A New Orleans memory: heavy weather

I didn’t know it then, but I would soon be leaving New Orleans. I would go to New York for eight months, where I would share an apartment with a call girl and get my first job as a bartender; then I would come back for a second, longer, and much happier stay in my favorite city.

But at that moment I was sitting in the empty kitchen of a barge, rocked by heavy weather in the Gulf of Mexico. We’d been out for a week, I think, when a tropical storm made the grade and became a hurricane, stalking the Gulf with evil intent. The barge was turned around and heading back to Corpus Christi, Texas. We’d secured most of the pots and pans, the tin cans and plates and coffee mugs, in the kitchen, where I worked as a cook. We’d removed the napkin dispensers and the condiments from the tables. Still, sometimes something would come loose and the pitch of the barge would send it clamoring to the floor. We sat there and tended to it, me and whoever was off duty, eating  saltine crackers and gulping dramamine.

We were told it’d take the better part of two days to reach port. Rumors of the hurricane’s location and trajectory were the coin of the realm; no one knew anything except what the captain told us, and no one believed he was telling us everything. I remember one of the roustabouts, young and terrified, claiming that he’d heard that the waters here were shallow enough that if we were caught in the trough of a big enough wave the barge could hit sea bottom and split its hull, damning us all. In retrospect it’s outlandish, but at the time it seemed an inevitable truth.

I thought about my best friend, an Australian expatriate who’d moved into my one-room apartment with me following the dissolution of his marriage. We’d been close for years, and I’d never had a better friend. We both applied to be offshore cooks together, and though we were both hired, he chose at the last minute to decline the job, staying to work in the city instead. At the time, I congratulated myself for taking the more interesting path; now I pictured him watching The X-Files on my couch, unpitched by the earth, tables level and static, and I envied the hell out of him. He was moving back to Australia before I was scheduled to get home, but was planning on returning in a year. I had given my thirty day notice on the apartment we shared; I’d come home with just enough time to pack and move out.

There was a girl back home, too. I’d only been seeing her a short time; before starting work offshore I worked in a bookstore in the French Quarter. She did too. She was small and lovely, funny, and very smart. She had short, wavy dark hair and a hard-edged femininity that made me think of a character from a Hemingway novel. I am always slightly amazed when a woman chooses to be with me — a walking, talking tangle of fear and neurosis — and I was amazed then: dumbstruck with fortune.

I would be moving in with her, and her roommates, when I got home. The storm held no fear for me. A new life was about to begin.

It was the last night on the barge, and I was in my bunk, trying without success to read. It was Henry Miller, I believe — Tropic of Cancer or Quiet Days in Clichy. The wild, urgent poetry of the book and the heaving of the ship boiled me in a cauldron of romantic fervor. I couldn’t concentrate. I lay back on my thin little mattress and it occurred to me that I was in a storm at sea, a beautiful and terrifying experience, and I didn’t even know what it looked like.

So I got out of bed and I went outside to see.

The world was a calamity of wind and rain and risen sea. I stepped over a snarl of heavy ropes and stood at the railing. It was night, but it would have been as dark at any hour. The sky boiled with black clouds; the wind and rain were a horizontal blast of beautiful fury. The sea moved like muscle: huge, shifting energies, spraying mists of foam and water into the sky.

In the midst of all of this tumult, out over the waves, were a handful of tiny birds, turned against the brunt of the gale, seemingly hovering in place a few feet above the water. One would dip down every now and then and skim the surface of the water, angling up again a moment later to rejoin the others.  I don’t know what kind of birds they were or whether they were in any danger. But they seemed serene: points of stillness in the upending of the sea and the sky. It remains one of the most astonishing and beautiful things I have ever seen.

Soon I would go back inside and go back to my bunk. The next day we would reach Texas safely, and I would board a bus that would take me home, where I would discover that my new girlfriend and my best friend had discovered each other and started a relationship of their own. He would already be in Australia by this time and beyond direct confrontation; she would be as kind as she could be, but, as they say, the heart wants what it wants. I wouldn’t fault her for it. I would move in with another friend instead, work offshore for a short while longer, and soon be offered a place to stay in New York. Sick of New Orleans and sick at heart, I would accept, and leave it gladly.

I would mourn losing her, but because our time together had been so short it was more the promise of her than the reality of her that I’d mourn. The true loss would be my best friend. I loved him and I would miss him terribly. They would end up getting married, and would stay that way — which I would come to regard as a happy ending.

That was all a day or two away, though, as I stood at the railing, watching those tiny birds glide through the storm, as untroubled as stones in a brook.


Sleep dread; or, the yearning for absolute love

“I’m afraid to go to sleep.”

I sat beside Mia on her bed, running my hand through her hair. I couldn’t quite process what she’d said. It was nearly midnight, and she had school in the morning. It was well past time to be asleep.

“What do you mean?” I’d read something recently about “sleep dread”: an insomnia-related anxiety so acute that you actually dread the effort of going to sleep. Mia worries about everything anyway; it seemed cruelly natural that she would develop this affliction.

But if this was sleep dread, it wasn’t that kind.

“I feel alone when I sleep,” she said. “It’s like, nothingness. You aren’t anywhere. And you’re all alone.”

There’s not much you can do when your child comes to you with existential fear. She’s looking between the girders of existence and asking you to explain the darkness she sees there. Something like this happened when she was five years old; we’d just moved to Asheville, and along part of our regular daily commute we drove past a cemetery. She would ask me if I was going to die. Whether it would be soon, and what would happen to her when I did. What would happen to her when she did. My answers to her were geared toward a five-year old. They were simple, and unsatisfactory even then. Now she needed something more.

The problem is that there is nothing more. She’s too old for easy answers, and resents it when someone tries to give them to her. I don’t tell her I’m an atheist, and when she expresses curiosity about religion I encourage her to pursue whatever avenue she wants. But I won’t tell her fairy tales, either.

At least, not directly. What I do tell her is that she is never alone, because I am always in the next room. I can hear her in the night and I come in and check on her when she sleeps. She nods; she knows this. She accepts my minor consolations as a gesture of kindness. She doesn’t want to hurt my feelings by telling me what I already know: that none of this is what she means. That all of this is beside the point.

Because when she sleeps, she’s going back into that silence. And much as I might want to be, I won’t be there with her.

Mia is out of town this week. She’s gone to Alabama to visit her mom, and I’ve found myself in an empty apartment again. I’m reminded of the extent to which I rely on her to anchor me to the world. In the past couple of days I can probably count the numbers of words I’ve actually spoken aloud on both hands. There’s a deep peace in this — I am intensely solitary, after all — but there’s a fear, too. What will happen to me when she leaves for school? Will I be this strange old hermit, living in his isolated, book-lined cave? It seems quite likely, sometimes. And it has a kind of appeal. I don’t seem to do well with human beings. But it seems lonesome, too.

Sleep dread.

I found this video a little while ago and showed it to her. I didn’t mention it in context with the conversation we had that night, but I hope that she makes a subconscious connection to it.

“It’s so beautiful, Dad,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said. “It really is.”

This, I think, is the final consolation. If we are all, finally, just chemistry, then this is love’s ultimate expression. It makes me happy to know that whenever some five-year old child casts a fearful eye at the earth where I’m buried, my busy ghost will be at work. That life will have made a city of me.

On the necessity of the negative review

A few days ago I saw a post on a writer’s Facebook page that brought me up short. A writer was venting some steam about having received a bad review from another writer. Though this is never fun, he seemed to take particular umbrage at the fact that the writer of the review shared a publisher with him. The implication being that there is an obligation among writers in the same stable not to speak negatively of one another’s work. It’s a variation of Ronald Reagan’s “speak no evil” directive to Republicans on the campaign trail.

In the comments to this post, another writer made the following remark, referring to the bad feelings the review inspired: ” … this is a good example why it’s better to say nothing than post a negative review. Negative reviews do nobody any favours.” He went on to clarify his point: “What I mean is a bad review will only cause heartache to your subject, and headaches to you from your subject’s fans. It’s a no-win situation. Better to keep quiet instead. Speaking as an author, I’d far prefer people who didn’t like my work to not talk about it.”

There’s a certain degree of the tongue-in-cheek on display here, and it would be wrong to take everything said in this exchange too seriously. Furthermore, I have a friendly relationship with both of these writers online, and I respect them both enough to believe that their feelings on this matter are probably much more nuanced than these offhand statements would indicate. As writers, it’s safe to say that most of us would prefer people who don’t like our work to not talk about it. There’s nothing wrong with that. And the original poster was careful to say he was just letting off steam. Which is all well and good. Facebook tends to be ephemeral, and most of what we say there vanishes without so much as a ripple.

But the ideas that negative reviews are best left unwritten and that authors sharing a publisher owe an allegiance to one another were presented seriously. This mindset is nothing new, but it’s achieved a fresh virulence with the advent of the online culture. We’re all friends now. Or “friends,” according to Facebook and Google+ parlance. As writers tilling the same soil, we interact with each other almost daily. We see each other at conventions.  And because most of us are decent people who display good will and wish one another success, speaking publicly of our dissatisfaction with a colleague’s work seems a kind of betrayal.

While this approach may keep us from having awkward conversations with friends, it harms us as writers and undermines the seriousness of the genre. If we cannot speak to our failures as well as to our successes, then frankly we don’t deserve to be taken seriously.

Praise is good when warranted of course. It is also necessary: many of us have notoriously fragile egos. But to be silent when criticism is what’s warranted is at once a tacit endorsement of mediocrity and a disservice to a writer who might benefit from an honest and frank appraisal of the work. It is also a disservice to readers. Without a vigorous critical aesthetic, standards erode over time. The work is degraded.

Furthermore, honest criticism is an indication of respect for the work and the author. We have to deliver that respect, and receive it in good faith when it’s delivered to us. If we really believe in our own work, in its worth and viability, then we should not be afraid of criticism. If we want to become better writers, then we should welcome it. If we want our genre to be taken more seriously by the literary establishment, then we have to take it more seriously ourselves.

A real friendship can withstand a negative review. A good writer can absorb its lessons. A healthy literary community will foster the exchange of frank appraisal.

There are, of course, critics in the genre who do bring a rigorous standard to their criticism; it’s primarily the writers themselves who should raise their game in this regard.

I’m guilty here, no question. I’ve purposely steered away from writing about my colleagues’ work on this blog — good or bad — because I didn’t want to start down a path that could eventually ruffle feathers. It’s safer, and more pleasant, to be silent.

But it’s also weak and cowardly.   (Upon reflection, this sentence strikes me as unfair, and a bit harsh. Redacted.)

I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with the genre — horror in particular. I’ve thought about it a lot over the past year; it’s a friction that informs all of my work to date and will probably continue to do so for some time. At its worst, it’s adolescent hate fantasy or gore-lust, written without the slightest care or awareness of language or the actual measure of the human heart. When it’s at its best, though; what I love about it — its uncompromising nature, its emotional integrity, its astonishing capacity for beauty — I love absolutely, and can get in no equal measure from any other branch of literature.

It deserves to be taken seriously.

Ten Dollar Prom, and the boyfriend question

Mia is weighing the merits of two potential suitors, and for what’s likely the first and last time in her life, she’s soliciting my opinion on the matter.

On the one hand we have Scout. He is big, handsome, well-groomed, smiling with confidence. He looks good at her side, and she is old enough now to know that this matters. Scout is a stuffed dog, about the size of a football. On the other hand we have Cletus. Cletus is an orange stuffed cat. He is small and awkward, with hair that looks matted and a body that is loosely stuffed, floppy and gangly. Cletus has one thing working in his favor, though: he is a cat. Mia loves cats.

The occasion is the Ten Dollar Prom being held at Hanger Hall School For Girls. It’s one of the rare times the girls can come to school out of uniform; the conceit is that they come dressed for the prom, without having spent more than ten dollars on an outfit. I like this, because it’s single-dad friendly. Many of the special dress-up days at the school leave me bewildered and feeling out of my depth. With this, though, I can pretty much turn the reins over to Mia, and let her design her own outfit with a minimum of expense.

At first, there was no contest. She needed a date, so she went to the stuffed animals and picked Cletus immediately. She introduced me to him (I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and frankly this was my first time learning his name), and pleasantries were exchanged. Cletus and I came to an amicable understanding, and all seemed well.

But ten minutes later Mia came into the living room again, this time holding Scout under her arm. Strong, handsome Scout.

“Dad,” she said, “I don’t know what to do.”

Dogs are generally affable creatures, and I understand how the heart is beguiled by beauty, so I just said something inane like, “Wow, tough decision, kiddo,” and left her to it. She thought for a moment and said, “I’m going to take Scout, because he just looks better, you know? And plus he’s black,  and that matches my outfit.”

She went back to her room. It was bedtime, and she was reading before turning out the light. (At least she was supposed to be reading; clearly her mind was occupied by other things.)

And here she is now, about fifteen minutes later, holding Scout. “I’m leaving him out here. Look at his creepy eyes! I can’t go to sleep with that in the room.”

“Okay,” I say.

She sits on the couch, pensive. She retrieves Cletus from the coffee table, where she’d left him. “Dad, I can’t decide. Which should I take? Scout is better looking and matches me, but I don’t like his expression. And Cletus is a cat!”

“Kiddo, here’s a life lesson. It applies here and throughout your whole life. If someone you’re thinking about dating makes you uncomfortable or creeps you out, no matter how good-looking he is, he’s not the man for you.”

She doesn’t even have to think about it. Cletus wins the contest, and is, at this very moment, accompanying my daughter to school for her Ten Dollar Prom. Scout is lounging creepily in my room, because Mia decided she didn’t want any more of his weird face.

“Thanks for the love lesson, Dad!” she says, walking back to her room.

Life lesson. I said life lesson!”


Mia’s friend Hannah, who carpools with us, also brought a date. She brought a stuffed microbe. When I dropped them off this morning I wanted to see how many other girls were bringing stuffed animals. There was only one other car there at the time, and older girls were climbing out. None of them had any. I’m willing to bet that it was mostly sixth graders, on that sharp edge separating childhood from young adulthood, who brought stuffed animal dates with them to the prom.

It’s unbearably sweet, and it makes my heart hurt. Mia had put her army of stuffed cats away a long time ago, and as far as I knew, never thought of them at all. But recently Grace, a friend of hers from school, has been coming over for the occasional sleepover. Removed from the pressurized environment of a middle school, in which everyone is always pretending to be be older and wiser than they are, both girls very quickly shed their adult pretensions and became children again. They played hide and seek, they shot at each other with Nerf guns, they played with dolls and stuffed animals.

This is a freedom she can’t even indulge in with me. More than anyone else, probably, she wants me to see her as a mature adult. So to see her break out the toys and be a little girl again was a rare, vanishing treat.

After that first weekend Grace stayed with us, some of the stuffed cats never got put away. They were left sitting on a shelf, conveniently at hand. On that Sunday, we sat down to watch Angel on dvd. I noticed she had one of the cats on her lap. (This was Cletus, though I did not know his name then.) She didn’t talk to him, or hold him really, or acknowledge in any way that he was there. Not while I could see. But later, when it was time for her to get ready for bed, and when I was in the kitchen making tea, she got up from the couch and he tumbled from her lap, onto the floor.

My adult little girl, who is developing a crush on the teenager who plays Angel’s son on tv, who is reading To Kill a Mockingbird and writing essays about it, who is now capable of doing more complex math problems than I am, leaned over and picked him up. She pulled his ear to her lips, and said, very quietly so that she thought I couldn’t hear, “I’m sorry.”

The collection has a home

The big news is that my short story collection has found a home at Small Beer Press. Its current title is Monsters of Heaven: stories, though that could always change between now and its publication date. Though it’s very early in the process still, I think a release sometime in 2013 is a pretty safe bet. The order of the contents are yet to be determined, but the stories to be included are “You Go Where It Takes You,” “The Monsters of Heaven,” “S.S.,” “North American Lake Monsters,” “The Crevasse,” “Wild Acre,” “Sunbleached,” “The Way Station,” and “The Good Husband.”

That Small Beer Press has picked it up is both surprising and immensely gratifying to me. To be honest, I didn’t think they’d want anything this dark. At this point I should know better than to assume I know what editors will want, and I was thrilled to be proven wrong. That I will soon share a publisher with Maureen F. McHugh, Karen Joy Fowler, Liz Hand, and of course Kelly Link herself seems too good to be true. Small Beer is truly the very best place for this collection to land.

These stories represent an era of my life as a writer, and I find it very fitting that the book came together just after I finished “The Good Husband.” That particular story is very dark — perhaps more so than any other story in there — and when I finished it I felt as though I had come to the end of a particular stage of my development. What that means, exactly, I don’t know. But my internal weather feels different. I’m as curious as anyone to see what comes next.

There are things already in the works, of course. Contrary to what the evidence will suggest, I have not abandoned “The Cannibal Priests of New England.” It will soon be relaunched, with a new and reinvigorated face. I’m working on the details for that right now. I’m also working on a series of essays about being a single dad; you’ll likely see a lot of that worked out here on the blog. I tend to use those posts as blueprints for longer pieces. And, finally, I’m working on two novels at once. I don’t know how long that will remain true, but I’ve set myself a modest daily goal for each, and they’re different enough in tone and intent that they don’t bump into each other in my head. They’re both stories I’ve been wanting to write for a couple years now. I feel like I’m finally ready to write them they way they deserve to be written.

This should be a busy year.

Everything is still

The first human voice I heard on New Year’s Day was a cry for help.

I live in an apartment complex which looks, especially in winter, like a Siberian outpost. The walls are bricked high, the single balcony black iron and glass, the outdoor lights flat and harsh. A playground, a few trees, and some potted herbs are situated in the courtyard as a clumsy acknowledgement of the building’s human purpose, but they are incongruous, like flower petals sprinkled over the treads of a tank. The hallways are bright and sterile, almost forensic in their lack of warmth. Despite its starkness, though, I’ve liked living here. Until very recently my friend A lived across the hall from me, and though her moving away diminished the welcome of the place, I still find solace in the proximity of other people. I’m very much a loner, and yet the nearness of human activity — even of strangers — robs the occasional loneliness of some of its sting.

I left that morning to walk down to Clingman Cafe, where I like to have coffee and do some reading as the day begins. I heard the cry echoing through the hallways. I thought at first that it was someone still drunk, bellowing outside someone’s locked door. It pissed me off. I started down the hall to tell whoever it was to shut the hell up, that there were people who lived here and to have some goddamn respect. But as I got closer I realized that it was a call of distress.

One of the tenants is an older black man paralyzed from the waist down. I often see him in the foyer of the building, either waiting for someone in particular or, like me, finding some steadying peace in the flow of strangers coming into and out of the building. My guess is that he’s in his late fifties or early sixties, maybe 300 pounds. I knew, before rounding the corner and seeing his open door, that it was him.

He was lying on the floor by his open door, calling out for help. His wheelchair was across the room, by his window. He had dragged himself to the door, a process which must have taken a long time and which left him clearly exhausted. “I fell,” he said. A little sob escaped him. He blinked away tears, frustrated and ashamed.

I put my hand on his shoulder and told him it’s okay, I’ll get you back in your chair. I wondered how long he had been lying there. My apartment is on the other side of the building, and I’d been awake for an hour or so before leaving. There were doors, though, lining each hallway. His voice had echoed loudly. On this side of the building, anybody would have been able to hear him. Where were they?

I maneuvered his wheelchair over to him and leaned over to take him under his arms. He kind of laughed. “You won’t be able to do it yourself,” he said.

I tried anyway. He was right. He’s a big man, but it isn’t just fat. He’s dense with muscle too, as I discovered when I felt his upper body. This was going to be impossible without help. I told him to hang tight, I’d be right back. He nodded. He’d regained his composure by now.

I went up and down the hallways, knocking on door after door on all three stories of the building. There was no sign of human life. No music, no footsteps behind the doors, no mutter of a television set or clink of dishes. The whole building seemed deserted. I had all but given up before someone finally opened his door to me. I told him what happened. “Yeah, I heard someone, but I thought it was just somebody drunk,” he said. He came down to help me, and together we got him back in his chair. I stayed and helped him find his phone, made sure he was situated. I gave him my phone number so he could call me if something like that happened again.

None of which is special. Any reasonable human being would have done the same. What struck me, though, was that there had been no one around. Even accounting for the fact that it was early on New Year’s Day, and that some people would be sleeping off the previous night’s binge; or that there are people who really will not extend a hand to help another person in distress (I’m reminded of Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” here); somebody would have heard him. Somebody would have come.

Since then I’ve been paying more attention to the building. Coming home at night, I notice how many dozens of windows are dark. I noticed how many doors I never see opened. How many faces I used to see that I don’t anymore. Yesterday I came home from work and there was one child in the playground, busying herself with some mysterious, singular game, the first gusts of the evening’s snow whirling in the air around her.

The building feels abandoned.

My apartment is clean, and warmly lit. Mia is home now, so there is life in it again. I cook food for her, and when she goes to bed I write in the lamplight by my bed, and then I read, and finally sleep. It’s a peaceful place, and I’m glad for it.

But I’m suddenly more conscious of its isolated nature. The faceless companionship I felt with my neighbors is cast into doubt. I wonder now how many are there at all. I wonder about the implied human contract I have been counting on, and which the old man in the wheelchair was also counting on. The contract that assures us of aid from strangers in the face of calamity, the contract that comforts our loneliness with the simple closeness of other human beings.

One of the most affecting ghost stories I know is Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film Kairo, or Pulse. It is, at its heart, about loneliness and isolation. About the quiet disappearance of each isolated soul. I still can’t watch it without feeling a profound sadness, a grievous disquiet. It seems prophetic to me, as though something in the world is revealing itself to us.

When I walk through this depleted building, hearing in memory the old man’s echoing cry for help, I feel that disquiet again. Our links to each other are so tenuous. The love we have for each other, or even the belief we have that we are noticed, recognized to be alive, is all that keeps us from the abyss.

I’m writing this in my room, in front of my window. The blinds are up, and snow is blowing outside. There’s a train yard across the street. Nothing is moving there. Everything is still.

Black dog

Two days ago I was crossing the southern border of North Carolina, coming back from a trip to Georgia, where I’d handed Mia over to her mom to spend a week with her. I was driving up an unlit road; the mountains were ahead of me: huge, black shoulders, spangled with light. I was listening to the kind of music that lets something loose inside me, like some dark wing. I hear music like this and it has an almost physical effect; it’s as though atmospheres of pressure are lifted, and suddenly my lungs can fill deeply.

Normally, I would have let myself slide into an easy depression; it would have been comfortable and familiar. It may seem strange that I would describe depression as comfortable, but human beings can acclimate themselves to just about anything. There is a familiar rhythm to it, a cycle of emotion and thought that is as true as an ocean current, and as powerful. It is an easy thing to surrender yourself to it, and to let it pull you along its courses. You know where you’re going. You know how you’ll feel along the way. There are no surprises. There is pain, yes; but it’s pain you know. It’s pain you can prepare for. And pain, at least, is something. Sometimes, you think, it’s all you can get. And so you’ll take it. You might even get greedy for it.

But a few months ago I finally got tired of it. I started taking antidepressants, and it’s hard to overstate the change. What I think is best described as a steady spiritual deliquescence has stopped. Some measure of self-regard is returning. The impulse to work — by which I mean to write — is back in force. And I haven’t felt that in years. Depression was, I think, the chief reason for my small output over the past few years. My thought was, very explicitly, that there are too many writers in the world anyway — we’re drowning in pablum, and seem to have lost the ability even to recognize it — and one less would make no difference at all. It might even be a small good.

I still believe that most writers would serve us best by surrendering the pen forever (yeah, I’m an asshole), and that we’ve become so inured to mediocrity and small ambition that we celebrate that which should be condemned for its miserliness of spirit, but the drag on my own intent has been removed. I feel a drive to work like I haven’t in years. Shortly after getting on the antidepressant, I finished writing a story that has been languishing on my laptop for months, and submitted the collection to a publisher at last. It was work that could have, and should have, been done at least a  year ago. But the will was crippled then. And now it isn’t anymore.

I say this because even though the social stigma against depression is fading, I think there still exists a strong personal aversion to admitting one is afflicted. I know I had that aversion. I denied it and its severity for years. It damaged friendships, may have ended relationships, and slowed my advancement in my chosen career. Throughout my life I’ve seen it happen to people I know and love. It’s deadliest trait is that it makes you believe that there is no point in fighting it. And the kind I had — have — was so subtle that I barely noticed the breadth of its effect. There was no sturm und drang, no self-annihilating impulse; only the steady, creeping rise of cold water in my brain.

I still love this music. As I drove into the mountains, letting it fill my head, I was still lifted. I still find beauty in the desolate. I still have a melancholy soul. Those things are characteristics of me, and will not change; nor would I want them to. I like them. But I can love this music now, I can love the poetry I see in pale bones and cold nights, without the accompanying despondence that had all but frozen me. Antidepressants did not dull my feeling for all of this, as I’d feared they might; they enabled me to more fully engage with it.

I debated putting this up. I was afraid it would come off as fishing for sympathy, which is certainly not my intent. I can look back on it all with a fairly emotionless cast of mind. But I think some of you will feel some measure of recognition. I think we waste too much time trying to construct a social image of ourselves as characters from television commercials: clever, funny, unbeset by loneliness or self-horror. Fuck all that. That’s what leads to all the shitty writing I was talking about.

Tell the truth. That’s what this is.

When she’s sleeping

We were doing homework last night: she has a test in grammar today on pronouns. Personal, interrogative, indefinite, demonstrative, and relative. She has to know what antecedents are, and she has to remember the word antecedent. She’s nervous, because she doesn’t have a firm grasp on all of it just yet. She often confuses indefinite and demonstrative pronouns. She has trouble remembering the phrase subordinate clause, and this worries her, even though it’s more important that she understand the concept than memorize the words. This is a learning experience for me, too; I knew all of this once, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had to pin the parts of a sentence to a corkboard and afix their names to them.

We’re into this for no more than ten minutes when she starts to get pissed. I’m coming up with sentences for her and she’s identifying the pronouns and their types.

“Who put it away?”

“Who. Interrogative. It. Indefinite.”

“You’re right on the first one, but ‘it’ isn’t indefinite.”


“Remember? He, she, it. What are they?”

“Personal, but that’s impossible! We don’t know what ‘it’ stands for in that sentence, so it has to be indefinite!”

We go over it for a few more minutes, but she’s upset now, and finding it hard to concentrate. We take a break, and she stalks like a thwarted general into her room.

Thirty minutes later we return to it. She’s getting it; she’s doing a good job. These aren’t easy concepts to grab immediately, when you’re not used to thinking of sentences as machines, as a series of individual parts which work in concert. But she is still frustrated, and by this point my own frustration is mounting too. She gets the next one wrong and she throws herself back onto the couch, making a strangled noise.

It’s too much for me. I drop the notebook on the coffee table. “For Christ’s sake. Will you just calm down?”

Her face goes dark in anger, in righteous indignation. But just for a moment. Then it smooths over. She gets up and retrieves her notebook from the table. “I’m going to read over the notes in my room,” she says, very calmly. She walks in that direction.

“Kiddo, you’re doing well. You can’t expect to get all this right on the first try. That’s what homework and studying is for.”

She regards me with a cool eye. Then she turns away again.

“Are you mad?”


“You seem like you’re mad.”

She looks at me again, with what appears to be a detached, even somewhat contemptuous, curiosity. “Hm,” she says, and goes to her room.

I gave her about fifteen minutes and then I went into her room, where she was hunched over her laptop. I pulled her to me and hugged her, apologized for being short, told her encouraging things. She seemed unmoved by the whole exchange.

I knew these years were coming. I knew they were going to be tough. And now that they’re arriving, I’m finding that the tools I used to use so well to manage her emotions and her self-regard are no longer working. Tears don’t always dry with a hug anymore, nor do the dark moods dissipate as readily. She’s angry more often. In some ways I see this as a good thing: she has always been hard on herself and I am glad to see the anger directed outward, rather than turned inward, where she can only harm herself. And yet, it’s new, and sudden, and it causes problems. It keeps people at a distance; and in me, it inspires an answering impatience.

There are times when I have no idea what to say to her. I have no idea what she’s thinking, what she’s keeping from me, what’s she’s secretly, desperately hoping I will do or say. I can only react according to what she decides to tell me or what I can intuit, like a doctor treating the symptoms of an illness he cannot diagnose.

A lot of this is normal, of course. And a lot of it comes from me. It’s sobering and humbling to see your own worst traits reflected in your child. You find yourself less patient with the expression of those traits, less ready to forgive them, because you hate them so much in yourself.

As a single father, I had little fear in the early years of her life. She was a little kid, and I do well with little kids. But she’ll be a teenage girl soon, and I am so less sure of myself now.

But at night, when she sleeps, I walk quietly into her room to be sure the blankets are over her shoulders and her head is on the pillow, and there she is still. My little girl. The tiny creature that spent her first week of life in NICU, who was first held in love by my own hands. The little girl who would hear the rumble of the motorcycle when I came home from work or from school and run out to meet me on her tiny legs, actually laughing in excitement. The five year old girl who came with me here to this new place, without a mother to attend her, and trusted that I knew what I was doing and that I would protect her and guide her. The girl who until so recently could bury her sadness in my shoulder, and let my arms carry it away. When she’s sleeping I can still see her: in the roundness of her cheek; her small, parted lips; her closed eyelids and her unfurrowed brow; in the curled fingers of her hand, no longer tiny, but still so small. Still a child’s.

I see her sleeping and I reflect on every sharp word I said that day, every flash of anger or impatience, every time I answered her over my shoulder as I stared at a computer screen or read a book.

I remember my duty to her.

Three notes

1. I answered a few brief questions over at the website dedicated to Creatures, a retrospective anthology collecting great monster stories from the past 30 years. I’m pleased and honored to have “The Monsters of Heaven” included alongside contributions from Jim Shepard, Clive Barker, Kelly Link, Laird Barron, and many others.

Here’s one of the questions, to give you an idea of what they’re like:

If you could be a monster, which one would you choose, and why?

I would be a werewolf. That may not be very original, but I don’t care. Werewolves have always been my favorite monster. I think they’re terrifying, for one. I don’t see them as the furry-faced muppets of the old Universal horror movies; I see them as great, bristle-haired beasts, their fur matted and filthy, their breath rank, their muscles trembling with rage. I love the idea of surrendering to rage, of giving in to the violent dream. So much of life is repression. So many words bitten off before we can speak them, so many deserving necks left unthrottled. The idea of letting that rage run rampant, of feeling bones break between my teeth, is a little intoxicating.

2. Here is a passage from an essay by Rachel Yoder called “Awkward Walks With Unavailable Men,” which can be found in the current issue of The Sun. It’s beautiful, and I think you should read it.

One summer morning when I was five, I walked into my grandmother’s bedroom unannounced. She was sitting in her spindle-backed chair, looking out the window at the cornfields. She had just taken down her hair.

Her hair. My God. You could write a whole bible about that hair. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen: my Mennonite grandmother’s pearl-white hair hanging down her back, unspooled and luminescent, long like a girl’s, with the fire of the sun in it.

Before she saw me, I stood there for a moment inside a thin skin of knowing and mystery, inside something I could not comprehend other than to think, Pretty, other than to think, I want. Oh, her silver-white hair. That beauty could be both so old and so innocent, so pure and so pulsing, so urgent it made me want to touch, to look, to feel, and then to run away and hide. That beauty was her hair and the sun and the cornfields but also the bed and her body, her skin and lips. That beauty was my grandmother then, but also my grandmother before, on the day she’d given birth; at her wedding; as a small girl. That beauty would die. That beauty began to slip away the moment she turned and looked at me.

3. I found this song online the other day. Royal Fingerbowl was a big deal in New Orleans for about five minutes, recording a small handful of albums, before the frontman Alex McMurray went on to a host of other musical projects. But man, this band knew that town. Their first record, Happy Birthday, Sabo, is the city distilled. This song recalls to me many a bleary morning, with the sky breaking into light, and the warm beauty of the recent night, of women and of friends, lingering like a good dream which turned out to be true.

Changing Genres, by Dean Young

This poem is featured on The Writer’s Almanac this morning. My friend A called it to my attention. I love it.

Changing Genres, by Dean Young

I was satisfied with haiku until I met you,
jar of octopus, cuckoo’s cry, 5-7-5,
but now I want a Russian novel,
a 50-page description of you sleeping,
another 75 of what you think staring out
a window. I don’t care about the plot
although I suppose there will have to be one,
the usual separation of the lovers, turbulent
seas, danger of decommission in spite
of constant war, time in gulps and glitches
passing, squibs of threnody, a fallen nest,
speckled eggs somehow uncrushed, the sled
outracing the wolves on the steppes, the huge
glittering ball where all that matters
is a kiss at the end of a dark hall.
At dawn the officers ride back to the garrison,
one without a glove, the entire last chapter
about a necklace that couldn’t be worn
inherited by a great-niece
along with the love letters bound in silk.