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Krypton Decrypted: The Story of Super Man's Home Planet

I’ve had many mad, bad, dangerous housemates and roommates over the years.  Depending on the rental market, I’ve lived with family or in some kind of shared arrangement with people I hardly knew, without much concern or preference either way.  Given that work and other life changes have caused (forced?) me to live in 13 different countries in the last decade, worrying about who’s belching in the attic or in the bedroom next-door or in the bed on the other side of the partition would have been unwise and unhealthy.  But sometimes—sometimes I realize I’m living with a maniac. 

Maybe she’s loudly bipolar.  Maybe he’s 3D-printing a gun, terrified Mossad is following him.  Maybe she’s carrying on a deep love affair with heroin and likes to pass out in your bed.  Maybe she comes home violently drunk, crying and breaking your dishware (never ask me why my very small collection of plates and bowls don’t match).  Maybe her ex-boyfriend is a vicious nutcase who keeps threatening to burn the house down.  Maybe he’s a swinger and hosts loud fetish parties.  Maybe he’s a stressed-out evangelical, thinks you’re a devil worshipper, and slips into your room when you’re not there, looking for evidence of black magic.  I’ve experienced all of these maybes.  Each one was lovely and ended as well as you might imagine.

People, the Lizard King says, are strange.  That’s unquestionably true.  But I’m so low key (headphones, up before dawn, early to bed, focused on my work, meditating every day, cooking small meals, careful about cleanliness) that I might be the ideal housemate for weirdos.  With me around, they always have enough space to engage in moaning S&M without worrying I’m going to kick open the door with a fire extinguisher.  By all means, leave your sex toys in a shoe box out on the kitchen table.  I don’t eat there anyway.  Feel free to get naked and OD on my toilet.  I’ll drive you to the ER just like last time.  Pilfer my food, even when I put it in my sacred fridge zone.  Et cetera.

So I suppose my previous housemate’s self-righteous veganism was small potatoes.  The fact that he dressed like an 18th century Japanese shopkeeper and constantly commented on my (inexpensive, minimal) wardrobe or non-vegan food choices was really nothing.  That he brought his secret Tinder dates over when his girlfriend had to work at night and had loud banging sex on the other side of the wall was not my business.  Him regularly contaminating the atmosphere with cheap cologne was negligible.  Things could always have been worse—like the unrelenting termite infestation where I’m living now.  But I digress. 

I tell myself at least he wasn’t making bombs.  And I honestly do want everyone to get laid, smell the way they want, and be well fed.  Let there be golden copulations as far as the eye can see.  Stir fry your flaccid tofu with your vegan cheese substance.  Watch anime late into the night and have a nice relaxing wank.  It’s a free country and that has nothing to do with me. 

I don’t even care if you constantly make snide comments and strut around the place acting superior.  You can be superior.  Just let me get my sleep, brother.  Just find someone to deal with the termites.  Just let me follow my routine and stay out of my way.  I’m a freelancer.  I work at home, online, with words and I don’t get days off.  I can only maintain that life if I practice rigid self-discipline and minimalism.  Let me be minimal. Because if I don’t have time and space to write, I disappear. The carriage turns back into a pumpkin.  The glass slipper cuts my foot.

I’m simple.  I like to keep everything that way because it means productivity and me making a living.  Complicated hasn’t treated me well in the past.  People may be strange when you’re a stranger.  But this time, please OD within walking distance of Urgent Care.  And when you’re dousing yourself with Axe Wild Spice, please ventilate.  It’s okay.  I understand.  We’re fumigating the house on Tuesday.

There is a definite upside to living in a creaky old house next to a canal with a doctor and four housemates: you’re alive. The downside is only slightly less obvious than that: you and the housemates have to get along with a degree of functional civility, which in Oxford generally means avoiding each other in the hall.

This seems perfect. I’m an introvert by nature and I don’t actually like the company of other human beings for extended periods of time. Someone told me that this almost makes me English, but I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that the culture of Oxford is a very accurate representation of English culture in general. And I don’t believe reclusiveness and introversion necessarily characterize all of Oxford all of the time. Only some of Oxford part of the time. The part involving beer.

I’m not talking about pubs. I’m talking about survival. Beer is essential to cohabitating in Oxford. If you drink wine, you’re out of luck. Get your own place where you can listen to Brigadoon and sing to your cat while making courgette hummus for your dinner guests. I’m talking about something far more exacting and necessary, something essential: the redemptive power of beer to make everything okay when you have to get along with people completely terrified by the prospect of disclosing anything about themselves.

I don’t mean to imply that it’s necessary or even desirable to drink beer with your housemates. On the contrary, you will often drink beer because of your housemates. And the world of difference between these simple and compound prepositions is the world in which you will take 4 cans of the Fursty Ferret up to your room, lock your door, and watch old Trapper John, M.D. episodes as you sip your way toward a better tomorrow.

You will do this because the alternative is staring at the ceiling—listening to your neighbor give sexual dictation to his girlfriend or a meth-head talking to an owl down by the water—while thinking about the psycho-spiritual train wreck that passes for personal relationships in this town. And I say that with nothing but love in my heart for Oxford, its children, and its ales.

Of these particular housemates, though, there isn’t much to say. I think, if we were shipwrecked together on an island in the North China Sea, we would probably converse from time to time. Maybe if we were interned together in a work camp. But, even then, it’s possible that few words would be spoken. As a writer, I have a tendency to catalogue and amplify the personal eccentricities of the people around me. And, in that way, I come to appreciate them. But there is a certain type of person who sends me straight to Trapper John.

This is not without some theoretical precedent. In a creative writing workshop, when someone has written a supporting character who is a two-dimensional rat-bastard, who is such a complete bastard that he never evolves beyond a state of fundamental, luminous bastardy, we call that character “plot furniture.” In other words, he exists as a prop. But if we’re talking about a central character, maybe the main character, the writer has more work to do. Instead of dismissing this character as furniture, we tell the writer, “Look, you have to give the character something.” This means you have to round the character out. He can’t just be a prop; he can’t just be a bastard. You have to give him something that shows another psychological dimension. Because no one is ever just one thing in life. Uncle Wiggily might be an “engaging, elderly rabbit who suffers from rheumatism.” But he only really gets interesting when you learn that he performs a Satanic black mass every Thursday in the bobcat’s basement. Like that.

So when I write these therapeutic blog posts, I try to give something to the people I write about. I was trained to do this in the sadomasochistic hellworld of MFA writing workshops. And the fact that I’m mostly writing creative non-fiction* here never gets in the way. Giving your characters something is the “creative” part when you’re writing about people who exist in real life. But the type of person who short-circuits this, the writer’s kryptonite, is someone who can’t be given anything without you having to completely make it up.

In other words, there is a type of person who has pushed his libido down so far, who has conformed so perfectly to a kind of fastidious, highly curated, social acceptability, that the most compelling thing about him is his sweater. Sure, we can say that he’s interesting in that he tries so hard not to be interesting. We can give him that. And we know he probably has dark squirmy things crawling around in the sub-basement of his soul, but getting down there, drilling down through all the conformist blast-shielding and cautious evasiveness is tedious at best. At worst, it’s exhausting.

Of course, there’s money in being boring. It pays to be socially careful, even if it does inspire a certain degree of contempt in those of us who never could fit in. Sometimes I wonder, when such people lie awake at night beside a partner just as meticulously uninteresting, if they can hear those squirmy little devils scraping their proboscises on the other side of the blast doors—the ghost sound that torments people through their long dull miserable lives into late middle-age depression and a pension they don’t know what to do with. Then they buy a camper, I guess. Masturbate less or more. Eat a lot of soft-serve ice-cream.

It may be that I don’t have enough material on the housemates to even write a very substantial piece on them or their calculated sweaters. But, while deciding whether to write it, I remembered something Arthur Miller wrote in Death of a Salesman:

Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

In a perfect world, we’d be able to stave down the horror of having a full conversation with each other. We’d actually step out into the hall.  But a terrible thing is happening, has been, I think, for as long as social pressure has rewarded people for not standing out in any way and avoiding human contact as a rule.  Krypton is a boring utopia.  And every utopia is a dystopia.

So beer. Instead of speaking to the housemates, everyone listens behind the door until the hall is empty, until it’s quiet in the house, and it’s possible to creep down the stairs and over to Sainsbury’s where four cans of the Fursty Ferret will run you £4.30. A small price to pay for equanimity, I guess. And I guess this post is the lagniappe.


* I publish two types of writing on this blog: creative non-fiction and short stories I’ve already published in magazines.

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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

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— Madeleine Chapsal

“Time is said to be irreversible. And this is true enough in the sense that ‘you can’t bring back the past’. But what exactly is this ‘past’? Is it what has passed? And what does ‘passed’ mean for a person when for each of us the past is the bearer of all that is constant in the reality of the present, of each current moment? In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight only in its recollection. King Solomon’s ring bore the inscription, ‘All will pass’; by contrast, I want to draw attention to how time in its moral implication is in fact turned back. Time can vanish without trace in our material world for it is a subjective, spiritual category. The time we have lived settles in our soul as an experience placed within time.”

— Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time