this.  

Most days at school, I was extremely unpopular and was avoided by the other kids.  In the eight years I spent at that school, I had maybe one or two friends and, looking back, I can say those were not good friendships.  But they were what I had.  People made me inherently uneasy.  I enjoyed animals far more.

I lived in particular fear of our PE classes, where the oblivious windbreakered “coaches” let the boys vent their frustrations on anyone and in any way they wanted as long as we left them alone.  I disappeared to the tiny school library when I could.  When I absolutely had to participate in some team sport (I was never good at any of them), I was automatically relocated to the outfield—the Siberia of the baseball field—where the unpopular kids got sent until a freak ball came their way and the whole world started angrily screaming.  I liked the butterflies and sitting in the unkempt grass.  So the outfield was just fine if no one noticed me.

On the infrequent occasions when the insane screaming would start, I’d just watch the more important kids run from their first base or pitcher spot to catch the ball themselves, usually giving me a kick in the process because I’d be sitting out there cross-legged, doing nothing.  There were a few times when I was beaten by several kids for not trying to catch the ball, even though they’d shouted at me not to try.  You can’t make this sort of absurdity up.  As an adult, I look back in wonder at a culture that could produce kids like that.  Then I read the news and stop wondering.

At the same time, the administration of the school was looking for excuses to dis-enroll students on the “Catholic discount” because we were costing them money.  So, in a sense, I really was being observed carefully but not for educational reasons.  The lawsuit-averse strategy was to identify some misbehavior or defect in a kid (never the wealthy ones with the hyper-aggressive blonde PTA mothers); send him or her to the school psychologist—a psychology graduate student from University of San Diego, the affiliated private Catholic university in town; establish a defensible reason for the kid being put into after-school programs and / or remedial classes; and then eventually, pending a second evaluation, recommend that he be transferred into the public system where other resources existed to address the “problem.”  

Several broke problem kids on the discount disappeared as a result of this strategy, but my mother was determined to keep me in.  She fought vehemently to keep me away from the graduate-student psychologist and to keep any evaluation mediated by the school out of my files.  She felt that once there was a psych paper trail, I’d never be free of it.  

She worried a lot about my “permanent record.”  To be fair, this was the late 1970s.  The school was being run by people who came of age and were educated in a conservative American Catholic culture of the 1950s and 1960s.  So as far as I can tell, my mother was more right about the stigma of mental illness than she was wrong.  It wasn’t about pumping the kids full of Adderall back then.  It was a cruel kind of sorting hat, keyed to money and the displeasure of those in authority.  Piss them off and you got “diagnosed.”

After too many lost fights, too many after-school detentions, and a broken convent window, the extremely uptight (worried about her job) principle finally demanded that I get a psych evaluation or be expelled.  My mother paid out-of-pocket for a professional child psychologist recommended by Scripps Hospital (i.e. an independent expert witness for the defense).  My father, after great protest that his schedule was being disrupted and a parental screaming fight in the living room, finally drove us over to the hospital annex.  Needless to say, I felt horrible about it all.  It was, you see, all my fault.

I remember that the psychologist had a bushy mustache and kind eyes.  He talked to me for about 15 minutes.  Then he asked to talk to my parents.  Later, I learned from my mother that he said: “Your son is just fine.  You both, however, should get some marriage counselling.”  By telling me that, what my mom really meant was: “Your father is a horrible person,” but I wouldn’t decode it for years, until personal experience gave me enough insight to agree with her.  

She was already seeing a psychiatrist independently and learning ways to cope with being trapped in an unhappy marriage.  That’s what a lot of “women’s counselling” amounted to back then.  But my 15 minutes of therapy did produce a letter attesting to my normalcy, which my mom brought to the school.  And henceforth all administrative heads were bowed.  They couldn’t argue with Scripps Hospital.

Those had been bad years.  But things got better.  I learned how to fight, actually, both from my mother and a 45-year-old North Vietnamese naval captain, named Tran.  After the psych evaluation, mom decided I was too soft and, at the suggestion of my wonderful magical spiritualist aunt, my mother enrolled me in martial arts classes at the local YMCA.  That is a story in itself—a much brighter, happier story, at least for a while until my dad entered it again—but the upshot was that I started practicing Vo Lam Kung Fu, Chin Na, and Iron Palm at age 10.  

Pretty soon, I could speak a bit of Vietnamese, break bricks with my fists, disassociate myself from levels of physical pain, take a shot to the face without falling over, and because I lost weight and got strong, I also learned compassion for other kids like me.  My mother’s training was supplemental: “If someone tries to hurt you, hit them as hard as you can in the face.”  She was a master of the hard school.

I only needed to do that once or twice before the bullies left me to my books and butterflies.  I was not expelled.  And then I went to high school to start the next difficult chapter of my childhood, but for a while I was a lot happier as a person.  I was still lonely and spent most of my time in my head, but I had a group of very tough grown men over at the Y (most of whom had already been soldiers by my age) who would treat me with respect because I was completely sincere.  It was a special thing for me.

It took me about 25 years before I’d have to return to those early negative childhood experiences as I struggled with pervasive suicidal urges and a critical inner voice that wanted me, above all else, to just erase myself.  After a lot of reading, writing, talking, and self-work, I learned to think of that inner torment as a fragment of my personality stuck in those early years of being bullied and stressed out, a splinter from my childhood mind that had never grown up.  As an educated adult who practices a lot of introspection, I have been able to understand my self-destructive impulses in a way that helps me see what they really are: the impossible attempt of a kid trying to cope with his parents’ problems.

They never did get marriage counselling.  But part of me is still back there in 1979, feeling like all the vehemence and shouting was my fault, anxious that any misstep could permanently bankrupt us, and searching feverishly for a place where I would not be noticed.  Many of my life choices since then—some good, some not so good—can be traced back to those feelings.  They are part of who I am, wired into the basis of my personality.

They’ve also helped me in a number of positive ways, especially, as a teacher, when I have encountered those things in students.  But I know there will never be a time when I can take my own mind for granted.  I will always have a self-destructive (and, when it’s at its worst, overtly suicidal) tendency to feel disproportionately responsible and to seek some kind of punishment, even if that self-punishment is inherently unjust.  

The unevolved child in me thinks that if I had just disappeared everything would have been better for my parents or would be better now.  Luckily, the compassionate adult part of me disagrees with that.  And I prefer to live like an adult.

blue moon—n. 1. the second full moon occuring within a calendar month; 2. informal once in a blue moon: very rarely; almost never.  “blue moon.” Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. 31 Aug. 2012.

Writing counter-interpolative communiques on the night of a blue moon, the Speculator must observe the same ancient choreography that sorcerers, night soil men, two-headed doctors, literature professors, street hustlers, gypsy flower peddlers, and professional dog walkers have known since antiquity: one engages in a ritual dance to accomplish certain ends.

One appropriates symbols—the magic wand, the shit bucket, the mojo hand, the Norton Anthology of English Literature, the too-tight jeans, the bouquet of dyed roses, the dog leash—and invokes the primal forces of creation.  One uses obscure terms and appellations and loads them with meaning.  One waits for the hour of Mercury, drinking beer and burning incense on the roof, staring at the moon.  One observes certain ancient footwork while brandishing symbols to speak truth to power.

Thus change is brought to bear on events and minds; existing chains of causality shift; and new paradigms are born.  All from a dance, from preordained steps taken in darkness and solitude, from a Doctrine of Signatures old enough to justify itself (suggesting the monks who would recopy medieval grimoires and write Proven in the margins as a way to attest that the magic operations in question had worked for them, too).  All from ostrich feathers and incense and words of barbarous invocation; from a mojo hand with van van rubbed on its seams; or a reinterpretation of Ozymandias in 310b, Humanities Hall, at noon; or a pair of cheap jeans, an imitation Stetson, and a lewd gesture at a passing car.  One performs rituals on the roof at midnight, in the classroom, at an altar in the basement made from the door of a condemned house, or on Polk Street in full view of the headlights streaming past like lemon-white balloons.

Consider: when cornered or confronted or dragged into the light, evil thinks of weapons.  When given no way out, a fool or an animal fights to the death.  Consider also: there is nothing more evil or foolish than a human animal cornered by reason, by sincerity, or by common sense.  Thus the Speculator, the peddler selling bouquets of symbolic meaning and tugging on the choke chains of relevance, speaks what passes for the truth of her individual experience while avoiding the retribution of the masses, for whom the bottom line has always been and always will be three hots, a cot, and unlimited cable.

Symbolism can cut more deeply than plain language.  Well-honed symbols can be made to resonate like poison from a razor’s edge the way a good venom will echo through the body, taking organs like a general takes land.  The Speculator says, let the venom be good.  The Speculator says, you are more than your animal wants.  Maybe the Speculator even goes so far as to say, think.

Think and avoid being interpolated into power structures that feed your animal wants at the expense of your rational and superarational mind, flooding you with stupid details, with the endless distractions of sitcoms and status updates and the antics of politicians.  There are no politicians.  There is only the precession of symbols moving along preordained grids, along schematic causal chains, designed to reinforce dominant paradigms that make money to perpetuate themselves.  Cities like circuit boards.  Telecomunications data streams like enfolded spiderwebs, matricies of obligation, of misdirection, of stasis and social expectation woven in layers.

If we could not telecommunicate, what could we become?  The human potential movement says, nothing.  The Speculator says, how did we get here in the first place?  And maybe the Speculator adds, let the venom be good.  Let there be curses, spite marriages, drunken train hopping, total network failure from perpetual IP configuration faults, the throwing of beer bottles from roofs, the dark whisper of rain over the junkyard, the junkyard that used to be the parking lot of a sports arena, the parking lot that housed a circus, the circus that got wet by the same rain that fell on Constantine before he converted and ruined half the world.  Because all water cycles from ocean to sky to earth endlessly like the mistakes we don’t remember and are destined to repeat.

But the Speculator must remain mindful of the moon.  When the moon enters Pisces, it obscures everything, occludes thinking like water running down glass.  There are shapes one knows, certain forms, certain modes of acting, feeling, believing, assuming, receiving.  The Speculator sees them as fish at the bottom of a pool, twisting, blurry, just out of reach.  And so he writes this essay in the hour of Luna, saying let there be darkness and light and let them dance on the face of the blue moon—like ripples on water made by molten lead or flights of birds on the bowl of the sky or the shapes one sees coalesce in the clouds—and let the dance mean more than syllables in the animal screams of fools.

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/william-barr-and-the-subversion-of-justice

Being a self-employed workaholic and knowing how to effectively relax is one of the biggest professional conundrums I’ve faced as an adult.  And by “effective relaxation,” I mean not chemically induced relaxation or pseudo-relaxation that is just another form of work in disguise.  Accepting the necessity of down time is really hard when you’re the one in charge of your schedule.

Add cyclical insomnia, a lot of repressed anger, and an emotionally abusive work ethic instilled from childhood and you get a large part of why I was a difficult person to be around in my 20s and early 30s.  But I think I’ve learned a few things by now.  Here are some ideas if you happen to be someone who shares these or similar issues (and I can think of a number of my friends who probably do).

(1) The most important thing is to be honest about being Type-A, especially if you use work to avoid other unpleasant thoughts, situations, or confrontations.  The first and deepest honesty is with yourself.  Then comes the need to practice outward-facing honesty by releasing the burden of holding these unflattering realizations about your obsessiveness in all the time.  Speaking to others about it releases its hold on you.  If you are afraid of judgment, consider that those who criticize you might feel threatened because they don’t want you to change or don’t want to face their own “stuff.”  Honesty and transparency can renew you completely. And you probably need that kind of renewal.

(2) Understand your rhythms.  Everything flows in evolving patterns, including everything in you—in your body and mind.  If you can roughly predict when you will feel the urge to obliterate yourself by working to exhaustion, you can avoid that.  Go home early.  Make a nice dinner.  Take a shower and get in bed.  Avoid replacing one addiction with another: chemically induced relaxation will compound your problems.  Avoid the bar.  Instead, shut everything down for the moment.  Even allow yourself to fail sometimes.  Missing a deadline or taking an evening off in the interest of self-care will not result in the end of the world.  Stop trying to control everything, especially when you feel that you’re going to fall apart unless you double down and pull an all-nighter.  Because that’s what this is about: feeling like you need absolute control at all times.  Workaholism is like any other addiction.  It’s an ersatz mode of control.  Getting over it means learning to relinquish control.  It’s not easy, but it’s absolutely necessary if you want to progress.

(3) Be kind to yourself.  This sort of self-torture has deep roots in those who suffer from it.  You will slip up when you’re trying to lead a healthier life.  You will have to deal with the unpleasantness of giving up your lousy self-destructive coping strategy.  That cruel inner voice that says you need to prove your worthiness by striving for some unattainable and, frankly, mentally ill standard of perfection and productivity is not your friend.  It’s a part of you that got misaligned early in your development and that is probably sustained by the culture around you.  Learning to be kind to yourself is a good first step toward re-alignment.  A humble and wide perspective also helps, realizing that you will never be at your best if you’re in a constant state of turmoil and burnout.  Also accept that even when you are completely centered, well-rested, and healthy, you’re still fallible.  You’re not always going to be on top of your game.  Maybe never.  So what?  The overall quality of your life is more important.  When you’re dead, hell won’t give you credit for “time already served” up at your desk. 

And (4) avoid the game of childish posturing. In every workplace (and on the internet), you’ll meet a certain percentage of people who get off on how much they can overwork, as if that defines them as superior beings.  They are looking to others for cheap validation because they feel empty.  I know because I have been that person.  Don’t make my stupid mistakes, kid.  Working hard is good.  But setting limits adds value to everything.  Facing the reasons why you overwork might be painful, but it’s again about self-honesty.  You have a limited amount of time.  You should be using at least some of it to frolic in the dandelions and give biscuits to puppies.  I say this as the badass motherfucker you know and love: puppies. Frolic. Get to it.

It goes without saying that, by writing this, I am actually practicing these things in my own way.

https://www.splicetoday.com/moving-pictures/into-the-badlands-loses-its-way

 

 

There are many different paths to greatness, not just the ones most commonly identified by conformist culture.  As long as your basic needs are met, where you put your energy—how you pursue excellence—is completely your business.  Realizing this can be difficult and gradual.

It seems true, even if we admit that discourses (value systems) will always compete with each other for dominance.  And one of the most ruthless and rapacious, at least in the West, is that of “meritocracy.”  A meritocracy is inherently based on an assumed set of cultural values.  But you need to realize that you are free to opt out of those assumed values.  What the masses consider to be good doesn’t have to define your life.  

If you don’t accept meritocratic cultural values, merit-based judgments by those who do are irrelevant.  In other words, it is a mistake to impose the rules of a game on someone who refuses to play; though, because discourses will compete with each other, people will usually try to impose their personal values-discourse on you.  Often, they will do so because they’re not aware of alternatives.  They may not even remember the moment they chose to buy in.  And they may not understand that imposing values on someone else is an act of violence.

Remove the question of merit (and its various implications) and the locus of meaning in life shifts (possibly returns) from an external authority to the individual.  One arrives squarely within Viktor Frankl’s “Will to Meaning“—not seeking meaning / value relative to others, but exploring what is already resonant / resident in the self.  “Thy Will be Done” becomes “My Will be Done,” with all the freedoms and responsibilities arising from that shift.

It makes no difference if your private world is idiosyncratic to the point at which it would seem very strange to more common sensibilities.  As long as you’re not behaving like a hypocrite by harming or otherwise curtailing the autonomy of others, your interiority (including the way you choose to perceive the world outside your self) is completely yours.  And it doesn’t seem outrageous to conclude that this is how it should be.  If you don’t own your thoughts, can you ever own anything else?  In fact, it seems that the more you personalize your unique way of seeing and acting in the world, the stronger and more persuasive that uniqueness becomes. 

Because discourse is grounded in conflict and competition, this self-originating, self-describing narrative you are spinning can have a destabilizing effect on others, who may accuse you of being a delusional, a dreamer, someone out of touch with (what the dominant culture considers) reality.  But if it works for you, isn’t it the right thing?  Isn’t that choosing inner freedom instead of pledging fealty to ideas and to a lifestyle that was designed (or emerged) without you particularly in mind?

Walking away from a meritocracy takes a lot of courage and effort.  Because you are a social being, it can involve a certain amount of suffering, alienation, and lonesomeness.  You risk being called a deviant, being labeled as a disaffected undesirable.  Even if you don’t agree with those judgments, they will still hurt.  Hopefully, your growing curiosity about your own sui generis greatness and freedom will mitigate that pain.

You might call this the “inward path,” the “artist’s way,” or “the path beyond the campfire” which leads into dark unmapped places, where all new things wait to be discovered.

There is a writing life.  And you could lead it if you could only get past everything else, which is to say yourself.  This is what a lot of writers eventually believe, even if they don’t start out that way.  Maybe you believe it, too.  It’s not the wrong way to think (tell me there’s a right or wrong in this business and I’ll show you how that’s both right and wrong), but it is naïve. 

So be naïve.  There are worse things for a writer, like crippling cynicism or despair or (absolutely lethal) early unwarranted success.  And what is success?  Before we get into that, let’s start with trouble, which means we have to also start with money because they’re inseparable. 

I was going to call this, “Of Trouble and Money,” but I realized that’s too broad.  It covers everybody.  And this is a post aimed primarily at writers and at those closeted egomaniacs grappling with the concept who call themselves, “aspiring writers.”  So I added “the So-called Writing Life.”  But that, too, is just a label, a concept, a paper hat, an identity that often proves to be more trouble than it’s worth.

You need something else, a different paper hat to stave off Bob, who works in IT and hates himself, at the dinner party you were coerced into attending.  Bob despises everything in the world, but he’ll despise you so much more if you put on the writer hat.  So you say, “I’m an English teacher” (nice and boring; he feels superior; well done) or “I’m a copyeditor” (also boring; satisfyingly obscure) or “I’m between jobs” (could be true; boring; allows Bob to feel superior and has the added benefit of desperation cooties, which will make Bob excuse himself in 30 seconds and avoid you for the rest of the evening).  Say anything other than, “I’m a writer.”  You don’t need the paper hat to lead the life.

You just need to lead the life.  And what does that entail?  First, trouble.  You have it the minute you make the decision to put down words that amount to anything more than a grocery list.  There’s the art, which takes a lifetime.  There are the ponderous exigencies of time and space that seem to conspire against you from the beginning, making it very difficult to get anything completed.  There are many pencils to sharpen and bagels to eat and horrific dinner parties to endure.  There’s your recalcitrant mind, your spouse, your family, your friends, your old pals from high school at the reunion, your outright enemies, the publishing industry, crotchety reviewers, and posterity, which you won’t be around to appreciate but which you’ll worry about nonetheless.  There’s needing to eat.  And there’s existential dread that you’re wasting your time, which you’ll laugh at until it starts laughing, too.

Second, money.  Another pernicious idea.  A demon.  The basis of all well-being in our mentally ill society.  Getting it.  Having it.  Spending it.  Losing it.  Cycle, cycle, cycle, over and over.  Writing doesn’t work on money.  And the writing life doesn’t know money exists.  All writing wants is more writing.  All money wants is every part of you salted on a plate.

A young horror writer I know recently told me that he feels small presses are fine, but his goal is to make a middle-class income off his writing.  So he has to go for bigger game.  I told him that I thought it was possible, that I thought he could do it, and I was being honest.  You can earn a middle-class living doing just about anything if you make that income level your goal and subordinate all other considerations to it.  I admire his clarity.  I never said, “I want that.”  I only said I needed to write because if I didn’t I’d get (more) mentally unwell.  For me, it’s a matter of health.  For him, wealth. 

We’re both writers.  But he’s going to get what he wants because he actually knows what it is, which gives him wisdom.  Very few writers are healthy, wealthy, and wise.  All I ever knew was that I didn’t want to not write.  When I did write, I was happier for it.  I’m still on that track: write so I can avoid having not written, then get busy with all the other compulsions and machinations of my day, which are ultimately in place to facilitate one thing: me being able to avoid not writing again tomorrow.

So you eat the trouble-money sandwich every day.  And if you can keep it down, if you can do your art on a regular basis with a free and sincere mind, you’re leading the writing life—insofar as we can call it that, since most serious writers will be equally serious when they tell you that’s no way to live.  Go into plastics.  Sell computers.  Operate a used car lot.  Go make Bolivia great again.  Manage a bowling alley and spend all your free time watching spaghetti westerns and smoking weed.  Care for a kitten.  I guarantee, in the end, that kitten will make you happier than your writing, even if, from the beginning to the middle, your writing saves your life.

But what is your life worth?  If you have an idea that it comes down to being a success and you can say what that is, you are most assuredly wrong.  If you only have a compulsion to not not write, welcome to my world.  I can’t be wrong because I can’t be right.  Every morning with my coffee and steno pad, I’m a formless pulse, trying to be someone else, somewhere else, in my head.  And that doesn’t make a body solvent.  It doesn’t make people want to put your books in urns in the basement of a pyramid.  You’ll get paid by teaching or working for Bob the IT professional or washing dishes in the back of Harley’s Place.  And don’t complain.  You made your choices.  Complaining is for Bob, not you.  He doesn’t get to do what you do.

So you accept that you’ve made this writer’s bargain.  You’ve gone down to the crossroads and agreed that, in exchange for being able to live the writing life, you will never have a two-story house in the suburbs and drive a car that doesn’t look like a dirty toaster.  You will be mindful of your whining.  You will be grateful for this divine gift that makes you weird and ecstatic and keeps your head from exploding.  And you will get up day-in and day-out and sit at the desk and go out of body to that place where your characters may be earning their middle-class incomes and driving new cars and having break-up conversations over linguine at the Chez Paul.

Maybe you’ll be a horror writer.  Maybe you will attain your income goals.  But I suspect that in order to accomplish such a thing, you’ll have to get past those goals along with everything else and exist in a liminal space where all that matters is the writing.  In the meantime, you should know that cardboard inserts in your shoes can prevent your socks from getting wet.  And a place that serves bottomless coffee is a joy forever.

I’ve never found New Years Eve to be a very festive occasion.  The regrets of the past—not just of the previous year, but all the wreckage, sorrows, and mistakes that have thus far shaped the path behind—tend to be far more compelling.  It’s no use trying to plaster over such introspection, as most people do, with alcohol and shouting.  Fireworks are fine and I like them as much as anyone, but the feverish, almost desperate, partying people engage in so as not to have to confront the realities of the previous year, is pathetic.  I’d rather face my pain with a clear head.  This, of course, makes me unpleasant company at a New Years Eve party.  It’s a good thing I don’t go to them.

Party, like love or truth, can mean whatever we want it to mean.  Sometimes love means like or desire or the lesser of evils.  Sometimes truth means a better, more tolerable, sort of lie.  Often party means compulsive self-distraction.  I can count the number of parties where I’ve had fun on one hand.  Most have been dreadful and tedious, whether I was sober or not.  And, though I know the natural response is, “you are such a wretched, misanthropic, introverted son-of-a-bitch that you don’t know what fun is,” I think I do know.  At least, I know what it isn’t.  It’s not a night of forced cheer and denial, for one thing. 

Woo.  Happy New Year.  Now get back in your cage.

A fortune teller in Northern California looked at my palm and said, “You’re going to lead an unnaturally long life.”  Then she slid my money back across the table and added, “I feel bad for you.”  This was in 2008 or 2009.  My memory of the year is less distinct than the mournful expression on her face, how she pulled off her chintzy Madame Sofia veil, leaned back, and lit a cigarette as if to say, sorry, kid, that’s how it is.

I was supposed to pay her $30 for 30 minutes, but we sat there for almost two hours while she read my tarot cards.  By the time she got around to looking at my hands, she’d already told me three important things about my future.  I was going to travel across an ocean.  I was going to do things no one in my family had ever done.  And I was going to outlive everybody I knew.  As of 2018, two of those three predictions have come true.

It’s amazing how quickly life can change.  You leave the house every day and say, this is the job I do.  This is the market where I shop.  This is the person I live with.  These are the faces I see as I walk down my street.  This is the field with daisies nodding in the wind.  This is me.  For the moment, at least, this is me.

And if you succeed, if you’re healthy and disciplined and dedicated and proficient, if you don’t weaken and get that regular colonoscopy and save your money, you might last long enough to see all your variables change.  Then you’ll say, this is me—isn’t it?  But you won’t know how to answer.  You’ll remember the fortune teller saying, “I feel bad for you,” and you’ll understand what she meant.  You won’t know how to recognize yourself.  You’ll be a survivor.  And nobody actually ever wants that.  The last man standing is, by definition, all alone.

Some of us die and are reborn in a single lifetime.  In my four-and-a-half decades, I’ve already lived several full lives, played roles that had perfectly formed inciting incidents, climaxes, and denouements, which in earlier times or in other places could have described the total breadth and depth of a person’s lived experience.  I’m 44 years old, not too old but not that young, either.  Most days, I look 10 – 15 years younger than that.  Is that good?

I spend a lot of time lost in my own head, reading, walking around and looking at things.  And I’ve managed to orchestrate a life where I can do that.  I can become fascinated by very simple experiences, the wind in different kinds of trees, for example, or the way sound echoes on the canal beneath my bedroom window.  There’s a lot going on everywhere you look.  Sometimes, it’s hypnotic.  Sometimes, it’s beautiful.  Sometimes, it makes me want to scream for a real long time.  The world is too much.  It isn’t interested in making sense or being rational.  We’re the ones who make it matter.  But do we really?

I don’t recommend going to fortune tellers very often.  If they’re good, you’ll know too much.  If they’re bad, you’ll be wasting your money.  If they’re stupid, you’ll feel stupid.  And if they’re clever, you’ll feel even more stupid.  A fortune teller is like a bad pizza.  You paid for it.  So you’re going to eat it.  You might feel disgusted afterwards.  You might not want to talk about the experience.  You might want to put it away in the file labeled Decisions About Which I Will Feel Forever Ashamed and vow never again.  But you’ll probably be back. 

It’s how magical things work.  It’s how art works.  You go see the performance piece at the museum and it has some guy drenched in urine and suspended upside-down by fish hooks from the ceiling for hours over plaster of Paris horses having sex.  And you think, wow, that is neither pleasing to the eye nor conceptually interesting.  It’s pretentious and it’s trying way to hard to be something that isn’t boring.  You write scathing things about it on your blog.  You try to put it out of your mind because you know that every minute you spend thinking about it is a minute you’ll never get back.  But six months later, you go, I wonder what’s showing at the museum.  So do you want anchovies on your plaster horsefucking pizza this time?  Of course you do.  Want to know the future?  Just let me shuffle these cards.

I took piano lessons as a kid.  I was very serious about them.  My teacher was a professor in the music department at the university.  He was a lot like Mr. Rogers.  He radiated that improbable blend of whipsmart intelligence shrouded in simplicity and humor.  He was a remarkable man, a truly gifted person who knew how to appreciate life.  And one of the things he really appreciated was teaching children classical piano.  I learned an immense amount about how to be a decent human being just by spending time with him. 

I remember us sitting in a room with about 50 grand pianos.  He played a single note and we listened to it until it passed away.  Then we discussed its shape, its color, its temperature.  There was an entire life in that sound, a whole universe from the big bang to the last chapter of the Book of Revelation with dinosaurs and empires and prophets and an Industrial Revolution and fiber optics and climate change and insane politicians and Mad Max and the heat death of a wandering star.  All we had to do was listen.  And, like gods, we knew we could always play another note—that, in fact, we or someone of our great pantheon would play another one and would inevitably bring another cosmos into being.

Years later, far away at a different university, I’d study the Metaphysical Poets and I’d encounter Thomas Traherne’s poem, “Shadows in the Water.”  It contains these lines:

I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seeméd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

And I’d write a half-baked undergraduate essay on the metaphysics of sound as expressed through the semiotics of Traherne’s mirror imagery.  Fabulous.  The only important thing about it was that I remembered listening to my piano teacher play that note when I read “Thus did I by the water’s brink/ Another world beneath me think” and thought: exactly.  Our second selves these shadows be.  The gods look down from Olympus and see their reflections in us as we, in turn, look and listen to our own universes encapsulated in the breadth of a single note—as above, so below.  Quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius.  I’ve lived many lives, been reborn into many universes.  Godlike, I’ve brought universes into being.

All being depends on context, which is to say, on the existence (meaning) of a universe.  One of the many reasons I love Carl Sagan is that he said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”  This is as true for the pie as it is for the pie maker—they both depend on the existence of a universe to contain them and give them meaning.  By extension, if the pie maker is the last man standing in his universe, all meaningful correlation between the existential condition of the pie and that of the universe eventually breaks down. 

In short, one can only eat one’s own apple pies in solitude for so long before one goes insane.  The existence of a pie implies both future and past in space: in the future, someone will sit in a landscape and eat the pie which the pie maker made in the past.  Because of this, if you succeed at the game of life, I will feel bad for you. 

You will outlast your universe; your apple pies will no longer be meaningful.  You will survive and will have no one for whom you can make an apple pie or anything else.  You will see the sky fall, the stars burn out, the destruction of the world.  You will be haunted by memories of times long past and people you loved and wars that no one remembers.  That is a truly horrible fate.  Do you want to win this game?  For your sake, I sincerely hope not.

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/attacked-on-the-street

You Are Somewhere Else

“Two rich couples drop out of a limousine.  The women are wearing outfits the poor people who were in ten years ago wore ten years ago.  The men are just neutral.  All the poor people who’re making this club fashionable so the rich want to hang out here, even though the poor still never make a buck off the rich pleasure, are sitting on cars, watching the rich people walk up to the club.”

— Kathy Acker

For every good writing day, I have 20 bad ones.  A good writing day is one in which I feel inspired to make progress on a piece.  But that doesn’t ensure that I will be able to finish it or feel satisfied if I do.  It doesn’t mean that I will think I did a good piece of work or that I will be able to trust that judgment over time.  All I know after a good day is that I felt good.  All I know on those other days is that I felt frustrated, uninspired, and aggrieved whether or not I produced pages, whether or not I think (or will think) that those pages are worthwhile.

Optimal conditions rarely exist for creative work.  There is always something getting in the way, some defect of body, mind, or circumstances that conspires to obstruct progress and generate despair and self-doubt.  The only answer is to keep writing, to admit that I can and will generate unsatisfying work, to avoid wondering about my talent, and to just get on with things.  As my trombonist friend, Mike Hickey, once said about being a musician: just keep playing.

Just keep writing.

No one feels they have talent all the time.  In fact, most people feel the way I do: it’s hit and miss, always a struggle, always an emotional upheaval.  If literary geniuses really do exist outside the marketing generated by a hypocritical and terrified publishing industry, they would, by definition, be critical of themselves.  History confirms that creative work is hard, even for the most famous and memorable writers.  And it can’t be genius to believe it’s always easy or that your talent will confer all the pleasures and none of the agonies.

Just keep writing.

I tell myself to forget the people who have advised me not to give up my day job; they don’t know and can’t judge.  Forget the family members and acquaintances who wanted me to reflect their own lack of talent and resented me for trying to develop my own; they can only see disappointing reflections of themselves.  Forget the graduate school competitors, the half-starved adjunct professors, the depressed self-diagnosed creative failures, the cynical postmodernists declaring everything already over; they’re all too emotional.  They’re like sick dogs.  And sick dogs don’t typically write fiction.  Don’t be a romantic.  Be methodical.  Cultivate a classical mind.  Stay dedicated to the work and just keep writing because all these feelings and emotional people will disappear.

The only thing left will be the words I’ve written down.  Whether there are many words or just a few is irrelevant.  The point will be that I wrote them and kept writing them.  In the end, that’s all I will have because the books will get put away on a shelf or recycled or lost.  The computer files will get forgotten or deleted.  What I wrote will be no better than a half-remembered dream.  Just as what I intend to write is nothing more than a flimsy possibility.  A trombonist is nothing without his trombone in his hand.  If he keeps playing, he’s a trombonist.

Nothing exists except for this moment and what I do in it.  So if I call myself a writer, I have one job.

All libraries contain secrets, even the most sterile and unwelcoming collections.  One thinks this must be why conservative politicians despise public libraries and continuously go after their funding.  It can be frightening to imagine that the public has access to knowledge that those in power have neither the time nor the inclination to discover. 

A library represents free information and therefore runs contrary to the ethos of authoritarian capitalism and consumerism: if something is free, it’s suspect because nothing of value can be free.  So when corporate culture and its politicians aren’t creating more poverty to criminalize, they devote a certain amount of their free time to portraying libraries as cesspools of homelessness.  People can’t be going there to learn.  The knowledge marketplace demands that information be endowed with a certain market value.

Libraries are all too often described as places where bad-smelling, mentally ill, bearded men spend their afternoon snoring with titles like Les arts de l’Asie centrale or A Catalogue of Turkish Manuscripts and Miniatures, volume III as dusty pillows.  No one sleeps in Amazon.com or on the stack of Reader’s digests and Wall Street Journals in front of the local newsstand.  And that’s how conservative America likes it: if you’re not going to buy anything, please go away and die somewhere discreet.  And maybe take The History and Development of Ancient Chinese Architecture with you.  No one wants to buy that.

But I, for one, find unwashed old men in libraries reassuring if not a little endearing.  Just as when it rains, I take solace in the regularity of storm clouds, when I hear that tell-tale snoring, I enjoy the thought that some vet named Burt will be sitting around the corner in the Dewey 930s, pretending to read a text in Arcadocypriot Greek when the librarian passes by.  If you look closely, you might notice that the book is upside-down.  But you won’t look that closely.

At the end of the day, when one of the librarians picks up the book to reshelve it, she’ll no doubt experience a sense of wonder: someone finally came in search of that obscure Peloponnesian dialect—and casually to the extent that the person didn’t even feel the need to check the book out!  The possibility that it was merely being used as a sad old man’s headrest would be too cynical for a true librarian to entertain, at least straight away.  Instead, she’d prefer to believe that someone walked in determined to learn more about the world of pre-Dorian Cyprus.  And that is why true librarians are wonderful people (people filled with wonder).  But, as with anything else in this late age of revenge politics, throwback Enlightenment scientism, and YA fiction for adults, true anything is rare.

Still, libraries, like museums, are meant to preserve such rarities.  So it makes sense that a library might contain hidden practitioners of true arts the same way it secrets knowledge away from the broadcloth-and-pearl-wearing delinquents currently ruining the United States and demeaning the arts and sciences of the West.  Maybe Burt was (is) a sculptor.  Maybe the gentleman with the Fu Manchu and the Army surplus jacket at that table in the corner has a masters in historical musicology.  Maybe the toothless wonder currently snoring into a puddle of drool once wrote a dissertation on the rejection of evidentialism in religious epistemology.  You never know. 

Maybe a star seen through a library window at midnight is actually a symmetrical angel—too distant to be clearly perceived in its full geometry.  Yet, if viewed from within a dark library with one’s feet in the proper position while speaking the right Arcadocypriotic line from Pausanias’ Description of Greece, one might have a rare insight into stars and angels.  One might even begin to comprehend the range of symmetrical possibilities that converge on a functioning library card: that a library is a city of doors, that it gratefully accepts the snores of sleeping homeless men the way the hills accept the rain, and that it is, above all else, an infinite palace of vaults and ritual chambers in which one finds all the angels, devils, and true adepts resident in the human imagination.

How many people will come along with the necessary Arcadocypriotic, having read the Pausanias’ prescribed ancient manuscript (even right-side-up in translation), and capable of accessing the library at midnight in order to stand by the dark window on the appropriate night and have this mysterious realization?  Very few.  This is how libraries veil their secrets.  The information is available, but you have to do the work of discovering it.  And then you have to engage with it beyond merely using the book as a headrest.  The librarian believes in you.

If you succeed in this, unlike Betsy DeVos, you may attain a level of knowledge and conversation with the deeper mysteries of the library and what it represents; though, you may not reacquire your teeth or find a place to sleep after closing hours.  But you will grasp the golden chain of true insight that has come down, unbroken, through the hands of countless artists, scholars, monks, philosophers, scientists, and mystics—the other end of which may be held by Venus or may disappear in the source of all books, a cloud of unknowing silence which nothing but silence can express.

There was something evil in the glow of the room’s blue lights.  I felt the weight of the man on top of me.  He could no longer move.  His eyes were closed.  I stared long into his face.  I realized that I wanted him.  I wanted the passion he had until a moment ago.  I wanted his shoulders, which were quite muscular for his age, and his naturally tan face.  I got out from under his body, sat in a chair, and lit a cigarette.  I had to wait like this until he fell into a deep sleep.

It was raining outside.

The Kingdom, Fuminori Nakamura (trans. Kalau Almony)

First, a Sincere Declaration of Thanks

I’ve spent most of my life running in circles looking for something authentic, then waiting for permission to explore it, and harshly criticizing myself when I didn’t get that permission.  Maybe other people have different experiences, but this has been mine, my personal through-line from childhood to the present.  So I try to be as sincere as possible when I write about my frustrations and failures.  Because what else can I do?  While it’s true that sincerity doesn’t make you friends, at least it makes you the right sort of enemies.  I imagine this blog post will do more of that.

Still, I try to avoid self-pity and, because of this, I usually take a long time to form opinions about what I’ve done or failed to do and how others have reacted.  I ruminate.  I turn things over, trying to see past faulty assumptions, convenient rationalizations, and other self-serving anodynes.  Most people probably do this to some extent, but I think I do it more.  Sometimes, it works.  Other times, what I took for a true perception, for reality, eventually dissolves into just another subjective field, just another corridor of the maze that I have come to think of as my life.  In a maze, you never know what the next twist will bring.  Usually, it brings another twist.

With this in mind, I should begin by saying that in 2010 I came very close to ending my life.  This essay is about that time, but it’s not just about depression and not really about suicide.  It’s not a success narrative where I write about how I overcame great difficulties and am now nearing perfectibility.  It’s not about taking revenge on others through a misguided petty hit piece.  And it’s certainly not about castigating myself for the many imaginary errors I’ve regretted and then dismissed over the last eight years in order to keep getting up in the morning.  It’s a slice of life—a big, fat, ugly slice that tries to embrace the broadest range of experience in order to get closer to the truth.  In this, it’s a lot like an advanced non-fiction exercise.

“Advanced” because it is not easy and not something you would assign to a 17-year-old English major in an introductory writing workshop.  “Non-fiction” because it’s a mode of creative expression that pretends a certain degree of inviolable objectivity, even though we know that’s impossible.  Every memoir, no matter how fabulous, must begin implicitly or explicitly with an assertion of truth or at least with a sincere declaration of authorial good faith: “I did this.  I saw this.  This happened.  At least, I think it happened.”  Rousseau’s Confessions does it with style:

Whenever the last trumpet shall sound, I will present myself before the sovereign judge with this book in my hand, and loudly proclaim, thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I.  With equal freedom and veracity have I related what was laudable or wicked, I have concealed no crimes, added no virtues; and if I have sometimes introduced superfluous ornament, it was merely to occupy a void occasioned by defect of memory: I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood.

This is my favorite passage from the first part of the book because literary historians have proven that the Confessions contains many misstatements if not deliberate falsehoods.  Such graceful bald-faced prevarication is a rare and beautiful thing.  But I am not so talented.  And I have no plans to weigh my heart against a feather on the last day. 

Instead, I will put it this way: I suspect I am not a horrible person.  I have faith that I’m not even tactless.  I believe my greatest defect is that I lack the imagination necessary to see several moves ahead.  I lack interpersonal foresight, which has made me a poor manager of nervous egomaniacs and a terrible chess player.  But I love chess.  And that is a serious problem, even if I hate the high-strung pampered egomania of academic writing programs, because everything toward the end of my PhD program was just a version of that game.

Robert Greene, in the acknowledgements of The 48 Laws of Power—a book loved equally by goateed 25-year-olds with a Libertarian Bitcoin fetish and the morose IT professionals you see combing the self-help section for books on how to become an alpha male—has a similar protestation of sincerity:

I must also thank my dear friend Michiel Schwarz who was responsible for involving me in the art school Fabrika in Italy and introducing me there to Joost Elffers, my partner and producer of The 48 Laws of Power.  It was in the scheming world of Fabrika that Joost and I saw the timelessness of Machiavelli and from our discussions in Venice, Italy, this book was born. . . . Finally, to those people in my life who have so skillfully used the game of power to manipulate, torture, and cause me pain over the years, I bear you no grudges and I thank you for supplying me with inspiration for The 48 Laws of Power.

If we read this carefully, we have to smile.  Greene is doing what we might call an “inverted Rousseau,” making the same assertion in a backwards way: this is a book about real things; therefore, I thank all those who have manipulated and tortured me for providing good material and, in the process, I declare my sincerity. 

Greene puts us on notice that his book is based on subjective material that emanates from his and Elffers’ lived experience, creating a Rousseau-esque escape hatch.  As The 48 Laws of Power is all highly subjective (essentially a kind of implicit portrait of Greene stitched together in historical anecdotes), the value of whatever he writes defaults to his apparent sincerity (“I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood”).  It’s not about an objective truth process.  It’s about rhetorical ethos.

That is wonderful because ethos might be the only sincere rhetorical mode.  After logos topples from an unstable foundation of assumption, appeal to authority, and generalization; after pathos is unmasked as merely a screen of emotion recollected in tranquility; the persuasive credibility of the speaker is all that remains.  In a world where absolute truth does not exist, everything is ethos.  And so I construct my own ethical escape hatch. 

2010 was the worst year of my life, the year after my mother died of lung cancer; the year after my first book was published; the year I got my PhD in English; the year I attended my last AWP Conference; the year I traveled to the deep South for an excruciating week-long job interview and realized the English department clichés also obtain south of the Mason-Dixon Line; the year I got very ill; the year I was admonished by my mentor for questioning the value of my degree and told to be grateful for indefinite unemployment; the year my father began another surly adolescence; the year I began to think that there was no place for me in this world.  There are many years I’d relive if I could.  2010 is not one of them.  But I have been told to be thankful for these experiences because they have supplied me with a lot of inspiration.  As such, this writing is my sincere declaration of thanks.

Prelude

You never know what the next twist in the maze will bring but, in 2009, I think I was doing as well as could be expected when I stood in front of the department graduate adviser’s desk and said I needed a leave of absence to visit my mother in hospice.  For some reason, that moment stands out as a prelude for the upcoming year.

The adviser, the department’s resident medievalist, seemed to exist in an acid vapor of contempt for all creative writing students and their keepers.  She disliked me in particular because I’d dropped her Old English seminar the previous semester and she’d taken it personally.  Since I was doing a PhD with a creative dissertation (the final product would become Gravity, my first story collection), I didn’t need to be in her class.  But she needed me there.  Or, at least, she needed to feel loved by as many students as possible.

This was the woman who would thereafter try to prevent me from graduating so that my funding would run out.  This was the woman—whether due to old workplace feuds or out of resentment that there were more creative writing events on campus than dramatizations of Piers Plowman and undergraduate maypole dances—perpetually tried to block funding to the creative writing program and force out the graduate students depending on tuition waivers.  Her style of chess was to kill the pawns first.  Attack the supply lines, starve the more dangerous units in their fortifications, and wait for winter.  Classic medieval siege tactics.

However, standing before her desk, I was barely aware of the billowing acid cloud.  I was half-blind with grief.  All I thought about was my mom and how I had to get back to California to see her.  Looking back, I’m surprised I even had the wherewithal to stand up straight, much less ask for a leave of absence.  But I was very responsible.  I took everything seriously.  I thought a lot about my future in academia, especially in creative writing instruction.  And I felt my future depended on me contentiously following up on every detail.  I was, essentially, as sincere as I have ever been in my life.  I shouldn’t have been that sincere.

Given my emotional state, what the adviser said to me didn’t register until I’d left the building.  The conversation went something like this:

“I need a leave of absence to go to California because my mother is dying of cancer.”

She rolled her eyes, looked out the window as if she were considering it, sighed, then shook her head.  “No can do.  You only have so much funding.  Your funding will not cover you for another semester.”

“My mother is dying.  She doesn’t have long.  I’ve completed my course work.  My dissertation only needs to be approved.  I don’t even need any more credits.”

Another sigh.  More contemplating the clouds.  “Well, that’s really too bad.  You have to be in residence or your funding will run out while you’re gone.  Good luck.”

I stood there, trying unsuccessfully to process this. Then she rolled her eyes and asked me if there was anything else.

The grief robot turned and left her office, got on the elevator, rode it down to the bottom floor, walked out to the fountain in the center of the courtyard, and stared at the water for a long time.  Only then, did he think of the graduate adviser rolling her eyes.  Over the ensuing 9 years, the moment of her eye roll would be impressed in his memory as a perfect metaphor, a perfect image foreshadowing all the inspiration and gratitude to come.

The Tragedy of Not Dying

A hospice is a horrible place.  It’s like being given a lollipop for a bullet wound.  You’re bleeding out and everyone tells you to enjoy your lolly.  It’s cherry.  It’s got a smiley face.  Why aren’t you happy? Visiting my mother with my father there added another layer to the experience.  In spite of the pain and horror of the place, in spite of watching my mother waste away in her bed, hallucinating and suffering and being afraid, I came to understand that my father’s grief was different from mine.  I was feeling bad for my mother.  He was feeling bad for himself.

This was still 2009.  My only course, aside from empty dissertation credits, was a German reading and literature seminar.  The professor, a kind old man about to retire in his late 60s, loved his students the way he loved his trees—which is to say, far more than he loved the university.  I asked him for advice because he was the only person I could ask.  And he made it possible for me to exist in two places at once.  I gave my own writing students two weeks of work and held online course meetings via Skype and I emailed my German professor my work, which made it seem like I was present.  This is what allowed me to fly to California and see my mom for the last time.

In those first awful trips to the hospice, I’d naïvely hoped that my father and I could come together in our grief and support each other.  Of course, this was pure fantasy since he’d always enjoyed being a father but had rarely done any fatherly things.  I could count the number of times we’d gone to movies, the one thing we could do together because it involved no conversation.  And there were a few other misadventures over the years where my mother badgered him into going to some school play (he stood by the door to be the first person out) or taking me fishing (we did a U-turn at the access road to the lake and went home) or camping (it rained and so we packed up in the middle of the night and left).  He never beat me and he brought home a paycheck.  To the best of my knowledge, he never stepped out on my mother.  But he was never involved more than that; though, he lived with us in the same house—somewhat more than a housemate, somewhat less than a relative.

So my hope that he would be able, somehow, if in a manly way, to share this painful experience with me, was not based on reality.  After a certain amount of talk about how sad he was, it became noticeable that he never talked about my mom.  He sat by her bed, lost in his own self-pity, as the cancer ate its way through her brain and wasted her body.  As she died by inches, he proceeded as usual, focusing on his own needs above all else.

I witnessed this.  My wife witnessed this.  But I was so aggrieved I could barely speak.  Sometimes, my wife had to help me walk from the car to my mother’s room.  Have you ever been so upset that you can barely walk?  Until you have, you won’t know the feeling.  When you have, you’ll never forget it.  It transcends description.

I focused completely on my mom.  I waited for her moments of clarity.  I told her I loved her.  I told her the good things about my PhD program.  I made jokes and she tried to laugh.  One day, my great aunt—a stately old Italian woman who sounded like my late grandmother and seemed covered in the old-world charm that vanished with her generation—showed up with a peach and a kitchen knife.  She cut slices and fed them to my mom with a smile on her face.  Even now, as I write this, I cry a little because it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.  That kind of goodness doesn’t exist much in this world.

It was a very difficult time.  Two weeks later, I returned to finish my program.  In one of her last moments of clarity, my mom had ordered me to go back.  She didn’t want me to see her die and me being in the PhD program meant a lot to her.  I think she felt ashamed that she wasn’t going to be around to take care of my father and me the way she always had.  And knowing that I was going to get a doctorate was a relief, as if it would be the next best thing.  She also had a lot of pride in her appearance and the cancer had been unkind.  So when I offered to stay, she insisted that I not.  About two weeks after that, my father called and said to say good-bye to her.  I told her I loved her.  And I think she died shortly thereafter.

I miss her every day.  But this isn’t about that, either.  It’s about the aftermath, how everything changed as a result of her death.  Some people are the linchpins of their families.  When they go, everything goes.  That was what happened.  I flew back again for her funeral.  She was buried holding a photo of my father and me.  It was a closed casket and I don’t remember much else, just bits and pieces.  I was out of my mind. 

As we moved toward the Fall semester of 2010, I felt melted down and recast as a different person.  I’d lost my happy thoughts.  I didn’t go out or talk to many people other than my wife and my program mentor.  I stopped writing fiction.  Most of what I did was perfunctory.  But I knew I had to get my degree.  Even if I collapsed afterward, I would complete the PhD.

The Reading Series

The year before, I’d allowed myself to be persuaded that working as the assistant coordinator for the university literary reading series would “look good on my resume.”  And I did my best as the monthly, sometimes bi-monthly, flier maker, venue securer, introducer-to-the-introducer, complaint taker, fielder-of-calls from mentally unstable bookstore proprietors, irradiated scapegoat, and general handler of said low-rung celebrity infants terribles

Sometime before I left town for good, one of the faculty members admitted to me that the assistant coordinator position was really only supposed to entail flier making and that the professor who was getting paid to be to be doing the other things had dumped the rest on me.  But by then I was so depressed that I couldn’t summon the necessary outrage.

One writer wanted a per diem that wasn’t in his agreement.  Another wanted intel on, in his exact words, “the most fuckable students who might be around.”  The butch lesbian poet would only communicate with me through an intermediary because I was straight and male.  The playwright was supernaturally high throughout his entire visit and had to be physically guided to the stage.  The “local writer,” penciled in because there was a vacancy in the schedule that month, struggled to contain her spiritual darkness through the entire event such that when I handed her the honorarium (significantly less than what the other, slightly more famous writers had received), she snatched it out of my hand, hissed a “Go fuck yourself,” and then smiled broadly at an approaching faculty member.  These were some of the more endearing ones.

Needless to say, it was not the greatest collection of individuals.  They generally came across as worn out, mediocre, vain, full of fear, full of resentment, and perpetually on the hustle for any crumb of recognition.  Calling them fools wouldn’t be accurate because they were all reasonably intelligent.  They simply knew the score too well, knew they should have received more for their dedication and efforts.  You could see that loathsome awareness stamped on their faces.  Now they were privileged to read their work to the smirking tenured faculty who hadn’t hired them, a menagerie of twitchy English students, and whichever townies may have wandered in looking for free wine.  It wouldn’t get much better than that.

I disliked the visiting readers even though I saw myself and my fellow grad students reflected in them.  Most of the people featured in the series that year hadn’t been picked for life’s cheer squad.  They were the leftovers, the understudies, the adjuncts with slim books from presses you’ve never heard of.  Many, it seemed, faced depression so considerable that they were pharmaceutically enhanced 100% of the time.  I wondered more than once how they could continue to produce writing.  The greatest irony was that most of them had already gone further in their careers than anyone currently in my PhD program stood to go.

There were a few exceptions, a few graceful and brilliant souls who’d agreed to come as personal favors to various faculty members.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them as well as the moments of hilarity you find in every English department.  2010 wasn’t all doom and gloom, just most of it.

The second time I was told to go fuck myself was around 3 AM on a Sunday morning toward the end of Fall semester.  My insomnia had become pretty dependable at that point and I was already awake when the phone rang.  I got out of bed, told my wife I had no idea who it was, and shuffled into our tiny living room, where I sat on the couch and listened to the breather on the line.  He was panting hard.  I thought it was quaint that in this day and age people still gave breather-masturbator calls.  The caller ID came up with nothing.

When he realized I’d said hello and was listening, he rumbled out a “Go fuck yourself” and hung up.  I sat in the dark for a while, thinking about the human condition.  Then he called back.  It was F, one of the few grad students who’d been asked to read in the series.  He mumbled some things and then shouted that he thought I had a problem and should get help.  He was drunk off his ass.

I asked him why he felt that way and he broke it down for me.  F had read with his wife, you see, and I’d made the mistake of introducing him before her.  Neither of them were ever going to get over it.  Plus, she was a Navajo princess and I’d introduced them as husband and wife.  You don’t do that to a Navajo princess.  Didn’t I fucking know that?  What was wrong with my head?

“Princess?  Really?  I thought you guys were from Pittsburgh.”

He hung up again and didn’t speak to me until I ran into him at the AWP Conference a few months later—where he was keyed up and sweaty, slapping me on the back, telling me how he’d been featured in a very cool spontaneous reading held on one of the convention center’s escalators that drew an enormous crowd.  Now he had a pocket of phone numbers to network.  Amazing.  He didn’t remember a thing about calling me in the dark and telling me what I could go do with myself. 

Or maybe he’d repressed that memory along with his courtship of the Navajo princess, that hard winter living as tribe’s writer, the majestic swish of his khakis as he hunted buffalo, armed only with an unpublished manuscript.  I haven’t seen him or heard a thing about him since the conference, but I suspect he’s either got tenure by now or he’s back in Pennsylvania selling pre-loved automobiles like it’s a poetry slam.

The End, My Friend

Depression is a very idiosyncratic and personalized illness.  But those who have it tend to have a few things in common, one of which is that depression can be cumulative in its gravity and magnitude.  Today, you’re not feeling good.  Tomorrow, you can’t get out of bed.  The day after that, you’re standing on a chair with a vacuum cleaner cord around your neck and you think you’re the only one in the history of the world who’s endured such a linear degeneration.  Feeling alone is a big part of it.

I felt alone until I discovered  Darkness Visible by William Styron and recognized a lot of what I’d been going through.  I don’t know how I found the book, whether it was in the fiction section of the library where I sometimes studied or whether I encountered it in a used bookstore or somewhere else.  While it wouldn’t be true to claim that the book “saved” me, I can say it helped enough to get me down off the chair, multiple chairs, actually.

Reading it was an emergency measure, but it was something I could depend on.  I didn’t talk about my feelings.  I’ve never been very good at that, not even with my loved ones.  But I could read someone else talking about his.  And since I loved Styron’s fiction, I felt like I could trust him.  If he said it, I could accept it enough to be able to think about it.  And that was usually all it took for me to keep going.

By Spring break, I was prepared to submit my dissertation.  I missed my mom horribly and my wife and I returned to California to take care of the empty house where all my mother’s things sat gathering dust.  My father wouldn’t go near the place.  When he wasn’t drunk, he was hard at work rediscovering his hormones in erratic, awkward, and desperate ways.  Our relationship, never substantial to begin with, began to splinter irreparably when, out of guilt, he started to regularly criticize my mom. 

He was a self-righteous Catholic for most of my life, who often amused himself by telling me to get my ass to church and that since I’d been baptized I could never not be a Catholic.  But after a year of drinking, trash talking, and a pissed-drunk rape attempt on my cousin in front of me, he was ready to start up a relationship with an equally neurotic married woman who’d run after him at an event.

He confessed this to me one afternoon because I guess he couldn’t confess it to his priest.  Then he added that it was like a DH Lawrence love story.  Then he said she was going to get a divorce from her despicable husband and they’d marry each other.  Lovely.  I didn’t want to hear about it.  I especially didn’t want to hear him ask me to be his best man.  I could hardly speak.  It shows how detached and self-involved he was that he thought it was something he could ask me. 

“What about all that Catholicism?” I remember asking.  I don’t remember if he answered.

Around that time, because he wouldn’t help me clean out my mother’s things, I’d been over at the house, crying, putting her clothes in Goodwill boxes, packing up old photo albums, doing all the things we could have done as a family.  Instead, my wife helped and we did the best we could in a few days.  Much was overlooked, things from my childhood, things in the garage that I really do wish I could have kept.  But we only had so much time.  Now I imagine my father and his new wife paid at some point to have it all carted to the dump.  But I have no way of knowing, since I haven’t been back in years.

I do recall taking to the gardener, who revealed that he’d had my mother making food for him right up to the point where she went into the hospital for the last time.  She couldn’t lie down straight in bed.  So she was sleeping sitting up in a chair in order to breathe, then walking around on crutches, cooking and cleaning.  According to the gardener, he screamed at her frequently.  She was fucking dying and this is how he treated her.  That’s abuse.  It’s horrible fucking abuse.  And my mother, who was just about a saint in every way, did her best.

My mother was a talented painter and sculptor, but he’d left her art in a shed that had a broken roof.  It rained a lot that year and most of her work was ruined.  I’d been standing in the backyard, looking at the shed, unable to get in because he neglected to give me the key to the deadbolt (probably because he didn’t want me to see what had happened) when he called with a task for me.  It was something small, something to do with getting a TV boxed up for him and cancelling the  TV service that my mom had in her hospice room.  I’d already taken care of it, but he spoke to me with contempt, as if I were very lazy.  He said, “After all I’ve done for you, couldn’t you take care of this one thing?”

I thought of my mother on crutches, making him breakfast.  I thought of her art destroyed through neglect.  I thought of my father drinking a case of my cousin’s high-end champagne and then trying to fuck her in front of me.  I thought of all the nasty things he said about my mother when she was gone, after he’d cried his eyes out for himself, after he blamed me for not being there when she died, after the sizeable amount of heirloom gold from old Italy that my mom wanted to come to me but that disappeared right around the time my father and his new cadaverous lady friend got a second condo in San Antonio.  I thought about all these things and saw that no matter what his paycheck had been worth, no matter how much I may have cost as a child, no matter what my mom and he may have given me as a teen or a confused 20-year-old, I owed him nothing. 

I felt something snap and a certain coldness overtook me.  My depression had come to be replaced with something more useful: calm, thoughtful anger.  We had it out.  He told my wife and I we had to be out of the house.  Within 48 hours, we were.  I’ve never looked back.

Gone for Good

I got my PhD without fanfare.  My wife and I went out to dinner and it was nice, just the two of us.  I knew I’d miss my mentor in the program and her brilliant husband.  I’d miss certain things about the university town and my own writing students, several of whom had become more like friends.  But I was glad to be done—done with the degree, done with my father, done with trying to hump the dream of being an academic creative writer.

In the eight years since the day we drove south, blasting M. Ward’s “Helicopter” with the windows rolled down, I’ve thought about 2010 quite a lot.  I still get depressed.  But I can cope.  I’ve learned that it is possible and, for me, even preferable to have a life outside academia.  And I’ve come to accept that family isn’t really who raises you when you don’t have a say in the matter.  It’s who you choose when you do.

I miss my mom every day and I write fiction every day.  As of this writing, I’m working on my third collection of stories with a novel draft mostly written.  I’ve published over 30 items in magazines, worked as a freelance writer and journalist, and lived in 9 countries.  I’m healthy.  I really don’t have anything to complain about right now.  And sometimes I even give myself permission to think I’m happy.  Somewhere, there’s a Navajo princess riding through the clouds over Pittsburgh, but I doubt our paths will cross again.

Looking at photos of relatives from the early 20th century, I’m struck by how incredibly normal they look, how I could walk down any street and see the same faces.  Such an insight comes easily since I live near the locus of my ancestral lines, but I think it’s a realization one could have anywhere.  Stare into the faces of passers by and you will see many physical and psychological reflections of yourself, as if the genetic mirror were shattered, replicating the same fate, the same consequences, the same inner struggles across continents and generations. 

Someone once said that all wars are the same war, that all short stories are just one long story, and that all people—no matter how diverse or alien they may seem on the surface—are actually one life and one humanity engaged in one struggle playing out simultaneously in every heart and mind.  Being a gifted dancer, Michael Jackson once put it like this: “Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the Creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on.” 

This is the 2000-year-old concept of Nataraja, the image of Shiva as the cosmic dancer who dispels illusion and reveals a higher truth.  As part of the dance of time and space, forms rise and fall—in the microcosm of the individual mind and in the macrocosm of all creation—but the dance itself, the maelstrom of change, remains constant as an expression of something else, something beyond the perception of transient things.  The ancient sages and priests of the Madhya Pradesh and Kashmir regions first portrayed Shiva this way around 6 C.E. in temple statues and paintings, depicting a true, eternal, changeless Self that is simultaneously immanent in every person and transcendent in the ubiquitous I AM.

Ram Dass, in Polishing the Mirror, expresses this when he writes, “The only thing you really ever have to offer another person is your own state of being.”  Or whatever you offer to others, you are also confirming and offering as part of yourself.  This posits an equals sign between people, not an arrow, a plus, or a minus.  Is there anything new under the sun?  Ecclesiastes says no.  Read enough literature and I think most people will be inclined to agree: we find meaning in another because that meaning resonates in ourselves.  Yeats wrote that ultimately it is not possible to distinguish the dancer from the dance.  Repair the shattered mirror, the broken and limited perception of others that sees them as irreparably isolated from us, and a higher octave of meaning is revealed.  We are isolate.  We are also one.  And, in our ultimate oneness, “we” and “are” and “one” cease to have any meaning and the truth of existence becomes evident.

Pay attention to your ancestors, to their lives, to the things they did and said.  See yourself in them as one being.  Then see yourself in others, in everything.  Look past the superficial trivia that limits your understanding and obscures the truth of the matter: assumptions about linear progress (originally post-Enlightenment / Victorian but now, with our current STEM fetishism, solidly reductive materialist and technocratic) depend on an unexamined and distracted mind.  There is no new thing under the sun in any meaningful sense.  The are only forms, rising and falling, being born and dying. 

Start paying attention to this.  Start asking, Who am I?  Start asking, Who is it that asks, “Who am I?”  Go deep, beyond the forms.  You are not those things.  Get to the point where you can perceive the dance always taking place, the energy of creation itself, which is expressed as movement, as change.  This is also synonymous with the highest, emptiest, most profound form of awareness.  That is what we are.

“After negating all of the above-mentioned as ‘not this’, ‘not this’, Awareness alone remains – that I am.” – Ramana Maharshi

A recent short short of mine, “You Are Somewhere Else,” is forthcoming in Visitant and should be available online.  As usual, I will post the links when the story comes out. – M

A List of Luxury Fashion Designers That Decided To Go Fur-Free

I love Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop media franchise-festival-website-train wreck-tent revival-circus because it’s so bad, so transparent, so cynical, so marketed to the sad and the gullible, that it’s good.  It fails so spectacularly that it inadvertently succeeds at being something else: not just more disingenuous commerce beneath a layer of new age double-talk, but, like Gwyneth herself, a new mutant reality, a fun house mirror that you can step into, like any magic mirror, and find yourself in some alternate world.

Whenever I witness something from Goop, I think, “Oprah did this” in the sense that Oprah’s marketing simultaneously harnessed the libidos of multiple generations of frustrated women across economic and ethnic boundaries in a way hitherto unrivaled by Madison Avenue.  Oprah was up in everybody’s grill.  Her media empire embodied the Wachowskis’ matrix concept: persistent, ubiquitous, artificial, verisimilar, and controlling.  For 25 years, the Oprah Winfrey Show (with its attendant book club, “favorite things” endorsements, travel events, health trends, mail-order spirituality, and assorted celebrity mea culpas) gave viewers a voice, essentially Oprah’s voice. 

But, for all that, one got the impression that she at least meant well.  Beneath the innumerable folds of consumerism and coercive string-pulling, Oprah maintained a pearl of optimism about human beings.  Much of her show focused on ways to realize oneself, actualize one’s unique gifts, and live a better life—not such a bad thing given the dry rot at the heart of American culture.  The weight of that simple optimism seemed to counterbalance all the product placement.

Daytime talk show tabloidia could accept Oprah as a messiah figure perhaps because she came bearing free cars, spa trips, and the occasional house.  Someone would walk on stage with a check the size of a Volvo and hand it to a weeping audience member.  Confetti would fall from the ceiling.  And everyone would bellow in orgasmic wonder.  

But nobody wants to find their spiritual apotheosis in Gwyneth.

I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.

– Charlie Brown

Years ago, when I was in law school, I had a curious experience, one that has recently echoed back to me from the son of a friend coming to the end of his 1L.  I would attend classes for about 5-6 hours a day, then spend 8-10 more studying in the library. I was wired pretty tightly, well on my way to developing a host of stress- and anxiety-driven illnesses, a drinking habit, anger management problems, and a degree of generalized hatred for myself and all humanity. And I was one of the relatively soulful, philosophically minded, well-adjusted ones.  You wouldn’t have wanted to spend 10 minutes in my presence.

The substance abuse in my first and second years was incredible to behold. It was comparable to the level of fear sustained in the students by the policies of the school, the economy, and their own Type-A personalities. At this time, jobs in law were just starting to become scarce. People were deeply in debt, had sacrificed everything to get there, and were obsessively, neurotically, pathologically motivated to succeed. The most popular directions were intellectual property, cyber law, and various other strains of corporate or business-oriented practice. Those interested in criminal law were viewed with a mix of wonder and contempt. The poverty law clinic people were considered idealistic rubes destined to live on ramen and hot dogs for the rest of their miserable lives.

And so it went. There was a suicide at the end of 1L, a hushed-up sexual harassment scandal involving a star professor, a few students dropped out, one to get married and become a suburban housewife, another due to undisclosed health problems, another after an in-class meltdown. The rest of us soldiered on because we had to. What else did we have? We were children who’d practiced the tuba for hours and hours and now we were in Advanced Tuba School. Take our tubas away and, we felt, we’d have to go sleep in the park.

I was no exception to any of this. The only thing that I had going for me was a tiny secret flame of creativity that I kept lit. Every Sunday morning, like a religious ritual, I took an hour out to read a short story. That was my church and my scripture. It was also another source of pain because it reminded me that somewhere someone not in law had written those words.  My fellow students fantasized about opening surf shops, being school custodians, managing bowling alleys. The escape fantasies came thick and fast, especially around exams when the law library mostly reeked of coffee and body odor. I fantasized about these things, too, about being a writer custodian or a writer surf shop cashier.

One afternoon, sitting in a fern-laden restaurant I couldn’t afford with a drug lawyer who had become a mentor of sorts, I came to a realization. She was on her third glass of wine, telling me that I needed to love law school because it was only going to get worse afterward. She said, “When I was in law school, I got to the point where I thought that I might be able to get hit by a car and live. If my legs were broken, no one could blame me for quitting.” I walked out of that lunch feeling like I’d just visited the crossroads and the devil had handed me some solid advice: you can sell your soul, but why don’t you go home and think it over first?

In the grand synchronicity of all things magical, I’d gotten an email that day from a writer I admired. I’d sent him a few old short stories and asked the most annoying question a young writer can ask: “Am I any good?” But he was kind and honest. He wrote back and said, “Yes, in my opinion, you are. But the life of a writer is not easy and you should know what you’re getting into. If you want to come study with me, you’re invited.” Warnings and dire pronouncements were nothing new. I heard them every day. So the caveat made absolutely no impression on me whatsoever. His opinion about my writing did. Shortly thereafter, I left law school to study creative writing and subsequently get a PhD in English.

Still, you don’t just walk away from that life. Law school makes a deep impression. It made me strong in certain ways, forced me to stop seeing success in law as a grand test of self-worth. Law school isn’t an IQ test; it’s not a metric for willpower, character, cleverness, or discipline; though, it draws on all of those things (like anything made artificially difficult). Law is generally taught poorly, often emotionally brutalizes students, and is unforgiving of human frailty in totally unnecessary ways. It’s also idealized when it should be analyzed. People worship law education because succeeding there is held up as an objective way to know one’s worth, which is tragic.

I want to say these things to my friend’s son. But I know I can’t because I see in him all the masochistic investment that I saw when I was back in law school. Instead, I will say it here and add: someone who seems stupid and unsuccessful in one respect will be smart and successful in another. Often these things will not be superficially evident. Until you can accept this—that there is no way to judge your worth apart from looking for it inside yourself—you will always be sad, scared, and beholden to the social power of others.

Be free. Let it go. Try to experience love. Try to discover small things that make you happy and look for ways to share those things with others. That’s when life really gets good. When you see someone who appears to be the smartest or most powerful person in the room, take a step back and widen your perspective until that feeling of being impressed and intimidated passes. Then look again.

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/moving-pictures/more-than-just-a-familiar-formula

Welcome . . .

I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

This blog is mostly dedicated to writing about politics and media, travel essays, creative non-fiction, discussions about books, the MFA experience, publishing, and work I’ve already placed in magazines. But I might write anything.

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To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend time in prison for it myself.

— Vladimir Bukovsky

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If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

La lecture est un acte d’identification, les sentiments exprimés sont déjà en nous. Autrement, le livre nous tombe des mains.

— Madeleine Chapsal