Serious Nonfiction #2

O’ faithful readers, this week I shall try your patience once more with an assignment, and I shall winnow out the casual followers once more. But I know for a fact that a couple of you are serious nonfiction writers, and through this post, you’ll at least discover a new book that you need to own. Seriously, if you’re such a writer, go out and buy this immediately. Anywho, let’s begin…

Does Rabiner say anything to push or pull your thinking in a new direction?

It’s odd that she labeled as “genteel” the publishing industry of old, because to me—an outsider always looking in wistfully—the industry is, and always has been, a callous collection of elitists who look down on authors like myself (I’d like to think I put the “fiction” in “serious nonfiction”). But in her, I’ve found an agent/editor/writer with genuine compassion, and my thinking veered off from its normal tack as a result. It was awesome to hear her say that we lowly plebs deserve the “author” title just as much as the fancy best-selling folk, and it was reassuring to learn that someone of her caliber isn’t a stickler because she said that no author should be denied because he or she didn’t “understand the submission package.” If this industry were utopian, the submission package would be a single sentence: “Here, I wrote this book and it’s awesome. Now read it and throw your money at me.”

And at one point, when she said “if all you want to do is write whatever you want,” Rabiner spoke directly to me. As an author, I usually sit in front of this screen figuratively with my fingers in my ears, refusing staunchly to “write what sells.” “Oh yea?” I say, “you’re telling me collections of short stories about white trash hillbillies with super powers don’t sell that well? Cool. I wrote one anyway.” And admittedly, it hasn’t gotten me that for. Secondly, in that light, I might be screwed if I’m to think about my writing career “from the very first project” because my very first project was a middle finger held high to traditional publishing. Oops.

And lastly, when Rabiner prompted her readers to ask if their book was “important,” she alluded to the notion that “important” might not mean what I think it means. I hate the imposed subjectivity, but for something to be important, the masses have to agree. I can’t tell you how annoying this truth is because through it, the McRib at McDonald’s is “important” from a culinary perspective, and that just sucks. But it is what it is, and Rabiner makes a damn good point.

Does Rabiner give me a clearer sense of what serious nonfiction writing entails?

Yup.

Writing serious nonfiction that actually sells seems to be more about the presentation of information than the information itself. I might be too much of a purist, but frankly, to hell with that. If “managing data” is more important than beautiful prose in this genre, I can guarantee that I’ll never be a best-selling author of serious nonfiction. Microsoft Excel is for managing data: writing is for creating beauty, and I hereby swear to never sellout*.

That being said, I understand the necessity. Thanks to her mentioned lack of co-op money for works of serious nonfiction, writing in a certain way—speaking broadly to cast a wide net—is probably the only means to a successful career as a serious nonfiction writer (Capitolisim-1, Creativity-0). And that’s just the way it is, so I appreciate Rabiner’s honesty because she’s giving benevolent advice from an experienced standpoint: “gone are the days” when books are published because they’re deserving, and here are the days when books are only published if they make a ton-o-money.

And lastly, Rabiner really got me thinking when she said that I’d need to “treat competing theses with respect” in regard to writing serious nonfiction, because not doing so would alienate a portion of the general public. I’m directing this question to the other students in my editing group: is that something I really need to do? The book I’ll be proposing will highlight the lunacy inherent to cult leaders and their meek followers. The only competing thesis to this notion would be that “cult leaders are okay and their followers might have valid reasons for drinking poisoned cool-aid.” Do I really need to act like this competing thesis should be respected?

 

*This is a complete lie and fabrication. If anyone ever offers me actual money, I’ll sellout quicker than The Backstreet Boys.

The Stranger

This is a copy of my article from this week’s edition of The Durango Telegraph, so if you’re a regular reader, here’s your spoiler alert. 

***

          He was wearing a leather kneepad, just one of them, on his left leg. It was tied to his dirty blue-jeans with knotted strips of hide that hung down, swaying back and forth pendulously as he walked in.

          The coffee shop was packed.

          He stood just inside the doorway for a moment, like a cowboy entering a saloon. I put down my phone; I stopped watching my beautiful wife; I sat back in my chair and wished for a bag of popcorn because I knew I was in for some epic people watching.

          He walked up to the counter and ordered a cup of black coffee. A simple drink, rugged and masculine. I tried to categorize him because that’s what people-watchers do: his coat was too clean for a homeless man, but his boots and shirt and skin spoke of a life lived outdoors. He wasn’t wearing any jewelry and he didn’t have a cellphone, but that might’ve been intentional: a choice. He paid in cash from his front pocket. No wallet. No identification. How interesting.

          He took his coffee from the pickup counter and walked around the room. It was filled with the attractive people who seem to be ubiquitous in this mountain town. Not too young and not too old, dressed well for the winter months and lost in meaningful conversation. He walked unnoticed around them and through their midst. He made a perfunctory stop at the corkboard. There wasn’t anything for him on that board, but I think he knew that before walking over. He turned and looked around the room for a seat. He dismissed the solitary chairs that would’ve made for a quiet morning lost in thought, alone with the fragrant steam rising from his cup. Instead, he spotted an empty chair at a four-top table against the window. There were already three people sitting there: a man and two women. He walked over anyway.

          I tried to get my wife’s attention. I stared at her as hard as I could, trying to tell her telepathically that something weird was about to happen… she was hypnotized by her phone. I looked around the room, frantically searching for another people-watcher so we could share a “holy crap, are you seeing this?!” look, but I was alone. Either nobody else noticed the scene playing out right in front of them, or they all had too much social grace to watch it openly. I didn’t suffer any such compunction. I crossed my arms and settled in. This is going to be good, I thought.

          Coffee held high in his left hand: it was a statement to all that he belonged. He put his right hand on the empty chairback. “Is anyone sitting here?” he asked the table. The man in the seated group answered politely: “no.” His answer came with a hand gesture saying “sure, take the chair wherever you need it.” But that wasn’t kneepad’s plan. Instead, he sat down confidently with those three strangers and ignored their incredulous looks. Those looks said “um, excuse me sir, but the three of us know each other, and we were talking about something.” Kneepad looked away—either he dismissed the table’s looks as irrelevant, or he was too oblivious to see them. Either way, I sighed in relief. Since kneepad broke a social convention by intruding on a group of strangers, I was justified in breaking a social convention by staring blatantly with wide-eyed, open-mouthed astonishment. Seriously, who does that?

          The two women grew uncomfortable. They shared guarded looks, disguised by sips from their cups, that said “oh…my…god…” Kneepad was sitting closely to one of them, looking over and seeking eye contact, making small-talk overtures. Both women stood up and went over to the corkboard. I smiled at the irony: those two women were sure to find something of interest on that board. They were the right demographic.

          Kneepad must’ve known that the women left because of him, but he just shrugged it off and looked across the table at his last chance for conversation: the man who let him sit. He was in his late thirties. Intelligent looking, with salt and pepper stubble, he was wearing one of those puffy coats that’re so popular here: colorful and filled with feathers, it looked expensive with narrow rows of insulation. He was staring at his phone intently, but not because he was ignoring kneepad: puffy-coat was tending to pressing business.

          I looked back over to the two women, drinking their coffee in exile. They’d already dismissed kneepad. He didn’t affect their morning, and their conversation carried on organically. Wow… These were good people, accepting and tolerant people. That’s not me (I’m far too cynical), so I looked back to the table.

          Kneepad leaned forward and said “excuse me.” He had something important to say, something intent. Puffy-jacket held up a hand and said “one moment please.” He finished his business on his phone, typing out a quick message or response, and then he put his phone on the table, face down, and said “how can I help you?”

          There’s a fine line between people watching and eavesdropping, and for the sake of journalistic integrity, I’ll admit to crossing that line. Here’s their conversation:

          “Do you believe in reincarnation?” Kneepad asked.

          “Excuse me?” Puffy-jacket was being rhetorical.

          “I said, do you believe in reincarnation?” Kneepad didn’t catch the rhetoric.

          “Look,” Puffy-jacket spoke slowly and clearly, gesticulating with wide hands, trying to get his point across, “you and I don’t know each other. We’re strangers. And that’s a rather deep conversation to have with a stranger. Okay?” Puffy-jacket was still polite, but firm.

          “Hmmm,” Kneepad made a begrudging noise, as if puffy-jacket might have a point.

          Kneepad broke eye contact and let the silence linger. Puffy-jacket picked up his phone and left moments later. Kneepad sat alone at that four-top long enough to make it look intentional. He didn’t mind being alone—that’s what he wanted all along—as per his body language. He got up and walked through the room one more time, looking at nothing and everything, and then he left the coffee shop.

          I wanted to stand up and clap. It was a bona fide show, the slice of life that I just watched, and as I looked around that packed coffee shop, I shook my head in astonishment. That show had a one-man audience! Everyone around me was trapped courteously in their own conversations, their own little worlds, and they’d missed a profound lesson in humanity.

          If I’m being honest, I’m not writing about kneepad. That man didn’t teach me anything about myself, and I’d have a ceaseless pool of inspiration if I wrote about all the rudeness I see daily. In truth, these words are about puffy-jacket. It doesn’t matter which metric you use: that man was a good human being, and he was the civil embodiment of everything I love about Durango. He was everything I could not be, in such an awkward moment, and I need to get there if I want to be a true local.

          If kneepad would’ve tried to sit at my table, next to my wife, his morning would’ve differed greatly. I would’ve said things that can’t be ignored and everyone would’ve noticed. Kneepad’s exit wouldn’t have been dignified, and later, I would’ve regretted the way I treated another human being, regardless of my reason for doing so. I regret it even though it didn’t happen, and I should try to change.

          So, how did puffy-jacket come upon his social wherewithal? How did he maintain his composure even though his morning was ruined, and how did he keep inside all the things he wanted to say? It was incredible. He used his “pleases” and “thank yous” even though he was dealing with someone who’d broken ties with propriety long ago. Hell, puffy-jacket even nodded affably to kneepad as he was leaving: I would’ve given two middle fingers, even on my best day.

          I was staring at the empty four-top against the window, thinking about how lucky I was to live in a town like this, surrounded by people like you, when my wife broke my reverie. I’m sure she noticed the expression on my face—the baffled look of wonderment that comes from good people watching—and she asked what I was thinking about. Her question was dry and sarcastic; she knew it’d be a while before I shut up. I leaned across the table and told it all in the salacious whispers of someone sharing a secret. She smiled at me and shook her head, knowing immediately what would’ve happened if kneepad sat with us, and then we got up and walked out, completely unnoticed by everyone else in the coffee shop.

Serious Nonfiction

Disclaimer: Once again, I’ll be using this blog for class assignments. I know I lost a couple hundred of you wonderful followers the last time I did this—tedium is a wonderful way to cull the herd—but if you stick with me, I promise to go back to posting random nonsense once my 4.0 is safe and secure.

And if you’d like to follow along just for the hell of it, my assignment this week was to apply a couple of these questions to a book of serious nonfiction that I’ll start writing (and maybe even finish) this semester.

Cheers,

J

1.) It doesn’t matter how austere or benevolent or socially mature you are—if you pass by a car-crash, you’re going to slow down ever so slightly, and you’re going to stare. Subconsciously, we use these little moments of schadenfreude to buttress our mental wellbeing. We look at the poor fools marooned on the side of the road and we tell ourselves that it could always be worse: “hey, at least that isn’t me standing next to that crumpled Honda Civic. Man, I hope everyone is okay… just like I am, right now.”

And there are plenty of authors out there who do the same thing for their readers: they put together a few thousand words that serve collectively to reassure their readers that “it could always be worse.” And the great ones do this on a grandiose scale: they don’t write about short moments of misery in the lives of others, but rather, they write about entire lives wasted. They write about blind devotion to fallacy; they write about profound regret; they write about misplaced devotion to cults in books like these.

So, I’m going to do the same thing. The book of serious nonfiction that I’ll start to write this semester is inspired by a documentary I watched recently (Holy Hell) about Buddhafield. And yes, as I watched that documentary, I stood back figuratively and I looked at my life… damn; compared to some, I have it great. I watched that crazy, glorified nut-job warp the minds of all his followers and coerce them into unspeakable acts: abortion, rape, misplaced zealous piety. And as I did, a warm feeling of security bubbled up inside of me. I may have made some mistakes in my life, but at least I wasn’t so empty inside, so lost, that I turned my soul over to a cult. Frankly, everyone wants this reassuring feeling of security, even if it’s garnered from a look at the lives of others, and it’s this need that I’ll capitalize on through my book.

3.) Of course this book will be unique and necessary. My sample chapter will be “necessary” if I want to pass this class, but the exigence of my subject matter will also make the hypothetical book as a whole necessary within the constraints of existing publications for the same reason that it’ll be unique: I’m going to take a meta approach to the subject matter and state blatantly that my work exists to make people feel better about their lives. I’m going to come right out and say the thing that’s omitted from other cult-based books. This book won’t be “an interesting look” at cults. This book won’t be an educational foray into the mind of a cult leader. This book will unashamedly tell its readers “hey, your life isn’t that bad. At least you didn’t spend a quarter century of your life following an idiot from South Africa who only wore Speedos.”

Retirement

          The golden age of action movies happened in the early nineties, and Steven Segal was a demigod. I forget which, but in one of his movies, he wrote “fear of death is worse than death itself” on a mirror with lipstick as he stalked one of his villains. The villain came along and read it, became petrified with fear, and then died a few moments later after getting his balls blown off by a shotgun.

***

          I retired at age thirty-seven. Just to be transparent, I should tell you that I’m jerrymandering semantics quite a bit: my former supervisor would use a different word than “retired,” and I’ll eventually need to make more money, so my retirement is finite. However, regardless of labels, right now, I’m on top of the world. Decades from now, when they ask me about the best time in my life, I’ll tell them about the 2016 holiday season. I’ll tell them about how I lost my job right after my birthday and I’ll make mention of the fact that I walked into October with the biggest shit-eating grin that’s ever been worn. I’ll tell them that in the twilight days of this year, my life changed permanently.

          I’ll need to catch you up before you’ll understand fully. For the last sixteen years, I sold my soul daily to the oilfield. The money was good, but I loathed my occupation—it felt like socially accepted prostitution. My true opinions had to be smothered in ignorance and kept quite as to not startle the rednecks, and every professional moment was a lie lived. I went to work day after day as a sheep dressed in wolf’s clothing just so the rest of the pack wouldn’t sniff me out. “Hey, look over there,” they’d say, “that man isn’t one of us. He’s different and he writes things just for fun. He thinks too much. Get the tar, get the feathers.” My discontentment was a palpable thing. It grew and grew through years of accretion because I hated what I did for a living and I hated the people who worked alongside me: assholes in zipper-free wolf suits. I snapped a couple years back. The unhappiness was a whole bale of hay on my camel’s back. I made some changes and I faced a few things honestly. I went back to school and I started to write for real. I kept my job to pay the bills, but I was just going through the motions. A layman would say that I didn’t give a fuck. My performance was laughable but I was still the best at what I did because, frankly, my left testicle was smarter than my competitors. And I waited. I just waited and waited for the end to come. Every day was purgatory while I waited for the axe, and then when it finally came, life exploded: it exploded in a good, cathartic way, like the victorious bombs of flame that blossom in fanfare at the end of every Chuck Norris movie. I’m walking away from the oilfield in slow-motion as my past life burns behind me. I won’t even blink when the wind from the explosion tousles my action-hero hair. Boom bitch, I win.

          Just to be honest, I’ll put in writing the valid point you’re saying to yourself right now: if you hated your job so much, why didn’t you just quit? The short answer: I was a coward. After that many years of indentured service, I became institutionalized just like a Shawshank inmate. The outside world was a scary place full of uncertainty and murky paths. My job, even though I hated it, seemed like the lesser of two evils so I never mustered the courage to leave on my own. It’s pretty pathetic and it’s hard to admit, but if you’ve lived a lengthy life, I’m sure you can relate. I’m sure there were things you should’ve done that you never did because fear of the unknown kept you “safe.” So don’t judge me too harshly.

          Even though I wanted what came to me, those first few days were hard. Losing my job was like breaking up with a bad partner. You know in your heart that he or she is the problem, but he or she is too narrowminded to admit it. He or she thinks that you’re the problem, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and you never get the validation you need from you ex. It’s frustrating. There were tears and middle fingers held high, appalled laughter and regret and happiness, all mixed together like a confused soup. However, I had my family. When I lost my job, it felt like a too-taunt cord was severed quickly, it felt like freefall. Life was frightening chaos for a while, but it didn’t do a damn bit of harm because my girls came in and set things right. My cold teenage daughter warmed with love and encouragement. She supported me. Cacti rarely bloom, but when they do, their flowers are extra special. My eight-years-old daughter told me that everything would be okay. That’s her truth because for her, everything really is okay because I always make it so. And my wife came through. She asked me how long it would take to graduate if I didn’t go back to work. She asked me how long it would take to write a book. Those questions felt like mana from above and my vision always clouds when I think about her support because I might’ve crumbled without it. There’s really no way to fail when I have those three girls pushing from behind.

          I don’t care if this reads like a cliché, but I’m one of the lucky ones, and not just for the obvious reasons. I was just one of thousands who lost his job. The oilfield is dying. Some people who’re still in it will tell you otherwise. They’ll say that it’s coming back, that the bust is turning to boom, but they’re wrong. Sure, it’ll come back for a while early next term as commodity prices and greed surge, but it’ll be short lived. The oilfield is a feast or famine world, as many know, but what they don’t see is that the feasts aren’t as good as they used to be, and the famines worsen as the generations pass. Three steps down and two steps up still leads you down. This impending “boom” is nothing more than a final gasp before a drowning industry goes under. Who knows? Maybe I’m a bit too fatalistic, and maybe big-oil can kick to the surface three or even four more times before death comes. Whatever. The important takeaway is that death is coming, and most of the displaced cogs like myself don’t have my advantages. They don’t have means or education, they don’t have dreams. The oilfield is their life; for me, it was a means to an end. I didn’t lose any of my identity when the axe fell, but I know men who have. Just last year, if you would’ve walked up to one of these men and asked “what are you?” most of them would’ve lead with their job title. If you do something for long enough, it becomes part of you, you become it, and when it’s taken away, there’s nothing left besides feelings of inadequacy and depression. I despise the oilfield as I mentioned and I have similar feelings for the archetypical oilfield-man, but I also have boundless empathy for all the good people who’ve lost and who’re anguishing. Right now, there’s an entire demographic suffering through an identity crisis, but luckily, I’m not part of it. I’m the crab who clawed his way to the top of the bucket and escaped.

          You see, throughout all those days I sold my soul, I never let the oilfield get into my soul, if that makes sense. I never acclimated to oilfield culture, I was never assimilated. Even before my birthday, this is how our conversation would’ve gone:

          “What are you, Jesse?”

          “I’m a father, husband, writer.”

          “Okay, but what do you do?”

          “I make sure my family is good and I write things. I work in the oilfield, I guess, but that’s about as important as my job replacing the toilet paper when it runs out.”

          See what I mean? The secret is this: fuck it. Fuck all of it. Work to live, never live to work because that’s not living. Don’t get tied up in your day-job because what you do to buy toilet paper isn’t who you are. Don’t feel bad if you’re just now getting it; plenty of people never do. The trenches I escaped are still there. There are still people working there, blaming their woes on my departure and giving birth to rumors. Those fools are just crabs still stuck in a bucket, jealous of my freedom, clawing at their coworkers with negativity as they long for escape. They’re just like I was: they hate where they’re at but they’re too afraid to seek greener pastures. I know how that feels, intimately. But that’s not my reality anymore, and I have a plan.

          Plan “A” would be to take a year off and plow through my degree, earning money as a freelance writer along the way, and then lock down a remedial job of some sort while I earn my master’s. Maybe I’d publish a book along the way. Plan “A” is super sparkly, but it’s not too realistic. Plan “B” is to take a full-load for the spring semester and take just six months off work. I’ll find a job if I need it and it’ll only push back my graduation by a semester or two. This is where I’m headed. I have an internship at a local newspaper set up for the spring and it isn’t a stretch financially or morally to go through with it. It’s painfully exciting. Plan “C” is by far the most realistic: get a job, peck away at the degree. Wait to be a writer, wait and wait longer because it’s safe and secure and that’s what the fear says to do. My resume is on point and I’ve already turned down a few jobs. I had an interview this morning for a position that’d be a step up from the one I just left. Things went well. It has the six figures we’re programed to chase and all the benefits that lead away from unsure dreams. I have another interview the first week in January. This job would be a step up from the step up. I set these things up and chase things I’ve already had because I’m afraid to jump; I’m climbing down the cliff slowly.

          But what happens when one of these jobs is offered to me? It isn’t unrealistic to think that one of the two could be mine, and they’re both perfect. They’re local; they’re in a field that isn’t dependent on barbarian controlled fossil fuels; they pay ridiculously well. Will I be able to turn one down, and even if I could, should I? “Actually, sir, never mind. You can keep your perfect, realistic job because I want to be a writer when I grow up. I don’t need all your stupid money and benefits because I’m an artist damn it!” Right… that’s bullshit. My hypocrisy is alive and well, and of course I’ll take the money. Of course I’ll go back to selling my soul, albeit to a different devil, because principal and freedom just look good on paper. I like to travel and I like brand names and I like the crust of the upper-middle class because it tastes better than generic foods from the grocery store. But jumping on a job is just probably what I’ll do. I have until January seventeenth to make a final decision regarding my spring semester schedule, and that leaves me where I am, right here, right now: In the best months of my life, telling myself that the possibility is finally a reality, that maybe I can be a writer without waiting. There: you’re all caught up.

          This is going to sound trite, like a middle-aged man pining for younger years; I promise it’s anything but. I never had a young adulthood. My wife and I were married before she was legally allowed to drink, and we had a baby on the way. I went from living in my dad’s house with nothing more to my name than a burgeoning drinking problem all the way to living in my first mortgaged home with a new car. It took me about three months. A baby will light that proverbial fire under your ass. The point is that my wife and I skipped that whole “find yourself in your early twenties” thing. We didn’t travel the states in a piece-of-shit station wagon, we didn’t try to find some little town thousands of miles from home that we could call our own, and we didn’t spend the time trying to find our passions. The missed romance of such formative years is regrettable, but it wasn’t all bad. We got a head start on life—for it, we have investment properties to show, a nest egg for periods in life just like this one, and a lifetime of adult experience that many of my peers are just now jumping into. So, it is what it is. I’m not going to make some vain attempt to recapture a part of life that I missed: I’m just going milk out of these winter months as much enjoyment as possible because I feel like I deserve it.

          During these holidays, I have true freedom. The fall semester just ended, so this period is the first time in my adult life wherein I have nothing to do. No class, no job. And oddly enough, this period is the first time in my life that I don’t have a boss. Seriously. I went from living with a parent directly into a career so there was always an authority figure looming. There was always someone who could call and ask me to do something. But not right now. I’ve untethered myself from my cell phone. The first time I left it behind, I took my youngest daughter to the park. I told her that I didn’t bring my phone on purpose. I told her that I wasn’t available to anyone else in the world besides her, and the smile I saw was love painted into an expression. Hell, that single moment was worth all the stress that came along with my severance. And that’s how I’m living life right now. For me, for my daughters and wife, for the fucking moment. I’m watching cartoons and eating Lucky Charms. I’m working out like a beast and growing my beard in accordance. I’m cleaning and cooking (as it turns out, I’m quite the domestic diva), and for once, I’m writing daily. The twenty-five hundred words you just read equal only half of what’s come out of me today, and it honestly feels like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s wonderful. These three months will surely turn into halcyon days of remembrance and I’m not going to make the mistake of cherishing them less than I should while I’m living in this temporary-retiree paradise. And that’s why I wrote this. These five pages I just banged out are nothing more than a sticky note reminder, a string tied to my finger: Jesse, you have what you wanted. There’s no excuse to be unhappy. Don’t worry about what’s coming because it’s manageable, and just enjoy this time off because it’s okay, and it’s deserved.

          However, I need to write something for you as well, some nugget of verity. So, here it is. Steven Segal was right. All those days I waited for the end were far worse than the end itself. There were months and years of “something’s got to give” feelings before something finally gave, and when it happened, it didn’t carry with it the pain I saw coming. The world didn’t end and I didn’t lose who I was. My family didn’t reject me and I wasn’t instantly homeless. I wasn’t shunned by the rest adulthood like some beggar pariah and I found the support I needed and the tools that’ll take me forward within myself. Everything, every bit of it, has been awesome. So, if death is coming for you, if an end of your own is forthcoming in the near future, just deal with it when it comes. All the days between now and then are for living, and that’s not something you can do if you’re not right here, right now, where you’re supposed to be.

Hardhat.jpg

Belize

          I’m not a travel writer, but I’m a writer who just traveled so I should probably let logic take the tiller and write about my travels… I just swam with fucking sharks in Belize. For real. Our boat stopped out in the reef and we moored to a cemented anchor. I’d like to say that the ocean smelled fresh just to paint the perfect picture, but it didn’t. It never does; it depends on which way the wind is blowing. Sometimes the breeze is a clean thing, telling your nose about new life and a refreshing swim. Sometimes the breeze is dirty and pungent, and it talks about the death and decay down below. The ocean is half life, half death. Our reef was huge—the world’s second largest—and we were surrounded by the sea; two fathoms of water that stretched on and on. Greens and blues you only see in the tropics. Life swam beneath our boat. Sharks and rays and barracudas and all kinds of creepy shit that bites and stings. The man said to jump in, so I jumped in. I landed somewhere in the middle of the food chain.

          I’m a decent snorkeler, but irrational fear controlled my lungs. In out in out, quick and quicker. The man noticed and suggested a lifejacket when I got back to the boat. I could just lie on it if I needed and relax. It’d put Styrofoam between me and the teeth. Hell yes. I swam back out floating on top of my orange security blanket. I calmed down. There was a small nursery shark that just moments before was doing an awesome impression of Jaws. There was a peaceful ray flapping her wings in the sand (I assume she did it to look majestic). There were two barracudas lurking in my peripheral, holding still and playing the cat in cat-and-mouse; I showed them my lifejacket. The man swam down before my eyes and coaxed an eel out of his den; he breathed with his huge gills and proffered translucent teeth. Holy shit it was wonderful; it was like snorkeling in the movies. The man was our docent through house-sized outcroppings of coral. Explorers in an underwater canyon, we swam left and right through schools of curious fish and other tourists, pale on bottom and burnt red on top. My fish of a daughter would swim under me and then away, a fearless eight-years-old beast on a mission, and then she’d swim back all the while trying to tell me something through her snorkel. I’d just nod, smile, wave.

          Our reef was a barrier reef, one that protects all of Belize from the predatory ocean, but the barrier had a channel in it: a submerged portcullis in the reef wall. We swam across it and I felt the tug of the ocean pulling me out like the ensnaring song of a deadly mermaid, but we made it across easily. Life and wonderment lived everywhere and we swam through it for close to an hour. We got back to the boat and the man said it was time to go to “shark ray alley.” That’s where they all are he said: the big ones. It was a short boat ride and as soon as we moored off, they came slithering in. Dark shadows, wraiths of the seas, swam everywhere. The white noise of the engine pulled them close. Guides who don’t follow the rules bait the sharks with handfuls of fish food and the beasts know that one way or another, when they hear an engine’s purr, food is getting in the water.

          Look. I know that my fear of sharks is ridiculous, but I don’t care. They grow teeth like I grow hair, they’re cold and stoic like serial killers, they’re hungry and carnivorous, and they do that creepy sideways swimming thing. Sharks are bullshit. Saying you’ll face your fear is a shit-ton easier than actually doing it, so I’d been trying to get out of our snorkeling trip for days: “Terra, you’re allergic to shrimp, so maybe you’re allergic to the ocean. Terra, I promise that I’ll freak out and ruin everybody’s day. Terra, this is dumb, so let’s just stay in our rented condo and lock the doors.” Granted, these were nursery sharks, but a ten-foot nursery shark doesn’t look anything like an animal that belongs in a nursery. And the man said that he’d seen the occasional reef shark. Um, that’s the type of shark that attacked James Bond in Thunderball. Fuck that. But when the man said jump in, I jumped in… There was a big asshole right underneath our boat, growing teeth and swimming side to side right at me. I tried to show him my lifejacket but then I realized I jumped in without it. Shit. On he came. Luckily, he turned away when he was about ten inches* away from my face (yards*). I was scared shitless, but that youngest daughter of mine wasn’t. She kept complaining about how the man had told her not to let go of the life ring that was tethered to the boat. Who the hell complains about that? Who the hell thinks that holding onto a “life” ring while floating above a murderous school of monsters is a bad thing? My daughter. She wanted to swim off on her own so she could name and tame the sharks; she’d cuddle them into submission.

          I was nervous. Everyone was nervous. Even the man didn’t like this part of the trip. He stood safely out of the water and kept yelling “stay by the boat, stay by the boat!” But about halfway through the experience, my fear vanished. I don’t know if something broke in my brain or if confronting my fear diluted it down into extinction, but either way, I simply wasn’t afraid of the sharks around me. We eventually got back in, all extremities accounted for, and I started making small talk with the man. So, has anyone ever been bitten? He laughed, and then he told me the “after the tourists get back in the boat story.” He pointed down to his leg to show off his puckered foot-long scar. He’d taken out a group of Polish tourists a few months prior. They brought with them a translator. They were snorkeling along shark ray alley when the nursery sharks rose from the depths en-masse and formed a feeding frenzy, stoked by the man’s outboard motor and its diner chime. The translator, ever the center of attention, dove down below the frenzy and then swam back up right in the middle of it. That Pollock would’ve made my daughter proud. Can you imagine what it’d look like to do such a thing? I can. I see this roiling bait ball of death centered perfectly in the salty openness. When you dive down, you see the ocean darkening beneath you in gradients of blue. The sandy white floor shimmers below like a mirage. As you swim back up, you watch the swirling ball of beasts get bigger and bigger as you pick up speed, pulled towards death by your buoyancy. Then you come up in the middle, surrounded by rasping grey skin and bloodied teeth. Terrifying.

          In a feeding frenzy, sharks lid their eyes to protect their vision—they just bite blind and randomly in the churned confusion. The translator in the middle was taking hits, bleeding in the water. And that’s when the man jumped in (and incidentally, that’s why I call him “the man”). He grabbed the translator and pulled him out of the melee. He kicked the sharks away (in my mind, I picture Chuck Norris kicks just destroying shark faces), but one shark was a bit to wily. He bit the man right in the calf. The man knew that if he tried to pull his leg free, the shark would thrash and he’d lose a chunk of muscle, so he just waited patiently for the shark to let go. That’s the part that blows my mind: the man was swimming away from a shark feeding frenzy, he was pulling with him a bleeding Pollock, and when a shark tried to eat his leg, he just waited patiently until the ancient predator decided to let go. He got the translator back to the boat and then took everyone to shore. He got some stitches and then he healed and then he went right back into the water. There’s an aphorism in there somewhere.

          The man finished his story just as my once-dead fear of sharks started to breathe again. He took us back to shore and I tipped him with the colorful money that seems to be everywhere else in the world except our country, and we went back to our condo. The rest of our trip followed suit. We drank bottomless mimosas by a saltwater crocodile lagoon; we gorged ourselves on soursop ice cream and conch ceviche; we parasailed over a flock of manta rays. I’m sure the proper group noun for manta rays is something like “school” or “pod” or some other nautical nonsense, but it shouldn’t be; things that fly do so in flocks, and we could see those creatures flapping their wings underwater even though we were soaring high above with a parachute. And when we landed, a sting ray, the manta ray’s nimbler kin, jumped out of the water and flapped his wet, leathery wings until he splashed back down. Our guide that day was a bona fide Rastafarian and he looked exactly like he looks in your mind right now. He yelled out “Ay man! You saw that ray mon? Ya mon!” His dreads bounced around his head like pasta as he did his Rasta dance. As he was unhooking my harness, he leaned in close and made a joke about why the sting rays jump out of the water: “because they be getting excited mon.” “The be getting BJs from the other fish mon.” “Ya mon!”

          We finished the parasailing day by eating at a truck-stop that’d be hard to stop at with a truck. It was out of town a bit: twenty minutes in our sputtering golf cart along a muddy single-track. The food was fresh and local. Five converted shipping containers encircled a few park benches and tables. We ordered spicy noodles and chicken wings and then sat below an umbrella until the rain pushed us to the bar. It was a sign. We drank beers and plotted our retirement. Now, before I continue, I’d like to type out a little disclaimer: I don’t eavesdrop intentionally, but I do it nonetheless and I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. I was born without the brain part that lets most humans filter out background noise. It’s a handicap. Chewing noises, too-loud laughs, obnoxious conversations happening anywhere around me: I hear them all. I’m forced to listen to every conversation I hear like some unwilling voyeur. My mind categorizes all the conversations and then files them away for moments like this one: There were two other couples sitting at the bar. Couple number one said “we just moved here” and then couple number two said “why?” and then couple number one said “Trump.” Holy shit! Here they were. Here were two Americans who’d said that they’d move if he won—he won, they moved. Two disenfranchised Americans, two patriots without a nation. My wife cheered. And she cheered rightfully because couple number one had the collective balls to move out of middle ‘merica and into Central America just to honor their convictions. It doesn’t matter which side you’re on. Objectively speaking, couple number one won. They stayed true to their word and they got paradise while the rest of us liberals are stuck here at home with nothing more than the “I-told-you-sos” that we’re about to dish out.

          Our last day came and we flew back to Texas to sleep for a night before making the connection to Durango. I had mosquito bites and a new cold. I won’t lie: I thought about malaria and the Zika virus more than once. I imagined being “patient zero” and about how horrible it would be in Durango once my exotic disease decimated the town’s population. But that hasn’t happened yet and I promise to keep covering my mouth when I cough. Our lives have gone back to normal, but the first three days back in my home felt special. True, they were hard—we were stressed after so much time so close to one another, and we came back to a Colorado winter—but those days reminded me how ridiculously good we have it here in the States. The conch ceviche in Colorado is outrageously expensive, but we have doctors and teachers and infrastructure (all three have debatable efficacy, but that’s irrelevant). We have freedom (sort of), we have rights (most of us), and we have opportunity (if we’re lucky). It’s not perfect here at home but it’s a lot better than it is in Belize. So, even though I too have an urge to pack it all up and head for foreign latitudes, maybe I (and all of us) should just suck it up. And that’s good advice no matter which side you’re on because the present day winners will be someday losers and it’ll just go back and forth forever. We Americans are fond of fighting back and forth on a constrained field, a ceaseless game of inches (just think about our favorite sports). So maybe we should just jump into our nightmarish political cesspool, into our regressing culture, and face it straight on like a sideways-swimming shark. Or maybe moderation is where it’s at: leave sometimes, travel, get prospective. But come back. Come back to fix what’s broken instead of moving someplace like Belize where there’s lots of sand to stick your head in. Running away to paradise is still running away. And that’s where I’m at right now. I want to fly away on a special airplane equipped with windows you can roll down just so I can stick out my hand and flip off everything behind me, all the uncertainty, but I’m just going to write instead. I’m just going to be a travel writer when I travel and a writer-writer when I’m stuck here in this small office and I’m going to face life and fear with my craft, because unlike my lifejacket, writing isn’t something I can leave behind when I jump in.

belize

Genies and Queens

          I met a genie when I was sixteen. Seriously. The thing came out of a lamp I found right behind a Baskin Robins with a wisp of smoke just like in the cartoons. The guy was a trope. He had the sash and the long eyebrows and the archetypical accent. It was hard to take him seriously, reinforcing stereotypes like he was, but the dude seamed legit—glowing eyes, eerie music, aforementioned wispy smoke stuff. But I was only given one wish. Something inside me, something instinctual and basal, told me that my soul would be forfeit if I pulled that whole “wish for more wishes” gag, so I didn’t even try.

          I thought and thought, and eventually wished “for a life surrounded by women.” It seemed such a simple paradise at the time. The genie just nodded once with an arched eyebrow, and I felt it. There was a dry pop in my chest, like something opened up, and I felt the wish take hold. The genie disappeared, accompanied by Middle-Eastern pomp and circumstance, and then I was alone, standing behind a Baskin Robbins, fated to be surrounded by women for all of eternity. But then a niggling doubt came to life. Saturnine thoughts blossomed in the background of my consciousness, dark and brooding: distrust. What was up with that arched eyebrow? His expression reminded me of one of an old-timey villain who’d just tied to the railroad tracks his black-and-white damsel. Distressing. Genies are always the good guys in western cartoons. Poor souls, doomed to serve their masters’ whims, but always the good guys, always on the right side of morality. But the old-school tales talk about the not-so-Sunday-school genies. You know, the dark ones who trick and murder their way out of enslavement, the shiesty ones who feed off unfortunate lamp rubbers. Genies weren’t the good guys; they were just another culture’s version of the malicious leprechaun, the two legged el chupacabra, the lamp based version of a skin walker.

          A random story from my childhood popped into my mind. A man caught a leprechaun. He made the leprechaun take him to his pot of gold, buried by a tree in a forest. But the man didn’t have a shovel. He told the leprechaun to tie a red scarf around the tree marking the treasure: don’t touch the scarf he said, wait here until I return with a shovel he said. The leprechaun was true to his word. He didn’t touch the scarf. But when the man returned, he found a red scarf tied around every tree, tied around every sapling and bush and up-right stone. The leprechaun stood with a smile while he watched the man dig for a life span, dig until he died in the forest for his lust of gold. The leprechaun, the dark creature, got the soul he wanted, because that’s obviously what such creatures eat. So, where did that leave me? Would the women destined to surround me also find me repulsive? Would they be near me only because of the genie’s power, thereby making me feel inadequate? Would I always wonder if any woman truly loved me because every relationship would be tainted by the curse that came from behind Baskin Robbins?

          I’m in my thirties now. I have a wife. Two daughters. They all three have loads of friends. Young ones with their incessant questions. Teenaged ones with their bulletproof self-absorption. Older ones who remind me of my inferiority on the regular. They swarm around me like a hive of only queens, directing my life, shaping it, changing it. My women, the three in my home, give me a ration of shit that’d bring mutiny to a captain’s mind, they test me with their felinity to the breaking point, but guess what: I love it. These creatures are so powerful, so ridiculously masterful of their domain that every day of my life is a lesson learned about wonderment, about women. I got what I wanted. I might be a masochist, but I got my wish. And the victory is mine. I know that genie, that dumbass Aladdin-look-alike genie, did not get what he wanted. He did not get his tormented soul. And he’s squandering in that lamp right now, shaking his stupid, bejeweled genie fist, because I won. He is lost, trapped until there are no more hands to rub lamps. I am free, surrounded by women.

A Letter

Dear Mr. Paul Ryan,

 

We’re fucked, but you already knew that. So, let’s move on.

 

Do you know what’s strange? A few years ago, people like you scared the shit out of me. You all looked like fanatical zealots who loved ignorance and stagnation. You all looked like weird, antiquated versions of American stereotypes. You all looked like people who represented fallacious values that weren’t in line with my own, so I went out of my way to avoid voting for Republicans. Most of us did. Thus, your party was dying. But then you went rogue. You let the tea party out of your basement—in retrospect, it’s obvious that they should’ve stayed chained down there like the gimps that they are, but whatever. It is what it is. They did their damage and created a few more red seats in congress, but then entropy set in, and the tea party started to fade. Short attention spans bring with them no real change. And then, Hillary appeared on the horizon. Now, desperation… You gave Donald Trump a microphone.

 

Why did you do that? As I was saying earlier, Republicans like you used to scare me, but now, I miss having your relative normalcy as one of the possible presidential outcomes. And my “why did you do that” question wasn’t rhetorical; I want an answer. I heard that you weren’t willing to run for the presidency because you wanted to spend more time with your family, with your children. Is that true? Did you have to have the same sad talk with your daughter about Trump that I did? Do you realize that you set women back by about a century by letting that man lead your party? Do you realize that in an attempt to strengthen your family, you actually screwed it along with millions of other families for quite some time? Do you realize that you’re a public servant by choice, but when it really mattered, you chose to not serve the public? Jesus man; if Trump beat Hillary, you could’ve too. Your party would’ve had power and dominance and all the avarice you could eat, but instead, you gave a fuck-tard nuclear codes.

 

But you know what? There are plenty of platitudes we could choose from: Monday morning quarterbacks never miss, hindsight is 20/20, so on and so forth. I’m not writing this letter to give you shit for your mistakes. I’m not just going to tell you things you already know without showing you a path out of your mire. Think about this: Trump was a grenade that the people threw at you because congress sucks. It’s plain and simple. But you have a way out: stop sucking. Come together as a congress that works in unison and represents the people. Stop pushing only your conservative agenda and try some actual give and take. Think about us, not lobbyists. Think about right and wrong, not left or right, because believe it or not, these terms don’t always line up the way that you think they do. We were taught about checks and balances in elementary school, and now, I’m a grownup who’s hoping with fingers crossed that “checks and balances” wasn’t just bullshit that was fed to me right along with those greasy, square pizzas. So please start checking and balancing.

 

In the end, you know what’s going to happen. Trump isn’t going to appoint a special prosecutor to imprison Hillary because that’s not in the president’s power, nor will she ever go to jail. Trump isn’t going to build that wall because it isn’t economically feasible. Trump isn’t going to ban Muslims from entering our country because it’d be unconstitutional (remember when Republicans understood the constitution?). Trump isn’t going to deport all those immigrants because his business buddies rely on them for cheap labor. Trump isn’t going to do any of the things that he said he was going to do, and eventually, his supporters are going to figure it out (it’ll take them a while for obvious reasons, but it’ll dawn on them eventually). Economically and politically, the next four years are going to suck, and now, there’s nobody left to blame because Republicans control all government branches. So what’s going to happen in four years when “republican” is synonymous with “disgrace”? What’s going to happen when you’re up for reelection?

 

I guess what I’m saying is that I need you republicans to start actually being Republicans. See what I did there with the capitalization? Get away from all your social bullshit and get back to your roots: less government. And don’t tell me that’s what you’re about currently because it’s not. Think about it. Blocking gay marriage equals more government. Keeping weed illegal equals more government. All your asinine, social regulations equal more government, and that’s why we centrists have fallen out of love with your party. You say one thing and do another, and nobody likes hypocritical rulers; the dichotomy negates the supposition that you’re qualified to govern. So, it’s time to choose. You can recast your party in the mold that Lincoln used to create it: mother fucking freedom. Freedom from slavery. Freedom from prohibition. Freedom from gender oppression (wasn’t it just hilarious when all those Trump supporters wanted to take away women’s voting rights? LOL?). Freedom from all the things that we’ve been telling you that we want to be free from. Or, after reality sets in a few years from now, when the tide turns blue, I’ll write you another missive that simply says “I told you so.”

 

Actually, I’m pretty sure that you’ll never read this, and even if you do, I’m pretty sure that your party is going to put its social agenda above your lip-service “less government” paradigm as per usual, so… never mind; I’m making my plea to someone else:

 

Dear Alien Overlords,

 

I’m sure that you’re reading this because aliens are famously voyeuristic, and I’m sure that you have mandates that are similar to our own when it comes to interfering with another species, but I beg you to reconsider. Do you know what I mean? When our National Geographic photographers see a suicide of lemmings running towards a cliff, the lemmings are allowed to die because stopping them would be “interfering with nature” (and it would refute their rad “suicide” group-noun). I hope you think that this notion is ridiculous just as I do—I hope you see that lemmings are to us what we are to you, and we need some help right now because the cliff is neigh.

 

After all, when I see one of my children doing something stupid like running with a blade, I have to take it away for their own safety. That’s kind of where we’re at right now, we humans and you super-advanced space-aliens, so I’m gunna need you to come step in and help us with this whole “we elected a dangerous narcissist to rule us with his anachronistic values because we were afraid of a president with boobs” thing. We’re about to fail as a species, but we’re too busy taking selfies to notice. Ergo, I’m gunna need you to come conquer us and take away our blade because we’re stumbling and the cut is going to be deep and global. The cut is going to be permanent. Please.

 

Sincerely,

 

Jesse

Weight a minute bro

          I’m a steroid shot in the ass away from becoming a complete hypocrite. You see, I used to work out in a small barn that I’d converted into a home gym because I hated the idea of working out in a public gym with a flock of jocks; that whole “meathead mentality” wasn’t for me. I’d open the overhead door and let the alfalfa flavored air dry my sweat as I grunted in private. I’d have to check my weights for black widows and mice would eat my towels if I forgot to bring them in for the night, but I loved it. The wife, however, did not. We lived on an irrigated five acre parcel that was a solid thirty-five minute commute from downtown Durango, and civilization was too far away. Social interaction is the fecund ground in which children grow best, and without it, we feared that our daughters would end up in a cult or something, so we moved into town.

          It’s expensive to live in Durango. Six-hundred square foot condos rent for thirteen hundred dollars a month, and since we need three times that much space, a home gym would’ve been just as realistic as a landing pad for my luxury helicopter or an indoor pool filled with Champaign, so I sucked it up and joined the local gym at the Durango Rec Center. I don’t know what the opposite of a bucket list is, but I’ve got one. It’s an embarrassingly long litany of things that I’ll never do, and “join a gym” has always been right at the top of it; it’s directly above “take square dance lessons” and “swim with sharks.” But now? Well now, I love my gym. I walk in without my pass and the affable red-shirted people at the front desk wave their hands in forgiveness. “Oh that’s just Jesse,” they’ll say if someone new is working. “He never has his card.” It feels good. I’m a buff version of Norm walking into my very own Cheers. Everyone likes to be a regular. We all like it when that familiar waitress or barista asks if it’ll “be the usual” because it makes us feel welcome. It makes us feel like we’re a part of something, a valued member of the herd, and for our social species, that’s what life is all about. And now, I’ve pulled my myopic head out of my ass via a gym membership and I’m a recognized member of the hoi polloi.

          The gym is like a fraternity. Sure, women go there, but for the most part, we don’t talk to them and they don’t talk to us—we like to think that’s because we’re all ripped and intimidating, but really, it’s just because we’re gross and annoying, and women don’t seem to like conversing when they’re wrapped in spandex and covered in sweat. Anyway, like all fraternities, the gym has its rules. You put your weights back when you’re done. You don’t leave your sweat on the equipment (unless you’re tattooed and scary, and then you can get away with it). You don’t scream like you’re giving birth to a man-baby unless you’re lifting a ridiculous amount of weight. You stay home if you’re sick because there’s no quicker way to piss off the athletic type than to infect them with something catching. You bump fists instead of shaking hands (because sweaty palms are disgusting), you never steal someone else’s equipment, and if someone has their earbuds in, you leave them alone. Other than that, it’s pretty straight forward and we all get along marvelously, but the gym has its quirks.

          The parking lot is big, but it’s always congested. People like to drive around in circles in order to find the spot that’s closest to the front door. It makes sense. They don’t want to walk too far before getting to their treadmills where they run in place. But when they’re forced to walk, they do so in slow motion; the men swing their shoulders and the women gyrate their hips in time with the secretive theme music that lives in their earbuds. It’s hard to admit, but we’re really nothing more than animals, and at the gym, we all strut like puffed-up peacocks. Secondly, they gym smells weird. A few of us even started hunting for some long-dead animal that was trapped behind the drywall before our resident genius, Chase, discovered that the malodorous insult was coming from the weights themselves; I almost brought it to management’s attention, but the gym would’ve lost some character if the smell disappeared. My tertiary problem with the gym here in Durango is the music; they play soft jazz and elevator music. It’s like a soporific field of poppies that’s trying to sap my will to be active. Lastly, believe it or not, some people don’t know the aforementioned rules that I brought to your attention. Every once in a while, a sick, sweat-bucket of a fool will come along and steal your equipment after trying to start a conversation despite your earbuds—it’s annoying, but hey, it’s a public place and everybody is welcome.

          The Rec Center itself grows out of the verdant parks that sprawl along the banks of the Animas River as it wends its way north of downtown. The front desk is inescapable when you walk in through the automatic doors; it’s big and it’s filled with friendly locals. There are conference rooms to the right that are booked for karate classes and strange singing church meetings. The locker rooms and aquatic center are on the left. There’s a climbing wall directly behind the desk. Further back, there’s a basketball court that’s usually filled with old people playing pickle ball: it’s a weird wedding between wiffle ball and tennis. There’s a daycare. There are racquetball courts and running tracks and multipurpose rooms. But none of those places interest me. Right behind the front desk, there’s a wide, tiled staircase that doubles back on itself as it leads up. Standing at the bottom, you can hear the rhythmic thumping of treadmills, the metallic clattering of weights, the too-loud bravado of comradery. It smells like detergent and bodies and feelings of inadequacy.

          I walk up those stairs quickly because nobody likes to live in limbo. I make my rounds when I get to the top, bumping fists with all my bros because it’s apropos, and I settle in on a bench. I look around and do a bit of people watching as I stretch. You’d think that a gym is just one place, but it’s not: there are three territories inhabited by three very different tribes. There’s the cardio tribe. These are an energetic people. They wear special shoes that clip into their fancy stationary bikes. Or they wear shoes that’re made for rubber on rubber—treadmill running that takes you nowhere while you watch a TV that’s mounted on the wall like a carrot on a stick. Next, there’s the yoga tribe. These are an earthy people, subdued and smiling in their tight pants while they sit crisscross-applesauce on their foamy mats. They have candles and breathy music and their own room that keeps them safe from the simian group to which I belong: the third tribe, the lifters. These are an intense people. We’re the large ones, the disproportionate walking triangles. We pick things up and then put them down, over and over again, wishing that we could pick up bigger things and put them down harder. We mark our bodies with chalk. We spot each other and give high-fives as if it was 1985, and we love it. I love it. This is something I never would’ve figured out had I not “sucked it up” and paid for a gym membership. But when I think about it, it isn’t just the gym that deserves my gratitude even though I swear that place is a living, breathing character. It’s the welcoming brethren within who deserve thanks. Those men let me act like an idiot in their midst and now I call them friends—they deserve a written shout-out, so here it is.

          Chase is the smart one, but I already said that. Jimmy is the big one; I spotted that man while he benched four-hundred and fifty-five pounds, and that’s just ludicrous. Ed is the gregarious one; he’s our spirit animal who’s always quick to talk and give advice. Matt is the pro; he looks like a baby made by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean Claude Van Dame. Patrick is an amateur personal trainer and a professional shit-talker. Ricky disappears occasionally, but like a spawning salmon, he always returns. Josh is the playboy. Jaccinda is one of the only women who can hold her ground, and she puts most of us to shame. Shane can’t rock a moustache but he does so anyway; he’s a badass, and he grows muscle like the rest of us grow hair. Dylan and Bryan are the gentlemen, Tyler has better shoes than you do, Ben’s arms are bigger than my legs, and Vito is going to be a fireman when he grows up. Aaron is just cool as hell, as are Jason and his daughter. John, Brian, Mike, Dave; good people all. These people have made me realize that the gym is a good place to be, and once upon a time, I was narrower minded than I am now.

          The only thing I hate more than hypocrisy is my own hypocrisy. I hate saying that I’ll never do a thing because I’m better than the people who do that thing just to find out that those people are just different versions of myself. I hate admitting that I was wrong. The gym, for me, has been the hollow into which Luke walked to face Vader for that first time. There, for twenty-five bucks a month, I’ve found myself, even though it sounds like a trite cliché. I’ve realized that “never say never” isn’t just a tired platitude. Granted, I’m not going to square dance around in a plaid suit or swim with a great white, but I am going try and grow up a bit. I’m going to forgive my hypocrisy, or at least, I’m going to try to not be so hypocritical. I’m going to wake up and look at the rest of my anti-bucket list (ha! That’s what it’s called!), and I’m going to decide if the things on said list really suck, or if they’re just incarnations of my parochial decision to only participate in certain facets of life. Because, as it turns out, there’s nothing wrong with a flock of jocks; I was once just a flockless jock.

Durango Rec Center

Emordnilap

I can’t watch The Big Bang Theory without my wife remarking on the similarities I share with Sheldon Cooper, so today, I’m going to embrace it and give you a little food for thought. Without further ado, here is:

Jesse Anderson presents, Fun With Words.

It’s always bothered be that the word “palindrome” isn’t in and of itself a palindrome. I’m sure you know what a palindrome is: it’s a word, or a set of words, that mirrors itself when spelled backwards—taco cat spelled backwards is “taco cat,” and that’s just awesome. So in my mind, the proverbial “they” should’ve used “palinilap” instead of “palindrome” because that way, the word itself would’ve reflected its meaning via function. But hey, unfortunately, I’m not one of “them.”

However, there’s a wonderful epiphany buried in this frustration. “Palindrome” spelled backwards is “emordnilap,” and believe it or not, it’s an actual word. The only dictionary that supports this claim is the Urban Dictionary, but for me, that’s good enough. Granted, the Urban Dictionary also defines “Cosby Sweater” in a manner that I’d like to forget (don’t look it up), but that’s irrelevant. An emordnilap is a word that creates a completely different word when it’s spelled backwards. “Emordnilap” is hard to say, so such words are also called “Janis words” or “mirror words” or my favorite, “back words” (it’s my favorite because it sounds like “backwards” and puns just make me giggle). So here we go…

Have you ever met a gateman who wasn’t wearing a nametag? Did you notice that gateman spelled backwards is nametag? Do you get stressed when you’re eating your desserts because it’ll make you fat, or because stressed spelled backwards is in fact desserts? When you feed a baby, you’re repaid by a dirty diaper which isn’t as shitty as it sounds because the backwards back-word for diaper is repaid. Your reward for opening a drawer is noticing the mirrored relationship between “reward” and “drawer.” Now you can’t stop reading because you’re stuck in the worst part of my trap. I could go on forever… my daughter is an avid diva. A dirty musician is a drab bard. A belt is made out of strap parts. Vampire bats stab with their teeth. Orange peels don’t sleep. You have to dial to get laid. Well-trained pets stay in step. You can bonk someone with a knob. A lager is a regal beer. Denim isn’t mined. Don’t snub my buns. The evil live but the devil never lived. I think I’m done because I won now

I love patterns, and I love words, so it’s no surprise that patterns made out of words make me smile like a possum eating sweet potatoes. When I find the patterns, or make my own, my smug smile shows my gums, and when it hits me that the emordnilap for gums is “smug,” my mind explodes and I laugh to myself like a word-addled literary fool.

Anyway, this post was pretty pointless, and I just wrote it for the sake of writing. My summer semester starts on Monday, and you probably won’t hear from me for at least a month. I honestly want to thank all of you for your continued patience and interest—almost fourteen-thousand of you have read my writing almost twenty thousand times, and that’s pretty humbling. But I have to take another break. Over the weekend, I need to get ready for class, and right now, I have to do the dishes… I guess you could say that I have to stop to clean my pots… I’m so, so sorry.

Fun With Flags

Hell NO DGO

          It’s a breach of bathroom etiquette to piss right next to someone else. Everybody knows that. If someone’s using a urinal, you leave an empty one between you and him. If it’s impossible to do so, you still don’t piss right next to him—you use the stall. If all the stalls are full, and you’re forced to use a urinal right next to a stranger, you do so without saying a damn thing. You stare straight ahead at the wall with laser focus like a pissing robot and you do your business. That’s how bathrooms work; I didn’t write these laws, but I follow them. And really, if you think about it, bathroom etiquette is like a parable for the rest of life. It’s a cultural miniature for the rest of our social interaction: you give people their space through propriety and respect.

          The Telegraph has been around forever. I’ve read their paper for a few years’ worth of Thursdays. Their articles are real and organic and homespun. That paper grows out of our streets like a poplar and they’re an authentic representation of Durango. They’ve published my work and mailed me checks with handwritten thankyous. Their format is perfect, and from a capitalist point of view, I guess that’s why it was stolen by the Ballantine Cartel. DGO has fancier blue boxes, lacquered and shining in the spring rain, but other than that, they’re an ersatz carbon-copy of the real deal. Seriously though, why would they do that? Why would they decide to copy The Telegraph so blatantly and then even choose the same day for their free publication run? Was it an overt attempt to snuff out local media? God damn it DGO, Thursday was The Telegraph’s urinal. You should choose another. And stop pandering so goddamn much. We get it. You like bicycles and pot and you’re one of us, earthy and artsy in your “Durango Rocks” T shirt, and we should trust you for your trendiness.

          You know that guy who shows up to dinner parties with a bottle of wine just so he can spout off ad-nauseam about the tannins and whatnot? He annoys me. Don’t get me wrong, I love good wine and I love hearing about it from people like Allen over at Put a Cork in It, but every once in a while, I want to remind everyone that it’s just alcoholic grape juice. It’s no big deal. And pot is the same way. I don’t need to read weekly articles about obscure designer strains; that shit is just otiose nonsense because when you get right down to it, pot is just a weed that grows out of the ground. You light it on fire and breathe in the smoke and then smile about it. It’s no big deal. And it’s definitely not something big enough to build a publication upon. And let’s not forget that The Herald, Ballantine’s flagship, was vehemently opposed to legalized marijuana, but now that it’s legal, they’ve jumped on the pro-pot bandwagon as if we readers have no memory. So write about something else DGO (after you choose a different urinal).

          This is where I switch it up and talk about my own hypocrisy. I thought DGO was an independent startup the first time I noticed one of their blue boxes. I sent them one of my articles because I love seeing these words of mine in black print on grey paper. I never received a response, and if I’m being honest, I’ve been nurturing a petulant resentment ever since. And now, since I’ve discovered that DGO is a subsidiary of an out-of-town interest, I have the moral luxury of saying that “I’m glad they didn’t publish my stuff,” but it’s a lie. Hell, if they ever offered me a writing job, I’d disavow this entire article like a repenting born-again zealot and sign up without my soul if necessary. That’s how desperate I am to be a professional writer. But as a reader? As a local who’s allergic to the counterfeit? Well in this role, I choose to read The Telegraph. I choose to watch their racks go empty day after day while stacks and stacks of dated DGOs end up in the magazine graveyard in front of the treadmills at the Rec Center. I choose to sit here on my manufactured moral high-ground and support the only true local paper, The Durango Telegraph.

          But I’m a realist. I’m sure that the DGO team knew exactly what they were doing. I’m sure they knew that they were going against bathroom rules. In the real world, principal is pointless and money comes first. So DGO sauntered up right next to The Telegraph’s urinal and whipped it out and started pissing. They didn’t even look at the wall; they turned their head slowly and made uncomfortable eye contact. They looked down into The Telegraph’s urinal and cocked a derisive eyebrow—DGO’s money was bigger. It sucked. And why shouldn’t they? Their repetitive pot segments attract all sorts of advertising dollars from our one hundred and one local dispensaries, and there’s still something novel about legal pot. This is especially true for tourists. If they walk through our town and see one of those shiny blue boxes, they’re going to open it and smile when they see a free newspaper covered with green crosses and pot leaves. They’re going to read it, thinking that it’s part of us, and they’re going to validate a poser from out of town. It pisses me off.

          Eventually, money wins. Always. When 92.9 The Point first came on the air, they promised us to be “no talk and all music” forever. It was beautiful but too good to be true. People are more receptive to oblique advertising that’s masked as a conversation, and the temptation was too great. The Point introduced a seemingly innocent morning show, “the breakfast club,” that’s chock full of not-so-subtle marijuana advertising and a shit-ton of talking. Son of a bitch. What did I expect? Did I think that The Point’s puppet master, American General Media, would be any more benevolent than the Ballentine Cartel? Did I really think that they’d just give me music and no talk just because they were nice people? Hell no. They did what they did to make as much money as possible, and eventually, they’ll grow up to be a normal radio station just like all of the other all-talk-no-music stations in this town. They’ve since changed their motto to “the most music in Durango,” but soon, I’m sure it’ll be “92.9 The Point. We’re just like everybody else.” Jesus, hasn’t anyone learned about the life and death of great media from MTV’s horrible demise? Hasn’t anyone figured out that honest originality and an adherence to principal can also be profitable in more ways than one? Knock it off. It’s been a couple decades, but I still want my MTV. Give me my music. Give me my independent newspaper that’s free on Thursday. Give me less greed and less imitation and give The Durango Telegraph space in the bathroom. Thanks.

DGO