From our dysfunctional family to yours.
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.
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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.