Category: Personal (page 1 of 2)

The Father Map

As a person whose sociopathic, murderer-inciting father is pretty much the most interesting thing about him, I can’t let Father’s Day go by unremarked, can I? Even though both my bad and good fathers are dead, it’s still a day that evokes some feeling in me.

(Not, interestingly, as a person concerned about not being a father himself. I know that whole scene would be bad news for all involved.)

This year, with the revival of Twin Peaks, it has me thinking of how I’ve grossly underestimated the role of Dale Cooper’s influence on me as a surrogate father in late high school, teaching me that being intuitive and weird and appreciative can be assets, and that cynicism isn’t the only (or even a good) source of inner power.

One of the nice things about having a terrible father who fled our family like the Nazis getting routed from Paris when I was young is that I had the luxury of picking better fathers, and I’ve mentioned them all individually before in various places, including my stories.

Here, for the first time, is the comprehensive map of my fathers all in one place for our mutual reference.

What I Learned Running the 15K Gate River Run

I am not a thin man. I like soda and doughnuts too much.

But in 2015, I decided to start running (as exercise, not from the law or the Sandmen or anything) because it is the only workout I’ve found that is boring enough to listen to music but not TOO boring to lose my interest. It is, oddly, the only kind of exercise I’ve ever liked.

I run a few times a week (or more) on a treadmill, but I also participate in 5K runs (3.1 miles for those of us not caving in to Jimmy Carter’s world government measurement coup). They’re actually fun, and I enjoy running in places I wouldn’t normally go. I have a weird relationship to crowds, though, and I tend to enjoy observing than interacting with them. I do my own running time, thank you very much.

The Gate River Run is a 15K (9.3ish miles, fellow colonials) race through an odd cross-section of Jacksonville, and it’s a sort of gold-standard for runners around here. 14,000 people ran it this year with me, for varying definitions of “run” including long stretches of walking, which is just fine. For a person like me who sometimes staggers to the end of a 5K, it can be intimidating run a race that’s basically three of those in a row over two bridges.

This is the second bridge one mile from the finish. Most people just jump off the side to their deaths to avoid it, but not me.

So I did it anyway.

I prepared, sort of: I did my usual treadmill runs of around 5K with a few longer ones. I fully expected to  face some long moment of the soul around mile 8 where I’d hallucinate a dead family member or childhood hero telling me I had to keep going and I had everything I needed inside me all along, but it was just…fun.

Here’s what I learned/noticed:

  • There’s a certain point at which your body says, “Oh, fuck, for real this is what we’re doing?” and then shuts down your pain receptors. It hurt more to sit down after the race than to run it.
  • The course is essentially the world’s longest tailgate party. There are official water stations but then there are random people giving you food and drink from their front yards, everything from fresh strawberries to doughnuts to beer.
  • It was also a fascinating exhibit of Jacksonville class structure, with rich (or overextended) people drinking and offering mimosas on River Road in San Marco and considerably less flush (or showy) ones grilling chicken at 9:30 in the morning off Atlantic Boulevard.
  • Overall, the whole thing was this giant heartening show of community involvement and support.
  • There were Porta-Potty clusters all along the course and they always had lines. I never had to go because like our parents tell us before road trips, I offloaded my freight before hitting the pavement.

Here’s the big one:

There’s an amazing moment where you stop thinking about whether you can make it and simply focus on moving one foot in front of the other, when your energy shifts from doubt to action. Running makes it a nice pure thing (what are you going to do, quit at mile 7 and just camp in Arlington the rest of your life?) but the principle applies to things with more abstract results. Trust that moment will come.

Take heed, writers and artists and political activists: the demons of suck that swarm every worthwhile activity are scared away by not giving a shit about them.

Yes, technically it’s a participation trophy. Also, fuck you.

2016: A Retrospective

If it tells you anything about 2016, here are the two highlights:

  1. Receiving the galleys from Asimov’s for the story I wrote and sold this year, “Night Fever.” Yes, that’s right: THE story I wrote. One. Though it’s definitely one of my best.
  2. Being licked by a strange dog at Necronomicon.

That’s pretty much it. I also ran about 800 miles and participated in twelve organized races. Everything else was pretty much a shitshow.

Will Ludwigsen’s 36 Questions for Intimacy

This is old news, but apparently there are thirty-six questions you can ask someone new to your life to build a foundation of personal intimacy, and they’re…okay. They’re better than the usual ones you stammer out in a bar or on your online dating profile or across the Pokemon table at the local game store.

But they’re not as good as mine. I guarantee that if you sit across from someone and ask/answer these questions, you will know the depths of each other’s hearts by the final one.

  1. The three required elements of a perfect day are: ______, ______, and _____.
  2. People who don’t use the Oxford comma are _____.
  3. People who use two spaces after a period are _____.
  4. The optimum place to live is close to the beach | the mountains.
  5. When you are debriefed in the afterlife, what truth do you most want to know?
  6. Do you believe in ghosts? Why or why not?
  7. What do you wish you had told someone before they died?
  8. What do you wish someone had told YOU before they died?
  9. What song would you send to space as the perfect representation of humanity?
  10. What book most changed your life?
  11. What movie most changed your life?
  12. If you could travel in time and stop one book from being written, which would it be?
  13. What day would you erase from your memory?
  14. What message of ten words or less would you send back to yourself in time?
  15. To what historical era do you think your personality is best suited?
  16. What is your go-to Freudian defense mechanism (repression | regression | reaction formation | projection | sublimation)?
  17. What does everyone else think is a flaw in someone’s appearance that you actually like?
  18. What does everyone else think is a flaw in someone’s personality that you actually like?
  19. You have thirty seconds to name a baby, a kitten, an infectious disease, and a battleship. What names do you choose?
  20. Which convicted member of the Manson family is LEAST morally culpable? Why?
  21. Who is the most overrated serial killer in history? Why?
  22. Lee Harvey Oswald did | did not act alone.
  23. D.B. Cooper did | did not survive his jump.
  24. What three convictions (historical or contemporary) would you pardon with executive power?
  25. After the collapse of society, what is your chosen weapon?
  26. Who was (or would have been) America’s greatest president?
  27. What amendment would you add to the constitution?
  28. What burning cultural question of the day do you truly not give a shit about?
  29. If you could design a recreational drug, what would it do?
  30. What is the worst decision you ever made?
  31. What is the best decision you ever made?
  32. Who has paid the highest cost for your success?
  33. What profession would have been perfect for you?
  34. What do you believe to be true without evidence?
  35. What is the least redeemable sin?
  36. What is the greatest possible virtue?

We Built This Foot Up Your Ass

Assorted wiseacres on the Internet are mentioning a recent article at GQ.com telling the history of Starship’s “We Built This City,” ostensibly the most detested song in human history.

Friends, WBTC isn’t even the worst song from 1985. It’s not even the worst number one song from 1985. Take it from me: I was there.

Starship was an admittedly bizarre Frankenstein creation from the corpses of Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship headlined by a Grace Slick who was surprised to have survived into the 80s. They released WBTC into the world on August 1, 1985.

In 1985, I was twelve and looked like this:

xmaspc2

Now, let’s leap into the Wayback Machine and see what else was cooking on the Billboard Hot 100 number one singles that year, shall we? Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” owned the month of January as it rightly should. “Careless Whisper” by Wham! at least brought us the suspendered saxophone man, so that’s acceptable. The week of May 18, we had “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds, unquestionably a great song. “The Power of Love,” “St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Take On Me”…that’s not a bad year. I’ve always disliked “Money for Nothing” and “Broken Wings,” but hey, I’ve heard worse since.

And there’s “We Built This City” for the weeks of November 16 and 23. Though I don’t want it played at my funeral or anything, I’ve always enjoyed WBTC somewhat mindlessly. It’s on my playlist for running even now, among a lot of other songs you hipsters would hate.

But lurking in the top singles of 1985 is the true worst song of that and every other year, the egregious insult to music for which we will all answer when alien invaders lay waste to our planet. The song, of course, is “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner, and it makes “We Built This City” sound like “Hey, Jude.”

Here it is for your listening and viewing enjoyment.

Listen carefully to that. Let it seep into your ganglia. Imagine someone trying to pick you up in a bar or lure you into his wolf-painted van by saying, “I want to know what love is and I think you can show me.” You would punch that person and never stop even when the police came to cheer you on.

I completely understand that it’s jarring to see the psychedelic Jefferson Airplane seem to sell out for a quick buck in the 80s. But let’s not forget that Grace Slick clearing her throat in a recording booth is still a thousand times better than half the poor assholes who actually meant their music. Grace Slick ordering a Happy Meal in a rickety McDonald’s drive-thru box is better than the entire Hall and Oates catalog. Grace Slick howling from stubbing her toe on a coffee table is better than “Sussudio” or “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” or “Red Red Wine.”

“Old Time Rock and Roll”? “Stuck with You”? “Walk the Dinosaur”? For fuck’s sake, there’s a lyric in Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive” that says, “I’ve seen a million faces and I’ve rocked them all.”

Bon Jovi rocked FACES in the 1980s.

If you think that “We Built This City” is the worst song of even the 80s, you either weren’t there or too hopped up on Pixy Stix to remember it.

A Real Pick-Me-Up

Someone I care about has recently been reminded that at the core, most human beings are one perceived deprivation away from crushing the skulls of anyone in their way. If you’ve been to the grocery store before a hurricane or stuck at a malfunctioning traffic light, you know this is true.

It would actually be a relief if there was evil, if perhaps something icy and conniving could creep into our spirits and make us do horrible things. Then we could call it a sickness, a syndrome, some kind of awful infliction like locusts or a storm.

But what I’ve seen throughout my life is that assholery is always the same simple equation:

A = Deprivation (real or perceived) + Opportunity + Rationalization * Mob Think

I write horror, so lots of people ask me what scares me. Here’s what scares me:

All of our belief, all of our conscience, all of our intellect can be subsumed by the ancient callings of our beastly hearts if it means even the slightest improvement to our safety or group status. When it happens, we are masters at rationalizing it as justice.

And worst of all, it’s likely to be either by accident or exigency. Much of the time we don’t even “mean” it. (I know I haven’t when I’ve been the malfeasor.)

Cosmic horror? We should be so lucky to have an uncaring and ambivalent evil like Cthulhu instead of the flailing want-monsters all around us every day.

I don’t hate people (truly). I don’t call cataclysm upon us all. I just wish people were more…attentive? Perceptive? Careful? Contemplative? I don’t know.  

I wish I could hand out little business cards that say, “Really? Is this what you’re doing with 200,000 years of consciousness?”  

How We Went Off to College in 1991

Twenty-five years ago today, I embarked on my  journey to Gainesville to start school at UF. By an interesting coincidence, my niece Katie is starting her OWN college career at UF this fall, and I’m sure my sister will take the same pictures of her in the dorms that she took of me.

It's a desk, it's a closet, it's a bed, all in one!

It’s a desk, it’s a closet, it’s a bed, all in one!

I arrived with a milk crate and maybe two boxes filled with the following:

  • The CD boom box you see here.
  • The CDs behind me, heavy in U2 and Guns N’ Roses but speckled with Journey and REO Speedwagon.
  • A giant box of 5.25” disks for my portable/luggable SX-64.
  • A thin quilt.
  • A towel.
  • Toothpaste and toothbrush.
  • A couple of portfolios to write and take notes in.
  • Some clothes, including my fancy Hypercolor t-shirt that changed color when you touched it, as was the style at the time.

Karen, realizing I was an idiot, took me out to buy a dorm refrigerator, a toaster, some eating utensils, sheets for the bed, and some food. If I’d chosen to go to any other school, I’d probably have died.

(Insanely, I only applied to UF because, what, they wouldn’t take me?)

It’s hard to overstate how staggeringly dumb I was at eighteen going to school, a weird mixture of feeling divinely destined to do great things but also completely ignorant of how to actually function in the world. My total savings for college from high school jobs was $150. My plan was to get an English degree, get famous from writing, and then run for President of the United States some day.

(Which, to be fair, is shockingly plausible in this election year.)

What I needed was advice from someone I believed. Karen was as helpful as a sister could be, and so was her husband Marty, but they weren’t privy to just how deranged I was.

So here’s my advice to myself back then. Maybe there’s something here for you if you or a loved one is going to school this fall, too.  

  • English, really? You’re going to take ten courses for the major and enjoy the reading for only three of them: Intro to Science Fiction, Poe, and Major Critics. There’s a reason we have to assign this shit so it doesn’t get forgotten.
  • It’s going to take about half a decade to recover from the turgid kind of writing you learn to do analyzing dead fiction.
  • You’re going to feel inspired and happy with both the lectures and reading for your History of Journalism class. Follow that feeling.
  • Take some classes in public relations and marketing. You might be surprised. It’s like making up hoaxes for money!
  • Man up and put yourself in the way of actually writing stuff. Take writing classes. Submit short stories. Don’t chicken out when The Alligator agrees to publish an op-ed and all you have to do is go down to the office and give it to them on a disk.
  • Basically all you have is a weak talent for saying and writing weird things in surprising ways, and all that crap about programming and law school and psychology is a blind alley.
  • No, you aren’t crazy. Those weird emotional fight-or-flight explosions are panic attacks. Go tell a doctor about them. In the meantime, lay off the caffeine because it’s basically liquid anxiety.
  • You’re going to discover a book called The Outsider and Others one night in Library West and it’ll be awesome, but for God’s sake, don’t write like that.
  • The moped is fucking ridiculous and it breaks down all the time because it’s made by angry Yugoslavian communists. Just keep the bike.
  • It turns out that you learn mostly by creating outlines of what you read and hear in your own words.
  • It’s probably a good idea to shut the hell up about politics for the next few years because you really don’t know what you’re talking about. In fact, keep that up the rest of your life.
  • Don’t install Doom or Wolfenstein when you get that 486 PC. You’ve finally shaken the video game habit.
  • That girl you’re in love with is a person, not a destiny.
  • There’s a lot more I can tell you, but it all basically boils down to lighten up, for Christ’s sake. Swear more. Use more contractions. Use fewer participial phrases. Read more Stephen King. Don’t be so pissy about noise and football crowds. History isn’t watching.   

Clarion, Wayward Will Part 1: On the Way

[This summer marks ten years since I attended the six-week Clarion science fiction and fantasy writing workshop, and I’m writing about some of the things I experienced and learned with the fresh perspective of a decade closer to the grave.]

It’s bizarre to imagine that ten years ago today, I departed from Washington DC for the 2006 Clarion writing workshop. Big changes were coming, though I didn’t know it then. I hoped for some and of course they arrived in strange ironic Monkey’s-Paw kind of ways.

I’d spent the week working at the Census headquarters and headed straight from there toward Michigan.

(Back in my day, that’s where we had Clarion, by God: in poorly ventilated dorms at Michigan State University. I brought my own window a/c unit.)

On the way to places that I hope will change me, I usually just drive in the general direction I’m supposed to go instead of following maps. I wound my way through DC and Maryland to Pennsylvania, and in the early afternoon, I came upon this odd sign.

"Come on down to my Flight 93 memorial in the basement. I got me some stuff I stole from the field!"

“Come on down to my Flight 93 memorial in the basement. I got me some stuff I stole from the field!”

On 9/11, the passengers of Flight 93 saved many lives, possibly including my own. I was working near the Capitol building that day in 2001, one of the likely targets. It seemed a good opportunity to pay my respects, though the home-grown nature of the sign made me wonder if it was some guy’s makeshift memorial in a garage or something.

No, it was the field where the plane went down, and I stood there in quiet contemplation as busloads of children and Elks Lodge members came and went.

"Hey, your grandma made each and every one of these fucking things, so we're taking them to Pennsylvania."

“Hey, your grandma made each and every one of these fucking things, so we’re taking them to Pennsylvania.”

I thought these were Mickey Mouse ears at first, some bizarre tribute from a country that thinks Walt Disney is our president, but they were wooden angels with black wings and American flag bodies. Never let it be said that our country holds back on any tacky expression of grief, and by God, when Grandma made those back home in Iowa, she meant for them to go straight to that field. Or to sell them at Cracker Barrel. 

A more meaningful memorial was the fence with mementos pinned to it.

93fence3

I lingered about an hour, watching the people and what they left behind — hats, flags, buttons, construction helmets, stuffed animals, license plates, and odd concrete tombstone-looking things on which they’d written messages.

93kid

Then I continued onward to Michigan, where things would only get weirder.

Stepfather’s Day

I’ve written a lot about my genetic father, in both fiction and non-fiction. I’m about as sick of him as all of you probably are, so I won’t waste another Father’s Day going on about how awful he was.

I want to talk about someone else instead.

In the late 80s, my mother met and married a man I didn’t like much at first.

motherlarry

After living for years with my terrifying but largely responsible father, Larry seemed dreamy and impractical and disconnected from reality — better suited to lazy afternoons watching the Sci-Fi channel or reading fantasy novels than, say, being anything approaching a husband for my mother or a father to me.

But as time went on, I discovered that his gentleness and imagination were just what my mother needed, and thinking back on it now, they were just what all the rest of us needed, too. He gave my mother years of safety and happiness, plenty of those long afternoons reading cool books and talking weird theories about the universe, and he did the same for my sister and I, too, not to mention my nieces.

He introduced me to Middle Earth. It was at his house that I first watched Star Trek: The Next Generation. He typed up my first serious story so I could submit it to magazines…when I was fourteen.

larryharry

He bore the brunt of my sullen teenage years, too, all the eye-rolling and fun-making of a person who seemed a total crackpot at the time. Larry had deeply felt spiritual beliefs that certainly weren’t like everyone else’s, and I didn’t have much respect at the time for a former hippie still keeping the faith twenty and thirty years later.

I do now, though. I admire Larry’s steadfast lifelong battle against everything practical, everything expected, everything dull and emotionless.

He won that battle a few years ago, dying with all of us around him. He seemed content, pleased to see us, and he was more than ready to go after months of having one organ after another replaced by uncomfortable machines. It was strangely appropriate, I guess, that a man almost solely of the spirit would slowly lose his body like that.

He didn’t really need it.

I don’t pray much, but when I do, I usually say, “Please let good happen. Let us recognize it when it does and endure when it doesn’t. Let us be its agents.” Larry was definitely one of its agents, and I miss him.

He helped provide space and safety for my imagination, and I’ll always be grateful. Toward the end, he couldn’t speak while on the ventilator but he could mouth words. I think he might have said he was proud of me, though it could just be my ego misinterpreting him. I hope so, and either way, I’ll do everything I can to live up to that.

I wish I’d recognized him sooner as the great father he was.

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.

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