Burt and Me: The Fear of Bunny Weasel and the Harpsichord

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The anti-depressants are making me fat and I’m not even happy. They work, kind of, because I’m not sad either. I’m in an emotional fugue state, where my inner self sits slumped in a wheel chair beside the hotel window of a theme park. For now, we will call my inner self Burt Kalstrom and he’s not enjoying the view because he cannot participate.

 

Burt wants an adversary and a theme song, to taste his bacon and eggs in the morning, to feel appreciation and other novel emotions. He wants to feel jazz music, instead of vibing with the banal strokes of rococo court music being played on the harpsichord down the hallway by a zoomorphic shadow named Bunny Weasel.

 

Burt has an idea for a comic strip. Spaghetti Jim and Whirls, two cowboy hot dogs trying to evade being cooked. Their arch nemesis are the Dos Chorizos who want to poke them before tying them onto a grill. Spaghetti Jim and Whirls’ love interest is Bacon and Legs, she’s a pairs of greasy bacon strips set perpendicular on top of a pair of fishnet stocking cladded legs, garters and all. They usually see her in the desert as a mirage. At the end of each comic strip they end up getting cooked. Boiled, grilled, smoked, baked, sous vide, there are so many ways to die a hotdog death. It’s grotesque.

 

Burt deserves a fighting chance to be happy without the weight gain. To actually feel the sun on his face. To shut the lid on the harpsichord and tell Bunny Weasel to take a hike, but he can’t wake up. Outside, in the theme park, people are dying from plague. They are marching on the streets demanding a better park experience for all. Some are driving cars into people, and some are sitting in their yards on lawn chairs with automatic rifles and hand grenades. Some are still ignoring what’s happening and are trying to get in as many rides as they can before the sun sets. The park chair says everything is fine.

 

Unable to move, Burt watches and waits to feel moved by it all, for the collective comedy of human experience to bring him to tears, but he just slobbers a little. He knows if he goes off of his meds the theme park will be his, but he’ll grow bored of it and destroy it within days. At least he’ll be skinny, he thinks, but the cost-benefit analysis still doesn’t weigh in his favor. Bunny weasel has a terrible high-pitched giggle and it echoes down the hallway.

 

Lithium.

Myth or man: A conversation with Akira — Excerpt from The Green Turkey

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I’m still in Arashiyama, near the bamboo forest, at a small sushi restaurant. It’s a square shop barricaded with gridded paper screens. I’m sitting at a bar and next to me is a Japanese man wearing traditional Japanese clothing, which I assume means he works in the tourist industry. He’s pushing fifty. Freckles are chained underneath his eyes. His hair is greying. He’s lean and fit, and also oddly content to not have his food yet. He’s not reading on his phone, nor checking on a social media update. He’s simply staring forward, lost in his thoughts. Then, without turning to me he says, “Ahi tuna sushi is very popular in the States, but have you tried Yellow Tail? Now that’s a treat.”

“I have once,” I say. “But I’d had too much sake beforehand to properly taste it.

“And today, too many cigarettes and Oi Ocha,” he says.

“He turns to face me and I see that he’s blind.”

“You’re right, can you smell it on me?” I say.

“As soon as the door opened and you entered. American. Smoker. Iced tea.”

“I hope it’ll not spoil your taste,” I say.

“No, but thank you.”

He remains turned towards me and seemingly hyperaware of my movements. As though, he can hear my eyes move and my facial expressions crane. He chuckles and turns back. He says something to the sushi chef in front of us and the chef looks at me briefly before continuing his work.

“I told him to not service you with the best fish because you’ve spoiled your tongue today,” he says, chuckling again.

I’m a little confused about how to receive this news, but I remain a keen participant.

“Maybe, that’s a good idea, I wouldn’t want him to waste his best product.”

Now, the blind man laughs.

“You’re not your average American,” he says. “Somewhere close to Canada, but with a Westcoast accent. Seattle, it must be. Yes, your restraint matches there as well.”

“Good guess,” I say.

His smile snaps shut and he says gruffly, “It is no guess.”

“My apologies.”

He loosens up again and smiles.

“Would you share a tokkuri of sake with me?”

“Yeah, sure.”

The tokkuri soon arrives and we clink plates.

There’s an awareness to this man that defies explanation. He’s the one who grasped the tokkuri, he’s the one who pours the sake, he’s the one who clinked his sake plate onto mine. If it wasn’t for the fact that I can see his eyes rolled back inside his head, I’d have said he was a liar. Both of our meals come at the same time and we eat.

I mash a mound of wasabi into a pool of soy sauce and separate the leaves of pickled ginger from one another.

“That’s a lot of wasabi,” he says. “You like intense tasting things.”

“I suppose so,” I say.

“People who like intense tasting things are intense thinkers.”

“My thoughts are usually quite loud, can you hear them?”

“Yes,” he says, but then looks away and continues to eat.

“I hope I didn’t offend you?” I say.

“I was sure I had offended you.”

“No, I’m just unsure of your intensions, that’s all.”

He laughs and says, “My name is Akira.”

I introduce myself and we shake hands.

“Tell me, what tragedy brings you to Japan,” he says.

“How do you know that?”

“Because your demeanor is heavy and I’ve been around it enough to know when I sense it.”

“I wouldn’t want to bother you with it,” I say.

“You’re right, I’ve been rude,” he says, “it’s just that I don’t speak to many people, especially Americans from Seattle.”

I hesitate, something’s strange about this man, but to his defense, something has been strange with me since I arrived to Japan. Perhaps it’s not a bad idea to humor him—what’s the worst that could come of it?

“My brother is dying in Nagoya,” I say. “And, my mother is dying in Seattle.”

“I’m very sorry,” he says. “Is there anything I can do?”

“If you can ease their suffering and make it quick, I’d be much obliged,” I say.

“Of course,” he says and lifts his plate to toast.

“Well, that was easy,” I joke.

“You never know who you’ll run into at a sushi bar in Kyoto,” he says, chuckling.

The sushi chef looks up at me, then to the strange blind man, and then back to his fillet of tuna.

“Do you believe if two family members are dying at the same time they can bind to each other, and one feel the pain of the other?” I ask.

“It would take strong feelings to make something like that happen, but people don’t think like that anymore,” he says. “In old times if one person was showing the symptoms of another patient and visa versa, that’s what they’d think. Why do you ask?”

“It’s nothing,” I say.

“You find yourself thinking things you’ve never thought of before,” he says.

“Perhaps,” I say.

The man brushes his hand across the thick black cane resting beside him on the bar and  smiles.

“We seek answers when there are none.”

“I’m just confused about what’s happening to me,” I say.

“Intense thinking leads to intense emotions,” he says, with his mouth full.

“Are both your mother and brother intense thinkers?”

“I’d say so.”

“Then the idea of their connection will be intensified by their legacy.”

I don’t follow?” I say.

“When you ponder one, it will match their intensity, but if you ponder both the intensity is quadrupled. It sounds like they might be working out their past with each other. You must figure this is more important than their deaths.”

“So you do believe they might be bonded?”

“They are mother and son, of course they are, this isn’t magic.”

“I know, I—”

“You must sleep more,” he says. “Things won’t be as confusing if you sleep.”

I nod feeling as though this man is reading my thoughts.

We eat some more in silence, joke around a bit, and Akira tells me of some of his favorite shrines in the city. “From the train station you must walk to Fushimi Inari-Taisha,” he says. “When you arrive you must then walk through every gate.”

“I will,” I say.

He comes in close to my face.

“I mean it,” he says. “Inari is fickle and quick to anger.”

“I understand.”

“You seem like a good person, let the shrines cleanse you.” He turns his head around as if he’s hearing something far off and trying to identify where it’s coming from. “The rest of this sake is for you,” he says. He stands up, slips on a red yukata and grabs his cane, which looks more like a katana sword’s saya, and says, “I have a tour group to lead, I need to be sharp.”

“Of course you do,” I say, “Arrigato. Thank you for the advice.”

He bows and says, “It was a blessed chance encounter.”

He leaves. When I’m finished I ask for the bill. Akira’s meal is on the ticket. The extra sake softens the blow.

The House of Uncommons

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Margaret Thatcher is tall, lean, and trendy; she could be an art museum curator if it wasn’t for her need to understand her own mental illness through others. Though, if she’s fucked up in her life, it wasn’t too catastrophic—she doesn’t put on airs during our sessions and appears to care for my wellbeing. Her office is shared and typical for a publically funded community psychiatric clinic; a khaki box otherwise empty besides a framed print of Picasso’s Guernica hanging on the wall. I feel agitated. Ms. Thatcher’s subdued presence triggers a smudgy emotion inside of me, one which has lingered far from the emotion that bore it, the feeling’s a cross between being nude in public and dropping food on the ground in front of strangers. There are no windows.

“How’s the writing?” She begins.

“Shannon left.”

Margaret Thatcher sits back in her chair and exhales the “Oh shit” she formed inside her mouth.

“Wow, okay. I’m sorry, Josef. You must feel very upset.”

“I know that I am, I know that I should be, but I feel unable to processes it—I suppose I feel guilty. I thought I was doing my best to make her feel better after the assault, but I didn’t help her recover at all.”

“Helping others through a traumatic experience is a tough business. Maybe you did better than you thought?”

I take a second to think.

“I concocted ideas of what she needed and tried to force them onto her without considering I was wrong.”

“How?”

“I let her alone when she needed someone close. I was too close when she needed space. I was thoughtful and patient—I was forceful and impatient to motivate her, but always on my terms. I did everything right and saw nothing get better, so I did everything wrong in hopes to inspire the opposite effect. I could have just asked her what she needed.”

“The former sounds like the flawed logic of desperation.”

“I was anxious and unable to wait. The weight was bearing down on me. Things had to get better when I needed them to.”

“So, since things weren’t improving quickly enough you took control of the situation by blowing it up?”

“It felt like things were going too slowly and I was close to a breakdown. If she were to see me lose my shit, like I’ve done in the past, she wouldn’t want to be with me anymore. Self-destruction wasn’t a conscious choice, but looking back, the only choice to reduce my anxiety.”

“Self-destruction is a common option we choose when we’re overwhelmed and cannot acknowledge and communicate our feelings properly. What’s troubling about patterns of self-destructive behavior is outsiders can clearly see the individual in question’s ill-conceived plans, but the individual is too wrapped up in self-denial to calculate that their trajectory is on a collision course with reality.”

“I remember thinking things were coming to a head and I should prevent that from happening. But, a second after the thought I reckoned a collision was the natural progression of the situation.”

“I hear that a lot,” Margaret Thatcher says. “We also know your family history and how much self-destructive behavior, perpetual conflict and overly simplified resolutions are the norm. It’s easier to stick with what you know.”

“When emotional responses are sought after like drugs to the addict,” I say. “How the hell did we become this way?”

“It was something your mother learned, something she and your uncles were raised with and used to survive in their broken home. You hold onto the ideas surrounding how positive relationships should be and begin a complex process of mimicking several archetypes of normalcy in the hopes you can fake it until you make it, but it’s still acting. It takes self-discipline, counseling, and time to rewire your brain from that kind of behavior.”

“We’re all high strung, anxious, co-dependent, and insecure— I wish I could control how rushed I always feel, how unsteady and ashamed. I wish I didn’t have this maniacal inclination to always be in good standing with everyone. To always quash conflict.”

“Conflict in the world or conflict you perceive is directed against you?”

“I suppose both.”

“I don’t see you trying to change the world?”

I smile and lean forward in my chair.

“Well, I’m apprehensive to change the world after what you did to it, Margaret Thatcher.”

She rolls her eyes.

“You have two more Margaret Thatcher jokes left this session,” She says, dryly.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about people not liking me.”

“I know, I’m your psychiatrist.”

“I look back on my life and think about all the wrong moves I made. How much I went out of the way to seek validation from those I thought were cool, while ignoring the extended hands from friends I took for granted. For someone who cares so much what people think about him, it’s bizarre who often I put myself in embarrassing positions.”

“What do you believe are your thoughts and feelings that keep you from having peace of mind? In other words, what is inhibiting you from being a consistent and dependable human being?”

“My thoughts are always agitated; I’m always anxious. Often Angry.”

“Why do you think you’re always anxious?”

“Because I can’t help but see everything in a state of decay.”

“What do you mean by that? Decay?”

“Entropy. I had to go to the hospital last night to see my mother in the ER and when I got there she was laying on the bed asleep looking like a dying child.”

“Is your mother’s mortality perhaps changing your thinking to see everything through this lens of entropy?”

“No, I’ve thought this way for a long time—I can’t stop thinking in the past. Often good times that are gone, or times I embarrassed myself. When something good happens I remind myself it will soon pass.”

Margaret Thatcher creases the right side of her tan bob behind her ear leaving a single tendril hanging in the gap between the arm of her glasses and her cheekbone.

“Why are these memories milestones of decay?”

“Because they ended poorly.”

“Or, is it that they just ended?”

God damn Margaret Thatcher going after my negative thoughts again.

“I don’t know, perhaps. But, when I think about the embarrassing moments, I cringe and think how can I have such a lack of self-control to indulge such poor behavior?”

“The process of nostalgia is often evoked to stir in us a sense of serenity and closure. However, if that picture is then compared to our image of the present, the here and now looks less than desirable. Perhaps you already know your nostalgic memories are as false as your embarrassing ones. In my opinion, nostalgic memories are more dangerous than self-loathing thoughts.

“I thought you were into nostalgia?”

“Is that another Margaret Thatcher joke?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, that was number 2, now say something smart.”

“I’ve never wanted a relationship of any kind to cease to be; I’ve wanted the connection to always remain even if our roles change.”

“Is this strictly romantically?”

“No, I mean all relationships. Friendships are the easiest to maintain, but somehow I’ve exhausted those connections too often as well.”

“I highly doubt that.”

“I lost many friends after my divorce. I lost more in New Zealand.”

“You’re not alone and friendships forged abroad will always be loose and eventually fade.”

“But, I want a perfect record.”

Margaret Thatcher stares at me as if she sees something inside me that I cannot and begins to smile.

“Your hopes are valid but unattainable. You will lose relationships, you will watch friendships come and go, you will be faced with the inevitable consequences of living in the world, where both good and bad things happen.”

“I wish I had a better grip on my emotions.”

“But to GRIP them, as you say, means you must be outside of them in order to secure them.”

“Okay,” I say, “To control them.”

“What is control?”

“To not give in to temptation.”

“Very Catholic.”

“I forgot, Margaret Thatcher, has a thing against Catholics.”

“Margaret Thatcher joke number 3 for the win,” she says, invoking a weak fist pump with her eyes scanning the chart balanced on her lap.

“How could I not?” I say.

“Control.” She says to keep us on topic.

“It’s to always respond in the right way. To instantaneously weight a situation and perform appropriately based on its demands,” I say.

“So, it’s some Victorian idea of behavior and restraint developed through good breeding and a high moral and ethical compass?”

“Uh, is that what my answer sounded like?”

“To me, it sounded like a bunch of, excuse the expression, poppycock.”

“Is that a Margaret Thatcher joke?” I say.

“No, it’s a you joke.”

“Ouch, nice one,” I say. “Look, I go up and down, left and right. I’ll have a good couple of days and then the anxiety comes back. I’d like to write more, but I can’t draft anything with a semblance of consistency. I’m unstable. I can’t work more than twenty-five hours a week without exhausting myself and getting worse. I’ve never held a real job because I can’t concentrate or be stable enough to do my tasks at a consistent level over time. I run my own contracting business because I can’t have a boss. I can barely work with others anymore because before, I’d get such profound performance anxiety I’d lash out. I’m something to laugh at. I have no control.”

“No, you suffer from rapid cycling bipolar disorder,” she says.

A pause. A dog barks, but from Where? Margaret Thatcher’s lips are pursed with the pride inherent in a well-executed bombing pattern. I riposte.

“No, I think it’s just a learned behavior from my mother; I’m not like her, I don’t eat my fucking meals over the sink.”

“…”

Margarette Thatcher’s green eyes glint just below her bangs and then pop with emerald smoke curling up towards the ceiling.

“So, I’ve been nuts this entire time,” I say, “and people have been placating me?”

“That’s a meaningless sentence. Tear it apart and ask yourself if it holds water.”

“It’s a reactionary thought which bears little on reality and more so upon my insecurities,” I parrot back to her like I’ve heard it a thousand times.

“Correct.”

“But, are you sure? Bi-polar? I’m actually fucking crazy?”

“Josef, you’re not crazy. I’ve been observing your behavior for a couple months now and have been almost certain for a few weeks. However, I wanted to wait and be sure, and to also notify you when you were ready.”

“How the hell is now the time when I’m ready?”

“Because your family needs you to fight for yourself to help them, and Shannon needs you to accept yourself so you can begin loving her.”

I resonate with what Margaret Thatcher is saying, but afraid of what it means. I feel emotional.

“Have you heard of lithium before?”

“Yes,” I say, less than excitedly.

“And?” She asks.

“I’m afraid it will turn me into an uncreative zombie.”

“Well, you’ve been complaining about being an uncreative spas the past two months, what do you have to lose?”

“Good point.”

“Look, it’s all about the blood work. We’ll get you on the right dose, which will stabilize your mood without making you feel like a manikin.”

“I suppose I’ll have to trust you,” I sigh.

I look again from Margaret Thatcher to the Guernica print and realize that I’ve been screaming in the inside like the cow in the painting for years.

“You put that print there on purpose, don’t you?” I say.

“No, but someone did,” she says.

I look away and my eyes begin to swell.

“This isn’t a loss, Josef. This is a chance to gain control back.”

“What if I’m scared to have control? I’d rather keep wanting it than to actually have it.”

Sunsets Over Troubles Immemorable

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My dad’s a vet. Vietnam. He graduated high school, took off to Iowa for the corn harvest, and ran with the carnivals selling postcards and knickknacks until one day outside of Baton Rouge he got a phone call from grandma telling her only son his draft notice came in the mail. His boss, Pennant Red, said to him, “Son, get your ass back to Seattle and sign up for the Army so you can go through Basic and pick what you want to do. Otherwise, you’re good as dead.” Lucky for dad, between Pennant Red, Little Joe, and Big Cowboy and Little Cowboy, there were enough war veterans working the carnival circuit to give my father the best advice to save his neck.

 

For him, not going wasn’t an option. Not because he agreed with the war, but because it didn’t seem like the right thing to do. So he went to Vietnam and felt wrong about it the whole time— and when he got back was told he was wrong for being a soldier and for going. He told me he was convinced his plane home was going to crash and sweated the whole ride home. He got off the plane at Sea-Tac Airport and went to the bathroom to take a leak. The bathroom was strewn with abandoned army suits. Dad refused to take his off, not because he agreed with the war, or even because he respected the army, but because he couldn’t disrespect those other soldiers who didn’t make it home.

 

He waited all night for a cab, but no one would pick him up in his green suit; so he called his dad, and Grandpa picked him up.

 

Settling back into American life was difficult. He told me he was really interested in a girl, but she told him one evening over a beer, “I just wouldn’t have gone.” That’s what she said, “I just wouldn’t have gone.” He disappeared for a few years after that but came out the other end. We are all thankful that he did. Some in our family didn’t.

 

Grandma told me, my Great Uncle, Ken died during WWII in Alaska. Ken was her favorite brother. I asked my dad, when I got old enough, how Ken died. Dad said, “He was stationed on a tiny island in the Aleutian Island chain and thought the war had ended and was forgotten. He ended his life with his service weapon and was found days later.” With Grandma, painful things were always masked in understatements.

 

She said her younger brother was a very sensitive boy, but brave. He began to leave the farm at six-years-old to work the railroads and would come back with money for the family. I think Dad reminded her of Ken. When I asked her what she thought of dad going to war, she said, “We took a road trip back to Iowa one summer when the kids were young and your dad insisted that he always got to a campsite before sunset so that he could lay on top of the car and watch the sunset slip behind a mountain, cast its rays over a cliff, or set a cornfield on fire.” She paused and stared into her past and then qualified her story, “A boy like that isn’t meant for war,” she said. “And, that’s the thing.”

 

Fighting hurts us all.

A Letter to Enoch Campbell 27 years after the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 (first draft)

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March 23rd, 1916

Dear Enoch,

It’s been 27 years since you threw me out the window of the burning cabinet shop on Madison and Front Streets. It’s still a mystery to me if you did it to save me, or kill me. Perhaps, it was a bit of both. In 1889, Seattle was a troubled city and we were troubled young men. You were still reeling from the death of your wife, and I was destroying the faces of Seattleites under the naive assumption that I could halt a thing as salient yet wraithlike as historical progress, through murder. I suppose, young men have a tendency to think they are mining the center of things when they’re still only scratching the surface. Ego, a basic understand of things, and tenacity get you far in politics, but no more than an inch into the stony skin of life. Sacrifice is a pure enterprise, but fails to mix well with modern intellectualism. You should know that I plan to kill again.

You and I are different in many ways—I’m sure you have spent more time considering and convincing yourself of that than I. However, what we have in common is a hatred for authority and a healthy loathing for fraternal orders. The schoolyard, the sporting team, the university, the office, government—fraternity infests them all. I saw how much you hated the law firm where you worked in Seattle, but how at home you were in Madame Lou’s “hotel.” Anywhere is better than in the midst of a group of apes beating their chests and strategizing their moves within a game no one else wishes to play. Here’s a word for you to ponder: patricide.

I cannot tell you everything about my motivations without telling you everything. You need to know how I was ruined. I want you to know how the events of my life affected me and sent me down a path of masculine uniformity. I once was a man who was willing to strip others of their dignity to maintain a world in which I was king. Now I’m a killer of fathers resolute in the fact that my own ending will be misunderstood and gruesome. So be it—the world is currently at war by such notions of domination.

Before you is a manuscript which tells the story of my life before our paths crossed in Seattle, and what followed after the burning of the city. Before and especially after, I met many people who for better or worse changed my life. It’s important for you to know because I want us to be clear before I end our lives.

Like I said, sacrifice is a pure enterprise, especially when our motivation is to appease a theme that is prehistoric, pre-conscience, and a central building block to our species: To consume and be nourished. To eat them. Eat them all up.

 

 

I’m Not a Newt! I’m an Author.

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“Could you please put down your phone,” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, without looking up.

“No, like right now.”

“I just need to finish this post,” I said, feeling like I was working against the clock, playing a dangerous game with my girlfriend’s patience.

She sat impatiently, looking at me like I was a cat she was about to throw across the room. All I had left was to add the hashtags. But, which ones to use? If they’re too popular you get lost in the shuffle, too small, what’s the point? Be clever, be funny, be humble; rather, be a humble-brag monster of explosive optimism and saccharine contentment. #superpositivebooklover. #blessed. Post.

Oh, for fuck sake, I’m a tool!

That’s how social media marketing often feels. Not only am I a tool, but a poor man with a gambling problem throwing coins down a well, waiting for one to jump back up. The big bite. Impossible.

When I received an offer from a publisher to publish my historical crime novel, Throw-Away Faces, I was excited. Finally, I’ve made it! I knew next to nothing about the industry, but my publisher seemed legit enough. Beggars can’t be choosers when approaching a publisher unsolicited. I told myself this on more than one occasion. Yeah, okay.

Well, now that the book is published, all I can say is that I’ve accrued thousands of hours of rewrites and edits (good), relationships in the industry which will serve me well down the road (good), and a huge phone addiction predicated on wagering the worth of my book on the amount of “likes” it gets on Instagram or Facebook, or my author’s rank on Amazon Central (VERY VERY BAD).

What I didn’t know getting into the game is that the book market is absurdly competitive and awash with a lot of shit. It pays huge dividends to have an agent when shopping the book, and once publishers show interest, to pick one who pays their publicists to manage your marketing. This is key.

Otherwise, get ready to hate your life, and possibly your book, because you’ll be throwing countless emails, letters and time into review queries that will never be looked at by newspapers, journals, and magazines. And, money into many .com black holes. This will boil down into an ill-conceived effort, commonly called a self-marketing plan, to master nuanced and disingenuous forms of marketing communication forged to manipulate strangers into clicking a link to buy your book. It’ll never be enough. You will look in the mirror and see a Gollum.

When you’re fatigued, your publisher will offer you cooperative packages that are vague in description, but enticing. They whisper sweet nothings into your ear, “Take a load off, Joe.” “Let us do the work.” “We’ll send your book into the hands of the most talented, sexiest, and trusted reviewers in all the land.” And, can you blame yourself for giving in? No, you really can’t, but you will anyway.

The other option is spending countless hours online making virtual friendships and alliances, which is fine, and the right way to do it, but the task is a full-time job and will yank you out of the world of the living.

Don’t get me started on the writer’s block I’m currently experiencing because I now have the attention span of a newt who happened upon a horsefly turd convention.

“How was your day?” she asked.

“Fine.” It wasn’t; I didn’t sell one book. I didn’t get a word written for the sequel. I didn’t do my research. I clicked the refresh button a lot. My phone says my screen time is up from last week. I drank too much coffee. I went down the spiral.

I forgot I’m an author.

So far, this is what I’ve learned from the experience: Do what you think is right to get your book out there, but not at the expense of your creativity. At some point, you just have to let it be, write the next one and make it better than the last. You’ve made your bed for now, but you can get a new one. The worth of your work has nothing to do with a stranger’s thoughtless click of a “like” button. If it was, your time would be better spent engaging in #vanlife.

In the end, stay an artist. Stay balanced. And next time, get a publicist.

You’re not a newt.

Snippets—On Character

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There’s this recurring character who appears in my stories. He’s not of one fixed identity; she can be another. Together, they build and destroy, damage and revive memories under a chain-linked arbor of narrative. I’ve called him Simon, her name has been Mary. They’ve both meant the same to me: an undisturbed arc of life after death.

The Neighbor

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I was on a call, in front of my apartment building, telling a friend I couldn’t make it to trivia night because I had to get more work finished on my dissertation. He asked, “When’s that going to be finished–it’s taking forever.” “Soon,” I said. I saw a guy fumbling with a couple boxes enter into my building. I quickly ended the call and chased down the door before it closed.

The first time I met my neighbor was in the elevator. He cradled a box of papers in his arms and looked at the elevator’s floor buttons like they were about to tell him something interesting. There was another box at his feet with an Irish drum and a ukulele in it. I said, “Hi.” I said, “Nice bodhran. Nice ukulele.” He said, “Yeah.” That was the extent of it. We got out on the same floor, walked to the two doors closest to the elevator, and acknowledged that we were neighbors without acknowledging each other.

The next week, I saw a strange man get out of a green hatchback parked in front of the apartment building. His small, tasseled, black leather coat awkwardly hugged his soft body like an ex-girlfriend. He wore a newsboy cap, oval glasses, and fucking bike shoes cloaked by a pair of baggy boot-cut jeans. He turned, looked at me and either smirked or sneered, I couldn’t be sure. His beady eyes followed me as I passed. I felt that he was as judgmental as me. What a dick.

A couple weeks went by without seeing my neighbor. I forgot about him. His little coat, his newsy, and his wire rimmed glasses faded from my memory. But then he returned. It was hard to tell if it was him at first sight because it was nighttime and he had a head lamp on. He was by the front door, standing over his road bike, plunging his spandex-wrapped cheeks between its top tube. He was fiddling with his phone. I approached. He didn’t look up. I held the door for him and waited. After a moment he looked up, and then shewed me. Shewed me with a flapping hand. Shewed me and then smirked or sneered. I stood my ground, held the door, and he looked up again, raising his hands like he didn’t understand. I said, “Oh, I didn’t hear you say anything and thought you were swatting at something.” He said, “As if,” and looked back down at his phone. “As if.”

At 6am the next morning the knocking came. It started as a soft tap on my bedroom wall. It had a rhythm: boomp, boomp, boomp. But then it grew louder and faster, and then there was a soft whimper followed by a loud growl. A sex growl that was so vulgar and tactless, I felt less annoyed by being woken up by my neighbor having sex than sorry for his partner. But after his egregious sexual release, I heard her giggle, giggle like it was cute. Cute sex growls. I looked over at my girlfriend and she was staring at the ceiling. That growl will be seared into her mind all week, maybe longer even. The growling continued, every morning, the loud animal-like interjection soaking through our bedroom wall.

Things were going too far. The boomps and the growls and the annoying howls from his two miniature long-haired terriers began to wear on me. I couldn’t write in the morning any longer, I couldn’t read at night over the irregular strumming on his ukulele. I prayed for peace and quiet, for evenings in silence and mornings filled only with the sound of chirping birds and the whoosh from the local bus driving past. But things continued to get weird, and the frequency of our meetings increased.

The following week, I went on a walk to clear my mind and who was it coming toward me in full gallop but my neighbor, wearing an olive-green, wrestling onesie and a red, white and blue terry cloth headband. His pectoral flaps oozed through the straps of his ill-fitting suit, and I could tell the depth of his bellybutton from 50 feet away. Half inch. He and his girlfriend drew nearer, and I could hear him giving her running advice about proper running form. “Make your spine an oar.” “Envision that your feet are rocks wrapped in pillows.” “Don’t look at me, look straight, past the finish line, to your goal,” he said, all in the span of thirty-feet. They passed, and he gave me a nod.

It was at this moment, just after his incoherent mansplaining, that I realized that this psychopath is happier than me. In fact, way happier than me.

The reckoning came yesterday. It was a long day at work. My hands were swollen from swinging a hammer all day. The elevator opened and he was standing outside his apartment door in a blue kimono, both his dogs tied around his leg, with a bowl of cereal in his hand. He slurped a thimble of milk from his spoon and looked up at me. His dogs began to circle and bark. I’m sure the expression on my face asked the question that he immediately answered. “My dogs need a break from the apartment,” he said. “But this is the time of day where I don’t allow myself to put any effort into anything, so I can’t walk them.”

“I wish I hadn’t put any effort into anything today,” I said.

He nodded in agreement and pulled the lapels of his kimono a bit tighter to hide his chest hair.

“I have a regiment,” he said. “Sex daily, coffee daily, work M through Fri, lunch at 1pm, run every other day, bike to work three times a week, ukulele every night to settle my existential disquiet. All great, but it’s the hour after work, the block of my dia” (why he said day in Spanish, I have no idea) “where I don’t allow myself to put any effort into anything, when I feel the most special.” His face made that pained crease again; his smirk or sneer, I realized, was a signal of his hope that you understand what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. “Shit man, I must be boring you though,” he said.

“No, not really,” I said, in a state of confusion and pre-hilarity. “I’ve noticed that you take your regiment seriously.”

“You mean the kimono? Yeah, I’ve got a costume for every phase, changing into the right uniform for the job,” he said. “Helps me complete the task.”

His little greasy dogs stared at me, tremoring in place.

“Well…” I said, taking a step towards my door.

“What’s your best part of the day?” He said.

“Eating.”

“Besides eating,” he said. “Carnal desires are dope, but I’m talking about that human shit.”

“Human shit,” I repeated. “Okay, writing.”

“I knew it. I knew the construction thing was a front.”

“…”

“I mean, you’re not a football fan, I can see it, so you start tracing it all back, and nothing makes sense, man. You ever trace it all back while you swing that hammer, but none of it makes sense?”

His lips turned into the letter ‘o’ and he stood assertively still like he just dropped an existential A-bomb in our hallway.

“Yeah, well choosing the path of least resistance can keep the pedals moving, but a bicycle can’t get you over an ocean,” I said.

“BOOM!” He said and opened his fist, palm to the floor, to imitate a mic-drop.

“Keep doing you, man.”

“You too.”

I turned into my door.

“I forgot to mention,” he said, “that we play Settlers of Catan every other Friday night at 8pm if you and your lady want to come by?”

“What do you wear on your gaming nights,” I asked.

“My periodic table t-shirt,” He said, proudly.

“Sounds good. We’ll be there. This Friday?”

“Naw, next.”

I entered my apartment and both my cats were there to greet me. It smelled like the cat box. Feline wasabi. I pulled off my work clothes and looked at my dirty face in the bathroom mirror. Despite the grit and dust, I knew I looked better than I have in a long time. I reached for the hot water knob when I heard pounding coming from the other side of my bathroom wall.

“Put me in a story,” my neighbor shouted. “Enjoy your shower.”

“Yep,” I hollered.

I took a long, hot shower and watched the sediment on my body funnel down the drain. I toweled off and shaved. Clean, but alone. Liz was still working at a coffee shop up the street. I thought to myself, “I quit drinking nine weeks ago, so why do I feel so depressed?” My little cat waited outside the bathroom door and looked up at me when I opened it. “Have you ever tried to trace it all back, Kitten?” I asked her. “Tried to trace it back and ask yourself, ‘why do I always wait outside the bathroom door while dad takes a shower?’” She gave me one of her gravelly smoker’s meows, and I took her as answering, “No.”

I checked my email and saw that my university will not extend my deferment for another year. “It’s been four years… pay and finish or don’t… we don’t care…” was the gist of the head of the Postgraduate Department’s email to me. I checked the box and sent it to the trash bin.

I tried to write but was too tired to put down anything meaningful. I need a regiment, I thought. Liz came home and I told her I love her. I’ll write good words tomorrow. Better words tomorrow.

 

Throw Away Faces—The Cell of Nostalgia

byres

 

XI

       When I was a child in Glasgow I could see Ben Lomond[1] on a clear day from my father’s office window. It was not often but when he was free he would tell me stories of the Highlanders that lived above the city. He told me tales of the Highland caterans[2] stealing livestock for blackmail and tales of Rob Roy[3] MacGregor’s blood feud against the Duke of Montrose.[4] I would look at the dim outline of the mountain as he recited the long list of events that led to both the Stuart Rebellions.[5] And when he was done with those stories we would look down onto the city and he would tell me about the riots that took place against the Union with England[6] and the Malt Tax Riots.[7]

He said long ago our family were Highlanders, but not anymore, no matter what my grandfather and uncle said. He said that we were outlaws, but at a time when most men were. Back then there was enough lawlessness going around between those abusing their powers and the malnourished, that it was pointless pointing fingers at people from so long ago. Ben Lomond and the city below it held these stories.

When I was a few years older a factory was erected next to my father’s office and blocked our view of the Highlands. Ben Lomond was gone and Glasgow was too for that matter because all we could see out of the window was a wall of stones.

“They brought the Highlands closer to us,” father said, to console me the first time I saw that the view was erased, “all this stone and mortar is from there.”

His words did not console me. I recall it was about that time that I stopped daydreaming about the Highlands, what my ancestors might have looked like, and of Rob Roy. The tall buildings kept my eyes turned inwards, when maybe lang syne the vastness of Scotland’s countryside made men more contemplative of their relationship with the wild. Our summer visits to the Isle of Skye never made me feel that way. I remember my feet always being wet, and shivering in bed with little more than a sheet to keep me warm.

Upon my first break from university I visited our new country home in Bearsden. The white-capped Ben Lomond was framed inside a windowpane rising above my father’s desk in his study. It meant nothing to me, but it did to him and so I smiled and said to him he did the right thing to move mother away from the retched smoke of the city. 20 years had been too long in one place and Bessy, our old castle, had become a prison.

 

[1] Ben Lomond: Mountain north of Glasgow located at the foot of Lock Lomond. It’s doubtful from Enoch’s central Glasgow location on Byre’s Road that he could have seen the mountain, but I made it so.

[2] Highland caterans: A Highland band of marauders, professional thieves, and/or mercenaries.

[3] Rob Roy MacGregor (1671-1734): A Scottish outlaw and folk hero. A traditional Jacobite, MacGregor was pro-Stuart and Catholic. He was also a cattle herder, and engaged in blackmail to protect people’s herds from theft, sometimes from his own theft.

[4] Feud with the Duke of Montrose: After losing his lands he (MacGregor) waged a blood feud against his dispossessor, James Graham, 1st Duke of Montrose. The tales that follow include a series of adventures where Rob Roy escapes capture and execution. Bloody brilliant!

[5] Scottish rebellions of 1715 and 1745: The 45’ explained earlier (Pg. 47, note XXX) both were failed uprisings to reinstall the Catholic Stuarts to the English monarchy.

[6] The Act of Union 1707: At this time, England and Scotland were two separate states, each with their own parliaments, but under one monarch. Following the War of the Three Kingdoms (1639-1651) and the Glorious Revolution (1688), which saw the overthrow of the Scottish Stuart Dynasty from the English throne, the new Protestant English monarchy increased its effort to consolidate power on the isles. Scotland, politically fractured and near economic collapse, was forced into union in order to open England’s colonial markets for trade. The Act of Union expanded English control in Scotland at a time when Scotland was looked at as a threat, and physically speaking, a harbor for England’s continental enemies to exploit, namely the French.

[7] Malt Tax Riots: Began on June 23rd, 1725 in retaliation to the imposition of the English malt tax. As the economic promises of the 1707 Act of Union had yet to materialize, Scottish citizens took to the streets in protest and openly riot. The fiercest riots and anti-English sentiment existed in Glasgow.

The Elusive Salmon

salmonmedium

Across my little apartment is the city locks. The locks see every boat coming in, or going out to sea. Though there are a lot of boats coming and going there’s also a good portion of the day when the locks are empty, and when they’re empty in the late summer and early autumn, schools of spawning salmon enjoy the peace by leaping out of the water, and going plop back in.

I say plop because that’s usually all you hear. It’s not as easy as you might think to spot a jumping salmon. Try as you may, staring in one spot and waiting for a salmon to jump is a fool’s errand.

Today’s Friday, and I have no work to keep me from the locks. I was also here this past Monday, and the Friday before last, not working, instead listening to the salmon go plop.

The rest of my time spent has been in my apartment. I’ve been on the computer, looking through job postings. With the click of a button, another resume goes into the blackness. For each prospective employer, I tell them that I’m qualified, a quick learner, and nearly perfect. I wait and watch for a reply. I wait, and watch.

While I wait, I try not to think about how hard I’ve worked to be broke, how maybe my quest to define myself as independent, unique, and a stand-alone has greatly compromised my ability to write a good resume and cover letter—I can’t seem to connect.

I finally pull my eyes away from my computer screen and make something to eat, and when I return, another rejection letter has been sent from a web address that begins with, “donotreply.” Cowards.

All these rejections come when I’m not looking. It’s the second I break my will to force good news that the tech world tells me to keep fishing (and to follow them on Twitter, etc.). I get angry, and then sad, and then I tell myself that I’m an anomaly, a force of nature that their vetting algorithms cannot grasp or define. When these half-truths escape my lips, I become thirsty for alcohol; for a cigarette before I return to my seat at the gambling table.

Yesterday, I spent the day doing something different. My mother had called to tell me that my brother lost custody of his daughter and threatened to kill himself. He texted me later and asked me to take care of his life insurance policy. He then turned off his phone and disappeared. I spent yesterday hunting.

When a salmon goes plop and you turn to the noise there’s a gentle wake. It spreads and rolls from its starting point in perfect symmetry. The succession of arches spread until they are swallowed by the bigger currents surrounding them. They die into the fold.

My brother’s wake continued for some time before he jumped. Not off a bridge, or a building, but by text message. He contacted his daughter to tell her that everything’s fine. He was alive.

I spent yesterday guessing where my brother could be, but I didn’t know until I did. I haven’t seen or talked to him. I’m not at all ready for that.

Some boats have arrived now. In particular, a fishing vessel with three deckhands chattering in Italian. The salmon are still jumping, and I can hear that language too. I’m too tired today to apply for jobs. It’s a fool’s errand anyway.

Today, I came to the locks and saw a large salmon, looking green and pink, she jumped right in front of me while I was looking at the boats waiting to go out to sea. She went plop and I saw the whole thing.