Marathon

For seven months I haven’t met a day without soreness or left it without exhaustion. Whether nursing an inflamed achilles tendon or dealing with a pre-arthritic runner’s knee or just a general ache from a speed, distance, or strength workout, my body, at 34, has become the site of a shady remodeling project, a real gut job like someone’s trying to flip me for cash. I ran my first marathon in the spring, came in under four hours, and tomorrow I begin training for my second marathon. The idea of running two marathons in a year would have seemed preposterous were it to cross my mind at any point during my life, and here I am, 456 earned miles under my feet since January, hoping to have a good day at the New York Marathon in November.

Becoming an athlete—a class of people I consider myself a part of because of both the constant soreness/exhaustion as well as occasionally not drinking because of a planned workout—has been an all-time great decision, right up there with marriage and seeing OutKast on the Stankonia tour. Unlike becoming a creative—a class of people I consider myself a part of because I occasionally smoke weed and have an astonishing ego—the athlete actually sees measurable progress. Put in work and see results in the body. For instance, mine has gone from writerly schlub to that post-schlub road-biker look with a baby-fat gut and weirdly jacked thighs; guy who walks into the corner store dripping sweat and tries to buy a huge thing of coconut water and an RxBar with Apple Pay but can’t get the thing to show up on the phone and his holding up the whole line.

But also: Put in work and see numbers. Real numbers, times on a stop watch, data logged, arrayed, and analyzed. I have a record of the same workout I’ve done for the past year and to see my pace quicken, to see my heart rate decrease as I shorten those times little by little has been the most rewarding thing. They say that you need a hobby if you are going to be a creative type, something where you can be objectively successful instead of subjectively and hopelessly typing words trying to convey meaning and style. Cooking, gardening, woodcraft, Starcraft, whatever. Long-distance running has become my hobby, the tangible and tactile activity that exists alongside this indestructible and altogether unhealthy desire to be regarded as a writer and editor of note. 

I wasn’t necessarily an athlete growing up: I played sports because that was the main after-school activity you could really do in my town other than Cub Scouts (too churchy) or 4-H (too muddy and too churchy). So I sportsed, but by the time the youth rec league transitioned from charmingly participatory to actually competitive, I was slotted into the also-ran positions in each one: soccer (full back) track (3000m race) and basketball (guy who’s encouraged to pass it). I was the utility player who clearly didn’t have one of two things that allows young people to excel at sports: the drive to practice or the innate coordination to not have to practice. When I told my dad I wanted to quit baseball, it led to one of the biggest drag-out family fights in our history, the kind everyone looks back on with eyes down and utter shame.

So I grew into an oblong creative-type. Soccer practice turned into play rehearsal, baseball turned to transcribing Stan Getz solos, getting exercise was replaced by a life of the mind which included a lay interest in fiction while getting high and ordering two double cheese burgers at McDonalds on the way back from band practice. It all flowed easy, there was no one disappointed in my skill level, no teammate disappointed in my fear of the ball, no pithy orange slices to factor into the process. 

Until this year, I didn’t really know what it took to be an athlete. I had worked out, yes, I had even gone to the gym for a couple years, but that was more out of vanity than any kind of goal (the goal was to look attractive enough to be able to play a convincing Romeo, a contrapuntal action to distract from the fact that this Romeo was going bald). Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Athleticism is, in my understanding of it, doing the same thing and expecting different results—and actually getting them. The first day running on the road is misery. You are moving as if a bungee chord is attached to your back. But each day the bungee loosens until it’s gone, as long as you keep doing the same thing, keep setting the alarm, keep committing to honing the rhythm of the day when you are getting up to run and refining the posture and movement of the legs and body. 800-meter repeats, 6 times up the hill, 4-mile loop at pace. Running is an exercise of repetition and trust that if you continue to do the workout, it will get better and better. Fall into the pattern like a trance, add a couple speed workouts, and suddenly my 34-year-old body is using oxygen like a goddamn 20-year-old.

This, I think, has given me perspective on the struggles of media and music. (Should also add this is why writers are encouraged to do a real hobby or thing, to find new perspective through the eyes of a subculture and use it to add dimension to blogs and essays.) In the worst of days online, it can feel like we are trapped in a repetitive, recursive nightmare. We struggle with how to process the same information—delivered in the same kind of way—over and over because nothing seems to be changing. Another day, another spate of horrifying or banal stories and emails delivered with roughly the same tone and commented on wryly or cynically by the same people. At worst, the information becomes toxic and elicits an unwarranted negative response to the sender; at best, we tie our brains into some mariner’s knot to try and have a genuine response to the information. We employ cynicism, nihilism, irony, anger, and contrarianism to try to respond to this sameness. We elide normal response in favor or something so layered and inscrutable as to be entirely without actual meaning. But do we grow? Do we get faster? Do the numbers really go up?

In music, repetition evokes hypnosis and familiarity—the warmth of a house beat, the comfort of a vi, IV, I chord pattern. In writing, repetition evokes a motif, a signal to pay attention this this, or a crutch a writer relies on. In nature, repetition forms in snowflakes and snail shells, a result of mathematics and natural selection. The phenomena of repetition and recursion are so often signifiers of meaning and beauty, except when it comes to how we consume media. Because of the pace of digital media and publishing, information has to constantly be packaged in different ways else we over-familiarize ourselves with it and the package begins to curdle. Every day we are recalibrating ourselves to the speed with which we need to absorb and familiarize ourself with new news, new emails, new music, books, movies because there is no governor on the amount of information we can have. When I’m feeling a pain in my ankle on a run, my body brain and body is telling me to stop. When I’m blithely checking Twitter before bed, I don’t have any reaction that tells me I have already had too much information for the day. 

The term “brain worms” is employed as a kind of in-joke when someone on Twitter leaps to what seems like the most absurd, layered, reactionary, referential response to a piece of information. Mostly “brain worms” is just what happens when you think the online world is exercise, when you believe you are accruing something or making the numbers go up, when in reality you just loading an overworked, injured brain and nothing is changing. Everything feels recursive because you cannot process new information.

Running has made me more sympathetic to an honest response, to patience, to the idea of approaching the same thing with new eyes. At the end of a long 14 mile training run, knowing that it is a distance greater than a half-marathon, that I am just out here doing the work, running a loop, slowly strengthening and building to do better the next time, I feel better than any one moment in life outside of getting some writing done.



Afterword: Draper Lulusdottir

On a scrap of paper stuck to the side of our fridge reads the contact information of a cat psychic who first informed us that our cat, Draper Lulusdottir, might be haunted by spirits from another realm. Draper was the only tuxedo cat of her three siblings, all of whom were snow-white just like her mother, Lulu. Lulu gave birth to Draper inside a haunted museum in Fairfield, Tx., one possible location for a television show about archeologists that my wife Marion was pre-producing at the time. Draper was adopted by Marion on the spot and ferried back to Brooklyn where they lived and would later welcome me into their family.

Draper died in the veterinary hospital last Thursday after a lifelong battle with an undiagnosed neurodegenerative disease. She was 8 years old.

The time she spent in this realm with me and Marion can be sorted into three eras. There was first the comfort era, beginning when Marion adopted this six-week-old kitten shortly after Marion’s father died. To her, Draper was a bridge to adulthood and autonomy, a shock of black and white fuzz that would be her charm and her charge. Here was this pouty-faced, sad-eyed kitty of the South that brought so much joy into Marion’s life. Draper dampened the grief with affection and love. She was a playful and rambunctious, a boilerplate lovable young cat.

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Then Draper became a teen and stayed a teen for the remainder of her life. She lived in this sulky, passionate, sometimes aggressive state that was, above all, very funny. In the past few days, Marion and I have talked about just how funny she was. Not like prat-fall funny (though she would treat us to those) but kind of like a ‘90s Janeane Garofalo funny. She was so humorless as to be hilarious. Draper—just a cat, helpless and pure—put up this totally unfounded angsty front like she drew all her power from wearing platform boots and a ball-chain necklace. Draper became goth. She was never sly or clever or feline. Her fluffy tail never swished in the air as she wove in between your legs. Instead, she trundled around in slow, straight lines, prone to long periods of sitting and staring into the middle distance. She was awkward and earnest and, in private, an unbearably loving creature.

What started to happen to her as she turned 4 or 5 was something that to this day is inexplicable. The haunted era. She would still run, play, even purr on occasion. Though every time she heard a sound coming from someone’s cell phone, or a thin signal of noise coming from computer speakers, or even just a character talking on the phone on television, she would come racing in from wherever she was and try to attack whoever was in the room. We didn't know why this started happening, but we figured it had something to do with how her brain registered that particular noise. Maybe it was that specific frequency she just absolutely hated, nails on her chalkboard. So there we sat, our thumbs resting nervously on the “mute” button while watching television, thankful for any period movie that existed before the use of telephones. The “Don’t play YouTubes on your phone” rule was quickly told to guests, to be disobeyed at their own peril.

Around this time, Marion and her vet (and a crack squad of professional psychics and cat behaviorists) were working so hard at trying to diagnose what exactly was causing this. Was it a late-onset attitude problem? Was she aurally hypersensitive? Was it the ghosts of the museum? Marion was an early benefactor of an album of music “scientifically” meant to soothe cats with anxiety. We played the album for her, which sounded a bit like average new age music with purring added in. Around the house were several aromatherapy diffusers that were meant to be holistic solutions. We tried Prozac for a while, both hidden in her wet food and syringed into her mouth. We talked calmly to her (she was such a talkative cat, so vocally expressive). No two words came out of our mouths more than: “It’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok.”

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We told people she was haunted because that seemed an easy shorthand for something so mysterious, the way the Vikings thought a solar eclipse was a giant sky wolf trying to devour the sun. Part of us knew this myth wasn’t true as she began to lose feeling in her front legs. Soon she couldn’t make it up onto the bed, or the couch, or into the litter box. She was floor-ridden, shooting ice from her eyes up at the pigeons perched on the roof of our building. Her gait became halting and iambic. Her vet found nothing physically wrong with her so we took her to a neurologist who still couldn’t pinpoint a problem, but told us it was something in her brain or spine. She assured us Draper was happy and painless, until her final days when she lost mobility in her back legs and could no longer move.

We told ourselves Draper was haunted because it was easier than a fatal unnamed neurodegenerative disease that made her lose control of her legs. It sounded better on paper. It sounded better in anecdotes. It sounded better in the logline about our cat Draper. It sounded better than “Kitty M.S.” I believed it because she was truly a magical cat. When Marion and I would visit other cats who were normal, aloof, and spry, bounding from floor to kitchen counter to top of fridge, we’d laugh and say to each other, “Remember what almost every other cat is like?” We’d come home to our little lump of laundry plopped on the floor, our chunk, our queen, our babe, and know that she was the best thing that could ever happen to our family. She supported us. We would fall down without her.

What made me believe, in the end, that she wasn’t haunted was in the final years of her life, her aggression abated. The loving era. She grew more docile and affectionate to not only us but our friends who came by. She knew that she relied on us as caretakers and knew that we needed her as the constant of our family, the third leg that allowed our house to thrive. Inside Draper’s brain was something pulling her body away from her control, but she never stopped looking at us with eyes so full of love and need. In her final months, she was overflowing with love. It was serene to see this creature be such a pure medium to a place from which love comes unadorned with qualifiers or conjunctions. It was love, period, something we were blessed to have witnessed. By the end, she didn’t attack when she heard a speakerphone. It was like the affliction had left her, that she had exorcized it herself so that she could give us everything she had in this world she so briefly found herself in.

After-afterword: A perfect day in Draper Lulusdottir’s life

Wake up nestled in the crook of our legs, ensuring that she was well-rested and that we had a fitful night of sleep, fighting for space with her on the bed. A tray of salmon for breakfast. Time alone with her stuffed Bear so she can howl with him locked in her jaws in a song of violence and ecstasy. An uninterrupted nap in on a soft device that slowly follows the ray of sunlight coming through the window across the room. A tray of shredded chicken for lunch. A pigeon, a squirrel, and a silverfish each letting her think she is better than them. Listening to that special purr-age music for cats, sure, why not. An infinite series of connecting rooms, each with one door she can gently paw open. A fresh load of wet laundry draped over a drying rack so as to make a cave of smells for her to enter and explore. A plate of melted ice cream for dinner.

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Bad First Drafts

Originally I thought it would be funny to write a review of the Greta Van Fleet album in this overeducated, bloviating, Richard Meltzer ’60s male critic type voice, only he thought Woodstock 99 was the one defining moment of rock music. The joke kind of fizzled out and ultimately didn’t make any sense and I couldn’t really tune it how I wanted to. Anyway, bad first drafts usually are destroyed but I’m bringing blogging back so here’s this:

Rumsfeld Dreams & Greta Van Fleet

Let me talk at you about this dream. Haven’t had one like this since Donald Rumsfeld rat fucked us in Iraq, a purebred, seminal dream. Oh-h-h I used to dream about it: Rock, that is. Rock and, as they say, its concomitant roll. Many dreams. Lots. SEVERAL. Three, four a night if the drugs were right. Unsafe post-moral, post-structural, post-everything dreams, NSF the kiddies. This one, this new dream was a craven vision, legs and hair and guitar and c. that had me twirling all the way back to the dawn of rock.

The dawn: Woodstock 99, the first particle of rock, the font of primal unity, you know, the real thing. A rare weekend rich w. oxygen before Bush II (but after Sixteen Stone), when there was finally some hot spit on the ball again: Lit, Godsmack, Creed playing w. the Doors’ one and only Robby Kreiger, and the rock-and-ok-some-funk-too Chili Peppers’ climactic conflagration, a raw display of eschatological viscera.

You won’t find this in your shabby history book, but the toast of Woodstock was king skeezix himself, Josh Davis, he of Buckcherry, he of the aforementioned dream. Take Iggy Pop and pour uncut U.A.E. diesel down his throat and that’s J. Davis, the once and future savior of rock&roll (give it time). Most bands was red sometimes yellow. Buckcherry was Roy G. Biv every song. They contained It, possessed It, became It—rock, that is.

To the dream. We are sitting, ass on cushion feet on pilly carpet, at a Famous Dave’s BBQ somewhere in the middle of farm fuck nowhere and it’s Josh and me and Justin Hawkins (he of the Darkness). On the table: drinks, appetizers, a rack of ribs, you know, lunch.

Picture this trio: dressed tip to toe in leather and rings and shimmering aquamarine jewelry and J. Hawkings, J. Davis, and me J. Larson are picking at the pork when Davis, shirtless (natch) leaps right up on the table and holds aloft a bona fide compact disc, a relic, a wonder, a rarity. “Davis get down from there what are you doing man” Hawkings says, seraphic, salacious.

“Attention all you shit weasels I hold in my hand a CD full of sound and fury...”

Ah, enough w. this shillyshally, I don’t need to tell you what he’s holding aloft above the sweet teas and smoked comestibles: the new Greta Van Fleet album, Anthem of a Peaceful Army, you keen-eyed reader full of so much sparkle and pop. This is the THING. Not since Buckcherry did a band blow out all my lights. All of them. Every one. At the same time. These four nu-saviors from Michigan (home of the Rock whose name is Kid) well they’re not just Buckcherry or Wolfmother even JET hack-o-lites, they’re on level 99—far out, intergalactic, cosmic, you know, out there.

Woke up from the dream and I swear to you kid the disc was lying next to my pillow like I was supposed to make it eggs. Shit, had I known what it was gonna do to me I woulda went out and bought a ring that morning. Anthem took me away to the fecund fields of peace and love, ice and snow, the past and the future, time bending around every guitar solo this kid tries to seduce me with. GVF was everywhere in the dream and out of it. Rumsfeld can rot and so can dreams now that we have a new Anthem.

NB: I read an article about Greta Van Fleet comparing them to Led Zeppelin but I don’t hear it. What I hear are millions of streams on Spotify, an army coming back from the dead. I hear rock finally tolling the grave bells from underground, a genuine dead ringer.


The Cars - “Drive”

It took five albums for the Cars to write a song about a car. I’m in awe that Ric Ocasek dodged writing about cars for that long. Six years. Was it on purpose, was it conscious? “Drive” calls all this into question. You assume, well yeah, that’d be a bit spot-on if the Cars wrote about a car; Robert Smith never wrote about a cure and Morrissey never wrote about smelting. But cars, what a valuable songwriting card to give up.

Since the ‘50s probably, the car radio was—I’m assuming—the one portable escape kids had for their music unless they, you know, snuck into the soda shoppe at night and had a swingin’ jukebox hop. More versatile than the bedroom, the car became a sanctuary of pop songwriting, the location of kisses, death, heartbreak and long, lousy metaphors about sex. It was solitude, privacy, a way home, the way out, from “Dead Man’s Curve” to “Detroit Rock City” to “Little Red Corvette.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ocasek just put the name of his band out of his head while he wrote this simple, exquisite song about the finality of driving someone home. It's an ending endowed with such a specific melancholy—two people destined to be together until, finally, they are not. It's almost like a stock character in a melodrama or an ancient Greek poem: that feeling. Ocasek loads up that feeling and places each question inside the car, stacking them one atop the other. Maybe driving someone home is the first step or the last step, but it’s the one tangible action that is requested, every other question hinges upon the chorus

The first, second, and third chorus end with an ellipses as bassist Benjamin Orr skips the tonic and sings the fifth instead. He continues to demure, waiting for an answer he knows is coming. It’s a sublime, liminal feeling that he creates with these questions, ushered in by the music that is just ominous enough, breathy and expensive, somewhere between an idyllic past and an ugly future—or vice versa. Are we in the middle of a wreck or are we trying to avoid it? The questions seem to transform from genuine, to rhetorical, to romantic, to an almost pernicious and bothersome. What’s with the questions, what’s with the tone, “You know you can’t go on thinking nothing’s wrong, but/Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?”

When Orr finally lands on the tonic at the end, it's the music gives the answer, the suspension falls, and the song rolls away. It’s not clear, as opposed to a Springsteen song, if the car is really a car, if the drive home is a drive or home. But with that final note finally landing, we know the answer to the question, and we know that feeling. Defeated, portentous, desperate, with only a small glint of hope. I love these pop songs, so full of a doom and desire, that grab someone's hand just to say: I'm all you've got tonight.

Wolf Parade - "I'll Believe In Anything"

Leaving work today I was overcome with emotion. I couldn’t name it—anxiety, joy, anger—it just tore through me like a wraith whistling in and out of my body. My skin was tingling, my face was warm, and I quickened my pace to the train. With I guess a kind of morbid curiosity, I turned the music in my headphones all the way up just to see what would happen. Hundreds of people walking by me in the vaulted concourse of the luxury mall next to the World Trade Center turned silent and, of course, this emotion vibrated stronger. Tears pressed from behind my eyes just a nameless emotion, type “emotion” into your browser, hit enter, and I would be there somewhere as one part of its definition. 

It was a song I knew well, by heart, by a band called Wolf Parade (the song is “I’ll Believe In Anything” playing from a Spotify playlist of mine filled with hundreds of songs that believe are perfect, which is a kind of brief therapeutic sage cleanse I do after a day of listening to only new, not-yet perfect music at work). It’s one of the great indie-rock songs of despair, one of those chiming anthems that sounds across the great field of love and war, a huge jam, a big mood. In that moment of emotional crisis, I met the song at its histrionic level, the constant bell-toll that hulks it forward like some alarum ringing in a small village. There. Ok there. Now this emotional equation was balanced. This is the life of a pisces, I’m told. 

Since I quit acting almost 10 years ago I’ve had no real professional use for expressing my true outward emotions. If anything, these feelings are a net negative in office environments both to superiors and subordinates, and not exactly useful in writing where the text should carry the emotion but its author should, perhaps, remain strong and austere. Let the words do the talking. What is an emotional man (I know, even writing that feels hideous) that isn’t consigned to the lower echelon of masculinity such as the “weepy horny beard guy” or the too-eager hyperactive type. How does one fight the stigma of being emotional without succumbing to the very stigma itself. How does one live righteously while suppressing a majority of feelings every day. I’m not sure. I buckle under a wave of stoicism exerted by a history of fathers every day. 

One thing I do know is that there are not enough outlets in the day to day life for emotion. I miss blogging, this, I miss being able to map without consequence or aim what I am feeling for no one in particular. It was a good exercise to clarify what that feeling is. We respond all day for other people, to other people, but responding to yourself and wondering why this thing happened and what this emotion meant feels lost. It’s no more self-important than any other online calorie exerted, it just is not as scalable. Writing for pleasure is one way to learn about this, to once again listen without distraction to what you are feeling, to interrogate that, and to tell the story of that emotion, from its wild beginnings to its eventual dissipation hours later. 

What I Am Processing This Morning

What patterns of thought do I need to break myself out of, what patterns of behavior do I need to change, and what is the value of my actions. Is it liberal in-fighting, my preening elitism, the perceived value of sarcasm, a smug sense of self-righteousness? What do these things mean to me as a member of this community, my family's community, the community of the world? It's easy to feel very down about the efficacy of your work, passion, and the dumb things that bring you some joy when you just took the biggest L of your life. Especially (I can only imagine) if you are a marginalized voice targeted by Trump and the hegemony that lofted him to power.

It feels very acutely like I woke up at a funeral, the incomprehensibility of it all: the culpability, the regret, and somewhere beyond all that, the hope that in this platitude feels so cheap but en masse feels like the only raft out of here. I am trying to be a student of this world and those around me, to listen more, and not bark out prescriptions for my friends and enemies. I'm trying to battle my own weird psychology and ego to fight for something better. And I want to be better, and fight harder for those I love. Condemn lies, fight authoritarianism, and push into the abyss of the unknown, where you might encounter something fearful (like a sincere blog post) which can allow you rediscover something about yourself that might help someone in need.

Prince And Proximity

This is how close I was to Prince when I saw him play what I have always regarded past present and future to be the greatest show I've ever seen. He rose out of the floor with his Telecaster strapped like a quiver to his back and the first words he said in his well-obviously-I-will-never-be-this-cool voice were, "Is it alright if I play this thing?" and everybody screamed and he went into "Let's Go Crazy." He did "Nothing Compares 2 U" with Jennifer Hudson, Maceo Parker came out and played on "Cream" and then I followed him to an after show at the House of Blues where he sang Sly and the Family Stone covers and played bass solos until 3 a.m.



I was also about this far away from him in the basement lounge of a New York club once, some presser for introducing his new 3rd Eye Girl band. Doug E. Fresh was DJ'ing and when Prince finally walked in to the club, Doug E. Fresh blasted DMX. I sat around until almost 3 a.m., watching Prince sit across the room in a booth well out of earshot surrounded by six huge bodyguards, until, finally, he got up and started playing half-hearted pool as an excuse to dance with several women only when Busta Rhymes came on. I could have walked over to him but I didn't because he's Prince and he has an impenetrable aura. It was as if he knew I was meant to be in awe 15 ft away, as is the cosmic order of things.

I think being just that close to him these few times is always how I feel about his music, that it's always just out of reach in front of me suspended as the best music of the 80s made by a sexual revolutionary and sartorial dandy for whom perfection is a fuck buddy he keeps around when he needs it. How do you get close to that? How are you supposed to hold that near your heart? I love Prince, I do, he is assuredly my favorite musician of all-time (the riff on "Bambi" or his tightwire delivery of "on ly want to see you un der neath the" or he calls Ronald Reagan RONNIE god I should never have started) and I loved that he orbited around me, voguing in this forbidden space only he should occupy. Too close and you get the wag of a finger and a pursed smile. 

Of course he's inclusive and charitable, and we all share heaping portions of his race, his sexuality, his mercuriality, his peerless shade game. But I don't know if I'll ever feel this specific way again, that being forever just out of reach someone is what made them so definably great. And maybe it's because he finally feels further away now that's really making me feel this one. 

Anyway, as he says: "Shut up already, damn!"

Embezzlement, Burritos, and Trick Daddy

I’ve had the misfortune of witnessing two different managers be arrested at work. The second time was at a small-town Wisconsin Papa John’s after he was awarded his fifth DUI which in effect closed down that Papa John’s and left me without my college job as a pizza delivery driver. That’s the end of that story, except maybe a note to say that Wisconsin ranks third in the nation when it comes to bars per capita, and the domestic and economic circumstances that led this older man to become a general manager of a Papa John’s did not also ensure that a bunch of college kids who showed up to work consistently stoned and showed no regard for company-mandated cheese portions would not also lead him to drinking and driving. I genuinely hope he’s doing fine.

The first time was at a small-town Wisconsin Taco Bell. It was the summer of 2002, a strange time in America. We had just lived through 9/11, and we had yet to taste the citrus-lime flavor of Mountain Dew Baja Blast, which would become Taco Bell’s first official co-branded beverage only a few years later. It was in this cultural abeyance that I was witness of and party to a rag-tag embezzlement scheme perpetrated by my manager Tyler.

Tyler was enrolled at our town’s college, or maybe he wasn’t. I didn’t know. We mostly talked about seven-Layer Burritos, Mexi-Melts, and Nachos Bell Grandes. He never smiled, and as a 17-year-old kid living in the Midwest I had never met anyone who was unhappy and not faking it. This is to say Tyler was not very approachable. Our only non-taco conversation that I recall took place one afternoon when I rolled into the parking lot playing Trick Daddy’s “I’m A Thug” loudly from my car.

“You like Trick Daddy?” Tyler asked.

“Yeah I love Trick Daddy. He’s one of my favorites.” I did not love Trick Daddy, nor was he one of my favorites. But I did lie because I was nervous and I didn’t like conflict. “I can get you the new Trick Daddy CD if you want.”

“Really? It’s not even out yet.”

“Yeah well my friend works at a record store he said it’s just sitting on the shelf.” None of this was true, and I didn’t know that Trick Daddy’s Thug Holiday wouldn’t be out until August, and it was only the middle of June. I hoped that Tyler would just forget about this whole conversation, although I could tell that after we talked that afternoon, there was a glint in his eye, which I charitably took to mean he now respected me.

A few nights later after work he invited my co-worker Tom and I to drink on the floor of his college apartment. As two teens with nothing else to do, what could be better? Tyler bought me a giant Smirnoff Ice and bought Tom a 40oz of Mickeys and we sat and played a drinking game on his stained carpet with two other older people I didn’t know. To this day, the gap between me feeling cool and me actually doing something cool has never been wider. In that moment I felt warm and spectacular.

It was shortly after this that Tyler, Tom, and I started working the closing shift at Taco Bell. The closing shift at Taco Bell in a college town is full of every bad archetype you can imagine, but considering we would all go out back and get high behind the dumpsters and come back in and start working again, it usually evened out.

On nights when there was a concert at the nearby Alpine Valley Amphitheater, it was especially bad. Cars would be backed up onto the street while they waited for their Grande Combos to be made, which was going to take a minute because the bags of beef were still de-thawing in the boiling Bunn water and the automatic frijoles dispenser is squirting out a diarrheic stream of grayish mass because the beans did not get a chance to congeal in the boiling Bunn water and the soft shells are not steamed and the gun that squirts the guacamole-flavored compound is broken and there’s no chicken prepped and Tom and I are far too stoned to solve any of these problems with speed or alacrity.

The scene

The scene

While we were tittering and making burritos, Tyler worked the drive-thru window. “I’m going clear some of these orders so we get our times up, you guys good?”

This was Tyler’s way of cheating the Taco Bell computers that measured customer service in the drive-thru. If you cleared the orders and wrote them down on pieces of paper, the average wait time at the end of the night would be drastically lower. In reality you were moving at a leisurely pace while cars full of hungry Phish fans waited for their Grilled Stuft Burritos with less patience than they had displayed during a 22-minute rendition of “You Enjoy Myself.”

What Tom and I didn’t know was that Tyler was cancelling the orders outright. He would take the car’s order, write what it was on a piece of paper, take the cash, and then cancel the order on the screen. The customer gave the cash to Tyler, we gave the customer the food, and Tyler kept the cash in his pocket.

At the end of the night, at almost four in the morning, Tyler gave me and Tom $20 each. “Thanks guys, you made this go a lot faster.” “Holy shit,” we thought, “Tyler tipped us because we are that cool and good.” There was that warm and spectacular feeling again, donated to me by from someone who didn’t need anything from anybody.

Two weeks or so passed and as I pulled in to work one afternoon I saw two police cars parked near the front door. Tom came out the back and told me Tyler was in the back room and that he was going to be arrested for stealing.

“He stole over a thousand dollars over the last couple of months,” said Tom. “They did an audit of the food weight and whenever he was working, the food weight didn’t match up to the end-of-day receipts, and the cops are investigating how much money he stole.”

We knew, of course, that our tip was in hush money. We realized it back then too, but who was I to question Tyler, who had invited me over to his house to drink a 40 of Smirnoff Ice and to whom I stilled owed an unreleased copy of a Trick Daddy album? He walked out of the Taco Bell and into the back of the police car. I never heard from him again.

A few months later, I quit, and Tom followed suit shortly after. We weren’t going spend our senior years being uncool losers working at Taco Bell without Tyler. We insisted, in the face of inevitable doom, that were going to do something with our lives.

 

 


 

 

 

I Know A Straw Man

I went to high school with this kid who had undiagnosed Aspergers named Matt. He was one grade below me and was ruthlessly teased by kids. Everyone called him gay because there were no out gay kids at our school. I fault our administration for not making our small, sub-zero town a safe place for this to happen (no queer alliances, no school seminars, just don’t ask don’t tell for teens). They called him gay because he was different, and the kids would say, “What are you gay or something?” and I remember him recoiling at the thought and screaming that he’s not gay. He had no response other than the truth and everyone laughed at him spitting and stomping and mugging his anger. I’m recoiling just typing about this.

Our theater teacher gave him great bit parts in some of the plays and he always crushed it on stage. Matt and I also took karate when we were way younger, so when he got to high school, I tried to look out for him when I could (but being the vastly uncool music/band/theater geek I didn’t exactly have the goodwill of the kids who teased him. I also just didn't do a great job at that). Matt had the kindest, most innocent heart and was taken advantage of by anyone who knew how to implement lazy sarcasm because Matt didn’t pick up on any social cues. I’m talking rudimentary sarcasm, purposefully bad jokes, which of course is the lingua franca of idiot teens. He was not included in much of the theater games and didn't get things deeper than text. He knew that he should memorize his lines and follow the blocking. He was great at it.

Anyway after he graduated high school he stayed in my hometown and got a job at the factory where you often work if you stay in my hometown. I reconnected with him on Facebook many years after high school. I haven’t seen him since and only interact with him on Facebook. There he shares many deeply conservative memes all day long, as if the “Marine Todd” meme laid eggs and out bursted hundreds of likeminded Drudgey memes: "Immigrants should go back to Syria, share if you agree!!!” "If we had one of these guys [beefy soldier in camo holding an assault rifle] in every school, we wouldn’t have school shootings.” “Keep Christ in Christmas”. Then he posts stuff like this almost every day:

He is the person who sits at the end of every internet joke. He is your straw man. Matt. Matt is your guy who posts those unbelievable memes and cannot tell if you don’t realize that that’s Neil DeGrasse Tyson sitting on the train or not.  Matt is the guy you manually retweet so your friends can own him. Matt is the voice that irony has adopted. “Can it, loser” or “Guns are good” are things he would say because that is apparently what he believes now.

I can’t imagine the trauma he’s had in his life, his domestic and economic disparity,  and all of the selfish people who have made it infinitely more difficult for him to communicate truthfully with someone else. Whatever happened to Matt in the intervening years when I left high school since he started working at this factory, whatever caused him to became someone lost in the Breitbart comments, whatever anger that he has that is fueled by people on his end of the spectrum and those off the spectrum, I know it must be difficult. I know he’s working on getting a tech degree. I know that he’s posted several very sad posts about getting his heart broken. 

So when some schmuck doesn’t get that that this dumb thing is a joke

https://twitter.com/ironghazi/status/629725691685261312

I feel very bad. We define these online people by their inability to pick up on social cues and then mock them in our circle of progressive friends who can definitely pick up on irony. I’ve done this many times, we all have, not that it matters because life isn't measured in two hefty sacks of good deeds and bad ones. But when someone clearly doesn't get it, or someone takes a poor tack in a reply or misreads someone’s politics or irony, I think about Matt. 

Empathy Scrum

You can't curate empathy. Social media is not a responsive platform, especially as we run full speed toward this orb of empathy that glows brightest during times of global trauma. But let's say—in order to survive a few more years on this terrible earth—humans are inherently good. We all seek empathy, in our own bruised and inscrutable ways.

So we're not galled by the lack of empathy in others. The true gall that inspires screeds and jeremiads and endless moral positioning in the moments during and immediately after trauma, is that our social platforms are not calibrated to map the infinite paths toward empathy. 

Should you unschedule those innocuous tweets? Should you avoid politicizing a tragedy? Should score some brand points at the expense of the xenophobes? Should you change the logo of your company to the colors of the French flag? Should you tell a story about that time you were in Paris? Should you just say one thing to show you're a human being? Should you say nothing? When is it ok to talk about something else again? When we all feel like just this once we could rally around this one beautiful point of empathy, it's a scrum to get to the middle of it. 

This is not a fault of us humans, or your collegue who you temporarily muted, or your friend from high school who you rage-unfollowed. It's the fault of technology. Neither Facebook nor Twitter (nor blogs for that matter) are built to handle the byzantine pathways of how we deal with trauma, and how each person seeks empathy. One person's path towards do-goodery is another person's worst nightmare, and this dissonance is laid out in two-dimensions surrounded by the scheduled and promoted tweets, event notifications, crass opportunism, trolls, racists, the unaware, and the vast sums money that underly each byte of data.

This is the scrum, and it will never be perfect. The thing is, when we all focus on this empathy and we strive to understand and write our words of wisdom and platitudes of lesser wisdom, we see that finally that we are indeed human beings, in wholly different in terrifying ways. It shatters the binary dialogues of twitter into thousands of pieces, impossible to parse.

What is the root of this person's behavior, and why is it not like mine? This empathy scrum transcends politics, gender, race, profession, and suddenly we see that the stakes are raised on platforms that are chiefly used for dumb conversations and Michael-Jordan-crying-memes. Now, we have real human moments, and the folly of social media is that no platform could possibly capture us as humans. No level of curation could prepare us for that. 

The way we cope and deal with this ancient, biblical trauma ranges from singing Papa Roach at karaoke to laying in bed and doing nothing. This was the difference between me and one of my best friends. In our offline conversation, it was a mutual understanding, even if maybe deep down inside we were a little disappointed in each other. But we knew what the other needed, and we loved and respected it nonetheless.

But to know how others deal with trauma is to let them, and not judge them, even if it seems insanely stupid or extremely prescriptive.  

 

 

 

 

Good Invitation

You want to go see my buddy’s band next Monday? They play at 11 at this bar in Waukesha. It’s not really a bar, it’s more of a karate studio you can smoke in. I’ve never been, but my buddy’s playing this acoustic bass he got on Craigslist three weeks ago because he needed something to do after he broke his ankle playing ping pong with his niece. She got a slice past his right side and in diving for it, he flung himself over the banister right onto his sister’s DVD rack. At the hospital, my buddy told me the ping pong table’s placement on the upstairs landing was only temporary while he moved it out of his room to look for some bass picks, but he could never turn down a game with Mattie. Why he sleeps on a ping pong table is a long story, but it’s some calculus to do with a house fire, his sciatica, and a nauseating fear of ants. 

So he has to play in a cast Monday, which sucks for him because it’s his first time with the band. He used to play bass in that band Dr. Gore, that funk black metal band my buddy said sounded like “early Chili Peps defiling H.P. Lovecraft’s corpse”? I never saw them, but they all wore baseball caps. 

Well, they all wore baseball caps except the DJ, who had a rare condition where his hair hurt. Doctors said it had to do with extra nerve endings bottled up on his skull his hair that caused him searing pain at the slightest touch. One tousle could send him into a coma. Before my buddy joined, the band had to cancel a gig due to a long stretch of breezy nights.

The sad thing is, my buddy didn’t know about the DJ’s hurting hair, so his first night with the band during the DJ solo, my buddy noticed he wasn’t wearing his cap so he went behind him and slapped his cap on the DJ’s head, who without hesitation keeled over onto his turntables. At the police station, the DJ’s lawyer told us that that the words "DON’T TOUCH MY HAIR OR I COULD DIE” printed on the front and back of his shirt were all the grounds he needed to file an assault with intent charge. My buddy swears that he thought that was the name of a band he played with Pewaukee. The case is still in the early stages of litigation, but his bail bond put him deep in debt and then when his house caught on fire, he had to move in with his sister and her daughter Mattie. 

They live in the subdivision with all the McMansions on the west side, but are totally house poor after his sister's divorce. The only other piece of furniture in the living room other than the DVD rack is a couch that sits in the middle of the carpeted room that faces nothing. There's no window, no wall, no mantle, no TV, you sit on the couch and there is this unnerving feeling you are looking at nothing, such is its geographical positioning and the voiding architecture of the room. Of course, you are staring at something, but the room seems to slip away to the periphery. There are doorways that hint at structural meaning, a pathway into what can be be seen as definitively a kitchen, surely a coat room, of course stairs to the basement, but the view from the couch lacks any kind of function, only space defined as space, a glint of a banister, corners of drywall, an endlessly beige carpet, and Mattie waiting to play ping pong. 

The couch is where my buddy is sleeps now, because of the cast. He takes off the seat cushions and sleeps on the wooden slat then covers himself with garbage bags, because of the of ants. 

His new band is supposed to be pretty good. My buddy says they sound like "Violent Femmes trying to unfuck the economy.”

Also I think it’s doors at 11 and my buddy’s band goes on after the openers.

The Newest Website

Went ahead and made a web portal for me. This includes my published writing, my less than published writing, photography, and a robust contact page. Under "Writing" there are links to a selection of things I've written that you can read online. Under "Photography" some of my favorite photos I've taken. And for here, picture, if you will, this space to be used as an old shopping bag where I'll put things that I think are neat and swell. Thanks, friends.