Twenty Five Years Ago Today: Dumped!

It’s hard to imagine, I know, that a seventeen-year-old with such a bright future in American letters could be cut loose from a relationship, especially one in which he’d written an epic poem called “Beowill” for his lady friend. But it happened.

It was 1991. My favorite album was U2’s Rattle and Hum, my favorite movie was Dead Poet’s Society, and my favorite television show was Twin Peaks. I owned an ancient Apple II computer that was nearly always open in a mass of improvised wires. I was a month away from graduating high school and I’d already been accepted to the University of Florida where I planned to major in English because, of course, that was the surest path to becoming a writer.

I wore that shirt a lot that summer. The baby brother's rabbit suit? Not quite as much.

I wore that shirt a lot that summer. The baby brother’s rabbit suit? Not quite as much.

I lived with my mother, stepfather, and infant brother about nine miles outside of Arcadia, a little town in Florida’s bleak pale underbelly. Our house was surrounded by pastures and orange groves, punctuated by the occasional live oak tree leaning close to the ground, laden with Spanish moss.

Here's a picture with my sister. I like how most places in Arcadia look like they could be in Jonestown.

Here’s a picture with my sister. I like how most places in Arcadia look like they could be in Jonestown.

I was dating a girl who probably doesn’t want her name publicized, and her birthday was on May 11. I was going to miss it, though, because another (admittedly female) friend had invited me at the last minute to the Florida Scholastic Press Association conference (for high school newspaper writers) going on at the same time. So I wrote a great note and left a convenience store rose in our shared locker because that’s what we did back in those days.

(I couldn’t call because my girlfriend’s phone was disconnected at the time. I couldn’t send her an email because the only people in 1991 who had access to that were nerdy college professors and the Defense Department.)

This is what computers looked like back then, for Christ's sake.

This is what computers looked like back then, for Christ’s sake. I owned the one on the bottom left (TRS-80 Model 1) and the one on the far right of the middle shelf (Commodore 64), too. 

When I got back from the conference, I tried calling again in case her number had been reconnected, and I was pleasantly surprised to see it had. We chatted for a few minutes and I asked when she wanted to celebrate her birthday, but she seemed distracted and distant, telling me she wasn’t feeling well. We got off the phone pretty quickly.

Now, I’m not like this anymore, but back then, I was prone to melodramatic stunts and flamboyant emotional gestures. The thing to do, I reasoned, was to ride my bike the nine miles to town and surprise her for a belated birthday celebration.

(I had no car for a number of reasons, most of them involving the cost of insurance and my unpredictable income.)

So I saddled up and followed the treacherous two-lane highway into Arcadia on my bike. The journey took about an hour or so, but that was okay because that was the present: “Look! I risked my life to come here!”

Yeah, those aren't bike lanes on the sides. And imagine trucks full of oranges rumbling past you, too, for the full effect.

Yeah, those aren’t bike lanes on the sides. And imagine trucks full of oranges rumbling past you, too, for the full effect.

I arrived at her house not too long before sunset. I propped my bike against a tree and knocked at the door. There was some shuffling inside and she answered, looking surprised and a little aghast, the exact responses I wanted from my romantic gesture.

(All I want in this world is for people to say, “Wow! How did he pull off that amazing stunt?” I’ll settle for, “Wow! Why would he pull off that amazing stunt?”)

She glanced into the house behind her and then back at me, but eventually she invited me in. Seated on the couch was a heavyset gentleman in a Wal-Mart uniform shirt. I nodded curtly to him and sat down. The three of us sat in silence on different pieces of furniture for about five minutes until my girlfriend finally pulled me away into her bedroom.

I'll admit I may have been influenced by emotion, but this is pretty much how I remember that room.

I’ll admit I may have been influenced by emotion, but this is pretty much how I remember that room.

There, in a vase, was a huge display of roses she’d gotten for her birthday from the guy in the other room. At this point, I started to get an uneasy feeling that there would be a scene when we both told the guy he’d have to leave.

It took her a few tries, but finally she blurted out that yes, he’d sent her the flowers and yes, she knew him from work and yes, she liked him. I nodded, listening, not quite believing. When she stopped talking and it was just her looking at me expectantly, I realized I was the one being asked to leave.

After a nine mile bike ride.

I didn’t say anything particularly dramatic to either of them. I just mustered the little dignity I had, got on my bike, and rode away.

On the way to a friend’s house, I passed a vacant lot where I’d hung out as a kid. The county had cleared it but now it was all grown back, so I took that as a sign I’d be all right. Between that moment and “all right” was a trip to the prom with the girl who’d dumped me, but that’s a whole other story.

It was the start of a strange, dream-like summer that I wouldn’t change at all.

It was a summer of much carpe-ing the diem.

It was a summer of much carpe-ing the diem.

On My Silences

I miss the blissful pre-online ignorance of not knowing what so many people think and believe. It was easier to pretend there were better ones living somewhere else in the world that way.

When I was a kid, you pretty much had to walk into a bar or a Moose Lodge to seek out so many ill-informed opinions at once on everything from car repair to macroeconomics. Now the Internet brings the bar and the Moose Lodge to me.

I used to blog (often angrily) a lot more about politics and culture, but then I had the epiphany that I really had no idea what I was talking about. And even when/if I did, the others who didn’t weren’t listening anyway.

Marketers, pollsters, and social media have convinced us all of the supreme power of opinion, of every person weighing in on every issue, mostly so we know what side they’re on and if it’s our own. Do you properly hate Donald Trump? Are you sufficiently horrified by abortion? Can we trust you to think always about the children?

The answer I see too infrequently is, “How the fuck should I know?”

Sustained and deliberate ignorance is a terrible thing. But temporary ignorance – something we might even call open-mindedness – seems just as terrifying to so many people.

It’s a fire hydrant culture where everyone feels compelled to splash a little of their scent on every issue.

So I talk less about these things, not because I don’t think about them but because I don’t see how opinions should matter much. We’re not the crowd at a football game, and “making more noise” doesn’t help much in the real world.

The disappointing truth is that despite what the websites and polls tell us, what we believe to be true has very little influence on what is actually true.

So you may never know how I’m voting in November or what I think about white supremacists on fiction awards juries or whether I’ll stop using $20 bills because Harriet Tubman is on them —  unless I can write something funny about it.

Should you stop sharing your beliefs? I’d never want to silence you. But I’ll say this:

Talking is how they distract us from doing, and never mistake a Post or Submit button for someone’s genuine interest or actual action in the world.

The Most Important Writing Advice You’ll Get Today

Here’s the most important writing advice I can give:

Stop making a big deal out of writing.

“Making a big deal” includes (but is no way limited to) the following:

  • Finding the perfect desk, pen, writing software, or coffee shop to work.
  • Writing random things just to feel like you’re still a writer.
  • Hunting down your mental blocks, hang-ups, neuroses, and terrible personal history to free the creative soul within.
  • Worrying at all about “inspiration” or “the muse” being present or absent.
  • Worrying at all if you’re working hard enough (compared to other writers, compared to other professions, compared to other people’s impressions).
  • Worrying at all about “finding your voice,” which is really just a retrospective conglomeration of all the voices you’ve chosen to tell your stories over many years.
  • Worrying at all if you’re ready. You aren’t.
  • Elaborately outlining or preparing your world or characters.
  • Joining the right “professional” associations to “network.”
  • Gazing with longing at becoming part of a writing “community.”
  • Searching for ways to make writing easier or less messy.
  • Searching for the perfect writing book, class, workshop, website, mentor, or…uh…blog post that has the secret.

What’s funny is that we know all of this already. We’re looking for ways to simultaneously simplify writing to make it easier and complicate writing to make it more magical.

Take the summer off from thinking about capital-W Writing and think instead about the thing(s) you’re writing. When a story exists to make you a writer, I can guarantee it will suck. When you exist to make a story, it changes a lot.

 

More on that Visit to a Children’s Mental Asylum

You know that feeling that the best achievements of your life are behind you? If the number of times I’m asked about it as anything to go by, I’m guessing that my greatest moment was climbing through a broken window at an abandoned children’s asylum.

I guess I’m okay with that.

A few people have asked me to provide some more details after yesterday’s brief entry, so here’s the story.

It starts with Joseph DeJarnette, who probably wishes you were never born.

He was the director of Staunton, Virginia’s Western State Hospital from 1905 to 1943, and in that time he performed hundreds of involuntary sterilizations of the “feebleminded,” whom I’m guessing were not in short supply only a few hours from the nation’s capital.

For DeJarnette, sterilization was less an unpleasant medical duty and more a gleeful hobby worthy of poetry:

This is the law of Mendel,

And often he makes it plain,

Defectives will breed defectives,

And the insane breed insane.

Oh why do we allow these people

To breed back to the monkey’s nest,

To increase our country’s burdens

When we should only breed the best?

 

(On the subject of “insane breed insane,” my father used to muse with a certain grudging respect about the virility of the patients at the mental hospital where HE worked, saying that “crazy sure likes to fuck.” Which did not, in fact, provoke a lightning strike of irony.)

Anyway, DeJarnette even argued to keep the United States at the forefront of eugenics:

“Germany in six years has sterilized about 80,000 of her unfit while the United States with approximately twice the population has only sterilized about 27,869 to January 1, 1938 in the past 20 years… The fact that there are 12,000,000 defectives in the US should arouse our best endeavors to push this procedure to the maximum.”

In 1932, the DeJarnette Sanitarium was named in his honor in much the same way that we now have the Richard M. Nixon School of Ethics in Government and the Reverend James Warren Jones Agricultural Seminary.

Weirdly, it was renamed in the 1960s to the DeJarnette Center for Human Development, because the word “sanitarium” was more offensive than “DeJarnette.” Then it became a children’s mental hospital in 1975 and was shut down for good in 1996.

It’s been abandoned ever since, though there have been discussions of making it into a “frontier museum” or condos or a mall of some kind. People sometimes break in and look around or vandalize the furniture and papers that are left behind.

papers

When I went inside in 2006 with Matthew Warner (and, truth be told, my now ex-wife), I didn’t feel any oppressive aura of suffering. It reminded me of most ill-kept government buildings, everything painted with thick flaking layers of pastels.

danglingfeet

If any feeling did seep into the structure, it was one of barely holding itself together — there were drawings and slogans on the wall that were meant to be “fun” in the way that earnest government employees try to manufacture fun.

super

friendly

One feature struck me as particularly interesting, the Universal Precautions Cabinet. How did I know that was what it was? Because someone labeled it, that’s why.

precautions

When I showed the pictures of DeJarnette to some of my friends from South Carolina, they shook their heads in disbelief that anybody would go into a place like that.

“Look at that shit,” said Jason. “Whatever went down in that place at the end took every fucking thing in the Universal Precautions Cabinet…and it still didn’t work.”

A few months later, I went to the Clarion writing workshop and had a bruising and demoralizing first critique of my work, a moment of deep personal doubt.

When Jason got wind of that, his advice was, “Next time you’re sitting with those people, you look around and ask yourself who there’s got the sack to go into an abandoned children’s asylum where even the Universal Precautions Cabinet didn’t help for shit.”

That helped. It still does.

And if you have doubts about the kind of person you are sometimes, you could probably do worse than remember that you’re the kind who goes places you’re not supposed to go just because you’re curious what other people did and how they felt.

It’s architectural empathy.

Though DeJarnette didn’t perform sterilizations at the center named for him (that was at Western nearby), I still wonder if any of the residents ever left that place feeling…better. Braver. More ready with their own internal Universal Precaution Cabinets.

Because I couldn’t bear if it was just me.

Ten Years Ago: Breaking into an Abandoned Asylum!

(I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations on trespassing has gone by long ago.)

Ten years ago today, my buddy and fellow horror writer Matthew Warner and I decided to take a stroll around the abandoned children’s mental asylum in his town of Staunton, Virginia. I’d wanted to get some pictures of the exterior because it was a cool spooky place.

awesome

Then I happened to walk by a human-height broken window and thought, “Well, clearly I’m being invited inside.”

So I went in and Matt followed.

muralhall_1

Note the feet of hanging children.

Note the feet of hanging children.

dormeropen

handswall

mattwillgood

(There are more pictures here.)

I had a great time. We touched nothing, harmed nothing, and we respected the property and the pain of the people who once lived there. I think Matt has gone in with permission since then, but what’s the fun in that?

I know there are people who go into abandoned places for the danger and the risk of it, but I’m more interested in the stories those structures seem to absorb. I don’t have a lot of supernatural beliefs (this and the efficacy of democracy are the only two), but I do think that emotion can linger in places. And even if it doesn’t, I think it’s important sometimes to extend our empathy enough to pretend it does, to remember other people in other times.

I am not in any way advocating that you should enter a building this weekend and try to imagine the lives and feelings of the people who lived there. I’m not advocating, say, finding a bent section of fence where the police rarely go and gently stepping over. And I’m definitely not advocating that you should walk carefully through a dangerous ruin, taking no souvenirs but your own thoughts and maybe some pictures.

Stick to the living like everybody else. God knows they don’t express their every little thought often enough.

Hey! A New Interview with Me on the Outer Dark Podcast!

I’m not sure why people are interviewing me all of a sudden, but maybe I’m like the Paul Lynde of horror, the kind of show biz trooper always available when someone needs a center square.

Anyway, Scott Nicolay very graciously and insightfully interviewed me for the award-winning Outer Dark podcast, and it’s available for your enjoyment now!

Why Yes, I’ll Be at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts Next Week!

Once a year, desperate genre writers and academics come to the Orlando Airport Marriott for the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA), seeking any reason to escape the bleak forlorn skies of their home states.

new_banner_with_logo2

This year, I have a reading  on Thursday afternoon at 4:30pm in the Magnolia Room. I’ll have new content, likely related to serial killers!

 

Second Interview on Elucidate with Goliath Flores!

If you liked my first interview with Goliath Flores on his Elucidate podcast, you’ll love the second when we get into writing, teaching, Game of Thrones, and why the Internet sucks!

Postcard Story: One Day

[Sometimes, I write a story in an hour based on an image.]

piddleton

They met, as they did every morning, at the ridge overlooking the train tracks in the far corner of Nat Henderson’s farm. Nat rested his hands on the fence while Dwight glanced over his shoulder to check once more on the cattle. As always, they were perfect.

“How’s the morning treating you, Dwight?” Nat squinted up at the sky. “Looks like another beautiful one.”

“Yeah, it does, don’t it?” Dwight nudged his horse Charlene and she turned them both toward town. “Another perfect day.”

“Mmm hmm,” said Nat.

“You ever wonder why there’s never been a murder over there in Piddleton?”

“What’s that again, Dwight?”

“There’s never been a murder in Piddleton. Did you know that? Nobody’s ever caught his wife with another man and strangled them both, nobody’s ever shot a teenaged couple in the backs of their heads at the lover’s lane, nobody’s ever snapped a pool cue off in someone’s skull at Victor’s Tavern.”

“I ain’t aheard of none, anyways,” Nat said. “From where I’m standing, that’s a good thing.”

“Well, yeah. But it’s a little too MUCH of a good thing, isn’t it? The only troubles we get around here are the occasional train derailment and that fire at Old Man Jenkins’s place they’ve been trying to put out since, well, since I can remember.”

“They’ll get it one of these days. They’ve kept it from spreading, at least.”

“Yeah, spreading,” said Dwight, adjusting his hat. “Spreading to a town with exactly one perfect white church with a steeple, one general store, one school with a bell, one firehouse, one police station, two train depots, and a half dozen houses.”

“I’m sure there’s more than that.”

“There aren’t. I’ve counted.”

Nat chewed that over in the side of his cheek. “Well, if you say so.”

“And these cattle I’ve been tending. They’re all perfectly brown and white, not a one of them with fleas or flies or mange or nothing. They’re perfect. You could eat them off the hoof if you wanted.”

“Now, Dwight, you don’t want to go gnawing at your livelihood!” said Nat.

“And another thing–”

A train whistle rolled up from the tracks below like a warm wind.

“Oh, look, here’s the 8:13.”

“Yes, again,” Dwight said. “8:13. And there’s the spotless passenger train and the spotless freight and that one over there with the old-fashioned engine. What’s that about?”

“No need to hang up a tool just because it’s old,” Nat said.

“You know what I think?” Dwight sidled the horse a little closer to be heard over the gentle clack-clack of the wheels below. “I think that if I rode ol’ Charlene here as far as I could along those tracks, they’d come right back around in a loop.”

Nat smiled. “That’s silly. What would be the point?”

“You tell me. What would be the point? We wake up, we do the same thing every day, we see the same things every day — the same kids kicking that ball in the field, the same old ladies with their green frock coats and black pocketbooks downtown, the same Studebakers parked across from Jim’s Hardware. What is the point?”

Nat shook his head. “You been sitting out on that horse in the sun a little too long, Dwight. That’s the kind of stuff that Commies think.”

“I feel like I’ve been sitting on this horse forever, to tell you the truth. Sometimes late at night, I swear I hear footsteps across the stars. Right up there. You ever hear that? I don’t figure so. But sometimes I hear footsteps and other times I hear voices and laughter. Because somewhere, I tell you, there are tracks that don’t go around in a circle.”

“These don’t go around in a circle, Dwight,” Nat said patiently. “I know it can get lonely out here–”

“I think I’m going to ride to town and kill somebody, just to see if it can be done. I’ll bet it can’t.”

“I hope not,” Nat said. “‘Cause I sure like talkin’ to you.”

“I’ll leave the herd here because, hey, where the hell are they going? Nowhere. I’ll just ride into town and hitch Charlene to a mailbox, and then I’ll go into one of those houses and cut up a family with my Bowie knife.”

Nat nodded. “Well, it’s a pretty day for it, anyway.”

“I’ll bet you I’ll be right back here tomorrow,” Dwight said.

“I know I will,” Nat said.

“Yeah,” Dwight said.

“Yeah,” Nat replied.

“Well, I suppose I’ll see you tomorrow again, if nothing changes.”

“It won’t,” Nat said.

Dwight nudged Charlene into her usual grudging town-ward motion, and as always they got as far as the edge of the grazing fields before stopping. Nat watched Dwight looking over the town as he always did.

“Maybe one of these days,” Nat muttered to his friend’s long-distant back. “Maybe one.”

Huh. Surprised But Not THAT Surprised…

My father wasn’t the greatest man who ever lived, but it’s still a bit shocking to get this letter first thing after the new year!

bill bad news-2

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