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:



Saturday, July 26, 2014

Did I Tell You



A large tree branch fell on the sidewalk right where people stop to pet our neighbor's needy cat. I imagine it fell the way a chandelier falls in a movie. I didn't see it fall. Or hear it. Now it stands on the sidewalk like a mannequin wearing a prom dress. All the leaves are mint green but dying.

My neighbor retrieves his mail and takes a picture of the fallen branch with his phone. I see this from a window. I wait for an animal to crawl out from under the leaves and stretch its legs. I continue to wait. There is no animal. I write the image down on a list of ideas and titles for potential stories. The list is long. There's only so much time, and I'm still working on the little book I've been working on for a year. I would be done, but it's not the only work I do.

I bet you rolled your eyes. Me, too.

I can't remember everything I've told you. This summer has been kind. I told you that. I saw my family. I started transcribing interviews for a woman in New Mexico. I've taken more photographs. Made ice cream. Pies. Knitted one baby blanket.

Oh! But I didn't tell you this: Josh and I are going to Los Angeles next month to see Roxane Gay read from her new book of essays, BAD FEMINIST. Go if you can go. We'll go to the beach. We'll see friends. We'll ask everyone we meet for their personal experiences with rattlesnakes and mountain lions. We'll get tattoos. We'll come home.

Wait. Josh says he's not getting a tattoo.

Another list I keep is a list of potential tattoos. I like them. I like tattoos. You know all this. Why am I telling you? I'm telling you because my friend's husband was trying to convince Josh to get a tattoo. My friend's husband grabbed my arm and stroked my three square tattoos and said to Josh, "See how beautiful a tattoo can be?"

I'm still not fully recovered. I place my hand over my heart. It's there. I try not to think about how my hand and my heart are the same size. I don't like to remember I'm full of organs. There are better ways to pass the time.

I look out the window. The tree branch is gone now. Sawdust has replaced it on the sidewalk. I was home all day, and I didn't hear the saw. I heard dogs bark. I heard the doorbell ring, but I didn't answer it. When I went out for the mail, the neighbor's cat was asleep on the doormat.

"Hey, you!" I said.

I try to come up with something for the cat to have done. Something more interesting than nothing. But the cat did nothing. He didn't wake up, or roll over, or scratch the hell out of my legs. He stayed asleep. I went inside and locked the door. I sat down at the dining room table and drew two self-portraits that looked like someone else. The hours passed, and I was pleased.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Everyone Was a Cousin



I don't live anywhere near my family. Last week, I lived with all of them in the mountains. There was a lake full of turtles. A small lake to reflect the trees. My cousins and I sat on the porch and watched the only motor boat allowed on the lake stir up algae.

"He likes to keep it moving," one cousin said.

We sat still. Other cousins kept the kitchen running. Work on vacation. Clouds inflated over the house and groaned. Men we didn't know stood in the grass around the water and fished before the storms fell.

Each afternoon the view beyond the porch was gray and wet. The rain lowered the atmosphere and kept the nights cool. Some of us ran around the lake.

I ran around the lake alone. Twice I thought I was being followed by a large brown dog. I turned and there was no dog. "I can run faster if I need to," I thought. I closed the circle and arrived where I started. Back to the family.

After dark, wine was passed around. Bad wine and good wine, and I couldn't tell the difference when it was poured out of the bottle and yellowed a plastic cup. My cousins talked. I listened. I was accused of taking notes, but notes came later when all the wine was drunk.

All the wine was drunk.

Someone told the story of waking up to their sleepwalking spouse pointing a gun at the wall. The spouse had a nightmare of a giant spider. Nothing could kill that spider like a gun. Since all dreams come from somewhere, the giant spider came from the smaller spiders the spouse had killed cleaning the basement.

Someone else grappled with the use of the F word in plays. They asked my opinion. I didn't say what first came to mind, which was, "Which F word?" Instead, I said I don't even hear that word as worse than any other word. Another relative weighed in for Christ. "People with good Christian values don't use the F word," she said. As if Jesus spoke English.

I ate eggs.

One afternoon, we slid down a wet rock and marveled at a waterfall. This waterfall:


While I was photographing this waterfall, my aunt asked me if my camera took good pictures, and I said, "No, I take good pictures."

Later, I lost my glasses in river rapids. Minutes before that, though, a snake froze in the grass for me to get a good look. I stared at the snake and noted the pattern of its scales. It was a garter snake. A common snake.

But it was the only snake I saw.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Lost Interview Two

I'm writing a story about ephemera right now in the form of summer and a dead car, but ephemera can be anything that doesn't stick around long. Gather your receipts before the numbers fade. Recycle the newspaper. Draw a lizard on a napkin and throw away the napkin. It all dissolves, eventually. I did some interviews that appeared on websites. Some of those interviews then disappeared. The Internet proves flimsy.    

I posted the first lost interview the other day. The second interview to vanish was conducted by Amber Lee for Necessary Fiction. Not too long after this interview went live, Necessary Fiction encountered a server malfunction. When the site came back, the interview didn't come back with it.


Well, here you go.



INTERVIEW FOR NECESSARY FICTION SPRING 2013

QUESTIONS BY AMBER LEE
ANSWERS BY CASEY HANNAN


What books and/or authors have had the most influence on your writing?


Annie Proulx's work started me writing when I was 18. Then it was Hemingway. Then Didion. I read Play It as It Lays three or four times a year. I can't read more than a page before I have to put it down and write. Reading good writing makes me want to prove I can do it better. Well, not better but mine. I'm selfish. I want to lay claim. The other day someone called me a hustler of my own writing. All the writing I come back to is so clearly under the ownership of the person who wrote it.


Right now I'm reading George Whitmore's Nebraska. Whitmore shows the reader exactly what the reader needs to see. There's nothing extra. If I have a current writer like that, it's xTx. Have you read Billie the Bull? Read Billie the Bull, and see what I mean. See if you give a shit about the pseudonym anymore. The writing tells you everything you need to know.


How do you decide when a piece you've written is "finished" enough to publish?


I don't. Other people do. That's editors. The only thing I decide to do is write. It's easier to know when a pie is finished. There's usually a golden color, and if it's custard, the slightest wobble of the filling.


What would you consider to be a productive day of work, and do you have a writing routine?


A productive day of work is any day I get any writing done. Richard Bausch says, "This day's work. Each day." That's really it. My routine is: sit down and write.


What part of your writing process do you most enjoy?


The writing part.


Publisher's Weekly describes the stories in your collection, Mother Ghost, which debuts this month, as "small, but pack[ing] an intense emotional punch." How were you able to evoke such emotion from stories with respectively low word counts?


Evoking emotion in writing isn't hard. The emotion is always there, but writing gives the writer permission to express it. I'm quiet in person. People tell me secrets because I seem like a rock, and rocks don't absorb. Well, I'm not a rock. I absorb everything. It's got to go somewhere, though, and my writing is where it goes.


Do you have a favorite story in the collection? If so, what is it and why?


I don't have a favorite. Spiders don't have favorite legs. The stories in Mother Ghost function better together, which is why they're together.


But if you said you were going to erase one of the stories, I guess I'd beg you not to erase "Horse Street." There are some lines in there I still can't believe I wrote.


What else are you working on, and where can readers go to find more of your work?


I'm working on a novella about a young man living on the beach in a shack on stilts. His life is constantly threatened by tropical storms. The other people in the book are more important than he is.


I do have a story in the upcoming issue of NANO Fiction. I'm also proud of a story I had up at Wigleaf recently. It's called "The Long Beep." And of course there's my blog at casey-hannan.com.


Finally, what advice would you give yourself when you first started writing?


I wouldn't. I don't believe that sort of time-travel is healthy for writers. I'm happy where I am and how I got here. There's no reason to mess around. I would give myself other advice, though. I would tell myself to stop eating so many chicken nuggets. I would take my own hands in my hands and say, "Allow yourself some rewards, but learn how to make them all yourself."