Poor Yorick

He keeps his feet bramble-beat, mud-puddle sheen, elastic waistband stretched past use and hanging, sagging really, on hips left to mottle in the sun, worn down from it, but he’s not worn, no sir, and can’t you see that smile on his face meant to tell you as much? If you’ll give him a dollar for some food then that’s your prerogative, but he understands if you can’t, if you need it for yourself, etc.

He’s been out on the street long enough to know the prognosis of the city. He studies its lungs as they choke for air in the twilight hours, its murmuring heart as it wakes up for another day.  It susurrates to itself, leaves as whispered self-encouragement, until the rain sticks the words to the ground like haphazard tattoos from the city’s younger days.

They call him York, because that’s where he’s from, NYC, but the way it comes out his mouth when he’s been cold all day and he’s got brain fog and his tongue is stuck in a slow-mo movie, it comes out like Yorick, and that’s fine too, if people call him that, he figures, because it’s only a name. Just poor Yorick out here on the streets, trying to make every dollar count and stretch.

And he’s here, stretching too, under this melange of sunrise sky, these oranges, reds, purples in places, it’s beautiful if you notice it, if you really stop and see it and pay attention to the design of it, like a massive oil painting in appearance, but this one’s been done in photons.

He thinks he’s lucky, he says as much when people ask him, and he’s past worrying much beyond the next six hours or so. Anything further is beyond his immediate control, doesn’t exist, and so doesn’t matter just yet. It can’t matter.

Weightless dreams when sleep comes easy, which is rare, but these dreams are like glimpses of heaven when they come to Yorick, dreams not so much of flying as floating as a feather would, on the breeze, without sore ankles and tired eyes, dreams where he sees his kids again, and they’re safe, and happy, and the same age that they were back when he last saw them, when he could see them, when they called out to him in their sing-song voices and hugged his legs that were to them the size of tree stumps.

He isn’t hard on himself the way he used to be. Doesn’t curse fate, or God, or any other unseen force that might’ve put him where he is right now. He gets up with the light and goes to sleep with the darkness, fixing himself to the firmament because that’s the only thing he can count on most days, and that’s just fine by him.

He’s got a person over at the library who’s helping him with the internet and the computers and the websites. He was on the street long before the dot-com boom, and this librarian has been kind enough to show him how it all works, why it matters, what it can do.

Yorick’s got pages of research now, the librarian lets him print for free within reason, and he keeps it in his back pocket and reviews the data by the light of a streetlamp near where he usually sleeps for the night. Pages and pages of entries, permutations and possibilities of where his kids might be, separated by cities and states, their names common enough to give him scores of results, dozens of possible addresses and email addresses and phone numbers.

At night, he pores over these pages and eliminates the dead ends and the false starts, writes notes in the margins when he thinks he might be onto something. By day, the kind librarian helps him draft emails, encourages him to get even more use out of the library, and checks out books for him under her card, because you need a permanent address to get a library card, and Yorick hasn’t had one of those for the better part of 30 years.

It’s months of this, searching, hunting, crossing out, scribbling on the pages, checking the email inbox that the librarian set up for him, day in and day out, watching the sun rise and fall, his hopes with it, all of it, changing in the way that you only can with age, by the force of time, until that one day, with a simple reply, just the one word at first, but that’s all Yorick will need for now, because a simple “hi” from his daughter is worth more than hundreds of kind words from the mouths of strangers out on the street.

 

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Something Like Clarity

Getting up in the morning, so early that you’re the only one up in your household, maybe on your block, and just sitting and breathing.

There’s something to be said for emptiness–of not being devoid of something but of being inside that blank slate state of true happiness. Apart from excitement, from joy, because a real content is just itself inside of itself–the word and the definition.

Getting up and exercising, having breakfast, brushing your teeth, because you know that schedule and routine works for you, and though you’re not in crisis mode right now, you have been before, and you know that these little things can help keep you out of it. Of not being afraid of crisis anymore so much as respecting it, recognizing it, and taking regular, concrete steps to keep it contained. You used to think the crisis and chaos in you was something to be eradicated, but now you know it’s not that simple.

Of making progress, scary in itself, and a feeling like when you were a kid just learning to ride your bike and your parent let go of you, that realization of your progress mingled with the terror that you might fall at any moment. Of sipping this fear in your morning coffee, letting it pass before moving on to more important things.

It’s the quiet struggles that no one knows about, the ones that all of us have. It’s the whispered self-encouragement, the half-smile that you sometimes have to force but which you won’t give up on, the smiling past tears and seeing this cloudy world, this bubble world, and being okay with the momentary blurriness to get at something like clarity.

The Genesis of Genesis

When I was younger, I wanted to put everything I made into a category, a code, identifying theme and character, plot and arc, never fully immersing myself in the work, or else only in fits and starts before I’d look at the strings again and ruin the illusion. I guess that’s just how you have to start, or at least how I had to start, because it all seemed to work out in the end, but for a while there it was like banging my head against the wall, magic-appreciation-wise, because it didn’t seem as fun to constantly see what you were doing with a story, to not be in it but somewhere apart from it, outside of the action. But that’s the beginning of creation, the genesis of genesis, making every story about the creation of story, pieces populated by characters who know they’re characters, and the only magic you can find then is in look-ma-no-hands writerly showmanship, pointing out to the audience just how much you know about what you’re doing, making your characters just as self aware as you hoped you were appearing then at the time. That’s what I was doing. And it’s fun to go back and look at this work now, to see just how much it’s all changed, replacing sarcasm with honesty, irony with earnestness. Wanting to participate in a radical new sincerity, still, less jaded now than I was then, even though I know publication, know the slog of it, the hours and hours that go into rejection after rejection, until something clicks into place and gives you temporary respite, and you’ve gotten a piece out into the world, just to start the process over again. It’s like that now, and it makes it easier going through this process when I’m doing that for others now too, having to accept and reject and coach and advocate and do all the rest that comes along with editing, and the world seems much smaller than it once did, more accessible, less daunting, when you can read the work of people in countries you’ve never visited and get a piece of that experience for yourself, see the similarities that outweigh the differences, recognize these disparate struggles as the same as your own, and you realize that this is what they mean when they use that oft-tread phrase, coming-of-age, as if it’s something you just stumble upon one day, as if it isn’t something you have to work for, over time, developing your voice even as life develops your character, desperation giving way to something more calm, more sustainable as you develop faith in the process and let it happen the way it’s going to happen. And suddenly you’re back where you were when you started, in a room by yourself, smiling at something you’ve written, something you’ve read, seeing for yourself the magic of the written word, of the stories we can tell as people.

 

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Kodachrome Life

My girlfriend surprised me with an early Christmas present the other day: a vintage Kodak Instamatic M2 movie camera from the mid-60s. The estate sale she’d bought it from included a similarly vintage indoor lighting kit and a projector for home viewing after you’d gotten the super 8 cartridge processed at a photo lab. I’d once shot in 16 mm on a Bolex back when I was a film student, but I’d never shot on super 8 before even though I’d always wanted to. I mentioned it in passing once, and she remembered. Just a really, really good gift.

Inside the box the camera and assorted gear came in, there was a small metal box. I guess the estate sale people didn’t notice it, because they never mentioned it to my girlfriend, and she didn’t even know it was in there until I started rooting around and found it under the projector.

Inside the small metal box were a collection of film spools. Picking one up and holding it to the light, I could tell it was already processed, but it was hard to make out what was on the film. I found a YouTube instructional on that model of film projector, managed to locate a pdf scan of the original manual. I spooled the old super 8 film on the projector and set it against the wall for my girlfriend and I to watch.

It was scratchy at first, blown out in spots, but I chalked that up to the film’s age. But it kept happening, over and over. Almost like a pattern. Clear, vivid shots of blue sky sliced by cirrus, wispy, curling, like ethereal hair, then darkness, scratched film, and color flickering by one frame at a time, accumulating shape and weight like painted cells from a bygone era where color film was hand-colored. And I realized that that’s what this was. We were watching the work of a visual artist.

Miasmas of color gave way to eruptions of pitted black, simulated static from strategic distortions of celluloid. Then figures, maybe human, definitely moving, almost imperceptibly slow, but then with sudden, sped-up writhing, close-ups of grotesques and detailed makeup that seemed almost anachronistic for how vivid and real it seemed to be, how modern. This film had to be decades old, but it seemed fresh–hard-edged. There were elaborate stagings of musicals kept silent in the film, then abrupt cuts to sidewalks and streets, the camera sometimes placed on the ground perilously close to passing tires as cars rolled by and over it. Frenetic hyper-fast cuts of neighborhoods as they looked 60 years ago, the passersby and their fashions, the cars they drove the only giveaway that this film was made that long ago.

I dug around for his name, or for titles scrawled on film tins, but there was nothing. This was some of the best experimental work I’d seen on film, and by all accounts, its filmmaker lived without ever finding much recognition, if any. A lifetime of work, relegated to a cardboard box that can be sold after you die.

I started cataloguing as I waited for the new film cartridge I’d ordered to come in. I tried finding his name out later, but everything turned up a blank. So, for the time being, I catalogued the work under the name John Doe.

In time, I had over a dozen short films catalogued with runtimes, brief summaries, and considerations of artistic merit. I suggested titles where appropriate and went ahead and paid a company to make digital copies for posterity. I wanted to have a positive ID on the guy before I started sharing his work on the internet, but I never did find out his name. Either way, his work found a footing early on, the older folks considering him a peer of Stan Brakhage, and younger people noting the logical progression from work like his to people like David Firth and Jack Stauber. It was incredible to see the explosion of interest, the way this thing seemed to take on a life of its own.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do–I mean what I really wanted do with my life there for a while. But when that package came in and I opened it, when I loaded that fresh, first film cartridge into my Instamatic, I knew.

Soho in a Dream, 1971

I’m having a recurring dream that I’m a glam rocker living in London in the early ’70s, or at least I’m embedded in that scene at that time. In the dream, I don’t grace the stage so much as lace the pages of other singers with my music. I’m not myself, but some tall, lanky, bespectacled creature with mop hair and a crooked nose, and I’m getting drunk on brandy and writing at night by the light of the television, playing Top of the Pops. In the dream timeline, I’m living in Soho, paying my rent off the words I sell to others, making just about enough to also afford a pack of fags and a couple bottles of brandy, and I’m indulging in both, and it’s all starting to feel less like a dream and more like a long-forgotten memory.

I’m watching the Pops, and getting proper pissed on the brandy (I don’t know where these words are coming from), letting the ash of my fag come perilously close to dropping on my lap before ashing it, writing down chori and verses, then ditching them, scratching them out, as Pan’s People boogie to Jeepster by T. Rex. I stand up and mimic the moves, only partially imagining those people up and dancing to my music instead, sung by me, not belted out of the bleating mouths of addled singers snorting what wages are left to them like crumbs from their bloated record company, which is what’s presently happening in the dream. All of these things and more run through my mind as I keep myself locked in that flat night after night, writing about things I’m not doing, writing for people who are doing them but who just can’t find the right words.

On Saturday evenings, I find myself in the back row of the cinema, transported to other worlds where ghoulish zombies shamble over American countrysides and cities, where metal men come down to Earth in silver saucers that you’d swear were models hanging from strings, especially when they wobble as they “fly” through the air in what’s meant to be a vicious attack on our planet.

I come back home to my flat after these showings, still a bit pissed from the earlier brandy, and I lie down in this dream flat, on my dream bed, and I fall asleep and enter a dream’s dream, where I find myself standing in the center of a cutting-edge sci-fi film set (cutting-edge in 1971 anyway), with myself as the primary actor, makeup applied and prosthetics fitted as I am made into a monster and forced to sing my woes for no one in particular to hear, as everyone is too busy making sure the scene comes to fruition, milling about here and there as they go.

Like clockwork, I’ll awake from this recurring dream, still feeling like a creature with no agency over his creation, usually just in time to hear a song I’ve written being performed on the radio by someone I’ve never met personally. I can never quite seem to wake from this dream once I’ve entered, once I’ve heard those mangled words rendered in generic, saccharine melodies, the bubblegum banality. But at least my words are at the core, at least my words remain undisturbed, I convince myself, my thoughts like a pendulum as I consider singing along and throwing my radio out the window, alternately.

I wander the streets now, at dawn, knowing that I’m dreaming but not quite wanting to wake up, maybe not able to, stuck sometimes in a dream within a dream. I know in the back of my mind that I’m in a pod, alone, somewhere in a barren future I’ve only seen in passing glances when the simulation glitches. I’m somewhere in a world I’d rather not be in, but here in this dream within a dream I can at least make music, make use of my body and move through a world that is not torn.

I think tomorrow I’ll sing. If this simulation, this dream, is a lucid one, I see no reason to stand in the back of the hall, to lend my words to other people in other pods who are similarly comatose. I’ll put on the best damn glam rock opera show in all the great, wide wasteland.

Beginner’s Mind

It’s beginner’s mind, late at night, or something like that, the hours keep shifting around, but you’re listening to an old playlist and planning out scenes, lining up shots, storyboarding, then there’s fiddling with the camera, adjusting ISO, f-stop, white balance. Wanting things to be natural while meticulously planning every detail. You haven’t shot anything in a while, and it makes you antsy just to think about it. It was long enough for you to have to get reacquainted with the practice of filmmaking, the grind of it, the absolute exhilaration and mind-numbing boredom.

It’s always the poles with making movies, you decide–the highs and lows. You think back to one of your therapy appointments from years ago, when they thought your mind was governed by two poles, but the “mania” they pegged you for was something more approaching heavy rumination, trauma thought, turning over and over the past, drinking to sleep sometimes, being gripped by the spasm of physical remembrance, trying to stay busy to distract from the shit-thought buzzing around in your head, in those days, as it came, which was often.

So you start with a script, now, not green enough to be unaware of the ways that it will change, and that’s something in itself, isn’t it? Change. When you were green–the way that any rewrites or changes felt like a slow knife into your gut, and now rewrites feel like brushing your teeth or taking out the trash.

You get paralyzed by the page, sometimes, still. That’s still a thing, and the way your mind goes to all the dark, spider-webbed cracks and crevices, the barren wastes where you thought your fears and doubts disappeared but where actually they just went to sleep for a while. The thing about mindfulness, about growth, is that you go in with the false belief that all the bad stuff will just Go Away. That there will be a great Buddhic a-ha moment where it will All Make Sense and you will be permanently and irrevocably okay. You can’t believe now that you were ever that green to believe that.

What it is–what it really is–is a series of moments: a stumble-fall-rising, the getting up to fall down to get back up again, always getting back up, seeing past the aches and pains, the tired mornings, the shit pages and shit footage, getting a brilliant moment and taking it in your hands. Of losing it, and then finding another moment. Of being okay with failing. Of seeing it, finally, as an inexorable and integral part of the process.

There’s another side effect of getting older, and that’s understanding the perspective of your parents. You are now as old as they were when they had you, and even though you don’t want kids and will never have them, you can appreciate the supreme difficulty. You can watch in memory as your father would sketch and draw–impeccably detailed work, in the spaces between job and home responsibilities, and then how the drawings started to fade, replaced by cans and bottles of beer, until your father was in a single, sustained buzz for most of your childhood.

Your mother’s half-remembered dreams to one day act, laughing them away at first, but later trailing off at the ends of sentences, of her eyes growing hard over the years. Even now, you write for the actor. You craft for their craft, trying to never step on toes or overwrite dialogue. Even if you wanted kids, you couldn’t see yourself giving up on what you want to do for them, you couldn’t see yourself giving in and succumbing to the years.

It’s not that you’re now okay with the drinking and the yelling and the fighting, the divorce and all the rest, it’s that you understand it a little bit more. And these are all things that will go in your film, you suppose. You will color these moments with sustained shots and candid close-ups and clever mise-en-scène, if you can remember what that’s supposed to be, the stilted picking-apart that is serious study, breaking down each shot, each movement, all of it motivated, all of it meaning something. You’ll get final cut on your memories, or at least the renderings you make of them.

FADE IN & FADE OUT

I guess one of the things that’s fucking me up is that I’m supposed to be some mentor figure, some example, I’ve got the office hours and everything, but most days I’m just trying to get through without drinking too much, or if I am drinking too much, then without it showing.

I started out adjunct, shit pay, enough where I had to settle for the rotgut at the convenience store before I could afford the good stuff. I guess they were impressed by the fact that I kept shooting, that I was teaching filmmaking while still making films, like that was some exceptional thing, as if I had a choice. Because, truth is, I drink a lot, but I’d drink a lot more if I couldn’t make movies.

All the classes I teach are things I learned out of necessity, pretty much. Writing on a strict schedule (because I couldn’t afford to dick around), studying acting tech (because I’d often have to act in my own films starting out), microbudget filmmaking (that one’s obvious).

I didn’t have the luxury of film school, so I created my own with early internet forums and bootleg software and library late fees. I learned how to write screenplays by reading and writing screenplays. I submitted to contests, and I lost every one, but I got some encouraging notes once, when I scrounged up enough for the extra fee for guaranteed notes, and there was no way for that anonymous reader to know that the contents of their notes would decide my future, that I was just about to give it all up until I read that encouragement, until I realized that my scripts weren’t bad, they just weren’t yet as good as the other scripts. And that’s just something you have to learn by doing.

I get up around noon most days, tell myself it’s because my first classes don’t start until later anyway, but it’s really to allow myself time and space to nurse the inevitable hangovers. I don’t know. I’ll sit at home, in my chair, for hours sometimes, and just bite at my nails. I’ll bite till they bleed, till my fingers hurt when I wash my hands. I can tell that I’m changing.

I try to write something every day, even if I end up hating it, even if it’s shit. I’ll jot things down on paper first, even with the pain in my fingers from the pressure of gripping the pen, because it’s a different process, writing versus typing. I drink every day now, I guess.

One thing that’s interesting is to stay up past the effects of caffeine from earlier that morning, past alcohol when I get home and past the melatonin to help get me to sleep. To watch that liminal part of the brain start to take over. The part that makes you dream and keeps you there. I’ll sit down like that, and I’ll keep my eyes open, and I’ll look at things without actually seeing them.

I want to write something big, and bold, and dangerous. Something real. I want there to be something left of me when I’m gone.

On nights like this, working past the sleep, I’ll see only the transitions of a screenplay as I write, only the cues meant to begin and end, the FADE IN & FADE OUT that I guess is going on all around me. I write past these things. I write through them.

 

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The Things I’d Do

I used to try to track my dreams and force sleep paralysis. I’d do things like put on white noise through headphones and fasten halved ping pong balls over my eyes, to force sensory deprivation. When that did nothing, I’d keep myself awake for days at a time, blasting loud music and imbibing caffeine while making note of any aberrations in thought or mood.

I’d test my lung capacity and willpower by keeping my head underwater during baths, stopwatch ticking in my hand outside the tub. I’d go on fasts for days, taking in only water, not even tea, not even black coffee, dropping weight and going straight into starvation mode.

I’d bike for an entire day–twelve hours straight, then do the same thing but with walking. I’d spend whole days imagining life through the eyes of a city pigeon or a backyard squirrel. I would inflict self-pain in small doses (small at first), looking for the minimum effective dosage, journalling the process, always documenting, because if you’re documenting then it almost feels like you’re doing it all for a reason.

I’d spend entire nights outside, then days, at first trying to find out what the “homeless experience” was, but then of course discovering that there isn’t only one. Back at home, I’d do stuff like super glue my hand to the bathroom wall and see how long the adhesion would last. I’d put all my money save for five dollars in savings, then live off that five dollars for two weeks. I would sneak into a supermarket’s bathroom just before closing and see if I could go the whole night without being detected.

I’d rig an eye-opening device, like the one from that Kubrick horrorshow, and see how long I could go without blinking before my vision started to fade. I’d sit, and stare at a wall, and meditate for hours at a time, losing track of the passage of minutes, then hours, then days. I’d live in my closet for a week or so.

I had the idea that I was collecting these experiences for a book. It was fiction at first, but it became nonfiction eventually as time went on. Surprisingly, at least at first, the writing was undisciplined. There was no structure, no schedule, just word after word whenever they’d come. There was something about the truth, though, something lacking. You could spend an entire day looking at something and not really see it. For some of the experiences, I’d take them on for a month or more and have less than a paragraph to put down about them. Seeing is not reflecting. Feeling is not reporting.

I spend most of my days, now, eating when it feels appropriate, sleeping at night, and moving unrestricted during the day. I don’t write about this (I write about other things now), but I seem to get on okay. Sometimes, at night, images of experience will dance in front of my eyes as I try to sleep. I watch them pass as I breathe and breathe and breathe.

 

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Open Blue

They told me, years later, that the guy had an entire galaxy in his mind. It was populated by nebulae and stars, planets and moons, some of them harboring life, others barren and wasted. He spent essentially all of his life cataloging his inner galaxy, and for all intents and purposes he was catatonic. His family took him for a vegetable. They’d pack him into the car for family trips and do things like sit him in front of mountain views, dip his feet in flowing streams, anything to get him back to the world, back to them, none of them realizing that he already had a world, or rather several trillion of them, and that every ounce of brainpower he had in him had to be devoted to exploring this galaxy, or else he’d be lost and insensate for the rest of his life. He’d tried to blind himself to the galaxy before, to come out and into the world, but he’d seen nothing but unending, featureless black. Heard nothing but the howling of an infinite wind. So he went back to his inner planets.

I guess I met him in 2005 or thereabouts, back when I was a grad student complete with bright eyes and bushy tail. They’d never gotten him beyond the occasional blink of his eyes, over there, at the center he’d been moved to, when his family had had enough of the family trips and the visits with experts and the hope that something would change. I’d take a lot of notes at first, observe vitals, notate scans, but eventually I just started coming to visit.

A lot of the technology was still nascent, and I remember picturing to myself, there at the foot of his bed, what this room might’ve looked like under the same circumstances 10, 20, 50 years before. What help could be given him, if it’d even be given. The doctors now did these scans mostly to placate the family, to assuage the inevitable guilt they’d accumulated after placing him in a home and coming first to visit daily, then weekly, then monthly, then only on holidays. I took to coming in on my days off from class, reading to him first from Kafka, then Wallace, then Murakami.

At that geologic scale of minute fluctuations of the body and micromovements, you begin to assemble in your mind a mental timelapse of the hours you’ve spent with the person, translating every twitch into something meaningful, prophetic even.

Sometimes I’d come in with a cheap bottle of gut rot and tell him about my day, pretend that he was drinking with me and commiserating, all the while popping mints after a finished bottle and accepting coffee when the nurses would offer it, not really needing it but not wanting them to smell the alcohol on me, to realize just how pathetic I was to be drinking midday and not facing any of my problems.

I’d been in and out of school, never settling on one thing in particular. Married and divorced before age 30. Aimlessly wandering in general, while doing my best to convince myself that the answer was right there, around the corner, or maybe after the next drink.

I knew this guy couldn’t really hear me, that even if he could it’s not like he could relate, but I kept coming anyway. I’d get a good feel for the nurses and orderlies as they’d come and go over the years, which ones actually gave a shit and which would be a problem–the ones who’d put him at risk of bedsores or worse. It sounds stupid, maybe, but he became like a little brother to me. I didn’t have any siblings of my own and had cut off all contact with my parents, so I guess he was really the only family I had.

He retreated from the world, physically left it, by degrees, intentionally, so that he could live in the world of his mind. I mean that in the literal sense. He didn’t wither so much as disappear gradually, nearly imperceptibly, to the point where I can hardly describe it even now, all these years later. But he did, he left of his own accord, bit by bit, until one day I came in and he was gone. He’d faded to the world inside his mind, physically departed, unalterably escaped, and he’d left me a note. Not a physical one, mind you. A mental note. He told me to find him. He didn’t leave coordinates; he left activities. He said I could find him in a night walk just past the edge of town. He’d be in the tire track of a motorcycle ride under open blue sky. Clear and vivid in the otherwise fading remnants of a dream broken by daybreak.

 

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