This Actually Happened

“Doing this interview frightens me, but I believe that if something makes you feel that way, you should do it.” – Hilton Als

Oh, believe me, I was scared as shit.

In the wake of the release of my interview on the This Is Actually Happening podcast, I rode waves of pride, panic, shame, and reflection. An international audience now had access to my deepest (no longer) secrets and traumas, and I’d attached my name to the whole lot of them.

Although I’d written about most of them at one point or another, many times on this blog, this was a whole new level of visibility. At one point I made the mistake of reading the iTunes user reviews and although one reviewer said it was the most impactful episode she’d every heard (five stars), another said that this type of excruciating content should be left in a therapy session (um, yeah, no stars). At several times over the past week, I’ve thought the same.

Ultimately, though, I return to my belief that there’s value in sharing dark times with others, in order to make others who have endured their own dark times feel less alone. And I was overwhelmed with the hundreds of messages of support I received through various platforms from all over the world.

Though I appreciated the ones who thanked me for my bravery (at times over the last week, I’ve replaced “bravery” with “foolishness”), I was most grateful for the ones who found their experiences reflected in mine. Dark times have a way of isolating us from others. It was good to hear that a few people found some level of connection.

The episode is a weird, dark, at times bleak series of events, edited into a single narrative. From childhood abuse and neglect to addiction to HIV to one parent’s terminal illness and the other parent’s betrayal via batshit stories posted to the internet, I’m aware that it’s not an easy narrative to endure for most listeners.

I didn’t really want to listen to it myself. I put it off until late one night, turning out the lights, crawling into bed with the chihuahua, and pressing “play.” But strangely, once I got past the discomfort of hearing my weird voice, I ended up not completely embarrassed by the story.

In fact, I’m hesitant to admit this, but I listened to it over a dozen times in the last week. Something about hearing the whole story in one hour was helping me in some way that I can’t yet articulate. Like I could finally find a through line through a jumbled chaos of painful events.

It’s also not the whole story. I mean, how could it be? A three-hour interview edited down into one hour can’t also contain all of the joy and moments of genuine human connection that made that narrative endurable for me. So many people, with their humor and compassion, helped make my life worth living. They help me still.

This Is Actually Happening

This Is Actually Happening is an intense podcast that shares stories by people of their darkest times, whether that be surviving trauma, terrorism, or growing up in a cult. They interviewed me last fall about a batshit series of events I went through in recent years, and the episode airs today. If you’ve been hanging around this blog for awhile, some of the story will be familiar to you.

If you find value in sharing stories of hard times in the hopes that it might help others enduring their own hard times, it’s a good podcast. It’s available wherever you get your podcasts. I still have to get up the nerve to listen to my own :). Listen to the podcast.

If you came here from the podcast, welcome, I appreciate your interest and curiosity.

Talk to Her

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.

I’ve Been Goth Since Nine Years Old

The Boiler House, MASS MoCA

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.

The Boiler House

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.

Jenny Holzer, Truisms

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.

The Wayward Home for Flat Plush Toys

Jenny Holzer's "Protect Me From What I Want."
Jenny Holzer, 1982

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.

Copied, Pasted, Back for More

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.