Archive for the ‘fireplug’ Category

Blue Jasmine, Blue Dylan

BlueDylanIn the usual media-churned-ocean of post-Golden Globes buzz, I stumbled across a tweet by Mia Farrow’s son, Ronan: Missed the Woody Allen tribute – did they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after Annie Hall?

That, in turn, led me to the recent Vanity Fair article about Mia and her children. The sordid Woody/Soon-Yi spectacle hit while I was in college and largely oblivious to pop culture. Until this morning I had no idea that Woody had been investigated for molesting another of his adopted daughters, Dylan, who would later suffer from crippling depression:

The depression lasted all through college, exacerbated to high decibels twice when Allen succeeded in contacting her, Dylan said. The first time, she was bringing the mail in when she found a typewritten envelope addressed to her with a postmark from London. It was shortly before her 19th birthday, in 2004. Mia also saw the letter. According to Dylan, it said now that she was 18 he wanted to have a conversation. He was willing to meet anytime, anywhere, and would send a helicopter for her. He allegedly said he “wanted to set the record straight about what your mother has told you. Love, your father.”

Three years later, during her senior year of college, she said, a large stuffed manila envelope arrived at the school. “I should have recognized the handwriting—I didn’t. It had a fake return name: Lehman.” Inside she found “a four-inch-thick explosion of pictures of me and him—pictures, pictures, pictures everywhere. Some had tack holes in them. There was never anybody else in the pictures—there was definitely a theme going on.” None of them was inappropriate, but “it was scary.” According to her, the accompanying letter read, “I thought you’d want some pictures of us, and I want you to know that I still think of you as my daughter, and my daughters think of you as their sister. Soon-Yi misses you.” It was signed “Your father.”

“How do your daughters think of me as their sister?,” Dylan wondered. “How does that work?” She told me, “I held it together enough to get back to my room, and for three days I didn’t move. I wouldn’t answer my phone or answer my door.” She asked her mother to call her lawyers, and they were told that this did not constitute harassment. (When asked about the letters, Sheila Riesel, Allen’s attorney, called it a “private matter,” adding, “This is a man who loves all of his children and should be respected for that.”)

So this really fucking creeped me out. Not the helicopter part. The part about the package with the photos and the letter that reiterated his claim on her as a father. Creepy because my own father, Hank the Blank, sent me a similar package this past September. Despite my best efforts, the occasion sent me into a suicidal tailspin.

Before today I was a mild Woody Allen fan. Willfully oblivious, I think, to his private life scandals. I loved, and maybe still love, some of his movies. But after today, well, my entire body shivers in sympathy-pain for Dylan. There’s no question whose version I believe. I’ll be spending my entertainment dollars on other stories, with no regret.

Like me, Dylan later found a savior in a patient and compassionate husband. I hope one day to be a little less broken, so that I can give and receive the love that we humans need in order to deal with life on planet Earth.

 

A Message from the Minor Chord

LiftoffI am an astronaut.

I’m an astronaut without a mission.

I type these words on the only working console in the dim-lit, womb-like control room of the space station Minor Chord, circling an unnamed moon of an unnamed planet in an uncharted galaxy.

Hello.

I await my orders.

I was never like other boys. I never wanted to be an astronaut. I was always too afraid of this world, let alone any others. I was trained and selected for this mission without my knowledge. I went to sleep in my own bed, beside my husband. I woke up here, out here, alone, save for the chihuahua that we’d rescued from the streets of central California. My husband brought her home and we named her Agnes of Bakersfield. Apparently she was selected for the mission too. Or she selected herself.

She took to me immediately, followed me around our house back in San Francisco. (When I type the words “San Francisco” I have to close my eyes and steel myself against the longing.)

Agnes now follows me as I pace the long empty corridors. The lights flick on and off automatically, marking our progress. She’s my sole companion. Agnes curls up at my chest at night, a small, soft source of warmth. When she curls up she makes a noise that kills me. It’s the noise of surrender, the noise of a creature who feels safe.

I want to cry when I hear that noise. I do not feel worthy of such trust. But I’m unable to cry. This is an issue that I would like to rectify.

Before bed each night I talk to my husband through the video screen in the control room. His image flickers and his voice comes to me across a hundred trillion miles, full of space dust and distortion.  I’m an astronaut who nearly failed high school physics, and every night I smack the side of the monitor. My husband continues to flicker. I’ve put in a work request through the proper channels but my anonymous employer has yet to reply.

“When are you coming home?” my husband used to ask. A year later he no longer asks. Still he remains optimistic. He tells me that all of this is a temporary setback. He tells me to be patient.

Every three weeks I’m allowed a twenty-minute video conference with my appointed psychiatrist. She has dyed hair and tattoos and a statue of Buddha on the shelf behind her. I’d like to think that in real life we’d be friends. I’ve asked her where she lives, where she speaks to me from, but she always deflects my attempts. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself instead,” she says. A stopwatch on the margin of the screen counts down our remaining time. Seventeen minutes. Twelve minutes. Three.

“I feel like a ghost,” I tell her. “I feel like I’m already dead.” She makes a note on her pad.

Drones deliver my new medications, along with boxes of Triscuits, Life cereal, and countless packets of Crystal Light.

I would like to be a Buddhist. I’ve read about and thoroughly understand the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of meditation but can’t stand being alone with my thoughts – I’ll do anything to distract myself from my own head.

Sometimes after my psych appointments I scroll through the medical records to which my anonymous employer has given me access:

  • ASYMPTOMATIC HIV INFECTION
  • HYPERTENSION (HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE)
  • GERD (GASTRO-ESOPHAGEAL REFLUX DISEASE) (HEARTBURN)
  • MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT

One day I log on to find that MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT has disappeared from my record. In its place is a new entry: CHRONIC POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER.

I scroll back and forth to be sure. It’s gone. Maybe you are only allowed one of the two.

For a few days my record is clear of MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT. I resolve to ask my psychiatrist about this, but keep forgetting. My short-term memory has been severely compromised. Another temporary setback, I hope.

A few days later the MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT appears again, above the CHRONIC POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER. I keep forgetting to ask what happened to it.

At night I climb into my bunk and roll onto my side. Agnes jumps in and curls up next to my chest. She makes that noise I told you about. I used to lay awake for hours, tossing and turning, always picking up the chihuahua with calm hands and placing her again at my chest. But a new medication arrived, and I fall asleep quickly now.

Who’s Your Perp, Bro?

Worse…

…………….gets worse…

…It gets worse before…

……………………………….it gets better.

I heard these words as I fell – an astronaut sucking on a near-empty oxygen tank

plunging down a rabbit hole.

flyingsoldiersWho said them? I can’t remember. Ground Control, maybe, on whose couch I’d been riding for 60, then 90 minutes a week, spilling my guts for the discounted rate of six 20-dollar bills, which I’d remove from an ATM up the street on Castro before each session, later ducking into Walgreens for a Cherry Coke Zero, all the while feeling like someone behind me was getting set to toss a grenade at me. Do people get grenaded on Castro Street? I mean literally grenaded? No. But reason couldn’t touch me in those days, just after I’d found the father-son-incest-erotic-skincrawling-get-the-fuck-away-from-me stories on the fucking internet.

Grenades at work, grenades on Market Street, grenades on MUNI. They were all flying my way, the poor astronaut in a sweat-soaked business casual shirt. More than once Ground Control found me hiding in his waiting room a good 90 minutes before our session. I’d wave my iPhone at him, ear buds firmly in place, as I pretended to rifle through my bag. “Don’t worry, plenty to do here, I know when our session starts! Haha!” Truth was I just felt safer in there.

…gets worse…

Maybe I heard those words from some other poor rabbit-hole-plunger, one of the shut-in dudes I’d chatted with in online forums where those of us in various stages of the shut-in process hung out, dudes who spoke their own shared language, using words like perp, as in, “Who was your perp, bro? Mine was my uncle.” Or simply letters. for therapist. As in, “My t tells me it gets worse, bro, before it gets better. Meanwhile my disability is about to run out.” I got pretty good using bro in a sentence without irony.

I kept falling. I told Ground Control that I couldn’t remember what a feeling felt like. He eventually figured out that me getting molested by Hank the Blank at the age of nine was merely one event in a chaotic childhood. That my favorite childhood memories were the ones where I was alone. That all I felt growing up was lonely and that today I only felt empty. That I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t focus, couldn’t get my work done at work, couldn’t write, couldn’t find the word for..for…fuck it.

But I could talk on his couch, that much I could do. For 90 minutes I’d fill that oxygen tank and hope it would last me the remaining 6 days, 22 hours and thirty minutes…

Then a package arrived from my father.

I had a feeling. I just knew he would send me something. “How did you know?” asked Ground Control, after the fact.

“I just sensed it coming.”

Hank the Blank had disregarded my plea to leave me in peace for the rest of our lives, and sent me a package that contained everything, he said in the accompanying letter, that he could find in his “Mike File.” Old family photos, graduation ceremony programs, newspaper clippings. He told me he thought I might want these things, as if what he were giving me was a gift, though it felt like a sucker-punch. Here’s everything I have of you. I don’t want it.

The rest of the letter was such a masterful example of…what’s the word? I can’t…can’t… fuck it, here’s what he said:

1.  Hank the Blank was in a lot of pain because I no longer wanted to talk to him, and he really wanted me to know exactly how much pain he was in, and how all of it was my fault.

2. He would like to have a relationship with me, but only if I agreed to “shield” him from my anger.

3. He and my stepfather were getting married in the spring, and all the family would be there, but I wasn’t invited unless I could agree to number 2 (see above).

4. He hoped my therapist would help me see the “big picture,” a.k.a. all the things he had brought into my angry, ungrateful life aside from child molestation.

5. He assumed that I no longer expected to be included in their will. In either case, he and my stepfather agreed that I shouldn’t be “rewarded” for blogging about this very delicate matter, which I had entirely misconstrued and then advertised to the internet.

6. No matter what I said or did, he’d still be my father.

Yeah, so.

I’d like to say that I was all like, psssht, no sweat off my…don’t let the door hit you in the…

And maybe I pulled that off for about 48 hours. But I kept falling

…faster now…

Couldn’t think for shit at work. Sat paralyzed at my desk, as if I getting up and moving would lead to my death. Sometimes got up and moved and didn’t die but found an empty office, closed the door, barricaded it, turned off the lights, and lay on the carpet for two hours.

Went home at night on BART checking my six for grenade-tossers, the Fireplug still at work, locked the front door behind me, climbed the stairs, took the dogs out back to pee, then back upstairs, into the bedroom, closed the door, pulled the blinds, lay in bed getting kissed by dogs, flipped on Netflix streaming and watched docs about soldiers coming home all fucked up from Iraq.

Then one morning I pulled myself out of bed and emailed work and said that I couldn’t come in for a while, I wasn’t sure how long. And for the second time in a year I went to Kaiser and told them that despite my totally amazing husband and my loving dogs, and my house, and my friends, and my punch card at the pharmacy, that I couldn’t stop thinking about ending it all.

F*ck Forgiveness

Less than 24 hours after reading the stories promoting incest that my father Hank had spent the last three years writing and posting to the internet, I got stuck on the rock of forgiveness.

I’d swallowed the pop culture definition, in which my future happiness and security depended upon extending forgiveness to the man who’d molested me as a kid. Hank the Blank, the same man who then, thirty years later, attracted thousands of fans with stories in which young boys were always eager participants in acts that made my skin crawl to read.

If I wanted to be a wise, sober, evolved person, I must forgive. If I wanted liberation from suffering. If I wanted to be a good man.

I went there immediately. I went there first. And it felt fucking horrible.

Then I read Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery, and I came to this passage:

Some survivors attempt to bypass their outrage altogether through a fantasy of forgiveness. This fantasy, like its polar opposite (revenge), is an attempt at empowerment. The survivor imagines that she can transcend her rage and erase the impact of the trauma through a willed, defiant act of love. But it is not possible to exorcise the trauma, through either hatred or love. Like revenge, the fantasy of forgiveness often becomes a cruel torture, because it remains out of reach for most ordinary human beings. True forgiveness cannot be granted until the perpetrator has sought and earned it through confession, repentance, and restitution.

It was only when I read that passage that I felt something like liberation. That I got unstuck. For 31 years I’d tried to be a good boy. I’d crammed 98 percent of my feelings into the farthest darkest corners of myself.

I honestly couldn’t answer Ground Control when he’d ask me what I felt about something. Here I was, the “sensitive” kid, the “sweet” man, and I had no fucking clue what I felt.

“I know depressed,” I told him.

“That’s not a feeling,” he said.

Shit, I thought. I had 31 years of feelings to vent. 31 fucking years. I better start now.

I once remarked to the Manly Fireplug that I had a lifelong attraction to bad boys. Friends or lovers, it didn’t matter. I liked the boys who could tell the world to fuck off.

“That’s cause you’re a bad boy,” he said. It was one of those ah-ha moments. But that was a few years ago, and I stayed stuck on the rock.

After I found Hank’s stories and lost my mind, after I bought a knife for self-protection and positioned myself so that nobody, nowhere, was behind me, so that I could watch everyone and suss out their motives, after I tore Hank the Blank a new one over the phone, after I came home from work every night drenched in my own sweat, after all of that, I gave myself permission to be angry, petty, sullen, and stubborn. I dropped reasonable, diplomatic, and forgiving. I wouldn’t torture myself in the pursuit of “fairness.”

I told myself that if I fucking wanted to say fuck on Dogpoet, I’d fucking do it.

Sometimes a well-meaning person tells me I need to forgive. That it’s the key to my happiness. And sometimes it feels like a cobweb on my face that I just brush off. And sometimes it feels like control, like Hank the Blank himself is imposing his will, trying to bend me to his own fucked-up purpose, and I can’t get away from that person fast enough.

Look, I get it. We don’t want to see people we like suffering. We want to imagine that there could be a tidy resolution to pain, and we gently push our loved ones in that direction.

But there’s nothing tidy about child abuse. There will never be a day in my life that I won’t be affected by it. It’s fucking family. It’s primal. It’s everything. It cuts deeper than anything else, working its way into our marrow. We don’t “walk away” from it. We can’t.

I tried the tidy resolutions and the peremptory forgiveness. I tried whiskey, and meth, and Manhunt, and Playstation, and shoes, and gardening. I got snatches of songs stuck in my head every waking moment for over a year because I couldn’t handle hearing my own thoughts. That way doesn’t work. That way ends with the razor and the gun and the rope.

Look, Hank the Blank isn’t contrite. He doesn’t get it. “It was only an hour of your life,” he told me. Four months ago he made me a promise that he’d seek therapy. I knew it was empty, and I was proven right. Hank the Blank doesn’t deserve forgiveness.

That doesn’t mean that I’ll lug his crap around forever. Four months later I feel less burdened, not more so, because I cut ties with him and decided not to forgive. I’ll feel what I need to feel, once I figure out what a feeling is. I’ll save my love for the people who deserve it.

The Six-Hundred and Eighty-Four Cents (After Taxes) Bionic Man

6MillionDollarManSpent the morning plugged into a treadmill at Kaiser in an effort to find out why I haven’t been breathing like my old self. Electrodes and wires dangling everywhere. Have they made bionic lungs yet? Are they covered? Will people make fun of my now-patchy chest hair?

While not breathing, I started thinking about stress, which, you know, kind of defeats the purpose. Thinking about stress convinced me that I was suffering a heart attack on Saturday.

“Do you want me to take you to the ER?” asked the Fireplug.

I paused from checking my pulse for the seventh time and whispered, weakly, “Let’s finish this episode of Southland first.”

I crossed a sort of threshold over the weekend, where I stopped looking at stress as a modern badge of honor. I suppose not breathing will convince anyone to entertain the ludicrous idea of slowing down.

When anyone asks me what I’m going to write next, after this family memoir that’s swallowed nine years of my life, after PTSD and therapy and suicidal ideations, I joke that I want to write fiction so that I can just make shit up.

After I finished writing and posting A Story About a Very Bad Thing, my excitement for the idea of fiction began to build. Frankly I didn’t know if I had the correct amount of perspective anymore, after the batshit craziness of the past four months, to finish the memoir. And starting a new project might actually make finishing the first book easier, by redistributing some of the obligational weight.

I sat with the idea for a couple of weeks, to make sure it wasn’t just another compulsive distraction that I regularly cook up to keep me from dealing with Oh-God-My-Family-Is-So-Fucked.

And once I started thinking about the new book, and scribbling down some ideas, I realized that fiction would allow me to confront the batshit craziness, but in a metaphorical kind of way that felt liberating. And then, strangely enough, and for the first time in months, I started to actually feel better.

So starting tomorrow I’ll be posting the (nice and short) chapters from my new novel online. SUICIDE SKIN is a thriller about a girl, a monkey, and an alien invasion. My goal is to write a darkly engaging page-turner. Or screen-scroller. Or, well, you get my drift.

I should add that I’ve written exactly one chapter so far. It’s my goal to post as I write, a prospect that pretty much scares the living shit out of me, and so it kind of negates the whole liberation-from-stress angle. But maybe, if I can push past the need for polished perfection, I’ll get back to liberation. It’s supposed to be a thriller, after all.

As for posting it free online, well, why the hell not? Publishing is all kinds of fucked right now, I’m writing to save my life, and in the process I hope to entertain you.

Spammed to Pieces

Wrote my post yesterday about going in for an upper G.I. endoscopy, hit “publish,” then watched as my entire blog disappeared.

“You ready to go?” asked the Manly Fireplug.

“Um…”

“Um what?

“My blog is gone.”

“You have surgery.”

“But my blog is gone.”

He talked me into the car, though I brought my laptop and attempted to find my blog again in the waiting room. Also in the surgery prep room. No luck. I woke up about an hour later with a two-page print-out:

You have mild inflammation in the stomach, the esophagus (where you swallow) looked very inflamed and there was a small ulcer at the bottom of the esophagus as well.  You have a hiatal hernia, a benign condition that may predispose to reflux disease.  A biopsy was taken.  I will notify you of the result in 4-10 days.

I waited around for someone to wheel me down to the lobby to meet the Fireplug, but eventually I got bored and walked down on my own.

“Are you in pain?” the Fireplug asked in the car.

“No. But my blog is still gone.”

Back home I ate for the first time in 20 hours and attempted to find my blog. Chalk this up to another consequence of depression: hackers will infiltrate your site via old plugins and third-party software that you just don’t have the energy to update.

16 tedious, screen-squinting hours later, I got my blog back. Hi!

Also I was right about an upper G.I. endoscopy having nothing to do with Channing Tatum.

A Story About a Very Bad Thing (Part 3 of 3)

Dead-Space-3-Isaac-Floating2

(Part 1) (Part 2)

The little boy stayed up too late one night in front of the TV, transfixed by a movie about pod people –  emotionless replicants taking over the planet. Humans could only escape detection by walking around, stiff and flat and drained of emotion. This terrified the boy, who’d always been one big ball of emotion – sensitive, they said. Thin-skinned. How could one survive a world stripped of feeling? Where the hint of emotion made you a target? Where someone you loved could be replaced by an alien hostile to love or tears? Every night for the next month, and for years afterward, he had nightmares about replicants coming for him.

***

The man now leaves the train, his entire body shuddering from feelings he can neither name nor control, and the center he’s trying so hard to maintain breaks open as he drifts up San Jose Avenue, and noises come out of him, animal, primitive sounds of a very old pain.

In the safety of his house his dogs, alarmed by his noises, climb all over him, pushing him to the ground, where they lick the hot, stupid tears from his face.

* * *

The next night he and his husband drive to their regular 12-step meeting. The man sits hunched over in a metal folding chair in the back row, silent, a dull, brutish anger pulsing within him. It moves through him like a virus, infecting every organ, every nerve ending, every cell. The meeting is meant to keep him steady and sober and true, but he’s no longer there. He’s infected with a rage, and to protect his husband and the friends around them, he leaves his metal folding chair and tries to cool his flat, hot skin outside, in a courtyard, sitting in the dark on a bench.

He feels the full deep sickness of his family. He comes from sickness, and he sits, sick, in the church courtyard, scared of himself. He needs to throw a punch.

The man pulls out his phone and texts Hank the Blank.

I read your stories. Fathers and sons having sex?? Barbers?? Why the fuck would you think that I would want to read that shit? You are not human. You are the most selfish man I have ever known. You are sick. You will never be my father. We’re done. I am through keeping your secrets. I am through paying the price for your actions.

He hits “send,” and feels the rage within him dim, leaving him heavy and sad and cold on the bench. His husband finds him and together they drive home.

The next day on the train after work he reads the email his father has sent him:

1.  I accept the fact that my stories are not your cup of tea, but they have been widely praised by thousands of readers in the past three years, including many well-educated, well-adjusted people whom I’ve come to know and admire, including other more experienced writers.  Far less than 1% of the feedback I’ve gotten has been negative, and certainly none as vicious as yours.  It was uncalled for.

 2.  They are fiction.  In 12 stories there is only one instance of actual father-son sex, which I don’t endorse and which had nothing remotely to do with you.  Even famous authors write about things they would never personally engage in (murder comes to mind as one obvious example).

 3.  Yes, some of my earlier stories lacked maturity and the best of taste, but there’s long been a noticeable shift to ones that now focus on adult relationships, feelings, and upbeat endings.  Yes, there is sex, but sex is a normal human function.

 4.  I think you are a  first-class hypocrite for complaining about my little web stories, for which I get no compensation and write only for adults who choose to come to that site.  For years now you’ve been immersed in writing a non-fiction account about the foibles of the people who raised you and expecting someday to get money and adulation for it.  Maybe it was cathartic for you to write it, but it’s hurtful to many of those you have written about, including your mother who isn’t even around to agree to it or defend herself from your less-than-gracious portrayal of her.  And you have the nerve to call ME sick!  If you’re such a great writer (and you are), why don’t you write a novel instead and leave your family out of it?

 Your beef with me feels like something much bigger than my stories.  Talk to your counselor about it, but keep the above points in your mind when you do, because there are always two sides to any story.  Then I would ask that you take a few months to think it over before burning any bridges or inflicting unnecessary pain on anyone.  I can take anything you throw at me, but I’m not taking sole responsibility for this.  It takes two to make a relationship work, and I don’t think you’ve done your share.

Rage again possesses him. He flies off the train and up the hill, blowing through the front door like a bullet. His husband is there. The man calls Hank the Blank and puts him on speaker, because even now, with hundreds of miles between them, he fears his father, and right now, he fears himself even more.

And what comes out is a primal scream. He loses his mind. He screams the things the nine-year-old boy never could. He screams for every wasted year of his life, every twisted, balled-up feeling he shoved into every back corner of every internal organ.

The house rings with his screams. The dogs cower. He bawls, “Inward focused? Non-fiction? That was how I survived, you idiot. You made me that way. I’m your fucking Frankenstein.” The man is nine years old. He is 16. 28. He swings between demon and man.

“Stop screaming. You’re being irrational.”

“You’re a fucking psychopath.” The man has never, in his life, swore at his father.

“What do you want from me?” Hank says.

“I..I don’t…those stories…”

“They’re fiction. They’re fantasy.”

“THEY REALLY HAPPENED!”

“I wasn’t writing about you.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? A father and son naked in a fucking bathroom? You’re in so much fucking denial you don’t even know who the fuck you are!”

“I repeat, I wasn’t thinking about you…”

“I was your fucking son! You were supposed to fucking protect me!”

“…and the story about the barber – I wasn’t thinking about your husband -”

“Shut the fuck up!”

“I don’t know why you are so upset. The incident when you were nine years old. I didn’t plan it, it just happened. And it only took up an hour of your life.”

The man turns to his husband, who sits, crying quietly, on the couch beside him. “He doesn’t get it,” his husband says.

“What do you want from me?” Hank says.

“Nothing,” the man replies. “I don’t want anything from you.”

“Are you going to take this to a public forum?”

“Have a nice life,” the man says, then presses “End.” He sets his phone on the coffee table. Its screen is flecked with layers of dried spit. His clothes hang from him wetly. He’s hunched like a burned-out bulb.

“I’m so sorry,” his husband says.

***

Hank the Blank goes into damage control mode the next day, pulling his stories off the internet, and calling family members to corral their support. The man’s brother calls him that night. “I just talked to Hank. I’ve never told you this, but he did it to me, too.”

They talk long into the night.

***

The man searches and, after some trial and error, locates assistance. Once a week, after work, he sits on a couch in an office of a stranger, above Castro Street, staring at the Chagall print hanging on the opposite wall, and talks to this stranger. A figure in the Chagall floats near the top of the frame. Chagall liked floating figures.

The man tells the stranger that he feels like an astronaut. He tells him that his father, Hank the Blank, comes from another planet, and that the man feels at home neither here nor there. He’s floating, drifting, untethered, with a dwindling tank of air, hovering over a planet that talks about karaoke and Frappuccinos. He’s an alien.

The stranger calls the Minneapolis Police Department, and a detective there tells him that the statute of limitations has long passed, and there is nothing they can do about what happened to the man when he was nine years old.

The stranger asks the man if he believes that Hank is an immediate danger to anyone else. To other children?

“I don’t know,” the man says. “He’s a fucking replicant.”

After a few weeks the stranger has gained his trust.

I call him Ground Control.

I tell Ground Control that I don’t understand the things that are happening to me. I’m afraid all the time. I don’t trust anyone. I panic on BART. “I bought a knife,” I say. “For self-protection.”

“Your father is in Arizona.”

“I’m not scared of him,” I say. “But I ignored my gut and I trusted him, for the last ten years, and look what he did. If he could do that, what are strangers capable of?”

I’m terrified of Facebook, where psychopaths can more easily disguise themselves.

After work I return to the house I bought with Joe – I return to my haven. I close the bedroom door, shut the blinds, swallow my evening meds, and I lie in bed with the dogs breathing beside me. I watch Netflix streaming. I watch documentaries about soldiers coming home from Iraq. Soldiers hiding in their bedrooms with their guns cocked.

I am deeply fucked.

I find an online forum for men who endured childhoods like mine. I talk to other grown men whose lives have narrowed as they aged. Men who can no longer hold a job. Deeply fucked men. Some of them are all alone, in their houses, in their rooms. Talking, at least, to each other, typing on their keyboards and hitting “Send.”

Joe comes home and sees the closed blinds and says, “Bad day?”

I tell Joe that I know that I’m lucky to have him, that someday soon I hope to be a partner to him again.

In addition to the Ke$ha songs and the knife-wielding clowns filling my head, a courtroom trial runs there, and every day I flip between prosecution and defense, running down the list of evidence against my father, trying to determine if breaking off contact was the right thing. How will I feel when he’s on his death bed?

I don’t know why he wanted me to read those stories. Even if I wanted to ask him, I couldn’t trust his answer. I can’t trust that he knows even his clearest motives.

I think about fiction, and fantasy, and memoir, and how Hank and I’d hurt each other with our stories. Hank the Blank had feared my nonfiction, for good reason, and Hank’s fiction had been anything but, at least to me. I try to inch down the hall of mirrors, puzzling over fiction and nonfiction, but my head quickly grows weary and confused.

They have power, don’t they? Stories still have power.

The truth has a current, and I’ve spent eight years and nineteen drafts rowing upstream. I wrote a book that was lighter than the truth, wanting something madcap and funny, wanting to entertain with a story about a Modern Family full of same-sex love. I’d set out to write the truth, but I’d left out one crucial bit, to protect Hank, ending up with a book that I couldn’t, in good conscience, release into the world. I’d written the wrong book, and it had nearly killed me.

Eight years and nineteen drafts later, I give up. I throw my paddle into the water and let this boat drift with the current.

Fuck it, I say. I’ll write a book about a deeply fucked family –  to give comfort to the deeply fucked reader.

(Part 1) (Part 2)

A Story About a Very Bad Thing (Part 2 of 3)

PTown1

(Part 1) (Part 3)

A few days after his visit to the emergency room, the man and his husband decide to go through with their honeymoon plans, and they spend a week in a small, popular seaside town on the East Coast.

The man’s hoping the trip will distract him from the 3-week wait for his first psychiatric appointment at Kaiser, but by the second day, he and his husband are counting the minutes till home. It rains every day, which the man doesn’t mind, because he can’t leave the cottage for more than a few minutes at a time. He finds the town, even now in the off-season, claustrophobic. The glut of tourists exists solely to scrape his skin down to the bone, and the shops and the restaurants are gaudy and noisy and he returns to the cottage with snatches of songs stuck in his head, so that for the next 24 hours, every waking moment features a running loop of Ke$ha:

Ain’t got a care in the world but got plenty of beer…

“My brain is eating itself,” he tells his husband. He offers this in a quiet monotone, the most words he’s mustered all day. He’s grown thick-headed and stupid, his voice trailing off as he searches for common words, so that what actually comes out is, “My brain is eating…” Eating what? What was that word?  Over the past year his head has felt like an abandoned carnival taken over by knife-wielding clowns.

Ain’t got no money in my pocket but I’m already here!

His husband grows restless in the cottage and decides to brave the rain for an hour or two. The cottage is charming and adorable, an A-frame with skylights and exposed rafters just a few feet from the beach. Every time he shuts the door behind him, the husband hopes he won’t come back to find the man hanging from the rafters.

The man has the same thought when he looks up at the rafters, though he and his husband don’t discuss it at the time. The man thinks about one of his favorite writers, who ended his life in that exact way just a few years before. The man has brought that writer’s biography with him on the trip, a gesture that even he, in his present state, admits might seem foolish.

Ptown2But for a few days the man is able to read about the writer’s life-long struggle with an illness the writer called the Bad Thing, a name that acknowledges the impossibility of articulating its utter horrors. When he reads the writer’s biography, the man feels a little less alone in his insanity, though the end of the book is, of course, devastating, and reminds the man of the handful of times over the course of his life that he’s been this close to the Bad Thing.

The Bad Thing – accompanied all day by Ke$ha – tells him that his husband would be better off without him. His husband could mourn a little, then find himself a sane and confident new companion, preferably one with a well-paying job that includes dental and maybe even vision. His husband has told him that he couldn’t go on without him, and though the man doesn’t believe this, he acknowledges to himself that the Bad Thing can’t be trusted. So he turns on Playstation 3, which quiets Ke$ha, and allows him to make objective progress, racking up experience points as he rids a distant planet of evil.

* * *

A few weeks later, now more thoroughly medicated, the man feels the fog clearing. Every day he goes to work behind a capable facade, and having barely escaped death, he grows irritated with the Bad Thing, which has dogged him for so many years, and which has nearly cost his husband some happiness. The man is eager now to eradicate the Bad Thing, to dig out its roots, pile it up, and set the whole thing on fire.

The man keeps thinking about his father.

How can he describe to you his father? If his mother – dead now ten years – had been more than the sum of her parts, his father was less. How can he describe him? Take a man – now subtract something. That was his father. That was Hank.

Hank is a retired IRS auditor, living now in the Arizona desert with his gay lover. The man has always described Hank as the most practical person he’s ever met.  The man’s brother often has a better way with words:

“He’s got the personality of a calculator.”

Hank the Blank, the man called him privately, the blankness not only a reference to his father’s flat personality, but to the void that the man feels within himself whenever he sees him.

The man has never in his 42 years reconciled in any sustainable way the things Hank the Blank had done to him when he was still a boy. Ten years ago he’d made a veiled reference to it on his brand-new blog, which Hank the Blank found quite easily a few months later. Hank the Blank had fired off an email from his computer at the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, D.C., demanding to know just what the man meant by the veiled reference.

“Okay,” the man thought, “Let’s do this.” In clear language the man set down, in his reply, a detailed account of his memories.

Hank the Blank wrote back: “I’d like to continue this discussion from my personal email account at home.”

Over the next several days, in a dozen emails, they discussed what Hank the Blank had done to him. And after the man had backed Hank the Blank into a kind of virtual corner, his father kind of, sort of, apologized.

The man, a member of both contemporary culture and a 12-step alcohol/drug recovery program, felt enormous pressure to cave into prevailing and conventional notions of forgiveness. The man felt that he could not be a good, spiritual, evolved person unless he forgave Hank the Blank. So he did. Or rather, he thought he did. And for the sake of their improving relationship, the man ignored a great many things inside himself, such as the overwhelming urge to punch his father in the face every time he saw him.

* * *

And now, ten years later and more heavily medicated, the man keeps thinking about the last time he saw Hank the Blank, when Hank had told him that he’d spent some time following his recent retirement from the IRS (30 years, of course, with full pension) writing stories and posting them on the Internet, and that these stories had garnered Hank the Blank thousands of fans, who wrote him tens of thousands of emails full of praise. Hank the Blank told his son that he’d like to share these stories with him now, adding that the stories were posted on an erotic stories website, but that, “They were really about the emotional connections between the characters.”

Despite this emphasis on the emotional connection between the characters, Hank the Blank could see a kind of reluctance on his son’s face, and despite the fact that he’d always been rather creepy and clueless when it came to proper notions of sex and family, appeared now to hesitate, questioning – maybe – the wisdom of sharing erotic stories with his grown son.

“Perhaps another time,” said Hank.

The son, who’d been fighting the urge to punch his father and flee the state of Arizona for good, exhaled for the first time in ten minutes, and nodded his head in a show of compassionate understanding.

* * *

But during his most recent Battle of the Bad Thing, the man had dropped out of contact with everyone, including Hank the Blank. And Hank had begun to send him worried emails from a new account, the one he used to post the erotic stories to the Internet, the one he used to correspond with his thousands of fans. “You can write me here,” Hank the Blank assured him, in case there was something the man needed to say to him alone, something that Hank’s gay lover wouldn’t read.

Which meant that the man now has everything he needs to find the stories himself, which he knows he probably shouldn’t do, and yet which he can’t help but doing, one evening at work, after everyone has gone home for the day. And after a 6-second search on Google, the man finds what he’s looking for.

For the past three years, Hank the Blank has been writing dozens of stories for his thousands of fans, and the man begins to click and scroll through each one. The stories are all about incest. Father/son, uncle/nephew, brother/brother. Each story with a dozen or more chapters. Stories in which the boys are all eager participants in their own “awakenings.” Stories where a tender coming-out talk between father and son morphs, two pages later, into a steamy encounter in the shower. Stories that mirror what Hank the Blank had done to him. There are stories about a barber. There are stories about a character with the man’s own name, a character described as a “hot, hunky stud.”

Ain’t got a care in the world, but got plenty of beer…

The trembling begins in his head.  He shuts down the computer and drifts through the building and out onto the streets of downtown San Francisco, amid the rush of commuters, seeing everything around him in a great blur of color and noise, heightened and unreal, as if he were encased in a game on a distant planet, everything just out of reach. He is an astronaut, sucking down his last tank of oxygen as the aliens close in.

He makes his way to the train, and though he holds onto the handrail as tight as he can, willing his center to hold, his body betrays him, and the tremors now shake through every part of him, and the commuters around him begin to move away in fear.

(Part 1) (Part 3)

Shakespeare, Gray Hairs, and Peggy Lee

A week or so after moving into the new house, I stood in the guest bedroom, unpacking all of my books, when an enormous wave of sadness overtook me.

On one hand this was nothing new. In the days before, during, and after the move, more than once I stood in a room full of boxes thinking, “It can’t be done.” Also, “Why do I have so much shit?”

But this wave of sadness felt more pointed. If a wave can feel pointed. It was pointing me at something, but in my exhaustion it took me a few minutes to make out the direction.  In the middle of my alphabetical shelving, somewhere between Shakespeare and Sam Shepard,  I sat down on the edge of the bed. I didn’t wipe a tear from my eye.  I was too tired to cry. So I sat there looking at the books till it hit me.

I’d lost my way. I’d failed where those writers had succeeded. Each book was like a reproach. Concrete evidence of their drive and dedication, their private sacrifices. And me? I was 20 pages from the end of my own book. I’d been there for several months, after starting on the damn thing eight years ago.

I suppose I had an excuse or two. A new house. The arson. And I’d been working three jobs, two of which involved a great deal of writing, about a subject for which I’d had to feign great interest: marketing.

Don’t get me wrong. All writers could learn a thing or two from marketers. But each hour I spent thinking and reading about marketing were hours I couldn’t spend writing my book, reading my favorite authors, discovering new books, or figuring out how to be a better writer.

This is the great battle for all writers, since writing rarely pays the rent. A battle I’d been losing. I was tired and angry all of the time, pulled in a hundred different directions. My current freelance client had revealed herself to be a sociopath, happily devouring every hour my sweetness had offered her, and who’d paid me back with resentment.

Three jobs had meant more money, and the money had been good, and we’d just bought a house, and there I sat, in the new house, surrounded by boxes and not-crying, adrift from the thing that had given my life the most meaning.

That night, over dinner in our kitchen, with the oven and the lights shorting out from a faulty breaker, my husband listened to this familiar tale of woe, then told me the same thing he’d been telling me for months. And this time I heard him.

And though it made me anxious and nauseous, because it meant disappointing other people, whose interests I’d put ahead of my own, the next day I gave notice at two of the three jobs. I kept one, the job with the health insurance and the commuter check and the greatest number of hours, the job I could leave every day at the office. The job that involved no writing at all.

I’m writing this with a head full of cold medicine, which is making me self-indulgent. Or more self-indulgent than usual. The cold and other complications kept me out of Joe’s chair, which means I’ve gone a full two weeks since my last haircut. I know, it’s an atrocity. But in my slightly-longer sideburns I see more than a couple of gray hairs, and it’s this, I think, that finally allowed me to hear Joe’s advice about dropping the 2 jobs.

Because at the age of 41 I keep looking around and thinking, “Is that all there is?” Peggy Lee was before my time, but apparently the sentiment is universal. And in no way does this apply to my husband, or our pack of dogs, or the new house.

It’s the panicked, and yes, self-pitying cry of a middle-aged (yikes) man who’s worked a series of low-wage desk jobs and has a 98% finished book that scares him shitless, and who’s afraid he hasn’t made nearly the mark he’d like on the world.

The only way to answer that question is with action. So I dropped the 2 jobs and now, leaner and slightly less exhausted, I face the end of the book with less money and fewer excuses.

Of course I immediately filled some of this free time with another project. I caught the gardening bug. Again. Long story, but the new house has enormous outdoor potential, and I’m obsessed with making it pretty. Or prettier. Happiness comes from low expectations. Besides, on the spectrum of addictions, gardening feels slightly more productive than, say, crystal meth. Or Playstation 3.

Even without gardening, a new house is essentially four walls of endless projects. But the two weeks notice I gave the two jobs have passed, Joe’s Barbershop has opened again, and in fits and starts I’ve made a little progress on the book. Maybe Peggy Lee will quieten down for a little while.

The Right Direction, a.k.a. One White Dude’s Confession

About a week before we moved into our new house, some guy broke into a home about four blocks away and killed an entire family. I saw the headlines while, um, researching something online at work, then texted the Manly Fireplug.

“Five dead. But the paper says it took place in Sunnyside!” That would be the next neighborhood over from ours, and it was my attempt to inject lame humor into the mid-level anxiety we had about the location of our new home.

But a few days later I checked again, and now Wikipedia, our greatest repository of fact, called it “2012 Ingleside, San Francisco homicide.”  We consoled ourselves with the rumor that the killer already knew his victims, because frankly, it was too late for us to turn back.

I also consoled myself with other “facts.” The victims were Chinese. The suspect Vietnamese.

This post is taking me a long time to write, in part because it’s about my own racism, and I want to be rigorously honest.  I’d rather not do such a thing, so I keep clicking away to read about Cabin in the Woods and to shop for new shower caddies. And it’s taking me a long time to write because we’ve lived in the house all of 12 days, and my thoughts and feelings about my new neighborhood are muddled.

But hey, half-baked conclusions are what blogs are for, so away we go…

Ingleside is one of San Francisco’s more obscure neighborhoods. “You know, near City College,” I tell literally everyone when they give me that blank, where-did-you-move look. Located on the city’s southern edge, Ingleside has no distinguishing landmarks, and offers few results when typed into Google. It’s also one of the last affordable neighborhoods left in the city. If by “affordable” you mean single-family homes that sell for a half-million dollars.

One night, the week before we moved in, the Fireplug and I stopped by the house. We’d done this a few times, walking through the empty rooms and picturing our future. I think it’s what people do when they buy a house. I’d always drag the Fireplug into the backyard, which was surprisingly peaceful and offered a glimpse of the bay and the Oakland hills.

On this particular night, standing in the living room, we noticed a black couple coming out of the house two doors down. The woman turned to yell something to a man in their garage, then climbed into a car and drove off. The man in the garage turned on some very loud music, and left the garage door open for the next hour. The Fireplug and I looked at each other.

“You know our to-do list?” I said. “Let’s move double-pane windows to the top.”

Just now I could have called our neighbors African-American instead of black. I’m a writer; I understand the power of words. And there’s an unrelenting pressure to be politically correct, living in San Francisco, which black people are leaving in droves. At least I think that’s still the politically correct term. I’d ask my black friends what they preferred, but I don’t have that many. Which may be part of my problem.

I’m a researcher by nature, which I’ve realized from writing a 350-page memoir is probably due to a rather chaotic childhood and a deep aversion to surprise. I like to know what’s coming my way. Especially when I’ve just committed to buying my first house.

And so I went online and looked up census figures for the quarter-mile surrounding our new Ingleside house. And I focused my search on race. And that night I presented my findings to the Fireplug.

“Over the last eight years Asians have held steady at 50% of the neighborhood’s population,” I said. “Hispanics have dropped by 8%. American Indians dropped by 37%. Blacks dropped by 30%. Whites have increased by 23%. Oh, and people with graduate degrees grew by 110%.”

I want to be clear here. I wasn’t just reciting facts. I was offering proof that the neighborhood was heading in the right direction.

By “right” I meant “safer.” I’m not saying this was a rational act. I used percentages of racial minorities to try and ease my anxiety.

I like to think of myself as an open-minded guy, able to look past skin color to the individual blah blah blah. Nobody’s asked my position on the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman mess, but it’s hard not to have one in our echo chamber. I’d say that public rushes to judgment are usually ill-advised. Off the record I was leaning in my usual liberal direction.

It’s easy to think of yourself as open-minded about race when you spend 95% of your time in neighborhoods that are 95% white. But moving into what real estate agents call a “diverse” neighborhood had ripped open my broad-minded disguise to reveal something else underneath.

The day we moved in, the Fireplug stood out on the sidewalk, directing the movers to carry stuff either upstairs or downstairs, and I stood inside, directing them to the right rooms. The Fireplug and I have this running joke about his habit of talking to strangers, a habit (surprise!) I don’t share. After the movers left, the Fireplug told me that more than a few neighbors had stopped by to welcome us.

He already knew their names. Susan, the Asian woman in the bright orange house, who dressed to the nines even when walking her little dog around the block. Brian and Rick, the gay couple across the street, who’d moved into their renovated house with two adopted kids, and who literally cheered when the Fireplug mentioned that he had a husband, too. Carlton, the black man from two doors down, who sat with two other black men on lawn chairs outside the open garage, watching the afternoon drift by.  And Austin, the Chinese man next door, who was thrilled to hear that we owned and not rented, and who told us that yes, the residents of Carlton’s house often listened to loud music, but it never went late, and in fact they acted as the unofficial neighborhood watch. They knew who belonged on our street, and who didn’t.

In other words, the Fireplug discovered things that no census could reveal. And yes, I felt foolish. And relieved. And thankful for the Fireplug’s big mouth.

Today our house is half-rewired and half-unpacked, our windows rattle, the shower’s cramped, and our kitchen won’t be appearing in Elle Decor anytime soon. But the house gets a ton of light, and I like going home to it, to our three dogs and the big backyard. I like waking up with the Fireplug.

And in the evenings, after work, when I take the dogs on our comical, leash-snarling, hill-climbing walk, I try to meet the eye of everyone I pass. Some of them talk to me. Some of them glare. Sometimes I’m glad that one of our dogs is a pit bull. (He’s arguably the sweetest member of our pack, but strangers don’t need to know that.) Every time I step outside I’m conscious, in a way I never was in my last neighborhood, of my skin color.  That’s not a bad thing.

And in 12 days Ingleside has grown on me. Most of the houses are modest. There’s trash in some yards, neglected gardens, cars propped up on blocks, “Beware of Rotweiler” signs, and acres of peeling paint. There’s a house around the corner where a young man was recently killed. It’s boarded up, with a row of candles out front, and outer walls covered in his friends’ testimonials. He was described by reporters as an “aspiring rapper,” and the articles about him, lean on details, ran for a single day. I looked him up on Facebook. He was twenty years old, and his profile says, “Engaged.”

There are “nice” houses, too, probably owned by people who, like me, sometimes pick up a copy of Dwell. But it’s the other houses I like to look at, walking the dogs, or on my way to the BART station every morning. And this is the point at which words fail me, explaining why I like them so much.

Because every possible word (“Real?” “Honest?”) sounds patronizing, the words liberal urban white guys use to romanticize the fading parts of their neighborhoods. After paging through several dozen Dwell photo spreads, after the ubiquitous bowl of green “apples” and countless Keep Calm posters, I yearn to see something a little more alive. Ingleside – whose residents show evidence of caring about things other than minimalist design- feels quietly alive.

Last weekend the Fireplug’s sister came to town and helped us do some unpacking and painting. After our second trip to Home Depot, we came home with a weed wacker, which the Fireplug used on our entire, quarter-acre backyard of 18″ grass/weeds. He also wacked the weeds out front, and Carlton, who was entertaining a few friends with a barbeque outside his garage, ran down to say that he had saved a parking spot for us on the street. He could just move his car and it was ours, he said. His barbeque was loud, but it didn’t go late. None of his parties had gone late.

More than once, before our move, I’d found myself defending our new neighborhood in a half-joking manner, pointing out new development on Ocean Avenue. “Because what’s a better sign of gentrification than Whole Foods? Ha ha ha.”

But as the 12 days ticked by, my little census research left me feeling gross and increasingly uncomfortable.

It’s humbling to see myself as a cliche. A gay white man moving into a “fringe” neighborhood, fixing up his home, paving the way for others like him. I am part of the 23% surge in white people. Which, it stands to reason, means that I’m changing Ingleside.

If there’s justice in the world, though, Ingleside will change me, too.