A story of how an online hater taught me something about creativity.
You can read it here. Or you could go out for tacos and not look at your phone. Free country.
A story of how an online hater taught me something about creativity.
You can read it here. Or you could go out for tacos and not look at your phone. Free country.
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At least once a week I wonder to myself how the hell I ended up out here. By “out here” I mean the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, a relatively picturesque region of small quaint towns, five colleges, a few craft breweries, lesbians, trans folk, and more kombucha than could fill Lake Eerie. In moments of particularly intense ingratitude I call it Bumfuck, U.S.A.
I mean, I can trace the path backwards to the job that I was working in Boston, for an enormous online retailer who encouraged us to work from home and, wanting to find a place within driving distance that I could afford – my own place – I looked outside of the expensive city and more or less by accident landed out here. The job ended a few months later and I’ve been employed by a university ever since.
But I’ve struggled to make friends and to carve a life out for myself that is full of any real meaning. I endure rather than live, more or less held together by duct tape, a chihuahua, and a couple of long-distance friendships, and I mean, thank God for them.
A handful of far-flung men have come and gone, and though I’ve recently taken up my still-unfinished book again, I’m way too familiar with the deepest dankest corners of my Netflix queue.
I walk across campus like a ghost, invisible to the fresh-faced youth. I think I was cruised by a gay dude once during my entire time in the Valley, and I mean, c’mon, a dude needs validation.
I never wanted to leave San Francisco. Three years ago (fuck how time grinds), on the cusp of divorce, deep down in PTSD-mode, I couldn’t imagine subjecting myself to an apartment with roommates – the only viable option for staying. So I ran up the coast to Portland, stung and exiled by the gods of money and love. And thinking about the city that I called home for 18 years hurt too much so I forced myself to think of other things.
What I’ve figured out, in hindsight, is that I drastically underestimated the importance of human connection in the place you call home. They’re the reasons to keep living – the bonds we create with others, the folks who have our backs.
And I’ve thought about where I would like to live next, what city is worth saving money for, and I’ve come up with a half-hearted two or three, apprehensively, and I was talking to a good friend in New York City on FaceTime a couple of weeks ago and describing the state of my brain when I left San Francisco, how I couldn’t then imagine living with roommates but that I would embrace them now just to stay in the place that felt like home.
“Then why is San Francisco off the table?” he asked.
I was struck kind of dumb for a second. “Because…it’s so damn expensive?”
“So what? Do something for me. Close your eyes and picture yourself living back there, surrounded by people who know and care about you.”
And I couldn’t help it – I teared up, and I put my hands over my eyes, and then my friend started crying too.
“Fuck you,” he said, walking away from the phone and across his kitchen. “I’m gonna go drink some milk,” he said. He opened the fridge. “And fuck you again.”
“You did it,” I said. “So fuck you.”
“Why are you crying?” I said.
“Because sometimes people being nice is more sad than happy.”
I didn’t argue with him, that for me it was kind of the opposite – my tears were of happiness, or more about gratitude, the future kind of gratitude, when you picture yourself – when I picture myself – rejoining society after a long spell of utter isolation, and rediscovering moments of joy or plain satisfaction. Human fucking connection.
Later he said, “Picture yourself stepping off the plane at SFO,” and I started crying again.
It’s probably not possible. It’s so much money. I’m torn in two – the dreamer and the realist. I have a job more or less waiting for me but I’d probably need two. The city’s changed, keeps changing, has changed too much. Friends have left. I’ve got a (quiet, sweet) chihuahua and landlords hate dogs. I need to save up money. I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do, but I can’t stay here. I’ve got to figure this out.
The obsession fades as quickly as it came, draining out of me, a bit more each day, until I have days where I don’t even think about him until the afternoon, until the evening, and it drains, dripping, leaving me where I feared I’d be, alone with myself, with what feels some days like a long list of failures and a sharp craving for connection.
I’ve been crying like a motherfucker lately.
I didn’t cry when my husband left me, or when I had to leave the city I called home, or when I got so broke I didn’t know how I’d pay rent. But now I cry every single fucking day, usually the radio or the television or a line in some book, usually over some kind of gesture towards connection.
I fucking cried, sobbed even, while watching the finale of the Great British Baking Show. I hate the word wept but I fucking wept. I couldn’t stop. I saw a woman won who I wanted to win not just for her talents but also because I now really love to see a minority do really well in life just to piss off the Nazis. And I saw her family and friends jumping with pure joy at her win, and fuck I’m nearly crying now. Because fuck it, damn it, I want to win at something, and I want to be surrounded by family and friends who love the fuck out of me. And instead I’m in Bumfuck, MA wondering many days if I will ever have the strength or the talent again to produce something beautiful and true. Has life thrown too many punches at me in the past five years to keep me down for good? Is it even worth trying to write something beautiful and true anymore in a culture that has stopped reading?
Dread hangs over me daily. I know I need to move again to save myself, but the idea of moving terrifies me. I’ll move to LA and my 2001 4Runner will break down and I’ll run out of money and be without a car and without a job and then without a home, and I’ll be fucking homeless on the streets of fucking Los Angeles, and nobody will know.
I guess this is being an adult, right? Who among us isn’t scared to death of something? Who isn’t whistling in the dark? Who doesn’t feel like an imposter sometimes? And despite the dread I’m not one to give up. I keep going, a bulletproof weeping android, plowing along, taking frequent breaks to dull his existential pain with doses of baking shows.
(I started cooking for myself. And I’ve written five pages of my book again. But enough on that.)
I’m lonely but my life doesn’t suck. I have a couple of good friends here on the East Coast. Sometimes I get to see them. I drive home from my job at UMass and the radio plays pop songs that make me cry, and the crying is real and true and I cry and crave more connection, and I make it home to my little dog, who stands up on her back legs and waves her front paws at me as I call her Little Girl and close in for a hug.
It’s been a while. I’ve been busy climbing out of that mile-deep hole I fell into when I found my father’s incest stories on a website and kind of lost my mind.
I’ve moved yet again, out of Boston, to the town of Easthampton, in western Massachusetts. It’s in the Pioneer Valley with a bunch of other cool towns, and five colleges like Amherst, Smith, and Hampshire. A pretty progressive area with a lot of lesbians, a few gay dudes, and many transgender folks as well. I finally have my own place, a huge loft in a converted factory.
I work from home for the world’s largest online retailer, on a project that I can’t even talk about. That makes it sound much more interesting than the reality. Best part of the job is the company of my chihuahua.
I joined a writer’s group through Amherst Writers and Artists and have been working on a new project that I’m kind of excited about. I’ll keep you updated here. I’m sober, going to meetings, and trying to make friends here, which is not a simple process in New England. Wish me luck with that.
I’m horrified by what’s happening with our country, terrified of what is to come, yet hopeful that we can mobilize resistance. I’m hopeful that on a personal level, the next year will treat me better than the last couple of years have. I’ve got my feet under me now, and I’m wishing you a Happy New Year.
In the end it was a clean sweep. Five schools, five rejections. A bitter pill for a guy who’d always figured out how to earn an A.
They never give you their reason, though, so I was left with a bunch of presumptions. The only one that made any sense is that the schools didn’t like the ten-year gap between master’s degree and the phd application, a gap in which I was dealing with batshit family trauma and actively trying to stay alive.
I’m tired of counting the costs of depression. It’s taken nearly everything from me. But I’m still here – words I had tattooed on my left arm as a reminder to myself of that mysterious accomplishment.
So good bye to that little daydream of academia. I have no interest in hanging around knocking on a closed door. I’m left with plan B; find a job that doesn’t suck in a city that I like. I miss California, and though I’ll never be able to afford another modest home on the gleaming hills of San Francisco, there are still cities in the southern half of the state where a writer could eke out a living.
But moving from Boston takes cash, of which I had none. I quit working with dogs because dogs just don’t pay. While scraping the bottom of the money barrel I got recruited on a six-month contract to work for the world’s largest online retailer, on a project I can’t even disclose.
Mostly a remote job, which the Little Girl loves because she gets to sleep in the gap between my calves as I type away on the bed. Two days a week I go into the office and work alongside a bunch of other nerdy English and Linguistics majors. I enjoy their company, and find I need my bunker less these days, even though I spend 90% of my free time there. I guess that’s progress.
I’ve had insomnia since leaving Portland, and am possessed by nightmares in which I’m rejected by family or my ex-husband, over and over, most nights. Some of the nightmares are so real I find them tough to shake. I carry them through the following days.
While waiting to hear back from the grad schools I submitted excerpts from my book to a slew of literary magazines, something I hadn’t tried in years, and then collected a slew of rejections.
Out of forty submissions I got one acceptance, a couple of finalist awards for contests, and five or six near-misses, where they tell you they like your writing, would like to see more, but not this particular story, please. A pretty standard writer’s haul. The trick is not to fight the misery of rejection. The trick is to revel in it. The trick is to endure.
I’ve been slowly working on restoring my archives. At one of the nadirs of the brutal fog my site got hacked and gutted and I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to figure out backups or restoration.
I underestimated the challenge ahead of me. Never mind the tedious cutting and pasting from the Wayback Machine, the downloading and uploading of photos, the fixing of links.
That was cake compared to the posts themselves: I’m halfway-through my romance with the Fireplug. I restored the posts about our wedding, the photos, our vows.
I wrote our vows and the one that I always remember, the one I keep coming back to, is I will never give up on you.
I thought long and hard about those vows, and I thought long and hard about the one in particular. It’s not something I have a lot of practice with, in either direction. I had to ask myself if I really meant it, if I would never give up on him.
I did mean it, though in the coming years depression and PTSD proved too tenacious, and my marriage fell apart. But still I meant it. I probably still do.
The loss of it has staggered me. I miss my home so much that I turn my thoughts in any other direction. I am lucky, though, that I have one thing left I will never give up on.
It’s hard to give up on life and the possibility of human connection when people keep trying to help you. I’m humbled by you guys, especially – I have to say it – those of you who contributed money to me through PayPal. I tried to be all self-sufficient and turn down the offers, but in the end I really I needed help.
Portland hasn’t exactly opened its watery, mossy arms to me. I can’t find enough work here to pay the rent. I can’t even get a job interview. I don’t know if there are too many people moving here or what, but it seems like jobs and wages aren’t keeping up with the rents.
All this time on my hands, flat-broke and a stranger to this city. A new shrink re-diagnosed me with recurrent major depression – my old pal the brutal fog hasn’t really lifted in three years. She said that suicidal ideations are an indication that it’s been going on for a long time, and is nearing its logical conclusion.
So I’ve got a toolbox full of psych meds.
I needed something to pin my meager hopes on, something besides the prospect of another shitty, low-paying job that would merely get me by.
So I’ve spent the past couple of months pulling myself up through the fog by applying to Ph.D. programs in writing for next fall. I had a lot of time to think about the times when I felt most awake, most alive, and they’ve always been in academia. I like the life of the mind, and I think I could make a good professor.
In the meantime, though, I’m almost out of money. I’ve decided to leave Portland and accept my sister’s offer to live with her family in Boston, at least until I know if I’ve been accepted by any school.
Melanie is officially a step-sister, my mother’s partner’s daughter, but we’ve always been close and have grown closer over the past couple of years. I got to spend time with my niece during a recent visit. Agnes flew with me. It’s sweet having a tiny dog sometimes.
I think I’ll be a little happier with some family around me. I leave in a couple of weeks, and I think I have enough money to get me across the country in time for the New Year. Me and Agnes – road trip!
This is not the life I envisioned for myself. My checking account has a -$324.78 balance. My gas tank light is on and I can’t fill it until I get paid, which means I can’t sign up for shifts at the courier company I work for until I get paid on Tuesday, but that first paycheck may not even get me out of the hole, and rent is due on Friday.
I’ve had to ask for money from the man who asked me for a divorce. The rest of the money coming to me is tied up with lawyers. I’ve subsisted now for months on Ten-forTen-Dollars groceries. I’ve eaten canned raviolis for the first time since childhood. I make canned chili with rice several nights a week. I salt it heavily.
I made the humbling choice of looking into food stamps, though I’m told I’m paid too well to qualify.
PTSD has pushed me into a dark panicked corner. How can I be this broke working seven days a week? The math has defeated me. I’ve worked a long tangled string of entry level jobs so that I could write. But the 95%-completed-memoir I wrote was untrue, or missed an enormous truth, all to protect a man who never had my interest at heart. Or I worked a long string of entry-level jobs because I felt most comfortable aiming low. Or both.
I hate writing this. I hate how this could be used against me, but my only guiding star these days is the ugly truth, because that star shines on other men, trapped in their self-made bunkers, unable to trust in the love offered to them, nursing ancient wounds around which their entire lives have formed, like a tree absorbing a piece of broken fence.
They’re out there, dim stars in a black sky, solitary, gleaming, protecting their soft, faltering light.
Tomorrow I’ll shower the stink of this brutal fog off me, dress in clean clothes, and drive with my gas light on to the building downtown where I’ll begin to learn foreign languages that drive our devices and therefore our lives. In a few months I’ll take an internship, and this time next year I hope to have landed a job that will pull me out of this swamp.
I could fail. My fuzzy, addled brain, cluttered with the 24/7 fear intimately known by all men in bunkers, may fumble with these foreign languages. But it’s worth a shot. I don’t know how much lower I could go – I’d rather not find out.
You’ve hiked into the forest behind the house in Portland where you’ve crashed your deep space bunker, and now you’re exerting all of your facial muscles to perform the most common exercise known to modern man. This is your selfie. This is your smile.
You used to be sweet. Now you’re scary. That’s what they keep telling you. You frighten me, they say. You’ve left three jobs and three homes in the past year because you can’t keep it bottled. 44 years of rage uncorked, the vintage 1971 was a bad crop. Straight outta Oklahoma, you sad, scary hayseed.
The fucking bunker is failing. You watch astronomical amounts of television while playing match-three games on your phone just to keep the hate in check. You watch so much TV that you’ve run out of TV. You’ve watched it all. Congratulations.
You are a 44 year old
dog walker courier who’s about to lose his job. You’re scorched earth. You have nothing left but a 4Runner and a chihuahua named Agnes. You are such a fucking loser that you’re sucking up all the loserdom in the vicinity. You’re the kicked dog who keeps getting kicked simply because the last guy kicked you.
You’re in a strange city where the streets make no sense and the faces come out of the rain. Nobody here knows your name and you drive the strange streets thinking you could at any moment just disappear and would anyone hear that tree when it falls in the woods behind the bunker, over and over, a woods full of trees falling one at a time?
You think you’ve found a new Ground Control, you sit on his couch every Wednesday morning for 50 minutes trying to figure out if you could trust this one, if you could hear his voice as you drift through deep space, the only voice you hear now because you have successively shut everyone else out, even though you know that the one thing you need is the one thing you can’t accept – human connection. The only thing the kicked dog trusts is the kick itself.
You shield the world from your rage and at the end of the day you’re spent, a skinless man with bundled, singing nerves in the dark of the back bunker, the most farthest deepest room back there at the back. You hold the chihuahua to your chest, both of you fetal, and you keep checking to make sure she’s still breathing.
You know the only thing that will save you, if you can’t accept human connection, is this. Putting words together even if your head is fully occupied by OCDish snatches of pop songs you’ve heard on the radio. Put the words together somehow. But don’t fucking put them here. Put them here and you’ll never get hired again. Put them here and the only humans who will connect will be the other freaks. Don’t do it. Don’t hit [publish].