Tag Archives: writing

Confessions of a Drowned Man

“He had been hurt doing everything he had ever done. He expected it, even wanted it. Nothing centered a man like pain. Nothing drove the irrelevant bullshit out of your mind like the taste of your own blood.”
— Harry Crews, All We Need of Hell

One of the best things that ever happened in my life was a motorcycle accident. My motorcycle accident. It happened in September 2014.

I was visiting an old Army buddy in Texas. He lent me his ancient BMW motorcycle, which was a mistake–a mistake by me, that is. I had no business being on a motorcycle, much less an honorable old gentleman of a motorcycle like that BMW. There was nothing modern about the BMW… nothing to help out a rider who was a rank amateur, and a slow learner.

Before
Before

We rode out into the Texas Hill Country. At some point, we stopped so I could drink a pop. It was hot, and I was wearing a leather jacket and helmet. So at least I had that much sense. Or rather: My Army buddy did.

Out in the hills, amongst the cattle, we rode. I enjoyed the countryside, another mistake. Following my buddy down a hill and across a bridge, I saw the deer much too late, braked, and flew over the handlebars, landing on my left shoulder and bashing the left side of my helmeted head on the road. I was stunned. As I flew over the handlebars, I thought, “So this is how I die.”

I didn’t. Die, that is. Didn’t even see a blue tunnel.

On the side of the road, I somehow was on the side of the road, my Army buddy unzipped the jacket he’d lent me. We saw part of my clavicle sticking up near my throat.

I don’t remember a lot. There was a woman behind us in a car who came to my aid. We somehow got the jacket off. The helmet had a large crease on one side. The BMW was not injured. It was an indestructible old gentleman.

I went to one hospital, was scanned, and then was sent to another hospital, where I was also scanned. My shirt had been cut off at some point. I was brimming with morphine, and blasé about my condition. My clavicle was shattered. They checked me into the hospital.

After
After

I drifted in and out of consciousness for a few days. Occasionally, I’d wake up while someone took my vitals, or encouraged me to eat. I was in the ICU, I realized. I woke up as other people screamed their lungs out. I was moved to a regular room, and was told that I could leave if I wanted, but first I had to stop clicking the little button that administered morphine to me via an IV. I had them remove the IV.

The clarifying pain

That’s when the pain set in. I think I stayed with my Army buddy a few more days. I can’t recall.

I took a flight back to Illinois, saw my doctor, who referred me to a surgeon.

A good friend, who had given me shelter when I left my wife, agreed to drive me to my surgery and then see me home afterward. The surgeon, with the help of a power drill, placed a plate and nine screws into my shoulder, reassembling my clavicle by force.

In a sane country, I would have stayed overnight in the hospital. But I don’t live in a sane country. I was sent home immediately after I woke up in the recovery room. My friend made sure I picked up my Tylenol 3, and made it home to my apartment. I slept that night like a dead man.

The next morning, and the next week, I wished I was dead.

My mother, while she was dying of the breast cancer that had reemerged out of remission and had metastasized into her bones, told me, “Bone pain is the worst pain.” While passing in and out of a sweaty stupor, I remembered her last days.

My mother is my role model in life. She taught me everything I know about being a human being, and I miss her tremendously every day, even more than my murdered sister, who had been my best friend before her death in 1992.

I wept thinking about my mother being in this kind of agony. “I’m sorry, Mom!” I shouted out, over and over. The pills, which barely cut some of the pain, ran out after three days. The whites of my eyes turned piss yellow.

Two years earlier, I’d left my wife and had gotten divorced. I was alone, and felt alone. Lonely. It was my own fault, the divorce. The doomed marriage was my fault, too. I’d met my wife around the same time that my mother’s cancer had come back. It was loneliness that had driven me to ask a work friend to marry me. It was her terrible marriage that caused her to say yes, I think. I was a drowning man, and then for a short while, I wasn’t. The marriage was a life preserver for a few years. So there I was, mostly underwater, but my head was above it. You’re okay, you tell yourself, knowing that it’s a lie. I think we were happy at first. I hope we were. But the thing was, I never opened myself fully to her, and she knew it. And I knew she knew it. We made some bad financial decisions together and ended up in a tiny condo with her sister, and after that I was never alone.

I need solitude. I need it to write, which is the one constant in my life. Married, I couldn’t write anymore. I tried. The writing was coming out shit. I became resentful.

I am my writing. I am my books. If you think you’re my friend, but you haven’t read my books, I have news for you, bucko: You’re not my friend.

So without anything like solitude, I felt more and more trapped, and more and more resentful. I stopped eating and lost 50 pounds. I broke in November 2011, and finally left her in January 2012, and we divorced in August that year. Our marriage lasted eight years. It was like someone had died all over again. I drank. I obsessed about it for two years. At times, my heart raced for no discernible reason. I’m told that’s called an anxiety attack.

I was a ten-car pile-up of a human being.

So… drowning

The summer I was ten my mother arranged for me to take swimming lessons at a community pool in Tampa via the American Red Cross. There were A, B, and C groups. You started out in C, in the shallow end of the pool, and worked your way up to A, in the deep end. I managed to make it up to A fairly quickly.

My first day in A, we received a lecture from the instructor about lifesaving techniques. The instructor said something along the lines of “Never try to save a drowning man without bringing along a life preserver.”

The idea was that instead of trying to pull the person out, you would throw him or her a life preserver attached to a rope and that person would cling to the life preserver instead of clinging to you. You then give that person a tow to shore.

A drowning man, in his desperation, will cling to you in such a way as to drown you as well.

I raised my hand. “What if you don’t have access to a life preserver? What do you do then?”

“Call the authorities and wait for them to arrive,” I believe the instructor said. “In other words, let them drown.”

By this time in my life, I liked to argue with instructors, probably to test the limits of their knowledge. More probably, because I liked to get a rise out of them. A person will show you his or her true self when angry.

This is why I got low marks in “Citizenship.”

Later on, at my Catholic high school, I also received low marks in “Moral Guidance,” which was a half-hour class in Catholic religious indoctrination. My line of questioning in that class implied that nearly everything that Catholics believe about life and life after death is half-baked nonsense, or worse.

The swim instructor threw the question back at me. “So are you saying that you’d swim out and drown?”

I said that anything would be preferable to watching someone die. I stopped arguing, got up and walked toward the shower area and promptly stepped on a pyramid-shaped chunk of brick, which, if it was a piece of candy, would have been called “fun-sized.” I stood on one foot, leaned against a wall, and looked at the bottom of my foot, which was bleeding nicely. I walked back out to the pool area on the side of my foot, showed the instructor, who, angry with me, suggested that I should go “rinse it off in the shower.” I did. I came back out leaving bloody footprints behind me on the pool curtain and showed the instructor again. This time, her anger having cooled, she ended up wrapping my foot in gauze and called my mother to come pick me up early.

I ended up having to take yet another trip to the emergency room (I was a frequent flyer as a child) and received a lecture from Mom during the drive to the hospital about being “a little jerk.” The instructor apparently gave her an earful.

Back to the clarifying pain

In the months of physical pain that followed my surgery, I found that I could finally put away the things in my life that I had unnecessarily carried with me. Who had asked me to carry these things around? Who said that I had an obligation to continue to tote around my guilt over my mother’s death, my sister’s murder, and the death of my marriage like it was a 70-pound rucksack?

It was me. I was the only one. I was making myself miserable. Physical pain taught me that I shouldn’t carry around any pain that I manufactured myself.

As anyone who has read my books since 2015 will tell you, my writing is now funnier than ever, and far more free-wheeling, too. I’m comfortable with being around myself for the first time since I was 12 years old, and it shows in the books I write.

I like being alone now. I love my solitude. When I come home, I’m relieved that there is no one here. I’m happy, which is something I haven’t been able to say until recently. I sit in silence sometimes. I listen to the clock tick, and smile.

On the minus side, I have had problems remembering things since the accident. Names, faces. At times, I wonder if someone actually spoke to me about something, or if it was a dream. I think it was the blow to the head. Or maybe it’s my age. Or carbonated beverages. Or allergy medication. Whatever.

I also found out that I have dry macular degeneration, so I’m going to go blind at some point, possibly. I take vitamins to try to stave it off.

Life is a series of tradeoffs.

Happiness. I’ll take it.
Facebook: www.facebook.com/smalltownpunk
Twitter: twitter.com/explosivedecomp
Website: www.johnlsheppard.com

Old Shep

Don’t shoot me, Elvis.

Up until my 30’s, I was known as “Shep.” Outside of my family, people rarely called me “John.” I am an American Catholic, went to Catholic school, and was born in late December back in ’63. Every third boy I went to school with was named “John,” after President Kennedy, who’d been shot in the head about a month before I was born.

This was the beginning of the end of America, if you listen to a certain subset of Americans, and I missed witnessing it by a month. Or maybe I didn’t. Maybe I monitored it from the womb.

When my brother and I played Little League baseball on the same team in Tampa, we were known as “Big Shep” and “Little Shep.” Tom was a terrific catcher, and I was an incompetent occasional right fielder. The sponsor for our team was Village Inn Pancake House, and we had garish purple shirts and purple hats.

One time, when a kid from another team tried to run home on him, Tom blocked the plate. He was an immovable object. Tom got the out, and the kid was out-out. He was carried off the field on a stretcher. Tom was promoted to the senior level league after that.

I set a record for number of walks in that league because I was short and had adopted Pete Rose’s crouched-over batting stance. I rarely took a swing. On one occasion when I did, the ball dribbled along the third baseline, and I stood in the batter’s box frozen in shock. “Run, Little Shep! Run!” the kids chanted from the dugout. I did, and to my further shock, I stood on first base with a hit.

I pitched batting practice for the other kids. I had many books on baseball, and one of them featured various methods of gripping a baseball. So, at some point, I started using them and the kids on my team flailed. I’d made myself into a self-taught junk-ball pitcher, in other words.

The manager of my second team, Eastern Airlines, decided to use me in a game. The first time out, the other manager became upset enough that I was pulled. It was unfair that some kid was throwing knuckle-curves in a Little League game. There may have been rules against this. My second time out, I was shelled. That was the end of my pitching career.

I played Little League ball for a total of seven years. I was uncoordinated, half-blind, undersized and generally a bad ballplayer. I still love the game though. I was known as “Shep” throughout all of it.

In the Army, for four years of active duty and a couple more in the reserves, that was my name.

I think nicknames make you approachable.

I had a buddy in Germany who was in the same predicament that I’d been in when I’d first arrived. He was in possession of a college degree, but was enlisted. If there’s one thing an enlisted soldier hates, it’s another soldier putting on airs. Other soldiers rarely spoke to him. And then I nicknamed him “Slice.” After that, he was awash in buddies. Army buddies.

It’s an ephemeral thing, being an Army buddy. I haven’t seen or spoken to anyone from my unit in Germany in over two decades. Not that I have an itch to talk to any of them. I don’t have honey-colored memories of my time in the service. It was miserable, and about a third of the soldiers I served with were clearly psychopaths.

The first time I was called “John” outside of my family was when I was getting my MFA, shortly after getting out of the Army. “Good to meet you, John,” an affable fellow MFA-er said at a beginning-of-the-semester picnic. I looked around for this “John” and realized he was talking to me. “Oh,” I went, and shook his hand.

Later on that year, another MFA-er called me “Shep.” By that time, I’d grown used to being “John.” I gave him a look and went, “Shep?”

That guy ended up being a TV producer on shows like “Mad About You” and “The Goldbergs.” He’s probably the most successful MFA-er in human history. Most of us end up teaching college and writing books that sell about 4,000 copies.

After my MFA, I ended up writing nonsense for a junk mail firm in Pompano Beach, Florida. As I drove to work each morning, I’d pass by strip clubs, gun shops, pawn shops and eventually the Broward County Jail, where the live standup for “America’s Most Wanted” was filmed most weeks. I reverted to being “Shep” at that place. It was my last tour of duty being “Shep.” I didn’t last long there. I didn’t fit in.

I took a job in civil service working for the Navy about 20 years ago, and became “John” for some reason that I don’t fully comprehend, and have been “John” ever since.

Nobody’s seriously called me “Shep” for years and years. I miss it sometimes. There’s an easy familiarity in being “Shep.” A “Shep” is an affable dude. A “John” is a toilet, a book in the New Testament, a frequenter of prostitutes.

The thing is: People call you what they want to call you.

I can’t help thinking that something changed in my character in my 30’s for people not to want to call me “Shep” anymore. Perhaps there’s an iciness in me that was brought on by certain events in my life. I don’t know.

Could I ever be “Shep” again? I won’t insist on it, that’s for sure. It would have to come naturally. You can’t force being a “Shep,” after all.

Interview: Jon Konrath

vol13-cover-front-6x9According to his latest bio, Jon Konrath is a failed musician, former dishwasher, and horrible human being. His newest release on Paragraph Line Books is Vol. 13, a twenty-story collection of absurdist near-future post-apocalyptic ruin. In this interview, John Sheppard talks to Konrath about his new book, writing, and life.

Tell us about Vol.13.

Vol. 13 is a a collection of twenty stories. A few were already published at Strange Edge, Horror Sleaze Trash, and in Mandatory Laxative #14. It’s been a while since I’ve done a story collection — the last one was Thunderbird, in 2013. This is my thirteenth book, and the cover is a rip-off of the fourth Black Sabbath album. I like short stories that are a little longer than flash and are about personal experiences, but completely run through an absurdo-surrealist filter, twisted around and broken. It’s hard to describe it any more than that, which I realize is stupid when I have to sell the thing, but it’s more about what the book feels like than what it’s about, if that makes any sense.

Is there a specific time of day that you sit down to write? Any rituals, or quirks? How long does it take you to write a book?

The two hours after work every day are blocked out for writing. I have to write in those two hours, and I have to get in at least 500 words. When I don’t do this every day, I become extremely irrational and intolerant of everything in my way. There’s nothing I hate worse than some idiotic eye appointment or whatever that requires me to skip a day.

The only real ritual is music. I usually find something that goes with the book and listen to it repeatedly to the point of absurdity. Like when I was writing Atmospheres, I was listening to the Sleep album Dopesmoker, which is a single 63-minute song, and I’d play it twice a day, every day. I also started recording my own ambient music in Logic Pro with a 99-dollar keyboard, even though I only know about 15 minutes of music theory. But I listen to that repeatedly, and maybe someday, I’ll release it, even though I have no idea what I’m doing and maybe it all sucks. (There actually is one track of it released, which I used for a short movie called The Internal Dementia of Atmospheric Uncertainty, which you can see here: https://youtu.be/RmuBhwF61Eg)

Vol. 13 was actually culled from a larger book project that’s been going for about a year. It’s just over 40,000 words, but the bigger volume is another 140,000 words, and makes absolutely no sense at this point. I originally wanted to make it a three-volume thing, but ended up pulling the twenty most story-like things and releasing that. I think when I know what I’m doing, I can finish a book in about six months, but I never know what I’m doing.

What would you say is your favorite part about writing? What was it about writing that made you think, “This is what I do”?

A lot of writing for me is the worry and tediousness around the “scaffolding” of actually writing, like the plotting, structure, editing, marketing, and everything else. When I’m actually writing, without that distraction, it’s very meditative and makes me forget everything else, which is like the perfect drug for me. It took some time to get to this point, but I think when I first hit my stride during my second book (Rumored to Exist), I knew that’s what I’d do.

There’s always a lot of self-doubt in writing, like when something reviews poorly, or doesn’t review at all, and there’s always sales numbers, comparing your work to others, and all that garbage. It’s especially bad when I finish a book; this heavy post-partum depression always sets in, because I’m sick of the last book after re-reading it a million times, and I have no idea what the next one will be. And those are the times when any sane person would question why they are a writer, and maybe consider quitting. And I never can, because I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t a writer. Even if the books didn’t sell, even if they passed some law banning writing and I had to hide these manuscripts in my basement, I’d still be writing, still chasing that high.

Do you feel that there are certain subjects or genres that you will not write in or about? (I’m trying to imagine a Konrath romance book and am failing.)

While I’ve done some autobiographical creative nonfiction, I don’t think I could do it again, for a few reasons. One, I think when you write about yourself, the popularity of your work is really about the popularity of you, and I’m a horrible person, so I can’t market myself. And if you run out of material, you have to leave the house and go live life, and I’m too old for that shit.

There’s also the issue of writing about family or ex-girlfriends in the era of google, and I don’t want to deal with some ex suing me for libel because I wrote about the time she broke into my house and lit my clothes on fire. (Not a true story.) I have an 800-page manuscript that’s maybe 60% done that is creative nonfiction about college, and there’s no fucking way it will ever see the light of day, because it’s about 37 lawsuits waiting to happen, even if I change the names.

I wouldn’t rule out romance or cowboy fiction or anything else, but I wouldn’t do it straight, and I wouldn’t do it to sell copies. It would have to be totally fucked up and fit well within the Konrathian universe.

Do you ever try to write books that don’t sound like Konrath? The Memory Hunter, for instance, is the least Konrath of the Konrath books. Did writing that book help you grow as a writer? Would you ever want to try writing something that tightly plotted again?

The Memory Hunter was a fun experiment to see if I could write a completely straight book that followed the typical plot used in every book south of Chandler. After Atmospheres, I got some shit about the whole nonlinear, plotless thing, and I think the assumption was that I couldn’t write a “real” book. And I did, and some people liked it, but it didn’t sell, and it was ultimately disappointing to me.

I think I could write something that plotted again, but I think the process showed me that anyone can. Go buy the book Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, get a pack of index cards, and if you’ve passed freshman English and can devote a few hours a day to it, you can write a book like that in three months. But something plotless like Raymond Federman’s Double or Nothing, good luck. I’d rather do something hard that nobody will read than something formulaic that sells.

What do you do when you’re not writing or working? Do you find yourself writing in your head when you’re doing your extracurricular activities?

I’ve always got some stupid hobby that I do for two weeks and then give up. Right now, it has been playing guitar, and I’m horrible at it so far, but it’s a good distraction. I like to travel when I can, and I walk every day. Sometimes the writing pops into my head when I’m walking, and I jot down notes on my phone, but I wish I could do that more.

You’ve lived all over the country. How have specific places and times affected your writing? Do you ever find yourself wanting to go back to those places?

Pretty much everything I write has a location taken from my life. Some of them are obvious; my first book was set in Bloomington, Indiana. The Memory Hunter was set in a weird version of Seattle, where I lived after college. New York comes up a lot, almost by default these days.

Nostalgia is a horrible thing for me, and I waste too much time when I’m depressed going back to the past, which is one of the reasons I can’t do that creative nonfiction thing. For me, it’s less the place and more about the era of my life, if that makes any sense. So like I would not really want to go back to New York now, but I’d go back in 2002.

There are also places that are conducive to writing that aren’t necessarily backdrops for the writing itself. Like I’ve done a disproportionate amount of writing at this Applebee’s in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. It’s not that I want to write about greater Milwaukee, or that I choose to vacation there. It’s just within walking distance of my in-laws, and when I’m there in December, it’s a good place to hunker down in the freezing weather, shame-eat tons of bad food, and type away on the laptop.

What’s next for you and Paragraph Line?

We’re about done with 2016 – aside from this book, we released your book, which everyone should go check out. John Sheppard – Explosive Decompression – it’s a great sci-fi book, a dystopian future, moon bases, robots, and a cloned-brain protagonist from last year’s After the Jump. I had fun working on that, and now I’m regrouping and looking forward to more in 2017. I’ve also got cough syrup season starting up, so I’m going to begin training for that. And I’m getting into the holiday spirit, listening to the Mariah Carey Christmas album every day, as we all should.

Jon Konrath’s latest, Vol. 13, is available in print and e-book format on Amazon.com.

7 steps to happiness

For the first time in your adult life, you’re happy. Instead of enjoying your happiness like a sane person, you analyze the hell out of it, because that’s what people who are not used to being happy do. Also, you were a philosophy major in college. Snicker all you want at that, but a philosophy degree is better preparation for life than that business degree some chumps were suckered into. Philosophy is about questioning everything. You were never a yes-man.

1. Jettison the friends who aren’t friends anymore.

Friendships (and romances) are like Wonder bread. You think that they are going to last forever, but they don’t. This is especially true of friendship/romance created under duress. Fear is not the goo that binds the bread pudding of friendship. Fear is a ticking time bomb of sticky toxic waste.

That college roommate? You were away from home for the first time and were deathly afraid of being alone. The woman you married because your mother was dying? Afraid of being alone. That friend who was so there for you when you left your wife? See the first two.

You hang on far too long, afraid of being ungrateful, as the fear that started the friendship/romance evolves into resentment, leaving behind a decaying relationship corpse that you are afraid to bury because then you’d truly be alone. The corpse seems better than the alternative. At some point, you realize that if you are actually grateful for the relationship, you should bury the corpse and let that person get back to living his or her life, and that you should go on with your life, too.

You also realize that these people all knew you at your worst–your worst case scenario you. That is all that they see when they look at you–a basket case. Even though they don’t mean to do it, they can convince you that you’re still a basket case by the way they treat you. You don’t need that. They don’t need it either. Pity generates as much resentment as fear.

And then one day you let go… you embrace being alone… the state you’ve been afraid of your entire adult life. You relearn a word you discovered when you were two: No. And it is fantastic! Those pitying eyes are gone. All those Wonder bread people who you thought you couldn’t live without? Turns out life is so much better without them. In your empty apartment, you let the dishes pile up in the sink. You sing along with Glen Campbell and are not afraid that someone is watching you, judging you. Eat hummus with a spoon right out of the container. Watch the Indians on TV in your boxer shorts and do pushups between innings. Experimentally eat the raisin that you dropped on the kitchen floor maybe a week ago. Who cares? No one. Not a single solitary soul. It’s glorious! All that worrying about people who didn’t give a shit about you was like a slow drip of acid into your soul.

There’s a difference between being solitary and being alone. It’s a secret that had been kept from you for a long time, but you finally whispered it to yourself.

When you come home to your empty apartment, with no one there to greet you (not even a cat), you are relieved and happy. A long, loud sigh escapes from your lips every day after you close the front door and deadbolt it.

Even healthy relationships expire and require burying. Not that Facebook cares about that. Facebook insists that you remain friends with people you’ve long since moved past. Facebook friends are not actual friends, by the way. Facebook is a vile scam preying on fear of loneliness. At best, it is methadone. You know that. You minimize your time there.

2. Don’t travel. 

You never thought you’d live in a country with a “Department of Homeland Security” did you? Oh, but you do. Now every trip to the airport is a dystopian nightmare of inscrutable (human-free) check-in machines, cold stares as you shuffle in line up to the body scanner, shoeless, and then the long shamble through corridors filled with people bumping into each other as they interact with their phones. You get to your gate and discover that you’re sitting in a middle seat because every flight you’re on is overbooked.

Driving isn’t much better. Hours stuck in heavy traffic add to your creeping guilt over burning hydrocarbons that are quickly killing off our planet. That road trip music list on your iPhone isn’t aging well either as you slowly inch forward. Should have made that list longer. Better songs. Urgh.

Once you get there, there’s the disappointment of being there. “There” is not that great. Certainly not worth the bullshit of travel.

So when it comes time to take a week off, you stay in your blissfully empty apartment indulging in your main hobby: writing books that no one reads. Ahhhh. That’s better.

3. Watch more TV. Skip going to movies. 

You were brought up to believe that TV was as awful as candy corn, and that movies were high art. Gilligan’s Island, The Captain and Tennille Variety Hour, CHiPs, and The A-Team pretty much cemented that.

The movies had Nashville, Jaws, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Blue Velvet…

And then one day you saw Twin Peaks. You shook excitedly in your barracks room, vibrating in your chair. And Twin Peaks begat The X Files. And then came The Sopranos. And then Mad Men. Now you spend your time waiting for the next season of The Americans and Orphan Black to hit the small screen.

Meanwhile, movies have become a massive billowing shitstorm of comic book junk, fucked dialog and plots, and cartoonish special effects. And admission is too much. You find yourself sitting in front of an old lady who carries on a monologue that matches exactly what you’re thinking about the billowing shitstorm you are currently, for no good reason, subjecting yourself to. The cantankerous old broad lets loose a loud popcorn-and-Coke gasser. Why am I here when I could be at home, blissfully alone, watching something good?

4. Pay off all of your bills and don’t create new ones. 

Much of the stress of your daily life used to be bills. You grew up poor, so you compensated for that by running up insane credit card debt with the woman you fear-married. You owed so much fucking money it was maddening, and you were dizzy with nausea thinking about it every waking minute of every day. You went to sleep thinking about being broke and every morning you woke up… still broke.

But then, once you were alone, you lived like a monk… mainly out of self-hatred for having abandoned the rotting corpse of your marriage like a teenage mother ditching a prom-night-conceived baby at a fire station.

One day, you woke up and realized that all that monkishness had taken away one of the things you’d most hated about your existence: the feeling that you’d never emerge from debt. You’d paid everything off. Holy mother of fuck! You felt 20, 40 pounds lighter.

Now you wake up and wonder, “Exactly how much money do I have in the bank?” with an incredible sense of relief. Money has lost its grip on your life.

5. Don’t eat in restaurants. 

You also wake up physically lighter. Why? Because one of your major indulgences used to be eating in restaurants. You used to work in a restaurant, so you happen to know the secret of “good food,” and it’s spelled F-A-T.

If you eat in a class restaurant, you can be certain that you’re eating a stick of butter mixed in with your order. If you eat in a not-so-class joint, you’re eating eight ounces of blended oil (best case), beef tallow, or Kaola Gold.

Now that you’ve stopped eating in restaurants, you aren’t eating artery-clogging, megadoses of fat. Suddenly you’re not feeling like total shit anymore. Funny how that happens.

6. Cut out alcohol. Exercise instead.

When you were first alone, you dulled the miasma of anxiety whirling in your chest cavity with plastic bottles of cheap, clear fluid purporting to be vodka. It only helped somewhat. You drank until you passed out, and then woke up the next morning with a massive hangover. Work dulled some of the anxiety, but only during work. Once you left work, you were right back in downtown Shit City, standing on the corner of Fucked and Main. So more drinking.

One day you came home from work and saw that you ran out of alcohol, and so did without it because the thought of facing the liquor store clerk after a day of dealing with people was too much. Then you forgot to pick up alcohol again. And then you didn’t pick up alcohol on purpose.

You mastered your anxiety through long walks, and then bicycling, and then a rowing machine. The exercise not only knocks out the anxiety, it makes you feel so much better than booze ever did. You actually feel strong, like you could handle anything.

7. Don’t give a shit that no one is reading your books.

The one constant in your life has always been books and writing. You read from an early age. You don’t even remember how it came about. No one taught you. When you went to kindergarten, you were already reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. You could already write, too.

As you grew older, books were your salve. You could take your parents’ constant fighting if you could crack open a book. You loved detective novels and science fiction.

You wrote short stories and hid them under your mattress like they were pornography. Your mother found them and encouraged you to keep on writing. You even got a (completely worthless) graduate degree in writing.

Like every writer, you have a sneaking suspicion half the time that you’re a genius. The other half of the time, you’re certain you’re a charlatan and everything you’ve written is pure junk. But the one constant is that you love books and love writing. Now that you’re alone, debtless, and sober, you can actually concentrate on doing what you love. No one is reading your work, but that’s okay. You’re fine with that. You reach inside yourself and find all the things that you love (and hate) about the world and put them on the page. Nothing matters but the writing itself. This doesn’t mean you don’t want people to read what you’ve written, but if they don’t, it won’t stop you from writing.

Nothing will.

New book here, not that you care: http://amzn.to/2bG110j

5 Hints about Explosive Decompression

Explosive Decompression, a new novel by John L. Sheppard, will be published on Sept. 4, 2016 by Paragraph Line Books.

1. Why we’re on the brink of mass extinction (The Daily Beast).

2. A molecule of water can exist in six places at once (Vice). 

3. Bio coding language makes it easier to hack living cells (New Scientist).

4. Frankie Yankovic, “Pennsylvania Polka.”

5. Dalai Lama: Religion without quantum physics is an incomplete picture of reality (Vice).

1882: A James Odyssey by Joseph Hirsch

the_assassination_of

Editor’s note: Joseph Hirsch is the author of The Dove and the Crow, the latest release from Paragraph Line Books.

I’ve read far more books than I’ve seen films, which means that after I’ve read a book, I tend to know whether or not I’ve encountered greatness. This isn’t always the case with movies, since, as mentioned, I’m not as familiar with movies as I am with books. The first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, I didn’t say to myself, “That was great!” as I would after reading a great book. I said to myself “What the hell was that?”

Most movies just don’t work for me. I think a small handful are great, and I watch them repeatedly, because they never get old to me. These films include Dawn of the Dead (the George A Romero 1979 version), Once Upon a Time in America, 2001: A Space Odyssey (as I mentioned before), and now, most recently The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It is, as I think John Lennon once observed about 2001: A Space Odyssey, the kind of thing a fellow can watch once a week.

Even a good movie is one I don’t want to see twice, but with the great ones, no matter how many times I see them, it’s always a new experience. Something changes, and it always feels like the first viewing. So what, I keep asking myself, keeps bringing me back to Jesse James (forgive the truncation of the long title, which was a point of contention with a lot of critics, who thought it, and the film, too languorous)?

People who love the movie (and it has quite a few devotees) cite things like the wonderful cinematography and the lush score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, along with meticulous period detail and Oscar-worthy performances. These people are all correct, to one degree or another, but talent and production values alone don’t bear obsessive repeat viewings that still don’t begin to unlock the mystery contained in a great film.

It seems strange to compare a period Western to a great science fiction classic, but I believe both 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Assassination of Jesse James produced the same reaction in me upon initial viewing, made me scratch my head and say to myself What the hell was that?

Awhile back I was watching a documentary about the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, and,  as the subject invariably turned to his SF masterpiece, someone (I forget who and I’m too lazy to check) observed that “the pieces don’t quite fit, and this gives the film its mysterious structure,” or words to that effect. Whoever made this observation is right, both about the structure of 2001, and about how this disjointedness is an asset rather than a liability.

I won’t recap the plot of 2001 for the reader at this point. Anyone crazy enough to follow my logic this far has already seen both movies. Suffice it to say that Jesse James jumps all over the place in narrative terms, just like 2001. It starts out being about Jesse and his brother and a gang of petty thieves, with the Coward Robert Ford orbiting them as a hanger-on.

Then there is a subplot involving Jessie’s cousin, Wood Hite, played Jeremy Renar, who becomes insulted when another James Gang member sleeps with “his daddy’s wife.” The movie at this point does a brilliant job of conveying Jesse’s paranoia, as he rides around visiting various members of his gang, trying to ferret out their degree of loyalty or treachery, in conversations that take quite a while to unfold.

Eventually, brothers Bob and Charlie Ford conspire to either kill or apprehend Jesse James in order to claim the reward offered for the outlaw’s hide. There are very few shootouts, no Indians raids or whooping war parties in the movie, and there is quite a bit of back-shooting; the only face-to-face gunfights are clumsy affairs.

I heard that Rock Hudson walked out of the premier screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, muttering to himself “Can someone tell me what the hell that was all about?”

I could imagine John Wayne having a similar reaction to the almost anti-Western demystification that is Jesse James. But here’s the thing: as the movie deconstructs the myth of Jesse James, it constructs an entirely new puzzle, not the sort of deliberately enigmatic structure of a David Lynch movie (sorry David), but something arrived at more organically.

At some point, as the title of the film makes clear, Bob Ford shoots Jesse James, and just as 2001’s Astronaut Bowman races helplessly through a tunnel of light and arrives to face his death in the form of a black monolith, Bob Ford is pushed forward, propelled through train rides and saloons toward the final moment where Edward O’Kelly shouts “Hello, Bob!” before discharging his shotgun into the Coward’s brain.

I have watched the following sequence hundreds, if not thousands of times:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHKE_L76JG4

I have watched it and thought about the year I spent in Iraq, my own false bravado as a young man serving in an occupying Army, my own “pretensions of ruthlessness,” cold-bloodedness,” and “dispassion.” I have watched the sequence on nights when I stayed up wondering if there was a kernel of truth contained at the heart of Christianity, if in fact there is an afterlife, and I have watched the sequence on days when thoughts of suicide flittered through my mind like moths trapped beneath lampshades.

Forget that scene, though. Take another. Try this one:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFaCvyT8Mpw) So many scenes in the movie already have the mythopoetic feel of having existed forever on celluloid, like the backseat car scene in On the Waterfront, or any immortal scene in Casablanca or The Godfather that you care to name. I don’t care much for Brad Pitt outside of this performance, and, since I watch the same four or five movies over and over again, I’ll probably never ever watch another movie with Casey Affleck in it. But they (and the entire supporting cast) are men possessed in this movie. The performances feel haunted, as if the men we’re watching on-screen are like Bela Lugosi or Rudolph Valentino, and have been dead for a long time already. Much ink has been spilled damning and praising this film, but my favorite observation is from film critic Stephen Whitty, who said the movie was an “epic film that’s part literary treatise, part mournful ballad, and completely a portrait of our world, as seen in a distant mirror.” So many period dramas feel like forced affairs, where modern actors play dress up and fail to really give the viewer the sense that they are inhabiting the past. Jesse James, along with Once Upon a Time in America and Barry Lyndon, is a rare bird, a period piece that pulls off the impossible trick of making the viewer feel as if they are seeing a movie filmed in the distant past.  Watch this scene with Sam Rockwell, portraying Robert’s brother, Charley Ford:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fi5orKhETo

Think of a man you know or knew from real life, guilt-stricken, broken, an alcoholic uncle perhaps, or cousin who committed suicide. Tell me that’s not him.

I’ll put this piece to bed before I make a claim too wild for even the most indulgent reader to countenance. I’ll close, though, by saying that, having watched this movie a few hundred times, and preparing to watch it a few hundred more, there is an adjective I would use to describe it that I’ve never used to describe a movie (and probably never will use again): It is a wise film, a movie that knows things, about youth, aging, regret, shame, and guilt.

Jack Nicholson once observed that, whatever one thought about Kubrick’s films, one had to acknowledge that his movies were conscious. That’s a strange way to refer to a film, as if it was a sentient entity, but that’s the way I feel about The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It is, like 2001, a movie that laughs at me and beats me every time I try to unriddle it.

Now available from Paragraph Line Books

dove and crow cover

The Dove and the Crow: Now available from Paragraph Line Books 

Meet the Crow: He’s been around for hundreds of years. He took scalps in the time of Cortez and Columbus. He skins men and makes rugs of their hides, lassos of their intestines. Right now he’s angry, and out for blood.

Meet the Dove: Matina’s a whore at the Maison de Joie, with more mojo than you can shake a stick at. It’s been said that, with just one bat of her eyelashes, she can turn pennyroyal tea into tincture of opium. 

Meet the Tracker: Dognose Jones, the adopted son of a Cherokee medicine man, has a special gift. He can smell his prey like a bloodhound scenting its chase. 

Welcome to the Wild, Weird West.

Coming soon from Paragraph Line Books

dove and crow cover

Coming Soon, from Paragraph Line Books, The Dove and the Crow… a new novel by Joseph Hirsch…

Meet the Crow: He’s been around for hundreds of years. He took scalps in the time of Cortez and Columbus. He skins men and makes rugs of their hides, lassos of their intestines. Right now he’s angry, and out for blood.

Meet the Dove: Matina’s a whore at the Maison de Joie, with more mojo than you can shake a stick at. It’s been said that, with just one bat of her eyelashes, she can turn pennyroyal tea into tincture of opium. 

Meet the Tracker: Dognose Jones, the adopted son of a Cherokee medicine man, has a special gift. He can smell his prey like a bloodhound scenting its chase. 

Welcome to the Wild, Weird West.

24 Points: The Ghost of Barry Brown by Joseph Hirsch

Barry_Brown

Editor’s note: Joseph Hirsch is the author of several books, including Kentucky Bestiary and the upcoming Paragraph Line Books release The Dove and the Crow. You can find him at www.joeyhirsch.com.

  1. I started writing for real, during my last year in the Army, when I was stationed at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas.
  2. Every Friday night, after my company was released from duty, I would run up to my barracks room, grab my laptop, and then head back downstairs to the quad. Then I would call a cab and have the cabbie drive me to the local Extended Stay.
  3. I wrote a short story in my hotel room every Friday night. Saturdays I edited the stories, and Sunday mornings I submitted them, after which I would take a cab back to the base and get ready for Monday morning, and a return to duty.
  4. I was part of an Air Defense Artillery battalion, and I spent my days walking beneath the hot Texas sun, between rows of missiles and radars, thinking about my year in Iraq, and also about ideas for more short stories.
  5. I checked my email slavishly for messages from publishers. I got a ton of rejection slips, some of them mean-spirited and discouraging; others were indifferent, and obviously form letters not meant to be taken personally.
  6. One day I checked my email and there was an acceptance letter from Underground Voices. “This is good,” was the subject line of the email, and the body of the email read, “If it is still available, we would like to purchase it for $30 and run it in our November online edition.” It felt like my heart had stopped beating in my chest, and though it’s obviously impossible, it felt like my heart didn’t start beating again until November 1st.
  7. November did come, and with it, a check in the mail from Underground Voices. I remember walking to the PX on-post, my desert suede boots crunching over sand and dirt, until I reached the bank and cashed the check. I don’t remember anything about the bank teller, except that she was an attractive woman, and that I desperately wanted her to look at me and not see another war-shattered boy, but rather, a writer.
  8. I bought myself a steak dinner that night, and, as I was eating, I kept thinking to myself, I paid for this meal with my imagination.
  9. Of course I read my story on Underground Voices (here it is, if you’re curious: http://www.undergroundvoices.com/UVHirschJoseph.htm),  and I was proud to bursting, walking under the sun on those long, hot, Texas days, speaking to the missiles around me, silently shouting, I’m a writer!
  10. The problem, though, was that my story was not the best to appear in Underground Voices that month. I am, as the writer John Fante once said about himself, “a master at being spellbound by my own prose,” but not even I could convince myself that my story was better than one called The Screenwriter, by some guy named James Brown (here it is, if you’re curious: http://www.undergroundvoices.com/UVBrownJames.htm)
  11. I read the story with mounting jealousy, and thought back to what Stephen King had once said about being a young unpublished writer, and the first time he discovered he was doing better than a hack whose work had seen print. He described the moment as being akin to the loss of one’s virginity, the sober, objective instant wherein one realizes that, despite the doubt and insecurity, they are in fact good enough to be a professional writer.
  12. I had realized before that I wasn’t the worst writer in the world, but encountering The Screenwriter, still high on the wings of my first sale, I had to privately admit that there were some writers I would never equal. James Brown took my literary virginity, which might be an odd statement for a heterosexual man to make, but there it is.
  13. Some years later, I was no longer in the Army, and, though I had sold a short story here and there (and even a novella), I had pretty much given up on life, and writing.
  14. I read somewhere that men think about sex once every eleven seconds, but it seemed that, the further and further I got from Iraq and the Army, the more I thought about the war, and that my sex and suicide wires had somehow gotten crossed. It would not be hyperbole to say that I thought about suicide every eleven seconds or so.
  15. One night, having given up on life and writing, I found myself watching TV, as people who have given up tend to do.
  16. There was a movie on the tube, a quiet Western about two boys out west who were on the run from the Union Army. The movie looked to have been made in the seventies, and I didn’t think it took a genius to realize that it was an obvious analogy for dodging the draft during the Vietnam War. It was what the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once called an “acid Western.”
  17. One of the two boys running from the Army was a young and beautiful Jeff Bridges. The other was a young and beautiful man with big brown eyes whose name I didn’t know, but whose face I couldn’t stop staring at. I wondered what it was about this quiet Western-with boys scrounging on the prairie for food, screwing whores, shooting rabbits, and dodging Indians- that held me in thrall.
  18. I also wondered why I had never heard of the brown-haired boy, who was acting circles around a very talented and very young Jeff Bridges. I watched the movie until it ended, on a freeze-frame of the boys brandishing six shooters in a Wells Fargo bank. Beautiful ragtime piano music played, and the credits rolled.
  19. I found out from the credits that the brown-haired boy’s name was Barry Brown. Curious, I stood and went over to the computer which I had been treating in my depression and isolation as little more than a glorified porn machine, since I no longer used it for writing. I went to Wikipedia and discovered a few things about Barry Brown.
  20. The director Peter Bogdanovich had said that he “was the only American actor you can believe ever read a book,” and that Barry Brown had committed suicide in Silverlake, California, in June of 1978.
  21. I knew why I wanted to commit suicide. I was a failed writer, an ex-soldier whose short stories had netted him about $500 over the course of his short career. But why would a beautiful and talented young man like Barry kill himself?
  22. I kept reading the Wikipedia page, and discovered that the actor Barry Brown was the older brother of James Brown, the same James Brown who had written circles around me a few years ago, when my first short story got published and I still believed in myself, and in life and writing.
  23. I read James Browns’ books, The Los Angeles Diaries and This River. I discovered how Barry had committed suicide (with a shotgun, if I remember correctly), and I also learned that James had to clean up the mess after his brother took his own life, soaking up brain matter with a sponge and putting bloody clothes in a trash bag, or something to that effect. I also discovered, in the course of reading James’ books, that his sister Marilyn had also tragically taken her own life some years after Barry’s death.
  24. There are a lot of reasons that might explain why I didn’t commit suicide, and why I started writing again, but much of it comes down to thinking about myself and my younger brother (who just had a son, making me an uncle), and a lot of it comes down to the books James Brown has written, and the ghost of Barry Brown.

Attention writers!

Writer
Writer

Sure, your last book sold ten copies and you’re pretty sure your next one will sell about the same… but at least you’ll get to live much longer with all that failure thanks to having a sense of purpose in your life.

In fact, people with a sense of purpose had a 15 percent lower risk of death,compared with those who said they were more or less aimless. And it didn’t seem to matter when people found their direction. It could be in their 20s, 50s or 70s… “Often this is individuals who want to produce something that is appreciated by others in written or artistic form, whether it’s music, dance or visual arts,” Hill says.

So, yes, your smug self-regard actually has a pay-off, Writer Person! Congratulations!

More at NPR.