I sat down to start plotting out tour dates for 2016 the other night and instantly felt not just depression or anxiety but DREAD. Like opening up GoogleMaps to look at a map of the US felt like looking at pictures of orphaned children from war torn countries. I’m not supposed to feel like that, right? Touring is supposed to be fun, right? Living the dream, right?
It hasn’t just been a big year, or a good year, it’s been a great year. I’ve played more than 100 shows and spent most of this year on the road. I got to go to Kenya, which was transformative (funny how you have to go to another continent to get new insight about what it’s like to be black in America). I gigged in England and Ireland for the first time and got to share the stage with the legendary Cait O’Riordan from The Pogues. I toured from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Canada to Mexico: New York, Pennsylvania, DC, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Oklahoma. I played with artists I’ve admired for years, discovered some folks I really admire, and made some friends I’ll probably have for the rest of my life. It was really great. And it really fucking sucked.
This was the first time I’ve done extended touring when I wasn’t totally falling apart a.k.a. sober. Which should make touring easier, right? Yes and no. For the first time, I wasn’t so obsessed with my own pain’n’suffering that I couldn’t bear witness to what other folks are going through. Take it from me: it can get fucking ugly out there. I saw a lot of people from my past, girls who broke my heart, girls whose hearts I broke, people I treated badly, people who treated me badly, people who I love and who love me but somehow we still hadn’t seen each other for ten years. I hung with a friend who moved from a place where he has deep roots to the middle-of-nowhere America because his sister drank herself to death, leaving behind two small children, one of whom is autistic. I hung with another friend who lost his brother: while he was struggling to kick Oxy, the brother shot himself in the head while my friend was sleeping in the room below him. Death, heroin, depression, sickness, meth, Oxy, alcoholism, unemployment, heartbreak, divorce, foreclosure, rape, child abuse… I care about people, I really want everyone to be okay, and I really care about my friends and fans and the people who help us out on the road. It’s emotionally exhausting to flit through unhappy lives like a ghost. We roll in before the show, tired and giddy and sore, you make us dinner or bring us food or come early to buy merch and support or just hang out. The show happens, and it’s good or it’s great or it sucks, but that doesn’t really matter, the show is the least significant part of being on tour. Then after the show, you unfold some sadness for us, either explicitly or just in the way you act. The next morning, we leave. It’s still the greatest feeling in the world—leaving—whether I’ve had the best or the worst night of my life. No higher high. We leave, and we leave you in your sadness. I feel guilty about that. And so I carry a little of it with me. And it adds up.
Inevitably, the day after the show, the messages come in, through Twitter and Facebook and email and text. “Why did you play Dogshart, AR? You should play Boston.” We played Dogshart because lots of people wrote us and said they’d come out. If you book us a show in Boston with a promoter who won’t rip us off, we’d love to play Boston.* “Why did you play North Dogshart? If you had played South Dogshart, I would have been able to make it.” We drove 8 hours to make it to Turdwater. You couldn’t drive the 45 minutes to get to the show? “I missed you guys because the website said 9 so I thought 9:30 but you started right at 9!” We’re more annoyed about it than you are but we’re not in charge… and the website did say 9, right? “Why didn’t you tell me you were playing?” We posted it on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and our websites and the club’s website. Calling/ texting/ emailing every single person we know in the country isn’t feasible. And it makes us want to kill ourselves when we try to do it anyway and you still don’t come out. “The club you played at sucked, why didn’t they turn off the TVs? You should play a different club.” We’d love to play the better club but they wouldn’t have us. “If you guys had played on a Saturday, I would have come out.” We’re on the road seven days a week, and only one of those days is a Saturday. And that’s the day you have your underwater basketweaving seminar so you wouldn’t have come out anyway, don’t lie to me, dude. “I know I wrote to you six times before the show and lured you to come and play the tiny little armpit that is Dogshart but there was a Full House marathon last night and I just got some killer kush and my couch is really comfy. Sorry I didn’t make it out but I will DEFINITELY be at the next one.” You asked us to come and play, you said you’d get a ton of friends out, no one came, the bar left the TVs on and ripped us off and then made us feel shitty that what we do is not more popular, and we had to drive till 3 am because we didn’t even have the place to crash you promised. There won’t be a next one.
This makes me sound like an asshole. And I am an asshole, especially because I’ve used almost every single one of these lines with the bands that I love. I bought tickets to go and see Jesus Lizard, a band I fucking love, and then I stayed home on a Saturday night BECAUSE I JUST DIDN’T FEEL LIKE GOING. I get it. But fucking A, at the level we’re at, we need all the help we can get.
Which is to say: I love you all and I’m so fucking grateful for the support I got this year. I’m grateful to the comics who brought me on tour with them though they’d never met me, comics who suffered in the van with me, comics who booked me shows and gave up their time so I could play and gave up their share of the money or even paid me out of their pockets and made sure I had non-alcoholic beverages within reach at all times. In particular, I’ve gotten a ton of love from comics/ musicians/ performers in Phoenix and Austin so thank you, and you’ll see me again soon. I’m grateful to the bands who let me open for them or who opened for me or let me borrow gear or cut their sets short so I could play who made sure I got paid, chipped in for repairs on the van, etc. I’m grateful that we had an ace photographer/ documentarian with us for some of it to preserve some truly unforgettable times. I’m grateful to the clubs/ promoters/ talent buyers/ bookers who took a chance on all of us. Mostly, I’m grateful to all the NON-PERFORMERS—all the people who feel like they’re not making any contribution but who are totally integral, people without whom, performers would have nothing. You put us up, you hosted house shows, you fed us, you bought a couple tickets and brought a friend, you bought merch, you overpaid for your merch, you just gave us money for nothing, you put money in the tip jar, or you just showed up, sat quietly and listened and laughed and clapped when we moved you. You’re the only reason why we started doing this and you’re the only reason why we keep doing this and we are incredibly, incredibly grateful to you.
Stay tuned. My new book comes out March 8th and I will have a shitload of new tour dates dropping soon.
*Fuck Boston, we’re never playing Boston.
I met novelist Elise Blackwell through the Rich Roll Podcast earlier this year, the fount from which all good things seem to come. Her email was phrased carefully so I wouldn’t have to respond… which of course, made me realize both that she was a writer and that she had fielded more than one unsolicited email herself. We started corresponding and, when I asked, she agreed to send me a galley for her forthcoming novel, The Lower Quarter.
I started reading The Lower Quarter at a moment of peak chaos in my life—about to move across the country, struggling to finish my first full-length memoir, living out of my van while touring across the country and around the world, butting up against the limits of my sobriety, obsessing (as usual) about the best way to salvage a life I’ve abused worse than a rental car. The Lower Quarter is a dense book, crammed with emotional information and cerebral information. It’s about a lot of dark things—Post-Katrina New Orleans, art theft, Internet trolls, the evils of affluence, loss of autonomy, addiction, rough sex, rape, enslavement, murder, revenge. A gloss of the plot—a body has turned up in New Orleans, a possible clue to the whereabouts of a European painting missing for years—in no way prepares you for the spectrum of human experience that awaits. The novel is intense but it never becomes bogged down by the darkness that is its main concern. Ultimately, I found The Lower Quarter to be about recovery, about living with damage, and about reclamation. I’m an unabashed fan of the book (I already bought a copy for a friend) so I was pretty excited to Gchat with Elise about it.
M: Apologies if you’ve answered these a million times but… run down for me what the book is about. I could do it, but I’ll probably butcher what you had intended…
E: It’s a literary noir set in post-Katrina New Orleans. The plot spins about a body that is found in a hotel in the lower French Quarter and a painting that’s been missing from Europe for a decade or so. These cause the lives of the four main characters to intersect.
In thematic terms, it’s about restoration and recovery as well as various forms of power relations.
I’d say, too, that it’s also about what it means to live in a body, particularly one subject to power relations and boundaries.
M: “Thought-provoking” appears on so many jackets of books that really aren’t… but I spent a lot of the time I was reading this book actually not reading it, but thinking about it. “The discovery of a body” is an idea that reappears many times in the text in different forms.
E: There are ideas in there, to be sure, though I hope that a reader who wants to read for just story can do that. But, yes, embodiment is definitely one of the book’s ideas.
M: There’s the body of the murdered man. Then Johanna is just a body when Clay first encounters her. Marion is a body worker who seems to discover her own body… but it never feels like you’re cramming ideas into a story or warping the narrative in order to shoehorn these themes into it. It’s sort of a pedantic question… but how the hell did this story come to you? What was the germ?
E: Of course bodies are subject to power of various forms, and the book covers some of them: political, geographic, and sexual. I tried to explore this from different angles with different characters. For instance, the character of Johanna has, in the past, been subject to involuntary sexual power relations as well as confined by political boundaries. Eli has been incarcerated. Marion dabbles in the voluntary exchange of sexual power and is very much a physical being–from riding her bike to receiving tattoos. Clay has a tormented relationship with his own body, which is marred by a physical defect.
The book came to me while on book tour for my second novel, which was set during the Great Flood of 1927. It was a book whose publication history was interrupted by Katrina, and I wound up rewriting it after the storm. When it finally came out in 2007, my book tour started in Biloxi, and there I went on a morning run on the beach and was hit hard by the boundary between the part of the beach that had been cleaned up (near the casinos) and the part that was still a disaster area. The tour continued on to New Orleans. I stayed in an offbeat hotel in the lower Quarter that felt like it could have been in a noir movie, and I had the strong (but possibly totally false) feeling that someone had died in my room. Then it accumulated from there. Johanna was one of the earliest characters, or rather her art restoration studio was. I have a cousin who is an art restorer, and I was drawn to the idea of what it would mean to be someone who restore water damaged things in a water damaged place.
M: None of it feels like riffing on bodies or the idea of the body, though. It’s thinky, but it doesn’t feel flashy. It sits nicely with the themes of restoration/ damage/ ownership/ identity. Johanna’s sense of self is tied to a stolen painting. As an art restorer, she has to walk a fine line between restoring a painting and transforming it. What ‘damage’ becomes essential to a painting or a person? What needs to be undone and what needs to remain?
E: That’s a fabulous question. Johanna’s identity was born during the worst thing that ever happened to her. I’m pretty sure she would give up her identity to undo that thing, but of course she can’t. But I don’t believe in simple psychological formulas. Just about the worst thing I can think of to say to someone who has suffered a tragedy is “Things happen for a reason.” That’s moronic and insulting. Yet people do incorporate their damage and move on.
M: I love that you said that. Probably my greatest gripe with the world right now– more than ISIS, more than fast food restaurants that don’t give you free soda refills– is the phrase “Everything happens for a reason.”
E: A key question in art restoration, particularly of historically important paintings, is whether to hide their damage, to paint over a problem, for instance, and that works as a human metaphor. In the novel, at least three of the characters are what a friend of mine who has been in therapy would call “in conversation with their own damage.”
M: I’ve been listening to too much Dylan recently. Two lines came to mind when thinking about The Lower Quarter. “The executioner’s face is always well-hidden” as we learn almost nothing of the man who arranged for Johanna’s kidnapping and subsequent rape/ forced prostitution. And the line “I can’t be good no more/ honey, cause the world gone wrong.” The people in this book aren’t broken, but they are damaged, living in a damaged world, often damaging each other… but also, seeking something greater, whether it’s freedom or revenge or just forgiveness.
E: I think I didn’t want to make that man important, and Johanna certainly wishes he weren’t important. You’re right that the characters aren’t broken. Clay is probably the closest, and certain readers have loathed him, but I actually have some sympathy for him. He is trying to make something right, in his own way. He has a sense of penance. So, yes, I think each character is trying.
I don’t think that people who have suffered can go back, can restore themselves to what they were before. Transform is a good word, though of course sometimes it’s a negative transformation. Usually, for most of us, it’s mixed. So if you wind up liking yourself, you know that the scar tissue is part of it.
M: I have a tattoo of a woman’s name on my clavicle, a woman who happens to now be married to another man. I haven’t covered it up and I won’t because it would just be cosmetic and it would be in bad faith: oftentimes, our missteps and our bad decisions become who we are. Or at least part of who we are.
E: I think the most dangerous people are those who aren’t frank with themselves. I’m in favor of keeping secrets from other people (or at least there’s a lot of stuff I don’t want people to tell me!), but not from yourself. As for your tattoo, that makes a lot of sense to me. You know who you are.
At the novel’s beginning, Marion doesn’t have any tattoos. When asked if she’s afraid of the pain, she says no (and she’s definitely not), that it’s the fear of commitment.
M: Tattoos are always a little terrifying. Even if it’s something small, you’re absolutely a different person after it’s done.
I feel like I should be grilling you with tougher questions, but most of my questions are just variations on “interesting choice– great job!” I found your decision to keep the villain anonymous or at least undifferentiated to be mimetic of reality. In my experience, people who do horrible, dehumanizing things are rarely snarling, moustache-twisting villains, but normal-appearing people. And they seem to live their lives indifferent to the pain they’ve inflicted.
E: I think that is often the case, which is what makes Clay a more salvageable human than the full villain. As for the villain, I agree. It’s also the case that even people who do really horrible things are complex, and to write the character as a full-fledged character would mean engaging sympathetically with him. He also plays a minor actual role in the book, and what’s important is the action Clay takes and not who the bad guy is. The guy is a rich bad guy. He may well also be nice to elderly people and give to charity. If I wrote a book about him, I’d have to figure out if he had a dog or not–I’m guessing no–but it’s not about him.
M: This is a central question to writing any character, I think: dog or no?
E: Yes, it strikes me as an important distinction. When I found out Rafa Nadal “doesn’t trust dogs,” my tennis allegiances were upset.
M: Genres collide in TLQ, to great effect. In some ways, it’s straight-up detective fiction with a massive wounded-and-bleeding heart. What books or authors do you feel this novel is descended from?
E: I definitely set out to mess around with the tropes of noir, and so Chandler and Hammett were on my mind. I know a guy here who is a great Hammett collector, and I got to meet Elmore Leonard when he came to town ahead of donating his papers to the University of South Carolina library. But in a noir, the detective would have to tell the whole story in some hard-boiled voice, and Eli’s not really the kind of guy to look up Johanna’s skirt without asking. But there are definitely a lot of nods to noir–the setting suggested it strongly–and I did want the story to work at least sort of as a mystery. Not the what, really, but the why. And, to some degree, the who. It’s funny, the book was reviewed in a “mystery roundup” in USA Today, and I tweeted appreciation but also that it wasn’t a mystery. The very kind and generous reviewer tweeted back “But there’s a body! And a missing painting!” And I can’t argue with that. I think there’s also a strong debt, though, to some of the novels of Howard Norman, which blend elements of mystery into literary fiction.
M: When I think ‘Mystery,’ I first think of it as an outdated genre– hand-me-down airport paperbacks, etc. But it’ll always be resonant. So many of us are searching for something lost or stolen. I think what prevents TLQ from being ‘just’ a mystery is that what Johanna is searching for– autonomy, revenge, herself– can’t be carried in a briefcase or hidden under loose floorboards. And it couldn’t be told from one perspective because each of the four major characters is seeking something. Something different, but something lost or stolen, like Johanna.
E: Plenty of folks still read airport mysteries, but I wonder if the choice to read even those isn’t about something deeper. All of the characters in TLQ have been robbed of something. Marion has lost tangible things, including some of her own art and a (very small) inheritance, but also a sense of family and background. She’s searching for a way to belong to a place and a way to connect to other people outside of sexual power. Clay wants redemption, among other things. Eli has either lost or been robbed (depending on your perspective) of some serious time and also the possibility of love. Anyone who is self-reflective is trying to solve key existential mysteries.
M: What’s next for you?
E: I’ve just started working on a new novel, tentatively titled Spa, of all things, and set at a “wellness spa” in southern California. It’s about contemporary relationships with time and money. It started as satire but has become something more serious.
M: “Contemporary relationships with time and money” sounds innocuous. But, having read TLQ, I suspect it’s anything but…
Buy The Lower Quarter here
About the author:
Elise Blackwell is the author of five novels: Hunger, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, Grub, An Unfinished Score, and The Lower Quarter. Her work has been translated into several languages, and her books have been named to numerous best-of-the-year lists, adapted for the stage, and served as the inspiration for a Decemberists’ song. Originally from southern Louisiana, Elise now teaches at the University of South Carolina. Her favorite Bob Dylan song is “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”
Do you know Rich Roll? If you don’t, you should. I met him two years ago and no one else I’ve met in my sobriety has had a deeper, more lasting, more positive affect on who I am and who I want to be.
His story is incredible. Like me, he is a recovering alcoholic. He’d been sober for years but, on the eve of his 40th birthday, he realized that he was deeply unsatisfied, 50 pounds overweight, and heading for a heart attack. He knew he had to make food his medicine, so he adopted a plant-powered diet (no animal products, no refined foods, all organic and GMO-free) and undertook a radical transformation, culminating in his creation and completion of The Epic Five: five Ironmans on five different Hawaiian islands in less than a week. Incredible? Just short of impossible, I’d say.
Rich is an impressive physical specimen and, knowing his accomplishments, I was expecting a Type-A, performance-obsessed, go-go-go neurotic asshole. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Rich was humble and unassuming, perceptive and thoughtful, so relaxed his presence was nearly hypnotizing. Behind his down-to-earth demeanor, though, was a fierce, probing intelligence and an unrelenting drive. Rich wasn’t satisfied to have unlocked a better, more authentic version of himself. He had an undying commitment to service and he wanted to share what he had learned. Not just with other ultra-athletes or other sober alcoholics, but with everyone.
I fell in love with Rich right away (a love that’s only deepened over the years) so I tried to go plant-powered. Having grown up in a meat-and-potatoes household, I was clueless about how live on a plant-powered diet. I knew what I couldn’t eat, but I had no idea what I should eat, and how to prepare it. I failed, tried again, and failed again.
So I’m really excited about his new book, The Plantpower Way. I’ve already bought two copies as gifts. It’s a cookbook, but it’s much more than a cookbook: it’s about how to live plant-based, how to prepare and enjoy vegan meals, how to achieve complete nutrition from only plants. At its core, the book is about how to eat well—for longevity, for health, for performance, for happiness—and, most importantly, how to enjoy eating well.
Yes, I have mocked vegans. I will continue to mock vegans. But I am genuinely excited about this book and, if you’re like me and you enjoy the occasional bacon cheeseburger and maybe a mountain of Twizzlers, you should buy it. Why? Because we know that cheeseburgers and Twizzlers aren’t good for us (Twizzlers are pretty much the opposite of food). Because we know that we aren’t eating enough plants—fruit and vegetables, but especially greens. And because we know that kale by itself tastes like crap. I’ve had the pleasure of eating Julie’s cooking several times and it’s hearty, satisfying and out-of-this-world delicious. I don’t know if I can bring it the way she can, but I’m going to give it my best shot.
I’m not plantpowered and I doubt I will ever go all the way. But just by trying a plantpowered diet, I’ve learned so much about how I eat and what I should and shouldn’t be eating. If you’re a vegan, obviously, you should buy The PlantPower Way. But I’d argue that if you eat meat and cheese, if you eat candy, if you eat delicious Nacho Cheez-its, it’s even more important for you to buy this book and soak up the wisdom within. No, it won’t make your diet perfect, but it will make it better… and isn’t ‘better’ what we’re all aiming for?
Here it is again: The Plantpower Way
Wow, tons of stuff to report. Just did nearly 40 shows across the country, toured England and Ireland and took a trip to Kenya that was honestly life-changing. And I’m too busy to report it all in detail. But here’s the important thing:
Yes, really. I will be teaching at Yale this summer.
The course is called THE DIGITAL REBIRTH OF LONGFORM.
Here’s the course description:
“As paper publishing houses have consolidated and narrowed their focus to airport thrillers and celebrity tell-alls, the few periodicals that haven’t folded won’t print anything over 2000 words, and web publishing has devolved to Buzzfeed and listicles and Which Star Trek Character Are You? You Won’t Believe What Happened Next! … what’s a starving writer to do? Digital publishing has embraced paper publishing’s red-headed stepchildren: the novella, and nonfiction longer than an article but shorter than a book. We’ll examine and dissect contemporary successes in this in-between length from fiction to memoir to personal essay to long-form journalism. Which topics, what situations, which narrative arcs, which types of stories merit exposition of this length? Readings will include Jon Krakauer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Karin Slaughter among others. Attention will be paid to the entire process, from germination to production to publication to commercial success.”
Effectively, I’m going to do my best to teach you how to do what I’ve done: craft a series of bestselling Kindle Singles, sell over 200,000 copies worldwide and never work a *real* job again.
It’s a huge honor for me. Do me another honor and sign up?
Here’s the link: http://summer.yale.edu/ywc
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.
Added on 15 July 2012
© 2016 Mishka Shubaly