5/27/20: A Big Black Bug

I don’t go to sleep easily, but it’s very easy for me to zone out. Really all it takes is a persistent background noise, something low and insistent and monotonous, and my brain starts moving in unison with the susurrant loop, and whole tens of minutes go by as I stare blankly at something, registering nothing, thinking about nothing, aware of nothing except the sub-conscious rhythm of my mind futilely fingering oblivion like its a bolt of cloth it’s considering buying.

This happens a lot in the shower. I can easily lose 30, 40 minutes of time in the textured sound of falling water. Especially now, when there isn’t anywhere to go, not enough work that I’m willing to do, and nothing to get back to except the constant anxious thrum of life in a pandemic.

(That anxious thrum by the way is now so familiar that it’s almost possible to forget about it; which feels worse than the more active fear of earlier months on some level.)

Today I was in the shower, in a low trance, when I looked over the curtain after catching an impression of movement in the space between my eye and ear: a sort of fuzzy drone, neither sight nor sound. I saw that against the ceiling there was a big bug, some kind of winged insect. The bathroom was steamy, and I wasn’t wearing my glasses, but it didn’t look like any bug I’d ever seen before. It looked like two hornets sewn together, end to end, with a point on either extremity. It was all black, about the length of a AAA battery. Its wings moved so fast they only registered as a circumference of haze haloing the bug’s body. That body was long and segmented, with a major joint in its middle, so that one half was crooked down, like a hag’s finger.

Something was wrong with it. It was moving hectically. It kept buzzing up and colliding with the ceiling, and then dropping, and then darting in a random direction and colliding with the ceiling again. I willed it to go away, to stay somewhere I could watch it and finish my shower. Bugs fill me with dread because they’re too small to control. They look horrible, but that’s not their most excruciating quality. I wouldn’t mind their nightmare forms if they were easy to manage, easy to keep track of, to corral or repel. But it came towards me, feverishly flew over the shower curtain. It hit the ceiling again and, dropping down again, flew under the shower head and was brought violently down on the ledge of the tub by the running water.

On its side, and closer to me now, it still looked inchoate and abnormal, still like two bugs fused together, or struggling in some sort of martial embrace or mating dance. It kicked and turned by my shampoo bottle. It spun in place, describing little half circles, and the dropped part of its body quivered.

I took the showerhead down on its ribbed tube and pointed it at the bug. The spray pushed it up against the corner where the tub met the wall, and then the bug slid down and forward into the tub itself. It sluiced quickly to the drain. It was just big enough to catch on the lip of the drain lid, so I applied the water directly again, until it went down the drain completely. I kept the showerhead pointed at the spot for a few more seconds, in case it should try to come up again.

I don’t like to kill things, but I didn’t agonize over what I did. Guilt is not what I felt, but I did feel, briefly, something. I can’t say what kind of life is in insects; it can be hard to move towards the life in other human beings even, and an insect’s life force is much more remote than even that. But there was some kind of life there, an unrepeatable fragment of vitality, and I felt something, watching the drain and wondering if the bug would crawl back out, angry, and fly at me with whatever stingers or pincers it had. Briefly I thought about what it was going through: was it dead already, or was it lodged in the pipe, confused, blinded maybe, or maybe it was injured: did the heavy water ruin permanently the onion skin of its wings, the only beautiful thing on its body? Do bugs fight against inevitable death, or do they recognize and move into it docilely, like an audience being called back to its seats after intermission? Is there some grief at the final severance, or just some last insectoid calculations, a final balancing of the books? What I’m asking is, is the death of something so small and so different a tragedy, or a procedure?

But there was no permanence to these thoughts. They didn’t stick in my head. It was just a second or two before I reentered the standard environment of human anxiety, and all the day’s worries and persistent anxieties rushed back in, the way the sound of the engine refills the car as soon as the window is closed.

Because there’s this kind of selective, obliterating discontinuity to the mind. It transitions so quickly out of certain thoughts, certain moods – even as others drag on, unstoppable, for hours, days, months, years. There was just a flash of poignancy for me after killing that bug, a brief phase where it didn’t seem ridiculous or maudlin to consider the nature of its life, the horror and mutilation I’d inflicted upon it mainly because I was naked and vulnerable and didn’t want it touching me.

But the poignancy was chased down some interior drain of its own, and I won’t remember any of this tomorrow, or maybe even later tonight when I stare trancelike at the ridges and whorls of the ceiling with the TV on low, whispering white noise soothingly. The mind is so miserly with permanence, it pushes so much out into the long washes of time, the endless, obfuscating, obliterating white noise of the past.

5/26/20: Fish Fry

One time we decided to have a fish fry in the woods. Because we were young, we didn’t go far: just walked up the street, into a small patch of woods adjacent to K’s neighborhood. But it was dark by the time we left, and we wanted to go as deep as we could into the little woods, so that the lights and noise of the neighborhood and the rest of Aurora didn’t completely poison the sky above us.

It was early fall and the trees were already bare, but warm enough that that all we needed were hoodies. Between us we carried folding chairs, a small frying pan, a grimy half-used bottle of lighter fluid, paper plates, and a small cooler with soda and plastic bags of batter-coated fish inside, still uncooked.

We found a little clearing in the center of the woods. We set up our chairs in a circle around where K said the fire would be. He said he would make the fire. He started to scrape away the wet mat of dead leaves with his foot. He wore a black hoodie, and squarish, toxic blue carpenter jeans; he was fat like me; his hair was shaved down to a colorless stubble. We became friends because we both liked video games, but he also grew up with outdoorsy parents, and had inherited a whole set of experiences and skills that were alien to me. So I sat and sipped a Sprite while he scraped the leaves away.

E was there too. He wasn’t someone we hung out with normally, but for reasons I didn’t understand was invited. E was shorter than either of us, and weighed less, but looked pudgy rather than fat, which was somehow worse at that age. He had small eyes, short brown hair, sparse freckles over the high parts of his cheeks. I thought of him as popular. In general, he wasn’t liked so much as enjoyed. He had chosen to abstract his public, school day personality into a sort of malicious clownishness, an impenetrable veneer of unserious goofiness that you couldn’t ever penetrate at school but that, for some reason, in the few times I’d hung out with him outside, he abandoned completely and without ceremony, so that to point out the difference would make you seem weird, not him. This night he was exhibiting what was probably his actual personality: a sullen, embryonic ironical acerbicness; but even in this more natural state, some obscurity lingered in him; he said everything with the same near monotone, so it was hard to tell when he was happy or upset, pissed off or joking.

Eventually, K took the grody bottle of Kingsford lighter fluid and squirted it into the pile of kindling. The fire jumped and shone and it was time to cook the fish.

In groups of young boys, there’s always an invisible authority that one kid ends up with. Sometimes there’s a struggle for this authority; sometimes it falls without agon onto one of them. Because K made the fire, he had the authority tonight, even though he normally maintained a more subdued presence. And so he sat cross-legged by the fire and put the pieces of fish – perch from Lake Erie that his dad had caught – into the pan, one by one. They hissed and crackled and pulsed lightly, almost indiscernibly, the way your tongue pulses constantly in your mouth. The batter cooked down around them, pale yellow now where the fish was wettest but ruddy gold at the curled edges of each strip.

The fire started to get low and K took the pan off for a minute and told me to add lighter fluid; I took the dirty bottle in my hand and squeezed it. The flames jumped again, yellow and crude. K was looking at the fire dully; E was sitting his chair with his chin against his sternum, looking at the fire too, up from under his brows.

Fire smoke and greasesmoke from the fish rose up. The wind was pushing it all in my direction, so that my eyes stung and my clothes became heavy and fragrant and grody to the touch.

When the fish was done, K ladled the strips onto paper plates for each of us. I looked at my plate. Oil was seeping out from beneath the fish into the plate, turning it gray and nearly transparent; it bent softly under my hand as I held it. Some thoughts came up: about food poisoning, about undercooked fish, about heavy metals getting into my bloodstream. But K and E were eating their fish so I ate mine too. It was hot, and when I bit into it hot grease burned my tongue, but the meat tasted fresh and clean beneath the oiliness.

I don’t remember what we talked about. Something about the experience had locked me into myself, and I was like a passenger on a ship, looking out of my eyes at this unexpected evening, with unexpected company. In every direction the tall tree trunks looked thin in the cold and dark, but were standing so close to each other in intermingling rows; in any direction it looked like white paint being laid with a coarse brush, wet, on top of black gesso; or hallways with the paneling split and splintered from age or pressure, running into the darkness. The heavy smoke, slower now, still passed through me and then up, moving deeper into the night sky, turning slowly, dreamily, fragile, like gauze in water. The dead leaves flipped up their edges and the trees moved swayed like ocean plants in response to the wind’s long vowels. Everything, every motion and non-motion, every gradation of the firelight registered on every inch of every surface, all present temperatures and temperaments, was occurring in unison, striking me simultaneously; everything moved into a complete synchronicity for one golden, cathect instant.

One footnote to this story: someone else, too, was there, but I can’t remember who it was. But imagine one other seat around the fire, one other pair of eyes staring at the yellow light.

5/25/20: Storms, First Nightmare

The first hot days have come and they’ve been mostly ugly. Ohio can’t even warm into summer prettily. The season here is mostly defined by hot, cloudy days. These clouds are boiled up over the lake, and cover the sky from edge to edge. All day they’re evenly bright, lit up from behind from the smothered sun. It’s a leering kind of weather, it feels feverish and cruel.

But now, it looks ready to storm. This would be the first big storm of the year – at least, I think it would be the first. But time and the tiny demarcations of minor events are all muddled right now, and maybe there was a storm before this – and maybe this storm won’t even happen; I saw the clouds looming up like thugs, bruised-colored from the water they held, and it’s darker outside than it should be, and you can hear the thunder rumbling, heavy and high up, like a stack of books tumbling over in the church’s attic; but the storm hasn’t broke yet. It might move on without staging its drama here.

Back in the era of my fear of tornadoes, these near-misses with storms were frustrating. I conceptualized any bad weather day as an exchange: my time and attention for safety through the storm. And if there wasn’t a storm to watch, I hadn’t earned my safe passage through the day. I understand there’s a paradox there, of being afraid of dying in a storm when it happens, and then being afraid of dying in a storm when the storm doesn’t happen. The demonic lore of obsessive thought is full of koans like these.

There was a brief time when I found a suitable way to ignore storms when they did happen, though.

I’d go into my mom’s bedroom and put on her big stereo headphones and put in one of her CDs and turn up the volume to hide the storm sounds. I kept my eyes closed but all the lights on in the room, so that I wouldn’t see through the thin lid-skin the light in the room alter with flashes of lightning.

(If you ever have a doubt as to where the core of your being is, just listen to loud music loudly with heavy powerful headphones on. They don’t have to be good headphones, just ones capable of raucous loud sounds. Turn off the lights. Close your eyes. With the titanic wash of noise coming at your brain from both sides, can’t you feel the little ghost of you in your head dissolving into individual bobbing atoms in the massive snarling cascade, like when you rub sand between your fingers until all the grains have disappeared?)

Or sometimes I would go take a shower, and put the fan on, so that the reverberating racket would drown out the sounds that way. It would have to be a long shower, to make sure that it outlasted the duration of the storm.

Eventually these techniques of avoidance became no longer valid. I say ‘valid’ and can’t be any more specific than that. Sometimes mandates came down, disallowing something perfectly legal the day before. I had no choice but to obey them. I was being forced, or convincing myself I was being forced, to watch the storms as they came and went, and that meant experiencing the weird anguish when the thing I feared didn’t come to pass, but passed off to elsewhere, unresolved, like a threat not followed up on but not forgotten either, or transmuted into other potentialities.


I remember my earliest nightmare, and I don’t know if it’s because it was my first or because something about it particularly scarred me.

The nightmare takes place in my neighborhood in Omaha. It’s summer, the weather is bright and hot, the sky is high and white, unblue and unrelieved. Aliens have invaded the neighborhood. I don’t know what they look like because they never leave their space ships, which are the classic spinning saucer-type UFOs. Their ships are small – maybe the size of like a bulky mid-size CRT television set. They fly into peoples’ houses and hover over their heads and let down a yellow beam of light from the bottom of the craft. It’s unclear what this light does specifically. It’s understood that it’s not an abduction in the standard sense, but it is taking something: all it leaves behind of the person is a loose, full body suit, like a diving suit but covering the whole head and face. This suit is in the abducted person’s exact dimensions. It’s also understood these suits aren’t made, but are the residue of a human being after the light takes whatever it takes from one. The suit is rubbery and bright purple and completely featureless, with no zippers or buttons or anything.

I’m walking up the staircase in my house. It or my proportions are off; some steps feel big, almost so big that I have to climb to the next one. As I get to the top I sense a flash of light coming from the landing. When I get there, there’s one of the rubber people suits lying on the carpet, neatly folded, as if someone had worn it and then put it away.

Someone approaches from one of the rooms on this floor, which is not the upper floor of my own house, but that of my best friend’s. It’s my best friend’s older sister. She’s dressed in an outdated crinoline (?) dress, but her hair is tangled and frizzy. She’s smiling maliciously. She shows me, either by transmitting the image into my mind or by unclasping her hands and holding the thing up to me (it’s hard to tell which of these happened in the muddled atmosphere of the dream), something small, ragged, and soiled.

5/24/20: Reading About Rich People, Again

So many books – books I love – present a major obstacle to the complete connection I yearn for in engaging with art. The obstacle is that the characters in it are rich – or at least comfortable, or at least their financial situation isn’t subject to the same constant  million-footed rush of concerns and possibilities for collapse that my and people like me’s are.

So many good books are about rich people.

Ishmael isn’t rich but, as a whaleman, money and the necessaries it buys aren’t a concern for him for the duration of the novel. Thus in the Comfortable category.

Don Quixote isn’t rich, is in fact on hard times, but hard times only in the very mild sense that applies to landed gentry living on a fixed income from the kingdom: thus soft enough times for him to read himself senseless in an age where books were a major investment. Rich/Comfortable.

In Herzog Moses Herzog has multiple houses, enough money and time to hole up in a rambling house in the countryside and do nothing but write letters to everyone. Rich.

There are always monetary issues at stake in Austen’s novels because they exist in the incredibly cold and fiduciary realm of Regency-era marriage culture; but for the most part the characters’ potential shifts in financial situation are relative ones, still confined within the more or less safe realm of the unmoveably landed gentry. So Rich.

In Anna Karenina, Levin rarely has cash, but that’s only because his money is tied up in land. Comfortable.

In Genji, fuck, I don’t even know if Genji or his court had money, so removed is their floating world from the real one turning restlessly in the muck just outside its ornate gates.

In In Search of Lost Time, M. is ensconced in the comparably disconnected and ethereal world of the French upper class. Nobody takes vacations like M.’s family. The settings of Balbec and Combray don’t even feel real in some specific way, because they’re evoked with this dreamlike quality that financial struggles would immediately dissipate. Obviously rich.

I’ve kind of started to read Henderson the Rain King; I’m not committed yet. I love the brutal hunger of Henderson, I love his poetic madness and violent zest for life and furious confused despair. But he’s a millionaire, comes right out and tells you in the first couple pages. A millionaire who can run a pig farm for purely aesthetic reasons and fly off to Africa when he feels like it to find a way to mangle his depression and maddening sorrow. Rich.

The prevalence of rich people in fiction has obvious historico-socio-economical causes. The leisured classes were the ones with time for education, the time to think about and sift their their feelings and process it into art. This massively expanded and languorous existence was built on a social concept that dehumanized millions of people in the economic rungs below. I mean that in a very real way: in all these disparate times and places, there were people living lives we wouldn’t even recognize as lives, so that the upper classes could read and think and write.

That kind of poverty exists today, too. It’s also largely avoided by art. Instead it’s usually a talking point for the media, some flag for them to wave briefly with a brave face so they can ignore their ineffectuality for another day. Or when it is presented in art, it’s presented in a way that poeticizes that poverty and the people living in it to a degree that estranges them from the compassion, empathy, and anger they deserve.

I’m not qualified to say more about that kind of poverty. Pettily, today I’m talking about the specific kind of poorness that I live in. Call it common poorness.  The every day parade of fretting, insults, minor tragedies, fleeting triumphs that comes from never having enough money to make it (our lives) all cohere.

When you’re this kind of poor, your finances are as omnipresent a fact of of your life as  hunger or love or fear. It shapes so many things, stunts others, generates a thousand problems that subtle working the texture of your character in different directions.

And always these invisible operations create a distance. You’re constantly running calculations, evaluating your own situation against your best estimates of others’. Every point of distinction between them – even the meaningless ones – creates another bit of distance.

(Obviously, that is to say all this estrangement I feel for fiction about rich people manifests in reality too.)

I hate rich people, both for big important socioeconomic reasons and for the inflammatory personal affront that is seeing someone else being achingly happier than I am. And I think being rich means that you have to be fundamentally stupid in some ways. Certain doors of suffering are closed to rich people and, in almost every case, there is a subsequent shallowing out of their personality – sometimes to a lesser, often to a greater degree.

Being poor in this way, by the way, is also boring. It’s mathematical, drier than an abacus. It’s persistent, it’s obsessive. And it’s so specific to you and your particular humiliations.

But, because of this, this poorness is a key part of being alive, for me and many others. So intrinsic that maybe that’s why we don’t think about it in ourselves and others, just like we don’t think about our own or others’ breathing. But the actions, the obsessions, the little tragedies recur and recur and recur: checking the bank account every day, hoping your friend doesn’t order something expensive when it’s your turn to pay, those weird destructive impulses that tell you to spend when you shouldn’t, if only to create the drama that you live every day in fear of, just to get it over with for fuck’s sake…

That fear is intrinsically tied up with the ugliest, shittiest, most unappealing aspects of every day existence, the same thuggish quotidia that drag us down out of even the loftiest heights of thought, our most transcendent yearnings; and even if, like probably all fears, it can be traced back to a fear of death, the journey to that point in this case is so fucking desert long, so petty, so rife with annoyances and insults, that our own strength might give out, not at the far terminal point of extinction, but at one of any billion billion intermediate points of exasperation.

5/23/20: Call it a Metaphysical Laziness

For a long time I thought the index finger of my right hand was crooked. When I held it out straight as I could, it curved noticeably to the right. I told myself this was because of a certain ritual that I had when I was little, one of my first compulsions.

I don’t remember the specifics fear that forced it into a compulsion, but it involved crossing my fingers and touching, first myself, and then certain things in a certain order: door frames, door knobs, and most of all the AC vents in my mom’s jeep. I can’t remember what I was afraid of, but I do know the purpose was to gather this fear’s potential energy from my person and dispel it: let it run out of the crossed tips of my fingers into these external objects, the same way a lightning rod routes the wild electricity down into the ground to dissipate.

(This concept of bad energy recurred much later in more recent compulsions too. In my modern mode of making Corrections I still felt that, when I was correcting, I had to be standing in such a way that I wasn’t touching anything with any part of my body, other than the ground, because if I was touching something else some energy could be transferred into it instead of properly dispelled through the proper correction; and maybe also that to be in the proper “state” to correct something, I had to be unfocused on any other task or thing; and the act of merely touching something unrelated to the correction was enough to compromise that state and render the attempt at correction invalid.

You can see that concepts not only recur, but can also be repurposed; when I was young I wanted that energy to be ‘held’ inside of objects; when I was older I was afraid of that same concept, so the energy had to be loosed into the air.)

The way my fingers cross, the middle finger presses against the first joint of the pointer; I could envision the warping that would occur as that pressure was consistently applied for days, weeks, months – how long did this crossing fingers phase last? Unknown – in obeisance to what was the first of many compulsions.

But it occurs to me now that it’s not true. All my fingers are curved, and the right index not much more than the left. I also realize I’d actually known this for years, but, on the surface of my mind, chose to believe that I had a crooked hand from my constant finger crossing 19 years ago.

It was a petty play to satisfy a lifelong desire for scars, for some external mark to commemorate internal struggles. Most of my compulsions were internal, unshowy; they weren’t things that others would necessarily notice (the crossed fingers being an obvious exception, actually). Engaging with our or others’ suffering is ugly, onerous, boring, hurtful, utterly draining, endlessly vexing. But considering suffering from a distance we inevitably see a poetry in it, a beauty that we ascribe to some inherent kinship between pain and eternity. So along with any suffering comes the petty wish to convey this suffering to others poetically and easily, so that they might see in us what we see in our own suffering after the fact: thus I wanted some physical relic of what I had gone through and was still going through, albeit in a different form.

Another early manifestation: I went through a phase of washing my hands a lot. A classic compulsion. I wanted all the things I treasured most – and at that age that meant my game systems and accessories – to be as clean as could be, which meant that I had to wash my hands before touching them. My friends, when they came over, had to wash their hands too if they wanted to use my controllers, and they couldn’t eat while using them because I abhorred the idea of grease and oil settling on things ineradicably.

These were two early instances of a condition that became as daily as breathing for me. At the time, I didn’t make conscious connections between these two compulsions, but I must’ve recognized what was happening, if only obliquely, the same way we’re surprised by an afternoon thunderstorm and then realize on some level we’d been attuned to the darkening sky for hours ahead of it.

I’ve noticed this tendency in myself to call things inevitable, and let them approach me instead of taking any active countermeasures to avoid them. Even later, once I had fully entered into OCD, I could feel the pieces of a new presiding fear and its relevant compulsions being drawn up, but would convince myself I didn’t sense anything at all; and then, when I wasn’t spared from the fear and its mandates, I could at least expiate myself of any sense of guilt for not actively working to avoid it because, again, I didn’t see it coming. I’ve always been afraid of conflict, even internal conflict. Call it a metaphysical laziness.

It’s laziness in reaction to complications that come down like a work order. I get exasperated with the mind’s refusal to be all of a piece, to be integral. It can believe deeply both in its fears and in the irrationality of those fears; because it occupies so many levels of reality at once it can turn both things into equal gospels. So you labor under this mulifurcation, moving through mundane reality but burdened by your absurd internal universe and its complicated metaphysics, an architecture of consequence built in and around your every action in the external world; an architecture more delicate than sugarglass that says, if it’s disturbed, it will shatter down around you, and on you, and make your fear comes true, and redirect all the godlike energy of the universe solely to inflict that one specific, personal grief on you…

5/22/20: Potentialities

Sometimes, with certain people – people I meet in passing, sometimes, but also those I know in realer ways – I get this sensation of an unrealized potential story between them and me, some possibility, some potential for friendship or the beginning of lust or love, some particular intimacy that, for secret and complicated reasons, never comes into being, withering away into the realm of discarded possibilities like a branch of smoke slowly twisting to invisibility in the breezy sky.

When I went to the House on the Rock for the first time, the girl who was behind the ticket counter asked for my ID. I handed her my driver’s license. She held it almost in her lap and looked at it. She sat in a wheelchair. She had dark brown hair, a little shorter than shoulder length, brown eyes – large eyes – pale skin, with features that were pronounced in an elegant, almost classical way.

“Ohio, huh,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“That’s a long way from here.”

I laughed a non-connotative social chuckle: purely functional, not derived from any mirth. “Yep that’s true.”

She printed my ticket, gave it to me, and I went away to wait for my friend to get his. But I felt then, and still feel now when I think about it, that there was some sort of subvocal invitation floating between us after she said “That’s a long way from here.” An invitation or initiation, and if I had just said something that was inflected at all with my personality, the outermost wall of intimacy would’ve been broken down, and a story would’ve begun.

(Or also, obviously, maybe not: but such is the nature of these premonitions that they can’t be followed up upon, only speculated about after they’ve fossilized outside of the realm of possibility.)

When I was working at Best Buy in Boulder, we’d often have to call another store in the area to see if they had a product a customer was looking for. The store I called most often was the Longmont location, and the person I spoke to most often was a customer representative there named K. Because I was usually still standing with the customer when I talked to her, I kept my tone on phone light and bantering, the same benign and playful tone we employees always used when addressing each other around customers, a kind of performative jocular patter.

I spoke to K like this so many times that eventually we remembered each other’s names, and even had very brief, non-work-related exchanges. Around Christmas she even wished me a Merry Christmas.

I went to the Longmont store a few times, and always wondered if I should look for K, and maybe turn these fragments of interaction into something more permanent, like a flirtation. But I never did and, as far as I know, never even saw her in the store.

I had a coworker once: a friend, she had a partner, but there was an obvious attraction between us. Our flirtations were a known artifact of the store’s culture, a perennial subject of lighthearted well-meaning gossip.

Eventually it got to the point where if we got off at the same time I’d walk home with her since we both lived in the same direction. I’d sling my backpack over the handle of her bike and push it along as we walked.

We usually worked ad set on Sundays, which meant we left at noon. One Sunday, she invited me up to her apartment for a beer when we got to her place. I said sure.

When we entered her apartment, her boyfriend was home. He was wearing athletic shorts and a green tank top, sitting on their napped brown sofa with his feet on a low glass coffee table. He had rubber slip-on sandals on and was playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The table’s glass surface was cloudy, smeared. There was a bong and a half-empty bottle of Powerade by his feet.

“Hey!” she said to him, brightly and quickly, reacting to her surprise with normalcy.

“Hey,” he said, looking at us glumly over his shoulder.

She introduced me. “He works in computers. This is my boyfriend M.”

“Hey man,” I said.

He waved and said “Hey” again, then turned back and unpaused his game.

“I told him I’d give him a few beers,” she said to M. I walked over and stood behind the couch while she went to the fridge. I watched M play San Andreas and offered up a fewe scraps of lighthearted commentary. He was driving around a monster truck, customized all green. I told him I thought it looked cool with the green paint job.

“Yeah, it’s my favorite color,” he explained and we both laughed for . She came back over with a couple of beers she’d pulled from the fridge. I took them and then walked to the door. She walked close behind me like I was being escorted from the premises for some infraction.

“Well, thanks again,” I said. “Nothing wrong with a Sunday afternoon beer, right?”

“Right!” she said, laughing weakly at this non-joke. I left and walked the rest of the way home, the two beers – Left Hand Milk Stouts – sweating one in each hand.

She sent me a text later that day:

I just want you to know that I love my M and nothing is going to change that, but if we had met at a different time, well, things could’ve been interesting…

Sometime later, also with her: there was the last time we walked home together. I was moving in a couple of days and this was the last shift we had together. As usual we took the sidewalk up 30th and I was walking her bike along. It was an early summer evening, with the heat from the unmitgated sunshine still in the air but sensibly dissipating. The early moon in the mild blue sky looked cool to the touch, like a stone lifted out of a riverbed.

We got to her apartment complex and stood in the parking lot, talking. It was the kind of circumspect but electric talking that both parties know is walking around the outskirts of something significant, seductive, maybe dangerous or ill-advised. I was still holding onto her bike. A car pulled in and we watched in park at the other end of the lot. A little breeze kicked up, coolish, and the trees nearby moved in it. Our talk stopped as if carried off by the breeze along with a few weak leaves.

“Well, aren’t you going to kiss me?” she asked quietly.

“I don’t know,” I said.

5/21/20: A Trip by Train

There’s an ugliness to be found in specific places. Ohio’s always been ugly to me. This ugliness feels unassailably objective to me. But I know there are people who think Ohio’s beautiful, or even just fine; and I don’t know if they’re wrong, or if I’m wrong, or if neither of us is wrong and the only way we can code places, which have no inherent metaphysics, is through these subjective reactions, which are really just manifestations of our self into what feels like an exterior thing but is, in fact, just another thing inside of us (the idea of a place).

But I’m fixated on this ugliness that is so emblematic to me of the desiccated wastes of middle America. The utter blandness, the profound forgettableness of places like Streetsboro:  I can’t get over it, I’ll never forget it. I’ve seen some of the singular cities of the world, been to Paris, Florence, London, Krakow. I recognized them as beautiful and made obeisance in my heart and memory. But as much as I love and long for those places again, none are the immediate fixation that these ugly blighted unhoping towns of America are.

We took a night train from Paris to Florence. It would take all night to get there. I’m not one of those people who can easily sleep anywhere: couches, chairs, planes, trains, cars; it’s hard for me to apply anything more than the most superficial glaze of sleep to my mind these situations, no matter how tired I am – and there, in Paris, I was tired. We’d spent 1.5 days and a night in that city: wandering mostly from thing to thing, not lingering, walking and gawking a lot because we were worried about making our money last.

When we got into Paris the day before, it was already in the middle of the afternoon. We rushed to the Louvre and then, because we only had an hour or so before closing, rushed through it, blasting our eyes with centuries of art: a maelstrom of Crucifixions, so many elegaic Marys, whole cloudbanks of plump white Renaissance flesh. Our feet echoed on the parquet floors and there was light coming through the many, many windows.

Saw the Mona Lisa: a small painting hung on a freestanding wall standing in the middle of a larger room that was hung with other paintings: these were inevitably ignored for the drab little Gioconda in the center. Even late in the day there was a crowd of people: an employee drifted through the crowd holding up a sign that said, in English: “Watch Out For Pickpockets.” I kept tapping my back pocket to make sure my wallet was there.

We found time, too, to go Shakespeare & Company. I bought a copy of The Unquiet Grave there and had the clerk, a French-speaking American girl, stamp the interior with a seal that showed where I got it from.

“Vous êtes ouverts jusqu’a quelle heure?” I asked her, with weak obscure fantasies in my head. Her response was too fast for my slow ear to parse.

The last thing we did that night was go to the Eiffel Tower. I’d seen it at various points throughout the afternoon: I’d look up and there it would be, standing mundanely on the horizon, in a notch between buildings. Up close it looked straddle-legged, like a woman squatting and holding up her trusswork skirt. There were people everywhere in the plaza. A vendor nearby was selling these toys that shot off a light up spinning disk straight up into the air; people were buying these and firing them up into the struts of the toward: little disks in varicolors, wobbling, floating, falling down far away from where they were fired and immediately forgotten.

Next night, on the train, I wasn’t thinking about these things. I was trying studiously to read – not The Unquiet Grave, but The Mauritius Command. Q was next to me in his seat, alternately reading and writing. Eventually, he fell asleep.

Across from us in the cabin there was an old man with a long, dirty beard, and long chitinous yellow fingernails, and a green American-style military jacket. He looked permanently vagabond. His skin was sallow, his cheeks were hollows. He smelled like stale tobacco, coughed like a smoker. From the moment he sat down he stared out the window, moving only when he had to cough.

Sometimes I would look up from my book and out the window. I couldn’t see anything other than vague shadows on darker shadows, but all obscured by my own shadowed reflection from the reading light I had on. Eventually, I turned the light off. Then, those outside shadows resolved softly into an almost-landscape, in which different textures of darkness could be discerned and guessed at: trees, hills, buildings of bucolic obscurity. Before, it felt like I was taking a gigantic tunnel between Paris and Florence, or that the train had a cloth cover thrown around it, as if the process of transitioning between these two places was an act of magic I wasn’t allowed to see the mechanics of; now I felt a sensation of passage, of movement through physical space, passing through nameless countryside that had only been walked on by people I couldn’t even imagine.

At some point I must’ve dozed. I woke up when the train stopped at a small station. It was still in the small hours of the night. An electric light from outside managed to extend just a finger into our cabin; the thin band of light lay across the old man’s face like a daub of warpaint. His left eye was caught in the light: it was blue, cloudy with glaucoma; it looked huge in the light and didn’t blink. It stared out the window. But eventually, as if he had thought about whether he should or not, the old man got up and went out onto the platform. I thought to smoke maybe, but he didn’t come back.

5/20/20: A Note on Sleep and a Note on Love

**This post spoils some things about Anna Karenina‘s plot**

Today I dozed for a while while reading The Man Without Talent. It was the weirdest period of sleep I’ve had in recent memory. It was a total void. People talk about heavy or light sleep but this felt different: like I clipped through the geometry of myself into some sort of exterior void outside of reality’s programming. I wasn’t aware that I was sleeping, not even in that low broad unblinking level of consciousness that doesn’t sleep and constantly reminds us we’re alive.

There was no blackness; it was without color, substance, mental texture. The only way I knew it existed was that I woke up and realized I had been somewhere. It existed only as this chronological gap that I was aware of when I woke up, a lacuna; there was this sensation of recovery, of the senses rushing in to be shocked at something that had happened too quickly and completely for even their godlike instantaneousness. My brain felt like it was recovering from a lover’s unexpected slap.

I don’t know exactly how long it lasted. Not long. But it was one of those sleeps that isn’t restorative at all, that somehow feels draining, like you left something vital for the day behind in it – although in this case there was no it to speak of.


I finished Anna Karenina last night. There’s a quote that circulates from Nabokov in which he calls it “one of the greatest love stories in world literature.” I don’t know the context of this quote; I assume it’s from Lectures on Russian Literature but I don’t have a copy of that book to confirm. Maybe don’t have that much Nabokov in your library. I think he’s an insufferable snob. My favorite literary own of all time is the way David Markson describes Nabokov’s style as “pinchbeck” in the Reader’s Block tetralogy.

Nabokov is one of those insufferable mid-century gamesmen, but let’s assume he’s not, in this case, being ironic or precious and really does consider Anna Karenina a love story, in the traditional sense of that term.

This assumption will give me a chance to countermand Nabokov because Anna Karenina is emphatically not a love story in the traditional meaning of the term. It is, however, a book about love. There are two types/depths/breeds of love explored in the novel: that between Levin and Kitty, and that between Anna and Vronsky. One of these, at least according to the book’s internal metaphysics, is actually love. To this end there is one of the more interesting structural elements of the book: the Levin/Kitty side sees the climax – their getting engaged and married – happen well before the novel’s end, so that most of what you see is these two young people living in the honesty agony of loving another human being.

Because the process of being love is different than the process of loving someone. Being in love is a selfish phase, an act where we respond to an artifact inside of us that is made in honor of or in response to somebody else, but isn’t. This is the sexy, easy side of love, the marketable side; it’s commercial and catchy.

But to love someone is to enter into a deadly serious commitment, and to move away from all that easy joy. Real connections to other people we make only through a sort of violence, because we’re forcing down barriers within ourselves that are rooted in the center of who we are, in our very pith. Love ceases to be an emotion we feel for a doll and becomes another country we leave our homes for, or an entire planet with its own gravity, weather, and tides.

And it’s a hostile environment, an odyssey from which there is no return. Love is an ocean, and there is no shore. It ends only because the author dies, not because the book is finished. It takes bravery and abasement to love with any honesty. And love is as demanding as consumption; to give anything less than every wringable ounce of what it asks is to give nothing at all, and to fail entirely.

And because love is its own world with its own rules, it moves away from delivering any of the things we have been told we should promise ourselves in this world: happiness, pleasure, etc. Those things may come in the course of life, from the person we love, but they come from outside of the love in some way, because like us the person we love has to live both in this reality and in the other reality of love.

The only reason to love is the same reason to engage with art. It’s the only way to make a real connection. And, in the desert loneliness and desperation of existence, that is more than enough reason.

(This was the same copy of Anna Karenina, by the way, that you read when we lived in Boulder. Every time I saw it since then I thought that someday I’d read it, and it would be like some kind of strange penance, an oblique way of moving towards you again. But, actually, I didn’t think of you at all while I was reading it. In fact, while I was reading Anna Karenina was the only time I wasn’t thinking of you. The reality of the book was such that I was immersed in it, rather than my own reality. In my reality there’s some way, maybe a weakness of mine or maybe simply some integral truth, that makes it hard for me to define myself to myself without reference to you. When I was reading I wasn’t thinking of myself, and thus I wasn’t thinking of you. But I thought of you again whenever I closed the book.)

5/19/20: Rules, Hook, an Island

My OCD is a metropolis of order. The strictures I’ve imposed upon myself are ranked according to power and authority, like angels. An individual stricture’s power isn’t derived from its posited consequence, because the consequence of lesser and greater strictures are usually the same: whatever my overriding fear is at that time. The strictures’ power comes from the severity of the punishment that comes when they’re broken.

The basic system here is this: when a stricture of any sort is broken, the usual compulsion is to perform a Correction. What the correction is differs depending on the stricture broken. For instance, if a stricture says that I can’t think certain thoughts, and I do think those thoughts, then I have to think certain counter-thoughts to correct them. If I say certain things that I’m not allowed to say, I have to say other things to balance out the infraction. And so on.

Say that I break a stricture, but go a day or two resisting the drive to correct it. In these cases, if I’m unsuccessful in my resistance, there’s the original correction to do, but also lots of sub-corrections for things I’ve done of a certain permanence in the violated interim. That “certain permanence” general means anything less transient than (most) spoken words; anything that remains to some degree: writing emails, sending texts, buying things. So then in the process of correction the sub-corrections I’ll delete the emails and texts, return the things I bought. In some phases of a certain severity I would have to reread anything that I read in the interim again, after all the other corrections were in place, to correct those read words as well.

It’s hard to remember all these interim things that need correction after the original thing is corrected. Sometimes I’ll only realize days later that I forgot to correct some certain thing that I did after the initial violation. So a period of violation lasting maybe a day or two might could take a week or more to fully correct. And obviously anything meeting that criterion of permanence that I do before I remember that something that I forgot to correct from that original interim, also needs to be corrected in its own sub-interim.

Sometimes, with a lesser stricture, I can eventually process a violation without going back to correct. But I have to process the infraction slowly, like a snake swallowing some cumbersome dead thing much bigger than itself.

And sometimes, I can argue myself into believing that what I originally perceived was a violation of this or that stricture is not, in fact, a violation at all. Violations can be ‘tried,’, proven or disproven in a little interior court. This isn’t as much of a victory as it sounds like, because the original stricture is still in place and its strength still believed in.

And sometimes, for whatever reason or extenuating circumstance (if for example there’s literally no way I could correct it or perform any sort of reasonable approximation of a correction), a particular violation in a particular point in time won’t have its normal authority, and it can be ignored. One good sometimes side effect of traveling, for instance, is that since I’m not in a place long enough to develop an architecture of (self-)control there, I can usually ignore more than I can at home.

But in general, the punishments come sweeping in for any violation. There are two different aspects of the punishment to consider: first, there’s the imagined punishment, what I fear will happen if I let the violation go uncorrected: for instance dying in a tornado.

And more immediately, there’s the neurological punishment, which is immediate, visceral, and real. Various intensities aside, it is essentially an injection of anxiety into the system. Anybody with anxiety knows the different textures and affinities that it can have, and naturally the anxiety from lesser infractions is less intense: the rib cage playing high notes like a harp, a hotbrained few minutes of irrational panic. They pass quicker, although they can recur until a correction is made or the infraction is otherwise disposed of.

For the biggest violations there’s a hook: big and glistening black, it gets lowered invisibly down right into the center of my skull, where its barb sinks into the brainmeat without resistance, like a hand parting a bead curtain. All the thoughts and energies of my brain roll down to the point where the puncture is, and can’t focus on anything other than the word VIOLATION being mouthed liplessly by the wound.

Anything other than the most mindless tasks are too steep. So I ferret through inconsequences: browses my phone aimlessly, watch TV, consider the unwalkable geography of the ceiling or the back of my hand. The gap between conceiving of and doing anything seems impossibly vast.

And it occurs to me now that the leitmotif of these states, big or small, is always the same: a conviction of islandic aloneness. Not loneliness, but aloneness, a profound insularity, a permanent unrelation to all other people and things. Thus final tragedy in any interior affliction isn’t the pain it causes, but the way it proves that there are always going to be distances between us and others.

5/18/20: Anger

Another walk today, a short one. It was that particularly off-putting kind of day where the sky is leaden, gray, louring, cold-looking, but it’s humid out and warm. If you’re at the right level of sensitivity, this meteorological contradiction grates at the base of your mind the entire time you’re out in it.

(It’s easy to talk about the weather, because it has no character or philosophy and offers no opposition. You can ascribe any qualities to it that you want, without any possibility of refutation. But I think also that the weather is the most obvious thing when you look in any particular direction around here. Like, these suburbs of suburbs that I’ve lived in for so long are so characterless, so utterly mundane and unworthy, that the bland eternal changeability of the sky is a more compelling character than the vinyl-sided houses, the music coming down from loudspeakers in stripmall parking lots, the stinking dogwood trees…)

My friends and I talk through text, I meet up with some of them remotely for games, I play Go online with the Cleveland club members. But these are poor substitutes in two ways: there’s the obvious difference between actual and digital contact; but also all these simulacra fail to appease my hunger for normalcy. Again, the defining sensation of the pandemic is this ravagesome longing to go back to the way things were; it comes to me more acutely and wearing more colors than the fear or the boredom. So when I talk with friends over Zoom or play a rival online, there’s this twofold awareness of inadequacy, and it makes me bitter and angry.

And like any major shift in the paradigm, COVID 19 is exerting strange influence on everyone’s personalities. Its tampering with our tides. I’m seeing sides of people I haven’t seen before, maybe that didn’t exist before, both for better and for worse. And the logic between one mood and the next is less obvious: people seem to get angry easier, to fight more frequently. Maybe this will pass. Maybe we’re still at the mercy of the newness and shock, and still don’t know how well we’re holding up, and don’t really know how anybody else is holding up either, and that introduces multiple additional unknowns into any social interaction, so that whether we’ll end up closer with someone or further away again from them at the end of an exchange is more uncertain than it was before.

Out walking today I agreed to see my dad, since I’d be in his neighborhood. We stood in the driveway six feet apart and talked for a bit. It was the first time we’d seen each other in person since the beginning of March. His hair was longer than I’d ever seen it – or at least it felt that way, but it could’ve been the novelty of seeing him again that made my mind overpronounce minor differences from my last mental snapshot of him.

He was talking about moving. He said he wanted to move to South Carolina. It was something he’d been thinking about for years, talking about for years, but never seriously, and now it seemed like it was serious. Even in better times, much of what we ‘know’ about a person is static assumption, so that when they do something unexpected sometimes it feels, just for a second, like a personal insult, or as bitter as a farewell, as we readjust perceptions we haven’t fundamentally altered in years.

We walked for a bit together (still six feet apart). Closer to the bottom of the street, before it curved away, I turned at an intersection and walked away home. He was wearing gym shorts that were blue and shimmered like fish scales in the feeble light. I dressed for the way the weather looked, not the way it was, and was feeling hot and choked under my hoodie.

On the way home and all afternoon I felt stupid. Stupid for a bitter exchange I had with a friend the night before; stupid for being even momentarily vexed at my dad for doing something my rusticating definitions of his character didn’t account for. Parents we particularly don’t reappraise as often as we should, maybe.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Gass’s sentiment that writing, for him, was an act of revenge. Is there any creative act that doesn’t originate in fury? There’s joy in the creative act, but that joy is generated internally, it doesn’t inspire the act itself. Lots of people make stuff in joy, but does that does that kind of creation make anything real? Does art come from any other place than a savage discontent?

There’s also something purgative in art as revenge. It burns impurities away that would otherwise build up in us. There have been so many times where, in a situation with someone I like or love, I’ve gotten angry, or been bitter, snarky, said something that embarrassed me afterward; I’ve taken hard stances against good people because I was mad at myself for not being strong enough to take them against the forces that really needed to be resisted. And I didn’t know I was doing this at the time, because the anger flowed out so easily. When ignored, anger obeys a gravity, moving down from more difficult to less difficult expressions, the same way water is always moving towards the center of the earth.