Start From One

The last time I made a big, personal, maddening, heartening, and major life change like this, I felt like I had no way out, no alternative, and it was this or nothing. It’s not nearly as serious this time around, just something I really want to do for myself, and that’s both a relief and an anomaly. It’s always been that I get hooked on things easily, and it used to be that I’d get hooked on all the wrong things, ballooning in weight and stress, pre-diabetic, high blood pressure, eyes and mind myopic and bloodshot, stuck in behavior loops that seemed out of my control, dangerous and destructive, and the genuine belief that my time was running out, that I was living on borrowed time and it’d all be over soon. Unsustainable living like an engine sputtering and stuttering in the cold, smoke and fumes signifying something I didn’t want to see or acknowledge. It’s true that you can get addicted to pain and hardship, to despair, and that when you’re in that headspace, the notion of getting out of it is at best laughable and at worst the enemy of the disease you now find yourself affected by. It’s a parasite, a self-serving organism that feeds on your insecurities and doubts, your justifications and hollow ameliorations. And then you get the double-edged sword of talking about it, of sharing this struggle with others, which is especially dangerous when you’re still in the middle of it and everything you see and hear is a portent of either doom or salvation. You run the risk of turning yourself to salt by looking back that much, and there’s no sense in rewriting a story you haven’t finished yet. But now I’ll live with these feelings, these experiences and lessons learned, a lifetime covering every genre–from horror to mystery, mystery to drama, drama to comedy, always switching from one to the next, but it’s a slipstream existence, with genres bleeding at the edges, and the punchlines don’t get a laugh till it’s years later and you’ve achieved the required time and distance from the joke, till you can see how perfectly it was crafted. But there’s always that potent, monolithic, very human ability to start from one. To go back to the beginning and try again. I’ve recreated myself over and over again over the years, to the point where the me from seven years ago is unrecognizable from the me I am now. A Ship of Theseus paradox I didn’t know would happen but which I now welcome. Any rebirth requires a prior death, a doing-away of what was before to make way for what could be.

Old Habits Die Hard

Sometimes I feel like I’m making up for lost time even though I know that, realistically, I’m working myself to the grave, and that I’ve already justified my seed again and again and again, and that I continue to do so, that I proved my point years ago and now it’s all just verging on masochism. I know that. But old habits die hard, and if I’m not hurting myself physically, then I guess this is just the next step down.

I convince myself daily that this pain is okay, that it’s useful, that the suffering I’m charting now is a “grind” where in years past it was much more destructive and purposeless. And that’s true, I guess, to an extent, but I’ve never been one for moderation, so I clock 50 hours in a week and then write stories like these and craft feature screenplays, novel manuscripts, edit the work of other writers, start investigative journalism projects with local professionals, defining myself not by inner terrain but by output, by outward progress. The inner terrain bleeds out, anyway–it can’t help but bleed out. And then I sit in the dark, willing sleep to come so I can do it all over again the next day. Make no mistake–I love my life and the people, places and things I now find within it. I just haven’t given myself time to rest.

I feel I’m guiding myself by the same principle that I did when I was self-harming, only now aimed toward a productive end. I don’t know if I’ll live a long life, but now that’s chalked up more to adverse family medical history than by a potential suicide I once felt compelled to see through to the end.

And I still have trouble accepting help, and I still have trouble taking care of myself, because I lived an entire life of not doing so, of feeling like I was living on borrowed time. I don’t want to live that way anymore, and I know that it’ll take time and effort to undo habits of the past, but at least the intention is there. You can’t do anything without right intention.

I guess the thing that gives me hope most is that I’m being honest about everything now. I know that I’m exhausted, that I’m burning myself out. I know why I’m doing it, and I know I need to stop. And yet I find myself here, at this keyboard, typing up something new. Old habits really do die hard.

I think I’ll take next weekend off. I won’t work, won’t write, will do nothing but rest and recuperate. Because for once, I feel like I truly should, and for once, I feel like I actually deserve it.

 

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Replaced by the Void

I was drunk-listening to James Brown’s Living in America, then Christmas Wrapping by The Waitresses, maybe adding more meaning than was there, I don’t know, I’m drunk, but writing because I feel the time is right for it, realizing that the predispositions for alcoholism and mental illness in general are strong in my family, then wandering back in time, presupposing family history, going back to pioneer times and beyond, really diving into the old gene pool mentally, exercising my ability as a human to dip back into time, before I was even here, and I’m jumping back now to my college years, when I was the wunderkind, and now I’m half a decade older, running a magazine and getting my own words published too, wondering if there’s something else to all of this that I haven’t gathered yet, or if this is it, I’m a hungry ghost from the Buddhist tradition, stripped of my memory and my dignity, sent to walk among crevasses and cliffs of briar, sent adrift in the time I’ve been condemned to, this life, and I am both the hunter and the quarry as I wander the halls of my life, wondering if I’m losing it all, if I’m better than I’ve ever been. And the thing about drunkenness is that it feels so good even as you’re slipping away. To replace yourself with the Void that you came from, just for a moment, until all of your faculties slip away and you’re left as a giant baby, waiting for the ability to come back to you, but you’re numb from whatever you were drinking about in the first place, at least for a time, and you know even as you’re becoming something else that you’re just doing this to escape, that you’ll eventually return to yourself in the end, that it won’t drastically change anything, that you’ll be left with yourself in the end, switching tenses, past to present, first to second person, listening now to Roll Over Beethoven by ELO, then something else, the algorithm decides for me, and I’m riding the wave of inebriation, feeling it pass me by and imbue me with its effects, deliberately being fun, and funny, and silly, anything but angry, because that’s how my dad was, as a kid, and I’ve convinced myself that as long as I’m a friendly drunk it’s better than the alternative, than the model my father left for me. I resolve to stop drinking, to make a deliberate clean break, not sure if it’ll stick, thinking it probably won’t, but I go for it anyway. I stop drinking, and I eat something, and I put water in my body, and I wait for this feeling to go away. I’m ready for a shift to happen. But I’ll wait for it, and the feeling will change, and I’ll put on my mask and walk outside, now listening to Tame Impala’s Posthumous Forgiveness, and even though my father isn’t dead, it’s as if he might as well be, stuck between the shore of consciousness and the waves of debilitation, and I’m here, in another state of the country, another state of mind, letting the feeling pass, letting lucidity return, and all the memories are coming back again, and I’m letting them come, the half-remembered visions and the reconstructed rememberings both, all of it coming back, and it’s a hell of a gift and a curse, this life, unimaginable even in sobriety, but I’ll keep on this path as long as I can, till the ghost of my father stops haunting me. An undead phantasm, a vision of a life in stasis. I’ll live as best I can, as soon as I can, as long as I can.

 

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Slipstream Living

It’s slipstream living here, in the wake of Stonewall’s fiftieth, and I’m thinking of this year’s Pride, only maybe the third or fourth I’ve been to, it being as many years since I gave voice to something I always knew but tried to hide, maybe tried to ignore. And in going to these parades not knowing what to expect, what it would mean for me, if anything. Looking at people dressed however they wanted to be dressed, singing, dancing. The pageantry and glitter, makeup and candy. I was still self-censoring then, still outwardly heteronormative at all times, so I didn’t dance or anything, didn’t dress up. I wanted to, but I didn’t.

And the inevitable protesters, with signs reading “Born that way? Burn that way!” and “LGBT” spelling out “Let God Burn Them.” The initial disbelief that people like that still exist, then the realization of tangible, real-world intolerance, of something beyond the jokes and insults when I was a kid, when “gay” was synonymous with “stupid” or “bad,” when “faggot” was the worst thing you could be called. Something more sad, more dangerous. One of the protesters was there with his kid, the girl no older than 11 or 12 and already forced to spout the same soundbites as her father, looking like she didn’t want to be there but having no choice. Enforced bigotry. The strategy was split between two camps, generally: those who argued with the guy and those who refused to give him the attention he wanted. And that’s fine, commendable even, but I was raised to never back down from a fight, to always answer an insult–a vestigial behavior from childhood, where what was enforced then was a caricature of masculinity. Old habits really do die hard.

I want there to have been some big Rise Above moment for me, but there wasn’t really.  I got myself between him and the people he was trying to bother, and he casually used the word “faggot” as he argued his point, and all I could see was douche kids from elementary school, all I could think was to hit him, and if not for the strategically-placed cop standing next to him making sure no one did just that, then I would’ve.

I went to my first live performance of The Rocky Horror Show that night. I’d seen RHPS on VHS hundreds of times, then DVD when the technology changed, then midnight showings at theaters with shadow casts, but I’d never seen a performance of the play that started it all, and it just seemed like the right time to do it. Back at home, after Pride but before the show, my girlfriend was the one to suggest I show up with my makeup done, legit, like something Frank would wear. She’d do it for me. I’d like to say I jumped at the idea right away, but that wouldn’t be true. I brought up concerns like the makeup smearing when I’d put my motorcycle helmet on, that it might take too long, etc. etc. I was happy that Harmony poked holes in all my excuses. So I agreed, and sat for her, my face her canvas.

Being there among fellow fans, receiving their compliments and comparing our histories with Rocky Horror, none of them batted an eye at my makeup. If anything, they admired it. The actor playing Frank-n-Furter personally acknowledged me in the front row while singing “I’m Going Home,” and I sat there with tears in my eyes even though I’d heard the song a thousand times before. And then, when it was over, we all stood up for curtain call to join in on a reprise of The Time Warp. And being there, finally, with my makeup how I wanted, dressed the way I wanted, singing and dancing without a care in the world… It felt like coming alive.

Echo Love!

I have to say, it felt pretty fucking fantastic to read this email. 😁 I’m happy to report that my creative nonfiction story “Enby Late Starter” was just accepted for publication in Echo, an imprint of @paragon_press. To say I’m excited is a severe understatement. You best believe I’ll provide linkage once this is live!

Doctor Manhattan Vision

Rewatching all those old videos that we made as teenagers, those short films, is like having a viewable time capsule. Last weekend, I took the time to rip them from YouTube and Dailymotion, set up a shared Google Drive folder so that Matt and I could watch them whenever, so we could save them for posterity. Mostly I did it because I haven’t talked to Chris in years, and I figure it’s only a matter of time before he takes them all down. He already emptied out his YouTube account, so I had to rip the ones I had on mine and find the duplicates on Dailymotion where possible, come to terms with the ones that are now gone forever.

I realized watching them that it’s possible to miss the times you shared with a person while not missing the person you shared them with. To be nostalgic without being rose-tinted, with the years and the fights and the growing, all of it intervening. To miss the person they used to be. And if I’m being honest, how I used to be too. I make it a point every few months to travel back to Chicago–my home. I live a good 700 miles away now, so it’s an effort, but it’s something I do regularly. And there are those phantoms, those half-forgotten places, and the things I did there, but more than that, there are the people I miss.

When Matt and I meet up, we don’t endlessly turn over the past, although we definitely could. There are moody teenagers younger than our friendship. No, what we do is catch up with the way we’ve changed in a sentence or two, a look maybe, and we get back to the friendship timeline like nothing has changed, because it hasn’t. There’s that realization that I’d take a bullet for him, not a realization so much as a simple acknowledgment, and there’s remembering how we got here. The fact that I didn’t hang out with Matt as much as I would’ve liked to when I was friends with Chris, and that icky feeling that came with being mean, something I’d do when I hung out with Chris, and the fact that I knew it couldn’t last, not much past early adulthood, that I couldn’t let it last.

There’s also that simmer of feeling where once there was a boil, and the way it used to put a knot in my stomach but here, now, it doesn’t make me feel much of anything. Life has a way of moving on, a geologic smoothing away of the peaks and valleys that used to matter so much, the words both said and unsaid that would burn in my throat, now harmless and inert–something to be studied.

Sometimes I wish I had a chronovisor, a device with which to look into the past, to experience it without disturbing it. I think of time travel tropes in old movies and comics, and then I remember the comic Chris and I started working on that dealt with similar subject matter. But before it gets too wistful, I remember that I wrote several issues and Chris just never did the art for them.

In thinking of time travel, I forget the very real version we already have–the pictures, the videos. The stories both written and remembered. And even then, it’s the things kept out of picture and memory’s frame, the words shared before and after the shot. There’s the dizzying, beautiful, terrifying, wonderful realization that things truly did work out the way they were supposed to. That I’ve done these things and become this person because of, not in spite of, what happened to me. That had it not been for all of those events in that sequence, I wouldn’t be able to have this Doctor Manhattan vision, this way of seeing the future through the past, of understanding that I’m now surrounded by the people who are meant to be in my life. That I’ve made it without knowing I ever left.

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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All I Need

Pretending there are any ideas other than this one, any places beyond where we find ourselves, now, trading traumas and swapping family war stories in the dark, under the artificial moon streaming in through the window, flies buzzing around it as it buzzes back at them, glowing orange, now red, now white hot, and we are all of us children stumbling around and searching for reason in all this fallow grace, this sickly daze that we’ve created for ourselves, this human sadness, a self-created void that’s as warm as a security blanket and just as well-worn, eating up the land, and I tell you about when I was small, so small I couldn’t talk but could watch, could see these things as they happened in my home, these horrible moments that shaped me into the person I am now, heal(ing)(ed) from these wounds, recounting them to put them in a glass box where they can be regarded like a plague contained, quarantined from its host once and for all, and I watch the way the light dances on your face as you lay down color on paper, something on in the background, but fuzzy around the edges, like a dream, and I’m similarly drifting in and out of sleep, with that nonsense thought process that comes along with it, saying things I can’t remember later but which I’ve needed to say, not to anyone but just in general, needed to speak these stories out loud so they couldn’t hold me hostage any longer, that’s what trauma is, a hostage-taker, laying claim to your body, your mind, your soul, your sanity, until it’s not anymore, until one day when you realize that you can function again, have functioned for some time now, and just realizing this is terrifying, because you don’t want to jinx it, don’t want to lose all the progress you’ve made, don’t ever ever ever want to be broken in that way ever again, and your breath hitches in your chest, vision narrows, it gets harder to breathe, and you have to go to the bathroom to catch your breath, and dry your eyes, and remind yourself, again, as many times as it takes, that you are okay, that you have been okay, and you will continue to be okay, and maybe this isn’t an exhaustive catalogue of post-trauma feelings, maybe it can’t cover it all, but it covers mine, even as I stand years removed from the trauma, years removed even from the most dangerous of episodes after the fact, as I enjoy peace in my time as they’d call it, writing and working and living and enjoying, I can see that this little parasite might always be there, might always squeal its insistence, but it’s a hollow cry, a desperation that goes unheeded, and I walk on into the night with nothing more than the stars and the moon to light the way, here in these hills, and that is, now, more than enough.

That is all I need.

Where I’ve Been

I’ve been gone a little while according to the timestamp gap, a digital exit followed by a digital reentry. Keeping busy of course, but just not visible here.

When I was 21, I enrolled in my first semester at Columbia College Chicago, a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshman film student. Concentration in screenwriting, never quite able to shake the written word even when it’d be translated to the screen.

I took a grand total of one (1) fiction class, which is funny considering the direction my life has taken, and how much of my focus has shifted toward literary shit. You can’t plan these things.

I graduated, focused on flash fiction and novels, and used this site as a refuge (quarantine?) for written anxieties, understandings, and fictional journal-keeping. Mostly I stuck to the post-once-a-week rule, but sometimes (lately) I didn’t.

So here’s where I was.

Last month, I took a trip down to Asheville. I saw Tame Impala there and roamed the streets and hills all night after, cataloging the experience I just had, people-watching, and taking notes for a feature screenplay that hit me all at once as I walked those quiet, foggy streets and waited for day to break.

I was an anthropologist as I met strange and interesting people that night, all of them informing this weird, existential, cyberpunk, scifi, dark comedy thing that I was constructing on the fly. I started writing the thing shortly after getting back home, and I haven’t taken a day off from it since. I’m 60 pages in, the commonly-accepted midpoint in screenwriting, letting this thing shape itself as I listen to Jack Stauber in the early mornings, watch B movies in virtual reality, and take midnight walks. It’s exhilarating.

I met a couple filmmakers here in Winston-Salem, a filmmaking couple, separately, not at first connecting the dots that they were together. I met the dude at a Confederate protest as we stood down the Confederates together, talking film and filmmaking in between bouts of shouting them down. (Their statue was later taken down, by the way. Where it once stood there’s now a nicely-landscaped crop of flowers.)

I met his wife at a creative event I went to for work, and only after talking film and filmmaking with her did I realize that she was mentioning working on the same projects that he had. They were a couple.

I went on a road trip back home to Chicago for an extended weekend. Didn’t visit Columbia College specifically (I didn’t want to feel old), but I did point it out a few times to my girlfriend Harmony, all too proud to be like, “Hey! Right there is where I went to school. … I used to take walks down there in between classes all the time. … The film building is right over there. …” Etc.

I’ve long had an all-or-nothing, this-or-that brain, so it didn’t compute that I could maybe do fiction and film. Like I had to give one up to do the other. And then I realized: Hey. That’s bullshit.

So long story short, we had an awesome visit to my hometown. I took Harmony to all my old haunts, relived decades-old memories in the places that spawned them, reminded of details I’d forgotten by my friends and little brothers as we wandered these places together, letting it all come back like no time had passed at all.

I got back to North Carolina, and the filmmaking couple got in touch with me. They were doing the 48 Hour Film Project, a challenge where a film crew writes, shoots, and edits a short film in 48 hours and then competes with other film crews in their city. This is an international thing with screenings, prizes, the works. They wanted to know if I’d crew with them. They didn’t know this, but I’d wanted to do a 48 for over a decade, but just never had. They were both awesome people, and it didn’t hurt that they’d worked with the likes of VICE and PBS before. That was one of the quickest and easiest “yes” emails I’ve ever sent.

We shot the film, and it was a crazy amount of fun, and we screened it, and got a great response, and I got compliments on how great it was to work with me on set, how vital I was to the production. I’ve already been invited to crew on future projects, and I sent some old scripts over to the guy after being asked.

All this because I was friendly and talked with people. So yeah. This is an unexpected yet very welcome chapter of my life. A chapter where I’m open to all the possibilities in front of me, where I’m doing all the things I always dreamed of doing. That’s where I’ve been, and that’s where I am.