Category: Personal (page 3 of 3)

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.

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

2015 By the Numbers

2015 was a year in which I cared less about goals and more about habits, trusting that if I did certain things every day, they’d eventually coalesce into achievements of some kind. That more or less worked, at least more so than just staring pie-eyed at the goals ever did.

Here’s what the year came down to for me:

  • Novels rewritten and submitted to agent: 1, Already Won.
  • Miles run: 532.46, including ten 5K races.
  • Stories sold: 1, “The Leaning Lincoln,” to Asimov’s.
  • Stories appeared: 1, “Acres of Perhaps,” in Asimov’s.
  • Stories accepted for Year’s Best: 1, “Acres of Perhaps.”
  • Days written: 361 consecutive (363 total for the year), a total of 19,445 minutes (thirteen days, twelve hours, and five minutes).
  • Interviews granted: 1 (Elucidate #40 with Goliath Flores)
  • Writing retreats hosted: 1 (Savannah)
  • Conventions where I appeared: 3 (ICFA, Oasis, and Necronomicon).
  • Classes taught: 2 (Introduction to Fiction Writing and Introduction to Creative Writing).
  • Books read: 35.
  • Short stories and essays read: 35.
  • Home projects completed for the sake of bourgeois propriety: 4 (resodding the yard, replacing the asshole built-in microwave, replacing the dishwasher, and refinishing two rooms of hardwood floors).
  • Emotional and intellectual discoveries made:
    • My father spent his whole life pretending to be better than he was and I’ve spent mine pretending to be worse.
    • Writing is learned by epiphany: you work, you experiment, you feel what works in a flash of recognition, and then you own it. Books and classes can put you in the way of epiphany, but you’ve got to have something going for the realization to stick.
    • Most people learning an art need a trusted person who will point to things and say, “Really?” And you can answer two ways, either saying “No, I didn’t mean to do that” or “Yes, I totally meant to do that so I’m going to double down to make it work.”
    • I’m really not that good at teaching writing to people who don’t want to learn.

Interview on Elucidate with Goliath Flores

Before we go any further, let’s all acknowledge that GOLIATH FLORES is an awesome name. Giant flowers!

Goliath, who happens to be my neighbor, hosts a great podcast about the arts here in Jacksonville called Elucidate. I came onto the show the other day to chat about politics, creativity, politics, and mass societal delusion. You know, the usual.

 

A September Stroll

On September 11, 2001, I worked as a technical writer at the U.S. Mint building on Massachusetts Avenue, and our building wasn’t far from the Capitol.

I’d taken the Metro to Union Station that morning, bought a bagel, and walked the few blocks to work under a very blue sky. I was about halfway through the bagel when there was a sudden slowdown of our network. Being me, I went to a reliable news source to see what was going on and this is what I saw:

Bad news, folks! Servers are down! In other news, there may be some injuries at the WTC.

Bad news, folks! Servers are down! In other news, there may be some injuries at the WTC.

It took a few tries to call my (now ex-) wife, and when I said, “I think the United States is under some kind of coordinated attack,” she snapped in a terse and half-awake daze, “What are you talking about?” I got calls from friends (William and Tom, shout out!) and also my brother-in-law Marty, who raised the possibility that I should, perhaps, see about going home instead of hanging out near the Capitol building during what might be an ongoing…thing.

Huh, I thought. I’ll go ask my bosses.

When I went to my boss’s office, though, he was already gone. So, too, were the rest of the staff; they’d forgotten me. I was a contractor in my first month of employment there.

So I got my things together, stuffed them into a backpack, and started for home. I knew the Metro would either be crowded or shut down, so I simply walked. And because I’m terrible with directions, I headed for the only place I knew how to get home FROM: the Lincoln Memorial.

It was probably the safest eight-mile walk of my life. There were almost no other pedestrians, only men in suits on street corners holding M-16s and peering at me with my giant sapper’s backpack full of books. None of them stopped me because, hey, white guy!

I followed the Mall, passed the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, and then crossed Memorial Bridge. That’s when the smell of burning plastic hit me from the smoldering Pentagon, and I continued down the center of the surreal deserted GW Parkway with its plume of smoke to my right. Marine helicopters passed overhead, circled the Pentagon, and then continued westward, and my only guess was that they were taking congressmen to look at the damage.

I made it as far as the marina on the other side of the airport before I reached a point where the parkway was no longer blocked off. By then I was exhausted and dehydrated, and my wife came to the barricades to pick me up.

I guess it’s somewhat telling that my 9/11 experience was mostly alone. I spoke to my mother and my friends on the phone briefly when I could get through, but for most of that walk, it was just me quietly wondering how the world would be different now, hoping that terrorists wouldn’t think to attack the Smithsonian, wondering if there was an accessible hose or water fountain at the marina. That’s what I do in a disaster, shove everyone away from me. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes it isn’t.

I didn’t see any of the images until later, which might be why I’m still a little obsessively compelled by them today: I’m still catching up.

Or maybe I’m just still a little guilty that my 9/11 was a literal walk in the park compared to so many others’.

Gah! Bees!

Though I understand that bees, like Republicans, have some arcane utility in our ecosystem, that doesn’t mean I’m above spraying them mercilessly with poison when they’re pouring out of my chimney.

(Bees, not Republicans.)

As with Republicans, our own bee attack started small: first one bee came in and then another. The cats leaped after them and Edgar got stung on the nose by a third. Aimee tried to humanely capture and release them outside, but then there were a lot more skittering across the bricks and my manly responsibility to KILL ALL THREATS kicked in.

So of course I hurried to Publix to buy bee spray, something that I hoped actually existed, and while I was there, a woman ran up to the same section and said, “There are a bunch of bees or wasps or something pouring out of my chimney!”

“Funny you should say that,” I said. “Mine, too.”

We wished each other luck and I returned home with two cans of what turned out to be outdoor wasp and hornet spray. At that point, though, the bees had more or less declared my house outdoors anyway.

When I got back inside, there were bees rattling against the windows and light fixtures, not to mention circling the living room. So I did the American thing: I took decisive action.

Hey, Norwegians were immigrants, too.

Hey, Norwegians were immigrants, too.

I swept the air with arcs of foaming poison, splattering the windows and the ceiling and oh, soaking the fireplace. Aimee had thoughtfully corralled all of the animals into the bedroom so I was free to essentially destroy all of our furniture.

And they. Just. Kept. Coming.

Yep. Exactly like that.

Yep. Exactly like that.

Now, I’ll admit I do have a deeply neurotic and intense fear of bees, maybe like you do for spiders or gay people. But what I fear almost as much are heights, and it was obvious that I’d have to climb onto our steep roof and attack the swarm from the top of our crumbling chimney.

So up I climbed, lodging my shoes against the corrugated ridges of our metal roof, and I took up a crouching position as close as I could get to the chimney.

(Which, by the way, was sealed long ago. The bees had found a crack.)

So I sprayed the bees zinging around the chimney too, grateful for all of the target practice from games like Call of Duty and Borderlands. A couple of dozen fell and then all was quiet.

When I climbed back down, there were no more in the house, either. They were gone. They’d given up. I’d proven once again that overwhelming irrational force can truly work.

Among our casualties on the field of battle were several pillows and cushions, a dog bed, the clothes we were wearing, and several towels and washcloths. Aimee and I had to scrub down the windows and floors and bricks around the fireplace because man, that poison is some serious shit.

Aimee discovered with some Internet research that apparently bees will send out scouting swarms in search of new places for hives, and apparently they came to our house (not to mention the other lady’s at Publix) looking for succor. They found none. We drew a wet oily poisonous line in the sand.

Do I wish there was a diplomatic solution? Of course. But with so much at stake, we couldn’t risk failure. We had to destroy the living room to save it.

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