I was running with Robin Arzon after Thanksgiving when she threw down a challenge: run 5k every day for the month of December. Do you know Robin? If you don’t, you should.
You know those folks on Instagram, forever posting the inspirational sayings? ‘Inspagram,’ I call it—the pics of clouds or food with some corny inspirational saying superimposed on it—like that’s going to solve the weird old man pain in my back or the parking ticket on my windshield or the new venture capitalist landlord driving me out of my home, the place I’ve lived the longest in my entire life, the slanted, trembling apartment where I went to hell, and then came back. If you can see the SPAM, in ‘Inspagram,’ well, I can, too. At best, that shit is like aspirin or hot coffee or cold beer—it’s a quick fix that’ll keep you going while letting the root problem quietly fester.
Yes, Robin rules Instagram, but her shit’s different. You won’t meet a cuter badass, or a more badass cutie. Great story—she’s a former lawyer who was held hostage at gunpoint, an experience that didn’t scar her as much as it destroyed her capacity to feel fear. She trashed her old life, broke a new trail, and now gets paid to be an everyday superhero (tights and all). Getting diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes after running 5 back-to-back marathons has only increased her drive. Her tolerance for bullshit is lower than mine. She won’t try to sell you anything she doesn’t believe. It may sound like she speaks in hyperbole but that’s just dry reporting on a life lived in hyperbole. When someone like that issues you a challenge, you don’t say no. But I know Robin—she reminds me a lot of my badass trainer Tracy Helsing who was so instrumental in getting me sober—so I suspected it was going to suck.
Human beings are odd. When we encounter something bad, we feel the need to share it with a friend: “Oh man, this carton of milk is really sour—it smells like someone ate asparagus, then peed in it, then left it in a hot car all summer. Here, you smell it.” 5k comes out to 3 miles so I came up with a catchy hashtag—#3for31—and created a Facebook group and tried to rope everyone I knew into doing this stupid thing with me. A lot of you signed up.
I don’t want to say I approached it with arrogance. I mean, I absolutely approached it with arrogance, like I do everything, but I just don’t want to say it. 3 miles is nothing, hardly enough time to even get warmed up! 3 miles a day works out to only 103 miles for the month. I’ve done that in a week. Piece of cake, right?
Not so much. If a bully is picking on you at school, it only takes a split-second of courage to throw a punch and get them off your back. It’s much harder to go from being totally sedentary to running your first race—you can’t just do it once and be done with it, you have to go back to it again and again. Running every single day, shit, that’s the worst. Each day undoes the work of the day before. You do it—good job, gold star!—and then you wake up and, Christ, you have to do it again. Running every day is like trying to change your posture. It’s like trying to change your mind.
It never got easy for me. Yes, Morrissey, it is really so strange: the last mile is not the hardest mile. The hardest mile is the first mile. And what’s harder than the first mile? Lacing up your goddamn running shoes before you even leave the house. I’m a big guy, 220 pounds, and a distance runner. It takes me a long time to warm up, six or eight miles. Once I finally got the hated running shoes on after a long dry ocean of procrastination, there was that first shitty mile where my old, lumbering body was still waking up. Then another. Then another. Then my run was done. Just three miles, but none of them good miles, none where I felt like I was cruising instead of just laboring. Sure, I could run more and sometimes I did—21 one day out in California a couple days before Xmas—but it didn’t matter. The next day, there were still 3 shitty miles waiting for me.
I managed to get sick twice in December. My IT band acted up. My left knee hurt the entire month. I ran with Robin a couple of times, in the freezing rain. I ran with my sister, also sick, who hasn’t mastered my technique of blowing snot rockets and just blew her runny nose on her shirt. I ran with my brother-in-law, Bill, who has no cartilage left in his knees after 26 years spent rucking in the Marine Corps with a 70 lb pack. The day after my big run, I hiked four miles with my old man, coughing and feverish, tottering along behind him though he’s 70 and has had both knees replaced. Mostly, I ran alone, in the cold, in the heat, in the dark, in the blazing sun, my chest aching with each breath, annoyed that these stupid little runs were annoying me so much, hating Robin’s challenge, hating myself for hating it.
But running is reliable magic. Epiphanies have often come to me on long runs, but I expect nothing from runs under 20 miles. Doing this #3for31 challenge, I stumbled on a big epiphany at the beginning of a small run, a puny four- or six-miler: through running, I can understand the relationship believers have with God.
I don’t believe in God. It’s not that I did and then, in a fit of hurt, I decided God was dead to me. Nothing terrible happened to destroy my faith. I’ve just never had it. I remember when I was maybe six, walking out of our house with my shirt off and standing in our driveway. I looked up at the sky, looked at it all around, in every corner and just thought to myself “…Nah.” At times, I’ve wished I believed in God, but I have never come close to believing. I have never been able to understand how people believe.
But, running, I understand how believers feel about God. Running is greater than I will ever be, it is more powerful than I will ever be. Running is invisible and it is all around me. I can never beat it, I can never escape it. I can throw myself at running with all my strength, with all my will, curse it and flail at it. I will never trump it; I will never hurt it; it will never even register the attack.
Running is unconditional. I can ignore it for days, weeks, months, but running is always there waiting, always listening. Running will always be there for me when I need it. Running will always welcome me back. When I have been arrogant, running will humble me. When I have been bad, running will punish me. Running won’t wait for me to be good to reward me; it won’t wait for a new accomplishment; it will reward me for every single attempt I make.
Running is infinite. I can be greedy, gluttonous, take as much of it as I want and there will still be enough for everyone else. Running is mysterious. I am more intimate with running than I have been with any lover. Running knows my body better than any person alive, it knows every part of me. Running through a canyon in New Mexico, so lightheaded from the altitude that the entire world sparkles, moving forward just to keep from falling over; running through the hot California summer, so overheated and dehydrated I am barely moving, the desperately wringing hot, sour juice out of a moldy grapefruit on the side of the road just for some moisture, rinsing my shirt in a mud puddle just to cool down; stumbling into a hotel bathroom, reeking terribly of every possible bad organic smell, swampwater and mud, horseshit and old, wet shoes and fourteen hours of sweat, layer upon layer, every possible body odor, my pruney feet, my crotch, my ass, then stripping down and after a minute of agony when the hot water washes the crusted salt into and then out of each abrasion of my skin, the heavenly scent of clean water and nothing else.
Running listens patiently without judgment. Running keeps my secrets. Running is comforting because it never answers back. Running is infuriating because it never answers back. Running is endlessly sympathetic. Running is endlessly cruel. As much as I have learned about running, I can’t pretend to understand any more than the smallest part of it. Running alone understands all of me. I want to love running. I try, again and again, to love running, but I fail, I can’t. Running is too hard, and I hate it. It doesn’t matter. Running loves me.
I accepted Robin’s challenge because I’d fallen out of love with running. I’m back. Totally in, one hundred percent, till death do us part.
Did you run #3for31 with me? Andy Andrist did. Last time I saw him, we were shitfaced and doing whip-its in a beer-drenched hotel room in Death Valley. Tina Lipsky did. I had a wicked crush on her in high school but I’ve only seen her one night since I was fifteen and that was ten years ago. Alex Puls did. I’ve met him twice, once when I bought a guitar from him on Craig’s List and once on the floor of MSG when he got me VIP tickets to a sold-out Billy Joel show. I ran with Tim Sweeney once in Toronto, met Scotty Kummer once in a town I hope to never go back to. I’ve never met Erik DeAngelis, who posted a new drawing each day with his mileage. I’ve never met Tamiko Radke, the woman who gave birth to an entire rock band, three brothers who have outshone their influences: Radkey. I’ve never met Heather Belizzi, who sent me a hat that said GRATITUDE.
What’s next? A revelation: this ain’t the end. Robin knew that this challenge would be tough for me, but she knew I could do it. She knew I could do it because she ran 3 miles every day for seven months.
If you know me at all, you know I’m not going to give something up without exacting something in return. I completed Robin’s challenge; now she has to take on mine. The next challenge is #31for31—write for 31 minutes, each and every day, for all 31 days of January.
Are you up to it? Maybe you’ll be too busy, working on running 2015 miles in 2015. I’ll be on tour, doing my own challenge: 35 shows in 38 days. I hope to see you out there.
What’s touched me the most about doing this challenge is the people who took it on with me. If you ran #3for31, I probably don’t know you. Some of you, I know your name or your face but probably not both. Most of you, I don’t know at all. You ran in Finland or Mexico or Illinois or Canada or Spain. Most of you, I have zero frame of reference for.
If we meet and you tell me you know me from Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, I will give you a blank look because there are a lot of you out there. But if you tell me you ran #3for31, I will know instantly who you are. Because we are now related in some way. We shared something. We ran alone together, every day, for a long time.
When you look at a map of the United States, highways are just lines. Cities are just points where those lines intersect. We use points and lines to talk about narrative as well—storylines. It’s not a huge cognitive leap to see great American cities like New York or Detroit as collisions of millions of different storylines, pooling together, cross-pollinating, interbreeding, becoming so tangled together that they are impossible to separate.
My story collided with the story of Josh Malerman in a bar in Athens, OH. We were drawn there from different directions by a force—a man named Scott Winland. Scott is of central importance, not just in my story or in Josh’s story, but in many stories. One day, Josh or I or both of us will write him the novel or pop-up book or ponderously long fortune cookie fortune he deserves. But for now, what matters is that Scott brought Josh and I to Athens and, in the Union bar and hundreds of other bars, and in a short school bus and a Toyota minivan, and in the wee hours of the night in the living rooms of folks kind enough to giving touring bands a place to crash, our stories got so smushed together that it’s been impossible to totally separate them. Seriously, put a big hunk of chocolate and a heaping handful of Skittles in the front pocket of your jeans, send ‘em through the washer and drier about a thousand times and then try to separate them. Though I don’t see Josh for years at a time, Josh will never be a stranger to me. And also, every time I see him, I think to myself “I could have sworn that was my hat at one point…”
Josh wears many hats (not all of ‘em used to be mine): intrepid leader of The High Strung, long distance adventurer, professional enthusiast, horror aficionado, and author of the novels Wendy and Bird Box and now the Kindle Single Ghastle and Yule. We gchatted yesterday—listen in.
I see you
You can’t hide
you ready to rock?
ready. rolling already. might as well rock
So… Jesus, we’ve known each other for a long time.
Yes, and that’s the perfect place for us to have met. That bar is a strange combo of dark-mindscrew and love fest. Both of which you and I relate to well.
Man, I bet either/ both of us could write a novella just centered around The Union with our Sam the Lion, Scott Winland.
I think about it all the time! A band bio. Nonfiction. It could start in the Union. Did you know that the Union was the first venue to give us a gig over the phone? We’re talking first out of what became like 2,000 shows.
Some places are personal landmarks, you know.
Wow. For that, you should either buy Scott a pony or kick him in the nuts.
I came very close to getting a tattoo of the Union’s address
Great idea. And we came close to moving to Athens. Like I said, dark minds crew!
So… there are a lot of Josh Malermans kicking around these days. My primary experience of Josh Malerman is of the erudite frontman of a scrappy rock’n’roll band. Why writing? Why movies? Why are these other Josh’s necessary?
Most writers I know would give their right arm to play in a rock band
Oh man, you’re bringing my identity crisis to life. I thought I was the only one who knew about it. Well… it all begins with me writing some really shitty poems… dark stuff… men singing from underground… models with two glass eyes… and a friend, Mark Owen, singing those poems over other friends playing music. So, I’ve been writing, and writing “horror” forever. But it took my musical friends to get me involved. That was at age 19, 20. Something like that. And, of course, from there I got bit. Hard. The music bug. I fell in love. But I never stopped writing the books. And yet, it wasn’t until Mark left the band (I was 29 years old then) that I finally, mercifully, finished my first novel. WENDY. Scary as hell. And from there the novels and albums went hand in hand… one after the other.
So… all these “Josh’s” have always been here. But, as I’m sure you know with the “Mishkas”, some of them lurk, then lunge, lurk then lunge.
Absolutely. And they need to eat and sleep so fortunately, there’s usually only two of them awake and causing trouble at once, but that’s still one more than we’re used to dealing with.
You know what’s really hard? Stepping from the book bubble to the song sphere. It’s almost like you have to clear the slime of the novels off your arms before you can pick up the guitar.
Okay, this is interesting because from my perspective, your rock and your writing appear hopelessly entwined. I’m thinking of the ‘Wretched Boy’ video, in which a struggling writer appears. Do they parasite off each other? Do they compete? Is it a symbiotic relationship? Are they like small children, best friends one day and mortal enemies the next?
They absolutely compete. Sometimes the novelist turns his nose up at the “short song” guy and then the songwriter plays something good and the novelist wishes he could write something with that much “feel.” There is definitely an identity crisis with the pair, but it’s one I kinda egg on. Fan the flames. And I love that the books and songs are different, in tone. To me, horror, rock n roll, science fiction, cartoons, they all come from the same place; this punkish exhilarating celebratory place. R. Crumb and Stephen King and Eddie Cochran all kinda make sense to me together… Shadowy Classic Americana. And all three are as deep, as rich, as Fitzgerald. I wouldn’t say the two sides are symbiotic… unless they are and I don’t know it. They seem more… jealous… than they are rooting for one another. But, like brothers, who cares? They’re stuck together all the same.
Well, I’d argue that the story of Ghastle and Yule wouldn’t be worth telling were it not for jealousy and rivalry. Stories spring out of darkness and conflict. Narrative seems to gush out of you with great pressure. Maybe it’s these two competing urges that keep you enthusiastic (no small feat in our current world, to say nothing of MI) and make you so prolific?
For years I thought it was funny to tell people that I wrote out of guilt. And my great friend Derek Berk once warned me that you should be careful what you joke about because if you joke about it long enough, it becomes true. Well, that freakin’ happened. More likely I was just right all along. There is a really nasty push going on behind me all the time, a nag almost, who keeps telling me I gotta write the next one, the next one, the next one. A week goes by without a new idea and I start to get nervous. Is that it, then? Are we done? Is this how it ends? In line at Target, getting Allison a scented candle? FUCK! I thought the ending would come with trumpets… banners! Well… of course it’s not the end. Hasn’t been yet. But I don’t mind the nag because he/she is responsible for a lifetime of total joy… of feeling rewarded… of good work. I think it’s wildly important to maintain enthusiasm for your own work… at least while working on it. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but the reason I remind myself is because there is GOING TO come that time… around page 200… in a rough draft, where you’re looking at 200 more and you can kinda freak out. GULP. Same thing as being 6 songs into an album. In those moments I open the cellar door in my mind and holler down, “Okay! Bring out the enthusiasm gimp! We need help!” And he’s always there. Cause that’s where I keep him.
Is running out of material your greatest fear? Or running out of enthusiasm? For a horror writer, this is an important question.
Ghastle and Yule, the characters, sometimes feel like “Art” vs “Commerce” for me. They have some of both in both of them, but if I had to pick, I’d say Allan Yule was more of the artist. And yet, Ghastle marries the freak performance artist and Yule has handlers. There might be a current in that story, something that says, “neither side is so pure.”
Running out of enthusiasm is my greatest fear. Yes. I wrote a book, called PEST, about a fella who runs out of zest. He can’t figure out why. So he begins to believe there’s an entity in his rooms, draining him of enthusiasm. He sets out to trap it. The whole book takes place in his apartment and when I was done i was like, “Shit, man, you just wrote a book about a guy trying to trap depression!”
Sometimes I can’t believe we’re friends because we’re such different people. And then I think that that is the only reason we’re friends. I got to a point, when I was circling round the drain, where I was high on morphine and getting a blowjob and I felt bored nearly to tears. But then, that was a huge character flaw– sex and oblivion were the only things I could maintain enthusiasm for. And then just oblivion.
Man. Did that really happen? Well, I realize I can reference art maybe too often… I turn to it for literally everything, Identity foremost… but one note on enthusiasm and the fear of losing it: Imagine you have written 20 novels but don’t care for them. Now imagine you’ve written none, but are crazy thirsty high on life and want to write a book one day. I’ll actually take the latter. And because I’ve fallen in love with writing, I FIND thrills there. In other words… I don’t think I write for the sake of writing… but for the thrill of it. Which so far has been endless. Infinite. How scary to run out! I guess it’d be like falling out of love with someone who all your friends know is the right one for you.
Or maybe even darker– to stop loving your Mom.
And by the way… it can be a delicate thing… writing horror and talking enthusiasm all the time. Horror is supposed to be for the dark of mind, dark of spirit, yeah? Well, I’m not so sure! Again, I see Horror as the Imagination strapped into a catapult and sent BOOMING into the sky. A night sky… but still.
Oh man. “To stop loving your mom.” Wow.
That’s a good book idea.
I just depressed myself with that! Kinda proud.
you just turned the lights OFF.
I love the visual of Imagination strapped into a catapult and shot off into the sky. But that calls to mind that Stephen King story where teleportation is invented and becomes as ubiquitous as air travel today. The only catch is that if you’re conscious during it, it makes you insane. And, of course, since it’s Stephen King we’re talking about, a kid dodges the anesthesia and stays awake and appears at the other end stark, raving mad… So my question off that long aside is: can there be too much writing? Too much story? Too many songs? I’m thinking of Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates and Bob Pollard here.
Ah, the dreaded word “Prolific.” At some point in history, that word has become a negative. Strange. Take Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen… two holy shit artists who released (or are releasing) a movie a year for their entire careers. Hitchcock’s first five movies were silent! Not by choice! And he made movies into the 70s. Woody Allen is on movie… 60? The question is… is that too much? Sometimes I think it has to do with where you start with the artist. If you’ve been there from the beginning, then it’s never too much. You’re in step with him/her and you get their new release and you experience it and there you have it.
But if you’re coming to Bob Pollard NOW? Well, shit, you’re 75 albums late and that feels insurmountable. “I don’t know where to start with this guy, so I’m gonna start with someone else instead.” I worry about it. I worry that when people tell me I’m prolific they’re also saying, “So it’d be unlikely that they’re all good, all great, and chances are none of them really stand out.” Of course, I know this isn’t true. But, like most people, I care about what others think. So when I’m out and somebody says a writer is “prolific,” I feel compelled to PROVE to them that I’m not.
“Oh, well… 20 novels… sure… but if you wrote one measly page a day every day you’d reach 365 by year’s end and after so many years…” I try to explain it through simple math. A similar thing is when folks describe you as a “hard worker.” Nobody describes Brian Wilson as a hard worker. He’s a flowing genius! Swimming in melody! Struck by Thunder Gods of Music! But me? Hello, I’m a “prolific hard worker.” So yes, yeah, I worry about those things. But not enough to slow down. That would be madness. All I can hope for is, some day the whole body of work becomes a tapestry, where no single work of art that I created is the standard, no single work the ONE. I like all the colors together, all in one room, crazy like Pee Wee’s Playhouse. I’ve got a song called “the Quilt of Delirium” and sometimes I think that’s what my canon has become.
Oh man. I LOVE that response. I would give my legs for someone to call me “a prolific hard worker.”
Believe you me! It starts to sting!
Each man is the architect of his own Hell, Josh. You’re building yours and I’m building mine.
That has me thinking of the Farside where the two devils are looking down on that man whistling in Hell pushing a wheelbarrow and one is saying something like, “We’re just not getting through to this guy.”
God, I miss the Far Side so much! Genius. I feel fortunate to have grown up with that twisted sensibility.
Talk about a strange artist! Gary Larson! Where the heck has Gary Larson gone???
Gary Larson, if you’re reading this: PLEASE COME HOME
I read that he gave it up, hasn’t drawn a picture in fifteen years. He said he had started repeating himself. Whatever he did, I wish he’d repeat himself again then.
He’s a perfect example of someone who was prolific enough to criticize for it and now that he’s gone, it’s like… shit, we realized we need you.
Absolutely. Some 4,000 panels later you’re left thinking, “Well shit… NO more observations??”
Bob Pollard. What an interesting one that is. I love it. I love that I’ve read 13 Stephen King books and there’s 50 more to check out. I love that I’ve seen every Woody Allen movie and yet another is coming out next year. I love the canon! The scope! Even if a fella repeats himself… in a way… I don’t mind cause that’s HIS thing, you know?
Oh yeah. CCR is so formulaic… and man, what an awesome formula!
I once read on this one horror writer’s website that he said he was “annoyed with writers who write too much.” It felt obvious to me that he was talking about “pop” novelists, and that he probably included Stephen King in that lot. But what a shameful way to think. “Don’t write today because you don’t want to write too much!”
I have said the exact same thing. And the subtext is “I wish I had a good, novel idea.”
I totally adore Stephen King and really hate it when anyone tries to take the piss out of him.
I’d be hard-pressed to name a writer who has been more influential over our generation.
He is our bogeyman.
Ah, well therein may lie the key to being prolific! Because I’ve murdered the man in my brain who says “good or bad novel idea.” I murdered him and buried him beside his wife (who brought him to think this way in the first place) and now the place I go to look for ideas has no governor. No bully. I’m not afraid of writing a bad book.
That may be the first step to writing a good book: do not fear writing a bad book.
Anyway, let’s bring it back to the new Kindle Single
You said Ghastle and Yule can be seen as representing Art and Commerce
which is a delicate balancing act you and I both try to tread.
with your final lines, I saw them as two eyes
we only see things in 3-D because we have two eyes that see objects from different perspectives
Wow. I think that’s best possible interpretation of Ghastle and Yule. The two eyes of the narrator, or the two eyes of an obsessive artist.
I found it very funny, very ironic, and very Malerman that your wrote a story about movies that could never be a movie, and a novel that’s so visual it’s almost a longhand movie.
well I’ve always been a tweener. The High Strung are too pop for the hippies and possibly too happy for the punks!
The in-between space is where all the interesting shit happens.
Regarding Ghastle and Yule, I’d been reading this “History of Italian Cinema” book and it struck me that, though I only knew half of the movies being described, each of them played out for me as though a complete story had been told. I was on a novella kick… had written a few of them… and so I decided right away to get to work on a fake history of horror cinema. My first idea was to describe two directors who try to out-gore one another. In the early 60’s, this could be a fun story. The rudimentary special effects. How each of them churn their fake blood. But it grew into an obsession story. Which I was fine with. Somehow, Yule ended up with all my favorite ideas. Not sure why he was blessed that way.
I described writing fiction once as like playing GI Joes. The best part is when you take your hands away and they keep moving. It sounds like that happened with this story.
It did. Yeah. The thing that surprised me most was when Gordon Ghastle was able to maintain some artistry despite the industry circus going on around him. I liked him for that. And Yule, rogue as he was, kinda became industry himself. In a way. So, of course, they meet a bit in the middle. But I’d wager to say that if those two guys were real? We could pick one or the other as our favorite. And I like that best about them. I guess I kinda love ART AS EVENT. I remember when the High Strung were out on the road and we went into a record store and there were two life-sized cardboard cut-outs of the two fellas from Outkast. I was like, “Fuck! Their album release is an EVENT.” I want that. You know? Who doesn’t? And Ghastle and Yule achieved that in their own careers.
They struck me as two sides of the same coin, sort of an Andy Kaufman/ Tony Clifton thing going on. Much as they hated each other, one couldn’t exist without the other.
I do think they made “Obscurity” together.
aha! that’s great insight
and fitting that an actor and a female actor was the sacrifice
Of course, I don’t know any more than you do! But I think there was something like the Prestige going on here. Christian Bale’s character. How he and his twin brother devoted their lives to the magic show. I think Ghastle and Yule planned Obscurity their entire careers.
“Planned Obscurity.” Funny thing to say about two famous guys.
and where are they now? Bickering in the balcony like the two old men in the Muppet Show? Or interviewing each other via gchat?
Josh Malerman is typing…
I’m celebrating five years sober today. The above picture was taken just before I quit drinking. I was at the end of a UK tour with Freshkills. I remember that I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open when this picture was taken, but I can’t recall much else.
In 2009, I lived in a run-down apartment right next to the BQE. I drove a crappy little maroon Dodge Neon that was falling apart. I had bags under my eyes and a paunch. I had nothing resembling a real job or a steady income. My primary sources of income were working door at Piano’s one night a week (11pm to 4am from Saturday night to Sunday morning, not a particularly fun shift) and working off Craig’s List. I played in three bands: Freshkills, RIBS and Rumanian Buck. I was comfortable in the knowledge that I had failed as a writer.
And now? I live in the same run-down apartment right next to the BQE. I drive a crappy little maroon minivan that is falling apart. I have bags under my eyes and a paunch. I have nothing resembling a real job or a steady income. And everything else is radically transformed. I haven’t had a job since 2011 because I haven’t had to. I own a little house in California. It’s not just that I started writing again, I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams and became a bestselling author. I still don’t write every day because I have shitty work habits, but I ought to write every day because people are actually waiting for works I’ve promised them.
My body looks almost exactly the same as it did when I quit drinking, but I know it’s different inside. I can run. I didn’t just run a marathon, I ran a bunch of marathons, I ran marathons as training runs, I ran 2 marathons back-to-back, I ran a bunch of ultramarathons, the longest of which was 62 miles. It’s impossible to deny it: I’ve come a long way. And I have a long way to go.
I loved all three of the bands I played in in 2009, all three broke up, and all three broke up because of me. Yeah, I’m sober and I have a pretty decent handle on the whole “not drinking” thing, but I’m still angry and depressed and resentful and irritable and insecure and self-loathing and anti-social and neurotic and detail-obsessed and high-strung. Some of these were issues when I was a drunk and I’ve made improvement on them. Some of these flaws only got worse when I stopped drinking. And some are new. What’s the solution? I know if I had a couple of beers the next time I go out to a friend’s show, I’d have a much better time. I’d relax, I’d be able to connect with people better, I’d be funnier and more animated and less morose. And everything I’ve worked so hard to achieve would unravel, slowly at first, and then very quickly. My only option is to stay the course. I need to try every day: try to relax, try to enjoy, try to be more patient, try to let go.
I say I’m “celebrating” five years sobriety but that strikes me as an odd choice of word. I’ve chosen a rocky path and I know I have more difficulties ahead: what’s to celebrate? And how do you “celebrate” sobriety—a tall glass of seltzer and a marathon of Law and Order: SVU?
This is how I understand my illness: there are two people inside of me. One guy values his friends and family, still has a dream or two, is interested in the world and wants to do stuff: to engage, to participate, to express, to create. The other guy wants destroy the first guy, he wants a drink before even getting out of bed because fuck it and fuck you and fuck the world.
I’ve done a decent job of neutralizing the other guy these last five years. It’s not always an epic battle of good and evil, usually it’s just a battle to find a matching pair of socks and get out of the house… but yeah, some days it is an epic battle of good and evil. So I’ll celebrate this progress and celebrate the hard road ahead of me in a fitting way: by tackling the toughest ultra-marathon I’ve ever encountered.
The Peak Ultra in Pittsfield, Vermont is 53 miles of torture. I had trails of crusted blood down the back of my legs from the biting flies when I finished, and I started shaking uncontrollably not long after. It took me nearly 14 hours to complete the first time I ran it 3 years ago and I swore I would never do it again. I’m going to do it again.
I know I’ll never totally defeat this other guy because, well, he is me. But I can show him who is in charge. I can grind him down, I can knock him back on his heels, I can wear him down, and I can make him suffer. Wish me luck.
I spent most of last week down in Virginia putting the final touches on my “new” solo record “Alcoholica” with the incredibly talented composer Erik Nickerson. I’m really proud of the work we’ve done on it (okay, mostly proud of the work Erik has done on it) but I have grave misgivings about unleashing it on the world.
One morning when I was 16, my friend Nick walked into my room without knocking. I was sorely hungover, laying in pile of blankets on the floor. He threw a book at me.
“You need to read this,” he said and then walked out.
I picked it up. The book was “Women” by Charles Bukowski.
I have replayed that moment over and over again in my mind, forwards and backwards: I am holding a book in my hands, unreading its title, unlearning its author’s name. I place it on my bed. Nick walks into my room backwards, articulates sounds I cannot understand and the book flutters off my bed into his hands. Nick walks out of my room backwards, carrying that evil tome out of my life. I lower myself onto my greasy pillow and retreat instantly back into sleep. The alcohol dyhydrogenase in my blood combines with the acetyl radicals and hydrogen in my body to form acetaldehyde, which is turned back into ethyl alcohol. My sleeping body returns from painfully hungover to blissfully drunk. Charles Bukowski never enters my life.
I took that book as my Bible. I was in pain and Bukowski’s wounded, macho bluster made instant sense to me. Long before my father had disappeared on us, I’d made up my mind to live in opposition to his circumscribed life, fleeing persecution at home to persecution at work, running frantically back and forth like a dog clipped to a clothesline wearing a rut in the lawn. Bukowski provided the map, the blueprint, the easy-to-follow-assembly instructions, the User’s Manual. An Idiot’s Guide, if you will. Where my father had been responsible, I would be free. Where he had capitulated, I would be uncompromising. My father was neurotic and fussy, hardly a man at all. Johnny Cash on one shoulder and Charles Bukowski on the other, I would be chaos.
For the amount of damage Bukowski wreaked on my life, I would have been better off if, instead of that narrow trade paperback from Black Sparrow Press, Nick had just given me the Anarchist’s Handbook or the Necronomicon or a vial of crystal meth or a test tube of weapons-grade anthrax or a loaded Kalishnikov. For a young man searching for how to live and who to be, it’s hard to imagine a worse influence than Bukowski.
When I quit drinking nearly five years ago, it put me at odds with my own music. My public appearances have been incredibly sparse since I sobered up. I finally had an epiphany last year while playing a show I had been coaxed into. I was playing a mean-spirited song I’d written when I was 25. As I was listening to the words come out of my mouth and listening to people laughing in spots that made me uncomfortable I realized that it’s not just that I no longer identify with this guy, I don’t like him. He’s fatalistic and nihilistic and he takes way too many cheap shots at women. I’m done with him.
But he’s not done with me. While I was off getting my life together and running too much, my shadow-self has been kicking much ass on the Internet. My old pal Doug Stanhope uses one of my old songs “The Only One Drinking Tonight” as the theme music for his podcast. (Let’s be clear—I feel only gratitude to Doug for that. I worked my ass off on that record and my work is my work is my work and I’m proud of all of it.) Our pal Jack Andino made a great and depressing video for the song featuring my buddies Andy Andrist, James Inman and Norm Wilkerson misbehaving on a hopeless comedy tour. That video now has 15,000 views.
This must be why I keep getting added on social media by troubled young men: maybe 25 years old, raccoon-eyed, questionable employment. I’m always puzzled when I click on their profiles—if these guys are going out for a run, it’s a beer run—until I recognize a quote in their profiles from one of my songs.
So… listen up. You should read all my stories. You should listen to all my records. By all means, buy the fucking T-shirt. But I am not a role model. The path I chose brought immeasurable grief to a lot of good people who didn’t deserve it, and also to me. This nihilistic record that’s coming out this year is not How You Should Live, it’s just how I lived until I finally came to my senses.
As unlikely and miraculous as my transformation has been, there are still a lot of people who haven’t forgiven me, and with good reason. I was a destructive alcoholic shithead. Don’t do it, man. There’s no use going this way.
My big sister Tatyana turns 39 today. I know what you’re thinking: “that’s wicked old!” And you’re right. She’s pretty ancient and feeble. Please– do not let her forget that.
In my mind, it’s hard to imagine her being nearly 40. I think part of that has to do with the fact that she and I have been alienated from each other for most of our lives. I don’t know when the divide between us sprung up, but I know it was very early, probably before I was ten, and I know that I was the one who wrote her off. Why? I can’t recall, but I know I was the one to alienate her and not the other way around. We were already strangers when I left home at fifteen. We went years without speaking to each other. When I was 27, she threw me out of her house. Yeah, sure she’d had a baby the day before but I was really hungover! Shortly thereafter, she and her family moved to Okinawa and I didn’t see any of them for nearly six years.
So it was pretty weird to realize this year that I had a new best friend– a wife, a mother of four, a woman I’d known my entire life, my big sister Tatyana. I’ve moved all over the country, looking for my home, and I realized this year that the only time I really feel like I’m where I belong is when I’m out running with my sister.
In honor of her birthday, here is a truly dark and horrible piece about her and I. Happy Birthday, T. I love you to death and I will always be grateful that, no matter how old I get, you will always be older than me.
Nothing Bad Will Ever Happen To You
My sister Tatyana had her first child in 2002 when I was 25. He was born on February 23rd, six days after my birthday and four days into my year of self-imposed sobriety (I had lost three entire days celebrating my birthday).
When she told me over the phone that she was having a boy, I jumped and threw a fist in the air, denting the low tin ceiling in our kitchen in Brooklyn. Tatyana is two years older than me and when we she was three, she used to lug her fireplug of a baby brother around, calling me “my Mika,” unable to pronounce the unwieldy clot of three consonants in my name. When she later decided to name her child “Mika,” after me, I was uncomfortably touched by her gesture. I would now have the child I had wondered about, the child I had yearned for and feared, the child I had taken grim, desperate measures not to have. Later, I wondered cynically if she intended him as a do-over for the first Mika who she had been unable to retain control over, a kid who had only fulfilled his potential for boundless disappointment.
The first time I held Mika, my miracle son, my ghost made flesh, I was high on cough syrup and Adderall and had been up for more than forty hours. I was running a club in Brooklyn and had made no travel plans for the winter holidays. Christmas had been irredeemably ruined for me by that rotten 24 hours of the shooting and the divorce and I intended to spend it alone, as I had many before. But, under increasing pressure from my family, I bought a last-second ticket to California, departing on Christmas Day.
My friend Ethan invited me over for Christmas Eve dinner with his family and I forced myself to be gracious and accept, leery as I was of holidays, strangers, grownups and socializing without alcohol. Dinner was fine, good even—Ethan and his family were welcoming, friendly and intelligent and the food was delicious. Dessert was a thick sugary trifle, and I felt a tiny squirm of pleasure in the back of my head. I didn’t notice what I was enjoying so much until my second piece. The layers of cake were soaked in brandy. Carefully not thinking, I ate a third piece.
While driving my roommate’s truck home, I could almost hear the buzzing at the base of my skull, something alive in there, alive and hungry.
It had been a mistake to eat the trifle. It had been a mistake to accept the invitation to dinner. It had been a mistake to even leave the house this time of year. My phone rang: my connection. I picked up. Whoops.
“Yo, Merry Christmas, man.”
“Watup, son, Happy Hanukah and all that jizz. What you doing?”
“Just ate food with E and rolling home.”
“I got some yayo in.”
“Dude, it’s Christmas Eve.”
I had money.
“Ahmn. Fuck, I’ll be over in a minute.”
Back at my Bushwick apartment, I cut up line after line and snorted them off a CD case while pacing around my apartment, then brutally chafing my cock to hardcore porn. Not great, I knew, but at least I wasn’t drinking.
Tremors of pleasure ran through my body like a woman was lightly raking her nails over my skin. More exciting, though, was the feeling of pleasure to come. An amazing experience was about to take place. It got closer and closer and closer… until finally the feeling began to dwindle without The Amazing Thing ever happening.
After a while, the room began to gray and I wondered if something was happening to my vision. I glanced over at my windows, covered with thick black curtains. I stood up from my chair and almost fell over. I had been sitting so long my legs had fallen asleep. I stumbled over to the window in my boxers and pulled a corner of a curtain back: morning. Fuck. I went back to my desk and snorted another line. I’d sleep on the plane.
After I packed, I crept out to the Duane Reade and bought a 4 ounce bottle of generic Maximum Strength cough syrup. I felt good, rebellious, subhuman. I was angry that I’d blown so much money on blow. Everyone was desperate for the shitty drugs that dealers condescended to sell you for too much money if you were lucky enough to have a connection. Nothing like the pushers forcing it on you I’d seen in the movies– you had to scramble, you had to plead, you had to crawl. Fuck them all– the sketchy, thuggy, condescending dealers, the skittish rock kids lecturing me to “be chill,” my idiotic friends who thought coke was cool, my idiotic friends who thought it wasn’t. Fuck them all. I was scoring from the drugstore. I hadn’t done cough syrup in a while but, hey, it was Christmas, this would be my present to myself. I would be down by the time I got to California. Or down-ish. Or I’d just figure it out when I got there.
I pounded the bottle of cough syrup in the back of the car service on the way to JFK, watching clouds cinematically darken the sky. By the time I’d made it through security, I was walking sideways like a crab. I made it to my gate and ducked into a bathroom. The cough syrup was coming on strong but I knew that if I could just make it on to my plane, I would be okay. I shuffled into a stall, locked the door and sat down on the toilet. Could I really be this fucked up?
Between my feet, a huge drillbit at least four inches in diameter chewed its way up through the floor, giving off sparks and tattered wafts of green vapor. That can’t be right, I thought. The bit reversed itself and ground its way back into the floor, leaving no trace. Get on the plane, just get on the plane.
When I emerged from the sanctuary of the bathroom, I had to close one eye in order to read the display over the gate: my flight had been delayed indefinitely. I tried to discreetly look around for a place to sit down but I felt like I was tossing my head wildly back and forth like a drowning horse, my eyes bulging.
There. Seated on a bench ten feet away was Francesca, a bartender from Mars Bar, the open sore of a bar where Zack worked as a barback. Francesca had taken care of my friends and I more than once after a night had devolved into chaos.
“Francesca,” I whispered urgently and fell into the seat next to her.
“Oh my God, Mishka,” she said and hugged me.
“I am so fucking glad to see you. I’ve been up all night and I’m so fucked up.”
“Me too,” she hissed in my ear.
We hugged each other tightly but after the hug, couldn’t bring ourselves to let go, as if the other person were the only thing anchoring us to the earth. We sat there together for a long time.
Hours later, I made it onto my plane, peaking on cough syrup, barely able to parse language or stand upright. I tried to sleep but every time I closed my eyes, my vision exploded into painfully vivid colors. I put my headphones on with no music just so no one would talk to me and I stared at the gray nubbin on the back of the plane seat holding the dinner tray in place. Tatyana was going to freak out if I was this fucked up when we landed.
Jesus, could two children be more different than Tatyana and I? I couldn’t remember us ever having gotten along. I mean, there were a couple of token idyllic memories of climbing over our parents in their bed on Christmas or Easter morning, watching cartoons together on Saturday mornings. And there was that time that Mom had made us costumes out of brown paper grocery bags—a bunny rabbit for Tatyana and a knight with a cardboard sword for me. But those were rapidly eclipsed by uglier memories. Crying because she and her friends were making fun of me or just wouldn’t let me play with them, biting her in a battle over a Smurfs cartoon and losing my TV privileges for a week, screaming at her to suck my cock in some ruthless teenage argument.
I must have been a nightmare for her, the menace yapping at her heels, The Second Who Would Be First, quickly bigger and louder than her. I skipped a grade so she was pushed to do two years in one. Then when she was leaving for college, I stole her thunder by skipping out on two years of high school and leaving for Simon’s Rock at the same time she was leaving for Boulder. Though neither of my parents managed to say anything helpful about the shooting, I’m sure it was discussed with her and around her and she must have felt neglected. But we had already been strangers to each other for years by then. What had happened and when had it happened?
I remember looking at her once while we were waiting for the school bus in New Mexico, her GUESS T-shirt tucked into her jeans that matched her best friend’s jeans perfectly, her Swatch, her hair just so. How old was she then, thirteen? I remember feeling angry for her and angry at her. She was subjecting herself to a code, a code she was better than, a code she shouldn’t be reinforcing but working to destroy. I was angry for her because it was unfair that the pressure to belong, to fit in, to be normal weighed so heavily on her. And I was angry at her because she could do it and I couldn’t.
Staring at the back of the seat in front of me, trapped on my airplane, I could see her without even closing my eyes, frozen in time, maybe five years old, a pretty little girl in the garden in a long dress of white fabric with hibiscus blossoms printed on it, smiling shyly, a real hibiscus flower from my mom’s garden tucked into her hair. Was there already nervousness behind her smile then or have the years just inserted it into my memory?
Tatyana had been able to do something I could not do. She had the ability to behave, to play quietly. Tatyana could be good. That was beyond me. I could not control myself. I wanted to, I would have done anything to be good, but it was impossible. To see her doing it so effortlessly, well, I think that just drove me insane.
It wasn’t effortless for her, that became clear later on. She put herself under incredible pressure to be good, to not disappoint anyone, and because of that she was ready to snap at you for the slightest thing. That summer in the Virgin Islands when I was 20, I remember bitching about her to Mom. What we were fighting about, I can’t even remember.
“Mom, she’s impossible! You know that! Don’t ask me to be a well of patience.”
“Mishka, don’t you understand? That is exactly what I’m asking of you. She’s your sister, for God’s sake.
Well, shit, Mom, don’t you ever get sick of being right all the time?
The divide between Tatyana and I had only deepened over the years. Tatyana got excellent grades and excellent comments, with only one or two teachers suggesting that perhaps she should show more personal agency. I got good grades, too, but increasingly just as a middle finger to my classmates, who seemed to be either thick or spineless, and my teachers: they could give me study hall, detention, inside suspension, outside suspension, say whatever they wanted to about me—“juvenile,” “immature,” “disruptive,” “lacks focus”—but I would force them to give me that “A.”
And now here I was, about to complete a Master’s degree at a fancy-schmancy school, running a rock club in the center of the universe (Williamsburg) and, okay, maybe not necessarily kicking ass but at least trying. And Tatyana was out in California, not working, living on a fucking military base, married (the most horrific and banal fate ever) and popping out kids with a Marine she’d met in a Denny’s. She was a normal. Jesus, Tatyana, the world has more to offer you than the Indigo Girls and you have more to offer it than scrapbooking!
The worst thing was that I knew she was better than me. Whenever we had gone head to head, she won—I finished the test first, but she got every single question right. I got to the bottom of the ski hill first but the instructor complimented her “perfect form” in front of our ski class. Dad wanted us in the sciences and she had become an electrical engineer like him, pulling down a fat salary while I had changed my major to Theatre, then Film then entirely useless Creative Writing and wound up flipping burgers and then answering phones for beer money. And now grubbing in bars, ugh. As much as I condescended to the life she had chosen, once again, Tatyana had won. She had made Mom and Dad proud. She had found a partner and she had had a child and she had found her place while I still had no idea who I was.
Though I had asked my mom to come and pick me up by herself to ensure that there was no big scene at the airport, I was met at the gate by my mother, Tashina, my brother-in-law Bill– a fucking Marine, for God’s sake, the squarest of the square in his ‘high and tight’– and Tatyana, who immediately hugged me and deposited my ten-month-old namesake in my arms.
I had nearly become a father twice, at 18 and at 22. When I was 18, a Simon’s Rocker a couple years older than me who was not my girlfriend told me she was infertile. Then, when she was pregnant, she clarified that she had never actually been diagnosed as infertile by a doctor, she had just never gotten pregnant before. I added a twelve-hour shift at my job at the International House of Pancakes, from five PM Friday night to five AM Saturday morning to pay for her abortion.
When I was 22, my ex-girlfriend stopped taking the pill after she moved out and neglected to mention it to me, though we kept sleeping together. She left New York before she started showing and she was five months along before she miscarried. Only then did she tell me. She had intended to have the child, move overseas and never let me know. My children would have been three and seven. Four years apart, just like me and Tashina. Or like me and Chuong.
I held Tatyana’s baby away from me for a minute, just taking him in. He was the size and weight of a thawed turkey, his useless little flippers hanging limply by his sides, staring at me with the same blank wonder with which I stared at him. Then I drew him into me. He pressed his head against my chest and I put my head down next to his face and took a breath, smelling his fine hair, his soft skull, the nascent promise of his new flesh.
I closed my eyes and had a vision of a nursery full of sleeping babies, each more unique and more perfect than the last, the air over them swirling thickly with boundless potential, the infinite possibilities of their lives. A woman walked among the rows of cribs, bending over each infant to caress the fine eddies of silk on their heads, brush their cheeks with her eyelashes and whisper a blessing into their tiny, sleeping ears: nothing bad will ever happen to you.
Nothing bad will ever happen to you: it’s just the most heinous lie, the worst bullshit imaginable. Millions of bad things will happen to you, a thesaurus, a full set of encyclopedias of bad things, a vast, shimmering spectrum of bad things from stubbing your toe to passing a jagged kidney stone to the day you finally die, The Biggest Bad Thing, which, by then, may not seem so awful after all because death, in its completeness, at least ensures that no more bad things will happen to you.
But before you achieve that, man… You will piss your pants and you will shit your pants, as a child and as an adult. And not a little bit where you can almost get away with it, you will shit your pants with such vehemence that you will have to change your socks. In fact, your final act on this earth will probably be to piss and shit your pants at the same time. Death and taxes are not the only inevitables; there will always be feces.
You will fall in love and your lover will cheat on you with your best friend or your worst enemy or both in one action-packed weekend and you will only find out when you wake up with crabs or herpes or Hep C or HIV.
You will get beat up. A lot. You will get beat up by your brother/ sister/ mother/ father/ friends/ lovers/ strangers. You will get raped. You will get raped twice, once by a stranger and once by someone you know, someone you trusted, someone in your fucking family, God damn the world to Hell. Your hamster will die. Your cat will die. Your grandfather will die. Your mother will die. Your child will die in your arms. You will pay for an abortion, you will have an abortion, several abortions, and those dreamed lives, those pre-children will follow you around like starving stray dogs for the rest of your life.
You will get an infection. You will get a host of infections. Horrible, vile-smelling things will come out of your body. You will be abandoned. He will leave you. She will leave you. They will leave you. Everyone you love who doesn’t leave you or turn against you or die will leave you and then turn against you and then die.
Something will happen to you that is so bad that you will not be able to parse it, you will have no language with which to comprehend what has happened to you so you will just carry it around in your abdomen like a dead fetus which will calcify in your gut, a stone baby that grows so large and so heavy that you will lay awake at night and feel it, cold and unyielding inside of you, and understand that you have been transformed into just a vessel to transport this profane weight.
You will do bad things, to people you hate and people you love because you are angry, because you are confused, because you are hurt, because you have become cruel and because you can’t help yourself. You will do truly rotten shit, small, mean-spirited shit, petty shit, shit so base, so abominable it will keep you awake years later, wondering if it could really have been you who had done it at all because it seems so foreign in essence from the polite, responsible, even caring person you understand to be your true self. It will disturb you, it will hurt you, you will bleed, externally and internally, figuratively and literally, it will destroy you, it will murder you, it will kill you to fucking death, over and over, again and again. And you will go on living.
Still, glassy-eyed and sleep-deprived and half-crazed in the San Diego airport, I held my sister’s baby boy to my chest. It’ll be different for you, Mika, my little man. Nothing bad will ever happen to you.
I had just finished fighting a new friend last night when I got a call from my Dad, a call I had been waiting for, a call to explain the nature of his sudden illness and subsequent hospitalization. Matt Nelson, the new friend, opened Mellow Pages this February, a library and reading room in Bushwick. It’s a brilliant way to lose money: a tiny corner cube of a room stuffed with excellent independent books, chapbooks, zines and literary magazines. In an effort to raise money for the project, Matt volunteered to fight anyone for $20. It was a stupid idea with an overwhelming probability that someone would get seriously hurt. So, yeah, I signed up.
I’ve boxed a little but mostly, I’m just large with a long, simian reach. Matt’s not a small guy, though, he spoke knowingly about boxing gear, and he’s from Washington and they make men out of a more durable substance in the Pacific Northwest. I was worried he was downplaying his skill level and might catch me with my chin out and put me to sleep.
I got conflicting input from my friends. Most of my guy friends said “Kill him. Bloody him. Knock him down, eviscerate him, and wear his large intestine like a mink stole.” My female friends said “Jesus, just don’t hurt him.” My girlfriend said “Just don’t get hurt, okay honey?”
The day of the fundraiser, I also got the news that my Dad was in the hospital. He hadn’t been feeling well and his wife had insisted they go to the hospital. Once he was admitted, they found out that his electrolyte levels were perilously low. They replenished his potassium and calcium (and, Jesus, what other thing is in electrolytes? Help me out here, Dad) and kept him overnight. When they checked again, his electrolytes were again dangerously low. So something was up but they didn’t know what.
My sister did the panicked Google diagnosis (which we all know is a bad idea and we do it anyway) and figured it was something with his kidneys. It took me about two and a half seconds to figure out that both Tatyana and I would volunteer a kidney for the old man, but that it would be my job to bully her into letting me do it because, after all, there is some risk in donating an organ and she’s got the four kids and I just have guitars.
But at the time of the fundraiser, we still hadn’t heard back from the doctors what was up with my Dad. So Matt and I wrapped up our hands and went at it, yes, in the Mellow Pages Library. Fighting in the library is lame when you’re fifteen. I’m thirty-six. Anyway, it sucked. It sucks hurting a good person and it sucks getting hit in the face and I endured both. I knew that it would be lame to try to kill Matt because it’s pretty heroic of him to open Mellow Pages and even more heroic to offer to fight people to raise money for it. Plus he’s a good writer and I genuinely like him, and not just because he has bad ideas. I knew it would be equally lame to just defend and keep him at arm’s length all night. I mean, why offer to fight someone if you’re not going to fight? So my goal was not to hurt him and not to get hurt… but to give him enough that he remembered my name. I think he will. I will remember his name, too.
After two rounds, we’d had enough. His nose was bleeding and my mouthpiece tasted like raw steak. But, fool that Matt is, he manned up to go another two rounds with another guy who’d showed up to fight him. At the end of the first round, my phone rang: my Dad.
He sounded good, upbeat, totally normal. I could tell that he was stressed but he didn’t sound scared or weak or sick at all. They’d thought it might be his heart, he said, but he’d passed all their tests with flying colors. Then they’d found something small near his right temple. They’d excise it with surgery or radiation and he’d be fine. They were sending him home with medication and he was going to check in with a specialist soon.
I said that I wouldn’t worry because I knew his wife Theresa would be vigilant about ensuring that he got the best treatment possible.
“Did you say ‘vigilant’ or ‘belligerent?’ Because yes, she is belligerently making sure I get the best treatment available.”
I could hear him smiling. I guess the part of his body that manufactures horrible Dad jokes was still working perfectly. We talked for a minute before it really sunk in.
“Dad, I mean… you said the right temple. I mean… we are talking about a tumor inside your fucking skull, right?”
“Well, yes,” he said, “but it’s small. Maybe the size of a quarter.”
My dad has a brain tumor.
Now, listen, I know what you’re thinking, but I know that there are brain tumors, and then there are brain tumors. Theresa had a brain tumor the size of an orange removed several years ago, a tumor that had been growing very slowly in her head for a long time, a tumor that had blood vessels going through it, a tumor that only finally made its presence known when it got so large that it began crowding her brain. She’s fine. She has a job, she works her ass off in their garden, she skis, she drives her motorcycle on long tours with my Dad. She’s absolutely the person I knew before the operation.
A friend of my father’s, John Plato, a guy I knew my entire life and maybe the only guy I’ve ever met who was tougher than my Dad also had a brain tumor. It killed him. There are brain tumors, and then there are brain tumors.
I called my sister Tatyana. She was understandably worried so I tried to calm her down.
“T,” I said, “don’t let yourself freak out about this. He’s strong, he’s relatively young, Theresa came through her scare totally fine… This is not the end for him. No way.
“But, at the same time, he is going to die one day. We have to make our peace with that, as much as you can make peace with losing a parent before it happens.”
We got off the phone, both agreeing that we were fine, neither of us fine at all. You ever try to comfort someone who is freaking out about something, only to freak yourself out way worse? I came home and booked a plane ticket out to California to see my Dad in a couple of days.
I’m sure in my heart that this tumor will not kill him or even transform him, that he and I will be back working in the hot sun together next summer. Have I not told you yet that my Dad is a fucking awesome dude? I bought a house this spring and this summer, my Dad drove the eight hours down from Sutter Creek and then worked fourteen hour days with me for ten days to get it whipped in to shape. We worked side-by-side for a while, and then branched off to do separate jobs after a couple of days. He took the opportunity to listen to his iPod and he was rocking out to Guns ‘n’ Roses while he hung sheetrock with his shirt off, occasionally stopping to wipe the sweat from his face and fist pump or howl tunelessly along with the lyrics. My dad is never going to die. Are you fucking kidding me? He’s not like leather or steel because leather dries out and cracks and steel rusts. My Dad… my Dad is like an old, liquor-soaked Christmas fruitcake: he never goes bad, he just gets older and drier and harder and heavier and more potent. My dad will outlive me, he will outlive you, he will outlive all of us. This little tumor will not kill my Dad.
But my dad is going to die one day. We are all going to die. I can’t fucking handle it.
I don’t fear my own death. I fear dying because I know that dying sucks, it’s often painful and scary and protracted and I know I will be an absolute baby, blubbering and crying and begging and pleading. But I don’t fear death itself. Jumping into a frigid lake in the fall is worse. It’s scary and you dread it and then you hit the water and it’s fucking awful. With death, it’s like you jump and then the movie ends before you hit the water. No pain, no terror, no eternal hellfire, no white fluffy clouds, no 72 virgins. Death is nothing at all.
What I live in terror of is the death of other people. I don’t want to lose anyone else. Can you all stay just as you are right now, right this second? I don’t want to be brave or inspirational or even mature, I want to screw around and do juvenile, dangerous things with my idiot friends, okay? Please? Thank you.
My parents are both terrific smartasses and total ballbusters with unflagging enthusiasm for cheap jokes. I don’t want to see their mental faculties slowly hollow out, watch their bodies crumple in slow motion, watch their sharp eyes retreat into their faces. I remember being a little kid, laying next to my dad in bed, marveling at the broad expanse of his back, covered in freckles and coarse black hair. He seemed impossibly massive, like a cross between a rhinoceros and a mountain. I’m still astonished to see myself taller than my Dad in pictures. It’s an optical illusion, it’s a weird camera angle, it’s a trick of the light. My Dad will always be bigger than I am.
Here’s where I’m supposed to turn it around, right? I’m supposed to talk about how grateful I am for the time we’ve had, that we’ve been able to patch things up (and fight again, and patch things up again, and fight again…) how Death is a bookend that is necessary in order for us to enjoy the time in between the darkness at either end, and carpe diem and all that happy horseshit, right? Nope, not tonight. Not this time.
That’s all dependent on some bullshit Hollywood arc of experience between young men and their fathers: Act I: We Fight. Act II: We Make Up. Act III: The Old Man Dies. It seems to be based on the premise that once we are no longer fighting with Dad, he has served his dramatic purpose and the butchers immediately start sharpening their knives. No. My Dad and I still have a lot of projects to do together. My Dad is a good friend of mine. We enjoy each other’s company. We are just getting started.
The most momentous news seems to find you in the most banal ways: glancing at a TV in a sports bar, the ticker in Times Square, a late night text message. I woke up this morning from a dream that I was fighting in a war, turned on my phone, and read on Facebook that my friend Adam Fisher was dead.
I met Adam when I took a job as Night Manager at Knitting Factory in 2004, when it was still on Leonard Street in Manhattan. It was not a great time for me. I’d just moved back to NYC from a year of living out of my van on the road and a long relationship was falling apart. I was angry and confused and solidly depressed.
When Shay, the General Manager, was training me, he introduced me to Adam. I took one look at him– long shaggy hair, cut-offs, band T-shirt, challenging stare– and made a note to myself: this one is going to be trouble. And I was right. Adam was even more hardheaded than I was and we clashed early and often.
One night, we were all drinking in the Tap Bar after a hard night and Adam looked at me and said “You think you’re such a badass.”
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re bigger than me but I’m pretty sure I can take you.”
“No,” I said.
So we wrestled. I was six inches taller, maybe fifty pounds heavier. I won. And then I won again. And then I won again. And then I won again.
We returned to our drinks and just looked at each other. I realized that, if I ever had to really fight Adam, that I would win. And I realized that fighting Adam would totally suck because he would come at me fearlessly, with everything that he had and that he would never, ever give up. It would be a long, shitty fight and it would hurt because it would take me for-fucking-ever to get Adam to stay down. Finally, I realized that we were now friends.
Adam was a fantastic sound engineer to have working for you. Steve, the production manager, would occasionally give me a heads up on a show. One night, we had six hardcore bands booked in the Tap Bar. When I raised an eyebrow, he said “I booked Fisher for it, so you should be alright.” And Steve was right. That night, I asked Adam if he wanted me to stick a security guard down there with him.
“Nope. No way, dude. I got it.”
And he did. I hung out down there and watched him watch the crowd. There was a mosh pit in front of his sound desk (which was just on wheels in the Tap Bar, not attached to anything) and when some guy lost his footing and tumbled toward the mixer, Adam swung around and kicked the guy neatly in the back, saving both his mixer and the guy (who would have been hurt much more had he hit the desk). Later, when I was talking to some clown and telling him to settle down, I saw Adam watching us the same way he had been watching the crowd. Had the guy thrown a punch, Adam would have been on his back like a spider monkey.
Adam was a committed student of the science of sound… but there are lots of guys like that in New York, continually tweaking the compression, scooping some frequency, eternally hovering over the mixing board like the band is suffering some musical illness only they can cure. Adam made bands sound juicy, punchy, and aggressive– I mean this is rock and roll we’re talking about, is it not?– and then he made it LOUD, buffeting your body with sound, the vibrations caressing you with a sometimes uncomfortable level of intimacy. It wasn’t an accident that his email was “healing by amplitude.”
But that’s not where the job stopped for him. Time after time, I’d ask him if he wanted help running his nights. He had five Latin percussion ensembles and there was an early curfew of midnight– didn’t he want me to come down and be ‘bad cop’ so his job would be easier?
“Dude, I got it,” was always his answer.
And he did. He had the bands wrap up at 11:59 and then they came down to get paid, talking about how much they loved him and how great he was. Adam walked in behind them, rolled his eyes, threw his hands in the air and then went and flopped down on the couch in the other room. All class, that guy.
We had a lot in common: both acerbic, bitter guys; smartasses; thwarted musicians; drinkers. Everyone at the Knit treated him differently than they treated me, though, and it took me a while to figure out why. A crucial difference between us was that I was so transfixed by my own failures that I had a difficult time connecting with people beyond a cursory manner. I couldn’t see past my own bullshit. Adam actually cared, Adam cared very deeply about his friends, was sensitive enough that he could tell when they were upset, and he would corner them and make them tell him what was bothering them. And if he ever had a problem, well, he wouldn’t burden you with it. I treated him like a little brother sometimes, and he was like a little brother, but the little brother who might end up carrying you home at the end of the night.
After I left Knitting Factory, we ran into each other at different clubs around town, then different clubs around the country. He was always the same: cut-offs, band shirt, in dire need of a hair cut, and man, that beard… it was like a herd of porcupines crawling through a briar patch wrapped in razor wire in the middle of the Black Forest. I marveled at how he ever got food into his mouth through that dense whisker shield. He’d call you out on the street: “YOOOOOOOOOO!” And then a huge, full-body, unrestrained hug. He used to lift me off the ground just to fuck with me.
We’d sit down at the bar together or the table or hell, once even just a curb in Austin. How do you catch up with someone you haven’t seen in six months when you’ve both been all over the country or the world and through all kinds of hell? He’d ask me what I’d been up to and I’d offer some bland platitude:
“Well, you know… I put pants on this morning and–”
Adam would look at me sideways. “Dude, that is such bullshit, and you know it!”
Adam Fisher was unable to be anything other than 100% himself, 100% of the time.
One time I was selling a 70’s Gibson Grabber on Craig’s List. The band Fucked Up was in town and the bass player, Sandy, wanted to buy the bass. At the last second, she said she was going to have to bail– it was going to be too tough to make it over before the show. Half an hour later, Adam texted me. He was doing sound for Fucked Up at Warsaw, Sandy had told him about the bass, he told her she had to buy it and they were in a car on the way over.
She played it for a minute and then looked at him.
“Sandy,” Adam said, and he said her name like they’d been friends for twenty years, “It’s a rad bass. Just buy it.”
‘Friend’ is a trite word to use to describe the way I felt about Adam. When you’re a penniless young drunk in New York City and all your family lives far away, and you’re not talking to them anyway, or they’re not talking to you, or nobody is talking to anybody, well, you make your friends your family. Adam was part of that family. I liked Adam, I loved Adam, I thought he was funny, I thought he was a dick, he annoyed the fucking shit out of me but most importantly, I trusted Adam. I would have trusted him with my life. We understood each other. Or he understood me, and I thought I understood him.
Losing him so suddenly, so abruptly, so unexpectedly is heartbreaking. I really thought that he’d be telling me I was full of shit for the next 30 years. Our friend Bill Stites put it best: “Adam, you would totally make fun of me if you saw how hard I’m crying right now.” But losing him means that, for the first time in the entire life of our friendship, I can say something to Adam without him interjecting or cutting me off or immediately rejecting everything I’ve just said as total horseshit. So here goes.
Adam. It’s not just that I liked you or we all liked you. I loved you and we all loved you, not because you drank with us and worked too hard for too little appreciation or knew too much about Nick Cave but because you were loyal and true and just a 100% solid gold motherfucker.
I didn’t follow the George Zimmerman trial closely. I’ve been traveling and I hardly ever watch TV even when I’m home. But I didn’t have to– it was all over my Facebook and Twitter feed and featured on every news site I read. So my apologies in advance if I’m not up on every little nuance of the case. Here’s the thing, though: going in to the trial, we already had two of our three verdicts.
1) Trayvon Martin is dead. Back in the day, we used to have a word for people like Trayvon Martin, skulking around in the rain in a hooded sweatshirt, up to who-knows-what. We called them “kids.” A paranoid, angry wanna-be with a pistol made a snap judgement against another human being because he was a young black man and erased him from this plane forever. This is a tragedy, a tragedy at once both horrifyingly epic and chillingly banal.
2) George Zimmerman is guilty of iniating a prejudicial, premeditated confrontation with a vengeful agenda and escalating it to murder. These are the facts.
I had to interrogate myself yesterday about why I had zero sympathy for George Zimmerman. That I’ve always had tons of sympathy for Trayvon Martin needs little explanation– I’ve spent probably hundreds of nights wandering around after dark in the rain in a hoodie from age fifteen on, usually pursuing something less vanilla than junk food, but meaning little or no harm. I’ve gotten yelled at a bunch of times by protective or overprotective neighbors, but that’s kind of the point: they yelled at me and I left.
At first glance, though, I now appear to have more in common with George Zimmerman. We’re both old (I’m older). We’re both light-skinned (I am much whiter). We both have a chip on our shoulders (do I really need to clarify this?) And we’ve both engaged in vigilantism (in the last couple of years, I broke up a fight on a subway platform and I’ve run down two muggers). Then why do I feel justified in hating Zimmerman to death?
Here’s one difference between us: each time that I’ve interfered, a law has already been broken. On the subway platform, one guy was kicking the shit out of the other guy. In each of the two muggings, a woman was yelling because she’d had a black iPhone stolen. There were victims. Here’s another difference: I don’t carry a gun.
3) The third verdict is, of course, the big one. No, I’m not talking about Zimmerman being found innocent. Didn’t we all see that coming? Disgusting as it is, its a tenuous argument that the verdict is incorrect. In fact, if I was a juror and I was doing my job, I think I’d have a very hard time coming up with a guilty verdict. After all, Zimmerman executed the only other witness to the shooting and somehow wasn’t compelled by the court to testify.
Here’s the final verdict: In the United States, it’s not just legal to pursue with a concealed handgun a child innocent of any crime, provoke him, and then murder him, there is a law protecting your right to do so. The overriding tragedy of the Trayvon Martin murder is not that a guilty man was found innocent, it’s that, under current Florida law, murder of children is legal.
Do you care? I mean, really, do you care? No amount of ‘liking’ shit on Facebook is going to change things. If the United States had meaningful, uniform gun control laws, George Zimmerman would have gotten the broken nose he was looking for and so richly deserved; Trayvon Martin would have a crazy story about a racist shithead who got served to tell his friends. If Florida didn’t have a ridiculous, dick-swinging “Stand Your Ground” law, George Zimmerman would at least be in jail for his murder. If we– as a nation and as individual people– didn’t build our communities around fear like it was a fucking war monument, well, George would have watched some TV, Travyon would have gone home, played some Playstation with his stepbrother-to-be. At some point, both of them would have gotten tired, brushed their teeth, gotten undressed and crawled in to bed to go to sleep. George and Trayvon, each in their own bed in The Retreat at Twin Lakes, falling asleep. Think about that for a second. A man and a boy, the ages of a father and his son, sleeping innocently in their beds, their eyelids fluttering, dreaming.
I’m not going to give you a link to a petition or a specific cause. I’m not a spokesman and I’m not a politician. I don’t have answers, but to say that there is no way forward is pathetically weak. And to just sit back and do nothing is insane.
I had a pretty shitty day at Finger Lakes Fifties on Saturday, which was only heightened by the fact that it’s one of my favorite races and I had a bunch of friends/ fans/ supporters there. I feel I need to write about if just to unpack it for myself.
I didn’t have a promising week leading up to the race. On Monday, driving back from working on a record in Virginia with a friend, I had a blowout going about 85 on the New Jersey Turnpike. I had to wrestle my van across three lanes of heavy traffic in order to get over to the side of the highway to safety. I came as close as I ever have to rolling it and I’m not going to lie to you, it was pretty scary. Nothing like a brush with a banal death to make you appreciate the life you have.
Long story short, I got home at 8pm, a full 8 hours later than I’d hoped, out several hundred bucks for the tows and getting overcharged for a couple of used, dryrotted tires to replace the new-ish one that had blown out and the spare that had gotten stolen. Ugh. I was running late on the next Kindle Single so I stayed up till 8am to get an extremely rough first draft off to my editor.
I ended up staying two extra days in NYC before leaving town and I have a (very understanding) subletter, so then I spent two nights on air mattresses, one at home and one in Aaron’s guest room (thanks, pal!) I booked a hotel room in Ithaca the night before the race in hopes of getting one good night’s sleep but, of course, I can never sleep the night before a race.
It hasn’t been a great year for running for me. I haven’t been excited about running for a while. I signed up for 2 other ultras before Finger Lakes and didn’t even make it to the starting line. I managed to get a little re-energized by befriending ultra-triathlete Rich Roll and doing a marathon for Boston and actually ended up doing more training for Finger Lakes this year than I did last year.
Still, once the pack thinned out Saturday morning and I got out there on the trail alone, I found myself getting bored and dreading my second and third lap. I’d trained in minimalist shoes to strengthen my lower legs but chose to race in my Montrails, which soaked up all the water and held on to all the mud we ran through, so my feet were wet and heavy. Nothing I haven’t dealt with before, though. As I approached the end of the first lap, I started to consider dropping. My left hip and my right knee were bothering me and, after 15 miles, I was running as ragged as I usually do after 40 miles. Again: nothing I haven’t dealt with before. Running 50 miles is difficult by design.
When I came to the turnaround, I sat down for a minute, talked to some friends… and then tore off my tag and sadly slipped it to Chris Reynolds, the hard-working race director.
I told myself one of the reasons I quit was because I wanted to hang out with my ultrabuddies, many of whom I haven’t seen for a year, but after dropping after just one lap, I felt so shitty about myself that I split as soon as I could. I felt bad about it the whole day and then, when I woke up the day after the race and wasn’t sore at all, I just felt worse. I totally could have done it, and I totally pussed out.
What went wrong? Lots, but little of it had to do with my body. Sure, I was tired and hadn’t slept well in a week and I wore the wrong shoes and should have stretched/ warmed up more. But those are pretty common mistakes for me– I’ve made those mistakes and still gone out and had great races, even run PRs. What’s wrong is in my head: I’m just not emotionally invested in running anymore.
When I started running, my life was pretty empty. Band practice, work a couple nights a week, not much else. I had a lot to figure out and nothing to do and a ton of new, restless energy. Running was a means of escape: it filled up my hollow, newly sober days, it gave me a sense of forward momentum so I panicked less about the uncertain future ahead of me, it gave me a physical outlet for my anxiety. Yes, running is a means of escape. This aspect of running has been given plenty of attention– too much, in fact. Because running is also a means of CONFRONTING your issues.
When I quit drinking, I was in horrible shape– both fat and skinny. Running meant dealing with that head-on. I had shitty relationships with my family, many of my friends, a couple of women… okay, let’s just say I had a shitty relationship with the world in general. When I ran, my body was occupied but my mind was idle, so I was forced to reflect on the decisions I’d made, the grudges I held and the grudges held against me. So running meant dealing with those issues head-on. But at the very core of my beef with the world was fear. I was so afraid of failing that I was afraid of trying. Running when I was sorely out of shape meant both trying and failing, again and again, and out in public, in the world I resented and hated and feared. Maybe running is an escape for some people but for me, running was all about confronting the shit that I hated and feared the most.
Ironically, now that I’ve written an ebook about running that’s garnered me all this attention, I run less than I did before I wrote it. I run less because my life is full now. I have great friends and every single one of my relationships with my family members is dramatically better than it was before I stopped drinking and before I started running. Also, I have a career now, which is awesome, but it seems like there’s always an email I am late in responding to or a phone call I haven’t returned. I bought a house, which is also awesome, but man, that is a buttload of work and it seems like I’m just getting into the thick of it now. I’m doing lots of other awesome crap like going to Ireland and England and Canada and building guitars and teaching a bootcamp and that’s great… but it means I have less time for running.
Which may be okay. Because I need running less than I used to. For one thing, I’ve taken a lot of steps to resolve conflict in my life… which means I don’t have entertaining worries to obsess over when I’m on my feet. Yeah, there are definitely some days when I wake up feeling angry or depressed and I have to go out and run till I’m exhausted. But that happens less frequently now than it used to. Often, when I do feel like that, I can’t go because I have too much other shit to do– usually good shit, like writing or making a record, but still shit that prevents me from running. I’m not okay with that. But I have to get okay with that, as it’s not going to go away.
I’m going running today. I hope that I will always run. But if I don’t, that’s alright. Running doesn’t define who I am. I define who I am. At the end of the day, running is a completely selfish action that I undertook to save my life. It has to stay something I do for selfish reasons.
When I bailed after just one lap at Finger Lakes, part of the reason I felt like shit is because I felt like I was letting my readers down. I hate letting anyone down but I especially hate the thought of letting my readers down, many of whom are fighting battles similar to mine. But here’s the thing: I didn’t write The Long Run for you. If it’s inspired you or helped you, that’s great… but I didn’t write it to help anyone and I certainly didn’t think it was going to inspire anyone. I thought it was an ugly story of an ugly man trying to become less ugly and I only hoped that it did as well as Shipwrecked. In fact, I wanted to put a warning label on it: ANY INSPIRATION YOU MAY RECEIVE FROM THIS STORY IS PURELY ACCIDENTAL. READER RELEASES THE AUTHOR FROM ALL LIABILITY.
I didn’t even write The Long Run for me, I didn’t want to write it at all! My editor Dave said “Your next Kindle Single will be about your transition from druggie/ drunk to ultrarunner and it will be called The Long Run. I have spoken.” I protested a bit but I relented because we’d already been through a bunch of shit together and I trusted him and, well, I didn’t know what else to do.
Am I glad I wrote it? You betcha. There is no other way of saying it: it changed my life. Oh, okay, at the end of the day, yes, I’m glad that it may have helped or inspired people because I do care about people and I want everyone to be okay. But here’s what made me stop at Finger Lakes: I realized that I was running for other people and that I wasn’t running for me. Call me naïve, but I still feel strongly about authorial honesty. I don’t make shit up– everything I write about, whether it’s horrifying or accidentally inspiring, is absolutely true, it actually happened in the real world. If I’m doing anything just to fulfill someone’s expectation of me, well, I’m not being true to myself. And I gotta be me.
My running buddies have said “You’ll get it the next time!” I love Finger Lakes 50s and I’m indebted to Chris and Joe Reynolds for putting it on… but there may not be a next time, there or anywhere else. That’s okay. Running was there for me when I needed it and I’m incredibly grateful for that. It makes me really sad to think about giving up distance running, even for a little while. But the reason why I’m able to give it up is the same thing that is so fantastic about running, why I will always sing its praises as the cheapest and most effective therapy around: running loves troubled souls unconditionally, and running will always be there for you when you need it.
Added on 15 July 2012
© 2015 Mishka Shubaly