Life can be a pain in the ass. I know that I joke that “life is a prison” fairly often, but I finally just came out of a bout of unemployment and a lot of fiscal insecurity, and it’s almost like nearly drowning, but coming up for that one precious bit of air that makes you remember that everything is worth it.
I know a lot of people who are dealing with a lot of adversity lately, but at the same time the past several months have taught me to keep an eye out for the silver lining in the clouds. You might be having a bad day, but then a pretty girl gives you a glowing smile. Your friends still give a shit about you and want you around them and seem to genuinely enjoy your presence. You read a good book or hear an awesome song that blows your mind. A fat, floppy-eared dog runs at you like you’re the best thing they’ve seen in ages and you brush off the owner’s apologies because it’s great. A baby grins at you. You take off your shoes and walk on the beach and feel the sand between your toes as the crashing waves splatter you with saltwater.
Your friends put on great, free rock/comedy shows and are overjoyed just to have you around. A phone call from your mom brightens your day. One of your old professors calls you to invite you back to sit in on classes for free. An exhilarating bike ride makes you feel like a million bucks, the wind buffeting your face and the sun in your hair that feels so good that you don’t care about some jerk honking at you. Making someone laugh. Watching stupid movies with a bunch of people that you’re glad to know and eating junk food until you want to barf. Fiddling around in a library for hours.
I’m trying to not take all of this stuff for granted anymore, and it feels good. Apologies for being so self-deprecating for a while. I guess they were right when they say it gets better, because it does.
You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.
Your bare feet on the cold floor as you climb out of bed and walk to the window. You are six years old. Outside, snow is falling, and the branches of the trees in the backyard are turning white.
Speak now before it is too late, and then hope to go on speaking until there is nothing more to be said. Time is running out, after all. Perhaps it is just as well to put aside your stories for now and try to examine what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one. A catalogue of sensory data. What one might call a phenomenology of breathing.— Paul Auster, Winter Journal, 2012 (via mythologyofblue)
Chicken Bob Pt I
Just the rough start of a little pseudo-horror short story I wanted to crank out. It only took two hours and I’m still unsure of whether to keep messing with it or scrap it entirely, so judge it accordingly.
It’s amazing how memories come back to you with old age, even if you did your damnedest to forget them. My name’s James Ryan Smits III, though for brevity’s sake, you can call me “Booger”. Hell, everyone else did.
You don’t really hear that name much these days. Damn shame, really. At least people made fun of you to your face back then.
I grew up in your stereotypical small Southern town with a population that had just recently nudged itself north of four figures with special thanks to the Fitzgerald family, who had just added a pair of twins to their already sizable brood. As you could guess, birth control was a sin. Plus, as all the other kids my age had told me, it just felt better without a condom. I knew they were full of shit because not many of us were out getting laid at 16 - hell, barely any of us could muster up the courage to talk to a girl, much less go all the way. The Baptist Church took care of that, diligently informing us that we were all headed straight to hell if we engaged in “pre-marital fornication”, one of Pastor Gunn’s favorite pet phrases.
The only one our age who had bothered with pregnancy was Susie Ann Lister, who, the older boys would say, would spread her legs quicker than a startled deer fart if a guy showed any interest in her. It wasn’t really her fault - she grew up homely, with a left eyeball that listed to the right as soon as you tried to look at her long enough to carry on a conversation. Teeth like a bunch of kicked-over gravestones. An already-thinning hairline. Despite all that, she was a sweet girl from a good Christian family. Her laughter was like tinkling glass, and her eyes (even the lazy one) were a disarmign shade of ice blue. Most of her siblings were fattened, with skin like scrubbed hams and cherubic faces. She didn’t get that lucky, except for when she got lucky. You see, Susie Ann bloomed early. Once she started growing boobs, she was the apple of every remotely hormonal boy’s eye from a distance. You saw the worms beneath the skin of said apple once you got a little closer.
The boy who took the plunge was one Ashley Carlson, who was practically a walking erection with a quick smile and an even quicker temper. We were scared shitless of him even before any of us had hair on our chests. Parents were averse to his mere mention, much less his presence. He skulked around like a cock of the walk, crooked grin and wolfish eyes trained on everyone around him as if they were all his prey. One scary motherfucker, even if he was colorblind and subsequently dressed like shit due to that. Ashley was one of those guys who just seemed born with a bad streak, growing up as that stereotypical backwoods asshole kid with unkempt hair and a Kool-Aid mustache who spent most of his childhood getting beaten up by his drunk dad or his wild older brothers Roy and Jed.
I’m sure they swapped out beatin’ duties, maybe even drew up a fucked-up little chart to hang up on the fridge next to Ashley’s crayon drawings from preschool of Jesus leading the disciples, Moses parting the Red Sea, an extremely intricate recreation of the Burning Bush.
Pop: Kick Ashley’s ass on Monday because I’m hammered again and he’s got a girl’s name.
Jed: Tuesday - Whip that little pussy for telling Mama that I was smoking cigarettes in the woods again.
Roy: Wednesday - Punch the shit out of my fag little brother because he’s never gonna amount to anything.
Stretch that out over a week, and stretch those weeks to months, and stretch those months to years, and that was probably a fair representation of Ashley’s upbringing. He started sneaking sips of his dad’s moonshine at 12 (and was caught doing that and was summarily punched in the stomach over and over by Pop as Roy pinned Ashley’s arms behind his head and cackled wildly), dipping snuff at 13, and had his first run-in with the law after riding his bike into town and shooting at buildings with a .22 until Sheriff Gibson caught him and took him into custody. Reportedly, Ashley kept spitting on the Sheriff from the back of the squad car, laughing and saying how everyone was just a bunch of no-count redneck shitheads and to send him back to his daddy instead of jail, because that would be a quicker punishment.
Like I said, born bad. But he liked us enough to hang around with our motley crew. You almost always want to have the wild one on your side.
And poor Susie Ann Lister was over the moon for that kid. Over the moon enough to eventually realize that her period was late, and with her older sister’s help, procured a pregnancy test.
Ashley Carlson was going to be a daddy.
Once everyone got old enough to drive, we did the normal thing of finding ways to connive our parents out of a vehicle so that we could speed up and down the one-lane blacktop country roads. Surrounded by thick forests with the occasional handful of Spanish moss dangling from the foliage overhead, we drove like maniacs. We’d pull into someone’s pasture and drink beers stolen from parents’ fridges or pints of Kentucky Deluxe sold to us by the seniors and the aimless 21 year-olds who still hung around our Friday night football games, staring longingly at and flirting with the freshest crops of sophomore girls, blasting music and acting like heathens. That was our world, and we owned it.
Well, almost all of it.
There was a stretch of road off Blackjack County Road 315, punctuated by creaky bridges patched together with beams of cured oak tied together with iron braces and rivets, that nobody really dared to mess with. About a mile long and inexplicably dark, regardless of the time of day. Some people blamed the lack of visibility on the woods. Us kids blamed it on Chicken Bob. Chicken Bob was our town boogeyman.
Chicken Bob’s story started as follows - he was an orphan who grew up in town, passed around by several church families until he dropped out of school, then toiled in the salt mines after he took to drink at an early age and never really stopped. He got the name Chicken Bob, because…well, he looked like a chicken. A practically chinless, big-nosed man with bug eyes and a neck wattle that drooped lower than Susie Ann’s drawers. He spoke occasional gibberish with a chattering, reedy tone at a machine-gun staccato pace. His laugh was a cacophonous gurgle that made everyone within a 50-foot radius real uneasy. In short, Chicken Bob was crazy.
And admittedly most of the town saw it as endearing up until the night he slashed up a fellow patron’s face at the local VFW after a heated argument about a game of poker. The rest of the town practically ran his ass out on a rail, where he retired to his inherited land in a dense portion of the woods near Blackjack County Road 315. It was told that he just got crazier and crazier after that. Piercing howls would be heard from the general area of his clapboard shack, gibbering, the occasional drawl of Hank Williams wafting through the air. Night drivers would occasionally see him there, next to the first bridge, standing next to the road and staring at nothing while swilling from a jar of moonshine. Each subsequent report mentioned that his eyes were getting cloudier and cloudier. The shine recipe was doing him in slowly.
The more cavalier of us just assumed that the story of Chicken Bob originated with a bunch of angry parents, sick of their kids boozing it up and driving like they were possessed, despite their best efforts to hide those jaunts into rebellion. With those transgressions in mind, they cooked up some creepy tales about how people had disappeared around that stretch of road. Bones were found. If you go even think about going to the graveyard near Mount Mary Church, you’ll see him there, cavorting amongst the roughly-carved statues. Thanks for the bullshit tall tales, Mom. We’ll be back and trying to mask our breath with Big Red gum in a few hours.
But we avoided those scant few acres of land like they were gonna suck us all into the earth.
One night, post-Friday football, we all packed into my buddy Chris’s beater Ford pickup and decided to celebrate our most recent victory against the Gully Hill Bobcats with a handle of Kentucky Deluxe, courtesy of Jed’s older brother. We had a few other cars in tow, namely a rusty Silverado containing Ashley and Susie Ann, and their blossoming offspring, still not yet named and about six months shy of coming into the world. “Why rush things? Y’all gonna die tomorrow?” Ashley would say. We wanted to agree, but Susie Ann was already bit by the marriage bug, so we knew he was biased. He didn’t seem thrilled by either prospect, but that was his future.
—- to be continued —-
I used to be insanely closed-minded. I’m almost regretful to admit this publicly, because I worry that my friends and loved ones would judge me for it. Ostensibly, they know me as the person that I am now rather than who I used to be, because I’m not who I was practically 10 years ago. Hell, I’m barely the person I was last week. And I think that’s a good thing.
Growing up, I was surrounded by racism, sexism, and homophobia. Sure, it might be a cliche that it’s endemic to Southern culture, but it fucking is. It still is to this day. I have a lot of very progressive friends who live around my old stomping grounds and are incredibly well-meaning, great people who I’m proud to know, but that weird element of hatred still creeps in here and there through their other acquaintances. It’s not something you can totally root out, there’s still signs of decay here and there, but it seems like society there is finally taking the tentative steps that will lead to the giant slog toward everyone being cool with each other and not being a dickhead about it. I welcome any sort of progress, at this juncture.
It was practically ingrained in a lot of young men, peers of mine, having been raised in the morass of a hyper-macho culture that frowned on any perceived notion of “weakness”. Which, unsurprisingly, ended up being a sliding scale of prejudices that were adjusted to be convenient to whatever pet cause people were pissed off about at the time. This ranged from the mega-personal to a general hatred of entire groups of well-meaning, inoffensive people. It was an entire movement that was staunchly against the concept of progress and acceptance, and it was profoundly fucked up.
Louis CK has a joke on one of his albums about a gay dude he got to know through the comedy circuit, who, according to his anecdotes to his friends at the time, was “always trying to fuck him”. The joke continues to the point that Louis realizes that the guy was completely innocuous and just being a functioning human working with what he had, but his knowledge that this person was gay totally colored his perspective of that individual.
I had a few moments like that. Parties. Jobs. Bumping into a gay dude and being terrified that he’d try to fuck me. Running into a nonwhite person and feeling like I was living on an entirely different planet, completely unable to sympathize with them as a living, breathing human being. Thinking of women as solely sex objects and not individuals with their own lives, hopes, and dreams. Et al. I’d see interracial couples on the street and feel a disturbingly strong sense of discomfort. Was it the wrong way to feel? Absolutely. But I didn’t know any better. It was environmental conditioning at its worst.
Then I had the fortune to move away and start anew in a big city. Los Angeles. The place I’d seen over and over in movies while growing up, and being both infatuated with and terrified of it. So that happened.
And slowly, I saw my prior prejudices gradually slip away. I’m not trying to turn this into any sort of sanctimoniously proselytizing moralistic bullshit about acceptance and understanding which inevitably bears some sort of airs of superiority to those who would likely take offense to said moralistic bullshit, but I grew up. Despite my initial fears and tentative movements toward exposing myself (not biblically, you perverts) to the world, I came to one singular realization: Everyone is doing the best they can at the time. Whether it’s struggling with oppression, or acceptance, or prejudice, people are mostly just trying to function and keep breathing another day. There weren’t any secret sexual advances, there weren’t people trying to constantly stab me and steal my wallet, feminists weren’t always burning bras in the street, and most of the ideas I’d sucked up over time were completely hypothetical and nothing short of unrealistic.
And now I’m really glad that’s all fallen away. I’m glad to have friends of all shapes, sizes, persuasions, ethnicities, races, whatever. They’re all incredible people who have boundless gifts to offer the world, whether it’s just something as simple as giving someone a laugh or having the colossal balls to step up and teach others. I’m beyond elated to have a kinship with LGBT people, black people, Asian people, crazy people, fat people (just kidding fat people, I’m one of you), etc. It was like the world coaxed me past my stupid preconceived notions and showed me that we’re all the same. We live, we bleed, we pay taxes, and we die. But if we can’t appreciate others for their uniqueness, for their gifts, for the light that they bring to an increasingly uncertain future, then we’re truly fucked.
Which is why I’m filled with rage whenever I see any instance of racism, of sexism, of homophobia. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t see it as a challenge so much as just a horrid referendum of how much work there is left to do to get people just to get along for one fucking second and stop being so obsessed with their own boundaries. To help people who are so goddamned afraid to move past their projected ideas of others that they can’t even see past their own nose. We don’t want you to completely change, we just want you to give as much leeway to others as you demand of yourself. You don’t have to stop being an asshole, just stop being an asshole in THAT WAY. And it’s difficult, but difficulty and necessity are never mutually exclusive. We might feel like Sisyphus, trying our damnedest to shove that boulder up a hill, but not for one second should anyone let the difficulty of a task dictate its importance.
But also, instead of just rage, I also feel a deep sense of disappointment. Almost like mourning. Because people who cling to prejudice as a coping mechanism for true, humanistic change will never have the joy of feeling a brotherly love with people you previously could never have imagined hanging around. They won’t have the chance to feel how much another person appreciates them just for being decent and not-shitty. And that’s sad. It’s a deep loss, despite the fact that those who still hold on to their stereotypical ideas of How People Are think that they’re not losing anything. Because they’ve never been part of it. They’ve never been exposed to anyone who went out of their way to challenge someone’s perspectives.
A guy who I’m beyond proud to call a good friend, who is endlessly curious about the world and does his absolute damnedest to make changes everywhere he goes, was having a conversation with a friend a couple of months back about how whenever he meets a straight guy, he likes to kinda push their boundaries to see how much of the lifestyle they’re willing to accept. He said that I passed that litmus test with flying colors. And I couldn’t have been more flattered, honestly.
Because it reminds me of how far I’ve come as a person. I don’t give a shit anymore, but in a good way. I don’t give a shit how anyone else conducts their life as long as they’re not harming or killing others. I DO give a shit when someone starts infringing on the rights of others just because they feel entitled to do so, because that’s the kind of mindset I grew up around. People were wrong. We had the balls to tell people that their lifestyle was irrevocably flawed and that they should be appropriately punished for it, which is beyond disgusting. And now that I see all this legislation coming back into play about how people’s lives should be legislated, it hurts. Those coming from a place of privilege don’t acknowledge that the other party isn’t looking for exclusive rights, but just the same rights as every other person of privilege, whether it’s white privilege, male privilege, Christian privilege, whatever. That’s it. A much-needed leveling of the playing field.
And I hope it happens sooner rather than later, for everyone’s sake. And I look at all of the fantastic people I’ve met over the past few years who have done absolutely nothing but be themselves, who have made me laugh, who have made me think about things differently, who have challenged me to be a better person and dared me to step up to the plate, and I will fight tooth and nail for them to have that.
Because they deserve it.
They deserve it more than the legion of assholes trying to keep them from it.
And the world moves on, and the universe is indifferent to our struggles. Yes, I know. But in no way does that mean that we should care less as people who share air on this rock. Let’s strive to be more awesome every day, you guys. Not only does it make us better people, but it helps those around us.
Let’s keep growing up, y’all.
I was mostly going to try to avoid writing about the subject, but the recent, disturbingly widespread uptick of asinine rhetoric coming from the right end of the political spectrum about rape and abortion is just getting to be too much. Having known a handful of rape/sexual assault survivors, I can’t imagine how they must feel about it. It must be utterly fucking draining.
Watching people who have no idea what it’s like to endure such a dehumanizing, twisted thing and ostensibly seeing the worst of what another person could do to someone (short of torture and murder, but maybe the body can shut that down too, let’s ask Todd Akin) offering their dipshit opinions on something that ACTUALLY HAPPENED TO YOU has to hurt on more than one level. Likely, it dredges up old memories. Trauma scars that you thought had healed inch closer to the surface. You remember things. Everyone who’s been through some sort of trauma generally does. And something as harrowing as rape/sexual assault shouldn’t just be laughed off like all of these blathering assholes are wont to do.
And to everyone barfing out their moronic ideas on this: You don’t fucking know what it’s like. I don’t know what it’s like, honestly, but I have this little thing called empathy that says “Hey, I’m just spitballing here, but I’m pretty sure having your trust betrayed and your body violated by someone is pretty goddamn horrific, and maybe I should keep my stupid trap shut and be understanding and supportive of sexual assault victims. Yeah, that sounds like what normal, sane people would do.”
Look, I used to be an idiot. I didn’t actually ENDORSE rape, but there was a point in my teens where I basically agreed with the idea that if someone is dressed a certain way, they shouldn’t be surprised at what happens. Thankfully I came to my senses and realized that this concept is awful. Awful awful awful victim-blaming shit that immediately strips someone of their right to be an individual, because you better be wearing a potato sack if you don’t want to get fucked, right? And I’m glad I realized just how awful that was when I hit, say, 19 years old or so.
I still feel a bit of guilt about it, yeah, but I’ve changed in ways that I never thought I would. Part of me absolutely cringes at the stuff I used to say, when I thought it was perfectly sensible. Was it the environment I grew up in and the people I grew up around? Probably, somewhat. But it was also sheer youthful naivete and the inability to feel for others. An unfamiliarity with people who had actually experienced life and had things both good and horrendous happen to them. A lack of perspective, if you will.
But all of these statements are coming from people who are either damn near twice my age or ARE twice my age, and that’s absolutely galling. For someone like, say, Victoria Jackson, who couldn’t keep her gross mouth shut for more than ten seconds on anything even if you locked her in a soundproof booth (America: let’s do this, please), to say “I know people, I’m 53” and then blabber on about the instances of pregnancy from rape being practically nil just hurts part of your soul, and not just because you remember that Victoria Jackson is a person who others think is credible on some level. Todd Akin, 65 years old. Paul Ryan, 42 years old. Various pundits. All of these people are expressing ideas that I thought were sensible in my teens, and others are agreeing with them, and worse - endorsing them. These people are parents, brothers, sisters, etc., and they’re basically saying that it’s cool to make rape victims pay for, you know, being rape victims.
What in the fuck, guys?
And the abortion tack of their arguments is even more vile. “Yes, carry your rape baby to term, because it doesn’t matter that you were violated by another person, we’re pro-life!” You know whose life you should be “pro” for in this instance? The victim. You know, the person who could not control what another person randomly did to them? They’re a little more important here.
The bottom line is, nobody should be made to suffer for something traumatic that happened to them. We don’t force victims of other crimes to suffer for just existing, usually. But that’s what you’re essentially asking someone to do when you start to take away reproduction rights/ open your moronic head and start quacking about how she shouldn’t have dressed that way or gotten so drunk/ make up bullshit that has absolutely no basis in science or even reality. But no, let’s just go ahead and hurt the victims all over again. Because that’s what America’s really about, right?
My mom’s going to be out here in less than two days.
I’d wager that most people would grimace at such a revelation, seeing as how so many of my peers have pretty crappy relationships with their parents - as did I for a while. I was not a good kid, per se. I was actually pretty wild - I partied it up, I slept around, I kept the company of people roughly 5-10 years older than me (which was more of a referendum on their character than it was mine, but that’s an entirely different therapy session for another time), and I was just a Wild Teenager, for the most part. I was probably a huge pain in the ass.
But she put up with me and my stupidity, even though she got royally pissed at me so many times that I’d need Shiva arms to count all the instances. Yeah, I worked for my uncle and did odd ranch/construction jobs here and there, but that was more a testament as to how broke we were most of the time despite her busting her ass at Wal-Mart to put food on the table and keep the lights on. I, understandably, spent most of my money on dumb crap, save for giving her money for gas or some such if things were too tight that week.
The last time I saw her was when we were both still mourning the loss of her mother. My grandma. My surrogate mom who was quite more than a surrogate when my mom was partying it up in her thirties, trying to make sense out of life and find love again in a pretty remote, somewhat dismal region of the backwoods. I remember nights spent pressed up against the living room window of our trailer that faced the country road, waiting for her to come back from the VFW (our equivalent of the local bar in a dry county), just wishing for the headlights of that green and silver Chevy S-10 (that she was so glad to finally purchase on her own) to turn in the driveway and hoping that she came home relatively sober, and preferably without some sleazebag guy.
I used to resent her for this. I don’t anymore.
Now I get it.
Having a few more years under my belt, I get how hard it can be to be disappointed by life despite having a few things to show for it. You end up in places you never saw yourself. As a kid you blabbed about being an astronaut or a doctor or a fucking Tyrannosaurus Rex or something. Anything that was better than being picked on at a private school for being fat trailer trash. Something better than watching most of the men you grew up with fall into alcoholism or other substance abuse, all harboring the slow, seething rage that most working poor end up misdirecting at the wrong people - it’s not the people that are putting the bit in our mouth that are the enemy, it’s just everyone that’s not exactly the same as me. It’s your wife. Your kids. Other men. Ad nauseam.
But it’s about how you pick up and move on, and she did just that. She’ll go on about how she doesn’t have a charmed life, but she’s truly busted her ass to get to where she is, and I admire her for that.
Now, as I sit here in a relatively posh apartment in A Big City, all I’m worried about is showing her a good time. I moved on, I blossomed (somewhat, I’m still an asshole), and now it’s my turn to let her do her thing for a bit. She finally got out of a relatively crappy position in my hometown’s Wal-Mart deli to a less stressful (and less-paying - thanks, Wal-Mart) cashier position and things seem to be looking up for my stepdad’s work situation as well. I’m happy for both of them. But for right now, I just want to be another distraction. I want her to be able to just relax and enjoy some time away from her daily life. As someone who craves a similar goal, it’s nice. I got a taste of it last weekend in Palm Springs - I salivate over the day that I can take two weeks off willy-nilly like my co-workers do.
But for now, just getting to see her again and make her laugh and have fun after having heard her go through the throes of depression and disappointment with the slings and arrows of working your fucking fingers to the bone in a small town is enough of a vacation.
I’m not sure where exactly I was going with this, but I just wanted to get it out. Maybe I’ll make something out of it later. Maybe I’ll just leave it be as a snapshot of how I was feeling at the time. Either way, be nothing less than amazing to each other and don’t underestimate those who do genuinely love you, even if you don’t love them as much for a little while. You’ll end up regretting lost time with them and missing them more than you ever anticipated. Every little niggling thing they do that absolutely gets on your last nerve will eventually become endearing. They’ll be a presence that you actively miss. We have way more of an influence on each other than most of us will ever understand, regardless of how tenuous the connection may be.
Let’s not lose sight of that, my babies.