Apropos of Something

Thinking back to riding the bus in… Tyler? Longview? Shreveport? That time in life is a blur. But I remember this one kid on the bus, older than me, who was under constant attack from a group of four or five bullies.

He suffered their abuse in silence. Once, it was storming outside. The bullies took up a seat in front of him and opened the window wide. Rain poured in, pelting this kid. He held up his jacket as a shield and didn’t say a thing.

No one else said a thing. Not the bus driver, no one. In my defense, I was a couple three years younger than the bullies and their target. A pipsqueak.

Some of the other kids laughed, some stayed quiet and averted their eyes. The most I could do was sit by the kid. Ask him about the NASA sticker on his notebook.

“Why are people piling on this person?”

Rather than join in, I want to find out more about the person being dog piled. What am I missing? And I want to know for myself, not just trust the so-called “wisdom” of the crowd.

“Ask not for whom the bell tolls,” and all that.

I’m not perfect, and I’ve definitely been a bully from time to time, but for the most part, my instinct is to slow down and learn what I can about the dog piled. Maybe it’s because I’ve been bullied, too. I don’t know.

What I do know is the dopamine hit from piling on isn’t worth the IQ drop from turning off your curiosity, or blunting your capacity for empathy by acting cruel.

A high school friend once shared an essay with me about kindness. It moved her and it’s really stuck with me. (That might have been the point, come to think of it. I could be a real prick back then. She might have been trying to instruct me—out of kindness, of course.)

Basically, there’s a difference between being “nice” and being “kind.” Being “nice” is empty and obsequious. It’s compromising your integrity to make other people comfortable. Being kind doesn’t mean sacrificing your integrity; it means don’t be a dick about it.

“Nice” is shallow and pretentious. “Kind” is engaging on a human level.

It’s a simple thing.

“Do you want to work at NASA someday?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. I just like the logo I guess.”

I wonder where that kid is now.

Liminal

I enjoy watching YouTube channels devoted to old, defunct theme park attractions. Channels like Defunctland, Yesterworld, and others offer highly entertaining and informative deep dives into one of my most favorite topics: ephemera. Maybe it’s a lingering side effect of working in live theater, but I have a fondness for things that just aren’t built to last.

Sure, a place like Disneyland seems timeless and in a constant state of renewal, but I first visited the part in 2001, when it was desperately in need of some TLC. I’ve seen how quickly the timeless can crumble when neglected.

Last night, I watched a video that has stayed with me all day. Offhand Disney’s “Liminal Spaces at the Disney Parks”:

A transitional space that is neither here nor there.

It reminds me of growing up in “flyover country,” mostly in rural Arkansas and Louisiana, looking up at the night sky and picking out the distant blinking lights of a passenger plane. Thinking about the people inside the plane, who left one destination city bound for another. That was a very liminal time in my life.

When my wife and I moved to Los Angeles, I felt that I had finally arrived. In fact, I had passed from one liminal space to another. I don’t think I really appreciated it at the time–I was too busy trying to make that transition to notice where I was–but I can reflect on just how magical it was.

There’s a buzz in Los Angeles. It’s a liminal space for so many people; hundreds of thousands of other people simultaneously transitioning. Actively working on it. It’s energizing.

In reading about liminal space today, I ran across this meditation by a Franciscan friar, Father Richard Rohr:

“There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible.”

Much like Zeno’s arrow I think we sometimes forget that we are constantly in a state of motion. Constantly in a liminal space. We have an illusion of being at rest, but we are nevertheless firing forward into the unknown, towards some distant target that will mark the end of our flight.

It reminds me of something I wrote in my journal, not long after moving from Los Angeles to our new home in Dallas. “Life is a series of interlocking interludes. Rolling French scenes that meander through time. We make our entrances and our exits, as does everyone. You can’t replay the past or perform your future roles before their time. All you have is now. Don’t squander that and you’ll do fine.”

More from Fr. Rohr:

“Cheap religion teaches us how to live contentedly in a sick world, just as poor therapy teaches us how to accommodate ourselves to a sometimes small world based on power, prestige, and possessions. A good therapist and a good minister will always open up larger vistas for you, which are by definition risky, instead of just ‘rearranging the deck chairs’ on a sinking Titanic.”

Lately I’ve been missing the old me. The “cocksure and arrogant” me who dreamed big and boldly chased down those dreams. The me who is capable of commanding an audience, inspiring others, and creating marvels. Not because I desire power, prestige, or possessions. Not at all. Because I miss the way it makes me feel. I miss dancing at the edge of risk, creating ephemeral experiences that nevertheless echo forward into the lives of others.

Much like Disneyland, circa 2001, I feel like I’m slowing falling apart. Yeah, I’m getting older. I was 26 years old when I first set foot on Hollywood Blvd. I’m 46 now. But it’s more than just routine body stuff, more than just sleep apnea, anxiety issues, occasional aches and pains.

I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. I guess I never really knew what I was doing, but when I was in my 20s and 30s at least I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

Fr. Rohr says, “If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy.” I think it can work the other way, too. You can start idealizing normalcy so much that you shut yourself off to liminal space. The liminal is all around us. The only constant in the cosmos is change, and we are very much a part of the cosmos.

I need to open up to larger vistas. I need to figure out how.

The Evil Thing

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I don’t know where it came from
Somehow it’s always been there
Watching, taunting, mocking me
Blinkless eyes and empty stare

I must’ve thrown it out
A thousand times before
To find it back again
And watching me once more

I locked it in the attic
In shadows black and deep
For once I felt so peaceful
For once my fears could sleep

I went about my life
The evil thing was gone
And yet it lurked above
Its moment yet to come

And come it did one day
When feeling battered, living,
I found it waiting for me
Familiar comfort giving

Slowly I succumbed
And falling at its perch
Delivered to it offerings
With reverence besmirched

As the world outside grew colder
The evil was an ally
My confidante and succor
On whom I could rely

But it was I grown cold
My own eyes grown dim
The evil wore me down
I ushered in the grim

I’ve woke up to the truth
I know it’s not my friend
I know it wants to kill me
It wants to see my end

I want to throw it out again
Remove it from my midst
But I can feel it watching me
Its blinkless eyes affixed

I made a home for evil
And turned my back to all
Alone with the empty eyes
Of a simple kewpie doll

Split the Page

It’s been a minute since I posted anything here. “Life’s what happens,” etc. My wife and I have been slowing moving into our new house, so I’ve been otherwise preoccupied.

The good news is, the packing process has turned up a bunch of random scribblings. This is a poem fragment I wrote in 2018 (I think).

Unfocused eyes split the page
I rub them into alignment
Too many thoughts are lost
As the eyes wander away

Wrist protests the motion
Of scratching ink onto the page
Which is, again, split
I rotate the wrist
I close the eyes

So many thoughts are wasted
I can’t pour them out fast enough
Can’t scratch enough ink
Across fractured pages

Super Powers

Photo by Elti Meshau from Pexels

It should be obvious from the tags and such, but this is a work of fiction. Just putting that out there so you don’t think I’m insane. (Feel free to think that for other reasons.)

If you could have a super power? What would it be?

It’s a game kids play with each other. I’ve never answered it straight. When I was a kid, I would say stuff like “deadly farts” or “explosive boogers.” Always a joke. The truth was, I didn’t have to daydream about a super power. I had one.

My entire life, whenever I’ve been around a bully, the moment they inflict pain on their victim, I get a flash. A knowing. More colorful than full-color, more dimensional than 3D, I perceive that bully’s ultimate weakness. Not some physical thing, like an Achilles heel, no. I see their ruin.

The thing, the one fact about that bully, the linchpin of their very existence, the thing that hurts them most. I then, at that moment, have the power to completely and utterly crush the bully. With just a few words, I can open up their very soul and hit them at their deepest point.

I remember the first time it happened. A bully in the recess yard named Greg Artz pushed Renee Andersen off her swing. He laughed, she cried. Fuming, I hissed just a few words to Greg: “It’s your fault he left.” Greg’s face went pale. Tears poured down his face. He was out of school for a week.

Was that a fair punishment for the crime of pushing little Renee off her swing? What about all the Renees that came before? Or would have come after? When Greg came back to school, I always hovered near. If I ever saw him get that wicked look in his eye, all it took was a look. He backed down.

It’s an awesome power, and one I take very seriously. “With great power comes…” you know the rest. To be completely honest, I have misused it a time or two. When the bullying is acute or accidental, and when the existential dagger I can throw would in some way benefit me. A work rival thoughtlessly saying something calloused. A work rival who then has to take a leave of absence for a while, to tend to the nervous breakdown he had in the men’s room later that day.

I suffer for those. Not with a nervous breakdown, divorce, attempted suicide, or a lifetime of crippling anxiety. But I do get violently ill for the next 72 hours. I can’t keep anything down. Can’t sleep. I look like death at the end of it.

These days, I mostly ply my trade online. If you’ve ever been eviscerated by a cyberbully who suddenly disappeared online, never to be heard from again, I probably slipped into their DMs. “Your mother died thinking you hated her.” “She is sleeping with your brother.” “I know what you did to your sister’s hamster.” “Your father is right about you.”

I’ll be honest, I do get off on it. Maybe that makes me a bully. Maybe I’m as sadistic as Greg Artz. No one would know it. I’m actually a pretty nice guy. Unless you’re a bully, of course. Whatever (okay, I’ll say it) evil impulses I have are well fed by my bully takedowns. 

I’ll admit to a certain sociopathic thrill at shaking an asshole to their very core, and I don’t regret what I do. Hell, I wish I could be there to witness every act of bullying, everytime some rotten bastard puts themselves in a position of dominance over another human being. I love being able to turn the tables on someone just as they are feeling powerful at another’s expense. 

But truly, you have to believe me, that’s the only darkness in my life. On the whole, I’d say I’m pretty well adjusted.

Okay, pretty well adjusted, all things considered. Just last year, I followed a guy through traffic. He nearly drove another driver off the road, a longhaired kid with a honest-to-God peace symbol painted on his hood. As the bully’s head rocked back with laughter, I saw his ruin. I followed that jerk halfway across town before he finally pulled into a sporting goods store. I think he was the manager or something. 

He didn’t see or notice me–another possible super power, but I’ve never really tested it. I waited until he was alone, at the gun counter. I leaned over and said just five words to him. A look of horror washed over his face. I left.

Out in my car, I thought I heard a gunshot. I couldn’t be sure. It wouldn’t be the first time an encounter with my uncanny ability would end that way.

It sounds like I’m bragging. I don’t mean to brag. I shouldn’t brag about something so horrible. But I’m trying to be radically honest these days. Have you heard of radical honesty? It’s a movement, there’s a book. Anyway.

I have to tell someone this. This next part. And you have to understand that everything I’ve told you is the truth. Do you remember Aaron? Two houses over. Yes. The one who disappeared for a few weeks and turned up back living with his mom in Des Moines. I saw him yelling at his kid one afternoon. I almost regret breaking up the family, but she is so much better off without him.

Do you believe me?

So this is the next part. Something happens to me if I don’t use my super power. It makes the sickness after misusing it look like a spa day. Sick like I am right now. You’ve seen me like this before. Last March. That wasn’t the flu. This isn’t the flu. 

There was a bully at church who I knew had some health issues. That wasn’t his ruin–no his ruin was something far more pernicious that health issues. But, knowing that most of us have bullying impulses that we keep in check, and knowing the kind of pain he was going through, I tried to show some mercy. 

It wrecked me. I thought I was going to die. I spent almost two days straight online. I destroyed a message board–so many bullies in such a small space. It wasn’t until I found a YouTuber who posted videos ridiculing various comic book movies that I was able to turn the corner on it.

Yes, the one that killed himself.

I’ve started getting sick again, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

There’s a guy on tv… I’m sorry, I can’t say his name without wanting to throw up. I mean literally. You know him. Everyone knows him. It’s just constant vitriol. Constant belittling. He has his favorite targets, and he goes after them all the time. And the hate he inspires in others–God! There’s an echo effect to his bullying that I can feel in my bones.

The thing is, everytime I witness his bullying, everytime my bones shake, I get nothing.

No flash. No “knowing.” No color, no depth. 

And it’s slowly killing me. I can feel it. The sheer weight of what he does to people is too much. I can’t offset it with internet trolls and road rage assholes.

I have to tell someone. I’m going to die. If I confessed some personal horror at how easily I can inflict pain on the cruel, I hope you would understand–the horror this guy makes me feel is hundred times worse. 

Evil has always been a relative term. Oftentimes the people I dispatch have an “evil” that’s caused by some past trauma. What I do to them is also “evil,” I suppose. But this guy, he’s Evil. He doesn’t have a soul.

My God, he doesn’t have a soul!

Hi, My Name is Gerund

Hi, My Name is Gerund

I am aging
My hair graying, thinning
My waist expanding
My clock is ticking
My past extending
My time is fleeting
My heart is beating
My lungs are breathing
And my body moving
If somewhat slowing
And also aching

But at least I’m present
Not yet present perfect
And far from perfect
Far enough along
To see the end and the beginning
And always beginning
As if to forestall the end

And so I’m running
Ever striving
Goddammit! Trying
But I would be lying
If I were saying
I wasn’t fretting
The day my gerunds
Stop

Bela

Elegant deceiver,
What monsters lurked inside
To turn you to the needle,
Such a wicked place to hide?

What voices in the dark
Shook your soul so fierce
As creeping fingers found
A coursing vein to pierce?

Did you draw the blood to verify
The vein you found was ripe?
Did you lick your lips as poison slipped
Beneath your skin so white?

What horrific visions
Around you madly spun?
How soft and slow your heartbeat
As you sat there, stoned and numb?

And then to find your savior
Was the beast that would destroy
How panicked and betrayed you
Must have felt, the monster’s toy

Your power once commanding
Withered, corpse-like, old and gray;
No more fear for virgin hearts,
Your instrument betrayed

No more the Count but Renfield,
Starving, raving mad
Clutching at the memories
Of the life you used to have

And by your hand ‘twas done.
The killer and the slain.
Oh, elegant deceiver,
Your loss, a mortal shame

Playing Possum

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Image by csbonawitz from Pixabay

Note: I was digging through old drafts last night, and found these song lyrics in an untitled document from January 2014. I’m not sure what exactly inspired these words, but at that time I was in my third month of unemployment after being laid off from a dream job. Safe to say I wasn’t feeling great about the world.

Moon is high, mercury low
Cars fly by the end of my nose
I’m playing possum in the middle of the road

Heard a noise somebody made
Nowhere to hide, feeling afraid
I’m playing possum in the middle of the road

I only look like roadkill
In fact I’m feeling quite well
But I’m gonna stay oh so very still
While hoping you go along to hell

Biding my time, biting my tongue
Don’t want to fight, no strength to run
I’m playing possum in the middle of the road

Second Cherry Revision

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Photo by Min An from Pexels

The boring, unglamorous work of screenwriting
Seems, to me, a fitting metaphor for being human.
The bits and pieces of ideas, snippets of dialogue,
Coalesce into a rough draft. Notes from trusted eyes
Clean up the zealous, adolescent narrative
And over time we’re ready to present the “White Draft.”

Decisive black letters on crisp white paper.

But as the demands of production come in,
As roles are cast and locations secured,
As the dialogue between writer and director continues,
Pages are rewritten.

To make things easier, only the edited pages are replaced.
As this process continues, if you follow the WGA pattern,
You wind up with a sheaf of rainbow-colored pages
(At least metaphorically, since no one prints on cherry-red paper)

Clunky dialogue is replaced.
Leaps of logic, cleaned up.
Plot holes, filled.
Extraneous nonsense, removed, replaced by all-caps OMITTED.
But many early words are retained. The heart of the story, retained.

Every now and then, you see a finished movie
That clearly needed another draft.
Every now and then, a page-one rewrite is called for.
Sometimes a screenplay goes into turnaround,
And new partners are found to work with.

But here’s where the metaphor breaks down:
Most screenplays don’t benefit from change.
They gather dust in a pile of other abandoned screenplays
Or worse, are tossed in the trash, forgotten, irrelevant.
While the ones that get made are forever fixed in one form.

That’s not you. That’s not me.
There are further revisions to be made.
Further revisions are being made, all the time.
What pages are you on?