So I Visited a Medium to Contact My Mother

My mother, if I haven’t already said, was a spiritual spelunker who believed in mediums, seances, angels, and the healing power of crystals. So a few months ago when I passed a sign for Cassadaga, a spiritualist camp founded in 1875, I decided to stop for a visit.

“Hey,” I thought. “If there’s anybody who’d want to talk to me after death, I’ll bet it’s her!”

I’ve been to Cassadaga before, though I’ve never gotten a reading. The place doesn’t seem to change: a lot of cottages from the 1920s with sun-bleached gardens and little signs in the windows identifying the mediums and healers living inside. There are chimes and dreamcatchers swaying in the breeze from roof eaves, and it all feels like a summer camp for psychics. Which is essentially what it is.

At the central welcome center and bookstore, there is a bulletin board with the mediums currently on call. They have business cards underneath with descriptions, and you’re encouraged to choose one based on your intuition. I chose a visiting medium whose own advertising copy mentioned that he’d been “praised for his accuracy.”

[I won’t identify him here because he was a very nice man — sincere, earnest, warm, and kind.]

I called the number on the board and arranged a reading in fifteen minutes after he finished his lunch. His office was in the back of a beautiful old building and it contained two chairs facing one another. He welcomed me kindly, and when I tried to say what I wanted, he cut me off and cried, “Don’t feed the medium! I don’t want to be influenced!”

Which was interesting.

My Visible Tells

For the sake of skepticism, here’s what I was wearing:

  • A t-shirt with the Commodore 64 logo on the front. If it hadn’t been such a snap decision to go, I would have changed to a more neutral shirt.
  • Blue jeans
  • Brooks running shoes
  • A digital watch
  • No jewelry
  • Horn-rimmed glasses

What He Knew About Me

  • My mother was a Spiritualist, though he cut me off before I could reveal anything else
  • My first name
  • Whatever he could discern from my voice or accent

How It Started

We sat in facing chairs and he took my hands to offer a prayer to a decidedly non-denominational spirit-force for help in reaching the truth. We then sat up and unclasped hands.

The first thing he said was, “I can immediately tell you have a great deal of healing power in you, someone who heals people with words.”

[Hmm. Are people healed by stories about Charles Manson, cursed toys, and Cthulhu? Hard to say.]

The second thing he said was, “I see a lot of people here, and they are holding a giant American flag.”

[Double hmm. My mother often cried during the national anthem at the Olympics, but I don’t think anybody has ever associated me with patriotism.]

He talked awhile about my “ministry,” which he hastened to point out wasn’t a literal one — just a vocation where I did good by communicating with others and looking more deeply into the universe. He said he saw a scientific curiosity in me that pursued the truth.

For the rest of the half hour, he did a lot of free-associating with a repeating refrain of, “I want to talk about…” though we never really paused to do so.

What He Said That Was Simply Weird

  • “You know a person with a daughter who drives recklessly and needs to be warned to be careful.” [No idea.]
  • A lot about spiritual truth-seeking that seemed to imply I should consider being a medium myself. [No thanks.]
  • “Your mother is spending a lot of time with her spiritualism mentor, a woman who in the 1950s was accused of faking her psychic gift but who was always the real thing.” [Mother never mentioned this person.]
  • “There’s a shorter, skinnier man here to see you who doesn’t seem to speak much English.” [At the time, I had no idea who this could be because I did not yet know that the short, skinny man I knew had passed away.]

What He Said That Was Way Wrong

  • “I see your mother is surrounded by children, lots of children.” [If he’d said dogs, I would have kicked my chair back and run away in terror. Children, though? Maybe if she was trying to get away.]

What He Said That Was Kind of Right

  • “There’s an older man here, a sexual harasser, a know-it-all, who wouldn’t approve of you being here.” [My father, perhaps, who apparently had nothing to say.]

What Happened at the End

At the end, he asked if I had any questions, and I said, “If I could ask my mother any one question, it would be what she’s learned where she is now.”

He nodded and said, “She’s disappointed that the people here aren’t as smart as she thought they would be.”

Which I have to admit is a pretty eerie summation of my mother’s reaction to most places and people, and perhaps not something intuitive to guess if all you knew was that she was a spiritual person.

What I Learned

Like my mother, I’m a little disappointed, though maybe that’s okay.

I’m not sure my stand on psychic phenomena is any different than it was when I arrived in Cassadaga. I was always honored that my mother would talk to me about it when she was alive, knowing I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, but the best I can muster in the way of belief is that there are intuitive things that some people can perhaps perceive in others that takes on the appearance of insight.

I doubt (but hope) there is life after death, and I figured that if anybody would want to talk to me, it would be Mother. I’m not sure that she did, but I’m also not sure that the medium didn’t perceive something interesting and useful anyway.

I may not pursue it as often as she did, but every now and then I like to check in on the paranormal in case it surprises me.

Life-Changing Movies

I saw Solo yesterday afternoon and enjoyed it, but of course there are people on the Internet — that aching black hole of want — who find it disappointing because it didn’t sufficiently change their lives like others in the series.

I’ll never be one of those people who say, “It’s only a movie” because I know that they can be life-changing experiences, but I’m 45 years old and I can count 18 movies that have altered the trajectory of my life in any meaningful way.

[I’m not saying they’re good or important or my favorites; I’m saying that watching them changed my thinking in some notable way. I have many more movies that I simply love.]

  • Star Wars (1977)
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
  • The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  • Wargames (1980)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
  • E.T. (1982)
  • A Christmas Story (1983)
  • Return of the Jedi (1983)
  • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1983)
  • Stand By Me (1986)
  • Wall Street (1987)
  • Heathers (1988)
  • Dead Poets Society (1989)
  • Edward Scissorhands (1990)
  • The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
  • Gattaca (1997)
  • The Truman Show (1998)

That list ends in 1998. That’s not the last time a good movie was made, nor was it the last time I let myself by changed by stories. I think that was just when the engine of that change switched almost completely over to books.

What’s my point? I suspect that when someone tries to make a movie to change your life, it is almost certainly doomed to fail. The ones that succeed are surprising and idiosyncratic, and the less you expect your life to be changed, the more it likely will be.

 

Acres of Perhaps Hits the Bricks!

My latest collection Acres of Perhaps has now officially been released, and if you’re the kind of person who likes alternate history crimes, sky-gazing psychopaths, and weird 60s TV shows, it might be up your alley.

 

You have many options for purchase. Here are two:

  • “Though I’m supposed to feel morally weird about megalithic corporations, I can’t beat the turnaround times from Amazon.”
  • “Dude, I want to stick it to the man and buy from the nose-ringed graduate student at an indie bookshop.”

Really, I’m fine either way as long as you buy, buy, buy!

Norman

My assertion since pretty much the moment I met Norman Amemiya was that he was a genius too wrapped up in cosmic thoughts to notice that he’d, say, left an open bottle of Coke in the front pocket of his pants before sitting down, or locked his keys in his running car parked in a fire lane during a thunderstorm, or left a mysterious streak of something like coal soot in a ring in my bathtub.  

(All of which he did actually do, plus causing at least two vehicle fires.)  

Not many people believed me when I said he was a genius, but they’d never seen him calculate figures in his head like I had or heard the bizarre connections he made between pop culture artifacts that he assumed were deliberate easter eggs. He helped me program my Apple II+ to draw a Mandelbrot Set that took eighteen hours to render. He could always be relied upon to say something utterly deranged but also utterly wise.  

Plus, the astounding flamboyance of his many bizarre fuck ups couldn’t possibly be the result of simple error or incompetence. They had an…ambition to them. They didn’t happen from trying too little but from trying too much.  

He died four years ago, and I only found out last week.  

That’s exactly something he’d do.  

 

I met Norman during a perfect storm of awkwardness when I was in the eighth grade right after my parents divorced. My friend Mike took me to Norman’s house to meet him, but he stopped me on the front porch of this wooden cottage concealed in a lush carapace of foliage and said, “Hey, he can be a little weird, so don’t act surprised.”  

“Okay,” I thought. I knew weird. After all, Mike and I played Dungeons and Dragons and dueled with PVC pipe swords behind his mother’s pet store.  

We knocked on the door and a hunched Asian man came staggering out onto the porch. He was wearing something like a pilot’s jumpsuit unzipped to the waist with the arms tightened around like a belt. Underneath was a yellowing undershirt. He had thick smoky glasses, slick black hair, unkempt eyebrows, and a walnut shade of skin.  

A fairly typical look for Norman.

“Hello!” he shouted in a voice that I can (and do) mimic to this day, one that can only be mastered by raising your voice to a high nasal tone and crunching one side of your head into your shoulders like someone with a wry secret to share.  

I don’t know if I fell back, but he definitely took me by surprise. He was way older than we were, though my guess at the time was maybe in his 20s.  (He was 32.)

He welcomed us in.  

 

Things Norman Introduced Me To, in No Particular Order 

That last one staggers me to type. He recorded the episodes for me off of broadcast television and the first time I saw the show, it was shrouded in otherworldly static like it came from a far off place. 

At his heart, Norman was a combination of David Lynch and Yoda, a person who found the wisdom in weirdness.   

 

We started an ad hoc science fiction and gaming club, meeting at his house once a week. That stopped, though, when I came to the door one time and overheard his father yelling at him for having guests over so often. I could hear Norman flinching from blows, and I skulked back home to invite him over to my house instead.  

My mother was worried about an older man who wanted to play games with middle schoolers, but when she met him she could tell that whatever strange thing he was, it wasn’t a child molester. She let me go to conventions with him, and it was a rare week that his powder blue Volkswagen pick-up truck wasn’t parked in our driveway with its Don’t Panic and Libra bumper stickers on the back.  

In fact, I’m pretty sure that the force who drove my abusive and violent father from our lives for good was a limping, hunch-backed science fiction fan.  

My father used to stop by often after the divorce, mostly to steal tools and poke around the house for things. Sometimes he’d bring a gift for me, trying to convince me to come live with him instead (thus becoming a source of child support payments instead of the recipient of them).  

One time, I was terrified to see him slow down in his car to visit when Norman’s truck was in the driveway, but when my father saw it, he peeled away and never came over again.  

So yeah, it was Norman who delivered the coup de grace to my lingering father with his +2 Sword of Being Mistaken for My Mother’s New Boyfriend.  

 

Norman had a wide variety of strange physical tics, from his high-pitched nasal voice to a curious tendency to fall asleep at random times, including behind the wheel of a moving car. The most significant was a limp, greatly pronounced by his fast loping walk.   

The way he got it may be the quintessential Norman story.  

Norman had wanted to be a physicist, but years of bullying at various schools (including community college) had driven him away. He made money by selling games at conventions and by mowing lawns in his neighborhood, usually towing the mower behind his bicycle from yard to yard.   

Near his house was a wide blind curve for a two-lane highway, and Norman began pedaling across one day without seeing or hearing the speeding college kid in a BMW coming his way.  

(Insert your own observations about class and privilege here.) 

Norman remembered nothing about the actual collision, but his memory restarted when he awakened in a knotted heap jammed into the sunroof of the car. His leg was broken in several places, and he spent months in the hospital rehabilitating. He walked with a cane for years and then simply with the limp.  

That story used to make me laugh a lot more than it does these days.  

 

Though I relied often on Norman for rides, I have to admit I sometimes worried as a teenager about being seen with him.  

One time, we crossed into the busiest intersection in our town and halfway through, I heard the thump of his accelerator pedal falling off the lever onto the floor. I instantly tensed, worried about being caught by all those watching eyes.  

Without saying anything and in one fluid motion, he reached behind him, pulled out a length of wire, threaded it through the screw hole in the accelerator pedal lever, and pulled on the wire to drive us the rest of the way home.  

I always used to marvel at Norman’s ingenuity, but then I realized he’d learned it from an extraordinarily shitty life, some of it the result of his own choices (being terrible with money and unambitious for work) and some of it the result of being weird and smart and Japanese in a place that didn’t much like those things.   

 

Norman came to my mother’s wedding, and afterward we went to Waldenbooks at the mall. On the way back, a drunk sunburned man in a sports car swerved in front of us and I squinted at him through the windshield, trying to figure out what his problem was.  

He saw that, did a U-turn, and ran us off the road. Then he came up to my open passenger window and hit me flat-palmed in the face.  

After he drove away, Norman wailed, “Why did you provoke him? Keep a low profile. A looowwww profile!” 

That’s how he survived.  

 

Norman wasn’t a saint. He was strangely unabashed about his interest in porn, especially of the animated variety. When he stayed at my house later in our lives, he’d wake up before dawn and watch cartoons loudly on TV. He liked to poke around in cabinets and had an uncanny knack for eating foods my significant others were hiding for themselves.  

And I wasn’t always a great friend to him in my annoying teenage years. I got him a job with the inventory service I worked for in high school, and the men would call him “Hopsing” and make merciless fun of him. I wasn’t above it either, though much more rarely because at heart I admired the things about him that they thought were funny. 

He met me at the apex of my teenage assholery, and he tolerated me listening to the same song over and over again on a road trip or running role-playing games by my own warped sense of story. He accepted me for that and I accepted him for all his weirdness, too. I was impressed by his lifelong fight against the way you’re supposed to live in favor of the way he wanted to.  

 

In the midst of a melodramatic high school breakup, I asked Norman for a ride home. When I got in the car, I asked him, “Norman, does good triumph over evil?” 

He considered that (probably in the context of a lifetime of bullying and pressure to be whatever passes for normal), and he said, slowly, “Yes. And at the very least, good triumphs over bad.” 

 

When I learned the other day that he died from complications from undiagnosed diabetes, his ant-like passion for sugar and his sudden sleeping spells and his curious mental fogs began to make sense. Still, I hope his weirdness wasn’t simply a set of symptoms but a chosen rebellion against a world that wasn’t good enough for him.  

One of the last pictures I have of Norman, keeping up the good fight.

I’ve tried my best to keep up the fight ever since I met him, and though I can pass as normal a little more easily than he could, I’m still a saboteur in enemy country and always will be, thanks to him.  

 

Mother of Dragons

A few weeks ago after we discovered that neither of my mother’s surgeries nor her radiation had stopped the tumor growing in her brain, a chaplain came to visit her bedside in the hospital.

He asked some delicate and insightful questions to figure out her religious beliefs, something that with her was a moving target, and she explained that she’d been raised Lutheran but saw the truth in all faiths. He asked what she expected to see after she died, and my mother said, “The Rainbow Bridge.”

The chaplain, a little surprised, said, “You mean Valhalla?”

My mother narrowed her eyes mysteriously and said, “Some might call it that.”

She then explained that what she expected from the afterlife is to cross the Rainbow Bridge you see mentioned in veterinarian’s offices when pets die, and that on the other side, every animal she ever loved would be there to greet her, all rushing and tumbling and barking and meowing.

Yesterday at 2:15pm, my mother crossed the Rainbow Bridge with all of us around her.

My mother met my horrible father when he locked the doors of the basement of the Lutheran church they attended and wouldn’t let her leave unless he kissed her. They were married when she was seventeen, and when she complained about the smell of his cigarettes, he hit and harangued her to start smoking, too.

The cancer that got her spread from the lungs.

We took my mother to see Fantasia 2000 on the IMAX screen when it was released, and when those giant whales the size of city buses swept onto the screen to Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” she leaned far back in her chair with her eyes wide and yelled, “Holy shit!” to a theater full of children on a school field trip.

When we moved down to Florida, my father wasn’t sure whether to open a hardware store or a bookstore, but he chose the bookstore because my mother could plausibly help him run it. Like me, she could never tell the difference between metric and Imperial tools and never gave a shit. 

What she did give a shit about was making sure that our bookstore sold Dungeons and Dragons even when Southern Baptists were wringing their hands about it, and she made sure that I had a copy because that’s what she’d heard all the other smart and imaginative kids played. I read them in the backroom of that store along with Sherlock Holmes and Choose Your Own Adventure and books about ghosts.

She made sure I had as many Star Wars figures as we could afford, too, and we saw all three of the original movies together. I took her to see The Force Awakens and she bragged to a total stranger that she took me to see A New Hope when it came out.

I was wondering last week how I’d get her to the theater to see The Last Jedi.

My father left my mother for another woman when I was thirteen, and I was surprised that my mother was depressed about it, spending most of her nights after work reading alone in her room. To me, it was like the fall of the Empire.

When my mother met a fellow social worker named Larry Hall and they fell in love, I wasn’t happy. He seemed too dreamy and irresponsible, and it took me years to realize that’s just what she – and all the rest of us – needed.

She lived two decades married to him, and they were a complete but happy mess, having my brother when I wasn’t so sure they could even take care of themselves, opening a doomed antiques business, inheriting hundreds of thousands of dollars from my grandparents and spending it all in three years, joining spiritualist churches and giving psychic readings and going to festivals about rocks.

They were almost always broke, almost always under-employed, but man, could they talk to anyone and everyone about anything. They were both endlessly curious about the world, and they drew the strangest people to them because they never recoiled from anyone.

Because of Larry, my mother got to live in the open again and not just in her books. They were an inspiration to anyone who lives beyond the so-called “normal” world.

A week ago when her strength was failing, I told my mother that I wasn’t sure what I’d do now without her around to impress or scare with my writing. She was always my best audience, the one most fun to entertain or shock.

She shrugged and said that was just a mommy thing, doing that.

I gasped in mock offense and said, “Are you saying you pretended to like my stories?”

She cough-chuckled and shook her head and said, “You know I’ve always been proud of you.”

There’s no question that I’m the son of a father of great darkness, and I told my mother more than once that I’d trade my existence for her never to have met him. She said she wouldn’t, not mine or Karen’s or Karen’s daughters, either.

I’m the son of a man of great darkness, but I’m also the son of a mother of much greater light. She was his first abused child at sixteen and he kept at it for 22 years, but she never gave up on angels or books about dragons or crystals or seances or ancient Egypt or playing River Raid on the Atari and Kirby on the Game Boy. She never gave up on goodness, even when she had to squint pretty hard to see it.

I’ve lived my whole life in dread of what my father gave me, and I’ve never appreciated enough what my mother gave me, too: the power to resist that dread and that darkness, to make it funny, to see it and nod but go on anyway even in sneaky ways with a few fellow saboteurs in enemy country.

She knew what goodness costs, and that it is always worth it.

That chaplain who came to visit asked my mother if she wanted to pray for anything, and we clasped hands so she could. She asked to see all of those animals, and she also wanted her children to remember that when she died, they’d never be alone again.

I know now that we never were.

“The Zodiac Walks on the Moon” Now Available at Nightmare Magazine

The November 2017 issue of Nightmare Magazine is up, and it includes my brief story, “The Zodiac Walks on the Moon.” We all knew I’d get around to writing about that guy sooner or later, and here we are.

I’m also the author spotlight for the month there, so you can see a little of how the murderous sausage was made.

The issue is $2.99, but you could also subscribe for twelve monthly issues for $23.88 if you’d like to support some of the best short dark fiction being published today in addition, inexplicably, to mine.

That Coffee Klatch (Kaffeklatsch? Coughing Clutch? Whatever) That I Owe You

Before I regretfully canceled my appearance at this year’s Necronomicon due to my mother’s health, I was scheduled for a “coffee klatch,” a tradition at some genre conventions where an author meets with a smaller group of fans and shoots the shit with them for an hour.

Assuming anybody came to mine (by no means guaranteed), I was planning to discuss my top five writing career regrets and my top five accidental good ideas. So as not to leave all of you hanging, here they are. Get your own coffee.

Top Five Writing Career Regrets (Not Ranked)

  • Not writing every day or starting on novels much sooner.
  • Majoring in English where I learned to write turgid prose ABOUT fiction instead of the fiction itself.
  • Worrying so much about back-up plans and careers (English professor, lawyer, teacher, programmer) instead of diving headlong into writing and not caring much about how a job made me feel or what class it made me.
  • Approaching the genre through fandom where I was too eager to bend my work toward whatever would make me part of a community instead of pursuing the weird things I liked that didn’t quite fit.
  • Working so hard to make writing easy and foolproof instead of training myself to keep working under any circumstances.

Top Five Things I Accidentally Did Right

  • Stopped (after the first year or so) submitting to shitty magazines that nobody reads , opting instead for the ones that I enjoyed and that were noticed by readers and awards. (Not always a 100% correlation to quality, but better than a listing in Writer’s Market).
  • Went to Clarion. The specific advice I got there wasn’t too helpful, but the rededication to the work — Am I going to really do this or keep fucking around? — was a turning point for me.
  • Carefully considered what I did well in my work (voice) and what I didn’t (plot, description), and then decided what I would fix or hide in my work going forward.
  • Plumbed my past and the things I’d experienced to tinge lightly with the supernatural instead of trying to write about shit like spaceships and dragons that I could never quite believe in.
  • Lightened the fuck up and gave up on being important or famous, at least on purpose.

That’s what I would have said at my Caughieeklotsch, and then I would have opened it to questions like, “Who are you?” and “Is this the world’s most boring LARP?” and “Where can I find your work for free?”

Stop Killing Yourself

Back in June, my mother turned 70 and this post on Facebook was fucking hilarious:

Even she thought so.

Less than a month later, she had a seizure and entered the hospital for a brain tumor that doctors now suspect spread from her lungs or tonsils. She’s now had two surgeries and radiation treatment, and we learned yesterday that the tumor is growing too quickly to stop. Another surgery would severely compromise her motor functions, chemotherapy can’t breach the blood-brain barrier, and the tumor seems to actually enjoy the radiation.

She chose yesterday to ride it out with steroids and other palliative measures, and her doctors estimate she has about three months to fulfill her life’s dream of watching Donald Trump removed from office under the 25th amendment.

[Jesus, I can’t help it. My family faces awfulness two ways: getting angry or getting funny.]

What my mother would likely want from all of you instead of sadness is this:

Right now, you are doing something in your life that is killing you. Maybe you’re smoking or not taking your meds or not going to the doctor. Maybe you’re being viciously mean to yourself for the life you should be living according to someone else. Maybe you’re working a job you despise. Maybe you’re dwelling on some hurt that you caused or endured. Maybe you’re spending too much time on Twitter. Maybe you’re ignoring a symptom because you fear the cause.

You know what it is, and you know it’s killing you.

My mother would like you to knock it the fuck off. That’s all.

All Dogs are Comfort Dogs

This morning, I was heartened in our continued pageant of living woe by this photograph of comfort dogs waiting to visit victims of the Las Vegas shooting. 

 

“Well, some of these missions can be pretty touch-and-go, but we’re trained for all contingencies and have a full arsenal of tools from nuzzling to a gentle hand lick to resting our head on a knee.”

“Well, I’ll wear their religious iconography, but I have to admit I have some serious questions about the divine origins of the Bible and its moral message in regard to women and gay people, not to mention animals.”

Questions I would ask a comfort dog if I could:

  1. What do you do to get in the comforting mindset?
  2. Are you ever nervous that you will not, in fact, provide enough comfort?
  3. Was the comforting training rigorous and how can I sign up for it?

These dogs happen to be from Lutheran Church Charities, and I’m guessing they accept donations that are a whole lot more useful than the thoughts and prayers of Congress.

 

Yearly Wilgrimage to Necronomicon Tampa!

Ah, October: temperatures plummeting to the 90s, yellowed leaves adrift in the wind…and also Necronomicon in Tampa from October 20 – 22!

I have a busy schedule this year so there are plenty of opportunities to see/assassinate me.

Friday, October 20th

  • 4pm: Story Craft: Are You Overthinking the Story? 

Saturday, October 21st

  • 10am: Time Travel Tales: How to Do Them Right
  • 12pm: Being Funny is Serious Business (also known as the Will and Richard Byers Show)
  • 2pm: Kaffeeklatsch with Will Ludwigsen
  • 6pm: Turning Tropes Upside Down

That Kaffeeklatsch thing will be interesting: you show up and we chat for an hour about various things. The theme I have in mind for mine is “Five Things I Did Right for My Career and Five I Did Wrong,” sort of a cautionary tale.

As always, I’m looking forward to my home convention and I hope to see you there!

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