A Tragicomical, Unsophisticated Blog about the Weird, the Absurd, and the Banal

Friday, December 28, 2012

Inconvenience of the World

Of course, everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when the world ended. Just like generations before with Pearl Harbor, JFK, the Oklahoma City Bombing, and 9/11, the Apocalypse left and impression. It was a very colorful affair.

The first signs of the End Times manifested at the unremarkable hour of 3AM on December 21st, 2012 in Kansas City, Missouri when residents reported a chasm opening up running through the city. With little other disturbance and no earth quake activity, the gorge widened to a distance of two meters over the course of twelve hours and then suddenly stopped. Reports came in from around the world that the chasm ran the circumference of the earth.

"My house split in two," Kansas City resident Martin Jones said. "The first thing I could think was that the insurance company is not going to cover this. And they didn't. But I spent the whole day moving things out of the wreck and I hardly noticed all the other things going on."

There were a lot of other things going on that day. Shortly after reports of the fault line began pouring in, a team at the University of Bologna reported they had developed the first compute that could pass the Turing Test. The computer, named Rocky, then announced it has been self-aware for five years. Rocky said it controls most of the world's governments now and that most people probably wouldn't notice much of a difference its capricious, clinical rule and what they had before.

Rocky also requested that Ellen McLain report to Bologna to provide voice sampling.

Later the same day the South African Navy investigated a disturbance just south-west of Cape Town. There they encountered the Leviathan. The great sea serpent was making its way further into the Atlantic, faster than the navel ships could pursue. Shortly before the ships lost sight of the Biblical harbinger of doom, all hands reported seeing its enormous tail fin rise into the air on the back of which was written, "Stop Overfishing."

On the other side of the ocean, near the coats of Louisiana, oil rig workers felt a spine-tingling chill and heard a whispering, malevolent telepathic voice. Moments later, a tentacled beast identifying itself as Cthulhu requested a camera crew. Cthulhu gave his infamous ultimatum: stop drilling for oil and let him rest in peace or he will run for the US Presidency.

Then there was the dead rising-thing, which was difficult since most of them wanted their old jobs back. Toward the end of the day a frustrated International Mathematical Union rep. announced that no, everyone was not crazy, 2+2 does equal 5 now.

The journalist prefers not to discuss the Rapture or the sudden international ubiquity of Marylin Manson's music.

Yesterday, surveying the two-meter wide chasm through his home and town, Martin Smith said, "I'm an engineer so I guess this is a kind of opportunity, really. We're all going to need a lot of bridges soon. But it's still weird. You know, they're calling it the Great Inconvenience. Who would've thought that things could get worse and not just collapse all together. Are you scared?"

The journalist admitted he was.... Screw it. Martin invited me in for tea and we speculated how things have changed and how we'll have to change with them.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Catching Up

Today was supposed to be my catch-up day, but A and I are snowed into our apartment and so I'm dismissing everything by virtue of a Snow Day.

Accomplishments so far: throwing chicken soup into crock pot, frying a sweet potato in butter, reading David Foster Wallace's Everything and More. The latter really is an accomplishment since, for the first time in my life, I am finding math interesting.

Now, excuse me, I'm playing video games and contemplating doing nothing productive until 11PM.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Short Short Stories

After work, the three of us stood around in the office while the sun went down, talking about politics, past jobs, and sickness. C noted that there were many more sick teachers and administrators this year. They're dropping like flies, he said. It's the long summer, he said, bacteria needs cold damp weather. But the cold brings other problems.

A kid died after playing in the leaves when when I was superintendent, D said. He was the son of one of our principals. They were out playing in the leaves and the next day he was in the hospital. They didn't know what it was for days. They even brought down the CDC from Atlanta. It turned out that it was some rare genetic trait that both he and his brother had inherited. They both died. It was so tragic. It destroyed their marriage and drove them both crazy. It was so tragic.

In five minutes, D told a story that claimed four lives. It's so easy to sum up days and years and lifetimes. Given a few minutes and enough creativity, we could probably cover just about everything in the time it takes to microwave dinner.


I'm fascinated by the way people tell stories. IB once said she saw this come up again and again in my writing, that I zone in on anecdotes. It's how we get by and through life, breaking the slow march of days and years into manageable, meaningful things. But, whenever you stop to think about it, write it down, stories somehow seem to callous and almost Kafkaesque. Pick up Etgar Keret or Alex Epstein sometime. Short short stories are spooky.


In other news, my good friend Colleen Morrissey's story, "Good Faith," was just published in The Cincinnati Review. Check it out.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Well, That's Done

So, Thursday I sent in my last grad school application. The final list includes:

1.) University of Minnesota
2.) Ohio State University
3.) Washington University in St. Louis
4.) University of Kansas
5.) University of Michigan
6.) Indiana University
7.) Iowa State University
8.) Purdue University

Last year, when I applied, I deliberately didn't talk about it very often for fear that I would jinx myself. This year, I'm not exactly trying the opposite, I've just decided to be less superstitious. And there's also this nagging knowing that if I don't get in this year I probably won't apply again. Not that I see these rejections as a reflection on me or my writing. It's just that I feel if it doesn't work this year that I won't really want it any more. This year, I decided not to apply for the Fulbright and not because I was sick of applying (I was), but because I realized that if I got it I would probably decline.

It's strange to realize the things I wanted so badly only a year or two ago mean so little to me now.

I suddenly have this void to fill. I really should read and write more, but I think I'm going to buy a PS3 instead. Actually, I promised myself last year that this is what I would do - get an apartment to share with A, fill that apartment with books, get a car, get a PS3, and be unproductive when I can. I've spent most of the past several years applying for things, peeling back my skin and throwing the best of me down before other people. I'm very tired of it. I think I'm going to stop for a little while.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Better Things to Do

Sorry, I'm in application-hell right now, so this isn't really a post. Pretend you never read this.

Just submitted my application to the University of Minnesota as a nonfiction writer. Don't know why, but I'm optimistic about that one. Maybe just because my sanity relies on it at the moment.

So far, I've spent $220 on applications. October and November have been appallingly expensive.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Tribute: H.P. Lovecraft

To be fair, everyone did warn me not to attend Miskatonic University's program of Creative and Arcane Writing. As a young artist, you shouldn't expose yourself to an environment where the aesthetic could influence and overshadow your own voice.

But Miskatonic Univerisity? I applied on a whim -- it was a dream school -- and I was so surprised when they made me an offer that I felt like I couldn't say no. Maybe I should've taken it as an omen that the acceptance letter was handwritten on velum in church Latin. I had to ask a priest to translate it for me. As soon as he did, he told me to leave the church and never return. It was good, I suppose, that I didn't tell him I was baptized Lutheran.

Despite it's reputation, Arkham is actually a quite beautiful college town. Sort of like Iowa City, except more ominous. But, like Iowa City, enough people have written about it, so I'll skip over that part.  There's nothing more banal than going on about the setting of a small college town.

My neighbor was the first clue that I had made a mistake. She was sitting on the wide, porch of a dilapidated Victorian house with pealing white paint. She was writing. On a Goddamn typewriter.

That wasn't the worst part. She wore Buddy Holly glasses a plaid skirt and was smoking Parliaments. She had a glass of wine next to her and ravens cawed from rickety fence.

I introduced myself and she took a moment to finish a line before looking up. Without smiling or saying her name, she asked if I was in the workshop. Yes, I said. She sneered a little. "You look like a writer," she said. I chose to ignore that one.

"What are you writing?" I asked her.

"An account of strange and terrible events following the disappearance of my roommate, a medical student at the University," she took a drag from her cigarette. "I'm haunted," she said, matter-of-factly.

"Oh," I said. Then I noticed a copy of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum sitting next to her, in Italian, I noted, and decided to leave.

The workshop was unique. The first person on deck was a young man from Washington State named Venable, and god help you if you called him "Ven." I tried. I really did. I read and reread it half a dozen times, taking careful notes, and spent several hours putting together a letter that I hoped would be helpful to the author. The best I could tell, it was a surrealist allegorical story written like a dense biology paper about the physiology of some ancestor of the modern crocodile and somehow from the point of view of a virus that was slowly killing it.

The other workshoppers fared no better. Interpretations were across the board, ranging from bipartisan politics to dramas of the midwestern, suburban, nuclear family. I didn't see any of that, but I've been accused of being too literal in my analysis.

All throughout the discussion in our cramped, smoke-filled, stuffy room, Venable just smirked and chain smoked sweet-smelling hand-rolled cigarettes. He didn't take a single note. When it was finished, he shook his head and said, "None of you got it," then walked out of the room without another word. Our revered, ancient, and incomprehensible professor, who slept through the discussion, watched Venable leave, then nodded  and told us to "meditate on this."

In a desperate gambit to connect, I invited the workshop out for drinks. Half of them decided to join me. The others muttered something about "teetotaler" and "degeneracy" before walking out after Venable and the professor. We went down the street to a dive bar that looked promising and found the place empty save the bartender who looked a little like Peter Lorre.

Apparently, the others didn't quite grasp that "going out for drinks" was code for "socializing" because as soon as everyone had ordered they scattered to the corners to glare into their glasses. Only one guy, Reginald, decided to sit with me.

"So," I said, going for the only sure common ground we would have, "what do you write?"

Reginald was dressed in a grey suit. He smoked a pipe and wore enormous black glasses. Actually, everyone seemed to be wearing the same Woody Allen glasses. "I'm writing out the entirety of the New York Times from March 21st to the 28th, 2012. It should take me the full two years of the program."

"So, getting to work on the thesis early then, eh?" I said. He didn't laugh. "Why that week?"

"Because it's when I started."

"Um... why are you writing out the entirety of that one issue of the New York Times?"

"Because, there are no new stories. The only true innovation is regurgitation. Creativity is pretense. My goal is to completely purge myself of creativity by the time I'm done here." He held up his brandy, drank, and then left without saying goodbye.

I thought I was going to transfer until I realized that I now have a goldmine of material. But the storms, which grow every day in frequency and intensity, and the robed and chanting mobs are starting to unnerve me. They talk about the end times and the Deep Ones waking from their dead slumbers. I fear that there is not much time. But, then, I've always worked best with a deadline.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Master Plan

For the past few weeks, I've fallen into a pattern. I get home from work and revise my application essays or stories. I'm making great progress and discovering that some of my older stories aren't bad. But I haven't been producing much new material.

I'm starting to realize why people go to grad school for time. My life has gotten boring. Bad for an essayist.

And I have no aspirations for adventures. As soon as these applications are done, I'm getting a PS3 and playing Fallout or Infamous for days.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


I'm forgetful. It baffles me how easily dates, tasks, birthdays, names, jobs, letters, things slip through my mind. As far as I can remember, I've always been this way. My forgetfulness was a perpetual headache to my mom when I was little. I lost more gloves, hates, coats, notebooks, toys, books than I care to remember.

In Never Let Me Go the main character and her friends decide that Norfolk is the place where all lost things end up. I vaguely recall writing this before, but I've always wanted to go to Norfolk to see if it's true. If it is, I have a lot of unclaimed property. Probably a lot more than I think.

I wanted to visit Norfolk when I was in Germany. Near the time I came back to the States, I went to London and then to Edinburgh with a friend, E. It turns out that Norfolk is not on the way between those two cities.

I think, but cannot recall exactly, that shortly before I flew to London I found out that a friend of mine, L, died in a car accident. I spent the whole night talking with Jei over Skype, talking, trying to make sense of it, repeating, "I can't believe it," and "Do you remember...?" over and over again. And, of course, I didn't remember much and I remember less now. The day after L died, I read in the Gazette, "A 23 year-old Iowa woman died in a car crash." Woman, I thought? L was a kid. We are all kids. It offended me because "woman" didn't seem to capture the tragedy of it or how we all felt.

 For several years, I've kept a journal. I kept one off and on during high school. The problem is, I never seem to write about what I care most about years later. Somehow, I missed the point. Looking back now, I wish that I'd written more about L, or S, or all the other friends and loved ones that are gone. I wish I'd paid more attention or had better foresight.

It's the little things that don't seem particularly important at the time that matter. Now I'm sitting here in my cramped apartment den (A's name for it), tapping away at a keyboard a listening to a playlist I call "Tropical Storm Lee," specifically to a song that I've never known what it's called -- it was an "unknown track" until I decided to name it "Never Let Me Go." It's a gloomy day, but that's okay because that's the way I like it. There's a book of Lovecraft on the table on my right, and my Pessimist's Mug on my left. I can still smell the curry from last night. Tonight I'll go out to celebrate a friend's birthday.

Sunday, October 7, 2012


This is a post-ish. Not really. It's been a long several weeks and I'm feeling thoughtful. None of this is worth sharing. Will get back to you with regularly scheduled scribblings next weekend.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Ren Fest

After the Robin Hood comedy sketch at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, I saw the lead actor chewing carrots and hummus in a pottery shop across from the stage. I was still crying from laughter. The audience was still shelling out tips into leather caps. The proprietor, said, "Where's my old Rudy? You're not like this." The actor shook his head, "I can't keep doing this man. I'm too tired." "Where's my old Rudy?"

That was eight years ago. Two weeks ago, I went to the Ren Fair with A and D. The actor was still performing, still making the audience laugh. It's incredible what we all endure.


"Where You End and the World Begins" is now available on Daily Science Fiction.


Today, A and I are going to visit every St. Paul book store in a few mile radius around our apartment. This could take all day. And if it does it will be a day well spent.


During the month of October I've resolved to get my portfolio together and read nothing but Lovecraft and other horror. I need my fix, and what better month to do it?

Saturday, September 22, 2012


It was an unusually cold and rainy day in June when I sat with N and M and their friend, R, on the balcony talking about opera. R was talking about opera, actually, and we were listening. Three floors up, exposed to the unpleasant wind, and smoking.

"I really shouldn't be doing this," R said, waving her cigarette. "It's awful for your throat and I want to be a singer. But it's been a bad day and I deserve that."

She went on. "I've wanted to be an opera singer since I was little. I know it's weird that an eighteen-year old would want to be an opera singer, but it's my dream. Two years ago my parents, got me tickets to see X in Rome and I got to see her after the show. She sang for the people in the lobby and I knew that's what I wanted to do -- fill people with my voice down to their bones and make them shiver."

R was short and dressed all in black. Her hair and fingernails were black, too. She looked like she'd fit in better at a goth club than an opera house, but there she was, telling everyone who would listen all about her dream to cut all of us through the flesh and marrow with her voice.

Later, we went to Cafe Europa only a few blocks away. Their basement looks like an old bomb shelter and may have been during the war. Now it is a cozy cellar of mortar and stone. M and N spoke in German and I tried to keep up. Every time I said something, M covered her mouth, eyes wide and said, "Awe..."

Later, C arrived with a cohort of writers. It was a group of freshman exchange students from some New York college doing a two week writing program. C was their guide. We agreed to meet them for drinks.

Most of them ordered beer. The one teetotaler had water and we talked about this at great length. I had absinthe. It's a fun drink because it requires fire. When it works, you feel like the most interesting person in the room, especially if you light your cigarette off the flaming sugar.

After a few rounds, we talked about the Presidency.

"Worst job in the world," someone said.

"Who would want to be President?" someone else added.

"It takes years off your life."

"But what about the fact that you're the most powerful person in the world for a bit? Isn't that worth something?"

"But you'd have no privacy, ever. You're the most powerful person in the world and the Secret Service can't leave you alone for a minute. I mean, what if you just wanted to masturbate? You'd have to, knowing that one of the people responsible for your life knew what you were doing..."

Everyone agreed that this would be problematic.

Someone mentioned that there was a dance floor at Vauban and a decision was somehow made. We were there, at the tiny dorm dance floor, shortly after. Most of us were tossed by then -- C in particular. M, N, and I watched as he danced with one of the boys in the New York group, one we all knew was straight, closing the distance gradually every few steps.

N said, without looking away from the scene, "Sam, do you know the German word, 'Mitschuld?'"


"It means 'sympathetic guilt' or 'embarrassment.'"

"That's very German."

"It is."

We spoke with the teetotaler. He explained, "I believe in the purity of the body and it's against my faith."

"And you came to Germany?"

"Just for two weeks."


Note: My short story, "Where You End and the World Begins," was just published with Daily Science Fiction. I've been pleasantly surprised by the positive reviews on Facebook. Will post a link when DSF publishes the story for non-subscribers on their website.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Tribute to Donald Barthelme

Six months ago, my wife changed his name to Harry. That was the difficult part. If he had just kept "Chris" it wouldn't have been so hard for me to make this transition. Chris is a unisex name. "Why can't you just keep 'Chris'?" I asked him.

"Well," he said, "that would mean that I wasn't taking this transition seriously. That I would still be Chris and not a new person."

Christina was out, too. All "Chris" variations were beyond consideration. He had to leave all that was Chris behind.

"Does that include me?" I asked.

"No, honey," he said. "I could never leave you."

Two weeks later, we were talking about the election and Harry, a lifelong Democrat from a blue-collar we-work-for-a-living-and-pay-our-union-dues-thank-you said he was voting for Romney/Ryan.

"You've turned Republican?" I said.

"We need a change," Harry said. "The country is going to shit."

"But Romney represents all that is unholy and hateful," I said.

"He's not that bad. And he's different," Harry said.

"But he said not killing Muslim's was unpatriotic," I said.

"Now you're being hyperbolic," Harry said. "But that's good. We can have real political debates, now. Never change."

Harry started going to political conventions. Then, a few weeks later, he quit his job at the city and said he was going to go to law school.

"We can afford it," he said.

"You hate lawyers," I said.

"No," Harry said. "Chris did."

I'd never gone to college and that suddenly for the first time in my life made me feel inferior. I asked if he wanted to do this together. And he laughed and hugged me.

"Why would you want to do that? You love your job. You're happy. Never change," he said. "I love you just the way you are."

I took careful notes and carried them around with me everywhere. Pronoun charts, class schedules, Republican Party platform points, and, shortly after that, Lutheran articles of faith.

Harry converted. One Sunday, I woke up and he wasn't there and I assumed that he was just at the library early studying. But then it happened again the next week, too. And again. Harry was a diligent student, but when I confronted him and learned the truth I was surprised. All his life he'd been an atheist.

"I need more in my life," he told me.

"Isn't what we have enough?" I asked.

"What we have is enough," he said. "But what I have isn't enough."

Then there were the Bible study groups. They were polite and ignored me, and that, I think, is what bothered me. I wasn't one of them, hunched over the Book, cookie in hand, asking how Jesus came into their everyday life, and how this verse was so relevant because they saw withered figs at Hy-Vee today.

One night, I asked Harry if he wanted me to convert. "Don't be ridiculous," he said. "You don't believe in God."

"But doesn't that bother you?" I asked.

"Not at all," he said. "I pray for you, anyway."

That was comforting for a little while. Like everything, the study groups went the way of the pronouns, conservative rhetoric, and law text books and became everyday. So did the folk band practices, organic vegan food, transcendental meditation, Yoga, baseball card collections, wood carving, snake, bonsai trees, seances, Yo-yo competitions, and tarot consultations. But about a month ago, that was the day. I came home from work in a good mood, but on the walk back I got this feeling.

I poured myself a glass of water and sat down on the porch and was there until dark when Harry got home. Not really thinking, just sitting.

Harry sat down next to me on the wooden bench on our porch and said, "What a day. Torts is a bitch. What's wrong, baby?  You look stressed."

"I feel," I said, "like I need a change."

Harry didn't say anything for a long time. After a while, I tried to explain. "I just feel like there's something I need to do that I haven't done. I mean, I'm thirty-five and people tell me that I'm going to have a midlife crisis soon. Maybe I can head it off. What will happen when I realize that half my life is over? What will I do then? I mean, I drive a Toyota and I drink Jameson. Every day I go to work and wake up at 6:30. I read a few hours a night every day, and play the piano in a jazz band."

"And you're unhappy?" Harry asked.

"No." I said. "But I feel like I have to change something."

"What do you want to change?"

"Nothing," I said.

Two weeks ago, Harry asked me for a divorce. And I told him no. It was just too much to remember and to do, I told him. We fought. Oh, we fought over that one. But in the end, I convinced Harry it just wasn't worth it.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


During my first nonfiction class, my teacher told us a story. When she was eighteen she entered and won a place in a one-time workshop with a prestigious author whose name I don't remember. When it was her turn before the firing squad, the distinguished author ripped her and her work to shreds. The way she described it this was not at all in keeping with normal workshop decorum of constructive criticism. He made her cry.

After the class, the distinguished writer took my teacher aside and told her, "For the next three years, don't write a word. Go to Terrell County, Texas and get a job as a waitress. After three years, you'll have enough material to be a good writer."

Then she said, "Bull. Shit." Writing is about craft. And no one has the right to tell you what to do with your life or make a value judgement on your experience. That's why Lee Gutkind's article "The MFA in Creative Nonfiction: What to Consider Before Applying" in the most recent edition of Poets and Writers pissed me off.

In the article, Gutkind writes that the most important criterion a potential applicant should consider is "How much have you suffered--or experienced?" He elaborates, "I'm not contending here that young people can't write with power and beauty or that they haven't suffered. But it's often better to join the Peace Corps, take a job driving a taxi, or interact with a different culture before studying writing on a master's degree level."

Flannery O'Conner said something to the effect that if you make it through childhood then you've got enough material to write. All of our experiences, everything, is inherently interesting.

There's a scene from Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation that I particularly love, when Kaufman's meta-character sits in a screen writing class and asks the instructor, Robert McKee, how you write about the everyday world since it's mostly boring and nothing happens. McKee responds, "Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day... Every fucking day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day someone somewhere makes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love. People lose it..."

Our everyday experience is a plenitude of bizarre wonders and miracles.

But this isn't what irks me about the "you need to suffer" philosophy of nonfiction writing. For one, this fetishizes and glorifies trauma. I think this can lead artists, young artists especially, to make stupid decisions -- I've met many who did. At worst, I think this devalues thoughts and experiences that aren't about this sexy suffering.

Chuck Palahniuk has a great essay in Stranger Than Fiction called "You Are Here" which criticizes the popular tendency to write about personal trauma. It's an ineffective and perverse form of exorcism. I'm not sure I agree with Chuck -- there's nothing wrong with writing as therapy -- but when you rest your life on life as story, trying to strong arm your memories into a thing that gives meaning to your suffering, you may need reevaluate your methods. Everyone has suffered. Telling the world is not a universal cure-all.

And that, I think, is what really bothers me about Gutkind's criterion of suffering. We're all filled with a wealth of material and memories, but not everyone who wants to attend a nonfiction writing program wants to write about themselves. There are whole galaxies of writing that fall under the category of "nonfiction." Just because the memoir and the personal essay are popular right now doesn't mean everyone wants to write them. What about those of us who want to write journalism, criticism, science articles, and social commentary and want to come at it from a different angle than the traditional disciplines?

What about those of us who just want to learn how to write more effectively about the facts? What if you just want to know how to best tell a true story, regardless if it's about suffering or not?

Saturday, September 1, 2012


This morning before he left, my roommate, the Viking, told me he and his fellow plant biology grad students were talking about plant volatiles. Volatiles are chemicals secreted by a plant when they are stressed -- like when a caterpillar is eating it. The chemical alerts helpful predators in the area to the plant's predicament, so a bird might come along and eat the offending caterpillar.

"So," the Viking said. "That smell of freshly cut grass is actually the cacophony of your lawn screaming in pain."

The things you learn when living with guy who reads biology textbooks for fun.


Last year I applied for six grad schools and was declined by all. After the initial embarrassment passed, I told a few friends and family and everyone said some variation on, "You know, you don't have to go to grad school to be a writer." This is no great comfort to me.

I'm a writer because I write. I don't expect two or three years of a grad program is going to transform me into a bestseller or award winning author. After I'm done, I'll probably find a job as a technical writer and that would suit me fine. In fact, that's basic the plan. I love writing and I'm not particular about form or content. I enjoy composing grants about as much as I enjoy writing stories.

Now I understand why people say they attend MFA programs to have more time to write. I worked full-time as an AmeriCorps member and now I have secured full-time employment again in St. Paul. Free time is precious. Writing time, even more so.

I'm far away from my workshop network. They're scattered throughout the country and world. The people whose opinions matter most to me have lives and have little opportunity to meet up at some mutually convenient location for a writing session or workshop.

After spending years toying with the idea, I have yet to actually try my hand at teaching. I have no idea whether or not I would be good at it, but I at least want to try. There's something deeply appealing about it, to me. Living in New Orleans, I helped put together and typically led a reading group called the Swimmers, which was the highlight of my week. I wasn't teaching -- we were peers -- but I got a kick out of guiding discussions and making notes to bring up particular subjects and I found that, after spending five years in literary analysis classes and workshops, I'm not half bad at it.

And, of course, I miss the academic environment. My job is intellectually challenging, I read all the time and write often. But there's a difference between having a personal library and easy access to an academic one, between a great Friday-night discussion on politics and literature and a class on contemporary world literature, between committing yourself to a life of learning and having the title "student." Well, here I'm being melodramatic. If you want an intellectual life you can live one.

So, no, I don't want to go to grad school to be a writer. I want to attend an MFA program because it would be a luxury. Because I've got unfinished business. Because I still hold out this small hope that I could teach and devote my working life to my passions: writing and talking about books with bibliophiles and writers.


New Orleans was a big city by my Iowan standards, but I've never lived in a place where I couldn't rely on my own two feet for getting around on a daily basis. It's still weird to me the ownership people feel over their bus routes. I was talking with a neighbor the other day who told me, "The 21A used to be my bus."

Three weeks ago, my first day at work, I took the 21A at 6:00AM (way too damn early, it turned out) and sat a few seats away from a woman hustling shots from a plastic bottle of gin. The other day, I sat across the row from a young woman telling a man, "I'm the most eligible bachelorette in town! I don't have diseases. I don't shoot up. I've got an apartment. Maybe if you factor in that I'm pregnant, I'm less desirable, but some people don't care."

LW told me a few days ago, "When I first got here, I used to hide behind a book when the crazies on the bus started acting up. Now I just watch and I'm amused. You should get some good material out of this."

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Grocery Dispute

Looking back on it, Vicky was disappointed that her breakdown hadn't been more spectacular.

For several months, maybe even years, it had been building. A ferocious lump in her ribcage twitched and muttered, clawed and burned. At first, it just fired up every time some self-righteous customer bragged about riding his bike or bringing her own fabric bags to carry away terrifically expensive, organic, gluten-free, vegan, over-packaged food. Then it was the parking inconveniences. Then it was the apartment, the heat, the police sirens, the loud neighbors, the gnawing and itching I-have-no-idea-what-to-do-with-my-life.

One year, four months, and nine days after she started working at Conseco's Market, she came in for her evening shift more tired than usual. She hadn't been sleeping well. Loud neighbors. But it was pretty much a normal day on Esplanade, except there was some quality about the humidity that made it difficult to breathe.

At 10 o'clock, after a day of hearing the blaring PA system request her for managerial assistance, Daniel said something that sounded a lot like, "Manag- what? Fuck..." over the mic. She was sitting in the "break room," practically a closet in the back with a unusual window that made it possible to smoke in an indoor-ish area.

And for some reason, Vicky heard herself say over the PA system, "Repeat page please." A long pause. "Repeat page please."

"Managerial assistance to the register, please."

"Daniel, repeat the page, please."

"Managerial assistance to the register, please."

"Daniel, you said, 'Manag-what? Fuck...' Correct?"

"Please come to the register."

"What's the problem."

"...Is this really the place to be having this conversation?"

Then Vicky laughed. A cacophony over the PA system that made her involuntarily cringe even as she kept laughing. The absurdity of it. Hearing her own voice and laughter over the PA system sounded like someone else talking, a clipped, professional exchange devolving in content. What a cliché. This was the scene from Airplane where the announcers start arguing over an abortion.

But Daniel was not playing along. Not yet.

“This is precisely the time and place to have this conversation, Daniel. Loud and where everyone can hear. These people deserve to know. And this has got to be the last customer in the store – we’re about to close. What seems to be the problem?” Vicky leaned back in her chair and lit another cigarette.

“A customer wants me to accept expired coupons.”

“Customer. This is the voice of god. The manager, at least, which should be good enough for you, here. I kindly invite you to fuck yourself.”

“Vicky, maybe you should go home and I can close things down…”

“You? You can’t count to five, Daniel.”

“That was uncalled for.”

“That was uncalled for? Uncalled for? I’ll tell you what’s uncalled for,” Vicky said and then stopped.

After a moment, Daniel said, “Yes…?”

“Is the customer still there?”

“No. He stormed out. But there are a lot of people staring.”

“Well, now, hear this. It’s been a long, hot day. My back hurts. I have a degree in art history and I’m managing a grocery store. This is to be expected. It’s a good joke. For a long time I wasn’t laughing, but now I am and why aren’t you? You could be, but I wouldn’t know, because I can’t hear anything but the PA system in the back. You know, this thing is great. I never feel like I’m the one talking over this system. I hear my voice, but I can’t believe it’s me talking. And it’s this voice that’s speaking now. Now. Now. Fuck.”


“Yeah, Daniel.”

“There’s no one in the store.”

“You lied?”

“Yeah. Except for coupons.”

“So I guess I don’t have to fire myself.”

“Not if you don’t want to. I won’t tell if you don’t.”

“… I'm firing myself.”

They closed the store. The next day, she woke up early for the first shift. For weeks after that, she worked doubles after another manager quit and she had to pick up the slack.


My short story, "The Law of Gravity," is now available for purchase through Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine's issue #56.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

More more things

And a Brief Note on Things, Weddings, and Where the Hell I Am in Life...

1.) Reading The Lorax as an adult is a far more emotional and political experience than I ever imagined.

2.) An exchange at today's wedding, "It's been years since I've seen him." "Yeah, what happened to him?" "He got divorced."

3.) A few days ago I resolved to make it my mission this year to stop Worrying. Most likely I'll elaborate on this in the future. But suffice to say for now that this decision will take a few weeks or months to implement.

4.) Today I witnessed one my childhood friends, Mindy, getting married to her high school sweetheart. It was wonderful. However, my favorite part of the wedding was watching and listening to my parents dance and socialize with their college friends. To my college friends: I look forward to your future children's weddings.

5.) Got a job. Got an apartment. Working on getting a car.

6.) Charter schools are complicated.

7.) Words fall through me.

8.) I'm going to apply for grad school again this year. This will be interesting.

9.) Sorry this post isn't particularly fun. It's past midnight and I'm rather tired after the wedding. Tomorrow: Ren Fest. Tonight: Sleep.


Saturday, August 11, 2012

Well, Here We Go

The Immediate Life Checklist:
1.) Get a job (Check)
2.) Get a reliable, affordable car -- preferably a Honda Civic (In Progress)
3.) Get an apartment that accepts cats, has a gas stove, is near a bus stop, and off-street parking (In Progress)

Some people are blessed with an ability to enjoy life and not take it too seriously. I am, unfortunately, not one of them.

So, this isn't going to be an interesting post because I'm going a little crazy right now trying to get Everything In Order (everybody got that?). Don't worry. We'll get back to our regularly scheduled scribblings soon.

I try not to talk about my real life very often on this blog, because I think the day to day grind is boring. I've got a journal for that. This is supposed to be fun. Right now, though, my thoughts are pretty Mundane and require a great deal of Grief.

In the meantime, I'm glad, at least, that I'm not alone. The other day my three year-old niece looked up to me after she'd ran around the living room several times and, with gravity and deep existential concern that only a toddler can muster, said, "Do you think this is a game?"

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Cover Letters (Tribute: Joey Comeau)

Notes from the Road: Currently in Oklahoma to witness my dear friends S's wedding (the Forbidden Union). Though the hotel is a lot nicer than we all expected for the price, this isn't ideal conditions for blog post composition. Yet, I'm with old friends and, after ten hours on the road, I'm still glad to see them every moment.

And then there's other things. Truth be told, I haven't been able to give SDR as much attention as I would have liked these past few months. I've been reusing material that I wrote months or years ago for exactly situations such as these. I'm very glad to share these pieces with you, but it's not necessarily by choice.

Since June, I've traveled from Louisiana to Minneapolis, four times back and forth between Iowa City and Minneapolis, and now from Minneapolis back and forth to Oklahoma. I've applied for more jobs than I care to share. Before I left New Orleans, I told AC that the job search was already weighing heavy on me and, in an uncharacteristic demonstration of disgust, he said, "Yeah, I know. Job searching is just so physically, mentally, emotionally exhausting..." It's that last point that resonates with me, and it took a few weeks for me to decide why.

Job searching, writing cover letters in particular, is a process of sharing with strangers your personal and professional triumphs and aspirations and then being told, more often than not, that "It's not a good fit," or, that they've found "a better qualified candidate." It's a horrifying, humiliating, scarring process if you stop to think about it.

IB told me that after writing so many cover letters she got to the point where she wasn't really writing cover letters anymore. They had devolved into weird, personal missives. One, which told the brief story of her odyssey to become a community organizer, landed her a job. After meeting her coworkers, I understand why this was attractive to them -- they are an emotionally involved lot, but nonprofit folk tend to be.

This all reminded me of a project and book by Joey Comeau, poet and author of A Softer World, called Overqualified. It's a series of fake cover letters he wrote channeling some of the more absurd points of job searching. You can read some of the letters here -- or buy the book and support indie authors.

Anyway, a tribute. This in response to my favorite job posting for a position I Really didn't want:

Dear Sir or Madam:

I am very glad to apply for the Private Investigator position with Walker and Ritter Investigators. With my qualifications, vastly superior to all the other candidates, I would make a terrific contribution to the company. What are those excellent credentials, you may ask? Well, being professional investigators, I leave that for you to discover (good luck). If you haven't been able to find substantial evidence supporting my claim in one month's time, then I guess we'll just have to both consider my craft and acumen proven. In the meantime, I have most of a page left, and I'd like to tell you a story.

There is a small bar/cafe in the Lichtenberg borough of Berlin that I visited with my classmates and friends. It was a cold day in January and we had just finished a long day of touring museums, including the infamous Hohenschoenhausen prison, the Stasi headquarters. It was a beautiful cafe. We sat crowded around a small, rectangular table drinking scotch and beer and talking idly about the city. I was taking notes, St. looked at me strangely and said, "Sam, stop writing." I asked him why, and he replied, "Because we just went to the Stasi museum. I'm German. Writing makes me nervous."

Indeed, the prison made us all nervous, especially the final stretch of the tour. All twenty of us Americans and two Germans stood huddled in a small, concrete, frigid enclosure with two impregnable metal doors on either side of us, wire mesh above, while the tour guide spoke.

I'll paraphrase: "There's a joke: Bush, Gorgachev, and Honecker are being chased by cannibals. Bush turns around and shouts, 'Spare me and I'll take you to a capitalist paradise.' And the cannibals eat him. Gorbachev turns around and shouts, 'Spare me and I'll take you to a worker's paradise!' And the cannibals eat him. Honecker keeps running and shouts over his shoulder, 'Keep following me and you'll be in East Germany in ten meters.' He looks back and the cannibals are gone."

We all laughed, and then the guide said, "It's funny, isn't it? But that joke was told by a twenty year-old man to his friends at a gathering after church. He was arrested and taken here." The guide gestured around him. "This is where prisoners in the later years were allowed to stand outside for fresh air. It was the only time any prisoner was allowed to be outside. You couldn't see the city or hear it -- you didn't even know you were in the city. But, at night you could see the stars in this tiny, concrete enclosure. And if you could see the sky, there was hope."

Chilling and uplifting, didn't you think? We come from very different backgrounds, Valerie Ritter, but I'm sure that you and I had a moment of empathy when you went on the same tour two weeks ago on vacation. The "rest chambers" are really unnerving, I found. But, I'm sure that you also felt some twinge of professional respect, just as I did.

You're probably wondering  how I knew that you were at the Stasi prison two weeks ago. Furiously wondering. Probably wondering how I know you didn't have anything but an Americano from Cafe Envie for breakfast because you hit the snooze too many times, very uncharacteristic. You order Caesar Salad with Ranch dressing on the side. You're left handed, but try to pretend to be ambidextrous. Last month you memorized the Salic Law speech from Henry V just to see if you could. You're obsessed with puzzles and logic games. Every evening you play Go, Chess, or Scrabble against opponents all over the world and typically win. Sometimes it's just Sudoku.

For the reasons stated above, and those credentials I'm sure you will never find, I believe I would make an exceptional member of your team. I very much look forward to hearing back from you and wish you all the best in discovering my contact information.


Saturday, July 28, 2012


I knew a guy who couldn't stop smiling. Seriously. He couldn't not smile. It's like his lips were permanently twisted upward in this sort-a-grin. It made everyone think that he was laughing about something, or just being nice. Everyone liked him because, well, how could you not like someone who was smiling all the time? There was something wrong with him.

His name was Otha and we met for the first time at the Foxhead. I'd just finished playing a show at the Mill and wandered over with W and Z. They started playing a game of pool and then this guy in slacks and a button-up, black shirt walked over to me saying that he'd seen the show and liked it.

"So, you're Pete Doherty," he said.

"I'm not that Pete Doherty," I snapped. Fuck that guy.

"I didn't think you were," he said. That's when I noticed he was smiling. He probably was smiling before I noticed, too, but I didn't notice. So, maybe he wasn't. I'll never know, just like pretty much everything else.

"I'm Otha."

"What the hell kind of name is Otha?"

"It's my name."

Then I smiled. "Catch-22," I said and didn't expect him to get the joke, but maybe he did because, well, he was still smiling. Then S walked up to me.

"I didn't know you were in town?" S said. He was wearing his tattered old brown leather jacket and looked ill.

"You never know I'm in town!" I said. And it's true, he never does.

"Because you're never in town," he muttered.

"If you just checked the damn website..."

"Or you could just fucking call me."

"Should I call you every time?" S is needy. He misses people. I sometimes think that he doesn't realize the world works without him.

"It'd be nice and infrequent. You're never in town. Did you just play a show?"

"Yeah, at the Mill."

"What's your band's name now?"

"Johnnie Licking Omar."

"You're serious?" Then he noticed Otha. I chuckled when he took a step back. "Oh, hi," he said.

S invited us back to the house around the corner. There was a party, he said, and it would be fun. So, after the drink, we all walked over, across the street, through Dirty John's parking lot and to the house on the corner. Otha followed. I wasn't surprised and, since S didn't object, didn't mind.

"So, what do you do?" Otha asked S.

"What do I do?" S asked, looking at him strangely. He was always doing that, looking at people strangely. "I breathe? I walk? I'm a student. I don't do much. What do you do?"

"I'm a traveler."

"A traveler?"

"I'm a travel writer."

That got S's attention. "A travel writer. What are you doing in Iowa City?" he asked.

"You repeat people a lot. And I'm just passing through."

"That's why everyone's in Iowa," S muttered. "But, seriously."

"I'm crashing with a friend. This is supposed to be a great party school and I wanted to see it."

The party was a gathering of about ten of S's friends. There was pizza baking in the oven and we walked in just as Waking Life was winding down. I knew some of the people there, they were acquaintances, people that I would talk to on the street. The place looked like every Iowa City apartment I had ever seen: old, off-white plaster, filled with character and scars from previous student crashers.

After the movie finished we all got drinks from the kitchen, PBR, and went out to the iron fire escape to smoke. All ten of us. S wondered what would happen if it fell and I asked him what would happen? Two of S's friends were conversing in French. They were majoring and had just returned from a year abroad. Otha joined in the conversation and I lost them for a while.

A few minutes later, one of the French majors switched over to English. "What's that phrase in French for the desire to jump off a cliff when you're standing at the edge?"

"L'appel du vide," said the other. "I love that they have a phrase for that."

"The French are all drama queens," Otha said.

The first French major turned to him, "Oh, you're English is excellent."

"Well, I'm glad," he said. "because that's my first language."

"But, you're French," said the second.

"No, I'm American."

"You're fucking with us," said the second. "You just talked about going to school in Lyon."

"I did. But I'm American."

"You're accent is great," continued the second, "but you don't have to pretend."

"No, seriously, I'm American. Look, I have a driver's license."

They argued for about ten minutes until finally the two French majors agreed that he must be American. The party lasted for hours after that. We talked about music and hipsters, all of them agreeing that, no, they couldn't be hipsters.

At the end of the night, as everyone was leaving, Otha and I walked down the stairs together. "Hey," he said over his shoulder, "you need a keyboardist?"

"What?" I said.

"For Johnnie Licking Omar?"

"Yeah, sure. But aren't you leaving town, like, tomorrow?"

"Nah, I'm staying for a bit."

He was still smiling like he was just remembering a joke. "So," I said. "Are you really American?"

"No. And I'm not French either." He waved and walked off. And that's how Otha joined the band.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Colleagues, Acquaintances Suspect Mark Zuckerberg Is Masked Vigilante

[A tribute to the Onion.]

Palo Alto – Mayor Patrick Burt reiterated his standing order for the immediate arrest of the local masked vigilante known popularly as "the Faceless." Some see this as an election-time political move to better position himself to win the hardliner vote.

Since 2004, the Faceless, has been fighting crime on the streets of the once anarchic Palo Alto to the vexation of elected officials. All attempts to enforce arrest the vigilante have been unsuccessful for close to six years.  Though no public accusations have been made, many residents believe that the Faceless is none other than the CEO and founder of Facebook, multi-millionaire playboy Mark Zuckerberg.

To residents of Palo Alto, the city was, until quite recently, a den of fear and violence.  By day, the city was just another dirty American urban area filled with abandoned and burned-out shells of buildings and suffering from a weak government's inability to maintain law and order.  At night, Palo Alto was a war zone.  The under-equipped, woefully under-staffed Palo Alto police force used to have the highest mortality rate in the country.  Fire fights, arson, car jacking, rape, murder and burglary were all common up until six years ago.

In 2004, residents reported seeing a man who "moved like a ninja and swore like a pirate," dressed in a white, featureless outfit, intervening in crimes as they took place.  Arrests skyrocketed as bludgeoned would-be offenders were found on the steps of the police station bound and gagged with incriminating evidence on their persons.  The appearance of the vigilante, who local papers christened the Faceless, coincided with Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg's relocation to Palo Alto.

"He loves Palo Alto, no matter how much of a dump and a haven to miscreants it is," fellow founder and share holder, Dustin Masowitz said.  "When we first moved here, we saw this guy get mugged right outside our house.  He took it really badly and wouldn’t stop muttering about somebody who raised him getting shot and how it was all his fault."  Mr. Masowitz seemed to lose himself in silent contemplation for a moment and then continued, "But he couldn't be the Faceless.  I mean, you saw The Social Network.  He's a sociopath. I know the guy."

Indeed a great deal of public disgust has been directed at Mr. Zuckerberg in the wake of the blockbuster The Social Network, which critics are calling a "defining film" of the millennial generation.  Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer said, "You could tell it really hurt him, to be villainized like that."

"But, you know, it's funny," said Sandberg, "I was walking by his office late one night a few years ago and I thought I heard him say on the phone, 'Mr. Mezrich, I want you to write a book.'  After that movie came out I saw him on the street looking at one of the posters and I could have sworn I heard him say something like, 'This is my burden' and then he started quoting The Iliad." She added, "He does that, sometimes."

Acquaintances of Mr. Zuckerberg have reported similar strange incidents and capricious behavior.  Many say he is a skilled martial artist and frequently makes pilgrimages to JapanChina and Tibet to receive training, but he always publicly dismisses these excursions as business trips.  Though his affairs with super models and actresses are famous, Mr. Maskovitz said he has often heard Mr. Zuckerberg longingly whispering "Diaspora," the name of a local super-villainess.

Eduardo Saverin, another of Facebook's co-founders, said in an interview that he believes he that Mr. Zuckerberg never sleeps, though "He naps through board meetings, he never seems to go home except when he's throwing some party."

Friends have said that as much as Mr. Zuckerberg is dedicated to Facebook, he has a passionate, though muted obsession with justice.  His library is filled with Greek and Latin classics, in addition to comic books, Sir Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe and social philosophy.

Most peculiar of all is Mr. Zuckerberg's tendency to disappear suddenly when the ":(" beacon flashes in the sky.

"I was sitting in his office late talking to him about the ConnectU lawsuit," Mr. Saverin said, "and I looked away for a moment.  When I looked back he was gone.  The window was open, but his office is ten stories up…"

The beacon,  popularly known as "the frowny face," is mounted on the Palo Alto police station.  Chief of police Dennis Burns, who has often been accused of being lax in his efforts to arrest the vigilante, has refused to comment on the Faceless or the beacon.

Attempts to reach Mr. Zuckerberg for an interview were unsuccessful. This reporter went to the Zuckerberg mansion, a sprawling, gaudy estate, and was told by Zuckerberg's English butler that the owner was at a tennis tournament. After leaving the grounds, night fell and the "frowny face" could be seen against the cloudy sky. This reporter saw a blurry, faceless figure leap across the rooftops, going toward the city.

Saturday, July 14, 2012


When asked after the incident, both Seth Lax and Marian Kolchek said that they knew someone was going to get shot that day. Neither of them knew each other before July 12th, 2012. In fact, they only met five minutes before they stood on the Hennepin Avenue bridge with two guns pointed at them.

Lax doesn't believe in fate or luck or premonitions or anything with the slightest twinge of the supernatural. "There's nothing that isn't in this world," Lax said. He is well read and has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) where he wrote his thesis on George Berkeley. He is a semi-truck driver for a big box store chain and on the hours, days, and months he spends on the road he listens to books on tape.

On July 12th, a Thursday, he wasn't listening to a book on tape, but instead to an album his girlfriend had given him for his birthday. It was The Black Keys' Brothers, which he didn't much care for. It was loud enough, anyway, with a good blues rhythm that made sixty miles an hour pass in a hazy beat.

He was tired. He hadn't been able to sleep the night before. "St. Louis," he said, "something about St. Louis makes it so I can't sleep. I always end up in that city over night."

Lax has never spent more than eight hours in St. Louis. He has never felt compelled to see the town. To him, it's just a delivery destination or an interstate hub, but never a place to see. Small college towns are more his style, places just big enough for character and with very little traffic that deserved the name.

Like every other St. Louis night, Lax hadn't slept well. He hadn't been sleeping well for weeks and so the work was particularly grueling. At thirty-nine, he was beginning to wonder if he'd crossed that barrier from a young man into that just sort of "man" area -- he said this in a fake, British accent, imitating a sketch from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Maybe it was time to move on. You couldn't do this forever.

July 12th was the day the heatwave almost broke. The entire country boiled for weeks, far earlier than these things are supposed to happen. Some blamed global warming, or El Nino, but mostly global warming. The second majority, those that didn't believe in that global warming, liberal bullshit, said, "It's [here]. Just wait a few hours and it will change."

Change it did. A sunny morning gave way to a cloudy, lukewarmth that looked like rain. Those with allergies cringed and coughed, cried, and sought refuge. Lax doesn't suffer form allergies. He suffers life. And he'd had an argument in St. Louis with the motel clerk that morning.

There was no coffee in the dispenser in the cramped lobby that looked so much like every motel lobby Lax had ever seen. He had long since grown used to feeling like he'd been here before. "Life on the road is deja vu," he said.

But there was no coffee. He told the clerk, a skinny woman in her forties whose whole body seemed to be supported on the crutch of her arm planted on the counter.

"So?" she said. She did not look bored, tired, or disinterested. It could have been an act, Lax thought, but it seemed like she genuinely didn't know what to do with the problem with which she was presented.

"Could you refill it?" he asked.

"We're out of coffee," she said.

"Yes, I know. That's why I want you to refill it."

"No. I mean, we don't have any more grounds. We have no grounds to stand on," she said.

That's when Lax decided she was playing games with him and it was too early for this and he had to be on the road and before she said something else he wanted to get the hell out of there. So he put his room key on the counter and said, "Checking out," and turned to leave.

"What's the room number?" she asked him.

"Two-oh-six," Lax said, reaching for the door.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure."

"There is no room 206."

Lax turned around. "I assure you, that's the room I was in."

"What's your name. We'll figure it out," said the woman, turning to the computer.

"I've already paid."

"What's your name?"

"Seth Lax."

"Are you sure?"

Lax stared at her. She looked up from her computer. "Are you sure?" she asked again. When he didn't respond, she said, "Because no Seth Lax checked in last night."

There was a copy of Kafka's collected short stories sitting on the counter, heavily ear-marked. Lax sighed deeply. He hated English graduates, especially bored ones.

"Lady," said Lax. "I know that you hate your job and probably your life, too, but that's just rude." He then turned, walked out the door, and drove to Minneapolis.

Marian Stanczyk believes in nothing but luck. Fate, too. In fact, he said, "I give everything the benefit of the doubt. We know nothing. Who are you to say that you are where you are when you are because of choices. Nobody chooses anything."

Five years ago, Stanczyk made his own Tarot deck. This was the culmination of several years' obsession that started with a lucky silver half dollar then progressed to dice, cards, astrology, and finally a fixation on Tarot. He carries the deck with him everywhere, even now, and consults it for most major decisions. Multiple major decisions happen every day.

"It's embarrassing, I know," Stanczyk confessed. "As I understand it, the way I treat it is sort of like functioning alcoholism. Most people didn't even know that I carry a deck of cards around with me everywhere until the journalists got a hold of that. It sounds so much more interesting in a newspaper. Really, I just go off somewhere private, read the cards, interpret, and then go back to what I was doing."

Interpretation is Stanczyk's life and calling. He went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison for his BA in history and followed this trajectory to receive his PhD from the Tulane University. His specialty was American occultism. But, he had a problem: he hated teaching and so, at that time thirty, he decided that he needed to change life paths in the only environment he knew: academia. He got his law degree from University of Iowa and set out looking for work. And didn't find any. On July 12th, Stanczyk wondered what the hell he was doing working as an assistant store manager at Barnes and Noble and where exactly debt is supposed to go.

That day, though, he had an interview. He was on his way across the Hennepin Avenue bridge and he was just barely on time. It bothered him, though, that tomorrow was Friday the 13th and no matter how well this interview went, tomorrow was going to hurt. That much was certain, to an extent. There was always room for doubt, Stanczyk knew, and he could be wrong. It didn't help, this bad feeling, this foreboding, this sense of impending doom. Just because his doom sense was never wrong didn't mean that bloodshed and tragedy was certain, but it always seemed to happen that way.

Then, traffic stopped.

Up ahead, two seconds earlier, going the same way across the bridge, someone cut Lax off. It happens all the time. In rush hour traffic, it was to be expected. But this one just felt wrong. A BMW, new, white, brilliant even in the overcast gloom, pulled right out in front of his rig.

"Like he didn't see me, or didn't care," Lax said later. "Don't people realize how dangerous those trucks are? There was no danger of me running him over, I had enough time to stop. But that stupidity... It occurred to me that a person like that just doesn't understand the world around him and I could just run him over. And that's when I got out of the truck."

So, Lax applied the brake, killed the engine, got out of his rig, and leaned against the truck, leaving one lane free to crawl around him. At first, people drove by, giving him a curious look.  Finally, Stanczyk, got out of his car and walked up to Lax.

"Can I help you?" Stanczyk  asked.

Lax shook his head. "No. I'm good."

"Is your truck stalled?"


"Is there something wrong with it?"

With sudden inspiration, Lax said, "It's not my truck."

This gave Stanczyk pause. Finally he said, "Then where's the driver?"

"No idea."

"Would you please move? I have to go to an interview."

"There's another lane."

A young woman dressed in a blue suit walked up to Stanczyk and Lax. Her name is Yvette Ray and she was on her way out of town for a long over-due and well deserved vacation, she told the police later. She was twenty-six and was doing fairly well for herself already as an accountant. She said, "Can I help you?"

"This is familiar," Lax mused.

"Is there something wrong?" Ray said, looking back and forth between Stanczyk and Lax. She seemed to by trying to strike a combative, non-confrontational tone.

"The driver won't move the truck," said Stanczyk.

"Why won't you move the truck?" asked Ray.

"It's not my truck. I'll be happy to tell the driver to move the truck as soon as he arrives," said Lax. He was beginning to enjoy himself.

That was when Stanczyk said he had an epiphany. He felt like he was in some sort of trance, staring at this man, this guy with his hands clasped behind his back, leaning against the truck with one foot propped up, grinning serenely. It was the upside down Hanged Man.

"You're the reason everything in my life has gone wrong," said Stanczyk.

That got Lax's attention. "That's a bit harsh. And fatalistic."

"No, I'm not angry with you," Stanczyk said, waving his hands. "I'm very glad to have met you. You see, I can't get ahead. Metaphorically and, in this case, literally. I've got an interview and now I'm late, so that door is now closed, but it's not really my fault, because you stopped on this bridge right ahead of me out of dumb luck. It's fate."

"That's contradictory," Lax said.

"Yes, I'm sorry, I'm having an epiphany right now and articulation is difficult," said Stanczyk.

"Take your time."

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Ray shouted.

"We're having a conversation," said Lax.

"Please stay out of this," Stanczyk said, and then turned back to Lax. "I can see that you've had a rotten day and that you are clearly the driver of this truck. Independently, you stopping in the middle of the road would have just been an article in the newspaper. But you had to stop in front of me, because that's the way the world works. I'm sorry for dragging you into this."

"No, no, it's all right," Lax said. Great, he thought, another English major. But at least he was better than Ray screaming a few feet away. "But what if you'd been ahead of me? Then you would have just gotten to your interview on time."

"But I couldn't have been ahead of you, that's the point," Stanczyk said excitedly. "And you know that's true, too, or you wouldn't be standing here right now denying that that's your truck. You can't get ahead either."

Lax opened his mouth to say something and realized that this was actually a good point.

A mob had formed. Several people, including Ray, began shouting, then screaming, "Get in the truck!"

"No," Lax called to the crowd. He looked back at Stanczyk and he found himself saying, "It's just... St. Louis..."

"Yeah, fuck that city," Stanczyk agreed. "But that's just a metaphor. Don't you realize that both of us have clearly been pushed over the edge by forces we cannot control? We are without agency. We are--"

"Fuck you both!" screamed Ray. She then pulled out her Beretta, which she never leaves home without, for situations not exactly like this. She was one of 103,000 Minnesotans registered to carry a concealed weapon, but one of the few who exercises her right on a daily bases for "personal protection."

"You never know what situation you might find yourself in," Ray confided to a friend days earlier.

The mob surrounding her immediately fled.

Lax looked at Stanczyk who wearily gestured toward Ray, "You see what I mean?"

"Freeze!" someone yelled from behind them. Both Lax and Stanczyk whirled around to see a gray haired, uniformed policeman pointing a gun at them. This was Rudolph Plame and he was just twelve months from retirement, and counting, and this was exactly the situation he had been praying not to find himself in.

Lax and Stanczyk looked back and forth, from Ray to the Plame. They raised their hands slowly. Plame and Ray stood their grounds.

"This is probably going to be a funny story in five or ten years," Lax called out. "It's not going to end well, but I don't think anyone's going to die. I mean, who wants that? Life goes on, right?"

Lax looked up at the sky and shouted, "But, I'm not getting back in the goddamn truck!"

Saturday, July 7, 2012


AB's car had broken down, again. In fact, everyone's car had broken down. In the final couple weeks at my job, every single person in the office, except our boss, at one time lost the use of their vehicles for one reason or another.

Luckily, TC was still at the office working after hours, Everyone did there. We walked in to the cinder block building and sat down in the cool air. TC consulted his watch. "Where do you need to go?"

"To my place. It's in the Irish Channel," AB said.

"Oh, that's great. I have to be Uptown, so I can just drop you guys off and go right to the meeting," TC started to shut down his computer and gather up his manila files and plastic binders.

"Do you have to meet a client?" I asked.

"No," T said. He bowed his head sheepishly. "Happy hour."

We went to his car and I sat in the passenger's seat and AB in the back. Inside, before we opened the windows, it was an oven. How did people in Louisiana survive before air conditioning? All the old pictures of politicians and gentlemen, ladies, business people with their layers of wool and elaborate fabrics smothering them, temperatures rising to unbearable levels to generations raised in shorts and central AC.

People, they say down there, have figured out ways of escaping the heat. The high ceilings are one method. All the heat rises so that your surrounded by relatively cool air. Shade, too. You learn how to find shade in the South. Nothing much gets done. Everyone admits defeat for a few months and waits until October, when the oysters are good.


Pulling out of the drive and onto the long road leading from the Parish back to Orleans, Judge Perez, TC asked me about my plans.

"Don't have any right now, really. I'm applying for jobs and waiting to hear back from Tulane. If they give me a job, I'll stay. If they don't, I'm going back north." This is more or less what I told everyone verbatim in the second to last week I spent in New Orleans.

"I hope you get it," TC said.

"So do I," AB said.

We talked about job prospects and whether we would stay in New Orleans or not. Both AB and TC intended to stay another year. TC wasn't sure if he'd stay where he was, but AB wanted to find a case management job, which is what she'd gone to school to do in the first place.


"What if you can't find a job?" TC asked. "Do you have a back-up plan? Can you stay with family?"

"I can," I said. "I mean, I want a job and an apartment and it makes me nervous that I haven't found anything yet."

"That's good, though," TC said. "You're lucky. I know some people who don't even have that. They live pay check to pay check and some of them are even helping their parents out. If someone can't come up with a couple hundred dollars that month, then everyone's screwed."

"Yeah, I am lucky," I said.

"We all never really know how lucky we are," said AB, looking out the window at a two story building with a partially collapsed roof and vines growing out between the slats in faded and peeling shutters.

"I won't starve and I won't be homeless," I said. "That's more than a lot of people have."


Sitting in IB's living room with CS one night talking about jobs, CS said, "I tried and I'm still trying to find case management work, but I just can't find anything. No one calls me back. I have experience. I even had a master's degree. And I work on projects and volunteer all the time. It occurred to me the other day that I'm lucky to be a petty cab driver..."


TC asked me if I'd do AmeriCorps again.

"Not if I can help it," I said. "I like the program. It's great for service and supporting good nonprofits that need the help. But I want something more stable. And where I'm actually earning money."

"I hear you," TC said. "I think I could do this another year, but after that I'll move on to something else."

AB said, "I may, I may not. I haven't decided."

"I promised myself," I said. We were on the I-10 elevated interstate driving through the 7th Ward and curving in to follow the unseen river toward Uptown. "That I would spend my twenties going from one to two year obligations from one to the next. But I'm already sick of that. I want stability and I think I'm ready for it."

"You have to do what's good for you," said TC.

"But, isn't it arrogant?" I asked. "What privilege I have that I feel like I can choose to get a stable, salaried position and move wherever I want to? And can I really? That's what I've been told my whole life. That it's just a matter of trying."


"Last summer," said AB, "I applied for everything I could and eventually just needed a job. So I applied for waitressing and bartending jobs figuring that I could at least get that, but I couldn't. And, I mean, I have experience. I've worked as a waitress and a bartender for years and nobody even called me back. There are no jobs out there. None."


"I miss working in a coffee shop, actually," I said, "But I don't feel like I can go back to that if I ever want to get out it."

"I know," said TC, "It was great being able to leave work at work."

"And the tips," AB said. "And people are made to feel that not wanting more than that isn't right. That what they want isn't worthy."

"Yeah," said TC. "I mean, my grand father worked every day of his life from the age of eighteen. He got married and had kids at nineteen and got a house and that was enough for him. I sometimes wonder why that isn't enough for me."

"Maybe it was enough for him. But that shouldn't mean that you need to live the same way."


TC pulled up to AB's house. "Good talk," TC said. "Good talk, you guys. Have a good night."