Saturday, May 16, 2015

Dull Swords



I found my jar of shark teeth yesterday. My favorite is large and worn smooth by the ocean. Part of it is missing. Not a T like the rest but an L. Broken off long before I ever pinched it from the sand. I spent entire spring days in Florida with my family fishing for dull swords. No threat to anyone. In fact, so far removed from a shark's mouth, I don't remember considering the sharks at all. A world of them only a leg away, and as I later learned, eons past, an entire evolutionary line of bear trap faces.

In the absence of shells there were teeth by the thousands. But they weren't teeth, really. They were fossils. Over time, minerals seeped in and supplanted the teeth. We were removing ghost rocks from an ancient place and carrying them back to Kentucky, another ancient place that used to be a shallow sea itself. The fossils had no currency beyond the praise I received when I found the largest one of the day, small seeming now in my adult hands. Still, we collected them like they were important. Like they meant something. We curled over the water and held the sand tight in our fists, loosening our fingers a little as the waves ran in and we waited for the clear suck of the current to siphon away the smallest pieces.

Even on vacation we were beholden to chores.

My grandfather was a dentist. Teeth are part of my family mythology. I had braces longer than most children, so now I lack a charming gap between my two front teeth. Today, I would make a deal with evil forces to revive that gap, but back then I was grateful. In lieu of natural weirdness, I come up with reasons to receive tattoos. My newer friends haven't asked what they mean. Maybe we're all adults now. Maybe we've heard enough stories about people's tattoos, and maybe they weren't good stories. Even if I tell people my tattoos mean one thing, they don't. They mean more than I can say. They have origins compelling to me, but when I open my mouth to tell the stories, something has leeched out the meaning. The teeth have been pulled.

I've been drawing. Those teeth grew back. A long time ago, I thought I'd be an illustrator. People told me I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up. The problem is I still want to be everything.

A literary magazine emailed me a couple months ago. Nothing unusual. I've been writing pretty exclusively for a few years now. Sometimes magazines ask for stories, and if I have something I send it. But I reached the end of the email, and I got to the question, "Will you illustrate a future issue of our magazine?" I'd only been drawing again for a few weeks. I didn't know if I could do it. (Though of course I knew I could do it.) So I did it. You'll see those illustrations in the future, or if you come over to my house you can see them now, along with a bunch of dicks I've drawn. Why dicks? For fun? Sure. For fun. If you need a reason, take that one and rest easy.

I have other birds in the aviary, as always. I'm doing my best to keep them alive.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Versus the Dog



I turn 30 in a week. Out at a bar recently an acquaintance asked me if I could believe it. She said, "Doesn't it feel like we're still 25?" In my head I thought, "What's the difference?" But I played along because I was in a casual mood, the mood to talk about dogs and ham and the word "horny" as a jokey synonym for "thirsty" or "excited." My acquaintance claimed to be horny for real estate. I, myself, have never been horny for real estate. I don't need to be happy or sad. High or low. Most times you see me, I'm content. That's all. Simple. But it's also everything. If I'm horny, I'm horny for comfort.

Ha ha.

The truth is I can believe it. I've said before how I wanted to be an adult even as a child. If you were a lumberjack, and I was a tree, you could have cut me down any time in the last decade and counted more rings than should have been there. I have the bark is what I'm saying. Is what I'm thinking. Is what I believe about myself even if it isn't really true. Enough school teachers called me an old soul in elementary school, and I bought it. Even this past weekend, in the one place that might have the power to reduce me to childhood by overwhelming me, my best writer friend told me what I've always told myself: I was born old.

Well. There's me. There's my friend. And then there's the actual truth. I'm a man, and I'm a child. The bark grew over time, and it still grows. It wasn't always there like I wish it was. Nothing arrives fully formed. I can believe I'm almost 30 because I can trace the line of it, and I can examine the dots on that line, the years and the events and the love and the work. At a writing conference this past weekend I wore the same backpack I wore in middle school. The threads have loosened so the bag is transparent in places. I have stitched and restitched the seams many times. It's too small for an adult, and yet...

What else is too small for me?

Maybe I've grown out of this dream I've had once a year every year for so long. The dream where I'm walking down the street and a wild dog attacks me and I kill it to stop it. The jaws are strong, but somehow I'm stronger. The dog bites me, and I pull apart the machine of its mouth. I overcome the teeth. My hands bleed but don't hurt. I have not had this dream this year, but there is now an actual wild dog haunting my neighborhood. Blackened fur wets its belly. The rest of the dog is as gold as dry dirt. It's running to something or away from something. I've seen it once out the kitchen window while cooking. I thought it was a fox, but then I looked closer and saw it was my nightmare. Other people have posted pictures of the dog to our neighborhood's Facebook watch group. I haven't encountered the dog in the street. Give it time. Maybe when I'm 30. Which is next week. Maybe next week. Or maybe never. Worry over something enough and it takes a form. I'm not worried.


My new book, The Three Woes, has been announced by Spork Press. I worried over it, and here it is, about to exist. I'll tell you about it later, OK?

Look out.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Green from Gold

My apartment is the first floor of an old house turned duplex. The disguise doesn't hold. I hear everything from upstairs like only a curtain separates us. A couple of people and a couple of dogs. The ceiling doesn't block the snores, or the isolated bark during a dream, or the readjustment in the kennel. Wire rattles. Now imagine the people. The bed. The chairs. The voices with problems and anger and passion. That noise.

I shrink. Josh sings. I shush him. Why? Because I don't want the neighbors to hear us like we hear them. It's my plan to give them nothing. Josh sings anyway. He's right.

Over the weekend we only got half of the equation. The neighbors were gone, but the dogs weren't. I whistled in the kitchen. The dogs barked at me through the ceiling. One bark too many. Josh and I went out to see our friends.

Kansas City hasn't had your weather. It never arrived. All your snow. We only had a little and most of that melted the next day or two. Today, I saw men wearing shorts. Yesterday, too, but fewer. It's the most wonderful time of the year.

We continue to walk everywhere. Any question you ask me, that's the answer and the secret. Walk. Our friends live enough of a distance away we're sweaty when we reach them. We hug anyway because our friends like it that way. We drink whatever it is we drink together. Gin and tonic. Beer. Water. We always have enough to say. We're lucky. We are so lucky.

Hey, you know that book I've been writing for as long as I've known you if as long as I've known you is two years? I finished it. It's shorter than you would imagine, but it's exactly the length I planned. For fun, I drew the three narrators:


You'll know more when I know more. The next thing is next. It's a novel, I keep saying. We'll see about that later, in the future.

And later, too, but earlier than the novel, I have a new short fiction for you to read. Hold your horses. It will be out just in time for summer.

Summer. Cross my heart, I might go to Seattle. Until then...

I stood in the kitchen this morning with a glass of water, and the light was right. Not right enough I wanted to grab my camera. Right enough to show me the dishes were clean, and right enough to tell me the truth, which is I'm happy and well. I didn't know I was sick. That's winter. I never know until it's over. I was wearing a t-shirt, and my arms weren't cold. I stood still and didn't feel like I was being watched by the weather. No noise from upstairs. I probably smiled. I never know, either, when I smile. I know the grass is still dead. I don't care. At least it's gold.

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.