Black Ribbon Award

Month: February, 2019

HOW TO WRITE ESSAYS

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So you want to write essays. First let me offer you my heartfelt congratulations on your choosing this pursuit. Essay-writing is not a dangerous or particularly noble pursuit, but it is a pursuit all the same. Congratulations! Moving on.

There is no one way to write an essay. The foregoing is merely the way I’ve managed most effectively in getting it done. It’s possible you are already aware of this, and you are coming to me because the other models of essay-writing have failed you. That’s fine. You should not begrudge my sibling essayists for this failure, they know not what they do. Neither, for that matter, do I; but I will forget I ever said that so that we may carry on. I will only add that while that kind of lacerating introspection is not unique to and does not foster essayists, choosing to disregard that introspection is and does.

The mark of any good essayist is to develop a sense of abandonment. I was abandoned by my parents at a very early age. This will be news to my parents, both of whom I see almost daily. But they must remember that I am the essayist and they are not. So there.

Once you have established your abandonment, you must then proceed to your rebirth. The process of rebirthing is a matter of no small controversy among many people. This is overcome by reminding yourself that many people are spectacularly stupid. After completing that step, there are a few methods through which to rebirth yourself. The method that works best for me is the Jell-O bed. It is accomplished as follows:

Step 1: buy enough Jell-O mix to fill a backyard kiddie pool, pick whichever flavor you wish.

Step 2: fill that kiddie pool with the mix.

Step 3: lie prostrate in the pool as the Jell-O takes form; this must preferably be done in a colder season, otherwise this will take weeks and the Jell-O will become slimy.

Step 4: at a passage of time you deem most sufficient, break free from the Jell-O, arise amidst the flabby wreckage, and howl skyward. Doing this part at night, and especially when the moon is full and clearly visible, is not necessary but is encouraged for maximum results.

Side note: if you do not have access to or space for a backyard kiddie pool, a bathtub will suffice. If you do not have a bathtub, then dipping your head in the kitchen sink is a decent last resort. If on the off-chance you drown while carrying out this method, do not feel embarrassed or ashamed. You have not failed. Death, like liposuction or rectal intercourse, may be painful and costly with long-term hazards, but is still a valid form of rebirth.

Once you’ve been reborn, you probably think you’re ready to write your first of surely countless essays. But hold your horses, cowboy! We’re just getting started. Things are only going to get trickier from here on in, let me tell you. It is imperative that you replicate my subsequent rules with military precision. If you fail to do so you risk bein

EDITOR’S NOTE: We regret to inform you that this guide to essay-writing was unable to be completed by the author, who in the process of composing it was beaten to death by one or more irate (though by no immediate indication exceptionally irate) circus clowns. A full investigation will be underway to apprehend the clown(s) and to ascertain the motive(s) just as soon as the detective(s) assigned to the case take care of some other stuff. The perpetrator(s) look approximately thus:

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There will be no refund(s) seeing as how no one has paid a fee. The author’s enemies respectfully request donations of your mom in lieu of flowers.

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PASTORAL NUDESES

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“Pastoral Nudes” is a story in search of a climax. It is a title that is orphaned from its text. Or from its author. Or something. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. This kind of title is more special to a writer than the titles in good homes. They are adorable balms for forgettable traumas: being picked last for kickball and softball and dodgeball, being rejected for a slow dance at the Spring Formal, being told by Dad that whatever bad thing is happening now is “not because of you,” wearing cornrows for the Spring Formal, or pledging a fraternity.

“Pastoral Nudes” is a righteous band name that took three Emerson undergrads in 1994 two days to agree on. “It’s gonna look so rad on a flyer” was the selling pitch, made by the bassist, who days later is replaced by a girl for reasons neither the band nor the bassist could ever keep track of. They make stickers, learn their instruments, write enough songs to fill 15-minute opening sets for Toad the Wet Sprocket—possibly Live. They play bars no farther out than Lynn. Their fans are distinguished by their knee-length jean shorts, Doc Marten 3-Eyes, tube socks, backwards Red Sox or Cat Power caps, emotional unavailability, and the fact that there are six of them at most. They recruit a keyboardist and record a demo and compose a bio claiming that “Pastorel [sic] Nudes is a Boston-based empower trio [sic] that puts the independent back in Independent [sic] Rock and also puts the rock back in Alternative Rock.” They mail cassette copies with the bio to Touch and Go, 4AD, K, and Geffen (just in case). K says no, two do not respond, 4AD says yes on the condition that they change their name to “Noonday Demons or something.” Noonday Demons record an EP at Fort Apache that somehow goes overbudget. It never gets released. The guitarist gives an unsolicited audition for Lemonheads and teaches kindergarten, the girl bassist is a day trader in Syracuse and sometimes gives lessons, the drummer is the sound guy for Cold War Kids.

“Pastoral Nudes” is the name of a film that has no coherent plot, no discernible setting, no memorable cast, and may or may not have been edited with much care. It was shown only once in a theater in Venice Beach that seated 40. Originally only three people would admit to ever having seen it—though not necessarily in a state of sobriety. Then its director, who is not Darren Aronofsky but very much of that ilk, did something very Darren Aronofsky-esque and three spectators increased to about 300. They said there was a riot, that someone literally died (either in the audience or on screen), that the sex scene was so authentic that the person conceived during it is now definitely in college under an assumed name, that it is an allegory about free speech or Abu Ghraib or something something Philip Roth something something, or that Michael Rooker or Willem Defoe were in it but they were wearing a clown mask. The director will never consent to releasing the film as it is largely footage he secretly recorded of his parents doing therapeutic bodypainting. In true Darren Aronofsky fashion, however, he will release a three-part documentary on Hulu about the more interesting things people think the film is about.

“Pastoral Nudes” is ranked fourth on the list of most desirable last words for people dying poorly, seventh for people dying well, and 15th for people never seen again.

“Pastoral Nudes” is a phrase people see on sweaters, mostly in the greater-Kansas City, MO metropolitan area. The colors are usually straight, but lively—red, orange, hot pink, jade, and eggshell white. The lettering is black and in all-caps, so really it reads “PASTORAL NUDES”. They can be bought at a store in downtown Kansas City that happens to be named “PASTORAL NUDES”. It is owned by a husband and wife somewhere in their late-30s. The husband is the manager, and the wife is the creative director. When asked where the name came from, the husband says his high school English teacher told it to him privately after class, because she thought that he would want to hear it, because she thought of it while jogging and thought it was beautiful, and because he had a “soulful” look during class that gave the impression that he appreciated beautiful things more than other students. His wife nods ambiguously and says it looks nice on a shirt. They are planning to expand their inventory with new phrases. They say they are all in “the testing phase.” This is not strictly true, but they hope it will build momentum and absolve them of their debts by 2026.

“Pastoral Nudes” is the name of a crab fishing boat that was lost at sea. It is said that every few months around 3:34 AM, the supposed exact time the boat was lost, a waifish woman in a flowy sundress and holding a lantern can be seen standing at the end of the pier in which it was docked, chanting “🎶Pastoral Nudes🎶” in a soft sing-songy cadence for a full minute. Local lore claims it is the tragic fiancée of the youngest crew member, who was only just out of high school and saving up for a house in town to raise their forthcoming son. No son forthcame as far as anyone knows, and local custom has rendered it impolite to inquire so directly as to whether one is a ghost or not. There are deathless, eldritch protocols for that type of thing.

“Pastoral Nudes” is the name of a stridently proposed, weepily rejected charity calendar concept for a splinter Episcopal parish in Dyker Heights.

“‘Pastoral Nudes’ is, like, particles. It’s just particles that … came together. Some of them came together at random … some—maybe a lot of them—came together because of some preset arrangement; part of some universal fabric set in place so many light years … or eons … ago. ‘Pastoral Nudes’ is like a message from a place where time isn’t such an issue, maybe. Like, time isn’t faster or slower it’s just an option, something you can just do if it matters or if it works for you and if not that’s fine; it doesn’t disturb anything; it messes nothing up. That’s what it is. That’s what it means. It’s that simple. You know, I’ve been sitting here for years—speaking of time—waiting for you—you specifically—to come here and ask me that. I’ve been coming here every day. In this exact spot. I come in at 3:00 PM. I take this stool. I wait until last call. When I leave, Jim over there asks me ‘Same time t’marruh?’ And I say ‘Bet yer ass, sassafras.’ I don’t really say it like that out loud. But to that effect. If you’d … if you’d just called, like, aheada time, it’d have saved me a tonna grief. I coulda done so much shit with my life. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head what I woulda done, but a lot of things. I had—I’ve got—a lotta potential. But no, you got this cosmic horseshit I gotta speak up about for fuck knows what reason. And it took me all of two minutes. Jim. JIM. Gimme a beer. I forgot what you asked me. OH. What is the message of ‘Pastoral Nudes’? The message is … chill the fuck out or … fuck the fuck off or … can you cover the tab, brother?”

“Pastoral Nudes” is the very private thing you fill in for the other less interesting thing you were told about by someone who thought you’d be interested. You think it happened on the train, by someone who seemed lonely and scared to be outdoors. Not that that would have changed anything for you.

STEVE INSURANCE

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The Mid-Atlantic Insurance Underwriters Conference has a reliable history of being a very plain, straightforward affair. Mostly it is a convenient backdrop for an esteemed functionary of the insurance community to catch up with other esteemed functionaries of the insurance community within a particular region. It is a weekend of talking shop, eating passable cuisine, and ending with a toast for a more stable and less liable world, all within the sacred confines of the all-purpose room at the Ramada Inn off Route 10. Seldom is it ever a time to make bold innovative proposals or to divine the next frontier in insurance coverage.

The atmosphere could not have been more different at the 2018 conference held at the Holiday Inn in or around Atlantic City. Very little seemed out of place for much of that weekend, until the main cocktail hour and banquet on Saturday night when the master of ceremonies, associate vice president of insurance at CINCO Simon Hartman, announced a surprise speaker. Neither he nor the speaker specifically identified himself beyond his status as a “high-ranking” official at Old Glory Mutual. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it, ladies and gentlemen,” he is reported as saying, “the insurance world is in danger of freefall. We have lost all sense of purpose and respect. We seem driven only by panic and response to immediate problems. Is that why we got into this business?” “NO,” the audience was reported to have responded. “That’s what I thought. So you’ll agree that we need a dymanic [sic] new path to revitalize our industry and to restore it to its rightful place in America’s productive life.” “YES,” the audience allegedly cried. “Great! Without further ado, I introduce Steve insurance.”

Over plates of fish or chicken, the audience was rapt by this man’s presentation. It turns out that the insurance market has deprived itself of a significant source of business: people named Steve. He did not go into any exact detail as to how he came to this conclusion, nor did he clarify that people named Steve were objects to be insured or potential liabilities in existing policies. In short, he left it to us, the insurance community of the mid-Atlantic United States, to determine the proper course, a responsibility that was accepted with considerable vigor and enthusiasm.

I apologize for the secondhand nature of this account. As an actuary, it is not customary to be invited to such gatherings, nor do we actuaries crave such trappings. But it does fall upon us to assess potential avenues of business. It did not take long for the mid-Atlantic insurance community to marshal our resources and acquire the necessary data. This required going out into the wider world and finding people named Steve for whom we could examine quantitatively and qualitatively.

We actuaries are not known for, nor are we encouraged to have, strong feelings, but I would be remiss to deny that the Steve insurance project was one of the more interesting, if not fulfilling, endeavors of my career. Though the following cases of examined Steves cannot be seen as comprehensive, and no hard determination of their role in insurance has yet been assessed, it is generally agreed among my colleagues that they are illustrative.

Case no. 01
The first Steve* was one of exemplary character and comportment. He was a public school administrator with two college-aged children. He described himself as a “lapsed but respectful” Rotarian, who preferred lacrosse to football and A Million Little Things to This is Us. Before his work tasks became too time-consuming, he tutored recently immigrated students in English for free and adults for a small fee. He only ever admitted to voting for John Edwards “at one time or other.” He described his taste in pornography as “normal.” After the questionnaire, we offered him coffee and what we determined was a conservative dose of bath salts. From that moment his demeanor changed markedly. He stopped talking with us, preferring instead to bang his head against the two-way mirror at a rhythmic interval.

Case no. 02
This Steve was very much the opposite of the first. He had no educational credentials beyond the “school of hard knocks,” his career was listed as “freelance,” he owes alimony to two-going-on-three former spouses, and generally has poor relations with his immediate and possibly extended community. He claimed to have no interest in pornography and said that much of his leisure time was derived from old episodes of The Dating Game, which he viewed through his own extensive library of VHS recordings. We administered the same dosage of bath salts to Steve on the speculation that it would have the opposite effect of the previous Steve. This was proven incorrect gauging by the further damage to the two-way mirror, provided this time by the head of one of our Unpaid Associates.

Case no. 03
This Steve was neither notably bad nor notably good. He was a median Steve. His presentation was a strange combination of casual and careful. If he had a flaw, it was presented in a very expectant and ideal way, such as a near-perfectly curved, almost moon-shaped, scar on his right cheek. His hair was outgrown, but held in an upward position to resemble a sort of bun, which made some of us hungry. He wore sleek glasses frames that bore no immediate evidence of having lenses. He listed his career as “session bassist” but was dressed in a shirt, tie, and a nametag for TD Bank. He did not have car insurance but had a policy for his longboard that somehow had a $450 monthly premium. Beyond this we don’t really know much about median Steve. He tended to answer any of our questions with “Yeah,” “Okay, sweet,” “Sick,” “So righteous, dude,” “Badass,” and the like. In the end he offered us some of his own supply of bath salts with the assurances that they were “very tight butthole.” We appreciated the gesture, but demurred. We assessed median Steve’s demeanor as “relaxed,” which might constitute a kind of euphemism, but ethical considerations prevent me from either confirming or denying that this is so.

Case no. 04
For the sake of having a control case, we decided we needed to examine a compulsory Steve. This subject was brought to us by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous. There was some confusion in the arrangement, it seems, as this Steve arrived to our facility post-mortem. As a result, no useable data could be acquired.

Case no. 05
This subject proved to be the most contentious of the Steves. He introduced himself to us as a sociologist from an unnamed but assuredly “prominent and prestigious” university. From the get-go things did not go as usual. Instead of answering our questions he merely repeated them with different emphasis. For instance, when we asked him what he most valued in a mating partner he said, “What do you most value in a mating partner?” It was soon apparent that he thought he was here to examine us. I clarified the matter in firm but respectful terms, to which he snickered a little and took notes. Everything that happened thereafter I very much regret. “Listen, Steve,” I said, “I do not appreciate being made a guinea pig for your ‘social science.’ And, quite frankly, Steve, I look upon your profession with pity. What are sociologists but armchair actuaries?” Steve removed his very real glasses. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” he began. “But using your framing device, it can just as easily be argued that actuaries are economists who have never touched a woman.” This was too far, I thought. I could think of no other response than to call in Estelle, a female Unpaid Associate, and stand her next to me where I held my index finger to her shoulder with as respectful a delicacy as I could manage. “Fuck you, Steve,” I added. I offered to tender my resignation but everyone agreed it was unnecessary. Our Unpaid Associates endure much.

Case no. 06
Of this Steve not much can be said. It’s very possible that we have even less useable data than we do from the post-mortem Steve. We don’t know his career, whether he is married or single or with a miscellaneous partner(s). Of his leisure activities, his fears and desires, his greater worldview, or where he lives, we have nothing. Steve spent most of his session in tears—sobbing profusely, to be more precise. His voice emitted no clear language beyond wails and warbles, like those heard on an old tape recording. Occasionally he did stop, but not to catch his breath or wipe his nose. He was just still, staring blankly for five or six seconds before resuming as normal. This went on for up to 90 minutes before I was able to interject. “Just to be clear, Steve, this is not a therapeutic inquiry.” To which he stopped sobbing and replied, “Who is Steve?” He was sobbing again once we escorted him off the premises to the point where his sobbing was no longer our technical responsibility. His file his mostly blank, but under pornography habits we came to the consensus that it was “likely and indeterminate.”

* The names of the subjects have been changed to protect their privacy.

DEMONS

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Lately I’ve been going out and looking for demons. I guess you could say I’m hunting for demons. It’s a fair assumption. But still, that seems like too harsh a word for what I intend. You could say that I am very interested in finding demons. Or even just finding a demon. What I would like to do once I’ve found one or several is not clear just yet.

My life prior to this point was one completely absent of any interest in demons or knowledge of their works. It was a life I liked just fine. I wanted for little or nothing. I had friends, and my time was occupied reasonably with activities that were both wholesome and practical. I cannot remember what these activities entailed in detail only that they felt wholesome while doing them. That feeling sometimes comes back, like a soft breeze.

Most of this life was lived out during the day. Yet at some point I started to prefer the night. This preference was not shared by my daytime friends, nor by very many others. My activities and interactions, as a result, made a significant shift. I found I had fewer friends in my nighttime life, and those friends I did make preferred activities that were far less wholesome. I remember what those activities entail, but I’d still rather not tell you what they are. I will say that these activities are not as costly as the wholesome activities.

It was at this time that I started to become aware of demons. It did not result from one significant encounter but through several smaller ones. People around me started talking about demons, the demonic nature, of having demons, or of trying to fend off demons. Demons were tricky things, it seemed. They could assume many shapes; perhaps they possessed no shape at all. They could speak in many tongues, but could also be just as comfortable being nonverbal. Some people were repelled by demons. Some people never saw a demon but lived in crippling fear that they might see one. Some people were more dependent upon demons than they ever depended on a person. Not many people were very curious about demons, though. It never seemed that there was much in demons worth being curious about. That was their appeal: their simplicity. I guess that’s just my nature. Oh well.

I only look for demons at night. There’s not much evidence to suggest that demons prefer the night any more than regular people do, it seems like a practical choice for them. It’s not impossible to be demonic in the daytime, but it seems like a real challenge.

I started walking out every night from just after dusk and right before dawn, down as many paths and avenues as I could to detect their presence: main streets and side streets, alleyways and thruways, cul-de-sacs and grids. There seems to be disagreement as to what setting demons prefer. The crowded city gives them more opportunity. The quiet suburb gives them more privacy. It’s all the same, if you ask me, not that anyone has. So I cast a wide net; but still, I am not hunting demons.

When looking for demons—hunting or otherwise—there doesn’t appear to be any criteria. Some, in fact, have said that finding demons is near-impossible. The trick is to attract the demon somehow, to lure it out of the woodwork and right up into you. I don’t doubt it, but it seems very unwise. Off to the library, it is! Ah! A dusty leather-bound volume with yellowed, crinkly pages and no author. A key passage:

Many prefume that thofe moft Vulnerable to the Daemonic influence are the flow and ignorant. Thif if a grave error. While it if true that evil hath a great tafte for Weakneff, one difcounteth itf capacity for Wit at their certain Peril. Indeed, the Devill tiref not in purfuing the Clever and the Learned over the dull. Though He will beft them at every game and deflect all reafoning, the Daemon will flatter and praife at the higheft regifter that They have befted Him; and then He poffeffeth Them.

“The Daemon,” the text added, “if oft bufy and fleepeth not.”

I was grateful for this perspective, and also relieved. For though I am very curious, as you know, I am hardly ever clever.

You might be wondering if I ever had any encounters with the demonic. Funny you should ask! Though I can’t say I’ve had any sightings that would be conclusive, I think I’ve had a few close calls.

A recent excursion took me very far into the city. It was on the border between very late and very early, and I had to make my way home. I was at the bus depot, looking up at an informercial on the TV when a man came in, older and a bit disheveled, walking with a slight hobble. Though the lobby was nearly empty, with not even a ticket attendant present, he took a seat directly to my right. We said nothing to each other for a few minutes, in fact he was coughing pretty consistently most of the time.

“Got a smoke?” he asked me.

“I’m afraid I don’t,” I said. “I’m not sure we’re allowed to smoke in here.”

“I don’t think anyone will mind,” he said gesturing to the room. He took out a cigarette anyway.

I asked him what brought him to the bus stop.

“Work,” he said, and started coughing again.

“We have that in common! I’m just completing my workday. Or night, I should say.” And quite without asking his consent, I went into my long explanation of my project, sparing no detail of my search for the demons among us and all I had so far learned about them.

“Demons, eh?” he said and was silent for many seconds, not even a cough. “Sounds like my first wife.”

My ears pricked up and tingled a bit. “Fascinating! You were married to a demon?”

He chuckled and blew a clean streak of smoke out into the lobby.

“Demon-ish, maybe.”

A demon in the family was something that hadn’t occurred to me. I tried to think of my own from when I still went out in the day. Funny, I could see my fully refurbished kitchen pretty clearly, and some figures sitting around the table, presumably my mother, father, and siblings. But it was hard to tell, I couldn’t really picture their likenesses. Instead there sat elegantly dressed mannequins with smooth bone-white faces. The table was set, but the plates were empty, I suspect the coffee cups in my parents’ hands were also empty. My dog, our black lab, was out in the living room in greater detail, frozen in porcelain—delicate porcelain at that, as its nose was chipped.

That was not very helpful, so I intended to inquire more of my neighbor’s demon-ish wife. But the seat was empty, he was gone. So, too, was my wallet and my watch. Joke’s on him about the watch, of course, as it stopped months ago and I was only wearing it for aesthetic effect! Also, I missed my bus.

It was nearly dawn when I finally got to town. I stumbled out of the bus and over to a news kiosk for a Snickers.

“Long night?” the attendant asked. She stood smiling behind the counter; she was younger, neatly dressed, impressively stiff posture, and alarmingly alert for that time of the day.

“You could say that,” I said. I put up the candy bar and paid.

“What brings you up at this hour?”

I didn’t really want to rehash the details, but I did so anyway. Her chipper expression remained fixed as I worked back from my robbery to my night patrols for demonic presence, punctuated by greedy bites of my Snickers.

“Demons are tricky,” she chirped.

“So I keep learning.”

“Have you considered looking out for goblins instead?”

“I wouldn’t know the first thing about that.”

“Usually you start from within,” she said. “Anyway, I’ll pray for you.”

“I appreciate that,” I said as I finished the Snickers.

“Have a good morning.”

We smiled, waved, and went our separate ways. As I made my way back to my apartment to sleep, I had to laugh. The perfect demonic tell, I thought, to think anyone prays in the daytime.

03-28-41

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I walked outside in the morning, hot cup of joe in my hand and still in my robe and slippers, about to get the weekend edition sitting at the end of the driveway. From atop the steps of my porch I could see it clearly: a faded timber wolf t-shirt, hanging from the lowest branch of the tree at the far edge of the front lawn.

“Shit,” I muttered under my breath, visible in the spring chill, and poured my still-steaming coffee out into the mulch. “This changes everything.”

Did it ever. I had so much planned for that Saturday. I had a whole itinerary, carefully cataloged in exact sequence. It was all in my head, of course, I don’t need to write these things down. I do need to memorize them, though, and could be heard the night before repeating it aloud at different intervals, in different parts of the house, and in the presence of a different family member each time. I was awake extra early to get it started, too.

First I was going to get into the weekend edition. I wasn’t going to read it exactly, just kind of flip through it: comb the latest in current events and commentary; peruse what’s being touted and condemned in the Book Review. That would get boring, so I’d reread the first chapter of Master and Commander or whatever it is. Then off to the grocery store for some steak, toilet paper, Purina One, and sriracha. I don’t like the self-service checkout, I like the regular checkout. I like the human touch. I like talking to the young checkout girls and bagboys about the latest apps and selfies. Next, Home Depot for padlock hasps and electrical tape. Change out of the robe at some point. Go into the basement to mend a load-bearing post that’s had a lot of wear lately. Clean the bathrooms. Think about how swell Gladys’s romper looks. Eat a low-carb lunch. Organize the garbage. Take a walk down the street. Maybe make a pass by the Millers’ place. Maybe slip some garbage into their above-ground pool—like they ever use it anymore. Clean the stains out of the den carpet. Replace the hasps on the basement door and shed. Dig a hole in the backyard, three feet wide, five and a half feet long, six feet deep; I’d get some cardio in and prove an important point. Write an email to the parks commission hoping to clarify that the “lost and found” policy should include anything that is lost on the natural trail. Time permitting, play catch with Bryson in the park. Watch a bit of golf. Remember to throw some steak downstairs later. Then I’d crack open a Budweiser, eat some dinner, and catch up on Blue Bloods or whatever it is.

Not anymore, though. Thanks to this goddamn faded timber wolf t-shirt wafting gently on my private property. How did it get there? I wondered to myself as I walked slowly across the yard. It was hanging not by the collar but through both sleeves, displaying the complete image of the wolf howling majestically at the moon. Who has the time let alone the nerve?

But it didn’t really matter how it got there. That it was there at all was so destabilizing. Just when you think you have it all under control, everything planned to a T, fate goes and throws a wrench into everything. Maybe this is some kind of teachable moment, I thought. I had been pretty high-strung for the last few weeks. I was taking on too much at once. Assuming more responsibilities than I could manage. Gladys liked to point this out every chance she got. “Typical man you are, Steve,” she’d chide me pouring herself another Malbec. Well, I concluded, I guess the chickens have come home to roost for me. Wolves, anyway.

A slight breeze caused the faded timber wolf t-shirt to sway back and forth. At a sideways glance it looked as if the wolf itself was moving, its piercing yellow gaze staring me down, ready to lunge out from its fabric and onto my throat. Standing about a foot and a half from it, the shirt still seemed imposing.

“What is it, Steve?” Gladys asked from the porch.

“It’s a shirt, dear.”

“Well what’s it doing on our tree?”

“Your guess is as good as mine, dear.”

“Maybe it’s dirty,” she mused. “Maybe it needs to be washed.”

“Funny way of going about it, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, maybe you’re right, hon.” She paused. “Smell it.”

“What?”

“Smell it and see if it’s dirty.”

Humoring her, I put my face a few inches from the shirt and quickly sniffed at it.

“What does it smell like?”

“I don’t know.” I sniffed again. “I want to say … pine.”

“Pine?”

“Yeah, it’s kind of dewy.”

“That could just be from it being outside like it is.”

“Yeah, right.” I placed my hand lightly over it. It was soft but a bit damp. It didn’t seem to have been left out for very long.

“Looks pretty new,” Gladys said, now peering from right behind me. I jumped as her hand cupped under my elbow.

“I’m not sure what to do.”

“Maybe someone will claim it.”

“Maybe,” I repeated indifferently. “Seems like more trouble than it’s worth.”

“Whatcha got there, Steve,” a male voice said. It was Jay Miller, out for a morning speed walk, his son Craig trailing behind on his Huffy. His voice was warm but trepidatious. “Looks like someone’s doing a little … a little laundry on your tree.”

“Are you missing a shirt, Jay?” Gladys said with a chuckle.

“Can’t say that I am, Gladys.” Jay came to our side to gaze upon the display. I looked at him and saw his slight smile go flat, his cheeks drain of any attractive color, and his eyes fix into a frozen stun. He turned back to his sun waiting a few feet away at the curb. “Hey, let’s go to the bagel store, whattaya say?”

Craig shrugged and turned his bike to the other direction.

“Everything okay?” I asked Jay curiously as he began to make his exit.

“I’ll be seeing ya, Steve.” And he went off.

“I wonder what got into him,” Gladys said into thin air.

I didn’t respond immediately, waiting until the Millers disappeared from view.

“Gladys do you mind getting my harpoon from the safe?”

“What’s the combination again?”

“It’s Virginia Woolf’s date of death.”

“Okay, I need to get my phone.”

“No need.” I lifted the right side of my robe and what it was concealing.

“Hold on a sec.” Gladys bent down behind me and fumbled with her reading glasses. She squinted at my backside for just under 10 seconds.

“Steve?”

“Yes, darling?”

“Is that my romper?”

“Not it’s not your romper.”

“Oh … no I suppose it isn’t.” She stood back up and made her way back to the house. “Okay, be back in a tic. I’ll put some coffee on, too.”

“I appreciate that, hon.”

I sat on the steps of the porch and watched as all the other homes started to show signs of life, their occupants soon to be seeing what I am seeing.

Typical, I thought to myself, that my responsibilities would decrease in number but increase in gravity.

BODY POSITIVITY

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Readers sometimes like to describe writing as though writing was a body. They like to size up a piece of prose as they would a model in a magazine, a woman on a sidewalk, or a corpse on a slab. They use words like muscular, sinuous, toned, lithe, clumsy, skeletal, anemic, or flabby. Prose can walk on its own two feet. It can make untoward advances upon you. It can pin you in a corner and bare its teeth. It can keep secrets from you for the rest of your life. It can touch you in ways you have never been and never will be touched.

Perhaps you’ve noticed this. Perhaps you’ve also noticed that this application tends to be imprecise. A reader can say with certainty that this or that author’s writing is this or that personification. Beg them to elaborate and see how far you go. At best, they are like me and know better what a piece of writing isn’t. Writing by George Orwell is not fat; writing by Jonathan Franzen is not robust. All in all, it seems a shallow way to talk about literature. It’s an unfortunate abuse as I like the concept for my own purposes.

It would be hard to deny that many, though by no means all, writers want to achieve a sort of liveliness in their prose. This is the desire, some might say obsession, of the stylist. Words can and should exist more than in servile obedience to the content. The words create a twin of the person putting them down: improved and carefully accentuated. Where actions failed the stylist, words will cover the loss with unambiguous triumph of his or her own making. The stylist ultimately desires triumph; usually, in the eyes of critics, at the expense of the opinion being espoused, the story being told, or the information being imparted. The twin is just a mannequin upon which accessory after accessory is placed until it can no longer bear the weight and it falls apart.

Stylists have never argued that point, at least not with notable passion; so long as the critics never called their art bodily. Anything but that. We, the stylists shall claim, are not writing bodies. We’re not writing things with limitations. We don’t write things that can struggle, plateau, fatten, or deteriorate; or that can run away from us or be dismembered and imperfectly reattached. Bodies give way to control up to a point. Soon enough, they bite back and they refuse; they don’t give you what you want or do just as you please. A writer of bodily prose is a writer with no control, who is indifferent to control, or who willfully creates monsters.

Something I find very important when I think about writing as a craft is that not everything works. Nor does one thing work for everyone. This is often overlooked, as a necessity, in the process of teaching people how to write within the bounds of certain forms. But once someone finds him or herself writing mostly with their desires, fixations, and aesthetic proclivities to guide them, the lessons they retained previously—assuming they had any to begin with—must make space. Some people write slowly with a concise method and routine. Some people write quickly and under duress or restriction. Some people write playfully, manipulate form, tone, and intent. Some people adhere strictly to previous models, preferring to renovate rather than innovate. Some write to impose order. Some write to sow chaos. Some write for money. Some (can afford to) write for glory. Most try to do both. This does not mean that not trying constitutes good writing. Good writers try; good writers also respect, are curious about, and are open to learning from the processes of the writers in their orbit and whom they admire.

It would appear at first that there isn’t much worth learning from or admiring about bodily writing. It’s certainly not a type that writers intently seek out. It’s everything any self-respecting writer fears: the unseemly byproduct of vision poorly translating into execution. Less a failure than it is a mutation, but one that vexes and embarrasses all the same. A lot of writers flee it, but some writers choose, or at least resign themselves, to dwell with it.

Writing is a process of humiliation. Bodily writing is more humiliating than most. It is a relationship with the text that never has a clear endpoint. There is no finality, no crescendo, no closure. The text is not something the writer simply commits to paper but manages over an indefinite period. It makes demands on the writer; it contradicts the writer; it calls the writer’s motives into question. The writer accedes to this arrangement for whatever reason: habit, natural taste for it, for the love of a challenge, or very possibly all three. For this writer the text is always enduring growth. One version lets itself go. Another version becomes leaner. Elsewhere, an entire passage that made sense before looks utterly foreign several months later, it must be clarified or removed. At first, this seems a lot like the revision process of any piece of writing. But the difference here is that revision and publication are not clearly separate. One version may go public but can reappear elsewhere in vaguely recognizable form.

This is most true of the essay, always born soft, crude, and vulnerable, but which is hardened and matured through different editions. Lionel Trilling’s literary criticism went through many changes before arriving at their now-classic collected versions. Of course the chief practitioner of live revisions is Montaigne, whose Essais are now printed complete with every amendment Montaigne ever made to them. De Quincey’s essays were noted for their “vertiginous” formlessness. “The virtue of the essay is that it reflects a thought in the process of discovering itself,” his biographer Frances Wilson writes, “and De Quincey dramatized this process.” The U.S. Constitution is a collaborative bodily text, and is hated for it. Fictional texts are no less bodily. Edgar Allan Poe routinely published, revised, and republished his stories in different newspapers and collections. To this you could also add the earnestly impure stories of Winesburg, Ohio and the sentimental anarchism of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen.

For all its examples, though, the bodily mode lacks one ideal text. Otherwise what would be the point? Bodily texts pose problems for reader and writer alike. They are like any stranger you see on the subway: ornery, messy, amusing in spite of themselves one minute, more trouble than their worth the next. They are crankish and untrustworthy, but also mysterious and tempting. Not many readers give into that temptation, and those who do tend to be other writers viewing it from a safe, possibly respectful distance. To them these works provoke sufficient curiosity but no envy. Not many bodily works get embraced by posterity. With optimal timing they may sneak in through the back.

I would have interjected myself into this essay earlier were it not for its structure’s unyielding forbiddance. Seeing an opening now, however, I shall do just that.

It would appear that aligning myself with the bodily mode after all I’ve just said about it is paying myself a high compliment—or at least it is annoyingly clever. I’m not so sure that alignment is earned. What makes my work bodily? That it is rough around the edges, rife with scar tissue and lesions, subject to amendment from time to time, and occasionally embarrassing? Sure, like, it’s possible, but also not entirely true. Sometimes a text I write really does have finality. It can only go so far. I see a flawed text like “The Juggalo’s Progress,” I see all the things I should have done differently—like reining in, or completely cutting, the opening four paragraphs. Or I see a text like “Guidance” or “A Plea to My Readers” and deem it perfect. In either case I opt to do nothing. It is less about the limitations of the text than it is about my own limitations and strengths in the moment of its creation, of which I need sufficient reminder as I continue to write. In spite of myself, I can’t stop pretending to mastery.

It is more that bodily writing has a certain appeal—temperamentally, yes, but morally as well. The pursuit of perfection has made a clearing to found a well-manicured estate, where it lounges in relative security. The bodily mode looms off in the remaining forestry, where mastery, authority, and other pets under perfection’s care cannot survive for very long. Bodily writing does not oppose perfection. They do not get along, yes, but each respects the other as they manage the persistent and necessary problems of writing. They are, at day’s end, good problems to have.

My gut tells me that I should not end the essay on that note, but I have no better alternative, nothing more impactful that is also less portentous, on which to leave you, my clearly enchanted reader. But at the same time it is only fitting, given the spirit of the subject, that the piece should break down and sustain injury. Maybe later I will take steps to heal it. Maybe.

DELETED SCENE FROM A ROMANTIC COMEDY

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SCENE: Two young, attractive people walking through a park on a summer night, eating ice cream cones. Their speech is casual, and somewhat suggestive.

EX: Strange world.

OH: Troubled world.

EX [licks ice cream]: Impossible world

OH: So impossible.

EX: Impossibly bright.

OH: Blinding almost.

EX: Don’t look directly into it.

OH [licks ice cream]: So bright …

EX: So bright … it’s …

BOTH: It’s black.

They laugh.

EX: A black hole.

OH: None more black.

EX: Blacker than the blackest of all black.

OH: A sinking void.

EX: Deeper and deeper.

OH: Full of secrets.

EX [licks ice cream]: Secrets hiding other secrets.

OH: Secrets and mysteries.

EX: Nowhere left to hide.

OH: No space.

EX: No air.

OH: No breath.

EX: There is no here here.

OH: There is no hair there.

EX: No balance.

OH [licks ice cream]: No order.

EX: No sense.

OH: I’m thinking …

EX: I feel …

OH: … sharper …

EX: Four-dimensional.

OH: Many-sided.

EX: Complex.

OH: Containing multitudes.

EX: Held together by masking tape and force of will.

OH: The pinnacle of physics.

EX: Stretching hindmost the bounds of common sense and all accepted cosmetological limitations.

OH: Punch right through them like a plaster wall.

EX [holding up fists]: With solar fists.

OH: Don’t look now.

EX: Don’t speak first.

Pause. They each try to speak but stammer.

OH: Wait, I thought …

EX: … I thought so … too …

They laugh. EX puts ice cream cone upside down on top of OH’s head. Additional laughter.

OH: Strange world.

EX [licks OH‘s ice cream]: It’s the damnedest thing, isn’t it?

 They walk into a dark place. Fade out.

CURFEW

man-writing-at-desk-george-marks

Dear Sylvia,

I am very depressed. This shouldn’t surprise you by now as I only ever write to you when I am depressed. As you do not reply to these letters I am not sure as to your exact feelings about them. I can, I guess, assume with some generosity that you do not disapprove of them out of hand. Maybe you even take something from them.

I have been thinking about the nature of this arrangement between this letter and the last one. At first I thought it might be some sort of power dynamic. You, the receiver, are the more dominant over me, the giver. This would make more sense if I knew exactly what I was giving you. I would not presume that you were willfully taking something away from me. But I think the more reasonable arrangement is more egalitarian. Or maybe it’s codependent. We both feel the same feelings, but we deal with them in different—actually in directly opposed—ways. I must be the expresser and you acquiesce to be the listener. Together we form a mutual bond of folk therapy. That is very nice, if it was true; I will not pry you for your thoughts but just leave there for your rumination.

I did hear an interesting theory about being depressed. It goes something like this: the depressed person is always consciously depressed. It is predisposed in them since birth or even fertilization. No one knows where it truly comes from. Being born from a depressed person or people is entirely coincidental. Being depressed means being in a heightened state of being. People who espouse this theory stop just short of saying that it is an evolution, but that is heavily implied. It is assumed that depressed people have a greater sensitivity to the instability of the Real World. They can better navigate it, anticipate any rupture, and endure any fallout better than those who are not depressed. The depressed people are, in some sense, stronger than anyone else. A little birdie told it to me, and by little birdie I mean the person sitting next to me in the waiting room at urgent care. Don’t worry, there was nothing wrong with me, but with someone I know who needed support during a challenging occurrence that compelled urgent care. I guess you could say that that is a power dynamic of its own. I haven’t figured out who is dominant and who is submissive, though.

Anyway, I don’t thank that’s true. I think there are people who are momentarily despaired who get these kinds of ideas as a sort of motivating factor.

Are you curious as to the circumstances in which this letter is being written? I will tell you regardless. In my last letter I wrote you in a very unremarkable environment: in my small room, on my desk, just after dinner, then again in the morning to finish up. I did so just in time to mail it off. I felt those conditions were restrictive. Being in your room is like being inside a life-sized diorama approximation of your own head. Thoughts you are having bounce against the thoughts you are about to have and float deflated to the floor with the thoughts you had long ago. It is hard to keep track of anything. I never vacuum because I keep seeing my own thoughts on the floor being sucked away as easily as any old dust or bug shell.

I wanted to do something different this time. I wanted to go outside. But I needed ideal conditions for it. It is now winter; and winter, whether one is depressed or not, runs like one long cold day that just happens to span over a few months. The sun is hidden always in the same place. The wind blows in the same opposing direction and at the same unbearable velocity. The show that you see on channel 21 picks up where it leaves off on channels 96, 205, and 899. The coffee has the same tepid tastelessness. I thought I would never get a break, even a slight one. But occasionally the winds show some mercy and the sun comes out for just enough time to get me up and out. I wanted to find a peaceful place with as few people as possible. I remembered that there is a nature walk that runs along a river and a place to sit and watch the water flow. I was anticipating taking that place and putting my thoughts on paper for you.

This was not to be, alas. A great deal of rain and snow causes the river to overflow. It takes weeks to recede and when it does, the path and the sitting area are soggy and claylike. I took once step and my shoe went from blue to earthy brown. So I am actually writing you this letter from a garbage can in front of a QuickChek.

It’s fine, really. It’s fine in the way that most concessions to reality are fine. Ideals always seem to concede to reality in my personal experience. Maybe also in that of others, but I haven’t asked. How do you answer that type of question? I could conceivably ask any of the people who walk out the doors of this QuickChek. Because of the specific nature of my situation I never see them go in, only out, and they remind me again of thoughts freeing themselves from a mind. Thoughts that look a lot like teens cutting class to buy cigarettes. They look at me sometimes as they pass me. I know because I occasionally catch them doing it. Their expressions tell me nothing. They look neither embarrassed nor disgusted.

One customer came out with a soda and was talking on the phone. She seemed older because she was having a conversation people who are no longer teens have. It was not very joyful, weighted by its own concessions to a particular reality. She stopped in front of the store to rummage through her purse, keeping the phone in place with her head and shoulder. I was concerned at this and let her have my writing surface for the duration. She smiled sort of, while continuing her conversation, which I could only hear in fragments. “I just want to wake up one day to see a mature man … Well if he was mature he would be awake before me … I just know these things, clearly you have the same problem.” She got out her Wrigley’s gum and turned to me. “Sorry, thanks.” Then she walked back to her car and her voice faded into foggier inanities.

Back to my trash can, I had one thought and two half-thoughts. First I half-thought of all the times I’d heard conversations like these, usually in the city. I could trail someone for blocks hearing the fractured life story—either their own story or someone else’s. I then half-thought that there might have been times when I was subject to this treatment. Someone to whom I had been connected talking to someone to whom I am entirely unconnected about something I had done or not done that was irritating the former person. Once I walked behind someone on a Friday night who had just gotten either out of work or out of happy hour. I wanted to pass her actually, but she kept zig-zagging absent-mindedly to either extreme of the sidewalk. Also passing her required me to walk at a faster pace than I was willing to go at that moment. She was talking about herself, and her stated intention to eat a dinner of pinot noir and Swedish Fish. Pinot noir and Swedish Fish. To each their own.

My only full thought was of the disappointment the woman outside the QuickChek was going to experience sooner or later about her prospects of maturity.

In my experience, no one ever matures. They clarify. It is a little-thought theory of life, but one I find more compelling than the one earlier mentioned, that at some point we stop becoming a person and just refine that personality over time. I think this happens at age 14 or 15. We never stop being teenagers. We never stop waiting in our rooms for reality to transcend into dream. Our room is turquoise or yellow with posters on the wall of famous boys, bald eagles, or free-running horses. The dream is supposed to call any minute. Our phone is a rotary landline and it is always ringing, but it’s always someone with the wrong number: an old man who cannot hear very well. I don’t know what he represents, he is probably just an old man; it doesn’t matter, it’s annoying all the same, and it’s almost curfew. Some forever-teens are imbued with natural wisdom. Some forever-teens have none at all. It is only by our good or bad fortune that we meet one or the other and make a life with them.

I have to stop now. Some factors: the wind has lost its mercy; so, too, has the QuickChek clerk. The long day is back, and I’m feeling somehow less strong.

Stay real til soonish,
Bud

NOTES FROM ABOVE GROUND

tombstone
Dear Diary,

Maxine walks up to my workspace telling me all about the tantric yoga class she takes over at her Y. She says it’s “what’s happening” right now, and that it’s fun but also clarifying. I don’t know what she means by “happening,” but she always talks to me about this new activity she’s doing (where does she get the time?) in a super purposeful way, like something in me is missing, or like I have a huge hole in the middle of my chest that only she can see and fix. She always does this when I’m on a tight deadline.  Not that Fluid Church is going to notice their rebranding is an additional week late.

***

Dear Diary,

There are 5 interns on my staff. Two of them are tied for my least-favorite. One spends his break buying candy from the vending machine, then selling them on Craigslist for double, claiming they are items on the Rockettes’ dressing room rider. The other one is competent, reliable, takes direction well, and cycles maybe 5 or 6 different solid-colored cardigans every day. But she does all this while holding onto a selfie stick, because she’s an MFA student whose thesis is a performance art piece entitled Late Capitalism 0.0.

The other three are unremarkable.

***

Dear Diary,

I have a name curse. It’s followed me throughout my life. At least since 4th grade, when I met Dylan. Dylan and I were friends for most of that year, I’d go over to his house all the time, and he to mine. It was fine for a while, we liked a lot of the same things: like Marvel Comics trading cards and Earthworm Jim. Eventually he moved out of state. I met another Dylan in 5th grade and tried to build a friendship with him. We had less in common. He collected pennies and stamps, his fingernails were always grimy and yellow, and he had a compulsive tendency to disrupt class. His name was on the board every day. At some point, I think Mrs. Montag just didn’t erase it. His bad habits started to rub off on me. He bathed sporadically so I did the same. Whenever he had to fart, he would stand behind Kelly Ullman and do it very indiscreetly. I kind of liked her, but again, I did the same.

My whole identity soon took the form of Dylan 2’s tastes and desires. We’d spend weekends sorting through piles of pennies, then go to the park and stare blankly at older kids making out behind the tennis wall. Sometimes Dylan 2 would bring Bubble Yum and blew bubbles really methodically. One of those kids turned out to be my babysitter, who told my parents, so I was forbidden to see him.

Dylan 2 was expelled for trying to pants the gym teacher and I think ended up in juvie for attempted arson. I didn’t meet another Dylan until sophomore year in high school. We were not friends, we didn’t run in the same circles or share classes, but whenever I’d run into him my week would go completely to shit. I’d miss the bus several times, the cable would go out during Buffy, I’d somehow get grounded the same weekend as a party. I avoided that Dylan as best I could. But it transferred over to other Dylans. Like the one in my frat, which started the whole process over. He was harder to avoid. It is because of frat bro Dylan that I got scabies.

Anyway, the curse remains, but under a new name. This time it’s Blake. There’s a Blake with a terrier at the dog park every few days and things go to shit in a very recognizable way whenever I see him. Then there’s a barista named Blake at my favorite coffee place and it happens all over again.

I don’t want to change coffee places, so to mitigate the effects of the curse I’ve hatched a plan to get him fired. I’ve stolen one of the medium-size cups and wrote “EAT ASS” on it in his very distinctive part-cursive, part-print penmanship. The idea is to wait for someone to order a medium drink—which I think is the most common size—and quickly switch another customer’s drink order with my decoy cup. There are a lot of moving parts and I’m hoping it’s impactful enough to cover up the otherwise implausible nature of the scheme. It sucks because Blake’s name is his only apparent fault. But what’s done is done.

***

Dear Diary,

Cherie’s landlord is a dick who seems to think that because she pays him rent, he gets to be her dad. It’s creepy. I walked her up to her stoop on Friday and went in for a kiss, but the mood soured when I saw his glum face staring through the front door. Cherie did not invite me up, not that I would have gone up if she had.

One time when we passed him going to dinner I could have sworn he called her “Princess.” When I asked her if I heard him right she just laughed and said “You guys are such kooks, y’know?” What’s this “guys” bullshit?

***

Dear Diary,

I woke up on Saturday to a loud banging on my door. I was hoping it was my landlord coming to change the moldy showerhead, but when I opened the door no one was there. I stepped out into the hallway and my foot nearly crushed what was left in front of the door: a CD case. When I opened it there was a CD-R with “PLAY ME ;-)” written on it in red sharpie. I went back in fully intending to play the CD, but soon realized that I had nothing in the apartment that can actually play CDs.

I was bummed, and very curious. But I put it in a drawer and tried to forget about it. I made some coffee and drank it while looking out the window. Cloudy, but lots of joggers. I need to jog again. I thought about all the secrets people keep from each other. I think secrets are an important component of our lives. We need secrets to keep from everyone else, even from ourselves.

***

Dear Diary,

The vibe at the coffee place has soured; so after all that, I still had to find a new one. I’m now kicking myself for my stubbornness about change. My new coffee place is actually on the way to the office, so I can go in the morning and indulge myself sometimes for “working lunches.” There are no Blakes so far as I know, this place does not use nametags, but the staff has plenty of tattoos and piercings. If you wanted to complain about someone’s shitty service, just say “The girl with the lip ring did this that offended me or the guy with the lobe gauge and the Alkaline Trio neck tat did that,” and so on.

The staff is fine so far. I only wish the customers wouldn’t order so many espressos. The machine sounds like its grinding bones to powder. Since I can’t unspin the planet to prevent them from buying that machine, my only other option is to overpower the noise with noise of my own. Not actual noise, though: interior noise. Every admonition, every word of discouragement said to me over the course of my life will cancel out the churn of espresso. So every time it turns on I hear You’re playing outfield; You must be THIS tall to go on this ride; Caring for a puppy takes commitment, let’s get a rabbit instead; You don’t really have the fingers for bass guitar; You’re such a good friend; Maybe you should consider a state school as your target. So soothing, comparably speaking.

***

Dear Diary,

After yet another unsolicited wellness intervention from Maxine, I threw up my hands and signed up for a trial session of meditation at the Woodhull Day School. I admitted to myself that I need other forms of relaxation that aren’t as costly as (and possibly more effective than) therapy.

Things went well for the first 10 or so minutes. Then I started to drift. I found myself transported. I was in this park near my old apartment in Jersey City. I’m not sure why, that place had no special significance to me and I was glad to be rid of it when I moved. Anyway, I’m walking in the park and I come across the playground area. There is no one else there—no kids or parents or babysitters or cops—but some ravens, perched in almost perfect formation along the monkey bars. They looked so still I thought they were fake.  But looking closer they were very real. I got a look at their eyes, which were not birds’ eyes … they were human. Not just of any human, though, they were very much like my mom’s eyes. The same color (a kind of golden brown) and the same shocked glare she gave me that one summer day when I was 14 and she caught me masturbating three times: in my bedroom, in the den, and in the laundry room. It was agreed that I was going to get a job that night. That summer felt like my worst one at the time, and historically it may still be.

The ravens also had vocal fry.

I guess it’s cool that I learned I can sleep sitting up. I will tell Maxine that it wasn’t for me, though it may break her heart.

***

Dear Diary,

The two least-favorite interns are now down to one. Now it is one least-favorite intern and one least-favorite new hire. I finally reported the fucker about the vending machines. I listened in (not hard to do in an open office) as my boss was giving him the talking-to that prefaced a very likely firing, he slumped in his chair and sighed “Big mood.” This struck my boss in no small way. Now he’s an “identity associate” who has his own desk and sits in meetings saying “big mood” in various registers whenever my boss pauses what he’s saying and looks at him. Everything is now a “big mood.” “Big mood this” and “big mood that.” I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean. Like, I can’t till if it’s good or bad. Our whole business model rests on those two words. “Big mood” will probably go on my tombstone. When I asked him to clarify he just said, “Brah, c’mon. Brah.” And the whole office just laughed.

Never mind, that will go on my tombstone.

***

Dear Diary,

After a week I finally cracked. I had to know what is on that CD. I hadn’t talked to Cherie in a little bit, and I knew she had some kind of old laptop with CD capability. I called her and asked if I could use it. “I had to get rid of it,” she said, “but I have a portable CD drive you can use. I don’t want what’s on that CD getting on my laptop.” “It has a winky face on it, how bad can it be?” was my reply. But I kind of understood and went over with the necessary materials.

When I put in the CD, iTunes opened up and listed four tracks: “EAT ASS part 1,” “EAT ASS part 2,” “EAT ASS part 3,” etc. Their lengths went upward from 7-15 minutes.

Cherie stared uneasily at the screen and handed me her headphones. When I pressed play on the first track, all I heard was an organ. Playing a single note. For the entire 7 minutes. When I played the parts 2, 3, and 4, they were the same: a single long note, though each were different notes. It was like someone having excruciating diarrhea in slow motion.

When I took off the headphones, Cherie asked me what the deal was. I shrugged and thought it was an experimental art record, maybe something the other intern made, and she thought I had a record label or something. Not sure where she got that idea. I grew tired of the subject and asked Cherie if she needed company for the night. Cherie said no.

I walked home trying to think which I had more of: hated interns or possible epitaphs.

TIRED OF NOT LOSING

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It has come to my attention that I am a failure. I have failed, am failing, will very likely fail in perpetuity. I have grabbed the brass ring, taken the bull by the horns, carped the diem; in each case I came up not just short of expectations, but separated from them by the length of a desert. I can’t actually recall with any precision what I expected; I only know that what I got for my efforts was not among them. I am a loser, and to the loser go not the spoils but the rags that clean the spoils up; also a t-shirt, and years of regret, disappointment, and shame.. I am I have I will … I can go on all day.

Accepting that you have failed is not something you just realize upon waking up. It accumulates gradually over time until you feel it itching and oozing within you. It’s like earwax, basically, and there are only so many ways to unburden yourself of it before it builds up all over again. And like earwax it is one of those pesky facts of life. If that opening paragraph seems rather melodramatic in isolation, try imagining it being intoned in unison. A vast chorus of internal monologue, droning away at any time of the day and in any state of activity. It’s like if Glenn Branca did Gregorian chant, but I digress.

I am a failure; you, too, are a failure. I don’t mean that as an accusation, only as a statement of truth. We are a failing species. It has been crocheted into our DNA with a logical imprecision that is very characteristic of us. A human life with even the least obstructed agency will go to its death drawer with a failure-to-success ratio wildly, almost implausibly, lopsided to the former. Of course that is why success is given such stature at all, and why whole businesses are created to show people how to deal with failure.

I don’t disapprove of the failure business as such, but I take issue with how they conduct their service. It’s fine to charge people a fee in exchange for showing them how to cope with failure and to remind them of its likelihood. They just never seem to leave it at that. I guess it’s not a lot of bang for the several bucks being put in. Some businesses tell you how to cope with failure while adding that failure in itself is a virtue. Failure offers “teachable” incentives or otherwise reveals your character in ways that relationships, rewards, and reasonable expectations never do. What is there to do but to continually and consciously fail? By risking more and losing every time, you will presumably have weathered every possible setback and endured every level of embarrassment, achieving finally a heightened level of existence, which you call “success.” By any other person this would be “peace of mind,” but it’s peace of mind shot through the prism of delusion with the force of a cannon. That’s still pretty sane compared to the other business approach, which teaches basically the same process but with the promise that there is a light at the end of the tunnel: the gleam of a polished trophy, bearing your name and whatever it is you wanted to achieve this whole time—good luck picking just one thing.

It’s very easy for me to sit here calling everyone a failure then at the same time trashing the apparatus put in place to relieve its sting. I should probably have a very good reason for doing so, or else I would just be a troll, a role which no one agrees that I have mastered at playing. Well, you’re in luck, as I do, in fact, have a good reason. Or should I say a solution? I’ll leave you to determine that.

That failure ever became a problem is probably one of the greatest failures of our already failure-prone horde. But this is how it always ends up for us. Things go great until some sort of corruption is allowed to enter either by misplaced trust or managerial oversight. It shall forever be a mystery as through what means success was introduced to the human race. It is possible that someone managed it by accident, envisioning a desired end and replicating it almost exactly in reality. Or it could have been suggested, perhaps innocently, as a kind of perspective-enhancing counterfactual.

As expected, though, history comes up empty of accounts of anyone willingly taking credit for this fuck-up. Why should we, when it is clear that success is one of the stupidest, cruelest concepts ever entered into our consciousness? Success: that great destabilizing chemical of our psyches, that great inflamer of our egoist membranes. It is a potent drug, culled from our aspirational ether, designed to please us by inches and to deceive us by eons. The problem remains: how is success derailed, bested, and exiled forever from our troubles? Alas, it is not; for the success business is going to end up a lot like the failure business.

It is thanks to the failure business that we tend to think the worst part of success is in its pursuit. It’s not good, sure, but at least success remains entirely abstract, an idea in someone’s head that motivates them and distracts them from anything persuasively worse than that one goal. This is preferable to actual success, which offers no such comfort. What, in fact, is worse than substantially achieving your wildest aspiration? Death? Narrowly surviving a drone attack? Going to prison? Those assuredly suck, but to the successful they all seem elevated in their appeal compared to what he or she is already enduring.

We think we can identify the successful. Given that failure is so prominent they do seem to stand out. They are, we assume, people imbued with confidence, people we like to emulate, to whom we either confer dignified respect or bitter envy. They are clever or they are hot or they are charming or they are all of the above. How little we know. Indeed, this is just us projecting our own abstractions onto them. Removed of the illusion, the successful appear in their real, reduced form: drastically emaciated with no muscle mass to speak of, eyes sunken and bloodshot, teeth crooked and jaundice, flesh flabby and grey, and posture curved like an italicized question mark. Their walk is sluggish and meandering, each creek of their bones singes deep into the ear canals of any onlooker. The successful are tired: tired of winning.

As we dare not engage them at our level lest we shatter or own illusions, we fail to hear their whispered pleas to be saved, to be freed from the prison of their own making. Seemingly of their own making anyway; for no one truly knows the source of success. Though it is accepted that our own efforts have minimal effect, the debate lingers if it is foisted largely by ill-fortune or by malice of an independent party. In any case, the successful are, at the very least, impossible to save. It is more prudent that we, the failures, do what we can to prevent success from ever touching us.

Our best defense is to take the failure business approach and turn it on its head. Success isn’t something we search out or come at sideways; success is hunting you. Not really hunting, exactly, but lying in wait: a well-concealed unmarked cop car on the freeway. Success is a predator of opportunity. It doesn’t matter if you’re alert or aloof about success, if you’re there, and it sees you, you’re fucked. Once you’re subject to its law, the change it enables is rapid and destabilizing. The world you once knew in failure shrinks from connected and expansive to isolate and narrow. The nature of success, no matter the size of it, takes precedence over any other priority of your identity. Soon, anything related to your life of failure becomes remote or forgotten. You end up paying endless tribute to your success. The world is not closed off to you but success pulls you where it wants you to go, which turns out not to be very many places; places, of course, optimal for being seen. You soon find just how forced the smiles of the successful are when the muscles of your face move independently of your own desires like a kind of rubber, forced in place by success’s infernal puppetry.

On this understanding, our object is not to perversely pursue failure or to contend with its reality, but to avoid success with extreme vigilance. We, the non-successful, must be alert to its many traps. Think of it as nothing short of psychological and cerebral warfare.

Make as detailed a list of your aspirations as you can. Impose strict critical standards that you hadn’t in a more complacent mindset until most of them are deemed impossible. For those that remain, oversaturate yourself with information about them until there’s nothing left to know about them and, hence, nothing left to pursue. Once all aspirations are killed, seek the aspirations of others, in particular those for which your interest is nonexistent. Bore yourself with culture, adventure, prospects of growth, prosperity, and happiness. Enhance your skepticism to the level of a sixth sense until every opportunity is too good to be true, a scam in the making, a red flag, or an affront to your security and/or dignity. If your love language is words of affirmation, change it to words of discouragement. Refuse to acknowledge compliments, they do not exist, they are gaslighting. Use your free time to lie in bed for hours looking up at the ceiling. If that’s too meditative, binge-watch the whole season of Back with the Ex with no lights on. Rewatch it immediately. Don’t learn to code.

These may be too rudimentary to mount a complete and invulnerable defense, but it is a suitable start in developing the correct mindset to strengthen it over time. Soon you will start to look on success and all its berserk trappings as a kind of clownish theatre—strange and archaic if not exactly worth laughing it.

The naysayers doubtless wait in the dark to tear this plan to pieces. It is harmful, they’ll say. The product of a warped mind, some might add. It sows fear and anxiety; it cuts down confidence and self-respect. So what if it does? I don’t see you coming up with any bright ideas. Sure, committing your life to avoiding Hell rather than admittance to Heaven is probably not practice of the fullest, purest holiness; but it’s not unholy. I guess we’ll have to wait and see which one fails better.