This Afternoon

This morning, I quite literally forgot to write.

I’ve been busy trying to get ready to move, and also to do all the things that pile up during the school year which I save for the summer: I have books to read and books to write, shows to binge watch, movies to re-watch, and of course I have to lose twenty pounds and go visit Las Vegas.

In no particular order.

No, actually: the books are first, after the move. All the rest of it can wait or simply not happen.

But while I was thinking about moving, I thought about the Sims. And I wished that moving in real life could be as simple as moving in the Sims: you click on all of your possessions and put them into your inventory; then you click on the house, click Move Family Out, and then go to the new house and click Move In, and BOOM! Done. Then you just move the furniture back out of your personal inventory, and everything is perfect.

The only realistic touch in moving in the game is that it is absurdly expensive. Though again, point and click and you can instantly make money, by selling furniture that magically vanishes into thin air once you make the decision to sell, without a single awkward phone call or visit from somebody from the depths of Craig’s List. You can even sell the paint off of your walls.

That’s another thing I’d like for real life to be like the Sims: money. First, I’d like to get paid every day; I’d like to get promotions basically every week; I’d like to have increasingly nice vehicles come to pick me up for work every day, ending with either a limo or a helicopter. Though I’d hate getting those phone calls from your boss when you miss work; that would be a pain. I’d like to get hired for every single job I ever asked for, and to be able to go back to an old career at exactly the same spot where I left it. I’d like job searching to comprise between three and seven possibilities every day, every single one of them at least potentially appropriate to me and my needs.

I’d like to be able to gain or lose weight in a matter of hours with a treadmill or a refrigerator. I’d like the refrigerator to supply all the materials of a meal, with only a little chopping and mixing for meal prep. I’d like the food to be cooked in seconds, and I’d like to be able to store leftovers in the fridge simply by picking up the plate of food and shoving it in the ol’ Frigidaire. I’d also really like to be able to pull leftovers out of the fridge and set them on the table exactly as they were when last served: and also steaming hot the second I put them on a plate.

I’d like to be able to learn important and complicated skills like machine repair and cooking with a few hours and a book. I’d like to know what all of my needs are, and how to fulfill them in simple, straightforward ways, and I’d like to reach any of those reward-type events that come from satisfying all of my needs: I’d like to enter the Zone, or turn all gold and sparkly. I’d like to dance with happiness, spontaneously and often.

I’d like to be able to leave my life — though it had better stay on pause when I do; the console version of Sims 3 was an atrocity for that reason — and go visit other people’s. I’d like to be able to manipulate both my own story and other people’s, though I’d like to be able to say that I would only do it benevolently. I’d like that to be true. But I know perfectly well that my Sims play has not shown me to be a benevolent master: I am far more likely to torment than to guide, to debase rather than uplift. What can I say? It’s more fun. Besides, I’m not talking about whether I should be allowed to run the world like a massive game of Sims: clearly I should not, as my long history of Sims serial killers should show; I’m just talking about what I would like.

I would really like to control Donald Trump.

There are certainly aspects of the Sims I would not want to reproduce in my life. First is the time frame: Sims don’t live long. I would not want my life to be measured in days, no matter how efficiently run those days could be. The Sims are always more interested in socializing than I am; my Sims’ social interactions are inevitably rote and reluctant, stuck in between more interesting tasks (where they are not strange and warped as part of my more diabolical plans), and I am always annoyed by their constant need for other Sims in their lives. I do indeed need other people in my life, specifically my wife and my pets, but I don’t suffer the Sims’ rapid disintegration of mood in their momentary absence, and I don’t want to change that. Sims are much too materialistic for me: they are made instantly happier by buying slightly more expensive versions of the stuff they already have, and I have very little interest in that. And, of course, I want to be able to open a door even if someone did leave a plate in front of it — and I would really hate it if I left a puddle on the floor just because someone was standing in front of the door to the bathroom when I had to go.

I’d kinda like it if there were actual fireworks in the sky every time I WooHooed.

Anyway: I guess the point is that I wish I had more control over my life, that every thing I did could be intentional and a valuable use of my time. (Clearly I also want rewards without effort, but hey, who doesn’t?) My Sims play is marked by efficiency: I love nothing more than lining up a dozen tasks for my Sims, and then letting them run through their entire day while I watch and intervene as needed. My life is very much the opposite of that: as you can tell by my rapid decline in posting a This Morning post every morning, as soon as my school year ends. I am nothing if not inefficient. But also, I don’t want to do what would be needed to become more efficient: because it’s my inefficiency, my wasted time, that allows me to be the one thing my Sims can never, ever be:



This Morning

This morning I am happy. My senior students graduated yesterday; I was the MC for the ceremony, which meant I was nervous and uncomfortable all day leading up to it — because regardless of how much time I spend in front of a classroom full of students, it doesn’t take away my stage fright or my introversion. And also, a classroom full of students is quite different from a gymnasium filled with probably 500 people, including parents and grandparents and all of my fellow teachers and my administrators and my wife. Much more nerve-wracking.

But it went well, my speech was well-received, I made my former students cry. Here, for the sake of those who did hear it and want to remember, is my speech; it won’t mean a whole lot to people who don’t know these kids, but these kids aren’t the only ones who suit these words, so feel free to substitute your own children or students for the ones I was talking to and about.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends and family, students, teachers, administrators – and, of course, graduates.

Welcome to the Graduation Ceremony for the Class of 2019!

(to the grads) I bet some of you thought you wouldn’t make it here today. But you did it. All of you: you did it.

You had help – parents, siblings, relatives; teachers, and friends – and all your online friends, YouTube, Khan Academy, Quizlet, Yahoo answers, Wikipedia, Sparknotes, Slader,

But the point is: you did the real work. You spent the late nights, and the all-nights; the early mornings, the lunchtimes and the passing periods, cramming and studying and reviewing and furiously finishing assignments. You’ve gone through thousands of sheets of paper, hundreds of pencils and pens, gallons of energy drinks, an average of fourteen Hydroflasks each, and a literal ton of hot Cheetos. You sweated through the tests, the essays, the labs, the presentations. You fought through the despair, and stress, anxiety and depression, fear and anger and sadness and happiness – because honestly, nothing makes it harder to sit down to a test than when you’re having a really good day.

You did all of that. All of it. Make no mistake: if anyone tries to minimize this accomplishment, to tell you that this was easy, that it is not impressive – don’t listen. This is impressive. You are impressive. You made it. High school – all school – is rough. And you’ve made it.

And I only have one thing to say to you: don’t let the door hit you in the butt on the way out.

Seriously – and I say it with love – get out. Go away and don’t come back. We’re all as tired of you as you are of us, and we’re all going to breathe a huge sigh of relief when you all have left. This is one of the most – let’s say “challenging” – classes I think this school has ever seen.

Want to know why?

You’re one of the smartest classes this school has ever seen.

You’re so smart, all of you, that it has been impossible to keep up with you. Impossible to consistently challenge you. Impossible to control you. Speaking from my experience, trying to run a discussion with all of you was insane: too many of you had things to say, and if you didn’t get to say them to the class, you would say them to each other, all at once. It was chaos.

You all burn so brightly that you draw all the air from the room – and because this school, these rooms, are so small, there wasn’t that much air to begin with. I honestly think that’s why you fought so much with each other: too many lions in too small a cage. It was a daily struggle to be on top, to stand out, to show how good you are individually, among all these other amazing people.

So. Now’s your chance.

You’ve been held in this small space, like a flower in a too-small pot, for too. Long. Now – you are free. Free to grow as tall and as grand and as glorious as you can. You will overshadow this place. You will tower over us, spread far beyond us.

I cannot wait to see what you all become.

So get out.

There was a keynote speaker, of course, a NASA scientist and actor who happens to be related to one of our newest alumni. I thought he did a great job with his speech — but I couldn’t help noticing that he leaned pretty heavily on clichés. He was actually quite up front about it: part of his theme was using Google (or technology in general) to find what you need, which was fine since he was talking to a STEM school; but the Commencement Speeches he Googled were apparently pretty generic. It was good and useful advice, but — generic.

So I thought I would write some of my own advice. Here, then, is something like what I would say if I were to be the keynote speaker at a graduation. This is what I would tell a group of students who were about to leave high school and embark on the adult part of their lives — also known as “the good part.”


Speeches like this are always full of clichés. Now, I don’t dislike clichés; I think most of them are true, and have genuinely useful things to say. Clever sayings don’t become clichés if they aren’t true, and truth isn’t talked about unless it is cleverly worded; so pay attention to clichés. At the same time, though, be aware of when the overuse of clichés clouds the message: because it’s a rarely known biological fact that people’s ears go deaf while that person is rolling their eyes. Think of them like memes: they are great, they make you laugh and make you think; then you get tired of them; then they’re dead. Clichés are like your favorite food: you can fall back on them when you have nothing new that sounds good; but you can also get tired of even your very favorite food, and that is a sad day.

I think one of the best things we can do is examine clichés, and reimagine them. Deconstruct them. Critique them. Because then we’re actually thinking about things we normally just swallow whole, without any consideration’ and that is no way to live, nor any good way to eat. You’ve got to chew your food: and your clichés, as well.

Ready? Here we go.

“All you need is love.” One of my favorite songs, and one of my favorite cliches. Also true — kinda. It’s not true that love is ALL you need; but it is true that love is one of the most important things you can have.

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The first piece of advice I want to give you is this: find love. True love, if you can; genuine and lasting love, at the least. I did, and there is not a day that goes by that I am not shaken to my core by gratitude and happiness because of it. And though I think I am extraordinarily lucky in love, I am entirely sure that all of you can find love, too. Make it a priority: make time for it, time for the looking and then time for the love once you find it. It doesn’t have to be romantic love, if that’s not what you’re after; it can certainly be love for family, for a parent, for a sibling, for a child; it can definitely be love for your best friend, or for a beloved pet — although, as much as I love my pets, I would recommend finding a human person to love. Because human persons talk back to you, and because pet persons die too soon. But it doesn’t have to be a spouse-type person, and it doesn’t have to be only one person. But in all the years I have spent with my wife, nothing has mattered to me as much as going home to her, as having her support and her companionship, as loving her and being loved by her. Don’t settle for something less than that: keep looking until you find it, because a half-measure of happiness will keep you from the full measure, and it isn’t worth it. If you think you’ve found it, and then you turn out to be wrong, don’t stay: divorce that person, leave that person, kill that person and stuff them in a sack.

Okay, don’t do that last one. But definitely leave the relationship and look for something better. Don’t give up on love. Not ever. And if you lose love, unless the memories of that love are enough for you, go out and find more love, find new love. Always. Life is better with love than without: and I truly believe everyone can find someone to love.

Next: “Never give up on your dreams. Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

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Okay, once again, there’s truth to this. You should have some kind of ambition in life, and it is better if it is grand; but if it is grand, it will also be, for the vast majority of us, unachievable. Which means you will have two options: give up, or keep working for something you may never accomplish. (Whatever you do, don’t look at the affirmational quotations for this one. As someone who has tried for twenty years to be a published author, and who is still a high school teacher, it both amuses and disturbs me to hear celebrities who caught their lucky break telling people to never give up. Sure, if I had been handed my dreams when I was 17, I’d believe that anyone could accomplish anything they wanted to do — if I was arrogant enough to think that luck came to me because of my talent. I’m not bitter.)

Personally, I would recommend not giving up. Not because of this landing among the stars nonsense; that’s neither true nor meaningful — I mean, if my “moon shot” is to be a published author, what does it mean to land among the stars? I can certainly imagine a second-level success — say, I sell some pleasing number of books which I self-publish, or I get to a pleasing number of followers on this blog, both of which are secondary goals I’m working towards and would be happy to achieve — but how does that fit the metaphor? The moon is infinitesimal compared to the stars, which are infinitely farther away; so what does that mean? Nothing, that’s what. But that’s okay: the point is really that working towards your dreams is a good thing to do regardless of whether or not you achieve the original dream. I really prefer this quote to the cliché, because I think this captures my experience and a lot of other people’s, as well. (Makes sense that it came from an actress whose best-known role came when she was 36.)

“As long as you keep going, you’ll keep getting better. And as you get better, you gain more confidence. That alone is success.” –Tamara Taylor

That’s why I say it is worthwhile to have a grand ambition, even if it is one you will never achieve.

But that takes me, in a roundabout way, to what may be the most important advice I have to give you; though it is also probably the most vague. It is this: there are two kinds of people in this world, and two kinds of experiences.

(There are a bunch of these memes…


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But this one’s my favorite:)

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Here are my two kinds: One is the kind of person, and the kind of experience, that limits your future choices, your freedom, your ability to control your life; the other is the kind that expands those choices, that freedom, that ability to make up your own mind and to control your own life. Look always for the second kind of person, the second kind of experience. There will be many choices you will make in life, and many of them will limit your future freedom: and those are the choices you have to be most careful of. You have to make them at the right time, and for the right reason. Choices like what to study in college — after you decide whether or not to go to college. Like what job to take. Where to live. When, and if, you will marry; when, and if, you will have children. These are the defining choices in life, and if you are not yet ready to be defined, don’t make them.

More importantly, don’t EVER let someone else make those choices for you. Don’t let someone pick you for marriage unless you pick them, too. Don’t let someone pick your time to have children, or with whom. Don’t let anyone push you into a career path, and don’t push yourself into one unless you want that career to define you. Until you are ready to make that choice, and lose the freedom to choose again later. (Though here’s a secret, and another cliché I won’t deconstruct: it is never too late to change your mind. Though it does get harder as time passes and you get more settled in your place in the world.)

Let me say one more thing about work: this one?

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Complete bullshit. (You can tell by the background. What the hell kind of job does this image represent? Forest ranger? Have fun chasing poachers and meth cooks all over those mountains, in between rescuing dumbass dayhikers who thought they could just take a jaunt through those woods without equipment because they were in the Brownies. Also have fun getting furloughed when the government shuts down the next time.) Jobs are work. There is always work, or else nobody pays you for it; and the aspects that are work are not going to be fun. Jobs are always difficult, even if you love them, because you can’t possibly love every aspect of them (unless you’re on a whooooooole lotta drugs, and that has its own drawbacks.). I love some things about teaching, I really do — but I HATE the paperwork, and the grades, and indifferent students and overbearing parents, and a few other things as well. I love writing — but I HATE promoting myself. Even if I achieve my dreams of being a professional published author, I will need to write to very strict deadlines, and I will have to worry about my next book being a failure and sending me into the oblivion of Used-To-Be’s. I will have to travel, and speak publically, and participate in conventions and panel discussions and incessant insipid interviews, and I’ll have to be positive ALL THE TIME. I will hate that.

Honestly, I think the best way to view a job is to refuse to let it define you, unless you choose to define yourself that way. Back to the idea of limiting or expanding your freedom: if somebody wants to tell you that you are a teacher, and therefore you can’t be, say, a stripper on the weekends, don’t listen to them; you can be a stripper who teaches during the week. If you don’t care what you do for money because your passion is elsewhere, is in your avocation or your craft or your art or your family, then good: somebody asks what you do, you tell them that you make kayaks in your garage. They don’t need to know — they probably don’t really care — that you deliver pizzas for money; the kayak-building is FAR more interesting and important. So the point is, define yourself by your passion, not by your job; don’t expect your job to BE your passion, though it is certainly nice when they coincide. As much as I hate parts of teaching, I love, so much, that I get to spend all day every day with words, with literature, with reading and writing.


There are some other, smaller pieces of advice I would like to give, but they don’t come from clichés and they don’t have their own memes (Advice from a writer and a teacher: stick with a theme only as long as it makes sense; when it’s not working any more, drop it.). One is to take advantage of opportunities when they come up. Saving things for a later day is too often saving them for never; freedom to choose in life hits an early peak and then steadily decreases — until the very end, when you gain the freedom that comes with loss. That is, once you have a house and pets and a family and a career you want to keep, it becomes much harder to travel the world — until you lose all of those things. So if you have the chance to travel, do it.

Another is to pay attention: look around you. Take your time: you actually have quite a lot of it, and it will feel like more if you pay attention. I recommend walking, often, with your eyes and ears open to your surroundings.

Another is to read, and to keep learning. Doesn’t matter what you read, doesn’t matter what you learn; if you read the conspiracy theory websites that show how the Rothschilds are behind the measles outbreak, at least you’ll learn how crazy people are — and if you believe what you read, then the rest of us can learn to avoid talking to you, which is really for the best.

An important habit related to both of those is to always question. Question yourself, question your world, question your assumptions. You have to be careful not to take this to the point of permanent uncertainty and anxiety, but that has more to do with knowing when to trust the answers you get or the answers you make, and to move on to a different question; you can always come back to this question later. (Example: should I have written this blog? Is this too long? Is it a terrible topic, that everyone will find boring? Do I seem too arrogant, giving everyone advice? Well, I’ve written this much, and I don’t have a better idea, so — here it is. If I lose readers because of it, so be it. I’ll write something short and pleasant tomorrow. Also, I’ll hopefully get some feedback on this, which will help me know if it was the right thing to do. Also, please comment and Like content you enjoy, always. One of the best things to happen to me in the last few months was when someone read my book and sent me a comment telling me how much they liked it. I’m still floating from that one.)

Actually, that’s a real piece of advice: speak up. Do it in writing, do it anonymously if you are uncomfortable with direct conversation and confrontation; I certainly do, and I do almost all of my talking through a computer keyboard. I even write letters to my students when I want to chew them out, and you know what? INCREDIBLY effective. Feels much more formal and serious when I tell them in a letter that I’m sick of their bad behavior. Highly recommend it. But: speak. Up. Always. Positive and negative. When you are grateful that someone did something nice, say it — not just “Thank you,” but “I appreciate the way you gave me that/helped out with that/did that nice thing.” Tell your loved ones not only that you love them, but also what you love about them. As often as you think of it, say it. When someone angers you or upsets you, say something. When someone makes you uncomfortable, say something. Don’t suffer in silence: say it. Always. The worst case scenario is that you’ll be a pathetic whiny sniveler, and this way, the rest of us will know that and avoid you: so then everyone wins.

Well, except you.

But that’s what you get for being a whiny sniveler.

Last thing, and it’s not cheerful, but it’s true, and it’s important: people love telling younger people that life gets harder, that high school is nothing compared to college, and that college is nothing compared to the real world. I heard that all through school — “When you get to high school, it’s going to be MUCH harder . . . When you get to college, that’s when school/professors/assignments/grades get REALLY hard . . . When you get out into “the real world,” you’ll see how much better you had it while you were still a student!” — and I’m sure you’ve heard it too.

Well, here’s your last truth from me: it’s all bullshit.

Every stage of life is hard. And every stage of life has rewards that make it bearable. College is harder than high school academically; but the freedom you gain, the agency and control over your own life, makes it worthwhile. Also, you get to meet much better people. That same combined difficulty and reward comes with moving out of school and into the world of jobs and such — whether you make that transition after high school or after college doesn’t matter, it’s always the same — you gain more responsibilities, but also more power. The power gives you more freedom and more agency — you earn your own money and you can spend it how you want, for instance — but the responsibilities reduce that freedom, as well.

It’s always like that. When you are older you will probably have more financial security, but your health will probably be worse, and you’ll be aware of your dwindling years to enjoy your life. When you are young, you have all the time in the world — and too much of it has to be spent struggling.

I’m not saying this to depress you, just to let you know: it doesn’t get worse. In most ways, it gets better, because even though there are troubles to weigh down your joys, there is something else that happens as you go through life: you get stronger. Whatever does not kill you, right? It’s true: you get stronger every single day you are alive. It doesn’t make the troubles you face less — but it means you have an easier time handling them. And as long as you keep your eyes open, and take the time to recognize what you have, your happinesses will seem greater. I am happier now than I have been at any time in my past. Last year I would have said the same thing. Ten years ago I would have said the same thing. (Not nine years ago, though. That was a shitty year. But you can’t avoid those, so don’t worry about them. Try to get through them, that’s the best you can do.)

I’m going to end this with my attempt to make my own cliché — but because I thought of it, I actually find it much too annoying to just say; so I’m going to say it with memes. (Another piece of writer’s and teacher’s advice: know your audience.)

They tell us to never give up — but sometimes, giving up means you can walk away, and go find something better to try. So the best way to look at this is:

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Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about my midlife crisis.

I think I’ll skip it.

I am,with luck, just about midlife now. I’m 44, my grandparents lived to be 87 and 88  –the two that lived past their 60s. And I’m aware that time is passing, and the door is closing on certain opportunities: I’m not as hot as I once was, and I won’t be hot at all before too much more time passes; soon I won’t be capable of picking up women in bars.

Which is too bad, because I was never capable of picking up women in bars. I mean, I never tried it, because I met my wife before I could legally go to bars; but up until that point, I was staggeringly bad at picking up women, so I have to assume that the application of alcohol would not have improved my game. Fortunately, I have literally zero interest in picking up women anywhere, with alcohol or not; my wife is the finest and most wonderful woman who ever existed, to me, so I already won this game: I can retire undisputed champion, right now.

Speaking of champions and retirement, I’m not as physically fit as I once was: I’m now in the age where I heal slower, where exercise offers less positive result, and what there is comes slower. I grunt when I stand up, and often when I sit down. I have aches and pains that don’t go away — I have had more than one bout with plantar fasciitis, which sounds like a villain from the original Star Trek series. Soon I won’t be able to do all those physical things I meant to do: master a martial art (and KICK SOMEONE’S ASS), climb a mountain, learn to surf, to ski, to skydive.

Oh wait, that’s right: I never meant to do those things. Never wanted to skydive, nor ski; and I’m afraid of drowning and of sharks, so I think surfing is right out. I would like to climb a mountain, but really, I’m most interested in the kind you can walk up: and I can still walk. I admit I kinda do want to kick someone’s ass. Maybe I can look into martial arts lessons.

The main thing is, I don’t want to feel old. I don’t want to feel like my life is over, or the good part is over, or I’m running out of time to do young things. Maybe I should buy a sports car, get a body part pierced; maybe I should go to some all-day rock festival with all of my students.

Wait a second: I don’t want to hang out with my students. I don’t want to be like my students. I don’t envy them; I don’t miss being a teenager; I hated being a teenager. I hated being in high school, hated being condescended to and instructed as to what my life would be and what it should be and what I needed to do in order to get there. I hated having people tell me that what I wanted  to do was right or wrong, when it wouldn’t have bothered anyone to just let me do what I want. (For the most part. There were a couple of things I genuinely shouldn’t have done, shouldn’t have been allowed to do, things which did indeed hurt other people. But other than those, and there weren’t many of them, I could have been given free rein and nothing would have gone wrong.) I much prefer being an adult.

Hell, I prefer being middle-aged. And I don’t want to do anything new, don’t want to catch up on the experiences I missed out on; certainly not with any urgency. I mean, I’d love to have a nice car — though I’d prefer some enormous boat of a car, a Cadillac or a Lincoln or one of those 1950’s five-ton Detroit rolling steel behemoths, rather than a sports car; I hate going fast, but I kinda like the idea of taking up the entire road, the entire parking lot — but I don’t see anything wrong with getting that car when I’m 80. I’d rather have it now, I guess, but I don’t need to hurry. I do want to travel the world, and I’d like to experiment with some different careers; but again, I don’t need to do that before some arbitrary deadline when I imagine time runs out. I’d like to do it soon, I can wait, and whatever I don’t get to, oh well.

You know what I really want? I want the second half of my life  to be as good as the first half has been. I’ve been quite lucky, and I’ve done pretty well, and I’d like to have more of the same. I expect the last fifteen or twenty years to mostly suck, but the first fifteen or twenty mostly sucked  too, so it’s a wash. But even if I don’t get that wish, here’s the truth: I’ve had a good life. Not a perfect life, but nobody has that. For not perfect, I’m  quite happy with what I’ve had. So even if every subsequent year is less pleasant from here on out, I’ve already had a good run.

No crisis for me, thank you. I’ll just take more life.

Winning and Losing and Fighting

I wrote this last night.

I just want to say that I have nothing to say.

My fiction has not had the appeal that I always hoped it would; I’m not sure if it’s more because my writing is boring and overly wordy, or because people have largely given up reading, or some combination of the two. But the point is that the ideas I come up with, which I think will get people to buy and read and talk about my books, don’t make any of those things happen.

I’ve also come to realize that, in almost all areas of life that I wish to write about, I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I understand teaching well, and to some extent I understand writing and literature, but even there, I realize that I have only one of many perspectives on what I do, and I don’t think I have any real proof that my opinions are correct. I have suspicions that the same urge we all have to confirm and conform and support one another is the real reason why people tell me I teach well and write well.

This means  that I think there  is little reason for me to share my ideas. Those ideas are probably wrong, after all, and not well-written enough to be worth contributing just for the sake of  the eloquent prose and powerful rhetoric. I mostly just babble online, and the books show it. My essays show it. My audience shows it. My continued — shall we be generous and call it a “lack of success” rather than an abject failure? — lack of success shows it. I don’t know that I’ve ever convinced anyone of anything. I suppose I’ve been entertaining, though not on any scale that makes it worth doing.

So since I don’t know facts, and I don’t write lyrical prose, why would I say anything at all? Any time I think about picking a position and going for it, I think that doing so for the sake of fulfilling my urge to write creates an atmosphere of contentious disagreement, and if it’s not a strongly held conviction, then it feels like disagreement for an audience. Back to entertainment, and doing nothing good for my country — which I do love, by the way. But that’s not interesting. I don’t do that because nothing’s going to change my audience’s mind, so nothing I say is going to have any impact on the world. Et voila.

I have felt the urge to write. I don’t do well with not writing. I wanted to write tonight, about an argument that would be worth having. I thought about writing about Trump, but what I’ve seen for the past two years has shown  me that people, whether they agree or disagree  with Trump, will bend over backwards to show how they will never, ever, EVER, change their loyalty, no matter how many reasons they find to do exactly that. On both sides, too: if I were to write an essay praising Trump for what he has done well — engaging with North Korea and Kim Jong Un, maintaining the strong economy, even things like renegotiating NAFTA and getting NATO members to pay their fair share of the defense spending for the alliance — I’d get lectured on what he’s done that’s terrible (Too long a list to include). If I focused on the Naughty list, I’d get these things put forward as reasons why he’s done all the right things, and a dozen other angry disagreements about why I’m wrong and an unAmerican libtard. I don’t know that anyone would consider the points I’d raise, not least because I don’t even know what the hell I’m talking about.

If I stay away from politics, which would be fine with me, then what do I write about? Teaching? Ugh; talk about beating a dead horse. I don’t think I’ll ever again have an interesting or informative story about teaching that I haven’t already told. So what, then? My dogs? They’re lovely, but I don’t know anything about them other than what I observe, all of which has already been observed by anyone with dogs.  Talking about my family is taboo, especially if I were to try to air the dirty laundry that would make those stories interesting. I could try to write fiction — I am trying, still — but then we come right back to that whole “Your writing sucks and is boring” theory I’m operating with.

Again: I’m not trying to garner sympathy or affirmations. I’m trying to explain why I haven’t been writing, so that other people who are feeling like they don’t have anything to say that’s worth hearing can understand how I got to feel this way. I don’t know if it started with the failures of my fiction career (which are not shocking, as fiction writing is a damn hard business to break into) or if it came with my recent understanding that I am often wrong in my political views, that many of them come from my party loyalty rather than my own rational thought, and that plenty of my ideas are based on prejudice rather than reason. (That also is not a knock against myself: that is a description of how 99.9999% of us act about our own political views, which are generally wrong if not simply irrational. Though this is my own opinion, and as such is highly suspect, as it is based on little or no evidence, like all of my political opinions.)

I’m not sure what my point is. I was trying to write something more in line with my absurd argumentative holiday, but I couldn’t settle on a topic, and then I couldn’t get it going; I suspected that it was because this idea, that I am not fit to write and that my opinions are not worth being written, has permeated my thoughts more and more lately. It is possible I’m being too hard on myself. If so, I’m not sure how to fix it. Maybe if I can share my honest feelings and thoughts — and that, too, is difficult, as my honest opinions and thoughts are exactly what got me into trouble some years ago — then it will help me move past them.

Though I don’t know if there’s anything worth saying on the other side of these doubts, either.

I really don’t know much of anything.

I posted it, and then twenty minutes later, I took it down. I decided people didn’t really need to see my despondency, and while I said in there that I was trying to be honest so people could understand how I felt and how I got to be that way, that wasn’t really my intent; I was sad, and I was frustrated, and I was trying to write something. Anything.

It had already had some effect, though, because I know there are people who get email alerts from this blog which contain the posts, so it went out to those people, at least, and some of them might have read it. And it had some effect on me: by the end of writing this, I was thoroughly depressed, and by the time I went to bed, I was worse. I woke up at 2am thinking about this post, and about my life and my writing; it took me two hours to get back to sleep, and now here I am, first thing in the morning, writing this, rather than doing my usual check of Twitter and Facebook while I eat breakfast.

Here’s the thing: this is not true. I am not a bad writer. I am not a failure. I am not a fool. It’s true that I’m not an expert in the things that I write about, but I am damn good at research, at critical thinking, at deciding what facts to include and what to discard, and how to show a logical path of reasoning to a conclusion. That means I can write a good essay, which is pretty much all I write on this blog, apart from the book reviews (which are also good, I think). There’s nothing wrong and a lot right with my attempts to speak to truth in writing. I don’t have to already know the incontrovertible truth before I do that. In fact, there’s a reason for me not to know everything when I start writing: part of my intent is, as I claimed to be doing here, to show my thought process; I can’t do that as well if the thoughts are already done and set. Besides, even when I really am struggling to find an answer, that still doesn’t mean I can’t write an essay, and a good essay: because the word “essay” comes from the French for “attempt.” That’s what it is, and that’s what I do, and I do it well. Most of the time, I know that. As much as I know anything.

So what happened last night, that left me oozing melancholy onto this blog (My poor blog: you’ve taken so much from me, with never a word of complaint. Thank you for that.), is simply that I set myself an impossible goal. I picked a battle that I could not win, because I didn’t think it through before I started fighting. (There’s a reason I’m using war metaphors, instead of, say, “I set out on a journey I couldn’t complete because I didn’t know the destination, or the path.” That would work too, and if that makes more sense for you to describe a creative endeavor, then think of that, instead.) I decided that I had to write something last night. Had to be done on November 5th. No other option. I decided it in the late evening, around 7:00 or so, and by 8:00, I had — no ideas at all. I did an eminently stupid thing, which was to look on Twitter for possible inspiration; I honestly can’t think of a less inspiring place for genuine thoughts — unless  it’s  Facebook, where I also looked for ideas.

Needless to say, it didn’t work. I started writing something political, but I’ve had a lot of trouble determining my political stance lately — or maybe it’s my perspective — and so I question every potentially political statement I try to make. Happened last night, and I swiftly gave up on writing about politics. (Though that’s why it has a prominent place in the deluge above. That and I do think writing has the potential to make change, and politics is the thing in our society that needs the most changing, I think. Actually, maybe I’m wrong. You know, I’ve never really written about prejudice or hate. Hmm.)

That’s when I gave up. Surrendered. Decided I had nothing to write last night, and therefore, I had failed. And thus, in a stubborn attempt to write something, I wrote about my failure. But I didn’t do it well, which is why I took it down, and why I’m writing this now.

I did fail last night. But only because I was impatient. I created an artificial deadline for myself, and then collapsed when I couldn’t meet it. I think now (this is what I thought about between 2am and 4am) that this tendency to make up imaginary deadlines is a common practice, and not only for creatives; I think a lot of us do it a lot of the time. I have to be married with kids by 30 or 35. I have to have my dream job by 25. I have to be a millionaire by 40, or retired by 55. We pick essentially random points in the future, and we center our sights on it — and charge.

And miss.

On some level there’s nothing wrong with artificial deadlines like this, because it does keep us moving. It keeps us from putting today off for tomorrow, especially when today is the deadline. That’s a good thing, because despite what my students say, there is actually nothing at all good about procrastination. It’s understandable, but it’s never good. My students say they work better under pressure, but honestly, the pressure always comes from within: either you make the thing a priority, or you don’t, and if you do, there’s pressure to do it, and if you don’t, there’s not. Invented deadlines can be a way to convince your underbrain, that lazy lizardy bastard, that this thing is a priority NOW. There are plenty of times when I’ve sat down to write, telling myself I needed to find something to write about — and I have found something, and I’ve written, and it’s been fine, and I’ve won. Most of Damnation Kane was written that way, to be frank, especially the first book. I decided it was going to be a serial, I decided it was going to have a chapter published every Saturday by noon, and so every Saturday morning, I sat down and wrote a chapter.

The problem is what I did wrong last night: sometimes you pick a bad deadline, or a bad goal, and then when you miss it, you feel like a failure. Last night I shouldn’t have been writing. It was Monday: Monday’s a bad day to write. I should have been listening to music and grading vocabulary sentences. It was my own fault that I felt like a failure, because I didn’t create a way for me to succeed. I lost the battle with myself, with my writing, because I didn’t think enough about my strategy, about my plan of attack or my objectives, and so I didn’t win.

Why am I talking about writing like it’s a war? Because today is Election Day. And just as we set imaginary deadlines for ourselves in creative endeavors, so we do in politics, as well.

We’re going to be hearing a lot today about how this is the moment, this is the chance, this is the make or break, do or die, last hope for everything we believe in. I heard on the radio yesterday that today’s election will determine if this is Trump’s America, or not. I had the same reaction to that that I’m currently having to my own bullshit (That was what I was trying to write about last night before I gave up on politics), which is: that’s fucking nonsense.

So let me be clear. Today is a battle. Last night was a battle for me. Neither last night for me, nor today for this country, is the end of the war. I didn’t write something useful last night; here I am, less than twelve hours later, writing something I am much more pleased with (Though it still may not be a victory. It probably never is, which is where the military metaphor fails. I used it to make the analogy to politics, is all.). If this election goes badly — and I mean that, in all sincerity, for people of any and all political positions, because this election, like all of our politics right now, is so supercharged and combative that any result is going to be heartbreaking for one side or the other, if not both — the most important thing in the world to realize and remember is: there is another election in two years. (We should also remember that politics is not all of life, but that’s a different subject.)

The truth is this: the struggle never ends. Never. We win small battles, we lose small battles — usually only when we surrender, especially when the battle’s with ourselves — but we always keep fighting. The victories that progressives have had in the last fifty years have built up the fighting spirit on the conservative side, and that gave us the current situation; that situation is now building up the fighting spirit on the progressive side. That’s maybe even the way it has to be. It’s almost physics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and so the pendulum swings, and then swings back, and the farther it goes in one direction, the harder and faster the return swing is going to be. There’s nothing — nothing — that can happen that will end the swinging of the pendulum, other than the death of all humanity. (Which is a fair possibility, of course, and the one that should probably have the most urgency to it, because those deadlines aren’t so artificial.) If Trump was actually Hitler (He’s not) and he took over the country in a fascist dictatorship, then there would be a rebellion, there would be a war, there would be an overthrow. The struggle would continue, and eventually, it would move the other way. There would be untold suffering in the meantime, and I don’t mean to say the struggle doesn’t matter, therefore: what doesn’t matter is the deadlines.

In a creative endeavor like my writing, there is no end. I’ll never be such a great writer that I don’t feel the need to get better. I’ll never write a work so fantastic that I’ll never want to write something even more fantastic. I will at some point write something that I can’t beat, but I’ll always want to. I will want to keep writing until I die, whether I am successful or not, whether I achieve what I want to achieve when I want to achieve it, or not. The struggle — the journey — will always go on.

Last night I decided there was an end to the fight, at least in the immediate sense. And I picked the wrong end, and I failed. I am going to try not to make that mistake again; when it’s a bad night for writing, I just won’t write, even if I told myself that I would. My ambitions have to bend to reality, not the other way around.

Let’s all try to remember that today, okay? Today may be a chance to achieve what we want to achieve. And it may not be the right time yet. Maybe things have to get a little worse before they get better — whatever you think “worse” or “better” means for this country. But today is not the end. Tomorrow we will still have to fight, even if we win today.

Tomorrow I’ll still want to write. Today, I won.

Now I’m going to go vote, and hope. And stay ready.

What It Means to Be a Writer

Scrolling through my Twitter feed when I found a link to this piece.

I walk by accident into one of London’s über-bookstores to be taken over by a very familiar type of sadness—as a child I used to feel this way when thinking about the cosmos and my own insignificant place in it. This is London’s biggest bookshop: 6.5 km of shelves, the website proudly tells us, as if this particular length and not another were a reason to rejoice. Book after book after book thrown into this worded jungle—a hoard that could be a waking counterpart to a Borgesian wet dream. Fiction books and books on writing fiction. Photography and art books and books on photography and art. And so on: most forms of expression and myriad words of meta-dialogue, some of them even justified or at least nicely edited and with colourful covers. Nothing escapes this total library: no corner of the universe or the mind is left unaccounted for. It is a hideous totality for it is an ordered totality, filtered through the minds of who knows how many marketing specialists; it is effective as a selling platform but it is a desert of anonymity for the diminished names on the shelves. Were I ever to be asked for a writing tip, something born out of this experience would be my choice: walk into any gigantic bookshop and think whether you can face being one more name lost in this desert of words. If that ideal situation proves too much to bear do something else with your time (it is of course highly likely that if you go around asking for writing tips you will never make it on print).

Okay, first of all, that parenthetical comment at the end gets you a punch in your snooty little snoot with a fist labeled Fuck You. I presume you mean that true poetry, great writing, emerges from the soul as a fait accompli, like Athena cracking her way out of Zeus’s head fully-grown; if a would-be writer is too naive to recognize this immortal truth, and to think that one could simply ASK for a way to be a better writer, then that person is doomed to less than mediocrity. Or else it is the bourgeois feeling of the “writing tips,” the oversimplified, sanitized, pre-packaged saccharine packets that show up in ten-item numbered lists on the various clickbait websites advertised on Facebook. I am more understanding of contempt for those, as I am contemptuous of people who make a living on the internet by telling people how to make a living on the internet – by running a website telling people how to make a living on the internet, which is done (Spoiler alert!) by getting people who want to make a living on the internet to buy your secret to making a living on the internet; and the people who do this always seem to call themselves “writers.” But my contempt is for the people at the top of the pyramid: not for the people down on the ground, choking on dust and sand, dreaming of a way to climb. Those people who want writing tips because they want to be better writers deserve respect for their courage in trying to find a way to get what they want; and their desire to improve, whether or not they know a good path to improvement, is admirable and not at all an indication of their potential as writers. Fuck you in the snoot, sir.

Now let’s talk about the central issue here. You’ve got two problems with this bookstore and the despair it engenders in you. One is that your words will never be truly unique, because somebody out there will say pretty much the same thing you say – or in Borges’s universe that you reference later, with his infinite Library of Babel that holds all combinations of letters and thus every possible book, one of the other volumes on the shelves will say exactly what you say. And maybe Borges was right and it does repeat in a chaotic pattern for eternity, if such a thing can be said to exist. Right? All the kilometers of fiction books, the books about art and photography and writing; all been done before, nothing is new, nothing is original. Somebody get me a cigarette and a bottle of cheap red wine, and build a Parisian basement cafe around me for a tomb.

The second problem is that you will never be the one person whose words everyone reads, everyone knows, everyone talks about; because there will always be so many others putting words on the page, that it is impossible that your words would be the ones that capture every reader at once. Particularly not if you want to capture every non-reader as well. This problem seems to be the larger one, as you speak more of being lost in the noise than you do about repeating what has already been said.

The futility of writing is something I face up to every time I set pen on paper or hand to keyboard. Why am I doing this? My compulsion to write does not occlude the uselessness of filling pages with words. I know that what I do is pointless, one more message in a bottle in a moment when everyone else around me is also casting messages adrift.

This is a poor proof. Your message in a bottle being surrounded by other messages in a bottle does not make your message pointless. Not even in the metaphor: so long as one person finds your message and reads it, and – I suppose – comes to rescue you from your desert island of despair (Perhaps your bottle message is something entirely different, something like “If you let your eyes go unfocused, a Moen kitchen faucet starts to look like a snobbish sheep with a very long snout. But it’s hard to recapture the magic once your eyes go back to normal and the sheep turns back into a faucet, so don’t waste it.” In that case, you won’t be rescued, but somebody may spend a lot of time squinting at their kitchen sink because of you, which is pretty funny, really. I’d call that success.), then your bottle was a success. You won. You did what you set out to do. You made your point. Wherefore, then, does it become pointless? Is the idea that the thousand bottles around your bottle make it less likely that your bottle will be read? This is not true for the same reason your enormous bookstore should not lead to despair. Ready for the reason? Here it is.

There is more than one person reading. (Shocking, I know. Hold onto your snoot, Buttercup.)

Let’s start with the metaphor. There are a thousand bottles with messages in them, bobbing in the water by the seashore. If there was only one person walking by, and for some reason that person had sworn a sacred vow to read only one bottled message, then your chances of being read are a thousand to one. Agreed, and that would suck. But in the – ahem – “real world” of this fantasy, that one guy wouldn’t stop at one bottle: he’d keep opening bottles. Because if he was doing it out of curiosity, out of a need to see what was written on those messages; or if he was looking for the perfect message, the one that would speak directly to his soul, then reading one message would never be enough. He’d read another, and another, and another. He’d probably try to read them all. I would. Wouldn’t you? If you saw a thousand bottles bobbing in the water with message inside them?

And if it was more than one guy on the shoreline? If it was actually a crowded beach, with tourists, and beachcombers, and dogwalkers, and a tai chi group, and a bunch of hungover teenagers wrapped in sandy blankets and the stench of wet cigarette butts? The bottles would catch all of their interests. They would all want to open their own bottle, be the first to read a message. Then they would share the messages they found with each other. They’d be diving into the water, throwing bottles back onto the shore, shouting and laughing and waving their messages over their heads. The more bottles there were in the water, the bigger the spectacle would be, and the more those people would be drawn to where the bottles were. They might even come back the next day to look for more bottles.

Are you following me, sir? Those bookstores with the kilometers of shelves? They are not only filled with books, they are filled with people. People who read books. And those people never stop at just one book. I know: I used to frequent a very similar establishment, Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. Five floors of twelve-foot-high bookshelves, covering an entire city block. I never expect to see so many books on display in a single place in my life again. I could spend the rest of my life reading (Ah, bliss!) and not finish a single floor’s worth of books. I went there every month for the ten years I lived in Oregon, to buy books, and you know what? That place was always packed with people. With readers. Never mind the kilometers worth of shelves: how many kilometers of people do you think go through those stores on any given day? 3,000 people, on the average. [source] Average front-to-back measurement of a person is approximately ten inches; I’m an American and we’re thicc, so let’s bump that up to a round foot. (Screw the metric system, though I’ll convert for your convenience, sir.) 3,000 feet of human every day, which is very nearly one kilometer of human flesh – around 915 meters, to be precise. And that’s not even lying down head-to-foot. That means that in a week, if the London store has a similar number of visitors, the people looking at those books outdistance the books they are looking at. And I can tell you that the turnover rate for the people looking is far higher than the turnover for the books on the shelves.

There are an enormous number of books in the world, and it grows every day. It is impossible for one person to read them all, and realistically impossible that one of them will be read by all people.

But that doesn’t mean that my book won’t be read. It doesn’t mean that your words will never be seen.

I think about selling my books, which I have not yet succeeded in doing. But let’s imagine that I do so: imagine if my sales, by every measure of the publishing industry, are absymal. Let’s pretend that I only sell one thousand copies of my novel about a time-traveling Irish pirate. So lame, right? I am – what was your phrase? – “lost in this desert of words.”

A thousand people bought my book. Presumably that means a thousand people read it. (Some surely would cast it aside in disgust or disappointment, sure, but I think some of them would like it enough to share with someone else, or else resell it. Let’s just imagine that one sale equals one reading.) Think about that. I have never been in a room with a thousand people who all know me: not in the way that a reader knows at least an aspect of a writer. I have spoken to thousands of people in my life, but I doubt that a full one thousand of them cared about what I had to say: cared enough to sit down, in a quiet room, and spend hours just listening to my words, thinking about my thoughts. Hearing me. If I could sell just one thousand copies of my book, then I could achieve that. So what if at that same time a million people were listening to Stephen King, and ten million were listening to Kim Kardashian? So what if the world is larger than I can speak to at once? So what if all I can have is one small corner –with one thousand people listening to me?

Isn’t that enough?

Think about it in terms of time. I don’t know how many hours it takes me to write a book, but the pirate book was finished in about a year, so let’s use that. It’s a pretty fast read, I think; someone could finish it in maybe ten hours of reading at a leisurely pace, maybe even less. If a thousand people spend ten hours reading my book, then the year of my life spent writing it (And of course the vast majority of that year was spent sleeping, working, eating, singing in the shower, watching TV, playing The Sims, et cetera) has turned into ten thousand hours of other people’s lives spent – on me. There are 8,760 hours in a year (And 525,600 minutes), so even if I had spent every single one of them working on my book, that time spent is balanced by time spent reading my book if only a thousand people were to read it. More than balanced.

So the question is, what more could you possibly want?

If the only thing that would make writing worthwhile, that would give this endeavor a point, is if every single person on Earth read your work, and only your work, then I agree that writing would be pointless. But I can’t fathom a writer, a real writer, being that childish, that selfish, to think that the world must revolve around your work and your work alone. I mean, the only cultural phenomenon with that impact is Wyld Stallyns. Granted, you’re not them, and neither am I. And that stings a bit, I’ll bet. Yeah, it does me too.

I’ll comfort myself just thinking about how easy it would be to get a thousand people in the world to read a decent book. Shit, if all I want is readers, I could offer it for free and get that many readers without even trying. You wrote this obnoxious angsty piece of snobbery, and I read it, and then spent – mmm – more than an hour responding to it. See? The time you spent on this crud then earned for you this time spent out of my life. Time I could have been reading, ya selfish bastard.

And honestly, I think this is enough time spent on you. I am sorry that your life is so empty and meaningless, and sorry that I threw a couple of hours of my life into your black hole of an ego. Do us both a favor: gain some perspective, will you? Thanks.

(I have to say: the rest of the piece has some valid points about marketing on social media, and about the democratization and banalisation [His word] of writing that has occurred through the internet. There is some good thought here. If there hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have read all the way to the end, and then taken the time to write a response. I don’t disagree with everything he says. Just the central premise. I dream of having a thousand readers, and I am absolutely sure that, even in a world inundated with voluminous writers of every imaginable quality and a limited number of readers with a limited number of books they will read, still: I will hit that mark. And it will be worth it.

(Thank you for inspiring me to write this, sir. Now pull up your fucking pants.)

Tied Down at the Edge of a Cliff

We say we have to get me out of teaching. We say it often, laying in bed at night before we turn the lights off, when we usually turn to face each other, heads on pillows, and sort of put a punctuation mark on the day – sometimes an exclamation point, sometimes a question mark; but usually just a comma or a semi-colon, because the end of the day is almost never an ending, almost always a brief pause for breath before we go on with the next clause, the next day, separate from the last but still connected – always connected.

My life is a run-on sentence. And I don’t know how to stop it.

No: I know how to stop it. (And I’m going to leave this metaphor behind now, this navel-gazing grammatical pun. Jesus, Dusty. Get a life.) I could change my life quickly if I leave everything behind, including my wife and my pets, a sentence that took me several tries to actually write. I could change everything if I left everything. I do what I do so I can earn what I earn so we can live how we live: as we. But our bed, where we lay at night together, is actually the ground at the top of a cliff. Everywhere I go, I am at the top of this cliff. At night we lay together, our heads heavy on the pillows, and we look into each other’s eyes and I tell her how much I love her and she smiles at me and I love her more, and then we kiss goodnight, and roll over – and I stare off the edge of the cliff.

The cliff is the edge of my world. I don’t mean the end of life; I’m not talking about dying. I’m talking about where the place I am, the place I live, where it ends, abruptly, startlingly, dangerously. Honestly I have pretty much always stayed near that cliff’s edge, in various ways. But never too near: because I am a coward, I think. And though every night I look out into the open air beyond that cliff, to actually jump off that cliff and land somewhere entirely different – or perhaps instead of landing, take flight and sail across the sky, which is how I imagine it would feel to be a writer – I would have to leave behind everything I am now, everything that is this place where I live, this life where I live, where I sleep with my head heavy on my pillow and my eyes straining to look out farther but tired, so very tired, with the looking; but behind me (or no: before me, between me and the cliff, not to protect me but because she is even closer to the edge of that empty space that might hold a new life) is the best woman in the world, and at our feet lies the sweetest dog I’ve ever known, and nearby are a bird and a tortoise who need me, who are tied to me, who are weighing me down. And none of them – not even the bird, sadly – can fly.

Let me be clear: it is not my wife’s fault. She never asked me to get this job, never demanded a larger home, a larger paycheck, health insurance, stability, all the tethers of the modern world that tie me down at the top of the cliff, safe and immobile, able to turn my head and look out to eternity, growing and throbbing out there beyond the fall to the bottom. She doesn’t demand them of me now, never tells me when I talk of leaving teaching that I can’t do that because the family relies on my stable income and health insurance. She has never said that once. She never would. She lies with her head on her pillow, holds my hand, her fingers exploring mine as she imagines drawing my hands (as she imagines drawing everything), and says, with her eyes sad, “We have to get you out of teaching.” Now that she has tethered herself down right next to me – but closer to the edge of the cliff than I am – she says “We have to get ourselves out of this.”

Then we talk about how we can be free, mobile, able to pick and choose what we do with our lives, if we just buckle down and teach for three years and pay off all of our debts. Maybe four years. Maybe five. Tethered down right at the edge of this cliff, looking out into space, lying with our heads heavy on the pillow, holding hands.

I’ve never jumped off a cliff. I jumped off a swing into a river, once, but I landed flat on my back when I tried an ill-advised backflip; it hurt. I don’t remember if I went back on the swing again after that, but probably not; I’m a coward, and I always have been, and that’s why I’m still at the top of this cliff, near the edge but not on the edge. I’m looking out on this vista, this panorama, of wide open space, and I’m – I don’t know, shouting over the edge? Maybe whispering, blowing words like soap bubbles, glittering and evanescent as they drift pointlessly free? But I’m still here, on solid ground, holding on for dear life even though I am nowhere close to falling.

I should be falling. If I was a writer, I’d be falling; if I was falling, I’d be a writer.

Instead I am – yes, I know it. A spider. Remember the tiny ones at the end of Charlotte’s Web, how they spin out a single thread of silk and throw it up into the wind, letting the air lift and carry them away? That’s how I want to go out over the edge of the cliff; not free fall, not dropping down and just hoping that something will catch me, though I’m not sure now if that’s because I’m a coward or just because I don’t care for the thrill, never have, never liked adrenaline, never wanted to feel alive because I almost died. I hate stories that rest on that idea: that life is either risk or boredom, that everything that is lovely or pleasant or simple becomes blasé, because I feel like if I could live forever, I would just read all of the books that I won’t have time to read, and play all the video games, and walk over every inch of the Earth, and why would that get boring? I don’t believe that it would. And so I want to drift over the edge of the cliff, not plummet. So here I lay, throwing out single threads of silk, gossamer words, hoping that one of them will catch the wind and lift me free and sail me away through the sky – and my wife and our family with me.

I’m growing roots. I have been for years, though I frequently pull them out of the ground and let them wither and die. I don’t need the roots, though I don’t hate them; that’s probably why I let them grow, and maybe that’s why I haven’t gone over the cliff, because I don’t mind the slow growth, don’t mind drifting down into the earth instead of up into the sky. Maybe if there was a way to sink below the surface, grow a taproot large enough and deep enough and then pour myself down instead of drawing nutrients up, follow my own growth into the deeps, and then tunnel down through the cliff from behind its face, back behind the bones, down and down and down until I came to the bottom and then slid out from between the teeth, out with the breath of the earth back into the open air. Then I’d be in a new place, and not at the edge of a cliff looking out; then I would have changed, would have moved.

But I would have never flown. Never left the ground. Is that, could that be, what it would mean for me to be a writer? To move through the earth to new ground? Does that metaphor make sense?

Is this the thread that will lift me? Or the one that I can crawl down, like Dante down the leg of Lucifer, crawling down until suddenly he was crawling up, out of the depths of Hell to the mountain of Purgatory? But see, he was carried on that final voyage out. He was on a mission from God. All he had to do was hold on and wait.

I don’t think I can just hold on and wait. I think I need to move. I don’t know if I can fly and take my family with me – and I won’t leave them behind. There is nothing that would be better without them. I don’t even know why I say it, other than I know that most people who jump off the cliff, who make themselves suddenly into writers (or into flattened, shattered remains), go it alone. I don’t want that. I don’t think I ever have, but I know I don’t now. So the question is: do I keep throwing strands of silk into the air? Do I stitch them together into a single sail, and just wait for a wind great enough to lift me, and my wife, and our heavy heads from off of our pillows, and we can grab the bird and the dog and the tortoise in passing and carry them with us? Could there be a wind great enough to lift a sail large enough to carry us all aloft?

Or do I try to find a new way, this magic that will turn the earth beneath me malleable, let me alter the flow and the path of all things so that I grow in the wrong direction, turning the wrong into right? Honestly, I don’t even know what this metaphor means: would I write for the local scene, find local websites, write for the Tucson newspaper? Is that what it means to go down your own taproot, to go deeper into the earth, to become a writer by digging down? I don’t know. I want it to be magical, somehow, to be an alteration of the paradigm, a new path, a new alchemy that turns stone into water, just for me, so that I could swim through something that can’t be swum through – but though I can imagine that, I don’t understand it, I don’t know how I could do that, if it could be done. I don’t know if I’m creative enough to do it, if I have the wizardry to break the laws of nature. But since it took me four tries to actually type the word “wizardry,” I’m going to say the omens are bad.

Maybe I should try to climb down the cliff. Grind it out, slow and steady, keep working, keep writing, keep moving; no magic, just constant effort, every moment testing my strength to the limits, every moment hyperalert, looking for that next ledge, that next handhold.

I don’t know. I’m 42, and I haven’t started climbing yet. I might already be too tired just from lying at the top of the cliff. Lifting my head off that pillow every goddamn morning. Looking out at the expanse of sky and thinking about how wonderful it would be to sail away. Spinning my silken threads, my tenuous sails – watching them break and fall, or vanish off into the ether without me. And here I lie.

I don’t know how to fly.


Toni read this. We talked about it. And having talked to her about it, the answer is clear: we will be alchemists. We will swim through the Earth, and see where we end up.

I consider the metaphor of flight to represent getting published by a traditional brick-and-mortar company, selling books out of Barnes and Noble, the whole Best-Selling Author bit. I’d still like to fly. I’m going to keep sending up streamers of spidersilk, hoping that one will catch just the right breeze and lift me up into the sky. I would like that. For Toni, the same metaphor probably applies to suddenly hitting it big in the art world: becoming a name, being sold in galleries, getting commissions for public art, all of that. And that would be swell, too.

But that’s not the goal. Neither is the goal a safe and sure and trying descent.

No: the goal is to try something new. We plan to write and illustrate and sell graphic novels, and illustrated novels. I plan to go back to publishing a serial novel, which will be available as enriched and expanded e-books, featuring extra stories, back stories, side characters, and so on. Maybe we’ll run a book store. I will publish my novels, and she will sell her art – and we will see what we are capable of and where we can go. What new places can we discover, and explore? What exactly is down there, underneath us? Could it be even more intriguing, even more wondrous, than the sky above?

We will never jump off the cliff. And we will never leave each other behind. (Nor the pets.)

We choose – magic.

Take Your Time

If I could pick the time I would live in, I would go back a hundred years, and live then. I would be born in 1874, and would now be in 1916. That would be my time.

I decided this a while ago, when I realized that all of my professional aspirations would have served me just as well in the early 20th century, if not better than now. As a schoolteacher then, I wouldn’t have been paid much better than now; but I would have gotten more respect, I think. And I could have paddled my students when they made me mad. More importantly, being a professional writer was, I think, easier then, as there were more people who read, and thus more room for people who wrote. I would be happy continuing on with teaching if I could also have my work published and purchased and read, and I think that would have been simpler back then. There’s also nothing that would have stopped me from owning a shop that sold books and coffee in 1916.

But there are other factors that keep adding to this. I’m healthy, so I don’t care much about the loss of modern medicine; I hate driving fast and I’m not a fan of flying – but I love trains and I would love to take a ship to Europe or the Caribbean. I actually like wearing suits, especially with vests, and hats; though I admit the nonexistence of air conditioning would be tough. I don’t use the telephone very much; I prefer letters. I’ve actually tried to get people to join a written correspondence with me, but nobody keeps it up.

Nobody has time.

I would like to have time.

That’s the main thing, actually. I mean, sure, I like writing on a computer. I like video games. I enjoy having reliable electric power, and recorded music, and broadcast television, and things made out of plastic. Knowing what I know about politics and history, I would not want to live through the World Wars or the Great Depression or the epidemics of influenza and typhoid and smallpox. Though I do wish that the wackiest political candidate now was Teddy Roosevelt, with all his crazy ideas about national parks and the value of exercise. I could not imagine my life without my wife, and if I were alive a century ago, she would not be; if she were, her life would be far more miserable, as a woman without equal rights, or the opportunity to get into art school and do what she loves (though knowing my wife, she would have found a way even back then to be an artist). And of course, she probably would have died in childbirth, as most women did, and I would give anything up to be sure that didn’t happen, including living today in this loud, fast, illiterate world.

But if we can step away from that reality – and since we are talking about traveling in time, we’d better – and just talk about the general shape of life, then yes, an argument could be made for the late 19th/ early 20th century over the 20th/21th. (A note: my word processing program didn’t recognize “21st” as a designation requiring the letters be turned into superscript; but “21th” was no problem. Technology.) And it’s largely because of time and speed. Here – I’ll try to keep it short, so it doesn’t take too much of your time.

I like to take my time. I like moving slowly, and being thorough. Even in the video games I enjoy, I prefer the ability to wander around and explore, the opportunity to re-do a task until I get it right, the power to decide when I go on to the next challenge; I prefer long strategy games and life simulation games because of that. I love puzzles. I like reading books more than short stories, though I enjoy reading an entire newspaper or magazine. I prefer walking or riding my bike over driving. I like the opportunity to think while I am doing other things, and so I like activities that I can pause to consider. It’s the biggest problem my students have with me as a teacher: we take forever to get through a piece of literature, because I’m constantly stopping them to talk about what we just read. They want to get through stuff, and I want to understand every little bit of it.

But that’s also what makes me a good teacher. And it’s what makes me a good writer, and a good reader/reviewer: I take my time. I think about things as I go. I don’t write a lot of drafts for most of my work, but it’s because I think about everything I’m going to say before I say it, and then while I’m writing it. I’ve been thinking about the general shape of this piece for a couple of weeks now, though it has morphed from a screed about Harambe memes, to a rant about Twitter, to this. Which I have started, stopped, and restarted once already.

I can go fast. And I can see the appeal of it. I’ve mowed a lawn using both a push mower and a motorized one, and the push mower is far more annoying; I was only able to do it because I could have music piped directly into my ears through an MP3 player or a radio with headphones. I love being able to write these pieces and then put them instantly in front of a potentially world-wide audience. I do like microwaves and hot water heaters and instant coffee machines.

But generally speaking, the appeal of going fast is to have more time for other things; and if those things are made to go fast as well, then life becomes one frantic screaming headlong tumbling rush. We turn into Alice falling down the rabbit hole: out of control, no idea which way is up or how much time is actually passing, and we never touch the sides, nor reach bottom. We get lost in the chaos, without anything to hold onto. There has to be something that we take slowly, something that we enjoy spending as much time as possible doing; then there is a reason to get through the rest of the day quickly, in order to spend more time doing that one slow thing. The problem with our modern world is that we seem to not have that slow thing, most of us: most of my students, children of their time, simply spend many many hours doing quick things: they scroll through Facebook and Twitter and Instagram; they text and chat and IM constantly; they play videogames all day long, frequently hopping between two or three different games at the same time, playing simultaneously on the computer and on the phone; they spend hours watching videos, everything from full-length movies to six-second Vines. While they are scrolling and chatting and playing games. They spend so much time doing things quickly that everything feels rushed, everything feels late, everything is done at the last minute and under high pressure. They don’t even take the time to sleep.

I would rather sleep. I would rather wait for things – give me a book, or a piece of paper and a pen, and I can wait forever. And in terms of doing things quickly to get to other things, I’d rather not do those things at all. My goal in life is not to accomplish everything when I am young so that I may have a long quiet time at the end of my life; my goal is to avoid or eliminate all of the things I don’t want to do, so I can spend all of my life doing things I want. I haven’t been able to do that yet. But I’m still working on it. I think I’m making progress. Slowly.

I’m not very good at going fast. So I do have a Twitter account, and I do Twit (If it was Tweeter, then the verb would be Tweet; but it’s Twitter. Hence.), and I enjoy it; but not enough. I only Twit once a day or so, most days, and so I don’t get a lot of followers. The same goes for this blog: I can’t find a subject worth talking about at length every day, and I don’t like posting short quick things, and so I don’t get a lot of followers. But that’s okay: because I would rather have readers. I would rather post something at length once a week or so, that a dozen or so people actually read, than post a new sentence every hour and have ten thousand people scroll past it and smile when they do. I’d rather have comments than likes. I’d rather have people come back to read more of my writing than have a post of mine go viral. Don’t get me wrong, I like the likes, and I’m grateful that there are people who think me interesting enough to actually follow on this blog or on Twitter; but if I could trade all of that for some published work, or a weekly column, even if it was in a small newspaper or magazine, I would do it in a heartbeat.

There: that’s something I would do quickly.

I had an interesting week on Twitter, which was part of the impetus for this blog. I live-Twitted several cracks about the debate between Clinton and Trump on Monday night, and that was fun. I do have some followers, mostly my students, and they get a huge kick out of me being on Twitter – which is an ego boost, I will readily admit. Though it sort of freaks me out that the response can sometimes be instantaneous: I have one student that, when she likes or retwits my twits, she does it within a minute of my posting it. It makes me nervous: because sometimes the speed of something like Twitter leads to bad judgment, or truly terrible typos and Freudian slips and malapropisms that may never be lived down. As we learned from the 3am version of Mr. Trump this past week, as well. I’ve been badly burned by my rapid writing, because the posts that nearly got me stripped of my license to teach in Oregon were done without much forethought, in the heat of the moment, and that ended up badly; too, the actual report that led to my blogs being discovered came from a Facebook post. So social media makes me nervous. I like the ability to write what I want to say, and then step back and think about whether it is a good idea to say it or not; there’s a blog post about Hillary Clinton sitting on my computer, where it will stay, because writing it got me too annoyed and I turned much too insulting. But there are no drafts for Twitter. I post things, and I have deleted things after I posted them; but if they already got retwitted, then it’s too late.

Then on Wednesday, one of my favorite authors, Christopher Moore, twitted a Trump joke: “Yo daddy so orange, they push his face in the dough to make jack-o-lantern cookies.” And I quickly twitted back “Yo daddy so orange they use his dandruff to make Tang.” I was ecstatic when I saw Mr. Moore liked and retwitted my post. For a moment I thought it might go viral, or that I’d get a whole swath of new followers; but really, the excitement was that Christopher Moore, whose writing and especially whose humor I have tremendous respect for, liked my joke. That was nice. So on Friday, when I saw one of my favorite comedians, Patton Oswalt, twitting back and forth with several other people about the Alt-Right version of Star Wars – jokes about the Sand People being illegal immigrants and Han Solo not being a real hero because he was captured, and so on – I thought of a good one, and I twitted it to Mr. Oswalt. Hoping for the same response.

But I didn’t get it, because, it turns out, someone else had twitted the same joke (Darth Vader: “You know, if Leia wasn’t my daughter, I’d probably date her”) ten minutes before I did. That person got hundreds of likes and retwits; I got none.

That’s too fast. In ten minutes, my joke went from funny and appreciated, to derivative and ignored. In other words, to make that joke and be successful at it, I would have had to be ten minutes faster – most easily accomplished by obsessively following Twitter feeds and looking at trends and hashtags. But that is not something I want to do. I don’t want to spend hours jumping from thought to thought to thought, cudgeling my brain into coming up with something funny or interesting, in less than 140 characters (Because you have to leave room for the hashtag!), faster than other people can come up with it. If I was already famous then I would have an instant audience and I could twit things at my leisure that they might appreciate; but then I run the risk of twitting idiocy and having all of my followers instantly know about it and spread it all over the twitterverse. Like Mr. Trump. Or Jaden Smith.

I would rather take my time. I would rather think of something original to say, or create a new perspective on an old problem, than follow trends. Particularly because: had I been the one who came up with the joke ten minutes earlier, and gotten the likes and retwits, I would have been forgotten ten minutes later, when the next person thought of the next funny joke. I don’t want to be that fast, and I don’t want to be forgotten that soon.

I think that’s the impetus behind the Harambe memes. Now, to be clear: while some memes are funny, I generally can’t stand them. They represent the lowest common denominator, which is why they spread so widely and catch on so quickly. Sometimes they’re genuinely funny – like some twits in the twitterverse – and frequently they are cute, because cute is one of the lowest common denominators; but they are always the worst form of the argument, when they are about serious topics, and they are always reductive and simplistic and generally obnoxious to one group or another. My favorite use of memes is in messing with my students: because they don’t expect me, their middle-aged English teacher, to use memes, so when I do, there’s a disconnect that I find more amusing than the meme. But for most meme-people, the humor is unpredictable: it’s impossible to say which meme will catch on and which will not. There are people whose lives online revolve around making memes; some of them are good at following and capitalizing on trends; some are good at making trends; all of them are stuck in an endless cycle of rapidity, catching onto jokes that rise and fall in instants, and the fame that comes with originating the joke following the same arc. A year or two ago it was a frog on a unicycle with the tagline, “Here comes dat boi – Oh shit waddup!”

Then it was another frog – no reason in the meme world – named Pepe, with a depressed look in his half-lidded eyes and his downward curving lips (He has had a recent resurgence when it came to light that Pepe is now popular with those who make vile racist memes, because they dress Pepe up as the minority they wish to denigrate. Yup. Funny stuff.).

 We have also gone through a caveman Spongebob, several images from a video of Shia Lebeouf, far too much of the wrestler John Cena, and recently a strange obsession with Rick Harrison, the star of Pawn Stars.

At one point it was Harambe. The gorilla in the Cleveland zoo who grabbed and held a child who got into his enclosure, and was shot and killed by zookeepers trying to protect the boy. It was a sad story that rapidly caught the attention of the country, particularly online, because it hit so many buttons: children’s safety and violence and the treatment of animals.

Harambe memes caught on partly because the biggest audience for memes is teenagers, and teenagers revel in mocking other people who take things too seriously, which is how the outcry over Harambe was seen – people weren’t concerned with the Syrian refugee crisis, or about the murders of African-Americans committed by police officers, they were concerned with the death of one gorilla – and partly because one meme-creator had an idea: a stupid and crude and absurd idea; and so of course, that’s the one that caught on. The idea? Men flashing their genitals as a tribute to the gorilla. The tagline was “Dicks Out For Harambe.”

Yeah: it’s kind of funny. Put in the right absurd context – a job interview, a political appearance, a Christmas special – the absurd notion is amusing. Because it touches on a taboo that people often find absurd anyway, the issue of public nudity, and also touches on the absurd obsession that most men have with their own genitalia, it got even more traction. And it had its usual run as the most popular meme of the moment. I’m sure whatever meme-maker came up with the line had a sharp uptick in followers or likes or reposts, and I’m sure he or she (Probably he) was gratified and possibly enriched by the increase in ad revenue. The popularity has ended now – thankfully – and I rarely see “dicks out” jokes any more. There was a brief resurgence when another great ape, the gorilla Bantu, died owing to a mistake in a medical procedure, but the slogan “Balls Out for Bantu” was apparently too derivative even for meme-fans, and it never caught on the same way. One of my former students twitted a picture to me, of a poster that some (probably apocryphal) English teacher had on a classroom wall that showed a gorilla’s face and the slogan “Books out for Harambe,” which he said I should put on my wall, but when I told him that there wasn’t enough No in the world (A dick joke AND a meme joke? Oh, sign me up!), another of my students took my side: evidence that the meme is largely dead. When even teenagers don’t think you’re funny any more, there’s no place left for you in the meme world.

But I still see Harambe memes. Now they have changed. Now they are about the gorilla being remembered; now the absurdity is in someone crying over the idea that Harambe’s death will be forgotten. Again, mocking people for taking things too seriously, or at least the wrong things too seriously – but now it is without the lowest common denominator. No dicks in this joke. So this one is less absurd, which makes me question why it is so popular.

So I wonder: how much do people who make memes, who spread memes, worry about the thought of being forgotten? How much of this latest spurt of temporary fame is about this genuine fear? In a world where the attention span covers approximately six seconds or so, where this week’s star is the “Damn, Daniel” guy and next week’s star is Rick Harrison and the “Damn, Daniel” guy is gone from people’s memories forever – what is the point of trying to reach the top? The second you do, you fall right back off, and you probably never make it back up again.

That’s exactly what I’m talking about. (And I realize now that I have gone on longer than I intended; I would apologize, but I’m never actually sorry for using a lot of words) When life is about going as fast as possible, then life, too, goes as fast as possible – which is really damn fast. And that may be exciting, but it also gets us to the end before we know it. And whatever that end is, whether it is obscurity or nothingness or even eternal paradise: it won’t be exciting, and it won’t be fast.

I would rather write than trend. I would rather be read than laughed at. I would rather read and consider than get through things. I would like to take my time.