When I was Tough, Part 18

I watched the first five seasons of Vampire Diaries over the course of a week.  Something like 120 hours of bad special effects, betrayal, and outstanding hair.  During this time, I neither shaved nor bathed.  My apartment acquired a certain foetor unique to hoarders, cat ladies, and the heavily medicated.  Stale soup.  Ritz crackers and cheese whiz.  If you want a bowl, you better wash one.  And that pair of pants draped over the back of a chair?  It’s still wearable.  Smell it. 

When absolutely necessary, I went to the store in my sweats to stock up on frozen pizzas.  Eye contact was difficult and I used the automated check-out with my head down.  I had to move quickly, since whenever I wasn’t focusing with godlike intensity on Bonnie coming into her witch powers or whether Elena was actually in love with Damon and not Stefan, I thought about death.  Specifically, my own.  But also everyone else’s—my mother’s from cancer, my best friend from high school behind the wheel, all the pets I’d ever owned, my neighbor Herb who hung himself. 

I was depressed.  I knew this.  I also knew I had no control over when I might start crying.  Even though I had a certain degree of objectivity about it, I could feel the tears coming on like headlights down a tunnel.  I bought chips, microwavable “Mama Celeste Pizza for One” five at a time, and liter bottles of Diet Coke.  Then I went directly home like any other respectable basket case.

Boys don’t cry.  So I’d practice deep breathing while the pizza rotated and then get to the couch as quickly as possible.  The saga of Damon and Stefan Salvatore was sweet soul medicine: brothers, vampires, suitors for the hand of Elena Gilbert, the hot-yet-down-to-earth high school sweetheart with the body of a 17-year-old cheerleader and the emotional intelligence of a 54-year-old divorced therapist.  I could live with that.  It’s called suspension of disbelief.  I got involved.  I did what a good viewer is supposed to do.  I made myself receptive.  And while watching, I forgot about Herb.  I forgot to about death.  I forgot to cry.  I talked back to the characters and ate Pringles.

At that time, I was sleeping about 2-3 hours per night.  But I was alright with that.  If I didn’t sleep, I couldn’t dream.  And not dreaming helped in any number of ways.  If you had told my younger self that I’d someday be a weepy train wreck of a man, clinging to sofa cushions and a paranormal teen soap opera for sanity, I would have laughed manfully.  I was tough like that.

A Good Thing Going: an Exercise in Idiosyncratic Voice

There are a number of things Victoria won’t do.  And the trouble with that is I’m paying her to get up off her skinny ass every fifteen minutes and look down at the street.  And that’s exactly one of the things she won’t do.  She won’t do it because I want her to.  She won’t do it because she likes to get something for nothing.  Maybe she won’t do it because in our miniature thimble food stamp life, it amuses her to see the pissed-off look on my face all the time.

“Go,” I say.  “Go.” 

And I raise my hand like she can talk to the palm if she wants to argue.  But Victoria doesn’t argue.  She never talks to the palm.  She dyes her hair blond every month and lets it go dark at the roots.  She eats us out of house and home.  She disrespects me on a daily basis.  She lives in a different universe than most other normal people.

Still, sometimes I say go and she does.  Sometimes, I think she actually does what I’m paying her to do just to keep me guessing.  That’s another thing.  I never know what’s wrong with her.  But there is something definitely always wrong with her.  And I’m always on the receiving end of it and guessing about it and how it’s going to screw up my life next. 

I’ve been guessing for over ten years of marriage to the woman.  And I still have to pay her minimum wage.  We got married long enough ago for me to have forgiven myself for the period of temporary insanity—compounded by horniness and rapid decision making—that led up to the wedding.  In short: I’m a victim of the human condition.  And that’s something at least I don’t have to guess about.  But: capitalism.  She’s got to get paid or she don’t go.

She comes back from the window and just stands there.

“Yes?”

“Nothing,” she says.  “Linda doing her whore thing.  That Hoffman kid’s sitting on top of his car.  There’s a dog.  Nothing for you down there.”

Then she stops and smirks.  She’s waiting for the punch line, the second shoe, the moment I look disgusted or angry or depressed or even like I don’t care anymore.  So she can laugh at me and say something sarcastic and go back to her crossword puzzle.

And she goes: “I’m sure you’re going to make it down the stairs in time before Linda gets a customer.  I’m sure.”

“You don’t know a goddamn thing.”

“Oh, I know a thing or two,” she says raising her eyebrows at where my legs should be.  Instead of a thing or two, I’ve got a stump or two.  But I’ve got all kinds of moves.  It’s like she doesn’t even see the guide ropes down the stairs or the pulley system I put in.  I’ve got a lot of time.  What did she think I was doing up here with the hammer?  I’ve told her, but the words just bounce right off her crossword-doing brain.

Victoria’s done every crossword book published in the last 50 years by Simon and Schuster.  She has stacks of them.  I asked her one time does she want to just stick to the ones in the Herald because they’re free and she tells me they’re way too easy.  So she’s like this crossword puzzle Jedi master.  And she’ll throw words out on me, too.  Like: lugubrious.

I’ll be sitting here, drawing something—what I usually do every day—like trying to get the line of Linda’s calf just right or the expression when one of her customers looks up and thinks he sees me watching but he’s too busy getting his money’s worth to keep thinking about it—and Victoria will just come out with lugubrious.  Just spontaneously like that and completely blow my mind.

“Where do you think all these drawings come from if I can’t make it down the stairs in time?  I’m even faster now than when I could walk.”

“You keep on telling yourself that,” she says to the crossword book.  “Mmm-hmm, you keep on believing.”

And if she busts out with a word like lugubrious, I’ll usually say something like, “Lugubrious?  Get the fuck out of here with your lugubrious.  I don’t even know what that means.  That’s not even a word.”

But it won’t do any good.  She’ll just nod like Buddha and take another sip of coffee like she’s doing right now.  And I’ll know it’s a word because I’ll definitely go look it up in her crossword puzzle dictionary.  And then the joke will be on me.  Always.  But I never back down over a word.

“Look, I’m paying you too much to keep an eye out for me, in that case, if you don’t even think I can get down there in time.”

“It’s your money.”

“Damn right it is,” I say, wheeling myself over to the shelf where I keep my sketch book and backpack.  “I’m going to go do my art.  With my money that you’re stealing by not doing your job.”

“Keep your money,” Victoria says.  “I’m going on strike.” 

She isn’t going on strike.  We’ve been married a decade.  My wife doesn’t strike.  Even when, for example, I get really pissed-off and use a word like lugubrious in every other sentence to drive her crazy.  I might say something like, “I’m not trying to be all lugubrious about it, but I think we’re running out of coffee” or “Those kangaroos on the show were really lugubrious the way they ran around like that.  Don’t you think?”  That sort of thing used to get to Victoria.  But now she just laughs at me.  She doesn’t even bother defining the words for me anymore.

The rope and pulley system gets me down to the landing and then out the front door of the building in less than a minute.  It works like this: I’ve got a pair of really smooth electrician’s gloves.  It took me forever to work them down so the rubber wasn’t sticky.  Now they slide on the ropes like no tomorrow and I can glide down the stairs hand-over-hand.  I’m using a double-braided Mammut Supersafe 10.2mm climbing rope threaded through a system of 12 extra-large anodized aluminum pulleys nailed to the wall of the stairwell.  I cinch up the seatbelt on my wheelchair, kick off from the top step outside our door, and let gravity and expert hand coordination do the rest. 

Whenever I get to a pulley, I have switch hand positions.  I’ll admit I missed a switch once and wound up on the landing after taking a dozen stairs upside my face.  But since then, I got professional at it, and I cross-train with 10 lb. weights for those times when I have to carry something heavy down in my lap.  It’s all in the biceps.

So that’s what I do to get down, and today I’m actually out on the sidewalk as the guy gets out of his car and follows Linda into her apartment building across the street.  Why she takes her customers up to her own residence I will never understand.  But I don’t ask questions because we’ve got a good thing going.  Her building has an old-fashioned Otis traction elevator inside with an expandable iron gate.  By the time I wheel myself up the ramp and go into the lobby, the elevator is coming right back down for me.

The lobby’s all brown marble and decaying sofas, and if you’re moving fast in a wheelchair, you really have to be careful you don’t turn too sharp.  Marble’s slippery and it hurts your face when you fall.

Ever since getting blindsided by a drunk child in an SUV in the winter of 1994, I’ve learned new things about all kinds of surfaces.  I was on the crew resurfacing the part of upper 47th street that runs down to the water when the girl’s fender pinned me against our truck.  That day, my life changed in just about every way.  No legs, no more job at the DOT. 

Now I read a lot more, and I’m compiling my own set of words like a Sith master getting ready to pull one on the Jedi.  I even went back and got my AA degree.  Recently, I’ve earned certificates in painting and drawing from The Odessa Institute Online—not cheap, but what the hell am I going to use my money for now?  Just to pay Victoria to be my lookout? 

I was about to retire so we could move out of the city.  Instead, now I’m an artist.  That’s what I do.  And my subject is, and always will be, Linda.

Thank you!

I’ve had an noticeable influx of new subscribers here recently, something for which I am profoundly thankful.

Thank you for spending time on my words.

Thank you for your emails—encouragement always matters to every writer.

And thank you for subscribing, whether paid or free. Whenever someone follows my newsletter or my blog, I’m reminded that I have an audience, that people are paying attention, which is priceless.

I have a lot of work planned for 2021. The journey continues.

Michael

538 Words About Dreams and a Lighthouse

(Part of a long story in progress.)

It was around this time that the dreams began.  Looking back, it seems remarkable that they hadn’t begun sooner in all of us.  But, even if they had, we probably wouldn’t have known.  We wouldn’t have talked about it. 

Tyler would have belched and blamed the beer or the Eagles or the general stupidity of Carling.  Greg would have gone along with him, regardless whether he secretly harbored some superstitions or otherwise fanciful beliefs about the provenance of dreams.  And Lindsey, perhaps the smartest and most insightful of us all, would have left it open.  “Maybe it all means something,” she’d say.  “Or maybe not.”  Then she’d ask, again, about the bonfire.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I would have been more forthcoming than Lindsey.  Someone who has a hard time talking about love wouldn’t be able to easily broach the subject of dreams—which supersede love and, in that sense, seem to grant access to an even more private, deeper vulnerability.  It was better for all of us not to ever speak about dreams or love, as was our custom.  But the dreams were real, as real as dreams can be.  And there was no escape, no respite, no bright simple explanation for how they seemed to dovetail with our thoughts, our anxieties. 

In the shadows of my dreams, I saw the lighthouse at Beacon Point.  And the vision struck me like the resonance of a deep temple bell, though when I woke I could not say exactly how or why.  The lingering impression of something incongruous and dense just beneath the surface of the very mundane lighthouse made me doubt my mind.

Dreams of water and rain, of a dark rusted hospital ship drifting toward the rocks.  Waking to thunder and lightning outside my bedroom window.  It had been storming just off Beacon Point for days, never moving too far inland, just enough to cover Carling and the beach.  How much had I slept?  Three hours?  Two?  I went into the kitchen and started some coffee.

Dreams and the fragments of dreams.  Echoes and reflections of a mind untethered.  I didn’t like it when I dreamed, the loss of control, the stillborn sense that I’d been somewhere else, leading a wholly different life.  The residue of those feelings and the fragments that sometimes returned throughout the day: the lighthouse illuminated from behind by an unknown source, its tiny circular windows dark and still, the rain coming down hard but completely silent.  Such images would come back to me like memories. 

In my mind’s eye, I’d recall the surf crashing noiselessly against the rocks, arms of white water raised in a voiceless paean.  And the dead hospital ship making its way inexorably toward the land.  It would crash against the shipways.  The destruction would be incredible.  Enormous.  In my dream, I felt desperate to tell someone.  But I was always alone.

The coffee maker beeped.  I leaned against the sink, looking out through the little window far above the apartment lot, the space tinged green by sodium floods.  And watched the sheets of rain glitter pale emerald against the night.

Get ready for few changes around here.

I’ve been running The Writing Expedition for almost two decades in one form or another.  It began as a Blogger travel blog when I was living in Bujumbura, Burundi, and grew into kind of nexus for all my publications and writing projects.  This, my Pressfolios site, and my Substack newsletter have been really professionally useful, way more than the various Facebook pages I’ve started over the years.  If you follow me here, especially if you’re a long-term reader of my posts, I’m grateful.  It’s been a long road out of Africa to the UK, Austria, Ireland, Estonia, Denmark, Sweden, the Czech Republic, France, Thailand, Japan, and back to the States.  Thanks for traveling with me.

Sometime in the next two weeks, you’ll notice some changes to this site that have been pending for a long time.  Bluehost will be its new home (though the domain will stay the same—there’s nothing you have to do).  The obnoxious advertisements will (thankfully) be going away.  There will be discussion forums for asynchronous writing workshops.  I’ll also be offering some Zoom courses and private tutorials, covering beginning through advanced fiction writing, the magazine publishing process, how to win writing contests (I’ve won a few), increased editing opportunities (books, and short pieces, fiction and nonfiction), and story doctoring (which means you’ve written something but you’re stuck—we work on unsticking you).  My newsletter will be picking up again and my podcast will finally be getting underway.

I’ve been a bit dormant (for me) over the past two months, publishing one magazine short story, two columns in Splice Today, and a small collection of blog posts.  Mostly, this is because I moved to a rural area on the big island of Hawaii and just needed to rest, meditate, and take a semi-working vacation for the first time in 10 years.  It’s been glorious, but now it’s time to get busy.

Things I’m not going to do: spam you with advertisements or engage in aggravating e-marketing foolishness.  Most of what I’m offering will be through this site.  But I want to make this announcement, say thanks, and remind you that I’m still here, still inflicting my ideas and opinions on an unsuspecting world . . .

Hakalau at dawn.

 

What if it’s all just pornography?

I once drove a forklift in a magazine distribution warehouse for a living and got to know romance, action adventure, and western paperbacks of the 1980s and 90s fairly well, since we handled a high volume of grocery store book sales.  I read the cast-offs that got damaged in the sorting process on my breaks.  The writing was usually atrocious, but it was an incremental education in what readers actually want. 

Years later, when 50 Shades of Grey sold 15.2 million copies, I wasn’t shocked.  When James Altucher called the book great literature on account of its sales figures, I shrugged.  Someone was bound to make the “volume of sales” argument.  It fit with what I was packing every day into forklift innerbodies.  And it fit with what I knew about the mentality of the publishing industry, where books are “units” and the bottom line runs deeper than all literary pretension.

Recently, I had a long email exchange with a romance writer friend of mine about changes in her genre, which is now almost unrecognizable to me, since I haven’t done a lot of romance fiction editing and it’s been a long time since I’ve had a warehouse-level view of what is being shipped. 

I learned some interesting things from her about the how genre fiction publishing is evolving. But I came away with one difficult unanswered question.  Why do the main characters in romance novels now all seem to have unremarkable porn names—i.e. names suggestive of bank managers and legal assistants in gray office complexes somewhere in middle America?  Ethan Chase.  Julie Steel.  Laura Woods.  Richard Ward.  Shannon Green.  One gets the impression they should either be overseeing new accounts on the 15th floor or having a highly choreographed threesome in the back of a speedboat somewhere in Florida.  Or both.

There are no more 70s porn names. Nobody’s named “Hung Johnson” or Cyndi Squeals anymore (and I suppose there never were in romance writing).  Now there’s just boring character names like Sean Parker, Katie White, and Corey Davidson and equally boring characterization to follow.  At least the Fabio romance novels of the early 90s had lurid bodice-ripper paintings on the covers to go along with “Pirate Fabio” or “Fabio in Space” or “Fabio Conquers the Cavemen” or “Fabio and the Secret of the Dragon Crystal”—basically all the same book with a different configuration of adjectives. They never called him “Andrew Roberts.” He was always Fabio, the bodybuilder who got his nose broken by a duck on a rollercoaster in Williamsburg, who now wants to ravish you and save the dolphins.

Thinking I might do some research on the evolution of character-naming trends in romance writing and porn and write about it for a magazine, I did some digging and found a news story about how porn sites have seen a dramatic uptick in popularity as a result of Covid isolation.  It got me thinking about a Wired piece from 2015 on how social media, cell phones, and the internet in general have disrupted the entire porn industry.  I wondered whether there was a relationship between how audiences were being trained to consume online adult entertainment and how they’re reading romance fiction, which often blurs the lines between erotica and tamer forms of storytelling.

I discovered that online pornography seems to be heading toward extreme minimalism in terms of story, characterization, and acting, emphasizing short clips appropriate for “tube” sites as well as smartphones.  The companies still making longer “movies” routinely expect to see them cut into more easily sharable segments.  This affects everything from the way people are hired to what they’re paid to how long they can expect to legitimately work in the field.  But culture magazines like Wired aren’t interested in how this tech shift might have overturned adjacent industries like literary erotica and romance fiction.  As a book editor, I am interested in that, especially in the aesthetic changes (some might say aesthetic fallout) that have ensued.  My friend didn’t have answers, but she thought it was interesting, too.

She said many of the in-house style sheets currently handed out to low-status and even midlist romance writers now require interchangeable sorts of everyman characters.  If Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw had an unremarkable name, at least she distinguished herself through Bushnell’s idiosyncratic narrative first person (and on TV through Sarah Jessica Parker’s ironic Magnum P.I.-esque voice-overs).  But even though the TV series ended in 2004, it was still squarely within the female-oriented rom-com story genre—occasionally with a racy B- or C-plot but nothing too far outside the (fairly permissive, though still present) bounds of HBO propriety.

But now there seems to be a blankness creeping in.  The protagonists seem increasingly like pornographic blank slates, primarily distinguished by lowly positions on the corporate hierarchy, by what they own and don’t own, and who they have to worry about at work.  There’s an unremarkable ex or a lingering, equally blank high school / college boyfriend.  And then there’s Christian Grey, who’s going to make everything happen, but who is about as interesting as a self-cleaning oven.

I’m beginning to suspect that the romance genre is actually now about consumerism itself: corporate style, money, granite tabletops, the Ivanka Trump winter collection, and the bourgeois dream of neatly trimmed lawns and not having to worry about paying for your route canal because the arrogant Ferrari-driving CEO wants to take care of it for you.

Maybe it’s all about suburbia, even when it’s about dragon crystals. Maybe it’s the same formula, just more direct: young, shy-and-willowy Victoria Grantwell works for an attorney named Jonathan Charles, who has a lot of money and devilish good looks. Ravishing ensues—somewhere in the vicinity of walnut wastebaskets and corner offices. By the end, Jonathan Charles is so moved he has an emotion.  All because her passion taught him how to love.

I realize I may have just described the plot of Jerry Maguire. Maybe it was all porn from the beginning.