Tuesday, February 3, 2015

So Many Choices But Dying Ain't One



Even as a child who wanted to be an adult as soon as possible, I couldn't buy what adults said about children--that children didn't think they could die. I was afraid of dying all the time. The problem is I had no idea what I really feared about death. I thought I was afraid of being small and weak and stupid. I thought if I could be the opposite of those things I wouldn't be vulnerable. In short, I might live a long time, if not forever. And I was sort of right. Now I know the fuller reason I couldn't buy what adults were selling; I didn't have the currency. Wanting to be older and stronger didn't make me older and stronger. Instead, it made me seem even younger. I didn't know a good thing when I had it.

The minnow I caught in a net and took apart with some cousins at a family reunion didn't read as dead to any of us. We knew it was dead because our parents told us it was dead. But no one told us what dead really meant. It didn't mean the minnow was gone. The minnow was still there in front of us, wet on the dock. No, I see now what I couldn't see then. The minnow still existed, but its potential had vanished. We'd made a choice for the minnow in a way we never feared anyone would make a choice for us. We would keep on moving because nobody would stop us.

Which is what the adults had really been saying all along. Our options still seemed wide open. The walls were not yet closing in.

I fear death now in the same way I feared it as a child. I just have the experience, near 30, to understand the dread I've always carried. When I ride in a car or walk home late at night I project my worry into a possible future where the outcome of an innocent choice is a final scene out of my control. The fear is not really in dying or being dead. The fear is in not being myself anymore. Because I love myself. I take care of myself. And I'm not finished. I know when I die I'll still be here. Nothing leaves this universe. Those pieces just won't have my name and they won't be able to do whatever it is I still want to do.

So where is this coming from? It's coming from last Sunday when I rode back to Kansas City in a car speeding over black ice and worried about my unfinished second book and how if I made it home alive I'd finish it, and then from a couple months ago when I decided to check in on some of the writers I used to workshop stories with over email after college and found out one of the writers had died. And even further back two years when I read a beautiful novel and tried to track down the author to tell him how much his writing meant to me only to also arrive at his obituary. After that one I sat on the edge of my bed and wept. I don't cry a lot, but when I do, I weep. Josh was out of town. Not that it mattered. I was inconsolable.

Whenever I think I might die, I don't. Obvious, and yet. I have seizures. Seizures have been video game death for me. The screen goes black, and I return to play again. I can't help but think of it as practice. I'm still young. Not that young. My options shrink. Who I am and what I'll have time to do solidifies even as entropy approaches. Right now I'm in order. Later, though, I'll be the minnow on the dock. Stopped then scattered. No more choices.

Anyway, I wrote this short story and it went up at The Mondegreen last month. Soon, I'll start working on a cardigan a friend commissioned. She provided the yarn, which she dyed with indigo. This week, like last week, I'm working on new stories. You'll read them if an editor somewhere thinks you should read them, and even then, only if you choose to read them. Today I chose to stand at the living room window and watch a young man sit in his car and squeeze blackheads from the bridge of his nose before taking photos of himself with his phone.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Two Oh One Four



I'm convinced of my own mythology: that my personal symbol is probably a snake or a spider, or even better, a snake and a spider fighting in the dark; that whatever I saw that one morning in the museum before work a few years ago was a ghost; and that 2014 began three times for me--once when the calendar said so and two other times when I woke up from seizures. That one year can feel like both three years and no years is fine by me. I started. I disappeared. I started again and again.

In between storms, I traveled more than usual. To say the year was generous and cruel would be wrong. People were generous. Nature was cruel. Though as I've said before, I don't see it that way. Nature as a force lacks intent. People do not. The people I love loved me back more than I can ever repay. I saw nature as I saw it when I was younger. In detail. I saw one beautiful snake in the grass in North Carolina as I walked barefoot and shirtless up the shoulder of a highway and carried an inner tube. I saw a kitchen in New Orleans the morning after a party. Roaches. Ants. I saw a seagull float in the air beside the ferry Josh and I rode from Seattle to a small island, though really the bird flew exactly as fast as the boat moved through the water. I saw the water. I dreamed about the water. I went under the water and recognized it as the place I go when I stop being my brain and start being my body.

A place to break even.

If the year was anything but a year, it was that dark water. I dipped in and out of three short stories that will soon form a book. My first book had been published the year before. My second book would have been published last year if I'd finished it. I didn't. I'm still not finished. I'm almost finished. Josh says I'll finish this week, and I'd like to believe him like I'd like to believe anyone I've known and loved for 10 years. But I've known myself longer. I write most and best when I feel apart from nature, when I can point at it and observe it and not see myself anywhere in it. In 2014, I couldn't suffer that delusion.

My seizures have only ever been interesting to me in as much as I don't understand them. This past year I continued the work of undressing my epilepsy, of inspecting it until it became no more mysterious than breathing. A function or a malfunction. I had two seizures in the span of four months. You've read the pieces I wrote about them. Either way, the seizures are no longer extraordinary. They're nature, so I'm nature. I can't pretend to be above myself anymore. I'm above nothing.

It's 2015 because we agree it's 2015. The snake and the spider continue to fight in the dark. The ghost appears and disappears. And because my nature is my own, I still write. I have a few stories forthcoming in places. You'll know when they're published. Also, I had an essay go up on The Butter back in November. Some of you have read it already (including the Chicago Tribune). Thank you. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Gay Ghost Party



My answers to a quiz yesterday revealed I'm probably a psychopath. The bad news is there's nothing I can do about it. The good news is I went to a party last night and heard truly fantastic ghost stories from a ghost survivor. Have you heard the one about a ghost climbing into an attractive man's bed and situating himself inside the man's body like the man is a condom? I have. The man tries to escape the ghost by sitting up, but the ghost pins the man back down. Just then, a heroic cat leaps onto the man's chest and scratches the spirit out. We should all have such cats, but most of us don't.

I would trade a lot of my memories for a few solid ghost stories. The ones I have are frustrating, like a piece of paper I chase down the street because I don't remember the phone number written on it. Stretch that out into years. The phone number becomes obsolete. I no longer pursue it. I pursue the paper itself. The artifact, not the details. The more and more I look at my own ghost stories (a woman in a fancy dress reflected in the marble floor during the pre-opening hour of an art museum, or a phantom pulling the sheets off me in a new apartment with ceilings high and dark enough to hide any multitude of idle hands), the more translucent they become. Ghostlike, of course. I isolate each experience. To link them in any way starts a conversation I'd rather not have.

I could compare the stories I heard last night to the stories of my seizures. Similar conclusions. Why does this keep happening? Answer: sensitivity. For whatever reason.

The electricity in my brain has kept stable for two months. Fingers crossed. Legs crossed. Eyes crossed like when I've captured a spider in a cigar tube and I hold it close trying to identify it by eye arrangement and the absence or presence of leg hairs.

My mother has her own ghost stories she refuses to tell. The last time I asked her about them, she said, "I've closed my mind to those possibilities." The man at the party last night said the same thing. He flipped the switch, and now he sees nothing specific. Every once in a while he'll get a feeling, but he'll go out of his way to avoid turning that feeling tangible.

I doubt the well on the stories had dried, but our glasses had gone empty. The party grew beyond the porch. More guys arrived. More conversations. Eyeglasses. Nudism. Microwaves shaped like spacecraft. Nothing much, but just enough. The quiz I took told me that even though I was a psychopath, I could still be a good person. Be more social. Go to parties.

HA. HA. HA. Three HAs.

Well, I know I'm not a psychopath, and you know I'm not a psychopath, but the quiz had no idea. It asked all the wrong questions. Not even once did it ask about ghosts. It couldn't have handled the answer.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tattoo Reasons



The feeling lasts a month after I've had a seizure. Like I could nod my head too many times and have another seizure. Or drink a cup of tea or a beer and have another seizure. Or lose the thread while telling a story and then lose the thread on being conscious. Maybe my eye twitches after I work on the computer too long. Is my brain about to restart?

No. Statistically, no. I don't have a seizure more times than I do. I've had maybe eight in my life. Average that out and it's one every three and a half years. Some members of my family contend with seizures daily. Picking straws, I got the longest one. My mother has MS, and I sometimes wonder if all my seizures will lead to that. There's no stopping that kind of worry, so I try not to start.

It's been a month since my last seizure. My body was tense all that time, except for one isolated hour when I received a tattoo.

I had a craving. I spent all weekend after my seizure going through a folder of images on my computer. I photoshopped old French etchings of animals onto pictures of my body. Squid on my left arm. Stag on my right. Snake on my chest. Cicada. Arrow. Two arrows. A snake and some arrows. A snake biting a finger. The urge for a new tattoo was strong. I stood in the shower, the best place to think deep and quick, and I considered that urge.

"What do they mean?"

I've answered. And answered. And answered.

"My tattoos don't mean anything."

Well...

What I should have said was, "I don't know what they mean." I'm closer to having an idea, but I still don't fully know. I can tell you why I got them. It's boring and obvious and has everything to do with feeling out of control of my body.

For a long time I was fat. Not because I wanted to be fat but because I wanted to be in control. You've heard this one before. Eating was comfort, and I wanted to be comfortable. I had my first seizure when I was ten, and although I'd been an active kid, I became a lethargic teenager. What I see now isn't what I saw then. I can look back and see I was afraid of my body. Back then I didn't know what I was afraid of. Salty and sweet was all I wanted. Chicken tenders. Fries. Snack cakes after school. Soda (never water). I didn't like good food, or complex flavors, or moderation. I liked shorthand.

After my parents divorced, my mother chose the butterfly as her personal symbol of transformation. As an adult, I've chosen snakes and spiders, stags and cicadas. All these animals shed in part or in whole. Not just to become something else but to grow.

How did it feel then to see my teenage self strain at the buttons of my Boy Scout uniform? I grew out of that shirt and used it as an excuse to quit the Boy Scouts entirely. My use for the physical world was limited. As I grew, I became interior. Observation was my exercise. The results were typical. Poems. Paintings. Little dinosaurs made out of clay. I read and watched and drew.

I also didn't have another seizure for eight years. The spell worked. For a while.

My seizures came back. One before college and a few after. Then for four years, nothing. In that four years I started writing again. I found the stories I needed to tell, and I wrote a book. My interior became exterior. My control didn't slip. It changed. I ate responsibly, expanded my palate, started walking, then running, then lifting weights and doing push-ups. I lost my teenage self and became the man I'd imagined in my head for years.

Then I had two more seizures.

My response was different this time. Like I said, I experienced a craving for a new tattoo. Needles don't scare me. Tattoo needles don't read as needles anyway. They're more like vibrating pen knives being dragged across the skin. I say that, and you think, "Oh. OK. So even more scary than needles." Fine. Yes. Pain is important. Growing hurts, and if I'm going to grow, I want to command that growth. I have no use for the fear that seizures command me. No. Seizures happen to me. What happens after is my choice.

So I got the new tattoo. The craving disappeared. I relaxed. My jaw had been sore from stress, and then it wasn't.

I look in the mirror now and don't lie. I tell myself I'll have another seizure someday, but for the moment I have a new tattoo, and even though it stung to get it, I chose it. It's mine.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Snake



I ask Josh to tell me what it looked like when I had my seizure in April. I've been asking. All summer he's refused an answer. He says he doesn't want to cry. I don't want him to cry either. Still, I want to know.

My currency is the word "please."

He shows me the way my left hand curled up toward my wrist. He strains his neck back like he's trying to keep his head above water. He explains the colors of my face and the words I tried to say. I ask why he didn't film me. He doesn't answer. He looks at me with pity and disgust and love. It's a bad question.

Why do I ask it?

Because I had another seizure Thursday.

Josh was at work. The morning was mine. I read. I wrote. I considered my pet snake but didn't remove her from her habitat. I put the comforter in the washer but didn't start the water. My phone rang. Someone was interested in an old camera I had for sale on Craigslist. He said he'd arrive in an hour or so to take a look at it. I laid the camera and all its parts on the dining room table. I sat and thought about the camera. I tried to remember all its quirks. Nothing. My access to my memory was denied.

I recognized it for what it was.

There was the jerk in my vision. The inability to land a single thought. The need, always before a seizure, to get myself in front of a mirror, as if seeing myself would break the spell. I ran to the bathroom. Fighting. I could look everywhere but the mirror. I ran to the bedroom. I made it to the bed. I disappeared.

The next hour was black. But there were events. I got up at some point and retrieved the comforter from the washer. I made the bed. I skinned my knuckles. I bruised the front and back of my head. Maybe on the wall. Maybe on the headboard. The point is I don't remember any of it. I functioned but not as myself. My frontal lobe, where my seizures occur, is also where personality is formed. For that hour, my mind was not part of my body. I was only the movements my body made. Those movements were imperfect. I woke up feeling like I'd been in a fight. Two days later, my legs still ache like I ran somewhere. My head doesn't ache. Didn't ache. But it throbbed slowly. I wondered if I could move a chair with my mind.

(I couldn't.)

I've always thought of the seizure itself as the final release of errant electricity in the brain. Afterward, I usually feel pretty good. This time I felt like there was more to release.

Remember, I considered the snake that morning. My pet snake. I have always loved snakes. Spiders. Lizards. All the animals that dart and bite. In my dreams, I'm bitten. Wild dogs challenge me in the night streets of those dreams, and I win. Winning is stopping the dog. Winning is having a snake in my home and not fearing the fangs. Winning is my heart when the snake coils and tests my hand without drawing blood. I'm larger than the danger. Even when the chaos asserts itself, I return to give it order.

When I woke up from this latest seizure and its after-party, I looked at the time on my phone. There was a new message. The man interested in the old camera was on his way. I tried to throw up. I couldn’t. I brushed my teeth. I drank some water. The doorbell rang, and I invited the man in. We talked about the camera. He haggled. I accepted his offer. He disappeared.

For nearly 14 hours following the sale, I slept.

I tell Josh I've been planning a new tattoo, an antique illustration of a snake, large and on my chest. The snake is pretty, but that's not all. I have other tattoos, and they don't mean anything besides pretty. I don't think tattoos have to mean anything. When Josh asks me what the snake means, even though I have an answer, I can't tell him. I can't articulate it. It's not as simple as the snake is the seizure. It's more like this: the snake is the part of me he's met that I never will. Or put it this way, when I tried to look in the mirror before I had my seizure, and I couldn't see my reflection, what was there? The snake was there. Or something like it. Something in me and beyond me at the same time. All I can tell you is it was me and it wasn't me.  


You get the idea.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Extra

Today, I was an extra in a video project. I looked in a mirror and couldn't tell I was wearing makeup. The point is the camera could tell. If I wasn't wearing makeup, I would look dead, or translucent, or I don't know, bruised by shadows. I've learned to take a good photograph, but the effect of light on human skin is still a mystery to me. I know the human brain smooths minor variations. We look at a white wall and register it as uniformly white. A photograph of that same wall will appear complicated with detail. Dappled. Maybe the same is true for skin. Maybe the camera doesn't just see the surface flesh but a little under it as well.

The camera is stupid. It doesn't have a brain. Only an eye. Good for the camera.

The set stylist smoothed gel into my eyebrows. I apologized for their wildness. 

"No," she said. "They're great!"

Well, I've always thought so.

I was a bystander first, then a soldier. An extra in the superfluous sense. Some of the actors were attractive. In the superlative sense. One guy was given lines. He played a young Hemingway. (Hemingway wishes he looked like this guy.) Another guy was given hideous pustules and asked to fall on his face again and again. Others were asked to smile or chatter. I was asked to walk. That's it. Walk across the green screen. Slow down. Express disgust. Speed up. Descend green stairs. 

My facial hair had to go. I've shaved for worse reasons. Every few months I do it to see how much older I look. I never like what I see. Not because I look any older but because I look unfamiliar and naked. And I have no problem with naked, except for my face. I take all these photographs of myself just to familiarize myself with myself, and I still wouldn't be able to describe my face to you without looking in a mirror.

You're not here for this.

Let me tell you how I spent hours watching the crew prepare lights and cameras. I stared. Most of these men wore pants that agreed with their bodies. There was a skate park (?!) in the corner of the studio where the crew took breaks on skateboards and fell down hard and stood up unfazed. I leaned against a railing in my costumes and listened to the vocabulary of video production. Watched arms and backs and legs lift set pieces across green paper. Saw shirts rise and expose bellies.

I tried to turn off my brain and become a camera. Failing there, I did a little work and got paid.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

L.A. II



I went back West, and Josh went with me. We flew to Los Angeles, walked everywhere we could walk, and rode buses the rest of the way. All the places we went were L.A. but also discrete places. Culver City. Santa Monica. Beverly Hills. Downtown. West Hollywood. I wanted to see a lizard, and I did see one in the Miracle Mile. Josh almost stepped on it. It looked half-snake. Slithered/ran up a driveway. Plates like a dragon. Face like a puppy. (Lizards are dogs. Snakes are cats.) I couldn't catch that lizard like I couldn't catch California. I love things in jars, and California is a big thing in a big jar. It's just someone else's jar.

I have a list of loves.

I didn't see xTx. You know her. Well, it just didn't happen this time because, well, because. I will always remember that. The time I was there and she wasn't. No big deal. A little deal, though. A receipt I forget I carry in my wallet, but I still carry it.

Then there was the other her. The reason for the trip. Roxane Gay. She and some other heroes read downtown on Friday. The bookstore was the mouth of an airline passenger. Hot saliva. No air moving but our gasps. You missed it. You really missed it. The readers scared away two men in lounge lizard wear. Hats with small feathers. Untucked dress shirts. No humor. Those men left, and the rest of us gave Roxane a standing ovation.

I met Kima Jones. We're mutual fans. The piece she read kept me still and breathless. She's not apologizing anywhere in any way because she knows apologies aren't necessary. The work is necessary. She and I posed for her Instagram. She told me her weave was melting. Josh offered to catch it if it fell. It didn't fall.

Something else. Josh, Roxane, and I saw a play Saturday night. When it was over, we got in a car, rode a hundred feet, and turned right back around because a Hollywood moment declared itself. We met an actress. Had drinks with her and her fancy/hot friends. My knees shook under the table. Every once in a while a name would drop. I'd squeeze Roxane's leg, and Josh would squeeze mine. We found another Midwesterner at the table and talked about dog races. There was gossip. A glass shattered somewhere off-camera during the revelations.

On Sunday, Molly Laich's brother tattooed me in West Hollywood. Josh watched from a stool in silence. He admitted he was nervous. I wasn't nervous, but according to Josh, my breathing changed. I sounded like a sleeping dog. A dog when it's dreaming.

I took Josh to the ocean. I've always wanted to do that. We saw fish, and we saw people fishing. Men shirtless. Sweating. Beautiful. The water was blue and green. I didn't want to leave. Part of me is still there, looking over the edge of the pier. Any thought I have is muted. Unimportant. The space is filled with this: