To Die Soon

It was Hemingway who wrote: “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” This, before he swallowed a round from a shotgun.  Virginia Woolf stuffed rocks into her pockets and walked into the Ouse River.  Sylvia Plath stuck her head in a gas oven with her children sleeping in the next room.  Kurt Vonnegut populated his novels with a recurring character named Kilgore Trout, who frequently stated that “life is a crock of shit!”  Even the Bible declares the following: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity . . . one generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever.”  When the author of Ecclesiastes needs a prescription for Prozac and maybe a hug, something must be terribly wrong.

Silenus imbibing wine.

Nietzsche wrote in The Birth of Tragedy about King Midas, who captured the demigod Silenus and demanded the most desirable thing for man.  Silenus remained silent before belting out a sardonic laugh, answering: “Oh wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear?  What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing.  But the second best for you is—to die soon.” Perhaps Kind Midas should have stayed in his kingdom turning things (and his daughter) into gold.

Nietzsche replies to Silenus’ charge by explicating the duality of our existence.  One side of this dichotomy is emotion, personified as Dionysus; the other side is reason, personified as Apollo.  (Think Kirk and Spock.)  Dionysus is nature; euphoria by getting drunk with wine and having frenzied sex orgies in the open fields of Greece (yes, this happened).  But Dionysus also represents the brutal truth of nature: suffering, pain, agony, and progress through death and life—the lion consuming its prey to live.  Apollo, on the other hand, represents the individual who acquires knowledge and the wisdom to rise above nature and subvert its vicious tendencies.  However, according to Nietzsche, the Apollinian perspective is ultimately an illusion to conceal the Dionysian truth.  How does one overcome this problem of existence? (Excluding Hemingway’s solution, of course.)

Apollo and Dionysus collide, raze, and rebuild each other.  Nietzsche uses the term nausea to associate the hopelessness when the illusion of Apollo succumbs completely to Dionysus.  Man realizes he is merely an unimportant part of nature—soon swallowed up by the Earth.  Pushing up daisies.  Worm food.  “Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion,” Nietzsche writes.  All effort to project a future self seems vain, revealing the “horror or absurdity of existence.” Indeed, Silenus’ solution seems more sensible—to die soon!  But this is not the overly dramatic solution Nietzsche would encourage.  He argues the Apollinian civilization is, yes, illusory—but necessary.  Necessary to live, to experience this dance between of Apollo and Dionysus.  And what do they dance to?  “Here, when the danger to his will is greatest, art approaches as a saving sorceress . . . she alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live.”  Embrace creativity like Hemingway, Wolfe, and Plath (just keep away from guns, rivers and gas ovens).  Write, paint, play music not for the masses (for Nietzsche considered art for the masses to be worthless) but for yourself.  Use art to show that life may at times be a crock of shit, but it’s worth enduring—to die later!

Six Minutes

He spent two hours on a single sentence.
Naked feet flat on a cold, linoleum floor.
Next to his computer a dog-eared thesaurus.
It lay open.  Limp.  Words eviscerated from its bosom.
He pushed Enter.
His heel sprang from the floor when he typed the first word of the new sentence.
It fell back to the ground slowly, nuzzling itself next to a sock.

He shifted in his seat, a ragged comforter draped over his shoulders.
He closed his eyes.
The cursor blinked.
His fingers detached themselves from the keyboard like satiated leeches.
He lit another cigarette and winced at the taste.
It was Pall Malls or the heat bill.
sixminutes
The cold kept him awake.
The tobacco kept him company.
Six minutes passed.
He started typing again.

Another six lonely hours and the poem was finished.
The sun now hiding on the other side of the Earth.
With both his heels off the ground, he posted it online.
He waited.
He smoked his last.
Turned the computer screen off.
Ate dry cereal out of a dirty bowl with no spoon.
Peed twice.
He waited some more.
Snow flicked the window pane next to him.

Another three hours and he turned on the screen.
He squinted from the sudden light.
One person read the entire piece in less than a minute.
In the comments section:  You have too many sentence fragments!  Learn to write!
Another wrote:  What is flagitiousness?
Another:  I didn’t even finish reading this.
Hours consumed in minutes.
Regurgitated.
Vomited onto his naked feet.

He closed the browser and opened a new Word document.
The cursor blinked.
He waited six minutes.
His left heel lifted off the floor when he typed the first word.
The thesaurus trembled.

 

© Mike Yost

Psychic Vampire

Chuck Palahniuk once said in an interview that his favorite place to write was in the waiting area of an emergency room.  To be embedded in a whirlwind of raw emotions to feed off of.  And no one ever, ever bothers you.

Granted it sounds a bit parasitic.  Some might call it macabre.  But Palahniuk gets paid good money to write novels, so chew on that.

I prefer public places.  Coffee shops work well.  My drug close by, though it’s hard to key when my hands start shaking after twenty cups.  I like the library on occasion.  City parks.  But my favorite place to write in is a bar.

I work nights, so I find myImageself in bars that open at 7am.  I’m usually the first one in the door.  As the denizens shuffle in, I type away in the corner on my laptop, a cold beer sitting patiently next to the keyboard.  Moderation is important, or your stories end up resembling the slurred ramblings of, well, a failed writer.  One beer an hour.  No hard liquor.  No shots.

Headphones are essential.  I’m a proud member of the LGBT community, but their musical tastes are lacking.  Blasting Lady Gaga at 8am?  Really?  And, of course, there’s the typical crowd noise to contend with.  So, headphones with classical or instrumental electronic music, almost anything with no lyrics.  On noisy mornings (usually on a game day), while I write, I listen to death metal until my ears bleed.

So why contend with the noise, the bad music, the smell of urine and Clorox wafting from the bathroom stalls?  The same reason Palahniuk sits in emergency waiting rooms.  I, too, feed off the energy of the crowd around me, like a vampire in the shadows, greedily drinking in the elation and misery of veteran alcoholics.  I observe the groups telling jokes and the loners sipping on their despair.  I write.

And the harder I work to ignore the distractions, the harder I work on the words, the stories, the characters.  I have to force myself to concentrate and live in my fictional world, far away from obnoxious laughter, the loud calls for shots, Lady fucking Gaga.

363 Days

Image363 Days

New Year’s resolution?  Not to make any.

It’s a bit too late, since I already made a promise to myself to finish my second novel.  What can I say? I am a man of contradictions (not really [but sometimes]).

After sleeping off the New Year’s Eve hangover, I set up my laptop, surrounded myself with various caffeinated beverages, along with a few caffeinated needle injections to stave off a crash.  I turned on some background music and began pounding out the next chapter.  A few good ideas began to manifest themselves.  But progress was slow.  When I looked up from the screen, my cat was looking back, curled up in the corner of the room thinking to himself: ‘If I were bigger, I would eat you.’  I looked back at the screen.  I’d written about a page.  A page in three hours.

What was wrong?  More caffeine?  Maybe a change in background music?  I put on Omnium Gatherum’s latest album.  The growling vocals made me smile.  I even banged my head a few times at the laptop.  The cat stared at me with even more contempt.  Still no words. Those bastards can be elusive.  I sat back and turned up the music even more.  Sometimes it’s better not to think for a bit.

Screw New Year’s resolutions.  Who picks an arbitrary date to get shit done anyway?  Oh that’s right, we do.  I did.  I made a resolution and now nothing’s happening.  What the hell?

ImageMaybe it’s because we are all going to die this year In case you haven’t heard, a rogue planet (called Nibiru) will cut across our solar system at a right angle, throwing off the gravitational pull of the sun and knocking the Earth out of orbit, sending us hurtling into the void of space, our entire species frozen on a floating rock.  So what‘s the point of writing?  Unless… maybe we’ll be found by some advanced alien species.  They’ll thaw out our lifeless planet and set us up in a new solar system.  They’ll teach us quantum physics and share their advanced technology and tell us what the meaning of life is, and we’ll show them fried butter on a stick.  A whole new beginning.  Crap.  I just wrote a science-fiction novel.  A really bad one.

So, I turn up the grinding guitars and double-bass drums even louder (the cat has left the room by now, the pussy) and continue to pound away on the keyboard.  Fuck words.  I’ll drag them out by their entrails if I have to.

Back to work.  Only 362 days left to finish my resolution.  Make that 363.  The leap year gives me an extra day!

Merry Mythmas

No, I’m not at war with Christmas.

I use to write X-mas merely as shorthand.  On box lids.  In emails. On greeting cards.
Then the war started.  I don’t remember when it began. The body count hasn’t risen above zero since it started.  But I’m being told that little baby Jesus is being maliciously attacked every year by laser-guided uranium-tipped lexicon missiles.

Since when did Christ (and more specifically the arbitrary date of his birth) need all this defending?  If I saw Jesus on the street and wished him Happy Holidays, would he really smite me with a bolt of lighting that zigzagged down from the clouds, burning my soulless, heathen body to a crisp?  Aren’t there more important things to worry about?  Helping the needy.  Fighting the AIDS epidemic.  Getting our troops home safely.

If I’m at war with anything, it’s with conspicuous consumerism, pepper spraying people in the face to get a kid’s toy, saying Christmas belongs to Christ while maxing out credit cards.  Disney on Ice.

Now days, I don’t wish people Merry Christmas, or Merry X-mas, or Happy Holidays, or Happy Kwanza, or Good Yule, or Happy Chanukah.  I wish people Merry Mythmas (thank you, Bill Maher).  For the myth that buying things for your loved ones is the measure of how much you care.  For the myth that a tree decorated with small lights and cheap, plastic ornaments is somehow a Christian tradition.  For the myth of a virgin birth.

I say Merry Mythmas for the mythical war on Christmas—we have enough real wars with real body counts already.

Of Aliens, Transmissions, and Violins.

So, we found a new planet 600 light years away, one of 713 confirmed exoplanets discovered so far—Kepler-22b.  It’s more than twice the size of Earth, takes 290 days to orbit its sun, and it sits in the Goldilocks zone—not too close to its parent star, and not too far away.  This means that if there is water on the planet’s surface, it’s in liquid form.    On Earth, where there’s water, even in extreme conditions, there’s usually life.

Soon, SETI will be pointing their satellites in the direction of Kepler-22b to listen for signs of life.

A plethora of assumptions:  Assuming there is life on that planet, and assuming this life is more advanced than our own, and assuming they transmitted radio signals at least six hundred years ago, we should be receiving their first transmissions any day now.

I wonder what those Imagetransmissions would be?  Perhaps a short question:  “Is anyone out there?”  Maybe someone ranting about their political climate, or about religious and civic strife, or about a massive economic crisis.  Maybe a TV show.  Maybe a bad TV show.  Maybe a reality TV show.  I hate to think what an alien species would think of Earthlings if all they had to judge us on was Survivor.

The first Earthly radio broadcast was on Christmas Eve in 1906.  Reginald Fessenden read the Christmas story from the Bible and played “O Holy Night” with on a violin.  This means in roughly 500 years, our potential alien friends will be serenaded by a violin and the story of Jesus’ birth.

A bit unsettling.   One of the greatest scientific accomplishments at the time, accompanied by a song calling for all to prostrate themselves before a child born of a virgin.  At the very least, our alien friends will be confused, perhaps a bit curious.  “Who is this Jesus, this Savior?” they might ask.  “Is he your leader?  Can we speak with him?”

Plenty of Earthlings would tell them who their “savior” is.  Many of those answers will contradict.  Arguing will ensue.  Fights will break out.  Perhaps another war.  While we are battling for ideas, our alien friends will quietly point their own SETI satellites in another direction.  “Give them a few more centuries,” an alien astronomer might say, “just until they stop arguing over whose god is greater.”

Of course, all of this is also assuming aliens from another planet can understand English in the first place—which is a pretty big assumption (and very arrogant for us to think so).

What would be worse is if their own religions, ethics, and philosophies mirrored our own.   In the words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, “If aliens are like us, then they should be feared.”

Indeed.  But if we did hear from Kepler-22b, what would we want to hear?

Soap Box

A loud voice is perched above a black frock and below a black book held high above black hair.

“You sinners will be sleeping with regret tonight!”

His words are brief clouds of white that quickly disappear.  Their meaning rolls listlessly along the bed of snow made black from workers working their way home.  A shuttle bus drives by, kicking up slush.

I look up and to the right at the clock tower.  Six after five.  “Time will soon replace regret with another trick,” I say, turning towards him. He brushes away a few lonely snowflakes from his shoulders and continues.  “Without forgiveness, your past sins will drown your future in eternal darkness!”

A woman to my left raises her gloved hand and bellows out the word taxi.  A homeless man stumbles toward her, whispering the word please as his empty hands shake at his side.  She gets in the taxi and is driven away.  I tell him I have no cash when he asks for help.  The preacher tells him he needs Jesus.

Little warmth is found behind a heavy wooden door that slams hard.  I face other faces in a mirror that runs along the back of the bar.  Their heads are bowed, drowning above half-empty glasses.  Shirley and Lee’s “Let the Good Times Roll” plays from the jukebox.

The chair groans as my lungs sigh and soon my belly feels the warmth of barley.

Behind a window framed in frost my eyes track pale profiles gliding by in a background of white.  The word another? taps me on the ear and I nod without looking.

Fingers, wrinkled and stained yellow, wipe a mug dry with a blue towel before sticking the glass under the tap.  “It’s like the center of Dante’s hell out there tonight.”  The barkeep punctuates his sentence by slapping the tap back with the side of his hand.

The glass lands in front of me, and I pull it toward my lips, watching the foam fall over the edge.  I set a portrait of Lincoln on the bar.  “And the devil’s on the corner selling a haven from regret.”

The barkeep turns his back and lowers his head.  The cash drawer kicks open and lands on his stomach.  The eyes of dead presidents stare back at him. “At what price?”

I reply, “Cognition,” pulling the glass away from my lips.  Foam hangs in the corners of my mouth. “No different from you.”

A chuckle jumps out from behind the bar.  “Except I never lie to you about what I’m selling.”  The bartender turns and sets two green portraits of George Washington next to a puddle of beer, taking Lincoln away.

I pull a pen from my pocket and flip the two faces over.  “And you preach without words.”  Twice I bury the word God under a thick coat of ink.

 

 

 

 

That Gay Bar on 2nd and Broadway

Pictures of shirtless men distract me.
Especially that blond with the blue eyes and the loose jeans and the tattoo of the sun on his left forearm, staring at me as he leans over the rusted railing of some bridge in some distant, unknown city.
Twelve minutes and thirteen seconds.
That’s how long it takes for him to appear on the flat screen above me.
The sky behind him gray and dull.
Bland, out-of-focus buildings in the background.
I look back down.
My hands sit next to an empty beer glass and a notebook and a pen almost out of ink.
I pick up the pen, bouncing it on the edge of the bar.
I think carefully.
I write.
The pen transcribes the events of last night:

I took a walk along the Platte.
Night.
No moon. Correction—It was there, but it wasn’t reflecting any sunlight.
A dark blemish on the surface of space.
I came across some kids trying to drown a cat.
A black cat with narrow, yellow eyes.
I kicked a few of the young hoodlums into the cold water.
The others fled.
Sneakers slapping the pavement with laughter and smoldering cigarette butts.
The animal clawed at my arms.
Hissing loudly.
The small body shaking violently.
Its eyes closed.
I took my shirt off and wrapped it gently.
Holding it close to give it warmth.
I spoke softly.
It just cried continually.
Inconsolable.
I never thought a cat could cry.
Cry with such conviction.
Was it somehow aware?
Did it know how close it was to death?
I walked back quickly.
Air cold on the shoulders and chest.
Goosebumps.
I heard a glass bottle break in the distance.
A few bicyclers passed by.
Their flashing strobes carved my shadow into the sidewalk.
The cat wheezed and whined and sneezed.
Black hair stuck to the cotton of my shirt.
Broken glass crunched under my feet.
Then, I was home.
An apartment below ground with cages for windows.
They call it garden level.
I ran a shallow bath of warm water.
I unwrapped the animal, and it did not shake.
It did not cry.
It did not move.
So I let the water run in the tub and it overflowed as I held the animal to my chest.
I did not weep.
Because death is just a matter of cruel timing.
It’s a…

“It’s a fag bar,” I hear.
My pen stops.
I look up.
My glass has been replaced with a full beer.
I look higher.
It’s been twelve minutes thirteen seconds.
The blond on the bridge is staring at me again.
I turn my head.
There’s some guy standing at the entrance.
More like swaggering.
Wearing a bright orange Broncos jersey.
Pointing his swaggering finger at us.
“You’re sick motherfuckers and…and you’re all going to hell.”
The bouncer pushes him out.
A few people laugh at him.
The bartender pours some more.
I look back down at my pad of paper.

It’s a…

I tap my pen on the bar.
Someone shouts out for a round of whiskey.
The music in the bar gets louder.
It’s now that I want to weep.
To weep silently because words are so easily forgotten.
Because the cat was so easy to bury.
Because I was so easily distracted.
I try to write.
I try to finish.
But the pen is out of ink.

The F-Word

A few weeks ago someone came into my workplace and called me a fag. Now, I’ve been called a fag (or the longer, more sophisticated variation: faggot) on a number of occasions. I’ve usually been able to laugh it off or just walk away. This time was different. I was tired. I was stressed. I hadn’t had my caffeine-saturated Mountain Dew yet.

I could feel my face getting red, and those veins in my forehead sticking out. I yelled back. He yelled louder. So, I yelled louder. It turned into a pointless shouting match. No one really won. He left when I called the cops, and I couldn’t help but think he got the best of me—with a word. A single word. Fag. Three letters. One syllable. It means cigarette in England.

Dan Savage once had his readers address him as “Dear Faggot” in his advice column. The idea is that the word gets its power not from the speaker, but from the receiver. Reclaim the hate speech!  I agree. But easier said than done. Try turning the other cheek when you are in a bad mood, or before your daily caffeine fix. And try telling that to the kid who’s called fag or faggot everyday at school. He can’t just call the cops. We should banish the word, like we did that other notorious f-word: French! (Remember Freedom Fries?)

But censorship solves nothing. It’s just shouting at hate speech with silence. That night, after I downed a few Mountain Dews, I reflected on how I use f-words (fag, faggot, and fuck) extensively throughout my novel. There is such a thing as being too PC, after all. There is also such a thing as overreacting to haters, homophobes, or to people who write letters to Dan Savage. Fag is like any other word—in that it is nuanced depending on intent and context. Consider that the next time you hear the word fag—or any hate speech. More importantly, before you react, ask yourself if you’ve had your caffeine yet.

Duality

I love imagining what it would be like to live on other planets.  What if the Orion Nebula filled the sky each night—a giant specter spreading its gossamer wings over our heads?  Imagine if rings of fragmented rock tens of thousands of miles wide encircled the planet, rings that could be clearly seen during the day splitting the sky in half, ice crystals in the rings refracting the light in a beautiful spectrum of colors.  Or what if our planet orbited two stars?  How would that affect our mythos?  Our philosophies?  Our religions?  How would we define ourselves differently?

The latter cosmic phenomenon we don’t have to imagine anymore.  The Kepler probe discovered a planet (called Kepler-16b) that is part of a binary solar system.  This is the first empirical proof of a planetary body orbiting two stars.  Though only a gas giant (which makes watching a dual sunset from its surface a bit difficult), 16b brings up a host of possibilities—with intriguing implications.  Civilizations use physical environment to define their societies.  The Egyptians worshiped the sun god Ra.  On planet 16b, Ra would have a younger brother.  They would battle daily for supremacy of the sky, one occasionally eclipsing the other.  Moral lessons would perhaps be drawn from their cosmic duel:  “Though the two brothers fought throughout the day, in the evening they both came to rest on the same horizon.”  Monotheism would perhaps be an entirely alien concept (pun intended).
There are biological implications as well.  Life forms on that planet would probably be less sensitive to light, and be able to endure our hottest days of the year without any complaint.  And if a planet found itself orbiting between the two stars, there would be no night.  Eyes would never evolve to see in the dark (except for cave dwelling animals or creatures that lived underwater).

This is all speculation, of course.  But it emphasizes how physical circumstances play a large role in how not only our species evolves, but how our philosophies and religions evolve.  If I follow that line of logic long enough, I could argue that physical circumstances define purpose.  Meaning is a construct created as our experiences wind their way through physical circumstances.  The objects that surround us are more than just inanimate objects (what Jean-Paul Sartre called the thing-in-itself) existing solely outside of our consciousness.  They become part of us as we interact with them.  Existence is a duality between the mind and external objects.
I could stare at the concept images of 16b all day, imagining how different my life and our civilization would be if Earth orbited two stars.  I’m cynical enough to declare that our more malevolent behaviors would never be truncated by a change in scenery.  But I’m optimistic enough to concede that possibilities, future possibilities of individuals and of societies, can be created and destroyed by mere objects shifting our perspectives and playing a dynamic part in how we define ourselves.

Check out the NASA article about Kepler-16b: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/kepler/news/kepler-16b.html

Business As Usual

     6,482: Number of days DADT was in effect.  14,000: Approximate number of service members discharged under DADT.  363,000,000:  The price tag in dollars of DADT.

     0:  The number of service members from now on who must perpetuate a lie to keep from being discharged from the military.

I’ve often wondered how different my experience in the Air Force would have been without Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  I wouldn’t have needed to lie about who I am.  I would have been able to confide in my friends—the people my life depended on in a combat situation.  Some people would have treated me differently, I’m sure.    But one thing that would not have changed was my work.  Being gay had nothing to do with how well I did my job.  Which, of course, is the point of all this.  Someone coming out as a homosexual should have the same impact as someone stating their religious preference.  These characteristics are simply part of who we are, but they play no part in our ability to carry out a mission.
Of course, there is still much work to be done: The ban on transgenders from serving, military benefits for non-married domestic partners (gay or straight) of service members, legal recourse against discrimination and harassment, and discharge upgrades.  But the first step has been taken.  The numbers above will no longer increase.  Servicemembers can now get back to work.

Irony

Hill Air Force Base, Utah.   1999.

It was my first duty station and a small group of us were sitting in a break room situated behind the squadron’s radio maintenance workshop.  The room was actually the back of a large vehicle bay where we parked and loaded our 5-ton cargo trucks and deuces (2.5-ton cargo trucks).  Surrounded by radio equipment, rolls of coaxial cables, and boxes of supplies, one of the airmen sat in his chair and complained about the way people treated him.  He was a Mormon, and he was tired of being told he was part of a cult.  The airman leaned back in his chair and lamented about how certain people stereotype his particular faith.  He said he was weary of the ignorance of individuals who called him crazy or associated him with strange rituals that had nothing to do with the Mormon religion.

I quietly agreed.  I had been taught by teachers at my private Christian high school that Mormonism (along with any other religion that deviated from the Baptist church) was a cult.  Even as a self-proclaimed Christian at the time, that kind of polarized thinking didn’t sit well with me.  So that day, in an effort not to be one of those ignorant individuals, I started a dialogue with Mormon service members in our radio workshop (there were several others).

A few weeks later, the same airman complained about homosexuals (a subject that didn’t come up very often in the workshop).  He said he didn’t want anything to do with gays.  He added that if he ever met one, he’d want to stay as far away as possible.

When I heard this, I was still in the closet.  Buried deep in the closet.  I’m talking about sealed-beneath-the-floor-boards-of-the-closet deep.  It was more my religious background than anything else that kept me in there.  But it was statements from my Mormon friend, along with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” that kept that closet door locked at all times.

So, I said nothing.  Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one who saw the blatant irony in his statements.  Other airman criticized him for being so dismissive.  A few even mentioned they had gay friends and that they deserved the same respect you would give any individual.  Encouragingly, this perspective hasn’t changed.  According to the DoD report on the repeal of DADT, 29.6 percent of military personnel believe service members coming out will have a negative, or more than negative, effect on unit cohesion.

But that’s still 29.6 percent.  There are still individuals in the military who are ignorant or outright hateful to homosexuals.  Coming out will be difficult or next to impossible for some service members.  But on September 20th, the closet door will be kicked down.  And had DADT not existed when I was in the Air Force, I would have politely replied to my Mormon friend that I’m not to be generalized either.  No one is – gay or straight, Mormon or agnostic.  In the end, the only thing that really matters in the military is the mission – and watching your buddy’s back while he or she watches yours.