I’m happy to share that my essay was published today in The New York Times’ Modern Love column. How I Got Caught Up in a Global Romance Scam explores stuff like, well, global romance scams, stolen identity, and human connection. If you came here from their site, hey, and welcome.
The other night I took a call from an editor at The New York Times to talk about an essay of mine he wanted to publish.
That’s a sentence that I can barely comprehend, in the sense that it relates to my actual life right now. I mean, it’s a sentence I think I’d hoped to write someday, but hope was another planet.
And I’m a few days away from launching myself into a new job that has the potential, paycheck-wise, to change my life in the ways I’ve wanted to change it for years.
I don’t think I’ve ever lived a day where my head wasn’t thrumming with the constant low mumble of money worries. Maybe a short time when I was married, with a double-income household more or less managed by my ex. But that was five years ago, and in the time since, I’ve cursed more times than I can count at the negative balance in my checking account.
So things could change. Or I could fail. The job is a big risk, for reasons I don’t want to go into. It could work, or I could fall short. But in any event, as these words clearly show, I’m not so skilled at celebrating. I’m better at doubting my worth, feeling, on the eve of a big publication, like a fraud.
This isn’t a cry for help. It’s just an old familiar song, Muzak-style, playing nonstop in this elevator as I rise from the burned-out bottom floor I’d long called home. It’s stuck on repeat, but it plays in the head of a dude who’s too stubborn to let it stop this ride. Let’s see where this goes.
Over on Instagram, I often pair a very short story with my photos, and I thought I’d share a couple of them (and a life update, of sorts) here. If you’re on IG, feel free to follow along.
Guys, I’m interrupting the fall of democracy for a selfish reason. Today, I’ve been clean and sober for one year.
Considering I was quarantined for three months and haven’t been to an in-person recovery meeting since February, and also the cascading chaos of world-jarring events that we’re all navigating—well, I’m happy I made it this far.
Once upon a time I had many more sober years under my belt, and this one year took about three to finish, but life sometimes has other plans. I mean, look around. But the cool thing about rough times is that with some luck they can make you kinder and easier to cry and immune to bullshit and hopefully a little more useful to the people around you who may not be having, like, the best year of their lives.
As any sober person can tell you, none of this was accomplished through willpower. I don’t know why I got to a year when others didn’t. I have more resources than some and so much comes down to just plain luck, or grace, or the severity of one’s defeat. Sobriety is more than just getting by without drugs or booze. It’s closer to Dorothy opening the door to Munchkinland. And finding some traveling companions who pull you out of the wreckage of your own personal tornado.
Thank you especially Bill W., Peter, Charlie, Court and John, Todd, Patrick, Becca, Maura, Phil, David and many others, including some cool folks on here. I didn’t do this alone.
Thank you, Agnes—you endured all of it with me. I’ve tried to be your rock and you gave me a reason to go on. The world is scary and heartbreaking right now but also sort of beautiful, seeing so many people work so hard, in the face of great cruelty, to take care of each other. If you need to talk to someone about addiction, reach out to me and I’ll try in a very imperfect way to listen.
I pass my neighbors in the lot behind my building, a converted factory with 50 units. We come and go, sometimes stopping for a quick chat. I know the smokers better than the others. They’re fond of my dog. One of them drove me to the tow lot on New Year’s Day when I forgot to move my car during snow plowing.
Many of the dogs in the building have cranky temperaments, so their owners and I avoid each other, fiddle with face masks, nod across the distance. I mouth, “Hello” to the deaf woman who lives beside me. I can often hear her through the walls as she scolds the new puppy.
It’s a subsidized building, all of our incomes falling below a specific annual salary per occupant, a communal detail that you don’t normally know about your neighbors. Working folks, folks on disability, young families. The full racial spectrum. A few odd, lone souls like me, climbing out of some recent wreckage that we keep to ourselves.
My salary is a bit higher now, but they let me stay. I don’t know how many of my neighbors lost their jobs in the pandemic, though fewer cars swap spots during the day, and the property manager thanks me for my rent checks with a new intensity. The caretaker, who’s repaired my sink and AC and conducts inspections while I’m at work, has a personal relationship with my dog, developed over visits I’ve never seen.
One smoker likes to tease me about all the food I must eat when she sees me lumbering past with six full grocery bags dangling from my fists every weekend. A father of two tells me, “God Bless,” every time we pass. The small girls who used to fawn over Agnes are a bit older now and have turned awkward, as if we no longer know each other.
I never thought I’d still be here, back when I’d moved in, the first building in the valley that would let me keep my dog. Three and a half years have passed and almost every day I wonder, as I make my way through the lot, how I ended up here, as if I’ve forgotten how my life had fallen apart. And the two-bricks-forward, one-brick-back pace of my reconstruction, and how I’d miss these people—in a small, sharp way—should I ever leave.
The first boy I ever fell in love with lived in Nicaragua. I met Alfredo on a high school exchange trip when I was all of 15. We’d talk together in my broken Spanish late into the night after our families had gone to sleep.
One night I sat in the courtyard as he stood in front of me, telling me about being chased by a bull in a nearby field, and I struggled to grasp his words and he leaned forward, put his hands on my knees and rested his weight there, slowing his words for me, and the crucifix slipped out of his collar and caught the streetlight. I fell in love with him in that moment, in the way that a scared, closeted 15-year-old boy could fall in unrequited love with a boy whose culture had different norms for affection between men.
I never told him I loved him, though we exchanged letters after I returned to Minneapolis, where I marched in protests against the Contra War, getting clubbed in the gut by a cop and arrested at the age of 17. I was driven, for the first time in my life, by concern for the welfare of people outside of myself. For that boy and my host family and the other people I’d met, none of whom supported the U.S.-funded Contras waging war in their country and killing their sons, brothers and husbands.
I was saving my money for a return trip when I received word that Alfredo had been drafted into the war, his truck had been ambushed by the Contras, and he’d been killed. I may have been too young for my activism to survive that blow. I just felt hopeless futility. That I could march and protest and write essays and educate my peers but, in the face of well-funded and corrupt power, none of it would matter.
I still have that ambivalence, a calibrated sense of injustice in the world around me, dampened by paralyzed cynicism. And maybe, if I took that feeling and multiplied it by a factor I’m not equipped to calculate, it would be similar to that sense of exhausted, trampled outrage that a good chunk of this country feels on a daily basis. That trip was the best thing I ever did with my young life. It gave me a lens I still use to understand the world that continues to break my heart and stir my hope.
[A longer version of this piece appeared in War, Literature and the Arts. You can read it here.]
Very proud to share that The Normal School, a really amazing and innovative literary site, has published my true store, Just Waiting on a Dude today. It’s a somewhat different take on dating, sex, long distance relationships and friendship—the kinds of stuff that will hopefully outlive a global pandemic. It’s available to read totally for free.
I hope you’ll check it out and, if so moved, like or leave a comment.
“He’s so funny,” my coworker whispered as I walked away.
“Right?” said the other.
I hadn’t intended at that moment to be funny, and like most humor—a comic noise in reaction to something they’d said—it makes no sense out of context. Not worth repeating.
But aside from the pride I felt having earned that description, I noted something else. Her comment implied that my funniness was ongoing. That I was a reliably funny person.
This may not seem like much of anything. But it was another moment reminding me of how things had changed, how not so long ago I wasn’t funny, because nothing in my life seemed funny. How I couldn’t see anything beyond my own pain.
When I look back on those years I think about my buddy, Smooth Operator, who could make me laugh in spite of the mess of my life. Our long-distance texts or FaceTimes were my lifeblood. They got me through. And even though, at that point in our friendship, I had feelings that he didn’t return, I needed his humor and his friendship so badly that I endured the pain of an unrequited fool. I needed him, and his superpower of making me laugh till I cried as my life burned down around me.
And now, a year or two later, I’d been called funny. So funny.
I’d forgotten I was, could be, liked to be funny. That I could crack open the day for an inch of light. That I could make the day different, lighter, to people around me for a few seconds.
“Humor is tragedy plus time,” Mark Twain supposedly said. I’m so grateful for that time that I could cry.
Agnes says, if you attempted to subscribe to our newsletter, informing you of updates like new blog posts and pictures of small, portable animals, you may need to check your spam filter, and click on the confirmation email to get fully on board, and fully prepared for the cuteness.
I got an email this morning from the Senior Associate Editor of The Normal School—a really awesome literary magazine that’s pretty much kicking ass—saying they want to publish an essay I wrote.
And that is my reaction, above.
As I’ve written here recently, I’ve had so. many. almosts and near-misses and honorable mentions over the past four years or so, and not only did I get a yes, finally, but I got a yes from one of the best.
Lit mags are niche, I know, so here’s some background info on The Normal School from publisher Outpost 19:
The Normal School: A Literary Magazine celebrates its 10th year of publishing in 2017-18 and in just a decade, it has become one of the top journals in the field of creative nonfiction, garnering 30 “Notable” inclusions in the Best American Essays since 2010. BAE series editor, Robert Atwan has called the magazine “indispensable for anyone interested in new directions in the contemporary essay.” TNS was also named one of the top 10 markets for nonfiction in the entire country and featured in a Buzzfeed article titled “29 Amazing Literary Magazines You Should Be Reading Now.” Known for cutting edge nonfiction and striking visual design, The Normal School will serve as a primary partner for the series, providing a resource not only of potential contributors but also support staff for production, marketing, and promotions.
I will link to it once it is published (I don’t have those details yet).
Thanks everyone for your support and encouragement. This was a good day for me.
I think a lot about my addled brain, with my addled brain.
No surprise, I guess. I’m a writer. We’re good at it, or if not good, relentless.
What I mean is that I think a lot about my mental health, since staving off depression and PTSD is a daily effort that’ll likely last as long as I’m still breathing. And since 1999, when I first sought help, I’ve had 20 years of false starts, smooth patches, hard stumbles, and one black-bleak multi-year crisis—like field study for what worked and what didn’t in my own personal pursuit of serenity. Or, lacking that, adequately functioning enough to leave my apartment.
And what I’ve learned over time is that I’m a complicated fuck. As in, it takes a fuck ton of village to raise this dawg.
Good mental health, for me, resembles one of those Dr Seuss-like flying contraptions with wings, wheels, gears, and cranks, all of which play a vital part in the pursuit of flight, and all of which require a tremendous amount of sweat to get rolling.
Once it’s airborne and coasting, the contraption stays aloft with minor adjustments—one or two fingers resting lightly on the steering wheel as the wind gently rustles through my receding hair.
It took about 18 of those 20 years to figure out the blueprint and hunt down the parts, and I’m constantly losing or forgetting the manual, which I should know by heart. My own personal contraption requires:
- Antidepressants prescribed by a qualified shrink. This took a long time to figure out, and has required extensive experimentation, and many shrinks as I pinballed around the country.
- Solitude saves my skin. If I have to go two or more days without alone time, I recommend you keep your distance.
- Health insurance—much of the rest of this list depends upon this part, which is criminally hard to maintain, especially as I pinballed. I was one of the Americans saved more than once by Obamacare. (Miss you, dude.)
- Weekly therapist. This is separate from the shrink, since modern shrinks give you 15 minutes tops to discuss meds, without talk therapy.
- Sobriety. Meds without sobriety mean nothing. Sobriety without meds means nothing. That’s just been my hard-won experience. I go to traditional 12-step meetings and also recovery meetings from a Buddhist perspective, where I can be happily full of doubt about the existence of any god.
- A good day of good writing is like…I can’t even put it into words. Like, I’m failing at doing the thing to describe the thing. It makes me feel like I’ve fulfilled my purpose on earth, or something dorky like that.
- Full time work. I’ve yearned for more free time, and I’ve had more free time. I didn’t spend it wisely.
- I lift weights several days a week. I should do more cardio. I don’t do more cardio. Somehow I live.
- Friends. I need people I can say anything to. I need at least one who makes me laugh until I puke.
- Meditation, when my monkey brain swings through the branches of my fears, lusts, dreams, and udon cravings.
- One eight-pound chihuahua.
One or two go missing and I can skate by. Three or four and the contraption sputters and falls to the ground, where the laws of physics dictate that it’ll stay at rest, and I’ll end up with a sluggish head, barren heart, and a kitchen cluttered with empty containers of Chubby Hubby.
Massive effort is required again to get it back up in the clouds.
There’s no real order to this list. They all sort of depend upon and thrive off each other. A rickety, rusty, synergistic contraption that I continue to fuck with, depending on my current taste for enlightenment or self-sabotage.
Pretty sure this list disqualifies me as “low-maintenance.” I should just slap a warning label on my forehead. It would help weed out the idiots.
Some people have been thanking me for talking about shit some people don’t talk about. I appreciate the feedback, and I do wonder, often, if I’m ever gonna pay a serious price for this blog. Like, from prospective employers or boyfriends. Actually, no—just employers. A prospective boyfriend who backs out after reading this blog is not really a prospect. For anything.
As my rusty flying machine carries me toward the age of 50, out there on the rapidly-approaching horizon, I think a lot about acceptance—my failures and shortcomings, my minor accomplishments. My friends. My evolving dreams. If a couple of people feel a little less alone, after reading this, with their own ramshackle machines, then I’ve done something. A small job completed for a few seconds of satisfaction.
I’ve been crying some lately. I cry, mostly, for about 30 seconds, and it’s always kicked off by something, a song usually, often at the gym when I’m plugged into my headphones and surrounded by swaggering, grunting hetero bros. Some song or thought that contains equal parts pain and straight-up gratitude. It’s the second ingredient that gets the tears going.
Like, this is embarrassing, but this whole fucking blog is embarrassing, so I’m just going to say it. I don’t listen to a lot of pop songs on my own generally. At the gym I listen to house music from about 1997-2002, mostly, though I’ll sprinkle in a couple of more recent tunes that caught my attention. One of them is Rihanna’s remix of We Found Love, and I like it because her voice scales these crazy octaves in a truly beautiful fashion, and because, of course, of the refrain: we found love in a hopeless place. And because it’s still, despite that refrain, a song about loss.
Which I love, because, well, duh. I know that place. I live there. Or lived there. My love life still lives there, but most of me no longer does. And I listen to it and tears spring to my eyes because I knew that place so well that it was home. I feel like, in the past few years, I really believed that life had turned its back on me, and after months and months of just batshit bad news and hard turns, I thought, oh, so this is it. This is my life, forever.
I know how that sounds. But it’s what I felt, and I thought I had the evidence to back it up. Maybe I did.
And the tears come from this mixed-up combo of gratitude and continued lonesomeness, and wanting to believe that I could still find love in such a place, and relief that I’m not dead and that, as long as I’m breathing, pretty much anything is possible.
I’ve been sober again now for just a few months. Since I once had 15 years, it’s humbling to say those words: just a few months. And it took me about four years to get those few months. And it’s a little crazy how much bigger my life got in those months, and recently I gradually woke up to the fact that I have my center back—that quiet place inside me that I go to for strength, that protects me and is worth protecting. That place inside me used to be just desolate and about as comforting as a frozen tomb.
Now it’s refuge. I built it with a bunch of odd materials—sobriety, writing a slew of stories, good work at a hard job, Buddhism and meditation, bench presses and squats, true crime podcasts, house music, poetry, new friends, thirsty shirtless selfies, and a Chihuahua.
I think it mostly came from my actions. Like, shit I’m proud I’ve done. I have a life again that I don’t want to sabotage.
Life is all change and I don’t know what the fuck is coming next. But in my center I can withstand racist Trump-voters in my local life, money problems, rocky human connections, and bouts of romantic lonesomeness. It’s mine again, I can go there when I want, it’s built for one, built for me, and for that I think I’ll cry here at my desk for another 10 seconds.
Got two more close-call rejections from lit mags over the weekend. One telling me my story made it to the “final round,” but couldn’t Rocky Balboa its way to victory. And the second, which arrived at 9:36 pm on Sunday night:
We regret that we are unable to publish your manuscript, but we like your work and would like to see more of it.
This was from the editors of The Paris Review, which hovers somewhere just below The New Yorker in terms of “prestige,” but since I no longer have any grasp of what makes a literary publication prestigious in our current publishing environment, my estimation should be taken with a shaker of salt.
I’m grateful that they like my work, but that was pretty much the best story I had to send them (it’s not on this blog). And a near miss is still a miss, and after 17 near misses in a row I’m discouraged.
I try to remember my years in grad school, researching Flannery O’Connor for an established author who was writing her biography, and I slipped into the shadowy rare manuscripts room at the New York Public Library and, paging through The New Yorker’s archives of typed letters, read rejections aimed at Flannery, Vladimir Nabokov, and pretty much every other writer you could think of from the 50s.
Rejection is the writer’s life. So either take the punches or hang it up. I guess, mostly, I feel like Balboa at the 45-minute mark, downing raw eggs and running up stairs in Philly. I’m often down. Never out.
Been thinking a lot about the early days of this blog, probably because, in the course of its resuscitation, I had to restore a bunch of lost early posts. Which meant reading old memories with maybe some fatal nostalgia, as times when I connected with a whole bunch of queer bloggers engaged in similar online experimentation, and getting together sometimes in the real world, which led to some real friendships.
Blogs have faded and, 18 years later, I’m a more guarded man. Unwilling to write about my new job, where I’m killing it in a way I’ve never killed it before, for any job (probably because I’m finally writing), but also where the political waters have risen up around me and submerged huge chunks of my mental real estate, about which I’d love to say more, but the precarious nature of paychecks keeps me muted.
And my experiences with family and others in the recent past have left me gun-shy about real-life humans, scanning for hidden agendas and personal blind spots in myself and others that make every real-life relationship a total piece of work. Some days, when it comes to people, I feel like my barometer is broken.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m stumbling along here, trying to figure out what I can write about freely, which feels less than what I could write about back at the dawn of blogging, when I was young and invulnerable. I’ve got a couple of posts I’m tinkering with that’ll take some time to form, but until then I wanted to say hey and make you look at my dog.