Slipstream Living

It’s slipstream living here, in the wake of Stonewall’s fiftieth, and I’m thinking of this year’s Pride, only maybe the third or fourth I’ve been to, it being as many years since I gave voice to something I always knew but tried to hide, maybe tried to ignore. And in going to these parades not knowing what to expect, what it would mean for me, if anything. Looking at people dressed however they wanted to be dressed, singing, dancing. The pageantry and glitter, makeup and candy. I was still self-censoring then, still outwardly heteronormative at all times, so I didn’t dance or anything, didn’t dress up. I wanted to, but I didn’t.

And the inevitable protesters, with signs reading “Born that way? Burn that way!” and “LGBT” spelling out “Let God Burn Them.” The initial disbelief that people like that still exist, then the realization of tangible, real-world intolerance, of something beyond the jokes and insults when I was a kid, when “gay” was synonymous with “stupid” or “bad,” when “faggot” was the worst thing you could be called. Something more sad, more dangerous. One of the protesters was there with his kid, the girl no older than 11 or 12 and already forced to spout the same soundbites as her father, looking like she didn’t want to be there but having no choice. Enforced bigotry. The strategy was split between two camps, generally: those who argued with the guy and those who refused to give him the attention he wanted. And that’s fine, commendable even, but I was raised to never back down from a fight, to always answer an insult–a vestigial behavior from childhood, where what was enforced then was a caricature of masculinity. Old habits really do die hard.

I want there to have been some big Rise Above moment for me, but there wasn’t really.  I got myself between him and the people he was trying to bother, and he casually used the word “faggot” as he argued his point, and all I could see was douche kids from elementary school, all I could think was to hit him, and if not for the strategically-placed cop standing next to him making sure no one did just that, then I would’ve.

I went to my first live performance of The Rocky Horror Show that night. I’d seen RHPS on VHS hundreds of times, then DVD when the technology changed, then midnight showings at theaters with shadow casts, but I’d never seen a performance of the play that started it all, and it just seemed like the right time to do it. Back at home, after Pride but before the show, my girlfriend was the one to suggest I show up with my makeup done, legit, like something Frank would wear. She’d do it for me. I’d like to say I jumped at the idea right away, but that wouldn’t be true. I brought up concerns like the makeup smearing when I’d put my motorcycle helmet on, that it might take too long, etc. etc. I was happy that Harmony poked holes in all my excuses. So I agreed, and sat for her, my face her canvas.

Being there among fellow fans, receiving their compliments and comparing our histories with Rocky Horror, none of them batted an eye at my makeup. If anything, they admired it. The actor playing Frank-n-Furter personally acknowledged me in the front row while singing “I’m Going Home,” and I sat there with tears in my eyes even though I’d heard the song a thousand times before. And then, when it was over, we all stood up for curtain call to join in on a reprise of The Time Warp. And being there, finally, with my makeup how I wanted, dressed the way I wanted, singing and dancing without a care in the world… It felt like coming alive.

 

Echo Love!

I have to say, it felt pretty fucking fantastic to read this email. 😁 I’m happy to report that my creative nonfiction story “Enby Late Starter” was just accepted for publication in Echo, an imprint of @paragon_press. To say I’m excited is a severe understatement. You best believe I’ll provide linkage once this is live!

Doctor Manhattan Vision

Rewatching all those old videos that we made as teenagers, those short films, is like having a viewable time capsule. Last weekend, I took the time to rip them from YouTube and Dailymotion, set up a shared Google Drive folder so that Matt and I could watch them whenever, so we could save them for posterity. Mostly I did it because I haven’t talked to Chris in years, and I figure it’s only a matter of time before he takes them all down. He already emptied out his YouTube account, so I had to rip the ones I had on mine and find the duplicates on Dailymotion where possible, come to terms with the ones that are now gone forever.

I realized watching them that it’s possible to miss the times you shared with a person while not missing the person you shared them with. To be nostalgic without being rose-tinted, with the years and the fights and the growing, all of it intervening. To miss the person they used to be. And if I’m being honest, how I used to be too. I make it a point every few months to travel back to Chicago–my home. I live a good 700 miles away now, so it’s an effort, but it’s something I do regularly. And there are those phantoms, those half-forgotten places, and the things I did there, but more than that, there are the people I miss.

When Matt and I meet up, we don’t endlessly turn over the past, although we definitely could. There are moody teenagers younger than our friendship. No, what we do is catch up with the way we’ve changed in a sentence or two, a look maybe, and we get back to the friendship timeline like nothing has changed, because it hasn’t. There’s that realization that I’d take a bullet for him, not a realization so much as a simple acknowledgment, and there’s remembering how we got here. The fact that I didn’t hang out with Matt as much as I would’ve liked to when I was friends with Chris, and that icky feeling that came with being mean, something I’d do when I hung out with Chris, and the fact that I knew it couldn’t last, not much past early adulthood, that I couldn’t let it last.

There’s also that simmer of feeling where once there was a boil, and the way it used to put a knot in my stomach but here, now, it doesn’t make me feel much of anything. Life has a way of moving on, a geologic smoothing away of the peaks and valleys that used to matter so much, the words both said and unsaid that would burn in my throat, now harmless and inert–something to be studied.

Sometimes I wish I had a chronovisor, a device with which to look into the past, to experience it without disturbing it. I think of time travel tropes in old movies and comics, and then I remember the comic Chris and I started working on that dealt with similar subject matter. But before it gets too wistful, I remember that I wrote several issues and Chris just never did the art for them.

In thinking of time travel, I forget the very real version we already have–the pictures, the videos. The stories both written and remembered. And even then, it’s the things kept out of picture and memory’s frame, the words shared before and after the shot. There’s the dizzying, beautiful, terrifying, wonderful realization that things truly did work out the way they were supposed to. That I’ve done these things and become this person because of, not in spite of, what happened to me. That had it not been for all of those events in that sequence, I wouldn’t be able to have this Doctor Manhattan vision, this way of seeing the future through the past, of understanding that I’m now surrounded by the people who are meant to be in my life. That I’ve made it without knowing I ever left.

The Things I’d Do

I used to try to track my dreams and force sleep paralysis. I’d do things like put on white noise through headphones and fasten halved ping pong balls over my eyes, to force sensory deprivation. When that did nothing, I’d keep myself awake for days at a time, blasting loud music and imbibing caffeine while making note of any aberrations in thought or mood.

I’d test my lung capacity and willpower by keeping my head underwater during baths, stopwatch ticking in my hand outside the tub. I’d go on fasts for days, taking in only water, not even tea, not even black coffee, dropping weight and going straight into starvation mode.

I’d bike for an entire day–twelve hours straight, then do the same thing but with walking. I’d spend whole days imagining life through the eyes of a city pigeon or a backyard squirrel. I would inflict self-pain in small doses (small at first), looking for the minimum effective dosage, journalling the process, always documenting, because if you’re documenting then it almost feels like you’re doing it all for a reason.

I’d spend entire nights outside, then days, at first trying to find out what the “homeless experience” was, but then of course discovering that there isn’t only one. Back at home, I’d do stuff like super glue my hand to the bathroom wall and see how long the adhesion would last. I’d put all my money save for five dollars in savings, then live off that five dollars for two weeks. I would sneak into a supermarket’s bathroom just before closing and see if I could go the whole night without being detected.

I’d rig an eye-opening device, like the one from that Kubrick horrorshow, and see how long I could go without blinking before my vision started to fade. I’d sit, and stare at a wall, and meditate for hours at a time, losing track of the passage of minutes, then hours, then days. I’d live in my closet for a week or so.

I had the idea that I was collecting these experiences for a book. It was fiction at first, but it became nonfiction eventually as time went on. Surprisingly, at least at first, the writing was undisciplined. There was no structure, no schedule, just word after word whenever they’d come. There was something about the truth, though, something lacking. You could spend an entire day looking at something and not really see it. For some of the experiences, I’d take them on for a month or more and have less than a paragraph to put down about them. Seeing is not reflecting. Feeling is not reporting.

I spend most of my days, now, eating when it feels appropriate, sleeping at night, and moving unrestricted during the day. I don’t write about this (I write about other things now), but I seem to get on okay. Sometimes, at night, images of experience will dance in front of my eyes as I try to sleep. I watch them pass as I breathe and breathe and breathe.

 

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Where I’ve Been

I’ve been gone a little while according to the timestamp gap, a digital exit followed by a digital reentry. Keeping busy of course, but just not visible here.

When I was 21, I enrolled in my first semester at Columbia College Chicago, a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshman film student. Concentration in screenwriting, never quite able to shake the written word even when it’d be translated to the screen.

I took a grand total of one (1) fiction class, which is funny considering the direction my life has taken, and how much of my focus has shifted toward literary shit. You can’t plan these things.

I graduated, focused on flash fiction and novels, and used this site as a refuge (quarantine?) for written anxieties, understandings, and fictional journal-keeping. Mostly I stuck to the post-once-a-week rule, but sometimes (lately) I didn’t.

So here’s where I was.

Last month, I took a trip down to Asheville. I saw Tame Impala there and roamed the streets and hills all night after, cataloging the experience I just had, people-watching, and taking notes for a feature screenplay that hit me all at once as I walked those quiet, foggy streets and waited for day to break.

I was an anthropologist as I met strange and interesting people that night, all of them informing this weird, existential, cyberpunk, scifi, dark comedy thing that I was constructing on the fly. I started writing the thing shortly after getting back home, and I haven’t taken a day off from it since. I’m 60 pages in, the commonly-accepted midpoint in screenwriting, letting this thing shape itself as I listen to Jack Stauber in the early mornings, watch B movies in virtual reality, and take midnight walks. It’s exhilarating.

I met a couple filmmakers here in Winston-Salem, a filmmaking couple, separately, not at first connecting the dots that they were together. I met the dude at a Confederate protest as we stood down the Confederates together, talking film and filmmaking in between bouts of shouting them down. (Their statue was later taken down, by the way. Where it once stood there’s now a nicely-landscaped crop of flowers.)

I met his wife at a creative event I went to for work, and only after talking film and filmmaking with her did I realize that she was mentioning working on the same projects that he had. They were a couple.

I went on a road trip back home to Chicago for an extended weekend. Didn’t visit Columbia College specifically (I didn’t want to feel old), but I did point it out a few times to my girlfriend Harmony, all too proud to be like, “Hey! Right there is where I went to school. … I used to take walks down there in between classes all the time. … The film building is right over there. …” Etc.

I’ve long had an all-or-nothing, this-or-that brain, so it didn’t compute that I could maybe do fiction and film. Like I had to give one up to do the other. And then I realized: Hey. That’s bullshit.

So long story short, we had an awesome visit to my hometown. I took Harmony to all my old haunts, relived decades-old memories in the places that spawned them, reminded of details I’d forgotten by my friends and little brothers as we wandered these places together, letting it all come back like no time had passed at all.

I got back to North Carolina, and the filmmaking couple got in touch with me. They were doing the 48 Hour Film Project, a challenge where a film crew writes, shoots, and edits a short film in 48 hours and then competes with other film crews in their city. This is an international thing with screenings, prizes, the works. They wanted to know if I’d crew with them. They didn’t know this, but I’d wanted to do a 48 for over a decade, but just never had. They were both awesome people, and it didn’t hurt that they’d worked with the likes of VICE and PBS before. That was one of the quickest and easiest “yes” emails I’ve ever sent.

We shot the film, and it was a crazy amount of fun, and we screened it, and got a great response, and I got compliments on how great it was to work with me on set, how vital I was to the production. I’ve already been invited to crew on future projects, and I sent some old scripts over to the guy after being asked.

All this because I was friendly and talked with people. So yeah. This is an unexpected yet very welcome chapter of my life. A chapter where I’m open to all the possibilities in front of me, where I’m doing all the things I always dreamed of doing. That’s where I’ve been, and that’s where I am.

Patience

As I write this, I’m listening to Tame Impala’s latest song, “Patience” on repeat. It’s the first single from an upcoming album that will break a four-year dry spell since their last one: Currents. You can listen to that song while you read this, if you want. “Patience,” I mean. Might help set the tone. Couldn’t hurt, at least.

I discovered Tame Impala during a Dark Night of the Soul of sorts, although of course I didn’t know it at the time. Denial works wonders, and we can never fully grasp the heavy shit we’re going through until we’re not going through it anymore. For me, it was being in a toxic relationship–one I’d sunken nearly a decade of my life into–with no way out in sight, and working at a job that was slowly chipping away at who I thought I was, who I thought I’d be. That and the onset of mental illness I’d been outrunning since my teens by engaging in compulsive, self-destructive behavior.

Short laps on foot around my work’s office building, at the time, maybe playing Tame Impala out of tinny phone speakers, listening to those songs of regret and loss (but hope) on repeat, alternating between that and placing calls to people I hadn’t spoken with in years, old friends I’d broken away from, trying to cling then to something familiar in the weight of all that Hurt.

Short laps growing longer, even during Chicago winters, bundling up and trudging through snow in boots, self-commentary becoming as biting as the wind, tears to clot my eyes in the cold and threatening to freeze, and having nowhere to go but going there with purpose anyway.

I fell, and when I did, I fell hard. In and out of the psych ward. Bandaged arms. Prescribed pills only taken at certain times for certain purposes. Relinquishing my dignity to get help, or so I thought, or so it felt. But going with it. Moving forward. Every day. Living life in stages and exercising (exorcising) patience.

Listening to those same Currents songs on repeat, writing out my story in fictionalized words that were basically the truth but which had been changed just enough to make me comfortable enough to share them.

But I don’t want to mask my words anymore.

So this song. It pops up in my YouTube notifications as I wake up to go to work, at a new job, in another state, a job I actually love. As I wake up next to someone who treats me right: an effortless love. As I have tickets sitting in my inbox to see Tame Impala in Asheville, in a couple months, for the first time.

It can’t be helped that I smile. All of this, all of this growth and change and experience. At the time, it felt like it took everything from me.

And yet all it really took was patience.

Interregnum

I could pinpoint the place between recognizing something was wrong in my neighborhood and taking action by the golden glint of a Winchester shell tucked safely between the cracks of sidewalk slabs, sidewalk right next to some kid’s chalk art, probably the kid I passed on my walk to work every morning, waiting for the bus, and I could see a younger me when I looked at him, a version of myself I’d forgotten about, the one whose baseline was anger and uncertainty, fear mixed in, knowing only poverty and its effects on people. This kid reading stories of superheroes and wondering when they’d come to his neighborhood, why they never showed when he needed them most.

There was the interregnum between action and inaction, going along with the status quo and assuming that That’s Just The Way Things Were. Only it wasn’t. Not necessarily. Because we are the deciders of our fate, the makers of community. Badges and words can only do so much, offer so much lip service to a community that’s bleeding out, day after day, unable to help its most vulnerable. There’s an antecedent to every action. Newton’s law. Etc.

So you can walk down these streets now, at night, barely different than you were before, but with purpose now, green excitement, green nerves, can walk past the tenement buildings with boards over windows here and there, spreading like pox of sickness, and the way the dying fire alarms inside these apartments beep at different pitches in their life cycle, batteries just about to go out.

You can see the side of the city that everyone would rather hide in its closet or shove under its bed, the monster that no one dare speak of, not even report on in the papers, for fear that Development should stall, that Progress might halt. The divide of crossing over the highway and going from marketing startups and hipster coffee shops to abject poverty, of seeing this stark reality on a daily basis, on walks both during the day and at night, and the knowledge that something has to change.

Of getting started.

Something New

Waking up before my alarm in after-season cold–in a melatonin haze meant to replace the lithium days. Can’t eat much in the mornings anymore. Is that just part of getting older, or is something else at play?

Cat’s got to eat, so I might as well wake up and open a can for him. I still have to chastise him for scarfing his food down too fast, warn him that he’s going to choke until he finally listens, stops eating, and starts licking his chops instead. Same routine every morning just about, and the way that we’ve bypassed trying to cross the language barrier–now I just grunt at him and he murrs back.

I cut my hair the other day, and in doing so found a gray patch I’d never noticed before. A memory: The first gray hair I ever plucked from my head, and how I pressed it into one of my old journals at the time. I don’t know where that journal ended up. I probably lost it in a move.

Aches and pains last for days at a time now, and there are muscle striations there that I’d never seen before. There’s also this great patience, this abiding calm that’s as foreign as it is welcome, a non-Pollyanna attitude that reminds me that things will be okay, that I can and will get through anything.

I treasure simple things like walking to work in the mornings as the sun is just starting to rise, a time when people honk less and drive slower, their consciousnesses in a reboot state.

Waking up early has never been difficult for me. Eighth grade days of waking up at 5:30 in the morning to catch an episode of Ed, Edd, n Eddy that I’d already seen ten times before. Now it’s getting up before dawn to sit in a quiet room alone, to write stories like these, and to hear only the sound of my cat purring on my lap before I leave, the birds as they wake up outside.

Coming home is choosing focal lengths on the walk back, whether mottled sky or shaking branches or the inside of my skull and its constant turnings.

I’m trying to eat healthier now. I’m getting good sleep. I take time to meditate, or at least time to breathe. I want to be here a while. And that’s something new. So I guess that’s progress.

Even the Good Ones

Sitting on a reclining chair with my cat on my lap before 8 a.m., watching the city come to life through my window, hearing its faraway trains blare on horns that from this distance sound more like suggestions, watching the sky wake up by degrees as well, its oranges and blues fading to something more muted, something more mature.

Being used to chaos, you end up craving quiet while not knowing what to do with it once you get it. It’s a paradox. You can do the breathing exercises, you can sit still with your hands forming a perfect circle in your lap, and you can light that incense and wait as the smoke fills the air, all while battles and carnage play through your mind. You learn how to quiet this a bit, or at least make it appear invisible from the outside, invisible to the people who don’t know you enough to recognize, but that deep breath has something more behind it, that tension in your shoulders isn’t just stress from work, and they will ask their questions and you’ll do your best to answer them, all while memories come in scattershot–in sawed-off sprays of light, waking you up when you try to sleep.

Not all of them bad memories, but all of them vivid, even the good ones, the moments you’d forgotten about: running around town at seventeen, shooting a short film with friends, using a crappy old JVC you thought was state-of-the-art at the time, and kind of was, it’s all relative, and you’re kind of glad this was the hobby you guys chose, because you can still find some of these short films on YouTube (the ones that are still up there), and you can download them in case ancient accounts ever get deleted, and you can watch these living time capsules and remember even more.

It’s amazing how much things stick, now more than they ever did before, or maybe just in a different way–the objective versus subjective, digital to replace analog, and the way that you will sometimes not want to watch the video because it will change what really happened, or at least what your brain tells you happened, filling in the gaps with fiction and coloring all the facts with bias, because in this world of data it’s if-then arguments, binary constructs, zeroes and ones–hardly any more sophisticated than the dots and dashes of the Morse code days and yet worlds apart technologically. So sometimes you just want to let the truth have its day. Sometimes you want to keep the memories as they are.

Don’t Forget the Kitty Litter

The day I saw my mom again, it was cloudy, and gray, and cold, and I got off the bus about a mile early to pick up kitty litter. I hadn’t planned the stop, wasn’t even sure I needed to, but I did it anyway. Maybe a part of me knew what would happen.

Lugging the 20 lb. box home wasn’t practical, but I was stubborn. On the way back, there was a rehab facility. Physical rehab, not drug. I always had to make the distinction later, when explaining to others where my mom was living. The thing was, at base, my mom was homeless. Sure, she was staying at this rehab facility and getting just enough surgeries to prolong her stay and keep herself off the street, but she was technically homeless. I don’t know, though. Saying that implies that she had a home to begin with. She had houses, apartments, and duplexes, but no home. I guess I never had one either.

I definitely knew that she was staying there, but the part of me that knew that wasn’t conscious at the time. I was just lugging the kitty litter home, already breaking a sweat even in the chilly November air. By the time I got to the rehab facility, I was swimming in my thoughts.

I saw her standing there, smoking a cig outside the place, talking with a fellow resident. She was about a block away and hadn’t seen me. She hadn’t seen me in years.

I actually froze. I remember that. I stood there, totally still, kitty litter in hand, and had no idea what I was going to do. I looked across the street, considered jaywalking and moving briskly past, hiding my face until I was out of view. I thought of turning back, no destination planned. I thought of doing many things, but what I actually did was walk right up to her. What I actually did was greet her, and set the kitty litter down, and tell her that we needed to talk.

She didn’t know what to do.

The person she was talking to gave me a knowing look and walked away, cigarette cherry glowing in the wind. And there was my mom standing in front of me. Her face was bloated, scarred, and worn from all that the elements had done to her, all of the rage that her body had inflicted. Her eyes were hazy skies threatening rain, foggy like antique marbles. Her mouth was a straight line.

Historically, her thing was to initiate a hug in the hopes that it would make me forget about how she’d treated me. But she didn’t do that this time. What she did was stand there with her arms at her sides, awkward and tense. She was never contemplative, not one to ever stay silent, but no words would come to her. She’d look like she was on the verge of saying something, but then she’d falter.

Looking at her there, standing in her tattered shawl draped over hunched shoulders, face wrecked and body worn out, all of my anger went away. It wasn’t replaced by love, but by a mournfulness. It was like I was looking at a dead person who hadn’t been put in the ground yet.

I hadn’t seen her in years.

It looked like she’d only anticipated being outside for a quick smoke, her shawl insufficient against the cold Chicago air. Or maybe that’s all she had. I remembered hearing that she’d had all her things stolen from her one night while she slept at a homeless shelter in the city. And there I was, standing in my nice jacket, wearing my nice jeans and nice shoes. Everything was nice.

We talked for hours. I led the conversation at first, updating her on everything that was going on in my life. For a time, we were able to set aside the past, all those hurled insults and slammed doors and broken homes. We were old friends maybe, catching up over a cup of coffee.

She told me all about how she’d regularly walk over to the Vineyard Church in Evanston, detail the services and the people and the conversations. We were just C&E parishioners growing up: Christmas and Easter. But now she was going to church once a week, if not more. I could tell she needed it, and that was fine.

I remember feeling the heat escape my body, noticing the cold as it seeped into my bones. Me, with my nice jacket, half-frozen. But it didn’t seem to bother her. I figured all those months of homelessness probably got her used to it.

We both knew when it was time to go. I’d realize when I got home, after I fought past the preliminary tears, then the cries, then the sobs on my walk back that we’d been talking for four hours. But I wouldn’t know then. All I knew was that I had to hug her, and to hug her for real. Like it mattered, because it did. And when I turned to go, she called out to me in a worried voice I’d never quite heard before:

“Don’t forget the kitty litter.”