Sublime Balance

          Hybrid sensations are always better because you get the best of both worlds. Seriously, sweet and sour sauce is superior to a condiment containing just one of the two flavors because balance is always best. And sublimity is exactly the same. If you think about it, the mind-blowing sensation of simultaneous exultation and elation always comes from a paradox because confusion is a key element to the feeling—that’s why we need to include the terror with the comfort, the low with the high.

          There’s nothing more trite than a yen-yang (they always remind me of regrettable tattoos from the nineties) but sometimes clichés fit too perfectly to ignore. That circular, swirly little symbol sums it all up by mixing the dark and light just as it’s supposed to be; that’s why this John Dennis fellow seems to understand the sublime better than Longinus. If you have just a monstrous peak without the balancing valley, you’re talking about bliss, not the sublime, and if you have only the negative without the equaling positive, it’s just abysmal black. Zoltan Cora might not write interesting papers (even though he has the coolest name of all time), but his point is valid: Dennis took an objective look at the genre and realized that the romantic focus on positive feelings was half-assed at best, and a disservice was being done to the notion by focusing on it so myopically. And it was important for all those smart people from the seventeen-hundreds to move away from literature and rhetoric to look at “the lightning itself” because in so doing, they focused on the source of the sublime as opposed to just the written descriptions of it; that’s how something is truly understood.

          Secondly, as per the discussion prompt, the value of a lofty idea is its staying power. Simple things and concepts are dismissed as trivial because our brains figure them out and discard them as meaningless, regardless of how clever they might be. But the confusion feels like a loose end, or some sort of weird, esoteric little key that needs to be found so we can move on. And when we find it, the confusion remains for a moment, mixing a little with the satisfaction of solving something, and the heady balance of both feelings leads to the sublime. It’s pretty perfect stuff, and I love it.

Hupsos

          Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize win is infuriating given the reality that writers like Margaret Atwood are still walking around. I saw that man in concert a few years back and he stood at the mic to mumble the same stuff that made him famous decades ago, back when that type of stuff was new, relevant, less cliché. A huge owl, grey and real, flew in while Dylan was “singing” and landed up in the eaves; the crowd applauded for that bird more earnestly than they did for Dylan because the original vagabond, the unwashed phenomenon, looked so lackluster after all these years. And his tired words are the same, when written on paper, because they mattered once but don’t fit in now. That man missed the change he was looking for but we’re still giving him awards for it; awards he cherishes so much that he no-shows to the ceremony and plagiarizes the speech he sends in after the fact.  

          How dare we treat relevant art—art like Atwood’s—that way? Frankly, we did the same thing for Obama. For the record, I voted for that man twice and I’m a huge fan, but given the countless drone strikes and civilian casualties that came as collateral damage during his tenure, I wonder occasionally at the impetus behind his own Nobel win. That medal is being strung around necks to send messages now instead of awarding artistic contributions, and it cheapens the recipients’ work that came before, the work that was worthy of award. Hell, I’d hate to put words in Atwood’s mouth because hers are already so much better than my own, but she seems to agree with me in this video. So, given my task this week to write about contemporary works of sublimity, I’m choosing to write about Atwood because if people don’t stand up and point at her writing, she might pass before most of us realize that we’re living in the same time as one of this world’s most sublime artists.

          True, people are noticing her work nowadays thanks to those creepy women in little-red-riding-hood cloaks on Hulu, but that’s just not good enough because she has given us more than that. I don’t want this to sound hyperbolic, but when it comes to dystopian works that can teach us about our mistakes before we make them, Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” belongs at the top of the list, right above both Huxley and Orwell; her prescient work really is that good. And the reason for this is Atwood’s mastery of the sublime. Her passages are overwhelming and exalting simultaneously and that’s what defines the tenet. Here, read this:

           “What did his father look like? Snowman can’t get a fix on it. Jimmy’s mother persists as a clear image, full colour, with a glossy white paper frame around her like a Polaroid, but he can recall his father only in details: the Adam’s apple going up and down when he swallowed, the ears backlit against the kitchen window, the left hand lying on the table, cut off by the shirt cuff. His father is a sort of pastiche. Maybe Jimmy could never get far enough away from him to see all the parts at once.”

          Get it? Do you see the sublimity? I’m not going to comment on Atwood’s stylistic qualities because her ability to transcend pedestrian prose has nothing to do with her mechanics—Atwood is sublime because she writes about truth and emotion and deep things that don’t usually dawn on laypeople. Her words are profound and simple at once, and that’s where the explosion comes from. If you’re too close to a person, of course they’ll look like a pastiche because your piecemeal perception of him or her is nothing more than an imitation of who he or she really is. We build in our minds portraits of the people around us by piecing together events and images and perceptions clouded by our own bias, and then those people stop looking real because our rendering of them is anything but real. That’s some deep, sublime shit, and Atwood threw it into her book like a backhanded afterthought; that’s the sort of sublimity a master can engender. That’s the type of perfection that deserves a Nobel Prize.

The Sublime

          I lied to you. I told you that I was done using this blog for classwork and I said that I’d go back to posting my usual nonsense once the heady summer months arrived. Yet hear I am, writing for a rhetorical analysis class centered on the sublime, hoping that these assignments don’t shun your wishes. But before I get into it, I have an update: a New York based literary agency actually requested the complete manuscript I completed over the winter break. Now, I’m writing professionally for two different companies and someone in New York took my query seriously enough to shoot me an email asking for more—this is the furthest I’ve come on this odd quest to write for a living and the purgatory of it all is crushing.

          You see, I don’t want to jinx it. I don’t want to tell people that an agency is reading my book because the odds of making the next cut are too comical to mention; I don’t want to face all the hypothetical people I’ve told about this breakthrough if that agency tells me “no” because the failure in my words and the empathy on their faces might be too much to take. I’ve known a few women who waited to tell family and friends about a pregnancy because the possibility of a miscarriage loomed in their mind like a dark fear—I know a book is nothing compared to a new life, but I can relate. I only want people to know if I’ve made it; I don’t want people to know that I might make it just so they can find out I didn’t. And in the interim, I want to curl up on my closet floor in the fetal position; I want to rock back and forth while humming the National Anthem; I want to distract myself until the answer comes in so I can know what’s real and what’s delusional. But what I want doesn’t matter, so I’ll just do this assignment and wait for the news like a grownup.

          For this week, my professor wants me to reflect on my “first impressions about the sublime as a concept” as it relates to the introduction in Robert Doran’s most recent book, The Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant. So, here we go…

***

          I understand what “sublime” means just like I know what “cheese” is. It’s pretty simple stuff. To sublimate matter, you use science (or wizardry, I guess) to turn a solid into a gas and then back into a solid. Hell, with a frying pan and a freezer, you could sublimate water if you wanted to. But figuratively, the sublime deals with exhalation and elevation as it relates to our minds. Every time you’ve seen something or thought of something that “blew your mind,” you were dealing with the sublime. Doran sums this up as “the paradoxical experience of being at once overwhelmed and exalted.”

          However, I have two issues with Doran’s quote. First, there’s nothing paradoxical about it. Humans are small things, stupid things, when juxtaposed against existence, and it’s exactly this feeling of being small that feels so wondrous when we encounter that which we can’t comprehend mentally. That’s what wonder is made out of. So of course the humbling sublimity of mind-blowing experiences is going to overwhelm and exult us simultaneously because that’s the way things work. It’s only paradoxical if you don’t get it.

          Secondly, given that I’m a writer McWriterton from Writerville, my next issue should be pretty axiomatic: Doran should’ve said “exulted” instead of “exalted.” The former is a verb and Doran’s choice is an adjective. The sublime does something to us when we see it. There’s action involved. It puts us down where we belong because we’re insignificant when compared to the sublime. Granted, it makes us feel exalted, but only because the sublime exults us via its overwhelming nature; focusing on the way something makes us feel is arrogant because it detracts from the thing itself. We’ll never understand the sublime if we focus on ourselves or our narrow interpretation of that wondrous external force because doing so shoves subjectivity where it doesn’t belong. Sublimity really is “one of the most important and consequential concepts in modern thought,” as Doran puts it, and we need to treat it that way.

          Something sublime is simply something too incredible to understand or imagine with our primate brains, and it’s shocking when we see it with our eyes. Basically, sublime things are things that’re greater than us, plain and simple, and we can’t quantify these things because our minds aren’t powerful enough to crunch the numbers. The only way we can comprehend these things is through a feeling and an emotion: sublimity. Get it?

Serious Nonfiction #7

This is it. To all of my regular readers who come here for ridiculous nonsense, wherein I rhapsodize about white trash with super powers or use this blog to apply as a spy to the C.I.A., I’d like to say thank you for sticking around. As I’ve said before, these seven posts have been for a class assignment centered on a hypothetical book—one that I might write someday, thereby rescuing it from the purgatory of hypothetic discourse—for a course centered on nonfiction, and this is the final post I’m required to write.

Now, to the twenty-something people who’ve followed recently, thinking that my blog might be some sort of serious page dedicated to the art of writing, I would also like to say thank you, but I should warn you that my next post will be a tad… different from what you’re used to. Cheers.

***

Part 1:

1.) Introduction

This is obviously going to be a narrative-heavy exploration into why I’m writing this book, and my introduction will be full of first-person narration that discusses my experiences vis-à-vis living with a cellphone-addicted teenager.

2.) Catelynn

This chapter will be a liminal thing, living somewhere between a narrative and a contextual chapter, wherein I switch my writing subtly to something that’ll fell like a third-person omniscient perspective, and I’ll focus all the content specifically on my daughter, and I’ll discuss the changes she’s gone through mentally and socially since that first moment wherein she peeled the transparent, plastic protector off her first iPhone screen.

Part 2:

3.) From Printing Press to Snapchat

This will be a break-narrative chapter wherein I’ll rocket back in time. I’ll discuss briefly the birth of modern media, starting with the printing press, and I’ll work my way through the ages to the invention of television. One I get to the 1980’s, I’ll cite experts who prove that modern media is detrimental culturally (such as Neil Postman, who wrote “Amusing Ourselves to Death”), and once I get to modern times, I’ll cite experts (such as Nicholas Carr who wrote “The Shallows”) who prove that the internet and modern connectivity (through smartphones) is corrosive to linear thought, and it leavens our flagging ability to intentionally focus our attention.

4.) iCrack

This chapter will be a research-heavy, narrative chapter that proves cellphones can be addictive. First, I’ll discuss the tenets of chemical addiction, and I’ll discuss their behavioral signs. Then, in an attempt to make a “scope-widening,” “cross-disciplinary” connection, I’ll tie traditional addictions to cellphone addiction in a novel way.

5.) Death and Nudes

This will be a break-narrative chapter that will discuss the extraneous consequences of teenaged cellphone usage. I’ll prove that cellphone-related auto accidents cause more fatalities than drunk driving, and I’ll discuss the repercussions that come from a lack of forethought. Namely, most teens who use smartphones will eventually send nude pictures to someone else—and of course, they do so without thinking about the consequences because that’s what it means to be “teenaged”—and in many cases, the repercussions of these pictures can include suicide, social annexation, extreme depression, and criminal charges.

Part 3:

6.) 20/20

This will be a contextual chapter with a narrative feel that’ll discuss what I should’ve done, and I’ll write it with the feel of a newspaper advice column. I’ll direct my narration directly to parent readers, switching momentarily into second-person narration, and I’ll stand on my soapbox to tell people what they should and should not do regarding adolescent cellphone usage. I’ll make plenty of retrospective references back to research cited previously, and back to points I’ve already made. In this chapter, I’ll wed the two concurrent stories that Rabiner stresses as important.

7.) Nvr 2 L8

This penultimate chapter will address the concerns of parents who’ve already made the mistake of buying a cellphone for their child, and I’ll discuss ways to mitigate the fallout associated with reining in their child’s cellphone addiction (there won’t be many citations in this chapter because I’ll relate most of my advice to personal experience).

8.) Conclusion

I’ll wrap it up.

***

The sample chapter I’ll be writing for my submission package will be chapter four, “iCrack.” I’ve chosen this chapter because it’ll display the strength of my research and my narration. I’ll keep a “human story” centered throughout this chapter, and I’ll make sure to form a thesis by highlighting “what I’m talking about, and what I have to say.”

Serious Nonfiction #6

These class-related posts have led to an odd occurrence: each of the six posts I’ve made have earned me three or four new followers to my blog, which in a way, is depressing—I’m netting more followers from my classroom assignments than I was through my creative work. I’ve been telling myself this is because my blog has been more active lately—as if maybe these prolific posts are drawing people in—but I’m not sure if that’s true. But, whatever; this horse has been gifted to me and I promise not to look in its mouth. So, here’s my sixth class-assigned post:

As it pertains to my narration, and “keeping a serious human mind at its center,” it’ll be a difficult task vis-à-vis my sample chapter. The chapter I plan to write in concert with my submission package will be research-heavy, focusing on the chemical aspects of the human brain that allow a child like mine to become addicted to technology, and it’ll be hard to make my presentation read like a story. However, I’m not going to just “extract content from its original context,” thereby divorcing my information and emotion from the “circumstances that motivated those ideas,” because my work would be a failure if I did. And, I have a plan: I’m going to paint my daughter’s mind as a protagonist that’s battling against the research-leavened antagonist of chemical technology addiction.

Sure, here in these few words, I’m sure my plan sounds formulaic and somewhat superficial, but given the room to breathe that’s provided by a ten-page sample chapter, I’m sure I’ll be able to create the “narrative tension” that Rabiner stresses as important. Or at least, I’m going to try…

Serious Nonfiction #5

This hypothetical book is starting to feel more and more like a real book, and if I don’t battle back my OCD, I might actually write the thing in a fit of compulsion—oh well, worse things have happened. Below, I’ve listed five of the sources I’ll be using to create my sample chapter. This sample chapter will deal with the mechanics of addiction and brain plasticity that lead our youth to become addicted to, and affected adversely by, the internet and their cellphones.

1.) “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr

This book has been worming its way into my mind ever since we read the first chapter during our first week in this class. Specifically, in chapter two, Carr delves into the truth that our brains have more plasticity that we once thought, and this remapping adaptation can lead us into a downward spiral into internet addiction that effects the once linear thought process that made us who we were before digital emersion.

2.) “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked” by Adam Alter

If I’m talking about how kids become addicted to cellphones, I’ll first need to prove that such a thing is possible, be it through a chemical or emotional addiction, and this book will help.

3.) “Addicted: Notes from the Belly of the Beast” by Lorna Crozier

I want to blur the lines between cell phone addiction and other forms of addiction, and the best way to do this would be to talk about and list the signs of addiction as they relate to more traditional forms of chemical dependence. Doing so will lend credence to my claim that cell phone addiction is just as harmful as dependencies people are familiar with. Oh… and after finding these three books, I hereby swear to leave the colon out of my title, because it seems like every work of serious nonfiction out there uses one.

4.) “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” by Neil Postman

See what I mean about the colons? It’s super annoying. Anyway, I’ll most likely use this book as a baseline to discuss how we got to where we are, and where we came from societally speaking. Postman gives us in his work a wonderful tableau of life in a period of time that represents our move away from print towards the digital age. The man comes across like a prophet, and all of the things he said would happen are in fact happening. If we don’t do something to educate our youth about the detriments associated with cellphone usage, the results will be apocalyptic, and I need Postman’s help to prove it.

5.) “Cellphones and Distracted Driving” by Gail Stewart

I might not actually use this book because this Stewart person didn’t put a colon in her title, and now that I think about it, she probably isn’t to be trusted. Who does she think she is? But I’ll need something similar, because the most obvious repercussion of teenage cellphone addiction is death. Cellphone distractions on the roadway are now killing more people than drunk drivers, especially amongst our youth, and I’ll need a credible source to cite so I can prove it.

Garage Sale

          My cat is an asshole. It’s not like I don’t love her—she’s my life—but I’m getting sick of her claw marks. They’re everywhere, like feline graffiti, and I need to do something. There’s no way in hell I’m declawing her because that’s just inhumane. And there’s no way in hell she’ll wear the little booties I just bought her, regardless of the four-star Amazon review. So now what? Should I just let her do whatever she wants like the little pussy-cat princess she is? Should I just let my apartment go to shit?

          It’s doable, I guess. I haven’t had a date in a decade and all my friends are online, so it’s not like I need to impress anybody. But what if? I almost asked out Teresa the last time I got my teeth cleaned, and she had a look in her eye that makes me think I should’ve. Maybe she’ll come over someday. And if she does, she’ll see the claw marks—she’ll know I have a cat, and subconsciously, she’ll smell the air. That’s how it works. She’ll convince herself that my apartment is disgusting and then she’ll convince herself that I’m disgusting, and then I’ll have to find a new dentist.

          Screw that.

          I’ll fix up this apartment. I’ll throw away all this ratty furniture and I’ll get new stuff. It’s about time anyway; I’ve been calling this couch is “vintage” for years, but really, it’s pawn-shop-chic at best. So, I’ll switch to a modern look. I’ll get rid of all this cloth and wood and I’ll buy metallic things, sparse and utilitarian. A minimalistic look, like in the movies. There’s no way Princess will be able to mess that up with her claws. Purr-fect.

          I swipe right to unlock my iPhone and I open Facebook.

          I am the king of Facebook. Seriously. I have over two-thousand followers and nobody argues with me anymore on my posts. They know what happens.

          I check my notifications—sixty-three of them!—and then I search for the local garage sale site. I’m scrolling through the listings. Cars, bikes, beds…rooms for rent, ISO babysitters, spare tires. And then I see it: a Crestview estate sale. “folding furniture, a steel cot, a record player, knickknackery, and fifty years’ worth of collectables!” Wonderful. I’m only ten minutes away.

          I look around for Princess but I can’t find her anywhere; it’s her fault I can’t say goodbye. And then I leave through my apartment’s front door, on the ground floor of a converted hotel building on the north-side of Durango.

          It’s cold out, bright and wet on an early-spring Sunday morning. Actually, this is perfect garage sale weather. The hobbyists and tourists will stay inside leaving only the regulars like me, and there won’t be many of us because it’s so early in the season anyway. So I like my chances.

          I start my Nissan Xterra and head out. I turn on the radio and find some classic rock; all that other stuff is just noise. I crack my window and light a menthol, I let my thoughts wonder as I drive. Moments later I turn right on snowy twenty-fourth, and I kick-in the four-wheel drive. Unstoppable. I climb the wooded hills into the Crestview neighborhood.

          There’s a house for sale on the right side; I pull over just for the hell of it. There’s an information box staked into the front lawn, full of fliers. I walk through the crusty snow and pull one out, a full-color piece of paper with pictures and a description. I laugh. A half-million for a two-bedroom that hasn’t been updated in twenty years? Seriously? This neighborhood is effing ridiculous. No thank you; Princess and I don’t need anything this big, and I wouldn’t buy it even if I could afford it.

          I keep the flyer just in case, and get back in my SUV. I open Google Maps on my phone and put in the address. I’m three minutes away.

          The drive over is a daydream: fantasies about what my place will look like when I’m done and what Teresa might say if she ever sees it. I put my Xterra in park right up against the curb. This is perfect. There’re only two other cars parked on the street, both Subarus, and it’s still early.

          The house is a single-story anachronism. It’s plastered white with wooden shutters over the windows—they’re painted pink with cutouts of little tulips to match the pink door of the single-car, detached garage. There’s even a picket fence poking up out of the snow. The whole place just screams nineteen-fifty-something, from the square, snow-covered shrubbery to the brick chimney.

          I walk up the path, right past the homemade “come inside” sign stuck in the snow, and I grunt my disproval; it’s not a real garage sale unless the garage door is open. I walk inside.

          Oh. My. God.

          This house is a walk-in time capsule. The air is musky and rank, like a mixture of mothballs and moldy earth. The carpet is thick and green, with discernable paths crisscrossing through the shag. The walls are wood panels, dark brown with even darker grain. The popcorn ceiling is dirty with dust and smoke. And the furniture is incredible: patinaed period pieces mixed with plaid upholstered couches and chairs. Beautiful. It’s like whoever lives here kept up with modern fashion until nineteen-fifty-six and then just gave up, refusing to make even the smallest update as the years bled by.

          A quick look tells me that none of the furniture here will work, but I need to explore this place. If the living room is this freakishly cool, I can’t imagine what the kitchen is like.

          I walk past the furniture and curios cabinets in the living room—filled to brimming with bric-a-brac—towards what I assume is the kitchen. I push past the slatted double doors and stand in awe on the yellowed linoleum. This room puts the “kitsch” in “kitchen.” The avocado-green lacquered appliances all match, and they’re festooned with hand-knitted rags. The countertops are grungy Formica and framed pictures of chickens cover most of the wall-papered walls.

          It’s a walk-through kitchen, and through the slatted doors on the far end, I can hear voices. Two women talking. I walk over quietly to listen in; there’s a fine line between people-watching and eavesdropping, and I have no compunctions with crossing it.

          “…newspapers were fifteen cents on Sundays. Everything was cheaper way-back-when,” says one woman.

          “I know! And whoever lives here obviously has no clue what year it is! Did you see that record player in the other room? The big one with two built in speakers? The sticker said ‘twenty bucks!’” Says the other woman, in an excited whisper.

          “Yeah. My name is Anna, by the way.”

          “Christin. Nice to meet you. Is that your Forester out there?”

          “Yeah, I love it. Do you drive one too?”

          “I drive an Outback, so yeah, pretty much,” Christin says. They both giggle.

          “Anyway, I wanna buy everything here, but I feel bad. Kind of like stealing from a baby, you know?”

          “Not really, no. You know these people?”

          “I just met the old woman. She’s putting prices on stuff in one of the back bedrooms. I asked if she was moving to make small-talk, and she told me her husband died just two weeks ago. Fell down the stairs leading to the basement! And now she’s selling everything so she can move in with her daughter. See what I mean?” Anna asks.

          “That poor thing! But you know what? If she thinks these prices are fair, they’re fair. I’m getting that record player, but I won’t haggle.”

          I back out of the kitchen quietly and go hunting for the back bedrooms. I walk through the living room and down a hallway. I walk past a bathroom and get a peek at pink tile and a clawfoot tub. I walk to the end of the hallway and into what must be the master bedroom. There’s a set of matching twin beds nestled into the shag carpet, and the paneled walls are covered with framed pictures of Jesus and his mom. A brown ceiling fan is humming quietly above me, and an old woman is standing by the wall, staring out a small window that looks out over the back yard.

          “How much for the record player in the living room?” I ask.

          She turns to look at me with a smile, and I meet her watery green eyes with my own. Was she just about to cry?

          “Son, it’s polite to introduce yourself before you offer to buy something.”

          “Yes ma’am,” I say, surprising myself with the formality, “I apologize. My name is Justin.”

          “Oh, that’s okay sweetheart, I was just teasing.” Her smile is wide and bright; her expression is mischievous and smart, like maybe the years haven’t touched her mind. “It’s twenty bucks.”

          “Seriously? It’s worth way more than that. I’ll give you forty.”

          “Well, then you have a deal.” She nods her thanks, and smiles with her eyes.

          “Perfect! But I’ll need to come back for it. Tomorrow maybe? There’s no room in the car.”

          “Whatever works for you, Justin.”

          We stand quietly for a moment, looking at each other. Her hair is thin but well kept, and she’s wearing a dark dress, deep red or maroon. She walks over and reaches out to shake my hand, and I accept. Her hand feels so small in mine, thin bones and fragile skin, but it isn’t trembling.

          I let go and walk around the room, looking at everything else in a polite showing of interest. There’s a large picture of Jesus on the cross between the beds. I lean in close for a look at the little round sticker on the glass. Three dollars.

          “Are you looking for anything in particular?” She asks.

          “Yeah. Maybe some new furniture. Something my cat won’t mess up. I have a friend coming over.” Why is it so easy to lie to strangers?

          “Oh really?” she asks with a ruthless smirk, “is it someone special?”

          “Yeah. I asked her out last week. She’s my dental hygienist.” I smirk back, conspiratorially.

          “Oh that’s just wonderful, Justin! And you want to make your house look nice for her? You’re such a gentleman, doing nice things for young women and paying the old ones twice what they ask.” She gives me a wink. “Where does she work?”

          “Junction Creek Dental? You know, that place off twenty-second?”

          “Oh dear, yes! Is her name Teresa? She’s just so wonderful and gentle! You lucky man!”

          Son of a bitch! Stupid small towns and stupid old women, always chatting with everyone.

          “I have an appointment with her next week,” she says, “I probably won’t make it, but if I do, I’ll put in a good word for you.”

          “Uh, no,” I say, “it’s someone else. There’s a few offices over there, you know.” I look around frantically for an out, “how much for the luggage set?” I point at the two matching suitcases against the wall behind me. They’re just as old as everything else, brown canvas with leather straps.

          “Oh, I’m not selling those, sweetheart. I’ll need them to go see my Jenny.”

          “She’s your daughter? How old is she?” I know it’s an awkward question, but I need to make her forget about Teresa.

          “Oh, she’s, you know. Older, now.” She looks confused. “Anyway, go ahead and come back any time tomorrow afternoon for your record player. It was nice to meet you Justin. I need to go check on the other two.” She walks past me, patting my shoulder curtly as she does, and leaves the room without looking back—her dismissal is polite, but obvious.

          I find my way out of the house and drive away. The day is still bright and clear and cold, but it smells ten times fresher outside than the sepulture that woman called home.

          Why’d she freak out like that? Why’d she give me crap for not introducing myself and then leave so quickly? Actually, come to think of it, she never told me her name even after I told her mine. That’s super rude. Maybe her husband fell down those stairs because he was running away. Ha!

          I regret the thought as soon as I think it. I can’t imagine what it would be like to end up alone or what it would be like to sell everything you’ve collected with someone else, and even though she didn’t tell me her name, she was a sweetheart. And maybe she forgot? Old people are doing that kind of stuff all the time, so she’s cool, I guess. But I’m still worried she might say something to Teresa. If she does, I’ll look like an ass. How the hell will I explain it away? “Oh, I’m sorry, Teresa, I told some sweet old lady you were coming over for date night even though we’ve never really talked. Is that cool?” Damn it.

          I worry about it all the way home.

***

          I sleep with a fitted sheet and a comforter. One pillow. All my bedclothes are red satin. It looks a bit tacky, but cat hair doesn’t stick to satin as much as it would to high thread-count cotton, so I don’t mind. Princess is sleeping next to me—she looks like a miniature leopard, proud and majestic, all curled up—and I reach over to rub the little “M” in the brindled fur between her eyes. She purrs through her dream, and I smile in the morning light while dust moats sparkle in my bedroom air.

          And then it hits me: I don’t need new furniture. Actually, I have everything I need, we have everything we need. That old woman and her husband decided what they had sixty years ago was good enough, so why can’t I just do the same? If Teresa minds the smell, she’s not the girl for me. It’s not like I’d ever get rid of Princess for her anyway, so screw it. I’ll go buy that record player because I said I would, and I’ll get that old woman’s name. I’ll tell her it’s fine if she wants to put in a good word for me, and then sometime this week, I’m going to ask out Teresa. All my worrying last night made me realize I don’t have much choice, so I’ll just face it. And if I’m being honest, there’s a pretty good chance Teresa will say “yes.”

          She’s always so kind and attentive. There’s no way she’s not flirting, because girls aren’t usually that nice. Well, online they are, but just because they know how important I am. But Teresa is good to me in the real world, and that’s rare. She even touched my shoulder lightly the last time I sat in her hygiene chair. And then she asked if I was okay after leaning the chair back, and then she pressed her stomach against the top of my head the entire time she cleaned my teeth. Would she have done that if she didn’t want me to ask her out? Nope. And to cap it all off, when she asked me to hold that little suction thing—she called it “Mr. Thirsty” and I laughed—she joked that I was a “big boy” and I saw something in her eyes. Come to think of it, I know she’ll say “yes.”

          My morning ablutions take thirty minutes and it takes almost as long to clean out the back of my Xterra and fold down the seats. There should be plenty of room. The ride over takes a bit longer than yesterday because these narrow mountain-town roads are filled with lunch-hour traffic. Suckers. All these poor fools, rushing around in their nine-to-fives, it’s just so damn pointless. My dad always gives me crap, telling me that I’m a “leach” who’s milking the government, but he’s dumb. Life is about being happy, and I’m winning. Those idiots rushing from place to place are the real losers.

          I knock on the woman’s door and wait.

          There’s a panel of dappled yellow glass—the kind that always reminds me of old pizza restaurants for some reason—in the front door, and it looks like the lights are on inside, but that might just be sunlight from another window or something. I press the doorbell but I don’t hear anything, no electronic two-tone, so it must be broken. I hear a garage door open. I back up a bit and look over to my left; sure enough, the pink door of the woman’s detached garage is opening. I walk back down the path and along the sidewalk to her driveway. I’ll just wait here for her to pull out—I don’t want to give her a heart attack or something by startling her. I stare at my phone and smile—Princess’s picture on my lock-screen is just too cute—as I wait for her to come down the drive.

          She pulls up next to me and stops, I hear an electric whine and I look up as she rolls down her window. Her car is a boat, big and red with wings in the back, this thing is better than the boatmobile. And she’s resplendent, sitting alone in the front. Everything about this old woman is ebullient, from her little white driving gloves to the red handkerchief holding back her grey hair, she looks like Ms. Daisy if Ms. Daisy drove herself.

          “Hello Justin,” she says it as if she expected to find me here, calm and confident, “how are you today?”

          “Fine! How are you? I’m here for the record player?”

          “Yes, Justin,” she sighs like I’m daft, “I know. I remembered your name, after all.”

          “Right. Sorry.” I look around, searching for something to say. I see her suitcases in the backseat, the same brown canvas and leather straps I remember from yesterday. They’re strapped in with the seatbelts as if they were children.

          “I guess I showed up just in time, yeah? You going on your trip to see your Jenny?”

          “Oh, Justin,” she looks at me, an apology plain in her eyes, “I don’t have a daughter, I never could.”

          “What? But I thought that’s who you were going to see?”

          “No, I’m afraid that’s not why I’m leaving. But I am leaving.” She turns away from me, looking out her windshield while she speaks: “I’m leaving, and I’m taking this car. It’s the first time I’ve driven it in almost twenty years, Justin.”

          I have no idea what the expression on her face means. I can’t read it. It’s like there’re too many emotions mixed together, and it’s muddling her mien into something too deep to make out. So I just stand still until she speaks again:

          “But you can have the record player for free. I’m going to owe you at least that much. I left it right by the front door, and you can just load it up while I’m gone, you know, before you call anybody.”

          She still isn’t looking at me. Both of her hands, in their little white gloves, are glued to her woodgrain steering wheel. What the hell is she talking about? She continues:

          “And you can have all Harold’s records too. You could probably sell them for a pretty penny, if you wanted. You’ll find them down in the basement.” She turns to look at me finally, her eyes are green and watery, but her smile is hard. “Justin, I’m so sorry for the mess down there.”

          I’ll remember always the deep hum that came from her car as she drove away, and I’ll remember always the wonderful smell of the fresh air, outside.

 

Him, and Us

          This isn’t an article about him. I promise. People like me are getting just as sick of writing about him as people like you are getting sick of reading about him. This is an article about us, and what we need to do. However, it took me a while to figure out how he got elected, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t share my discoveries because what I’ve learned is something we all need to realize to move forward.

          As I’m sure you know, our high-school students test well below their peers from different countries. You can google it if you’d like, but globally, I think we come in thirty-sixth place or something embarrassing like that regarding test scores. But there’s still one place on the global statistics chart where America is number one: confidence. The nebulous “they” have started asking graduates from across the globe to guess about how well they did on their SATs, and American students lead the pack in confidence even though their final scores suggest that they shouldn’t’ve. Isn’t that crazy? Even though our students suck, they feel like they’re awesome. Unfortunately, we’re not actually teaching our children what they need to know to compete in the global market, but we are teaching them to be illogically arrogant, and we’re doing it better than any other country on earth.

          So, that’s how we came to be where we are right now. Somehow, we’ve become an entire nation of people who think that we’re the best even though we don’t have the evidence to support such a claim. And here comes the hard part: not only do we deserve our current president, we need him… bear with me, I’ll explain.

          Middle America came home last October and they turned on their televisions. They saw a strange, orange man on the screen with whom they could identify. He was fat like them. He was crass like them. He was ignorant and angry and arrogant, just like them. So they said to themselves, “you know what? That guy reminds me of me. I’m going to vote for him, because I am awesome.”

          Do you get it? Middle America thought it was awesome even though it wasn’t, just like our students think they’re the best even though they’re thirty-sixth. Our country as a whole has become propped up confidently on our collective worth, even though in reality, we’re culturally bankrupt. That overconfidence has become a bubble, and just like all the other bubbles in our past, this one is going to pop. Just think about the “housing bubble” or the “stock market bubble” and then think back to how and when they popped: eventually, reality caught up, and things fell flat.

          Right now, reality is catching up.

          Middle America put into office a person who reminded them of themselves, and now, that person has to produce. To stay in power, that person has to prove his base right by being a good president, but unfortunately, all he’s got is his opinion: that he is the best president ever, even though he has no fucking clue what he’s doing. See what I’m getting at? That strange, orange man from the television is failing in spectacular fashion, but we need that to happen so Middle America can see the truth: people who sound like them and act like them and think like them, in reality, aren’t actually good enough to lead the most powerful nation on earth, despite the fact that their arrogance has led them to believe otherwise. When Trump fails, they fail. They’ll see that maybe they aren’t as good as they thought, and in four years, hopefully, they’ll just stay home, sulking in their embarrassment while they watch Dale Earnhardt Jr. drive in circles, instead of firing up the ol’ pickup to go vote for the guy who “sounds just like me, golly gosh!”

          This is where I get to us, and to what we need to do. Look, I know I talk a lot of trash about Trump supporters, but the fact is that quite a few of them are normal, educated people just like the rest of us. They just made a mistake, and frankly, everybody makes mistakes. Even I put too much faith in Anthony Weiner, thinking him to be a rising star in the Democratic Party, right up until the point he proved me wrong by sending pictures of his junk to children. However, once I saw the evidence, once I realized that Weiner was a dick, I rescinded my support, admitted my mistake, and I moved on.

          I recently read an article that explains why people are so stubborn when it comes to open-mindedness. When we’re exposed to information that supports our beliefs, there’s a dopamine release in our brains, and it makes us feel happy. But we get addicted to that release, and eventually, we only open ourselves to information that supports what we already think because we’ve become chemically addicted to the result, to the dopamine. Unfortunately, we’ve evolved physically to become myopic, close-minded, stubborn asses when it comes to admitting that we’re wrong, but if you think about it, it’s understandable—stubbornness leads to survival, and without it, our species mightn’t’ve gotten to where we are today. Stubbornness is how we beat the saber-toothed tigers. But to go further, to continue to progress together, we need to let go of that stubbornness. As promised, that is what we need to do; this is what will help “us.”

          The good, educated people who mistakenly voted for Trump need to admit their mistake like the adult patriots that they are. They need to go cold-turkey from the dopamine that’s been keeping their eyes closed. And furthermore, since they are the ones who put us in danger by putting that man in office, they need to work harder than anyone else to get him out of office and back into that gaudy, gilded New York tower prison where he belongs. I know it’s hard to admit wrong doing, but as a grownup, I also know it’s the right thing to do. And really, that’s why I’m writing this. I swear to you that I’m not just another liberal who’s writing an “I told you so” article, but rather, I’m a fellow American, one who has made mistakes of his own, and I’m writing this to ask for help. I’m writing this in the hopes that a few of the good Americans who made a mistake last November might read this and finally admit that they didn’t have a good reason to vote for the orange candidate even though they felt like they did (“crooked” Hilary? Seriously? Are you reading the news?). Maybe a few of them will read this and understand what I’m saying about our unfounded arrogance, and maybe they’ll do the right thing and make amends for their mistake.

          Maybe they’ll help us, become part of us, and maybe we can make it through this together, repairing that which needs to be repaired, with the newfound knowledge that we aren’t the best, but together, maybe we can be.

Serious Nonfiction #4

          I’m allergic to proposals. I just finished and mailed a twenty-eight-page proposal for a work of fiction that I just wrote, and throughout all of it, I had to battle back the lazy, incredulity that Rabiner talked about at length. Won’t they just read my book and give me money? Can’t they just do what I want them to instead of doing what they’ve learned works throughout their careers? I knew my indolence was childish and ignorant, so I just muscled through and did what I was supposed to.

          And as a curveball, I’ve changed what I’m going to write about given the comments our professor posted on my last blog. The whole “cult” thing would’ve worked because it’s garishly interesting, but it would’ve only worked hypothetically because I have no particular expertise in that Kool-Aid drinking realm. So, in a nutshell, I’m going to write a work of serious nonfiction about the detrimental effects of cellphones on today’s teenagers. In this arena, I swear to you that I’m one of the premier experts in the field. And as to our assignment this week, here’s the story that piqued my interest in the subject:

*** 

          My teenager attends a charter high school. It’s one of those newer institutes that stresses all sorts of new-age thinking and alternative structure, but it’s a good fit for our oldest daughter. I was called into school because she had done something wrong, and they told me her phone was becoming detrimental to her learning. So, I asked the obvious question: as her teachers, can’t you guys just take her phone while she’s in class? That way, I’d still be able to get ahold of her after school, but the phone wouldn’t be a distraction. Problem solved, easy-cheesy.

          But they said no. As it turns out, teachers have learned that taking a child’s phone does more damage than good because when it’s taken, the anxiety becomes crippling for the child, and it becomes impossible for them to function throughout the rest of the day. Seriously. Some of the teachers even prefer it if the children leave their phones on their desks—facedown, of course—while they’re taking tests because the pacifying reassurance of having their phone on hand assures fewer distractions and higher test scores. Isn’t that crazy?

          So, I started doing a little research and I discovered that the problem is far more detrimental than most parents think. When we were children, we’d learn about the scary things in life piecemeal, and we’d do so slowly. And when we’d discover something shocking, we’d take it to our parents and try to process the new information organically. But now, every bit of that scary information is blinding our children through the lightning rods they hold in their hands and stare at incessantly. There is no filter; there is no natural time to process one piece of adult information before moving onto the next. And the effects are observable: children are growing more desensitized than ever before, they’re doing drugs and having sex earlier than ever before, and they’re considering themselves to be adults, even though they aren’t. And why shouldn’t they? If they’re privy to all the information that was once reserved for adults only, doesn’t that by default make them adults? The answer is no, obviously, but modern children disagree because their social media reassurances tell them it’s okay.

          I’m obviously not going to make the same mistake with my eight-year-old; she’ll get an actual phone when she’s mature enough for one. But I learned my lesson through experience. So, what about all those parents who’re looking forward to the teenaged years with trepidation regarding technology and social media? In all honesty, I think I could write a book—an actual book—that would scare the bejesus out of these parents to the point wherein they’d make a more rational decision than we did. So, that’s what I’m going to do.

Serious Nonfiction #3

Elegance is a crutch, albeit pretty one, when you think about it. But regarding serious nonfiction, it’s all I’ve got. Frankly, if I were to actually write a work of serious nonfiction, I’d be screwed because I don’t have any of the requisite credentials associated with the topic I’m writing about—at least, not any official credentials. So, I wouldn’t ever land an agent with this book, and even if I did, I’d never attract a publisher. It’s a good thing the book I’m writing for this assignment is hypothetical, because if it wasn’t, a quick trip to the discount table is the best I could hope for (and the knee-deep pile of the “polite rejection letters” mentioned by Rabiner would be more realistic).

So, given that the chapter we’re writing is for a hypothetical book, can I just make up some credentials? The chapter I’ll be writing (and the associated editorial proposal) is about Buddhafield. I’ve never joined a cult for a few obvious reasons, but for this assignment, can I say that I’m an escaped member? You know… maybe I lived in that commune for years before escaping with nothing more than a bag of Cheetos and my cult-issued pair of speedos. That would even make for a snappy chapter title: “Cheetos and Speedos.” Who wouldn’t want to read that?

Once I address the credentials shortfall, I’ll need to address all my “audience identification problems.” And admittedly, I had a few. I had originally intended to write what Rabiner referred to as a “character driven work of narrative nonfiction.” I figured I’d be great at “wringing” out the meaning: “meaning that transcends the details of an event,” but the specific meaning at which I’d aim was nebulous until I read about Rabiner’s fictional “women who kill.” She said that if the pretend author were to amend the scope of his work slightly to be about “women who kill their children,” it’d broaden the general interest because all mothers would want to read such a work. Supposedly, they’d want to learn what spurs mothers to commit infanticide so they’d be able to flesh-out the aberrant trait within themselves, if it existed. And once I started thinking about it, I realized that I could market my work similarly: we all wonder what leads people to join a cult—what convinces a heterosexual male to join a cult like Buddhafield wherein he’s raped routinely by a gay, failed ballet dancer slash washed-up porn star like “Michel,” the founder (I put his name in quotation marks because the guy changes it at least once a decade to avoid pitchfork-wielding mobs).

What is missing from these peoples’ lives that leads them to join a cult? Do all the members have some sort of deficiency, some sort of mental marking, which I can root-out and show to my readers? And if I did so, would my book rocket to the top of the best-selling list because everyone would want to make sure they’re not at risk for joining a cult? I’d like to think so, because that curiosity is alive and well in my mind. I remember the first time I watched a documentary on Jonestown. These same questions popped up in my head: is there any part of my psyche that’s weak enough to be seduced by a cult leader? Would I have let my wife be ransacked by that cult leader like the other two-hundred or so tranced male members of that cult? Would I be brainwashed enough to drink the poisoned Kool-Aid when the time came to “ascend”? Or worse, if I were a child, would my mom have given me the drink of death like all those other mothers did in the late 70s?

I think that if I address these questions, I’ll broaden my potential audience, and I’ll not “exclude even one potential buyer” as Rabiner put it. I think I’ve considered adequately the “people who buy books,” and out of them, I’ve also considered the people who’d be  receptive to my “treatment” of this subject, as she put it. Granted, I’ll still rely heavily on the gratuitous spectacle that’s inherent to cults—we all like to be outsiders looking in because it reassures us that it can always be worse—but I’ve decided to hone down my message per Rabiner’s suggestion, and I’ll try to pique that inner curiosity we all have in regard to this subject: would I ever join a cult?  And in that vein, I’ve decided to make that “big, daring decision about the scope” of my book. The title (or a rough version of it anyway): “Buddhafield Followers: Would you Join a Cult?”

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