Literary magazine River Teeth has published a very, very short, dark little essay/prose poem I wrote about working on a virtual voiced assistant from a major online retailer. “Talk to Her” is part of their Beautiful Things column that limits all essays to 250 words or less. It’s free to read and to leave a comment, if you’re into that kind of thing. My gratitude to the editors.
Agnes is thrilled, obviously, to announce that I have a short essay appearing in the new issue of Brevity. “How I Learned to Hide” is now online and free to read. Leave a comment, if you’d like, or skip the whole thing and take a nap. It’s still a free country. I think.
I’m very happy to report that I’ve had a couple more essays accepted by really terrific literary journals recently, and they’ll be published in the coming year.
2020 is a strange year.
From our dysfunctional family to yours.
My pal Tiny Dancer drove up from Providence and stayed the weekend. Saturday morning, after corrupting him with the best breakfast sandwich on the planet from Small Oven (dangerously close to my apartment in the Pioneer aka Genocide Valley), Agnes hovering at our feet for the inevitable rain of crumbs, we cruised up 91 and over 2 on our way to MASS MoCA. October leaf peeping and cultural field trip—two bugs, one windshield.
He played some 80s tunes with his Sirius subscription. We’d met three years ago when I’d crashed for a few months in my sister’s basement in Boston—he was my first New England friend, and we’d regularly drive the 90 miles between my town and Providence for weekend visits. We shared a love of dogs and Saturday night episodes of Dateline.
I told him that my first concert, back in Minneapolis, was Thompson Twins with opening act Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, circa 1985. That year I grew long blond bangs over one eye, and wore grungy, black, thrift-store clothes that didn’t meld with the overall Benetton ad of my high school, so I spent lunch hours hiding away from the Darwinian cafeteria tribes, till sophomore year, when some cool chicks in leather jackets and torn black leggings rescued me. We called ourselves, only half-facetiously, the Rebel Posse.
Tiny Dancer snapped this shot at a hairpin turn on route 2. I think I look old, but I guess I am old, and people seem to like the pic, or they “like” the pic, and the colors are pretty cool, so here.
Wikipedia calls MASS MoCA the largest contemporary art museum in the country, a rusted, renovated factory complex, a postmodern outpost in the Berkshire hills, near the Vermont border. I spent some formative years working at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (even won my first poetry slam there, ha ha), so common museum elements—flickering video in dark exhibits, somnambulant security guards, gift shop t-shirts, catalogs heavy with artworld jargon—made the whole trip feel kind of homey.
And fuck, I love October. I wish it would last six months. But I guess its brevity is what sharpens its bittersweet taste. I fell in love with October as a lonely, skinny kid in the suburbs of St Paul, a melancholiac drifting home solo from grade school, shuffling through leaves, smelling wood smoke, and finding a comforting warmth in preteen sadness. Shut up, I had my reasons.
The museum road trip was a bit of a symbolic gesture on my part. I’d landed in this valley at the long-sputtering tail end of a very long tailspin, and couldn’t quite pull myself out of the wreckage.
Instead, smoldering in its ashes, I’d taken daily inventory of all the ways I suffered here, compared to San Francisco.
Guys, I didn’t get cruised here for A WHOLE YEAR. I was an actual ghost. Humans walked through me. And when a guy on campus at UMass (where I worked for awhile) held my gaze and turned to watch me walk past, I was so startled that I smacked face-first into a door.
Between that, and the alienating, Christian-heavy leanings of local 12-step groups, and the long winters, and my inability to find work that would lift me above paycheck-to-paycheck existence, I resisted Genocide Valley. Like, picture me being dragged across the ground with my heels dug in.
Things began to shift when, instead of dropping local AA entirely, I supplemented it with a dose of Refuge Recovery, a program based on Buddhist principles. It’s currently caught up in some Me Too Movement fallout, and is quietly getting swapped throughout the country with other frameworks, but my long curiosity in Buddhism, and my increasing disbelief in an external, omnipotent god, found some solace and much food for thought there, as well as a place to practice some monkey-brained meditation every week in a room full of quiet, breathing, shoe-less folks.
I met a dude there I’ll call the Sinful Saint, a well-read, well-lived, intellectually voracious man who’d sit with me at meetings, drink coffee in Northampton, tea on my living room couch, and dig with me into our pasts, sitting in my car in his driveway as the frogs of the valley began to sing at night.
I told him the nickname was because he’d read through my blog and had texted me a line from a poem I’d forgotten I’d written:
The scattered collection of men have all had their hopes,
and, left alone, they have called themselves fools. Is that so
uncommon? Even saints dream of sin.
(In other words, I kind of made his nickname all about me. This is a recurring trait that is dawning uncomfortably on the horizon of my recent thoughts. I’m self-centered. Isn’t that what my father, Hank the Blank, once said? He could be both a narcissist and correct. That’s an entirely possible combination. In fact, they are probably connected. My excessive, self-referential introspection, which he hates, was my childhood strategy for survival. “Hello, Frankenstein,” I told him, once. “I’m your monster.” He was not amused.)
I’ve said here before that, following my split from the Manly Fireplug and my exile from San Francisco, my brain and body rife with fear, that the one thing I needed was the one thing I couldn’t sustain—human connection.
I’m a dude who wants to see himself as strong and solitary, but who desperately needs others to survive. It turns out that to endure Genocide Valley, I needed a pal.
The Sinful Saint took me to the top of a mountain. The mountain was next to my apartment. I’d lived in that apartment for three years, but that was my first journey to the summit. He began to chip away at my resistance to my locale, not through instructions but through companionship.
I left one job because it was a dead-end nightmare of bigoted dysfunction. I took a new job, my first job as a full-time professional writer, one that pays me a few dollars above paycheck-to-paycheck. Maybe someday I’ll have enough saved, for my vague plans to escape to an undecided city. Being a single gay dude here is like trekking with an empty stomach across a bleak and forlorn field to a hut built for one, leaning back in the howling wind.
Yeah, sue me—I’d like to be loved again.
But for now I have work—to squirm out of the wreckage and brush the ashes from my Adidas. To take a chihuahua for walks. To bench press steel plates. To calm the swinging monkey. To slip the armor of resistance and take scenic road trips to rural museums with good pals. To make the most of Genocide Valley, while I’m here.
Attention, fractured: modern condition. Default setting. After eight hours of copywriting/essay scrawling/texts/blogs/hookup apps my head’s swimming with words.
Red flags pop with the coupled rush of dopamine: someone’s thinking of/admiring/remarking on/updating/hating on/lusting after me. Little ol’ me.
Stop life, check phone.
In the balance of my happiness, what’s the ratio of external to internal validation? No wonder we Netflix and kill. Heads, deadened. End the night of a long hard day with a couch and a chihuahua.
I’m reminded, restoring those posts, of my long-held practice. Those close to me get nicknamed here. I can think of three who need immediate naming and the naming seems impossible. How do I sum up the whole of a multilayered pal? How do I top the Manly Fireplug? Truly inspired, that one.
Take several steps back to acknowledge one fact: three pals are good. Three pals are gifts. Three years ago when I came to this valley I had….not three.
One pal headed here for a weekend stay. A tour of autumn leaves (how middle-aged) and maybe a first visit, at last, to MASS MoCA. Jenny Holzer on exhibit! We are guileless in our dreams, she once wrote. I first found her in college in the library stacks. Abuse of power comes as no surprise.
Well, yes. Kurds now being killed, left swinging in the wind. Thanks, stable genius. Must be more of that 3D chess.
And my biggest problems? Vacuuming my apartment tonight and picking up hazelnut creamer for my unnamed pal.
Playing indoor fetch with Agnes. She has her pick of nicknamed pals: Mr. Monkeypants, Funny Bunny, Flatty Patty, and Chuckie Duckie. My home’s not aflame. Just a zoo.
Spent most of the weekend restoring a ton of blog posts that I’d lost a couple of years ago when, fueled by technical stupidity and impatience, I’d attempted an amateurish update to the template.
Guys, it was a lot of work. I’ve been blogging (admittedly off and on) for 18 years. EIGHTEEN YEARS. I am prehistoric. A dinosaur of vanity. Delusional in thinking that anybody would care about my thoughts on life, let alone 18 years’ worth.
And yet here I am. I don’t quite know how to do this, or why I’m doing it, despite 18 years of experience. I kept my mouth shut the past few years because life came at me hard and left me like a wounded deer limping through a Darwinian woods, my life razed to the ground and me, shoved down a hole with the depth and distortions of Wonderland.
(I haven’t lost my taste for melodrama.)
All of my thoughts were bleak and I couldn’t stick them on the internet. Someone would have called the authorities.
A guy I know, after scanning a couple of my posts last week, asked if I tended towards melancholia, and I spit out my coffee. Dude, that’s my default setting.
I look back at those posts—after hunkering all weekend in their moody climate—and I see a guy upon whom life hung a little heavy. 18 years of posts reveal patterns. Loneliness, addiction, terminal illnesses. Embarrassing—in retrospect—to see how I fawned over a Fireplug. How I still fall prey to unrequited blah blah.
Old patterns worn into the wood. Men and dogs. Dogs and men.
God, I wanted to delete half this blog. Sometimes for content. Sometimes for clumsy, pedestrian writing. Mostly for the unvarnished earnestness. But it’s like I struck this deal 18 years ago— a deal that nobody demanded—to keep it all up. A social experiment in voluntary humiliation. A Dear-Diary-I-think-he-likes-me-back for public consumption.
It’s a Monday in western Massachusetts. I hit the snooze button four or five times at dawn, dragged myself out of bed, made coffee, walked and fed Agnes. Showered, dressed, and packed a lunch. I drove 26 minutes through relatively light traffic to Springfield, to the job I’ve held for six months, where I wield words for a living. It’s my first professional writing job, and they seem to like me enough.
I still don’t quite know how I got here.
It’s been four and a half years since I left my life in San Francisco. And it’s only now that I’ve pulled myself out of the hole. Half-blind, unsteady. My beard turned gray.
And here I am again. Not sure what to do or what to say. A more guarded man than the 30-year-old boy who first strung the words “dog” and “poet” together on nothing more than instinct. Trying to build my world up again with words. Hanging them on the line for all to see.
Hello, I think. I think I’m here.
We at__________would like to express our appreciation for your hard work and dedication. As part of our efforts to attain the GREAT PLACE TO WORK® certification, we invite you to answer the following questions:
What are your favorite aspects of the job?
- The kitchen that is bigger than my apartment. The espresso maker that costs more than my rent.
- The half-and-half elf.
- The main switchboard elf.
- Working with words for a living because I actually suck at everything else.
- The gratification I feel when I type on the company-wide instant message app, and five seconds later hear 25 people bust out laughing at my perfectly-timed joke about gay firemen.
- My modesty and humility.
What are your least favorite aspects of the job:
- The brand-new, 2012-era interior decorating
scheme inhibits my
output sex drivecreativity.
- I am literally the only single person in the entire office. I’m not sad. You’re sad.
- Walking by my headshot every time I have to take a piss.
- The office Shih Tzu that doesn’t like to be looked at or touched. A dog that doesn’t like to be looked at or touched is a cat. Nobody told me we could bring cats to work.
- The cat’s owner, who regularly rushes out of the corner office to go on high-decibel, company-wide rants that I suspect are fully funded by Fox News.
What are the most humorous aspects of the job?
- The rich, white, straight Boss/ Fox News Anchor screaming at us that everyone in this country is treated exactly the same, i.e. everyone gets the same breaks in life regardless of color, gender, orientation, class, etc.
- The young blonde intern who just started, i.e. the boss’ daughter.
- You can be fired for being gay in 29 states. Evicted from your apartment in 31.
- Transgenders/military, gays/religious objections of healthcare workers, etc. etc.
- Since I had to leave my last job because of a co-worker who sent gay slur texts about me to other co-workers—a woman who once said she could never vote for anyone with the same genitalia as her own, and since I went to HR, and since that kicked off a months-long ordeal that ultimately led to our union protecting her job, and since I ended up feeling weirdly guilty about the whole thing, and since I’ve been at this new job for two months, and since 24 out of 25 people laugh at my gay firemen jokes, I feel obligated, out of self-preservation, to find the above
- When people tell me that Western Massachusetts is super progressive.
- Wayne in graphic design’s novelty ties are actually surprisingly funny.
We thank you for your contributions, and feel confident that they will help us attain the GREAT PLACE TO WORK® certification. Now that your 15-minute break is over, we invite you to resume your work, back in your windowless cubicle over by the copier, underneath the “Don’t count the days, make the days count” inspirational quote.
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.