And so, it has been. And so, too, it will remain. Through my life, unto death, and for the unfurling of eons beyond. Rainier, vast and massive observer of fidelity and betrayals; of sprigs and blooms; of the lives of things so small and ephemeral that you could argue their existence at all.
Rainier, bearing witness to the evolution of man and every element of the human condition. Diffident to joy. Indifferent to sadness. Stoic to what it has inspired in the hearts of anyone who from the fields of its foothills have gazed upon its vermiculate pattern of inscriptions, carved from the hands of God, Himself.
Remember me, Rainier, when I am gone.
Last week, while in San Francisco for a writers conference, I was walking with my young daughter on Geary Street near Mason, not far from Union Square, when I noticed him: a towering, disheveled member of the city’s vast legion of homeless people, keeping pace behind me.
I deliberately altered my pace—already considerably slower than the rest of the people who were streaming past since I was holding the hand of my toddler—to let him pass. But instead of disappearing into the upstream swim of pedestrians, he slowed, too.
Angling myself to keep him in my periphery, I took him in: 6’4, solidly built, and dressed in a green zippered hoodie with bulging front pockets. With eyes that darted around as if they were tracking an invisible swarm of bees in front of his face, he mimicked my movements. When I walked on, he followed. When I slowed down, he did too. I crossed the street and sure enough, he was right there behind me. It was only when I had stopped completely—pretending to point out something of interest in a store window to my daughter—that he finally seemed to have disappeared. Believing my new unwanted friend to have slipped back into the anonymous flow of pedestrians, I stopped briefly into a Starbucks to buy my daughter a promised hot chocolate before continuing on to Union Square.
Living in Seattle, there’s nothing like a warm, cloudless California day to flush the rainy Pacific Northwest gloom from the system. There was an art fair happening in Union Square, and my daughter and I decided to camp out on the steps in the plaza and soak it all in. But we’re only there a few minutes when I felt a presence behind me. I turned around to find our stalker hovering over us. I sprang to my feet, placing myself between him and my daughter and asked him what the fuck he wanted.
“What do YOU want?” he hissed. His posture changed, and he became aggressive, the ambiguity of his intentions dissolving before my eyes. He was no longer following invisible swarming bugs but was instead focused directly on me. At one point I kicked over my coffee and he laughed sinisterly. Then, looking at my daughter, he asked me if she belonged to me. He actually used the word belong. I looked over to where two women were sitting nearby.
“Excuse me,” I called out to them. “Can you take my daughter for me?” The women only made brief eye contact with me before quickly looking away. A man walking past pretended to be oblivious to what was happening. As a former cop, I’d been in enough fights with the mentally ill and drug-addled to know that I’m outmatched. When you’re psychotic or drugged out of your gourd, the pain is muted. Reason is fleeting. And to top things off, I’d been struggling with my self-confidence all morning ever since it had been pointed out to me that oily White House hopeful and Boston Strangler-lookalike Ted Cruz owned a red-checkered button-down shirt just like the one I was wearing at the moment.
By now, my aggressor was making quick, jerky, jumpy motions toward me like he was about to hit me. He was standing in an elevated position over me and the way I saw it, I could either keep standing there and wait for him to kick me in the head, or I could act now, drag his legs out from under him before he could react and start smashing his head into the concrete.
Just as a physical attack—one way or the other—seemed inevitable, the guy abruptly stood down. As I maneuvered myself up to where he was standing, he slinked away and ran off. Within moments a uniformed Union Square security officer appeared and asked if I was okay. I explained what happened—that the guy had been stalking my daughter and I for blocks—and he took off after him.
When it was all over, I glanced around at the people who were seated nearby when all of this was happening. Whether out of guilt or out of fear, not a single one will make eye contact with me. At some point, the women I had implored to safeguard my daughter have crept away from the scene altogether when I wasn’t looking.
In every plan I was making to do great bodily harm to my would-be attacker in defense of both my daughter and myself, I failed to take the good ol’ bystander effect into consideration. I should have known that rather than have someone do me a favor by safely removing my daughter from the danger at hand, we stood a better chance of having our beating deaths idly filmed by a couple dozen people with their cell phones.
Like it has in Seattle, the lax regulatory policies on homelessness in San Francisco have created a crisis for the city. In both cities, and others like them, the drug culture, mild climate, liberal approach to social services and high cost of housing has created a favorable atmosphere for the homeless. In Seattle; a 100-acre expanse of greenbelt beneath a section of the city’s I-5 freeway known as the “Jungle” has been turned into an encampment of homelessness and crime (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/02/05/3-boys-charged-with-jungle-murders-were-collecting-moms-drug-debt-cops-say/).
Since the incident, I’ve been reading up on aggressive panhandlers and learned that I may very well have been the target of a “soft mugging”; an extortion-like tactic where a panhandler will essentially stalk and follow a target menacingly until the target pays him to go away. In all my experiences with homeless people and/or panhandlers, this guy was undoubtedly the exception, for in all the number of times I’ve been hit up for cash on by panhandlers, I’ve never been straight up menaced.
I’m not going to pretend to be ignorant to the complexity of issues that ties into homelessness in America. Arguably, better access to mental health treatment and drug abuse intervention would be a great place to start, but I’ll leave the dissection of that social issue to the experts. For this is intended as a cautionary tale.
The radioactive decay of my Flint, Michigan upbringing had no sooner reached its half-life, you might say. I dress more conservatively these days. I’m not as grumpy as I used to be. And on a few occasions, I’ve even caught myself believing that most people are inherently good. But the incident in San Francisco has derailed me from my Doodles Weaver complacency. It’s a fact: we’re a hypocritical society; one that bemoans the changing mores of social decency while being gleeful consumers of its modality. While waiting for a New York City train in 2012, 58 year-old Ki Suk Han was pushed onto the tracks of the subway by a deranged homeless man named Naeem Davis. As the train was bearing down on him, Han’s last images weren’t of helpful bystanders scrambling in vain to pull him to safety, but rather the incessant flashing of a New York Post’s photographer’s camera capturing his final moments of life (http://nypost.com/2012/12/04/suspect-confesses-in-pushing-death-of-queens-dad-in-times-square-subway-station/).
So, you see, it’s important to keep in mind that even when surrounded by throngs of friendly bystanders, you shouldn’t rely on anyone to come to your aid when you’re being pummeled to death for the five bucks you have in your wallet.
You’d be better advised to just smile for the cameras.
Last week, I turned 42. In a society as age-centric as our own, you’d think I’d be freaking out about it. After all, the half-century mark is creeping ever closer. The faint etchings of age around my eyes are slowly becoming fault lines. And the old knee injuries of youth have come back to haunt me. It ain’t all bad, though. I’m actually in better shape now than I was 20 years ago. My vision is still 20/15. And when I look at turning 42 as simply having seven 6th birthdays, I trick myself into thinking it’s not such a hard thing to deal with.
Inevitably, however, there comes a day when the lights will go out. When the flame will get snuffed. When—not withstanding a person’s personal religious beliefs—we’ll all be spending the eternity drifting and tumbling through a moist, black void of non-existence. It’s the worst blow of all to the human ego to think of our minds—our consciousness—as nothing more than the mesh of a functioning brain; our bodies simply a bag of tissue and enzymes.
No artist can ever truly explain the drive to create. It’s a maddening, arduous process to sit there before a blank page and try to give some tangible form to artistic expression. Aside from the hours of thinking and ruminating and spelunking deep into the oft-treacherous caverns of the mind comes plenty of self-doubt and second-guessing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve championed what I thought was the perfect set of paragraphs, only to glance at it the very next day and consider it all just complete garbage. A hobby like golf or stamp collecting would be much easier on the psyche, for sure. But that’s just it: a writer, and I mean one who writes with the desperation of someone trying to take air, doesn’t see writing as merely a hobby. It’s not something you do because you have an hour to spare. It becomes something you must do. A need to be fulfilled. We write to beat the Devil and that’s the point. Whether it’s painting a canvas or writing a song, sculpting a garden or writing a story. It may sound like a stretch but the basic goal of creativity is to compete with the inescapability of our mortality. We long to create something that’s bigger than us. Leave some part of us behind that will, at least in a pragmatic sense, remain timeless. Does that mean that all artists are narcissistic? Who exactly does longevity and timelessness matter most to anyway? The writer, or the reader? On any given day it can be either.
When you nail a sentence, it takes you to euphoric heights. Flub one, and it sends you plummeting to crushing depths. But that’s how it goes. You take the good with the bad. You follow your instincts while not always knowing what the instinct is saying. Because with every valley comes a peak. Ignore the value judgments of others and write only what is truthful. For when you create something you can be proud of, then you’ve already beaten death.
Notwithstanding the potential of turning this into one massive passion-fueled, rolling tumbleweed of theological debate and discussion, I think the question is fair and quite simple: When you die and (assuming) you go to heaven, what will you look like?
I’m not much for writing about what happens after death; only the slow, steady, agonizing, degenerative, angst-filled crawl toward its destination. But as a writer, there occasionally comes a time when I might feel a pang of interest in dipping my toe into a storyline about a character or two whose story continues even after that heavy dark curtain has been dropped.
Case Study #1:
“Steve”; a 28 year-old slightly overweight white male of average height.
Steve owns a 2005 Yamaha YZF-R1 “crotch rocket” that he likes to take for rides along the planes and twists of Old Beatty Ford Road in North Carolina. One late afternoon in May, while crossing into the intersection of Phaniel Church Road, Steve encounters a UPS truck. Its driver, being temporarily blinded by the bright and low-hanging sun, pulls into Steve’s path of travel, causing Steve to slam into the side of the truck.
A local media team descends upon the crash site. The community rallies around Steve’s family to express their love and support. Despite the doctors’ wonder and amazement at Steve’s strength and endurance for having initially survived the crash in the first place, they try rationalizing for his family that due to his extensive injuries and his no-hope-for-recovery comatose state, consideration should be given for disconnecting him from the ventilator. Steve’s brother and sister agree to it. Steve’s mother on the other hand – a devoutly pious evangelical woman – curses the doctor for even suggesting it. Hence comes a contentious, 15-year odyssey in Steve’s life where the matter of his life and death inches its way along into the upper echelons of the judicial system. Ultimately, the US Supreme Court rules in favor of Steve’s siblings and the ventilator is disconnected soon thereafter.
In his life, Steve’s withered, vestigial and severely atrophied body “lived” to the age of 43.
When Steve arrives in heaven, is he 28, or 43?
Hell’s waiting room, or your typical line at the DMV?
Case Study #2:
“Emily”; a 56 year-old black female and retired teacher.
Children can be cruel, as evidenced by the sometimes vicious and demeaning verbal abuse they can slosh at those with even the slightest of imperfections. A pair of pesky keloids on her left earlobe has destined Emily to such an existence. But despite this, she flourished in her role as a teacher at Shreveport Central High School where she taught tenth grade English and Math. She had married her high school sweetheart, “Daniel”, fresh out of college and together they had a boy they had named after Daniel’s father, Eric.
Despite her husband’s constant reassurances, Emily’s keloids had remained a constant source of embarrassment and frustration for her. Doctors had given her a statistically high probability that surgical intervention would only exacerbate her condition and expand the keloid growth. As a result, Emily had no choice but to resign herself to absorbing the occasional taunts of “cocoa puff”, and “Goober earring”.
One day, after having just started a load of laundry, Emily was climbing the basement stairs when she dropped dead of a heart attack.
When she was shown to her celestial cottage on the sparkling Eustelean Glens overlooking the mystical, mermaid-swelled waters of Lake Absentia, she couldn’t help but be curious about something.
Slowly, Emily eased herself in front of the mirror…
Keloid, or no keloid?
Quick Case Study #3:
Husband dies at 47. Wife goes on to live until the age of 92. Do either get to choose the age in which to spend their eternity? Taking it further, let’s say the guy liked himself best at 24; chiseled body, six-pack abs. Full head of hair. The woman, meanwhile, had come to appreciate the glow and wisdom of her 60’s. Will their age gap cause a paparazzi-sized sensation? Divorce…is it even an option?
Look, it’s not that I expect everyone to be walking around heaven looking like porn stars. But if the motivation for wanting to vanquish our imperfections and become our most “perfect” self in our earthly form is simply to increase our odds of getting laid, who’s to say that a part of that doesn’t carry over into our “heavenly state”? The second circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno just so happens to center around “carnal malefactors”, after all.
All I’m saying is that it would help me greatly as a writer to be able to wrap my head around this minor issue of physical appearance as it relates to the afterlife.
Such considerations seem moot in a place like hell, where we’re all just a pile of screaming, burning feces shat from the foul, hemorrhoidal ass of Satan, himself.
A logician tasked with conducting an analysis of this issue might very well conclude that heaven is comprised of differences; of choices. Using this logic, would it be safe to say that hell means being the same as everyone else?
It would be for me.
One thing I’m learning— “I’ve learned” would be a lie—is that there are no short cuts on the Road Less Written. That is, unless you do actually want to take a road to writing less.
But when it comes to listening to gurus, we’re always tempted by the most unreliable one: our brains. Our so-called centers of higher thought, the very organ that should be busy helping us plot out an optimal path to success, can sabotage us.
Sure, it provides inspiration, strategy, and common sense. However, it also peppers us with false rationales. We get caught up in delusions of grandeur, denial – not to mention feelings of hopelessness and discouragement.
So why do we buy into the load of shit our rationalizing cerebral cortex spits out…?
Having rescheduled yet another appointment due to my predilection for getting lost in my writing, I decided that it was time to sit down and have a heart-to-heart with my Muse. Seriously! When I chose a literary career, I thought I was supposed to be in charge of the writing process. After all, many successful authors describe how they structure their days, “reporting to their offices” to write for several hours, after which they go about the rest of their lives as they see fit.
Obviously, they never met my Muse. Like a selfish child, it can clamor within my head at the most awkward times. The following is an example of a recent exchange. Feel free to offer suggestions as to how you would handle my quixotic Muse!
MUSE: “Hello there! Remember me? I just thought of a way you can improve that chapter you’ve been struggling with!”
ME: “It is 3:45 am. Can’t I just put in a wake-up call for 7:30? I’ll be fresher, and my fingers should work better then. OK? Good! Keep in touch . . . . “
MUSE: “’Fresher?’ And how do you think that is going to fix that overwritten, narrative-starved, clunky excuse for writing? I need you edgy. Nervous. That’s what’s missing in that chapter. Now, get your butt out of bed and let’s get busy!”
ME: “Get busy? I’ve been pounding away on that keyboard until my fingers have gone numb. I’ve had to call to push up meetings with kind and patient folks who have decided that there is simply no way they are going to get me to conform to a ‘normal’ schedule, and even find me mildly amusing in an eccentric way. Besides, who put you in charge anyway? I’m the writer, you know!”
MUSE: “Really? And who do you think planted Max inside of your head anyway, ‘Madam Writer?’ Who do you think woke you up that morning so many years ago with a little old man chattering away in a Yiddish accent you simply couldn’t ignore? Who do you think presented his entire story, beginning to end like a shimmering rainbow, even showing you the pot of gold on the last page? Who kicked you out of bed and drove you to your computer, so you could quickly record a rough outline of chapters before the Universe reabsorbed the story? ME, that’s who! So, who is in charge here? Do you really think you have much of a choice in the matter?”
ME: “Well, I agree that you got the ball rolling. But, I don’t see you sitting hours upon end at that computer until your tailbone screams for relief. I don’t see you longing to be lost in Max’s world when your beloved partner impatiently calls you to yet another dinner he’s prepared just to hear, ‘Five more minutes. I just need to finish this paragraph!’ (With me generally appearing an hour later, my plate of food in the microwave awaiting resuscitation). I was the one who went into postpartum depression when I completed the first draft of the manuscript because I couldn’t bear to lose Max. Why shouldn’t I have the choice as to when to write? I’m not a television remote control device, you know. I have never found it comfortable to write, ‘On Demand!’”
MUSE: “Because of ME! Do you know how lucky you are? Just think of all the people in the world who are asked to write on a subject that bores them to tears. Yet, they have no problem doing it. You’ve been there. I’ve rescued you time and again from linguistic drudgery in dreary offices. And this is the thanks I get? ‘Wake me at 7:30?’”
ME: “OK, OK. You have a point there. How about we make a deal? You are allowed to wake me at 3:45 am to plant a thought, but as I need all the strength I can get to finish these revisions, how about your letting me hit your ‘snooze button’ so I can get a little extra shuteye until 7:30 instead?”
MUSE: “I am more than a little bit offended! Likening me to an alarm clock is like comparing a brilliant sunset to the streetlights that go on at appointed times. I can’t give advance notice as to when I’m going to burst forth with some magnificent insight, rain glorious words down upon you like a refreshing shower, or fill your head and heart to overflowing. No, I’m afraid there are no deals if you want to be a writer. Writers aren’t doctors. There’s no vacation time, weekends, or full nights of sleep. That’s simply the name of the game.”
ME: “But, doctors certainly get paid a lot more. A LOT more when you consider that being a full-time writer often means having to go long periods ‘on sabbatical,’ from any type of meaningful employment!”
MUSE: “’Meaningful employment?’ Crunching numbers, or trudging to an office with bland people doing bland things while they answer to bland bosses who direct their lives? Writers are on their own! If you want a structured existence, than forget living a life with a Muse to provide you with pictures that dance in your head. It boils down to one simple question. Are you really serious about being a writer? If not, I can look for somebody else . . . . ”
ME: “NO! Don’t leave me! Without you, Max wouldn’t be jabbering away in my ear and I don’t quite think I’d ever be whole again without him. He takes long walks with me and draws me into his world so I can experience the full flavor of his life and times. We’ve become very close. If you left, I’m not quite certain he’d know how to find me, nor I him. You win. If you can’t wait until a reasonable hour, than I suppose my nickname, ‘The Late Sue Ross’ will have to stand. Of course, I may never have work again, not to mention friends or colleagues who have trouble understanding the way of the writer, but that’s the way it will have to be.”
MUSE: “Truly, I really don’t want to cost you friends, or employment, but I think you’re being a little melodramatic here. We’ve been working on this book for 14 years, during which time you’ve held down some pretty impressive jobs (with a few breaks here and there). I guess it’s hard for me to hold back when the energy is flowing.”
ME: “I get that, but keep in mind that when you aren’t holding back, neither can I!”
MUSE: “True, but if I’m on a roll, and you decide to come along, you’ll just have to accept the consequences. I will continue to wake you up and typing whenever the spirit moves me. You will simply have to accept your lot in life as a writer enslaved to me, your Muse, for as long as it takes. Not really a bad gig. You could have been born into a life as a telemarketer or bill collector! Instead, you are living two lives. Your own, and Max’s.”
ME: “My own, and Max’s, hmm? Well then, let’s get back to work!”
MUSE: “Now, that’s more like it! OK, get some rest for now. But, remember . . . I’ll see you in your dreams.”
(“Muse Attack” created by – http://intergalacticwritersinc.wordpress.com)