That One Time I Tried to Be Inspiring

Ten years ago(!), I graduated from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program, and I was honored to give a speech on behalf of my fellow graduates in Popular Fiction. I tried to be inspiring about writing our kind of fiction, but nobody stormed the Maine statehouse, so I guess it was a failure.

I think a lot of it still applies. Here’s what I said:

You know, there are days when I seriously doubt my writing will ever be as good as it was when I was seven, chasing the dog around my yard with the Millenium Falcon yelling “pyew! pyew! pyew!” I lived so much in stories then — talking to stuffed animals, looking for hobbits in the woods — that I was barely distinguishable from schizophrenic.

Don’t worry – I’m better now. Thanks for asking.

I suspect — I hope — that’s how it was for many of us graduating this evening, and I’m sure there are people out there in the audience who shudder to remember the symptoms of our madness: all those plays, skits, puppet shows, poetry readings, magic performances, comedy routines, concerts, and oh-so-many long-winded stories.

Don’t forget to thank them tonight. Or, you know, apologize.

Whatever forms it took then and takes now, we’re all crazy. We hear voices just like any hobo yelling at a mailbox – the only difference is that we know you don’t start a scene with dialogue. Most of us have lost any hope of pleasant neighborhood barbecues because we talk too much about the seas of Titan or the Manson family or the birthing habits of dragons…or all at the same time. People worry about us, and I think that’s a sure sign we’re doing something right.

I came to Stonecoast, perhaps like you, to learn how to be intelligently and usefully crazy. For two years, our wonderful mentors have shown us how to hold madness in asbestos gloves just long enough to get it on the page. We’ve studied the masters. We’ve critiqued the work of our peers. We’ve filled our mental toolboxes with structure and meter and point of view. We’ve discovered that the best writing is risky and dangerous.

We’ve learned, in other words, how to do it “right.” And, God, how I needed that.

But the worst thing that could happen after Stonecoast, I think, is for us to let all the intelligence and usefulness we’ve learned to overcome the crazy. It would be terrible to lose all we’ve learned by trying to hold it too consciously, failing to trust that the voices of our teachers and our friends will come again when we need them.

Because that madness we share, that reckless abandon, is really our only hope of making something wondrous. It’s the fuel by which we get out of our minds —  risking our comfort, giving ourselves away, revealing the feelings that most people don’t. All that’s left is to decide whether we’ll get enough out of our minds to escape the gravity of ordinary life, and whether we’ll achieve enough lift to take others with us.

It’s easy to call what we do escapism, and I certainly don’t deny it. Stories of ghosts and spaceships helped me escape a harrowing youth to be sure, and I see all too many things worth escaping as an adult, too. I don’t think escapism is a bad thing, especially when we’re escaping the tedious patterns of existence, the prejudices that confine us, the fears that estrange us from ourselves.

Either people can be as noble and adventuresome and intelligent as they are in our fantasy stories, or they can’t. If they can, then our “escapist” fictions are the experimental conscience of our culture. If they can’t, then our “escapist” fictions are the last refuge of the human spirit from the coming darkness.

Either way, people are counting on our ability to escape. They’re counting on the demented and relentless verve we had when we told ourselves the stories as if nobody was looking. Art is never stopping short, and if it is worth doing at all — worth the dedication of our lives — it’s worth overdoing, right?

School’s out, my friends. Go play.

Norman, the Catalyst

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.

It took me four years to even discover that he’d died.

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 fought 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.

“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 welcomed us in.

Things Norman Introduced Me To, in No Particular Order

  • My friend William Simmons
  • Role-playing and wargames like Toon, Traveller, Paranoia, Car Wars, and Illuminati
  • Conventions, especially Necronomicon in Tampa
  • Space Gamer magazine
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • The movie Dark Star
  • Dr. Demento
  • Weird Al Yankovic
  • Monty Python
  • Fractals, the Mandelbrot Set, and Conway’s Game of Life
  • Robotech
  • The Prisoner
  • Twin Peaks

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. I got him a job with the inventory service I worked for in high school, and the men who worked for it 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 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.

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.

Really, 2020? Edgar?

Yesterday, I took Edgar to the vet because he hadn’t eaten in over twelve hours and seemed lethargic. An X-ray found fluid around his lungs again (as in June) and we decided to drain it again. Edgar perked up after the procedure but went into cardiac arrest very quickly afterward. He died around noon while I was on a conference call two miles away.

I write more obituaries than anything else these days, it seems: my mother, my father, Norman, Nori, human society. I’m getting pretty good at it despite (or maybe because of) the basic selfishness of the task: “Look at me! I understand this person completely and can taxidermy them forever in words!”

I’m tired of being a literary taxidermist, but words are the only interesting way I express feelings.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t filming the bike ride I took yesterday after Edgar’s passing when, distracted and out of sorts, I squeezed the gear shifters instead of the brakes and smashed into a trash can at 15 miles per hour. It’s hard to beat the eloquence of being thrown into the middle of the street and landing on my back as a metaphor for how I feel about losing Edgar.

Maybe my reluctance to get up is even more eloquent.

I don’t much like living in a universe that finds it necessary to take Edgar away after only nine years. It seems petty. It seems small. You’d think one cat who happened to like rubbing against my face as though I was his favorite could get to live a little longer, but here we are.

Edgar was a wonderful cat with a lot of personality who loved people (but maybe me a little more). He yelled in the mornings and the evenings to be fed, and also sometimes randomly during the day like a mental patient arguing with the couch.

He groomed the other cats and Sylvia if they’d sit still. He glowered at us defiantly when he used the litter box. He shook his dry cat food in his jaws like he was trying to break its neck. He slept on my legs at night, or sometimes on top of the TV receiver or the laundry.

On the Thanksgiving after my mother died, he made sure to console each person around the table one by one.

He was, as we like to say about animals, a good boy. He was also (to me) a companion unlike any I’ve had, a constant source of love and encouragement: as long as I kept the kibble coming, I was still okay in his book.

I’ll miss him terribly. And I’ll miss who I was to him.

When to Say “Enough”

When you do something for years with only marginal success but many more days of painful trudging with no apparent benefit, you start to wonder if it’s time to let it go.

Even if you once loved it.

I’m a 47-year-old man, and it’s hard not to think that if I was going to get any better at this, I would have by now. I don’t even know what “better” means anymore, now that I’ve watched so many of my peers discover that success isn’t that…successful. Certainly not for any length of time, anyway. You grind and grind for a quick flash of glory, and then it’s someone else’s turn in a cycle that’s shortening with every passing year.

If I could plot the dopamine flow, there would be a spike before (in anticipation of a good session) and one after (relief for having survived it), but a long deep trough in the middle. That can’t be good.

As the great philosopher Rogersicus the Elder once wrote, “One must know when to hold them and then also when to fold them,” and I think it’s time.

I’m of course talking about running.

Wait, what did you think I was talking about?

Five years ago, I started running to Mordor by tracking my mileage to Mount Doom. It took me two years and 1,700 miles, but I did it. Since then, I’ve logged enough for a total of 4,030 miles – about the length of the Amazon River. I’ve run 5Ks, 15Ks, and half-marathons. I’ve run through Epcot and along the beach and over a treacherous bridge (four times).

But I haven’t had a run in nearly nine months that ended with me feeling great like they used to, and while nothing worthwhile is joyous 100% of the time, it shouldn’t suck 90% of the time, either.

I bought a bike about a month ago for cross-training, and I’ve enjoyed it like being a kid again. It’s rapidly becoming the thing I want to do, and I’ve learned to follow those instincts.

I’ll still run from time to time; it would horrify me to miss the Gate River Run, and I have a couple of 5Ks that I signed up for months ago that they’re running in socially-distanced waves. And it’s possible that I’ll come back to it again after a rest.

It’s hard to know when grinding is good (building your stamina and ability) and when grinding is bad (exacerbating injuries and making it impossible to fully recover), but I think it does us all good to know we can quit even the things we love.

For a little while, anyway.  

Thank God, a White Man is Weighing In

Nothing I say can really help right now, especially when there are other voices than mine who need to be heard, and the last thing I want is to be congratulated for saying or thinking the right things. It occurs to me, though, that doing good within the reach of my arms isn’t enough and maybe it’s time to try within the reach of my voice, too.

I used to write about politics a lot more in years past. That was before I gave up on the idea that people choose them through reason instead of picking a group they want to be part of and then rationalizing and performing their membership in it, including me.

A long time ago, I was part of the stern realists who feel brave by facing (and maybe enjoying) the brutal truths that life is hard, work is mandatory, feelings don’t matter, and we all should get only what we deserve in this life or the next.

This, if you can’t tell, is a young Republican.

These days, I’ve opted to be part of the passionate and naïve do-gooders who think there’s not much point of money or civilization or government if it isn’t making people’s lives better, regardless of the cost. If America can collapse because of gay marriage, pollution control, racial and gender equality, fair wages, easier healthcare, better education, and nicer cops…maybe it should.

This is an old liberal who is more popular with dogs.

I’ve tried to determine forensically just what changed my mind between 1996 and 2000, in case it is any help for someone else.

  • Star Trek laid the foundation for the goals of freedom from prejudice and economy, but The West Wing (Star Trek for civics nerds) inspired me to think that conscientious and smart people could be working in that direction now.
     
  • A professor at UNF, Dr. Pritchy Smith, assigned us to watch the PBS show Eyes on the Prize about the civil rights struggle and I was horrified by how people could fight AGAINST such a basic and fundamental value.
     
  • My notion of how much of our fate is luck versus work changed from a 10%/90% split to a 70%/30% split after meeting countless wealthy incompetents in my working life and many more broke and brilliant people.

  • The mental gymnastics required to rationalize conservative ideals began to feel exhausting and thin. If you’re digging deep enough to get to things like, “Helping the homeless really hurts them in the long run,” and “The Civil War was about states’ rights” without feeling a little sick and desperate, you’re a better rationalizer than I was. Too good, maybe.

Mostly, though, that shift came from meeting and talking to and caring for people who weren’t as well served as I was by the system. I wanted both of the gay Roberts in my life to be able to marry who they loved. I wanted my nieces to make as much as I do. I wanted my friend Ray to get the same shitty service at the deli that I was getting instead of even worse.

The first half-step of love is thinking that the people you care about are exceptions who deserve more than they’re getting.  

The second step is realizing that they’re not exceptions.

The Less-than-Terrible Curse of Nori the Cat

I’m bad at naming animals what they would likely want to be named, but not as bad as my father: the cat who came to be known in our house as Nori (from Mr. Norrell) was known as Cat-Cat in his.

I’m sure a psychiatric professional can make something of my tendency to make my animals reflect my literary pretentions (Oscar, Edgar, Truman, and Sylvia) and his to be vaguely infantilizing and humiliating, but this isn’t about us – at least not directly.

It’s about Nori, a cat I rescued seven years ago from my father’s creepy and depressing house who has lived with us up until Sunday when he was overtaken by a mass around his heart and lungs. He’d been losing weight for a few weeks and breathing heavily, and it was less than 48 hours after taking him to the vet that he was dead.

(Not that I fault them in any way. The doctor came back to town on a Sunday night so we could spend Nori’s last few minutes with him, and it would have haunted me forever if Nori had died thinking we’d abandoned him.)

He came to live with us on October 28, 2013. I’d received a call a few days earlier that my father was dying in hospice so my sister and I went to visit him. She hadn’t seen him in thirty years and I hadn’t seen him in ten, but the visit was disappointing in a way that visits with a narcissist and sociopath almost always are. He complained about the ambulance ride, asked about my car, and ignored my sister, and I was angrier at that than I was at all his other years of evil because it was his final chance to be human and he predictably blew it.

Karen and I drove to his weird little house in his weird little town, and he’d built a peculiar fantasy cabin of a humble Dartmouth alum living out his years with badminton rackets and fake degrees hanging on the walls and shelves of self-help books about power.

He also had a cat.

The cat immediately jumped on my lap as soon as I sat down, and he seemed happy to be there. I worried that he was mistaking me for my father, thinking I’d come back from hospice cured of my creepy sociopathic aura.

Aimee had told me not to bring home any animals from my trip, but I couldn’t leave him alone there in a scary house so I took him with us.

(She eventually came around.)

We had a good nearly seven years together, us and Nori, and he enjoyed sleeping on my chest at night, usually facing outward. The charitable interpretation is that he was guarding me. The likelier one is that he just liked having his ass in my face.

That last day we saw my father, his final words to me were, “I’ll always be with you,” which is the closest I’ve ever been to being literally cursed. I wondered sometimes if Nori was my father’s black magic scheme to infiltrate my life, but if it was, all he got out of it was seven years of naps and sharing a litter box with three other cats.

Which, as curses go, worked out pretty well for both me AND Nori.

We’ll miss him terribly, the best curse we ever had.