Category: Personal (page 1 of 3)

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.

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.

 

Wilbo of the Nine Fingers

No, those aren’t devil horns. That’s where Gollum bit off my ring finger…get it? Oh, never mind.

and the Ring of Dooooom!

On March 16, 2015, I started a strange project: using this website as a guide, I started running and counted each mile along Frodo’s journey from Bag End to Mount Doom, a total of 1, 779 miles.

Tonight at about 8pm in Boone Park, I ran the final 2.21 miles of that journey.

Here are the numbers:

  • Miles Run: 532.46 in 2015, 812.54 in 2016, and 434 in 2017 for 1,779 miles total
  • Total Hours: 379.78
  • Average Miles Per Hour: 4.7
  • Total Number of Runs: 615
  • Average Miles per Run: 2.89
  • 5K Races: 28
  • Ortega River Runs (5 miles): 2
  • Gate River Run (15K): 1
  • Weight Lost: about 15 pounds
  • Injuries: Plantar Fasciitis in my right foot, pulled muscle in my chest

What did I learn?

For one thing, I seem to really like running, enough to keep doing it even when it hurt, which was strange. They talk about a runner’s high but I don’t think I’ve ever quite felt that. I think the real reward is the sense of pulling off a stunt with each run: “Hey, look! It’s a fat guy running a 5K!”

Some people are motivated by being asked, “How did you do that amazing thing?” I’m motivated by being asked, “Why would you do that amazing thing?”

Another thing I learned is that running five or six times a week does nothing for your weight if you still eat like an idiot. Guilty as charged. That’s the next thing to work on, now that I know I can do crazy things like run all the way to Mordor.

What about writing? Certainly there’s some poignant parallel to be made between the determination it takes to run 1,779 miles and the grit it would take to, say, finish another novel, but why bother to make it? The truth is that with running, I always knew exactly where I was going and when it would be over, even if my foot was hurting. I never get that luxury in my writing, so the metaphor doesn’t fit.

For what it’s worth, I did run each of those 1,779 miles without much self-doubt or introspection, simply leaning forward when the timer started or the gun went off and starting my ragged shuffle forward. When I failed (slowing to walk), it was almost always because of dwelling too much on how hard it was. I psyched myself out too often, which I’m sure has nothing to do with my writing career.

What’s next? Well, I’ll still keep logging the miles and I’ll bring milestones to your attention every now and then, but I’m letting the eagles fly me back to the Shire.

 

On Writing These Days

I’m sorry to sound melodramatic, but I’m finding it harder than ever to write stories when things like the hoedown in Charlottesville are going on in the world.

That is by far the least important consequence of that fiasco, but it’s the only one I’m qualified to talk about.

I think the reason I’m finding it harder to write stories right now is because I have the sneaking terror that stories are a part of the problem. It seems so easy for dumb and purposeless people to watch a deluge of entertainment about plucky heroes breaking all the rules solely on the basis of their own convictions and see that as the only way to be truly alive.

To be fighting for something. Even if something isn’t really fighting them first.

What I see in that terrible crowd in Charlottesville are people who want to be the heroes of stories without knowing what that really means, who want to be special for believing things they think no one else is smart or brave enough to believe. There’s hatred and anger of course inside them, but there’s a petulance, too – a resistance to what’s true because they don’t want to be told what’s true.

They’re certain they’re right because everyone else thinks they’re wrong, which is what they see always happening with heroes.

They’re the Dick Rebellion, the Bro Alliance, and we’re the Evil Galactic Empire.

It’s not the fault of the stories or the storytellers, really. These are terrible readers and viewers, people who skip or fail to grasp the second act when real heroes learn that strength also requires some doubt and introspection. They’re also suffering a lack of variety in their entertainment diet, too much Transformers and not enough Grapes of Wrath.

I’m not blaming entertainment for their attitudes, and I’m not suggesting their own bad comprehension is the only factor behind them. There’s plenty of institutional racism and sexism involved, not to mention the simple endless pulse of hormones that have nothing useful to do in a civilized society.

On days like today when my fingers hover above the keys instead of pressing them, it is because the already daunting task of sending words to another mind seems even more futile when the receivers are hellbent on hearing so little.

It isn’t stories that are beating and killing people, but I can’t shake the feeling that the people who are find succor in the stories they’re misreading. I have no idea what to do about that.

I suppose it’s always been that way, and it is only the quantity of the misread messages and the easy access to news of the consequences that’s different.

That’s not helping today.

Why I Call My Mother “Mother”

In early July, my mother collapsed from a seizure on her way down the stairs in her home, and the cause turned out to be a golf ball-sized mass in her brain.

Yep, there it is.

She was losing strength and feeling on the right side of her body, and the doctors decided to remove the mass. They gave her steroids to control the growth leading up to the operation, but she reacted badly to them and the scary side effects (infection, weakness, plummeting blood pressure and platelet count, soaring blood sugar) delayed her surgery until yesterday. In the morning, they wheeled her in for a four hour surgery and finished in about ninety minutes. The mass turned out to be encapsulated as the doctors say, so it was removed all in one clump.

(To simulate the sound it made, cluck your tongue on the roof of your mouth.)

She’s already moving her right side again and she seems stronger than even before the surgery.

It would SEEM to be a miracle, but then, so is she. That brain pictured above contains the works of George R.R. Martin and Anne McCaffery and Lee Child, how to run a bookstore, which angels and crystals are most effective for which problems, two husbands (one bad and one good), three children, a bemused yet potent hatred for Donald Trump, the taste of an egg crème from Kissena Drugs in Queens, the relative value of various antiques, the phone numbers for Home Shopping Network and QVC, how to cultivate a garden, the recipe for a dish we call “Soup of the Red Death,” all of her prescriptions by generic and brand name, bracket ranks for all of my former girlfriends and spouses, and the story about how her grandmother picked up Rudolph Valentino’s hat from the ground on the day he died in Manhattan in 1926.

That’s a lot. As they say, she’s seen some shit. And endured it — twenty-two years being knocked around by my father could very well be the CAUSE of that mass in her brain, though we were all disappointed to discover she could remember him after the surgery.

I kept friends and family up to date on social media about her progress, and it occurred to me late in the day that I refer to her in public as “Mother,” kind of like I’m this guy:

So maybe it’s time to explain why I call her “Mother” instead of, say, “Mom” or “Mama” or “Ma.”

I started calling her that (instead of “Mom”) around 1987, when my parents divorced. There wasn’t any one reason. Part of it was I got older and it wasn’t cool. Another part was that I was getting pretentiously literary. It also sounded better when sighed in mock exasperation at her dreamy foibles: “Oh, Mother! You bought someone’s failing antique business?”

The real reason now that I’m thinking about it, though, is that you can’t call a person the same thing after a heroic experience as before it. When you shuck off your sociopathic husband of 22 years, you get an upgrade from “Mom” to something else. We’re not liberal enough to call her by her first name, and we don’t wear overalls so that nixes “Mama.”

The only title that has the right amount of gravitas, the right authority, is “Mother.”  Mother of Nations. Mother of Earth. Mother of Dragons.

You know how Jules’s wallet in Pulp Fiction has “BADASS MOTHERFUCKER” embossed on it? My mother needs one with a comma in the middle that says, “BADASS MOTHER, FUCKER.”

My mother has spend her seventy years rather cheerfully enduring (and often enjoying in a wry sort of way) everything that has happened to her, good and bad. I used to think that this was a dreamy obliviousness on her part, like she didn’t SEE all the shit around her. What I’ve realized as an adult is that she sees it just fine…she just enjoys the experience of being alive more than any single setback, disaster, or success.

She is, as the saying goes, a spiritual being living a human existence, and “Mom” doesn’t quite cover it.

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?
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