I wanted to be an astronaut until I realized that I sucked at math. That was the fourth grade. I’d failed the same stupid test for the third time in a row, consequently developing a deep, psychological hated for red ink pens…
My next “when-I-grow-up moment” didn’t really come until high school, when I decided I was either gonna be the guy who made monster suits and spaceships on movie sets, or I was gonna be a writer. I’d been writing since I could hold a Crayon and figured it was as good a destiny as any.
I was still a freshman in high school when I typed up a nine page short story about a guy who drove around the country hunting down the losers of a state-sanctioned lottery as an alternative to global thermonuclear warfare. I sent the story to my parents, who unbeknownst to me sent it to a publisher, who in turn called me up and told me that if I finished the story before the end of the summer, I’d have myself a book deal. I panicked, blindly polishing every spark of creativity out of the story, missed the deadline and shelved it forever.
But the experience gave me a real push toward words. From that point on, I became obsessed with writing. Maybe this was a doable destiny! I started forming the idea in my head that if I just focused on this lone and immaculate objective, I’d someday perform a great and magnificent feat: I envisioned doing something amazing, something that could change the course of history and unite the world in a common emotion, like an athlete who trains their whole life for one shining moment while overcoming great obstacles along the way.
I decided that I wanted to be able to express human emotion in a way that no one had ever done before.
Still in high school, I looked into haiku on the advice of a much-respected English teacher, quickly becoming a fan of the medium’s prison shiv beauty — short, sharp and, inserted just beneath the ribcage, designed to take your breath away.
In just seventeen
syllables, I swore I could
smell cherry blossoms.
As you can imagine, I was crap at writing haiku. Everything I wrote looked suspiciously like something someone else had already written a long time ago and I felt ashamed. Plus, I’d made the mistake of telling the wrong people my dreams. Presently I gave up on haiku. Why not? I was nowhere near a temple, and there were no monks to guide me. Sweeping the floor was just sweeping the floor, and a glass of water was just a stupid fucking goddamn glass of water.
Still obsessed with words, I then had the notion that a person could somehow open their mouth and let brand new sounds tumble forth — words and phrases never before spoken by a human mouth, in any language, by any race, anywhere on the face of the Earth. Beyond dead languages, beyond glossololia. I thought that maybe the key to expression was locked inside this new box…
Except I had no database or monthly scientific journals to base my findings upon. So I made a lot of retarded noises and jotted them down, hoping one of them might be even slightly virginal in nature.
(It’s no wonder that I remained in a similar physical state until I was in my early 20s.)
After that, I wanted to come up with an answer for the question of why we find some people more attractive than others. I thought that maybe it had something to do with the measurements of the human face — the height, width or angle of the nose, the spacing of the features, the length of the jawline, the width of the mouth, or the specific color of the eyes. What if all these factors added up to some sacred number, one that doomed a small group destined to succumb as prey to holy integers? Years later, I would find this on the internet:
It’s nice to know that as an adolescent, I wasn’t completely off the mark; just off my rocker. And understandably horny.
Following high school, I gave up on my dream of being a special effects artist. It seemed the only way to achieve this was to move to Los Angeles and hang around on movie sets until I found someone to teach me. Instead, I applied and was accepted to a prestigious Midwest art college. I was hopeful — until they told me how much it would cost. So I revisited my writing dream and, after reading too much Hunter S. Thompson, decided I wanted to be a war correspondent.
And Uncle Sam was gonna fund it, because I sure as fuck couldn’t.
At first I considered a stint in the army, or maybe the Marines. I’d need to learn some very valuable survival skills before setting out into the wild. I had a vision of myself in four or five years time; a half-smoked cigarette permanently attached to my bottom lip, a gaggle of battered cameras slung around my neck, an ancient carbine across my back, dust-caked goggles pushed high on my forehead, and an ancient Underwood under one arm. Once I finished my enlistment, I’d take any assignment, no matter how dangerous. And wandering to some of Earth’s far-flung shit holes, I’d explore the last remaining exotic lands still hidden from the light of Western progress. I would write stories about the things I saw there, and take photographs of the fascinating people I met.
And one day I would simply miss my deadline, never be heard from again. That was my retirement plan.
I was not yet 21.
So I approached several recruiters and attempted to make an intelligent decision based on the horrible lies they were paid to tell me. I tested well, and applied for jobs in photography, journalism and for some reason, cryptology. But the recruiters all told me those fields were closed, and that I should pick something else. We went round and round in this manner until finally, disgusted and hopeless, I stormed into an office and spoke thusly to a Navy recruiter:
“I want the most far-flung, whacked-out job you have, something that will take me to the far side of the globe, without threatening to bring me one inch closer to the chair I’m sitting in.” And that’s the story of how I never became an astronaut, or a war correspondent, or the guy who makes monster suits or spaceships for movies.
Had I known that recruiters are instructed to ‘guide’ people into certain job fields where their respective service was experiencing shortages, or had I only been willing to wait. Well, the outcome might have been different.
Instead, I went to Europe and built bombs for four years.
I’m pleased to say that the desire to write came with me. I started keeping a journal just after high school, and I took it with me where ever I roamed.
Journal writing frustrated the fuck out of me at first. I lacked skill, and I was impatient. I was in a big damn hurry to write perfect things and powerful sentiments. I didn’t know the first fucking thing about real writing but I still wanted to do something amazing, something so insightful that it could lift the veil of reality, and part the curtain to another world. I wanted to write modern spells and conjure new truths.
I wanted to surpass all previously written works for their ability to inspire and split foreheads with the lightning of the profound. I didn’t even know what the fuck I was gonna write about, but I figured that once people read these holy words the message would spread like wildfire…
The world would lay down arms. Millions of people would wake from a terrible dream, weeping and gnashing their teeth. The leaders of the world would turn to one another and exclaim, “Goddamn, but we’ve been going about this all wrong! The last book has been written, all words can rest! We must now aspire to fuck one another with the cock of peace and harvest grain together under the same sun, washing our clothes together in the great river and turning our swords back to plowshares yet again. God won’t save the world. Science won’t save the world. The earth plain-ass wasn’t meant to be saved. This book has said everything we’ve been trying to say, everything we ever thought about saying, and everything we probably would have said in the next ten thousand years, but didn’t know it yet!”
Sure, I was a pretentious ass. I wanted to write magic holes through mountains, and weave spells, blah, blah, blah. But I also genuinely wanted to understand beauty, and lust, and savagery. I secretly hoped I’d go crazy when I got old so I could map my experience in a journal, holding on clarity like a fading lamplight as I ventured down that last and darkest of tunnels. I was convinced that there was so much more to the world, but I didn’t know how to express it beyond my diet of tabloid headlines, song lyrics and science fiction movies. Sometimes the words were right there on the tip of my tongue. I wanted to be able to communicate anything to anyone, and make the whole world understand everything.
But how could I? I didn’t understand myself, and I couldn’t separate myself from what I wanted to write about. I didn’t know where to begin, or where I ended. I didn’t know jack shit.
So I kept writing.
I continued to write through my early twenties, but without success. Journals came and journals went. I wrote letters about this, that and the other thing. My friends were full of praise, and they let me live in the world I’d created. I was The Writer.
I devoted years of attention to the recommended greats – the Beats, those who’d come before me and who by measure of their poverty and fearlessness were far more devoted to the craft than I knew how to be, each of them a pioneer in some regard. They explored and exploited their own wormhole, staking their claim to a particular voice or style one step ahead of the gold rush.
The voices that called loudest to me were: drugs, music, sex, and road trips – oh, my! And the strangest of those voices? Assassins. (Giant fucking millipedes?? Really??)
I wasn’t prepared to give up on writing, but I also realized I wasn’t very good. Still, I promised myself one drunken night in a land very far away that if I ever became homeless I’d still carry a pen and a piece of paper. “You can abandon your work, but your work will never abandon you.”
Years passed, and I thought that perhaps stronger measures were called for. Suppose I made a Robert Johnson deal with You-Know-Who, and waited my turn at the midnight crossroads, armed with the wing of a bat and the eyes of a newt. Would the Horned One grant me my deepest desire based on the strength of a pinkie swear, or was I going to have to slit my palm with a crude dagger carved from the jaw bone of a murdered stag? Headless hooves stomping in the bloodied winter grass, the end result of my quest to harness above as the below…
But I didn’t believe in the Devil, and I didn’t actually think I could murder a stag. So that plan was out.
Time passed. Journals were purchased and filled. The majority were dog-eared, covered in duct tape and existed pretty much as ad space for my ego, their pages weighted with stapled concert stubs, proclamations, one-liners written on airliners, photographs of models, quotes torn from magazines, strange things and coffee rings, but mostly drunken heartache. Twenty years, nine countries, five states, three islands, one Indian reservation, and one snow globe later, and still I have no idea of what I was trying to say.
My apartment is pitch black tonight, and my hands look so much older by the glow of this laptop screen. Time is out there, snorting and stomping the snow, exhaling demons from its nostrils, waiting… sometimes I think I can almost feel it at my elbow.
Like right now.
I’ll be 40 in a few months, and no closer to writing anything more powerful than a good one-liner. In the absence of my all-powerful epic, I’ve managed one novel, sixty short stories and thanks to a second enlistment in the other nautical-sounding of our Armed Forces, a stack of official-sounding press releases — none of which has ever escaped being disemboweled by a red pen.
There is the known, which we sometimes tire of. And then there’s the rest of it.
All I’ve learned about life is that I don’t know much. And from what I can tell, neither does anyone else. Everything we think we know takes place on this planet, and in this dimension. We are born here, and we die here. We are bound to this rock. The stories we tell are of this world, for this world, and by this world. They describe our experiences in this dimension, and how we live this life. And we know only these stories and their endless spin-offs. We’ve described our home to death, and pretty much worn out our tongues. I don’t think there are any virginal sounds left.
I recently deleted The Doors from my music collection, but I’ll give Jim Morrison one last nod: “No one gets out of here alive.”
There’s no such thing as magic, only science we haven’t figured out yet. Emotions are not facts, and love – as much as you wish it wasn’t true – is purely chemical. Relationships are all about timing, security and chemistry. And one man’s words aren’t gonna change the world, so long as there are people around to disagree with them.
Being successful in this life only means that your physical needs and comforts will be taken care of while you’re alive; inhabiting your body, existing in this dimension and playing your role in this traveling production.
The pawn and the bishop go back in the same box when the game is over.
But there has to be more! Something just beyond, something left behind, maybe something we’ve forgotten? I feel as though we’re living in a collective dream, standing tall on the edge of a trance: All the while you thought you were having a lengthy conversation with Iggy Pop in a half empty bar late one summer night in 1993, in reality you’ve been standing in the checkout line of a Memphis convenience store for the past ten minutes, transfixed by the mutated face staring back at you from a Pringles can on the conveyor belt, and frankly people are beginning to notice…
In the end, maybe Words have failed me. Maybe I failed the Words. Maybe there was nothing to fail. George Washington Carver once said that if you love something long enough, it would give up its secrets. Was I deemed not worthy to peek behind the curtain? Did I perform the wrong spells? Whatever the reason, whenever the moment, when it came time to select my Holy Path, I chose the soft option.
And so my reward was a different life. Instead of leaving this world on a pillar of fire to walk among the stars; instead of traveling to distant lands and capturing beauty reserved for only the bravest; instead of a day-to-day fight for survival and a life lived on the edge of a fast-moving knife; instead of summoning sentences both sage and surreal, crafting tales with the power of the Old Gods like the Jackie Chan of Juxtaposition, or the Wolverine of the Who, What, Where, Why and When…
Instead, I’m writing this blog.
Thanks for reading.
(There may be secrets left, but I’ll be damned if I know where to look for them.)