Suburban Ritualistic Self-Denial

The other day I was asked, “Why do you give so much of a damn about _____?” The _____ was Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men, a book I first read less than two years ago and yet have already written two academic papers about (one short, one uninteresting). If you’ve talked to me about literature in the past year, you’ve heard me gush. Recommending the novel has become muscle memory. I don’t rack my brain in a selfless attempt to find just the right book for just the right person, I spew the spit from the tip of my tongue that hits the listener square on the nose and when they wipe away the spit with their hand and look at their hand while trying hard not to bring up me accidentally spitting in their face they read “READ ALL THE KING’S MEN,” all capital letters sticky between their fingers.

The truth is that the question posed to me was not so antagonistic as I relate here. It was far more open-ended. I was to explain why I like the book. But “the book” could translate as easily to any other thing which has captured me and held my attention far, far longer than the course of reading. Asking me why I like All the King’s Men is like asking me why I liked High Fidelity so much in high school, a book that, in retrospect, has many qualities of a proto-All the King’s Men (despite being written fifty years later, it functions as a prototype in my chronological life). It’s asking me why I listen to mewithoutYou on repeat, singing it to myself in the shower, when falling asleep. It’s why I like Swamp Thing more than Batman. These related media aren’t me, I have to constantly remind myself, but they’re about me. They’ve become more than enjoyable reads, some lighthearted summer fare or even a great novel in a college course that you enjoy but didn’t enjoy as much as your peers, but philosophical approaches to life. And maybe the philosophy of my favorite things only makes sense to me because I’m me. Maybe I can never ever relate the struggle. Maybe others will read it and go “It was ok, I liked it alright,” and I’ll have to roll with the physical assault. But you at least deserve an answer.

I’ve learned to not be a human. My self has fallen into discrete categories. This book is a part of me. This book is another. This video game, another, this podcast, another. No one but me has the full picture, the full history. I’ve written diatribes that mean a lot and say nothing. I’ve taken secrets to my grave. In the effort to “grow up and be an adult,” I’ve left a lot of passion behind. I’m very happy to not constantly be making an ass of myself, on one hand, but on the other I sorely miss the enthusiasm, the depression, romance, hate, unbridled infectious liveliness that caused me to be an ass fifty percent of the time and a saint the other fifty.

So I’ve turned to metonymy.

The Deep, Dark Secrets of 2009? 2010? aren’t anything I’ve ever lied about, but they are topics I steer conversation clear of. They’ve become isolated incidents, things I can parse out as aberrations of my “usual” self. “That was a weird summer.” “It was a different time in my life.” “I apologized already.” I work hard at making them irrelevant today. I remind myself that people change, they evolve, they don’t grow into bigger, meaner versions of the snips and snails that created them. The Deep, Dark Secrets of 2009? 2010? are excised from the body, cut off like a gangrene leg, all screams and flails and then sleep and phantom pains.

At least that’s how I try and sell it. Problem is, all these books from people infinitely smarter than myself show me the end of that road. And they show me how to dig myself out. And the digging myself out fucking hurts.

Middle-class white men with ego issues attempt to reconcile their past with the present and in doing so admit their sins. Jack Burden drives West to replay his mental home movie because he cannot deal with the fact that he pushed Anne Stanton away with his carelessness and false bravado. Rob revisits past relationships when Laura dumps him for being insensitive. Aaron repeats old lyrics with new meaning when Amanda is long, long gone and he gets married to someone his old self had never planned on (Nature Had Another Plan!). Reconcile, replay, revisit, repeat, rewrite. Relive and arrive at some conclusion you hadn’t thought possible. Maybe you two will get back together or maybe you never will and no matter the matter who you are and what you are is not a separate being than the egotistical self-centered jerkwad but the inevitable conclusion of it. The Deep, Dark Secrets of 2009? 2010? are shared, first inwardly, then outwardly, and they lead to some path that you are afraid will lead to loneliness but will probably just end up leading to a functioning human.

I hit my girlfriend. Back in 2009. We were fighting, a bit too much for a relationship considered serious, and then, smack, without even thinking about it. Knocked her glasses off and they fell to the cold dormitory floor and didn’t break. Her face, shocked, made mine, frenzied. I couldn’t believe it (God, I still can’t) and ran for the knife for the obvious solution, certainly before apologizing to her, which would be to “…cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire.” So after slapping her across the face she was the one to comfort me, to tell me she forgave me and understood the reasoning even if the action wasn’t good and that no, no, I didn’t literally have to amputate. I said I’d never do it again. And I d

You know what I did the next night? We were fighting again, and I did it again.

“The Incident” is no longer an incident, it is a living reality no fun tricks of nomenclature can cover up. “The Dark Secrets of 2009? 2010?” pale, absolutely pale, in comparison to others but my own ego, my own false strength insists that the worse is the worst simply because I’m the one who did it. I’m the worst. Social media would crucify me, and they’d be right to. I’m as big a shithead as the rest of them. I’m a Lifetime movie villain. I’m the manipulative ex-boyfriend dead in the ditch flung from the open jeep off the bridge with mud in my blood. I’m an abused abuser (or does it sound “better” as the abuser abused?) who swore the self to secrecy not because of ramifications but because of the lack of them. I had to protect myself and I had to punish myself and in the protection I punished and I punished and I punished. I practiced Suburban Ritualistic Self-Denial.

Suburban Ritualistic Self-Denial is the Protestant practice of self-isolation, self-subservience, self-mutilation, self-Self-Denial when no confessions are available, no penance can be made, no incense can be burned, when the father can berate you and the counselor can arrest you and the friends can abandon you (maybe they won’t, but maybe the chances increase with knowledge), when the Thanksgiving Feast is eaten alone in the bedroom on the floor by the record player and the shed fur of the dead cat and you say to yourself, “I will enjoy this life! But I will enjoy it by the smell of gasoline and the cockroach-ridden walls!” It’s the price of freedom, of too much money and too much time, of not having to wake up at eight in the morning every day and allowing yourself to ruminate in bed all day to turn inward upon yourself upon the universe a thousand times creating, not recreating but simply creating, a thousand separate names for the hit, the incident, the slap, the dark secret, a Thousand Names for God. It’s what you’ve got when you’ve not got.

I say I “see myself” in All the King’s Men, but that means nothing in its short, innocuous phrasing. Is he a Student of History? Is he neurotic? Is he cold? Or is it I’m on that trip out West and it hasn’t taken me three days but has taken me five years and my home movie is on repeat and I never took the advice to burn it and live callously? Or did I live callously, because when I look down at my toes I see callouses burning off? Did I make a mistake, or did He make a mistake, He being me of some different era and different Name that I can partition into a locked safe while I bleed out in Real-Time and not All-Time? Because that’s what I mean when I say I “see myself.” I see myself loving, angry, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, heart beating coffin thumping up to surface worms between teeth saying I need another chance, I need another chance, I don’t need to hit again but I need to be angry enough to hit and then not hit and maybe my right arm can write poetry or play music or hold an infant and not be all severed tendons and bloodsoaked bedsheets.

I have made my penance and no one saw. Here it is. It’s in an condominium in Hunter’s Chase, off Celanese and next to the Krispy Kreme, and the floor is dirty and sagging from pacing and jumping and falling and kissing the ground when landing. It’s nasty and it’s mine but it can’t be only mine.

So there’s your answer.

“…for any place to which you may flee will now be like the place from which you have fled, and you might as well go back, after all, to the place where you belong, for nothing was your fault or anybody’s fault, for things are always as they are.”

I am very sorry.


I first met Dean

in December in my bed.


He bit the ends of my fingertips as I traced her back.

He nipped my nose when my hands flipped her over

and he told me to stop.


I brush my teeth and I pop a pill and I apply a cream.

I set the alarm (8:30 with no snooze)

and I can only think of the movies I’ve never seen.


I white-water raft and try to climb a mountain. I cook a hot dog.

I listen to songs played by crickets and watch light shows performed by fireflies

and I can only think of the albums I’ve never heard.


I kiss a woman. I hold her in my arms after we make love.

I peek over her shoulder at her graphic design homework

and I can only think of the art museums I’ve never visited.


I read a book. It is by an author I like. I am quiet on a bench and I am invested.

I get to chapter two and decide it’s a favorite

and I can only think of the books I’ve never read.


I think of Dean.

Sext: Poop

She wrote this and held her face up to the ceiling and its spinning fan blades and its glow-in-the-dark star stickers. Thinking about the tweet made her laugh and her laugh was a cackle and each “ha” was enunciated as a separate article. She held her face up to the ceiling and said “ha-ha-ha-ha.” She had made a joke and it was a funny joke and her friends and admirers would enjoy it because she had said it was a joke and anyone who did not laugh at the joke was, to her, a humorless ogre. She wrote three longer tweets explaining the joke, explaining that the idea of a sexual text message merely containing the word “poop” was strange and baffling and metacontextual after the string of internet sext jokes devolved into saying words that sounded silly. She had dissected a frog and each pin that held the frog’s chest cavity open was liked by over ten thousand subscribers.

When Mark, her ex-boyfriend and first cousin twice removed, asked her to join him at a Thai restaurant on 8th street, she agreed. They hugged when they met but she made sure to slap his back during the hug so that he wouldn’t feel too comfortable. Mark ordered the thing with chicken in it. She practiced saying “tom yam kung nam khon” before ordering and when she ordered she said all the words too fast and they merged together into “tomymkunamon.” The waitress understood the order and always understood the order.

The two friends both took pictures of their food before eating, but she put her spoon in the tom yam kung nam khon first to make it appear as if she hadn’t snapped a picture of a pre-eaten meal (to do so would be passé). They updated each other on the contents of their lives, about how Mark had recently left his job at Walgreens to work at CVS because CVS was more interested in the plight of the working class, about how she had sworn to never talk to her sister Diamond ever again after she had betrayed the family by moving out. The two started to talk about books but realized they hadn’t read any new books since the four months they had last seen each other, so they talked about internet essays. They agreed in everything. They agreed in nearly everything. Mark said Tegan & Sara weren’t very good anymore and was chastised into saying that they had simply changed as artists.

She was having such a good time with Mark that she decided they should go back to her place, her parent’s place, her childhood bedroom, for drinks and a movie. She put her fingers in her mouth to whistle for a cab but no noise would come out and she spit all over her fingers. After that she started whistling normally. After that she grabbed Mark by the arm and walked the three miles back to her place, her parent’s place. The pair started looking at everything they saw along the way, saying the name for the thing aloud (Stop sign! Crosswalk! Billboard advertisement for Nike!) and laughing at its sound. Mark would look at people walking by them and swivel his head to keep looking as they passed.

She was taken aback when, upon entering the den, Diamond was seen in her usual chair, laying in the recliner as if it were a couch, looking at her phone and sending pictures of her bare feet. It was enough for her to tell Diamond hello and keep walking. It was stupid, she supposed, but it was a normal human response to brainwashing that would be overcome with time and effort. Up in her room, she and Mark sat on the edge of the bed drinking cheap tall cans of urine-flavored beer and watched a big-budget Hollywood movie on her scalding hot laptop. The film was one she had wanted to see in theaters but didn’t watch during its theatrical run because her friends made fun of the director when she brought the movie up. They went to her room instead and filed through physical and digital shelves of purchased films, talking about each one and its worthiness or worthlessness but ended up talking so long that it became too late to watch a movie. She and Mark watched thirty minutes of explosions destroy Vancouver, but during the sequence they believed the movie was set in New York City. The main character lived in and went to school in Vancouver but she and Mark had never been outside of New York City and hadn’t realized that the rest of the world was not all like New York City. Mark swore he saw the Thai restaurant they had just been to on 8th street in the film.

She stood up to open the window, she opened the window, she unsealed the fake can of Sprite that contained Ziploc bags of marijuana, and then Mark reached into his backpack and threw out a one-pound bag of pot mustard pretzels. Mark said he had yet to try them and would rather try something unconventional for the evening. It took a half-pound each for her and Mark to feel any change. She showed him her writing, her webpage where “Sext: Poop” was the hit of the day with the numbers of favorites and retweets updating in real-time, the numbers so fast they appeared to only increase in three digits. Mark was impressed with her work and as she scrolled down the page to show him all the other sexting jokes, he began to kiss the back of her neck in a lightly-felt but controlled rotation.

After Mark left, after he gave up his efforts and allowed himself to brood on the edge of the bed for a minute and a half, she turned back to her computer to write. She wanted to say things of merit and of substance, to write an inspirational blog post telling younger women to not settle with abusive men or to take a bold stance on an ongoing war. She came off her high staring at the computer, only slowly moving her hands from her empty lap to the keyboard to write about her trouble. Her writing about her trouble was not about her trouble but about her trouble with trouble. She wrote of guilt and of shame and of suicide and of her continued existence at the foot of the bed. She wrote that to be herself she must always be in a perpetual state of dull stillness and that this dull stillness was funny because her fans could relate.

She was taken by surprise when she received an email from a prominent ebook publisher who specialized in young writers from New York City. Elaine Griggs, the woman in charge of small-time publishing house Quackle McButterson, wrote to her that she was “a better poet than she realized,” that “your value system and moral code, though appearing to be purely esoteric, are indubitably universal”, and that she expressed “unbridled, passionate, beautiful, irregular and yet utterly charming sincerity.” She read the email five times over, attempting to wrap her mind around the possibility of worldwide success and of being a staple of sincerity, because in the little shred of understanding left she knew that the last sincere thing she had said was two months ago and was about enjoying French fries.

The Nu-Metal Classics

Fort Wayne’s 98.9 THE BEAR writes that it’s the city’s only ROCK station in all capital letters. Its website features a “Babe of the Day,” which doesn’t seem Indiana-specific but looks more like hastily copied-and-pasted photos from the first images in a porn set. The station’s top DJ is named “John the Mexican.” In his photo he’s wearing a sombrero, but, though I may get into hot water by determining a person’s ethnicity based purely on facial features, he sure looks like a white guy.

Hard rock is what I started listening to as soon as middle school began. I say “Hard” rock, but it’s not hard. It’s not like the suburban Midwest was playing GG Allin or Black Flag. Everything in suburbia is hard like Daughtry is hard. My mom and my after-school tutor were both American Idol fans and nearly every week had to have a short discussion about how different Daughtry was, and how they liked him despite being such a rocker! He has a wallet chain! He has a bald head (on purpose)! He has tattoos, and tattoos are crazy and different and not a thousand-year old establishment. I raised my nose at them. I did a “Nyugh!” and went back upstairs.

Even within the couple of years that I stopped listening to Suburban Dad Rock I instantly recognized my failings. Neither of my parents are musically inclined. I don’t say that to criticize or anything, they just never had music on. They had records, sure, but their latest (and, hilariously, greatest) was Bruce Willis’s The Return of Bruno. If I wanted an album to listen to as I anxiously paced in my bedroom, it was Radio Disney or Weird Al Yankovic or borrowing one of my sister’s *NSync CDs and attempting to judge the thing on its own merits. So when I learned there was music out there for adults, assumedly, and not just for kids, I eagerly downloaded every post-grunge nu-metal song from Kazaa that I could find. Yeah, Kazaa. In case I didn’t mention it, I am an exceptionally old man and this was the turn of the century.

The first thing anyone remembers about the 2000s is 9/11. I hate to bring it up, but it’s something defining and is more concrete than just a fluttery literary notion. The fall of 2000 had a silly, embarrassing presidential election, but it didn’t matter until the chickens came home to roost. A lot of music was written in the wake of the attack. Some of it was peaceful and earnest. A very tiny minority of it was thoughtful. The vast majority of it was angry at no definable source, though generally assumed to be a girl instead of rightful culprit the elimination of the Glass-Steagall Act, and hysterically patriotic. That was nu-metal in 2003. Think of a naked obese man draped in an American flag who, when sitting on his couch, smells and feels Dorito dust rising from the cushions, and loudly grunts obscenities when reaching for the remote. By 2007 he gives up, collapses, masturbates, and falls asleep. Popular music is still popular music, but I do think we’ve gotten better.

It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to the hits 98.9 THE BEAR played back in 2003 and assuredly still plays today (because the station is garbage). Maybe I’ve been too harsh. Maybe my personal life is too tied up in tastes and experiences to look at popular culture with an objective eye. Maybe “shut up and turn off your brain!” really is a legitimate response to people who pay attention to things. Maybe it’s just been eleven years and I want to see how much I’ve really changed.

Here are the number one U.S. Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks of the year of our Lord two-thousand-and-three.

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When You Stay a Christian in College

“Anybody, any denomination, it doesn’t matter if they’re a rabbi or a cleric, you know, when they tell their sermons, you know. They do one every week, and they run out of material pretty quickly. They’ve gotta fuckin’ force in that Isaiah 4:13 in there, so they’ve all got this bullshit story about…

‘You know, uh, last Wednesday I was at the mall with my young niece and some of her skateboarding friends.’

And I’m like, alright, well, alright. You know it’s bullshit. He made something up about skateboarding.

‘Um, hey father? I’m a skateboarder and stuff and I love crazy punk music, but is there a place in Heaven for me?’

You know, whatever. It’s just crap.  It’s lies. It’s just like any politician with his fake story about people you never see.

‘I was in Flint, Michigan last week and a young lady came up to me and said ‘Senator, because of your opponent’s policies, I could not afford Christmas dinner and I was forced to eat my own eyeballs.’’

–          David Cross, “If Baseballs Had AIDS on Them”, Shut Up You Fucking Baby!

“Can I be baptized?”

I asked this in the bathtub. My mother stopped washing my back to ask why, what prompted the question. I told her about the man on the TV who touched his palm to a woman’s forehead and she collapsed, and either I wanted to be baptized to avoid collapsing or I wanted to be baptized to collapse out of happiness. I was supposed to be doing homework, likely math problems, when I saw it. The early 80s-made nine-inch TV in my bedroom was mostly used to play Earthworm Jim, but when I did homework I’d turn to actual programming. Most of the time I heard Home Improvement, and sometimes I heard World Championship Wrestling, but the night before my bath I turned to the televangelists’ station.

I sat on the edge of my bottom bunk bed and peeked over the arms folded on my knees to keep watching.

“Yes, I think we can arrange that,” my mother said.

“I prophesy and know all mysteries

All hidden things are opened up to me

But I don’t know the first thing about love

I don’t know the first thing about love”

–          Thrice, “Moving Mountains, The Alchemy Index Vols. III & IV: Air & Earth

How to Stay Christian in College was given to me around my high school graduation but I didn’t read it until this summer.

From: Pastor Dale & Catherina

“With our love, prayers, and God-speed as you graduate from high school!”

June 9, 2007

Matthew 19:26

For years it was on the pile. By the time I had my own apartment, I was angry at it. It’s spent its years in the closet of the spare room on top of devotionals and old Game Informers. I knew this book was going to make me mad. It made me mad. I sat on a bench at Winthrop Lake surrounded by dragonflies and goose shit with a blue pen to annotate on my own for the first time.

J. Budziszewski is a professor of government at the University of Texas, Austin. He sells graduating high schoolers fear. There is no beautiful prose in How to Stay Christian in College. There is no heart to it, just a screaming ruleset that blares like the fake bugle from electronic speakers on the tops of buildings at boy scout camp once the camps got too big and everyone’s explorations were replaced with schedules. Every metaphor is war-like. “Under attack” and “defend yourself” and “sword and shield.” There are endless stated facts without citations, without explanation. This is the way it ought to be because I say so. We can never be sure why God wants it to be this way, He just does. No, don’t ask that. No, don’t think that. No, stop wondering. Stop being that committed. Stop sending me links to the Gospel of Judas. If you’re going to read The Da Vinci Code, make sure you read it in a church.

Budziszewski sells fear not because he profits too greatly from it, but because he himself is afraid, as I am, as we all are. Fear makes good servants to the Lord. And good servants do, sometimes, have good wisdom. I am not above complimenting the book on its truths.

“Build new interests and attachments in a careful, discerning way.” True!, I write, agreeing that a rigorous moral code avoids basic college pratfalls.

“The early Christians risked death and torture for their faith.” True!, I write, even though he didn’t provide sufficient evidence or sources. That seems to be common knowledge.

“Jesus Christ was the Son of God.” True!, I write. Budziszewski has all the answers. He knows the right interpretation in every context. He knows that Jesus was as much God as he was human, despite other theories. He knows the Bible has been perfectly translated, word-for-word, in the past two thousand years. He knows. I don’t know. I have my guesses. I don’t think any of my guesses make me damned.

“I’ll spend almost the same amount of time on general and girl myths, but on guy myths my comments will be about 50 percent longer because guys take more convincing.”

“If sex is only for marriage, sexual arousal must be too.”

“They say, ‘But what if we plan to never have children?’ Sorry, unless you’re biologically incapable, never is not an option. God commands spouses to be fruitful and multiply.”

–          J. Budziszewski, How to Stay Christian in College

Budziszewski wants control but he doesn’t know he wants it. He can’t see the world any other way. If gays can marry he sees a world similar but doomed to sin, but he can’t even perceive of a world where straight people see gay people get married and no one bats an eye. There is always a war, always a cause, always a reason to metaphorically and, eventually, literally ram a man’s head into the broad side of a tree. This isn’t for him. He loves God. I know he does! He has the most basic concept, he has the essentials. Here is the story. Here are the verses. Here is a worldview that is inclusive and universal.

Is he a cheat? Is he a liar? Is he a fraud? He probably isn’t, or at least it would surprise me. He’s not the right hand of God, the chosen one to explain everything sternly, perfectly. He’s the right hand of society. He’s the right hand of men who cheat on their wives with every secretary in the office and of men who accumulate great wealth by using churches to sell their books and of men who accumulate great wealth by using wars to sell their bombs. The poor man wrote his book with all the sincerity of his heart. He’s grown now. He probably won’t make radical lifestyle changes in the next thirty-odd years.

I can’t sleep at night because of J. Budziszewski. I am J. Budziszewski. Some part of me is still overconfident and underprepared and eager for fulfillment. Some summer nights I stay up late and whisper to myself plans on how to fix things and how to make the world right and I forget that God comforts me. Some nights verses I remind myself of help me fall asleep. Those keep me alive and nodding my head, but they don’t actively fix anything. With Jesus a believer can survive anything. That doesn’t make the world a better place.

I called a girl “bossy” at the same time I admitted to crushing on her. As a bonafide child of God in the most classically How to Stay Christian in College sense she probably expected it. But she was a person, too, and nothing about that year went well for me.

“See, war is horrible. I’m generally against war. I didn’t even really enjoy my time in service, I just did it to get by. But sometimes there’s a proper reason. I mean, Pearl Harbor…how do you not go to war over that?”

          My dad, to me, 1-3 years ago

“They just have to understand their place.”

–           My dad, to his friend, about the Iraq War, at the beach cottage around 10 years ago.

My dad is sick with a sore throat while I write this. Get well soon, Dad.

My dad laughs at me when I express a viewpoint. He giggles a little, in an arrogant way that isn’t a real belly laugh, and might snort his nose once. I stopped telling my parents these things some time ago. The serious topics, religion or politics or what to do with guys who abuse animals, illicit giggles and snorts. No one ever tries to convince me of anything. There isn’t data, no, not even rhetoric. Old Southern women who get their news from failing newspapers and AM radio but love you with all of their hearts ask questions and then get upset when you try to give them the answers you thought they were seeking.

My parents taught me to be kind to others so I try and be kind to others while they say life is actually getting the hardest for us white people. My parents taught me to never fight so I take every little beating while they point fingers at fast food restaurant employees who run out of napkins. My parents taught me to run when I fear for my own safety and might encounter bodily harm so sometimes I run out of the house and down the street and down the interstate and into a parking lot and lie face down until the hurt seems to go away while everyone still sits at the dinner table, full after their meals, and talks about the walking speed of Hispanics.

One Christmas Eve my Uncle Max left the candle lighting and singing ceremony to stand outside in the lobby until we had finished our program. I wanted to cry and hug him. He was welcome to join us, but he knew that if he opened his heart he wouldn’t be welcome any more.

“But…how does it feel? To just stop breathing?”

“Strange. You realize…just how much…effort…it has been…all along.”

–          Alan Moore, The Saga of the Swamp Thing #25

When I got baptized I was able to go into the back of the church and see the secret doors to the secret rooms. As a child you only had access to a few areas of a few buildings because everything else was an adult’s office or a closet. I remember changing clothes in a bathroom I had never been in before and being shocked, just shocked, that said bathroom had been kept secret from me for years. That is what I remember about washing away sin. I looked at piping of the sink.

When I was brought up from the water, very thankful that my pastor was right and I wouldn’t drown and die, I was told that my sins were forgiven and I could go through life as a new man. He was probably right. A little voice in my head told me that I’d never have to work hard again.

Another Weird Trigger for Insight

I was just the right age for the first Spider-Man film. I was twelve, maybe eleven, when Spider-Man was released at the end of my first day at a Star Wars convention. At the theater, my dad and my friend and I saw a lot of the same faces from the convention. The same sci-fi space opera nerds were also comic book geeks, which should be sort of obvious. Back in 2002 there was a really palpable enthusiasm for a superhero movie’s release. I saw a Stormtrooper take off his helmet and put on a Spidey mask. People cheered at the opening credits. I got goosebumps, partly because of their enthusiasm and partly because, even if I wasn’t alive for the forty years between Spider-Man’s introduction and his theatrical debut, I had gone back and loved him in my little span of time. Hollywood was filming the “unfilmable,” which is the same thing Hollywood said about the Lord of the Rings. Nothing’s unfilmable. Executives just try to suppress their imagination for as long as possible.

I went to a comic book club at the Fort Wayne public library when I was ten. The older kids were discussing the ins-and-outs (relatively, the utter minutia) of heroes. What they thought about ___ Crisis, or whatever. I asked if they knew anything about Pokemon and they laughed at me. That’s a totally fair response, especially in that environment. I’d do it now.

So my parents got me Marvel encyclopedias for one of my childhood birthdays. Hulk, Spidey, and the X-Men. I still have them. I remember poring over them, memorizing every character and their respective powers. I read every comic book I could get my hands on, but there were a lot of back-issues too expensive for my little allowance. Also, the 90s were a dark time and tried to be “gritty” and “adult” in ways that would offend my parents if they looked over my shoulder. So I read a lot about Cable without often having Cable issues in front of me. Did you know that one time Magneto ripped the adamantium out of Wolverine? Woah! The X-Force kills people! This picture of Mojo and his Mojoverse actually sort of scares the hell out of me!

The second X-Men film came out on a middle school band trip to St. Louis. It’s the best (was the best?) in that film series and definitely better than the first. I remember taking glances at my friends after the film’s best scenes, locking eyes and wordlessly asking them, “Are you seeing this? Can you believe they were paid millions of dollars to film this? This is so good – is this what we missed out on for not being alive in the 60s?” I saw X2 in the theater at least three more times.

What happened later in the decade is that the money got to be too much and the egos got to be too big. Executives wanted too many villains in Spider-Man 3 and dudebros got to direct X-Men movies and you tried to justify it, you tried to make it seem okay, you wanted that enthusiasm but it wasn’t really there. “Well, we have Venom now. That’s cool. Angel was in his movie for a total of four minutes and still got on the poster hanging outside. Better than nothing, right?” The movies started to suck and the directors and actors knew they sucked and everyone moved on. I remember remaining optimistic that 4 will turn it around! Spider-Man 4 will be great, X-Men 4….uh, clearly I hadn’t watched Superman 4: THE QUEST FOR PEACE.

It’s like I became resentful at every reboot announcement. Now Peter Parker isn’t a dorky anxious kid you can relate to, he’s handsome and hilarious to everyone and has no trouble – but he watched Star Wars once! The X-Men are attractive young hairless nobodies plucked from the Disney Channel, because we need people on the covers of teen magazines! Those movies aren’t bad. They’re okay. I just don’t care. I’m not overwhelmed and no one is cheering the opening credits. There are my favorite characters, doing what they do, as I have seen them do for the past 15 years, but this time it’s purely for money. Older kids don’t high-five each other walking out of the theater of The Amazing Spider-Man, they just walk back to their cars in silence, remembering almost nothing, and wait a month for the next shot. No one falls asleep in the backseat on the way home with a smile on their face.

The movie I saw tonight, X-Men: Days of Future Past, ends up justifying my theater experiences since 2000. It takes what I saw as the hairless tween nothings and weaves them into the “classic” (lol) series that got me so excited. It doesn’t leave me in the dust. It recognizes its own past, gives meaning to experience. Hell, to make sense of a lot of it you have to see the bad movies. To get the most you have to suffer through the past like I did. That’s all I’ve ever asked for: consequence. What I’m watching, reading, listening to should matter, it should have ramifications for the rest of the story. (As a complete aside, me saying “listening to” spawned a realization: I love mewithoutYou because their albums and songs establish continuity. Demon Hunter mostly sucks because they made one okay album they’ve been repeating for the past twelve years.) Sure, I’m not saying X-Men represents the highest caliber of art. It reestablishes my favorite parts of the series with time travel and retcons. Shoot a bit higher than X-Men, and for God’s sake don’t let Brett Ratner near a dead fish much less an important franchise, but try to give me the same feeling I had tonight: a smile on my face for the film I’m watching and for what I watched as a kid. I’m out of the 18-24 age bracket and am getting closer and closer to leaving 18-35, and Hollywood could ditch me for being old and constantly reboot in order to let new middle school kids standing outside the Smithfield Cinemas see the origin, new and cleansed and ready for accepting Teen Choice Awards. But with this one movie, one little two hours of my life that I’m never really going to expect, I knew my own childhood wasn’t totally whitewashed.

I’m not saying DoFP is this amazing, important experience to everyone. It’s a really good comic book movie, and if you don’t have my own history then that’s really it. It speaks to me – and that’s sort of wrong, because no one was thinking of me when they made it. They just did what came naturally, and I’ve been along for the ride for most of my life.

Y = Hope and N = Folly

The green Ford Explorer in front of him found a way to both drive too slow and stop too quickly. His eyes were level with the back of her SUV’s bumper and he took his sweet, endless time to view every sticker. Don’t Tread On Me. Dole/Kemp ’96. Calvin peeing on the homeless. And, to him, the most offensive sticker of all said “Pro-Life.”

Darkseid gripped his steering wheel with his bulky fingers, leaving an imprint on the rental car that he knew would get him into hot water with the dealership back on Apokolips. But he didn’t care about that in the moment. He was fixated on “Pro-Life” because the idea of his work being flushed down the toilet, blown to smithereens, tied to the Source Wall shook him. Millennia of self-funded research would mean nothing if the human public couldn’t settle their petty differences and appreciate his work. The Anti-Life Equation, Darkseid’s ultimate goal since locking his bedroom door and discovering his own Omega Force, would never be fully discovered and implemented if Southern Baptist women were so strongly against abortion.

This folly, this silliness of mankind that thought pro-choice meant anti-life would only delay the actual altruistic Anti-Life right around the corner. Hip girls with star tattoos and protest signs weren’t truly anti-life, and Darkseid let out a large sigh and began mumbling to himself due to his irritation. The politics weren’t focused correctly. His advisors were useless. No matter how many times he had to invade Earth or kill a superhero or alter reality, nothing stuck with these dimwitted rednecks. And the new god thought to himself, “How on old God’s green earth can I ever be the villain? I want to erase life, to anti its ever being. Is there nothing more dastardly? Are self-sufficient women so frightening?”

The light turned green, and Darkseid drove down the road, and he never ended up being the common enemy for the world to unite against. South Carolina was just too busy hating itself.

Stupid is a Term of Endearment

Here are a couple of pieces I wrote for the zine (‘zine?) Potato Jesus Quarterly. The first is in Vol. 2 Issue 3. The second is either in another issue or lost in the wind. I need to publish things. Here you go.


Review: Bimini Run, for the Sega Genesis

“Kenji, come in. Kenji, come in. Come in, Kenji.”

Luka reached out for his blunt, but the waves were fierce on that Tuesday morning and his last little bit of happiness went sinking down to the sharks. He and Kenji had been traveling Northwest, past the isles and into the Atlantic, with no directive other than finding Kenji’s sister. Luka had been eyeing Kim for a long time, ever since she was only twelve years old. She had a pretty face then, he used to think, but surely I can wait until we’re both in college together. When she turned eighteen, Luka had been sleeping with his clients for years, but he never had the nerve to talk to her in a one-on-one encounter. How stupid, he used to think. As long as I was respectful, surely Kenji would approve.

Dr. Orca was a thorn in Luka and Kenji’s side ever since the boys arrived in the Bahamas to stay at Kenji’s dad’s timeshare. Kim first went to Orca’s offices due to her toe, having stubbed and split it on an ocean rock right past the shoreline. Orca took a liking to her then, a liking neither boy approved of. Kenji stormed out of the offices of the married doctor, while Luka trailed behind, a bit morose but otherwise perfectly high. Four days later, Kim was reported seen at the private second residence of Orca, out past all the resorts and into mostly uncharted territory.

Luka pulled himself up onto the closest sandbar. “Oh, God,” he muttered aloud after spitting up an ounce of mucus and blood. “Oh, God.” He was stranded on the sandbar for nine hours. By the time the sun had set, he dug four S.O.S. symbols into the sand, each of which had been washed away. In between his bouts of exercise, he sat at the shore and watched the sky turn into a brilliant array of purple and orange colors. His face became flushed with anger when he thought of Dr. Orca, but it eventually parlayed into a greater sadness as he thought of Kim.

Luka stopped his crying once he saw the water turn red. He knew that what had sank with the explosion was coming back to the surface, including his friend. The very next wave brought a slender hand accompanied by half an arm, ragged and sharp in the tears that separated flesh and bone. Luka reeled back and ran towards the other side of the sandbar, hoping to every deity he could imagine that Kenji was alive, even if that was his arm.

The last few minutes of Luka’s life involved running back and forth on the sandbar, realizing that everywhere he looked the enemy was approaching. Orca didn’t even care about them. Orca just thought they were stupid kids. An army of white sailboats, owned by every rich white male in the whole of Bimini, surrounded the boy. Luka closed his eyes when he heard the first crank of a minigun.


  “Yes’m. I’ve known Ol’ Bill for many ayear now. Been to his place often atime. His wife cooks meaaaaaan apple mess, I tell you what. Oh. Oh, yes’m. Here’s what you do: Go down Bright Street ‘bout half-a-mile, take a left. You’ll know to take a left when ya see Chilly’s Biscuits – that’s the best eatin’ ‘round these parts. Then you’ll see one athose fancy-dancy neigh-bor-hoods called Sicklemore Grove comin’ up on your right. Take that right. Go down aways, past the pink house Miss Margareet built for her cats and then past the rainbow house us boys built when we rounded up all them gays, and eventually you’ll see Ol’ Bill’s place ‘bout a mile away on top of that there hill. At this time aday you might find yourself stuck behind a honkin’ yellow schoolbus, and they stop pretty frequently, be ferwarned. Anyway, the schoolbus’s last stop is the house right next to the wormhole we discovered with tha ancient and immortal god Nyarlathotep inside. Yes’m, Nyarlathotep. Bill’s buster Duck was diggin’ around in a haystack for a lost catcher’s mitt when he acc’dentally discovered a tear in space-time. Funny how the good Lord plans these things for us, ain’t it? Anyway, that rift which shatters sanity grew and grew ‘till it blocked the whole road up to Ol’ Bill’s place. You’ll hafta go through it if you want to get there, but it ain’t a problem. You’ll wantta do some breathin’ exercises in order to prepare yerself for the hideous monstros’ty that infests your mind and has caused many a young lady, such as yerself, to jam her windshield wipers through her own eyeballs. Heh. Funny what that Nyarlathotep can do, when e’rytime I’ve seen ‘im he just floats along in the endless void singin’ the song of unlife. There’s that chance you’ll make it through, though, and when you get to the top of that ahill, I’m sure Ol’ Bill will be waiting for ya with a nice pitcher of water to refresh your irrep’rbly-damaged psyche. An’ if yer really lucky, his wife will have some apple mess layin’ out on the window for ya. Yes’m, you’ll be fine. I’d go m’self but I can’t operate no motor vehicle no more after that wild chil’ o’ mine ran my back over with that aflaming chariot. It’s gonna be a great party, though, Ol’ Bill’s been talkin’ ‘bout it before church for weeks.”

Be Prepared to Bleed

I knew I existed. This confirmed it.

You would turn off the lights at something like 12:30 in the morning, and you would crawl your little body under a patterned quilt, a quilt with dark red colors arranged in diamond shapes, and as the rest of the darkness came you thought of me once or twice. Once or twice, sometimes.

And before that you would walk to supper. You would go down the spiral into Subway or you would brave crossing the street on chilly November nights and get bad fried chicken or neglected Chinese. You might have instinctively called a friend, a mother, a sibling and met them over the late meal. And somewhere between eight at night and twelve at night you would dutifully glance over your syllabi and quietly read in your bedroom, and your bedroom was either on the other side of campus or the other side of the state and I could never tell which.

I, being me, being the moderately gigantic husk of solipsism, sat at the table in the beating sun until you called me over to the bench in the shade. “Give me an adjectival.” I ran through the twelve sentence patterns and the test went well. I got an 82. What did you get? Do you remember what a modal is? I don’t!

And the letters here get smushed together and sound meaner than they should, but as much as you let me notice you you let me notice me. When I know no one I sit back and say nothing. I twiddle my thumbs in the row closest to the back row, I play with the pencil that rubs between my index and middle finger frequently enough to build a callus. No one minds disheveled old me playing with my hands. By the end of the year I have quipped just frequently enough, about insects or underwear or the duality of man, to build comfort but not admiration. Little girls climb onto top bunks and see strong arms and sugar plums and wake up at 8:45 and don’t look forward to anything in mathematics and sociology and grammar.

You, though, you would turn your head over your left shoulder every time the professor went to write something else on the whiteboard. For two months five foot nine looked above five foot or five foot one and paid attention to the gerunds and infinitives and a turned head was more brown hair in a sea of brown hair. But I was behind your left shoulder. Your tricks were among the least sly I’d ever seen, and your eyes were too large to keep passing them over. Milky white surrounded pretty brown. The orbs were directly on me; I merely looked out the corner. Perhaps there was something stuck on my face. Perhaps a tarantula had taken nest on my shoulder. Perhaps I had forgotten a key article of clothing, but there was no way, no conceivable realm of existence, no plane of spiritual enlightenment where I was attractive. Where you looked at me and kept looking at me, at first a few times a week and at last a few times a minute, because I was cute.

And when my own 12:30 nights ended with these suppositions, I tested the theory, I calculated the formula, I presented my thesis before an audience of two, because I stared at the back of your head for five minutes waiting for the peek around the left shoulder. It came.

But by then we were in December. And by the time my core had trembled I was following through with old promises to myself. My track’s momentum propelled me backward, just like I had promised, and big brown eyes to my forward-right and invitations to house parties and older self-employed women patting me below the thigh but above the knee had vanished from my sight. And we stood up from the bench in the shade and went back to our homes. Perhaps only four or five lines in the psychological drama were spoken. A Frenchman could make an experimental movie about us. Different actors would be used for the husk twiddling the thumbs and for whomever you saw in that.

This is one big apology. It’s not that I didn’t care.

Wear White

D.I.Y. is a joke. I think. No one does it by themselves. There is an immense, unquantifiable number of people who were able to give me roasted chicken bites at Bojangle’s this afternoon. There is a blatant lie if I tell others I really live on my own, that I wouldn’t be on the streets if it wasn’t for my parents. When all the stars are aligned and you feel like an important cog in a machine, it is easy to be taken over by feelings of communion and safety, and it’s easier to be consumed by it.

At the very same time I like adhering to the Emersonian ideal, the one of a free-thinker and a rebel by moderation. I am equal parts Southern gentleman and obnoxious punk, but I cannot commit to either side because I forget to call people “Sir” and “Ma’am” and the complete collection of Minor Threat I have is only okay. Every six months I walk into Great Clips and say “Uh, make it normal, like a men’s normal” as if there is a men’s normal, but they get what I mean. People tell me I’m a safe bet. I’m betting I’m not.

I used to get angry a lot easier than I do now. If some anonymous 4chan user didn’t like the same movie I liked, I’d fruitlessly argue about it. If my parents told me to do my homework and I refused, I’d take being locked in the guest room as a good reason to break out. If I saw someone smoking I’d “give up” on them, as if that was a tactile consequence. Because I thought I was smarter. Hell, I am smarter! What are you doing with a limited mind for film and destroying your body with cancer? Parents, you get a pass. But a lot of that has cooled as I’ve gotten older because I’ve seen more lasting change as my own peers have gotten older. Hey, I mean, I’m the one who ate Bojangle’s today, who am I to talk?

I’m the guy who gets the pats on the head by elderly women, I guess. What the hell does that mean? I was among the youngest people in my grade school graduating class, I was the youngest among school friends. At Summit Middle School they already began splitting the students between the “gifted” and the “regular.” I was regular, so I was with the Bears. The people in town said I was nice, not smart. Math made me cry and English’s open nature caused me to get experimental with my papers and fail. All I had was passion and love and the assumption that only those most rudimentary qualities would sustain me until I died. The neurotransmitters in my brain would fire all wrong (to no one’s knowledge but my own) and I couldn’t study for a test if my life depended on it, but I could hug the heck out of my cats. If being friendly to furry friends was what school graded on I’d be awarded a diploma in absentia.

So now I sit in a conference room with honors students, the ones who were recruited to the Gators. And if they weren’t recruited for the Gators, at least they did okay with the Bears. They still went and enjoyed subjects and came home and got their work done and still had enough time to watch Toonami. And when I’m told “You’re good at this,” it’s like I’m being lied to. What, I’m good at something because I held myself back long enough to suddenly be the smartest one of the bunch? The best writer of the bunch? Not even the best, the luckiest. Mature qualities. The ethereal qualities you can’t teach. Here is eight hundred dollars because you’re you, even though you are putting off an academic paper at this very moment. I have impostor syndrome, I think. My clout grows and my fingertips extend and at some point an op-ed will be written about every class I’ve failed. What a shock, we are all so shocked! The man so collected is bleeding from his forehead. He is a “writer” but not a writer, he is a child with a Xanga and an affinity for explosions and colors. He spent his youth reading Star Wars novels and playing video games, only “writing” when it was to vaguely complain about some girl he liked. It sounds nice but is not great. There is no prize, no adaptation. If you’re going to adapt stream-of-consciousness at all there has to be some sort of story, and his story is just him.

My story is just me. When I apply for The Anthology I don’t give a twenty-page fairy tale, I go “Hey, here’s a ramble of indeterminate meaning, have fun!” And that’s what I’ve been doing for a decade. When I was entering first grade, my teacher asked me to go to our books and find a word and read it aloud. She expected me to say “a” or “the,” but I said “mechanic.” So precious, so special. And when have I written about mechanics? The only time I’ve written about mechanics is when I share that story!

It was embarrassing. It is embarrassing, I don’t know. This is the heart-on-sleeve life. This is the giant bundle of nerves and the unexpected, because my only plans in life are to be myself! God knows what that means. I am infinitely more dangerous than I ever expected and the student publications board ever expected, because I’m not a contented partner in a stable relationship of half a decade, I’m not universally nice, I’m not the saint I’ve spent a quarter-century hoping I’d be. I sit in front of class breathing in and out as slowly as possible because I know that when the professor tells us we’re dismissed, I’m going to turn around to the girl sitting behind me to ask her out. And I think, you know, the worst that can happen is to be rejected and sigh and move on, but those fears from grade school are brought up all over again when with a shift of the eyes and a shift of the feet I’m suddenly labeled as the villain once more. Because I have the nerve, the gall, to reveal for a mere second that I’m not loveless and above it all. And I’m told all over again that all those pills I take, all that reading I’ve done, all that time huddled in the corner of my abandoned apartment contacting my eyes to the tile floor is for jack shit because I am not a Gator and I am a failure of a Bear. I’m not just unattractive (that’s okay!), I’m repulsive because I do not for a second fall into any appropriate camp. Who do you think I hang out with on the weekends? D.I.Y. Who do I tell secrets to? Look at this page, D.I.Y. Why am I not dead yet? D.I.Y.

I audibly sigh and silently laugh when those pictures of my aubergines show up online with the red cups and the busy hands because they think they’re different, that they’re punk by giving money to multibillion dollar conglomerations Pabst Brewing Company and Philip Morris International. Punk is always the opposite of something. The opposite of authority, of teachers, of parents. Well, ha ha ha, when every son is prodigal the actual punk is at home with his headphones on. The absence of sides. You think the opposite of left is right, the opposite of right is left, but the opposite is tearing down the fence and realizing that the universe is an ever expanding ball. This is my cake and it is delicious.

Table for one. Fettucini alfredo with Foucault and Kierkegaard. A walk around the park. One hundred and ninety items in the queue. The neighbors don’t exist. Economic control, social control. A friend thinks of a friend and wonders what he’s up to, but no reply. If that’s not rebellion, I don’t know what is.