So I haven’t written for several weeks. Sometimes, life is like this: A top-heavy shelf of books leans, imperceptibly, a little more every day, until a passing truck causes it to kneel and spill its entire load of literature onto your cat. Somewhere in the course of making your favorite quiche, which you do every Sunday, you randomly summon a demon by accidentally adding too much salt. Seventeen bricks fall out of the facade of the abandoned baker’s shop. The pattern they make on the cracked, weed-sprouted pavement looks exactly like your mother’s face the last time she screamed at you over nothing.
The improbable life event that has kept me from writing put someone in the hospital. I can’t really say more, except that the patient is recovering and everything will eventually be all right. If you are sending prayers, thoughts, wishes, or regards, thank you. I’m sure they help.
Being in a hospital for an extended stretch is strange. It wasn’t always. I used to spend a lot of time there as a visitor to my mom, who is a reasonably important clinical pharmacist close to where I grew up. For a long time, I assumed I’d end up in a hospital, too. Professionally. It never occurred to me that I might one day be a patient or a patient’s family member. I was an extremely lucky kid and I remember only a few childhood emergency room visits, one for me and maybe one for my sister, both minor issues. On days that my dad and sisters and I happened to find ourselves in town, and sometimes if my dad happened to be deployed or taking a class, my mom would park me in her office until she was available. It was easy to entertain myself. I think the hospital had the first Internet access I ever encountered. I also liked the posters on the walls. Unlike the candy-colored body pictures at my school, these were unabashedly graphic and educational. By the time I was ten, I could explain the circumstances of an ectopic pregnancy with reasonable accuracy even though I had no idea how the condition was initially achieved. Random, I supposed. A lot like appendicitis, which I also knew about. My mom’s colleagues, with whom she shared the office, seemed to know a lot about everything. One of them was a computer geek whose screen savers must have inspired the entire genre of political news comedy. Featuring strongly in my memory is O.J. Simpson’s van slowly rumbling across the screen, chased by a cadre of law enforcement vehicles, themselves being chased by gleeful news media. That’s how long ago this was. I was so young that I still considered hospital food a treat.
I guess it was inevitable that I’d eventually have these fond memories overwritten by nightmarish, anxious, sleepless ones that smell like bleach. Over the past month, I’ve spent a decent amount of time at a facility that is both very different and exactly the same as the place where my mom used to show me the giant cardboard compactor and the employee pharmacy. It’s big, clean, and impersonal. Its recent remodel focused on making some more “human” spaces for family to sit and stare anxiously into space, which is what we spent our first week there doing. We knew the topography by the second week; by the third, we were sick of the entire hospital cafeteria menu. After that I ate lentils and rice, because I had to go back to work and didn’t have the time or interest to cook good food. Now, for the forseeable future, I sit at the library being fake-cheerful to patrons during the week and commuting back to this place, which is an hour and a half from home, on the weekends. My wife stays in Hospitalland full-time until everything is normal again. I get a guilty reprieve.
I dislike how quickly I readjust to ordinary life once I’m gone. I know that my wife is still trudging along the background static of anxiety and boredom unique to hospitals – I talk to her several times per day, worry about the patient, bug her to eat – but it’s shamefully easy to return to my normal orbit and priorities. There is no silver lining on this experience, but this dissociation is a valuable data point. I’m not forgetting how it feels, nor are my concerns for the patient fading. But when I’m at work, I experience twin awarenesses. The awareness of the library surpasses my concurrent awareness of the hospital. My awareness of our apartment and our friends seems almost inappropriate. The hospital is still there. I come back and it strikes me that I’ve somehow run away.
So I write about the twelve-hour days in waiting rooms, the way the hospital swallows vast stretches of time whole, the differences between recovery and healing. I write about how the things that we associate with health – fine food, stimulating conversation, fresh air – are not what you get when you have to stay in an ICU for weeks at a stretch. Your instinct identifies them as unhealthy places. They’re mechanics shops for the autonomous biological robot that is you.
And I return. This weekend, next weekend, for the forseeable future.
This weekend, the unthinkable happened: we got a TV.
That’s not to say that we didn’t have a TV before. In fact, we had two little, teeny, multi-functional TVs that we call laptops. But now we own a device that cannot be described except with the word television. There is no more denying that we consume visual media. Telling people that we didn’t own a TV was pleasantly hipster, and I’ll miss it. Not for long, though. There’s going to be another season of The Magicians.
I grew up largely without television, though I got to see a movie once in a while. The theory went that TV was a corrupting influence on young minds, which is absolutely true, and that depriving them of Thundercats and Sabrina the Teenage Witch would result in an objectively better child. This was not true. It did, however, contribute to the fact that I only just saw the cult Disney classic Hocus Pocus for the first time at the tender age of 32.
Even with TV, I would have been a weird little gremlin growing up. All the MASH reruns in the world couldn’t have changed that. But I would have been a more informed gremlin, and possibly one who could have faked a conversation about pop culture without having to stop and ask who the hell Mr. Clean is.
When I hit college, I didn’t exactly go TV-wild, but I did embark upon a multi-year pop culture intensive. Did I watch everything ever produced? Not even close. But I did average two movies a week for a while. I saw all of Futurama and all of the original The Addams Family. I saw Xena, which I’d heard about through one of my mom’s friends. I watched a lot of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which was very useful because I could annotate and research their references. And that’s how I caught up. I guess no harm was done in the end.
But now, I’m thinking about our not-too-future kids. As my mother continually reminds me, I’d better move right along before my ovaries shrivel up like raisins in the sun. (This from the woman who swore that Friends signaled the imminent demise of civilization.) So I’m prepping. I sort of know who Dora the Explorer is, and there’s a Doc McStuffins who’s popular in the children’s room of the library where I work. It seems prudent to give the kids familiarity with the SpongeBobs and Barneys of their own generation. Enough to hold a conversation, anyway. College is for writing stuffy dissertations on Herman Melville. You don’t need to use those hours of your precious life to catch up on My Little Pony.
Plus, I kinda want an excuse to see Steven Universe.
I have a garden. Not near my apartment, of course. My apartment is surrounded on four sides by cement. Nothing grows there but an oily darkness that seeps into my soul, runoff from the heartless hearts of the metal beasts we’ve made.
See how they’ll talk about us after the apocalypse?
My garden is within walking distance. It’s also within bicycling distance, but I easily overshoot when I’m riding my bike. There are no bike lanes, you see. If traffic decides that I’m headed to Beverly instead of to my garden, then such is the way of life. Resistance is very dangerous when metal beasts are involved.
When I do make it to my garden, I find that it’s short on the traditional kind of weeds. This is because I have mounted a pirate flag above it and weeds cower in its presence. I suspect that it’s also because of the same rabbit that is eating my carrots. The curse that blights my produce also blights a lot of the tender young weed shoots, many of which are completely edible, if you happen to feel like eating them. Which I arbitrarily don’t, and the rabbit arbitrarily does. This is why I don’t kill the rabbit.
I also don’t think that killing the rabbit is in my realm of capabilities, as it were. I’m not an Elmer Fudd type and I don’t really need the carrots. Plus, there’s something else in the garden that is quite enthusiastically killing small animals, and I’m impressed that the rabbit is evading it. The rats aren’t so lucky. I’ve disposed of one body already and I suspect that there have been more just because I refuse to believe I’ve been so fortunate as to be the lone dead rat scooper upper.
The reason I label this creature enthusiastic is that it really seems to enjoy its work. The rat I found was just a mess, my friend. It snooped in hoping for a nice juicy tomato, and it got itself Freddy Kreuger’ed instead. It hadn’t even been much consumed, except by the flies that hummed around its sad red bulk. I felt terrible for it. I’ve known fancy pet rats who were good company, and I’m convinced it’s no rat’s fault that it’s born ugly. If unicorns were as ubiquitous as rats and generally got into everything and carried Bubonic plague, we’d still adore them because they’re freaking beautiful magical unicorns. We’d be implementing unicorn protection acts in Congress as we all expired of unicorn hantavirus.
In fact, the mice that occasionally invade our apartment are morphologically similar to rats in all ways except size, and this change alone makes me feel actively maternal toward them. I like to think I’d rescue a rat from one of my cats. It’s not true, though. A rat would be able to protest its rescue. I guess I’d probably get bitten a few times, and then I’d have to get shots. What were you doing? The dismissive doctor would say. Rescuing a rat, of course! I’d reply. Well, now you get a series of painful rabies vaccines directly into your spine, the doctor would sniff. I hope the rat is having a good day.
So I’m left with the fact that I prefer a dead rat to a living one. It’s a hard piece of information about myself, but no harder than the opposite truth: the rat probably feels the same way. Thus the animal kingdom remains divided. As I trundle out to my garden once more, I ponder the unpleasant possibility that I’ll run into one alive. The conversation we’ll have to endure.
Uh – this is your plot. Isn’t it?
Yes. Are you eating my carrots?
The rabbit is sick today.
Oh. Could you not?
No. I told him I’d fill in.
I really don’t want you to eat my carrots.
Nobody does. If it helps, I can’t eat much. I have another twenty boxes to hit and my stomach’s the size of a small apricot.
That does not help.
Whatever. Hey, have you seen the hawk?
There’s a hawk?
Yeah. She’s a bitch. Got my brother.
Oh. I’m sorry.
I barely knew him. I have 1300 brothers.
Eh, wasn’t me. OK, listen. I’m going to do my weird humpy rat-run over to this other box and eat some of their squash. So I’m not going to talk to you anymore.
OK. Goodbye, I guess. Good luck with your hawk situation. Glad you’re not dead.
Well…I didn’t want to have to bring your rotting carcass over to the scrub using two sticks.
That’s a good reason. If I found you dead, I’d probably just eat the part of you that looked least likely to give me food poisoning.
I don’t typically struggle for writing topics. Nor do I often find myself without something at least distracting to say. But I used to feel a seize of fear in my chest when I sat down to write. It felt a little like being shot with a pong pong ball, and it would happen as soon as I tried to sort out my thoughts.
I was afraid that I’d manifest whatever I wrote.
The idea must have come from an R.L. Stine story I read when I was a kid. I should amend this by explaining that R.L. Stine was strictly off-limits in my home because his work was “too scary.” I didn’t find this to be the case. Clive Barker is too scary for kids, and that I know because I used to read his stuff at the library when I was about eleven. But R.L. Stine? He was the Stephen King of my seventh grade classroom. (Apologies to Mr. King, if you’re reading. Please sign my cast; I got it punching a dude for badmouthing you.) And the Goosebumps masterpiece about the typewriter that transformed the written word into reality wasn’t exactly horrifying. It just…stuck. Like a piece of gum between a molar and a capped tooth.
In fact, I started using this idea for gain before I became afraid of it. I was early in high school when I started featuring the same girl in every story. You know the age. Oh, she’d look different, have a different name. Different superpowers, because I was a teenager and I was obsessed with superpowers. But her voice was always the same, sassy and devil-may-care and brash. And she always ended up being best best best best best friends with the first-person narrator. I had a crush. Not on the character, although considering the success of Stephanie Meyers’s sparkly vamps, maybe I should have considered it. No, my crush was on the model for my Mary Sue, another girl who was in my English class and who I really barely knew.
Writing her into my life kind of worked for a minute. We ended up in a sort of long, meaningful staredown between bells, more a glower than a smoldering gaze of desire, but still. It was eye contact! Sustained, no less. Then the glare of love ended, and we never interacted again. Yet even at fifteen, I was an optimist. Ten percent of my desire had come to fruition! Even if I could manifest a fraction of what I wrote, I was clearly possessed of extreme power.
Thus I embarked upon my mission to get everything I ever wanted through the power of hyperbole. I wrote down my most profound desires and super-sized them by a factor of ten. The first-person narrator became the smartest person in the world. The first person narrator acquired fifteen superpowers in a single lightning strike. The first person narrator traveled to the edge of the universe and defeated first the Devil, then God, in separate climactic sword fights. The first person narrator met another best best best best best friend, this one sweeter and kind of a gossip, who had a weird habit of getting attacked by undead pirates or space pirates or psychic pirates or what have you. Pirates were big at the time. Then the FPN would swoop in and save her. Although the FPN always succeeded, the gossip just kept on getting caught. The FPN swooped in again. And again. And again. There were rewards for this, but I wasn’t old enough to really know what those would be so I just strongly implied that they would be the best best friend rewards ever.
Then the gossip moved away.
So FPN met a lanky field hockey player who joined her in her escapades. Oh the escapades they had! The FPN and the athlete fighting the alien hordes side by side, double-handedly liberating entire oppressed planets!
Then the athlete met a boy. Who I loathed. Of course. Though briefly tempted to work my wrath upon him with my pen, it came to mind that the athlete would probably be miserable as a result and I abandoned the entire idea before I’d even begun.
While this pattern was frustrating re:available interesting girls, I saw no indication that my strategy wasn’t otherwise sound. I was progressing through the belt system of my karate studio, for example. I wasn’t exactly ready to fence with and slay God, but I also wasn’t bad in the sparring ring.
As I got older, my concerns changed. I still wanted to get the girl, but I started to run into endings that I couldn’t tie up. What happened after the FPN and her winsome best x5 friend went home hand in hand? Were their parents chill with their sixteen-year-old daughters being besties x5? would it be cool to hold hands in school? I really didn’t know. I was afraid to stop writing in case the stories crashed and burned once I’d put down my pen, and I was afraid to keep writing in case I had to get 10% of a good outcome and 90% of a crappy one. What’s 10% of a held hand?
At this point, I was faced with the morbid possibility that I might have to write my life in grand form forever. What would happen if, having taken control of my fate in this abstract manner, I suddenly just dropped the joystick and let it have its head? Would it fizzle like a video game, or would it careen to its doom like an airplane?
My stories got more outlandish as I ran out of ideas for what I wanted to do. New girls appeared and they fought with the old ones, many of whom I couldn’t get rid of because they had become friends. I also wasn’t sure what would happen to my ex-crushes if I shuffled them out of the plot. Would they fall into some kind of void? It was either keep them in or face my feelings for them, and that was an increasingly obscure and difficult storyline. There was no good way to resolve the women in my life because, frankly, I never gave them a chance to resolve themselves. It was weirdly terrifying that I might have been a character in some of their own sympathetic endeavors. Better to get my FPN involved with someone less problematic.
So within a year at college, I had the inevitable unproblematic boyfriend. Let me clarify: I still pined after women. But I was determined to get the story into an easer track. Here’s where I made my mistake, the mistake that all magical writers eventually make: I started rewriting myself to fit the plot. I’d forgotten to write the FPN – a critical layer of security, in case you want to try this at home; FPNs contain safety valves that don’t allow a characterization to affect your own innate properties – and had begun to perform an Escher-esque feat of editing that was both painful and nowhere near healthy. I recast the character known as “me” into a devoted heterosexual sidekick in a plot whose outcomes focused less on adventure and heroics and more on…well, on the ideas and interests of the new main character. It had to be that way. For the plot to work.
At the same time, I got this crazy idea that all would be well if I could just not be the dyed-in-the-wool freak that I felt I was. Success hinged on staying extremely still and not upsetting anyone. That meant that I couldn’t do a lot of talking. Since I talk when I think, that meant that I couldn’t do a lot of thinking. I dumbed down my classes and skipped anything that looked hard. I avoided developing a personal sense of sartorial flair. I wrote to formula on homework, but at night, I was a demon of over-the-top order and regimentation codified in massive columnary feats of wordsmithing. My boyfriend, poor man, was my main prop. I had no ambition anymore except to be a cog, a forgettable member of the discard pile that took up space as inoffensively as possible until death. But that ambition was huge. It went so hard against my personality that the effort to conjure it was monolithic.
The gears began to grind. I was stretching the fabric of reality and my own sanity, and my soul squeezed out like water from a rag. My fingers flew over the keyboard to make it right, and my efforts got weirder and weirder. I turned into a dragon and so did he, because there couldn’t be a me without a him to keep me from the me who wasn’t enjoying this. I died and my angry ghost possessed a volcano that could never blow up because he was Pompeii and everyone I loved lived there. Ideas started hitting me like bugs on a windshield – or maybe more like windshields on a bug. Babies in the road. Busses slowly crushing my rib cage. Tiny women in cocktail dresses climbing the walls of my dorm room as they hissed at me malevolently. And all the while me laughing, smiling, insisting that I WAS FINE and HAVING FUN and THIS WAS GOOD. I wrote faster. I wrote all night, in secret, deleting and rewriting again and again and again.
The crash came hard, and with it came the consequences. But it also destroyed the chassis of the life I’d written, and I’ll always be grateful for that. Any half-decent witch will tell you that it’s harder to undo magic like this than it is to do it in the first place. I didn’t undo it so much as it broke into a billion pieces, leaving me to start over. If ever there was such a thing as a lucky break, this was it.
It took a year for me to write again, and when I did, I wrote product summaries of flip phones for $10 a pop. Then I did some spot grammar editing for administrators at my grad school. A few words about a used Toyota. Someone’s annulment petition. I didn’t really consider writing writing. Fiction was obviously out of the question. I wasn’t even willing to go in for third person after the previous debacle. Not memoir, because I was concerned that I’d accidentally change stuff. Even a ten percent shift in something that’s already happened could be catastrophic. I even managed to date a little. Eventually. Cautiously. Carefully. Not gonna lie: It was a little scary feeling like I had no control. But how much had I ever?
Ten years later, I sit in front of a screen filled with some of the most personal information I’ve published in years. It’s not quite magical. I’ve worked in several layers of protection based on some basic spellwork, some Strunk & White, and some old Burroughs lectures. I think it’ll be all right. For those of you who came here for more cookies, well. Sometimes even cookies are tough to chew. You probably know about that. Who hasn’t tried a little storytelling sympathy in their lives? Who hasn’t been burned by it?
If ten percent of what I write from now on comes true, let it be this: magic never gives you what you don’t already have. So work that cosmic energy in your head, don’t read too much into it, and take a deep breath. You’ll never kill God, but you can probably take out a few demons.
Whoo. That was a heck of a thing.
I don’t shop much. When I do shop, I tend to come away with the barest of essentials, which usually do not include things like clothes. Until about last month, I had worn the same threadbare shoes for the last five years. Yes, five years. A little superglue here, a few stitches there, and a ton of black shoe polish went a long way toward keeping those babies looking fresh. I realized that I actually had to get rid of them when someone pointed out that they were mostly just a shoe-shaped glob of glue, stitching and goopy shoe polish that rubbed off and left fecal-looking streaks on absolutely everything, particularly the nice clean floors at work.
Learning that I have been rude is one of the few things that will prompt me to immediate action, and to action I sprang. In the name of efficiency, I proceeded to a big box, a jungle of depressing fabric, appliances and synthetics whose name I will not mention. The people who worked there seemed uninterested in my problem. I wear a size 7 men’s shoe, preferably a solid color and nothing weird. My life is weird enough, thanks. I don’t need funky shoes.
But every damn shoebox I pulled off this place’s shelves was missing its right member. I tried Converse, Dockers, Sketchers, and about five other brands that I’ve never even heard of. No rights. Eventually, I went to the sales associate to ask why.
“We don’t know,” she said. The effort it took her not to groan deepened the lines on her face until she looked ancient and exhausted. “It’s company policy. We’re not allowed to talk about it, but it’s been that way since 2009.” I asked her if her boss would have more information. Her eyes hardened immediately. I knew I’d made a mistake. She grabbed her name tag and pulled it forward so that I could read it without looking at her chest. The little square of blue and white plastic identified her as the store manager. That was a bit embarrassing, but what really gave me pause was that it also listed her blood type.
I decided to leave.
After a few hours wandering around looking for a way out, I chanced upon a golden thread, probably pulled off some high fashion cardigan or tunic by another wanderer. It was wrapped around the necks and wrists of blank-featured white mannequins and stretched between them like the cordon at some bizarre opening night ritual. I followed it. Unfortunately, I chose the wrong direction first and soon ended up staring at a door marked “Employees Only.” The thread was suspended between a stray nail in the wall and the crack between the closed door and the jamb. I didn’t feel like an employee and suspected I’d be recruited or something if I proceeded through, so I turned around and went back the other way.
It took a long, long time to find the exit. I had to stop and rest several times. I think I slept once. It’s weird how details like that haze away when you’re in an environment where the lights never go off. I was exhausted in a wide, bloodshot way that eventually bordered on a kind of psychosis. Articles of clothing seemed to reach out for me as I passed. They seemed to whisper things about me that I’d never told anyone, things about my childhood altar serving in the Church and my family, who I left hundreds of miles away to move to this place, and all the time I’d wasted of my short life playing video games. You are an addict waiting to happen, hissed the blouses and the belts and the khakis. You are a latent gameoholic, alcoholic, shopaholic. Buy things. Consume until you die. It is your fate.
What kept me going was that I’d read about this somewhere before. Big box stores optimize their layouts to get people a little lost. That way, they need to spend more time looking at stuff. The longer they look, the more likely they’ll pick up extra things that they never intended to get. Knowing this, I managed to avoid buying anything, though if there was food, I’d gladly have spent a few dollars on it. Maybe that’s the next big retail innovation: hot dog stands among the groves of slacks and camisoles.
When I finally reached the end of the thread, I nearly cried. There was the exit. Daylight, even. My shoes were finally in pieces. It was three days later. My wife had left several dozen frantic messages on my phone, which all appeared the instant I passed through the grimy automatic glass doors. My first action was to run to her and tell her that she had been right all along about the big boxes, that I was finally free and would never leave her for life in a modern labyrinth.
Then, I proceeded to a boutique booterie in downtown Salem, where I paid a pretty penny for a very nice pair of locally made, artisanal shoes. Well, actually, I paid seventy-five bucks. I guess that’s not so bad, right? I’m still not sure what shoes ordinarily cost, but compared to three days of your life, $75 is a pretty good deal. And at least the shoemaker provided both left and right shoes free of extra charge.
I guess I’ll be buying local from now on.
Can’t bring the funny this week. I tried to talk about why, but it came out garbled and I didn’t think it contributed to a positive discourse.
So I’m just going to leave this here. Trevor Noah may have had a rocky start, but I think he’s really grown into the Daily Show and I don’t think anyone could have summed things up with more tact and confidence. Also, check out this incredible resource kite for white people who want to stop contributing passively to the problem and start becoming part of the solution to racism.
Come on, fellow white people. Let’s stand up for our fellow Americans already.