The Taste of Defeat

Life is a series of mistakes. We rarely ever get it right the first time, and the true measure of us is how well we incorporate the lessons learned from them into our lives. Mistakes are how we grow.

But some mistakes are just really stupid. In 2005, I made one of these. At the time, I was working for a self-publisher in Bloomington, Indiana in a small room, editing. One of my coworkers was fond of selling his own image as a man of many talents. Today, that talent was gardening. Wrapped in a napkin, he presented the editorial office with a small, yellow vegetable. “This is a Thai ghost pepper. I grew it in my garden. It’s the strongest pepper in the world, and you probably shouldn’t ever eat it—”

“I could eat it,” I said from my desk without looking up.

“You probably shouldn’t. This is hot unlike anything you’ve ever known.”

“I’m from New Mexico,” I said, getting out of my chair and walking over to his desk, “nothing scares me.” And I plucked the pepper out of the napkin and bit it.

In the time it took me to stroll six feet and deposit the stem in the trash, it hit me. I couldn’t see my own face, but witnesses assure me that the shade of it was crimson. Pure, ignited, liquid napalm exploded in my mouth, and a sound that came from my belly was, “Gurgle.” I hustled to the break room, where we had a vending machine that sold milk (this is the only time in my careers that I have ever encountered such a thing), and I bought every eight-ounce carton of milk in stock and chugged it. That provided relief for the ten seconds at a time that the milk was pouring down my throat. Again, more insistently, my stomach went, “Gurgle,” and reading the subtext of that, I knew I had to find a restroom immediately.

I’ve lived through a lot of things in my life, and I survived them with the knowledge that this would pass. It seemed horrible now, but in a few hours, days at most, it would be a memory, and I’d be stronger. On that toilet, I didn’t have that knowledge. My eyes were streaming with tears, my ears were ringing, and my mouth had been reduced to something that existed to inflict pain. In short, every orifice had turned against me, and it would never be better, ever again.

Eventually the agony of those first minutes passed, but it took days for my digestive tract to forgive me. I was a changed man now, a humble man, a cautious man. I still believed that my coworker was full of shit, but I would heed his warnings in the future. The most important lesson I learned from this experience is the one that I pass onto you: if someone says don’t eat this, for the love of God, don’t eat it.

Oh, Mercy, Mercy Me

Here we are, six months into the pandemic, and a whole lot of people are acting like idiots. This spring, armed men invaded state capitals because they literally wanted to get a haircut. I was talking to someone about how this was the way life was now, and something occurred to me.

The last time that a major upheaval happened in our lives was nineteen years ago today. The whole country shut down under the weight of this horrible act of aggression. The peace and prosperity of the nineties was over (the prosperity had already ended pretty much as soon as Bush was sworn in, but that’s not how we remember it), and we were all going to make sacrifices of our old lives in the face of this new reality.

But in actuality, we didn’t. Life returned to normal pretty much instantly, and I’m not talking about extra airport security or Islamophobia or the incredibly unpopular president becoming a superhero to most of the country. I’m talking about day-to-day life. We could go to restaurants, go to movies, get the oh-so-important haircut. The words of comfort and aid from our president were not “Ask not what your country can do for you,” but rather, “Go shopping.” The MTA had an updated subway map out in about a week. We lost some of our freedoms, but we didn’t really miss them. The only people who gave anything up were those that rushed headlong into the recruiter’s office and found themselves in Afghanistan and Iraq, but, in general, those were the kinds of people who were going to join the military anyway, so no real difference.

Eighteen and a half years later, an invader came to our shores again to rob us of our way of life, and Americans, remembering how this kind of thing goes, were expecting a quick return to normalcy. We don’t like change.

But the fact of the matter is, everything changed, and it will be forever different. One day, in a year, maybe more, the stores may open up all the way again, and schools may be taking students in without having to go online again after a rash of infections pop up, but things won’t be the same. Many Mom and Pop stores will be forever shut down, to be replaced by a centralized, corporate structure. The kinds of people who are freaking out about masks will wield even more political power. We’re already seeing America’s billionaires getting exponentially richer over the past six months, and they’ll do anything not to lose their money. This is how life is now. We won’t be wearing masks forever, but the changes to the way we live our lives are fundamental. It is never going to be the way it was before.

And we, as Americans, can’t deal with that.

Swallow This

My first horror movie was Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. Prior to that, I’d spent fifteen years squeamish around gore and sensitive to people in pain. Horror movies in the eighties and early nineties were primarily slasher flicks, and I had no interest in seeing people get murdered, and I certainly didn’t want to see any guts. I liked my violence clean and sanitized and without any real consequence, as in superhero comics and Star Wars.

And then came the sleepover where I woke up early in the morning, and my friend was watching one of his favorite movies. I poured some coffee and joined him, catching the beginning, before the insanity started (and this was early in the movie, because the insanity starts pretty much right away), and I watched, through dismemberment and torture, and I wasn’t at all queasy like I’d expected myself to be. I was transfixed by the sheer spectacle of it. It was just around the time that the hero’s demon-possessed hand dragged himself into the kitchen to hit himself in the head with every single plate in the tri-county area that I turned to my friend and asked, “Is this supposed to be funny?” He told me that it was.

Evil Dead 2 is not so much a horror movie as it is a demented cartoon. Director and writer Sam Raimi throws subtlety and nuance down the garbage chute while invoking terror and tension, never giving the audience the chance to relax. Leading man Bruce Campbell has to carry a large portion of the movie by himself, and he is over the top while convincingly being horrified, terrified, grief-stricken, and angry. This movie sucks you right in and doesn’t let you go, no matter how ridiculous it gets.

In the hour and a half that I spent in my friend’s living room, I became desensitized to violence and gore on the screen, and suddenly I could watch any movie without fear. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less blasé about onscreen death, and now I find myself wondering after the families of the people who are getting killed in my fiction.

I guess the whole point of this post is that I just finished a rewatch of Evil Dead 2 after decades of it existing only in my memory, and I have to say, it still holds up. Groovy.

Mandela Effect

I had a long conversation about the Mandela Effect with Nicole and her friend because he had stated he wanted to see a band in concert, she told him he had already, he told her he hadn’t, and she found pictures on Instagram of him seeing that band in a concert he had no recollection of.

The Mandela Effect, if you don’t know, is the collective false memories that our society has about famous events. For example, most people remember four people in the presidential limo on November 22, 1963, despite the fact that there were actually six. Mostly, it’s pop culture, like the lines “Hello, Clarice” from The Silence of the Lambs, “Luke, I am your father,” from The Empire Strikes Back, or “Beam me up, Scotty,” from Star Trek, lines that were never uttered in any of those movies or TV shows. Some say that they saw video of the man in Tiananmen Square get run over by a tank, despite that no such video exists. There are those who swear that it’s spelled Volkswagon, not Volkswagen (despite that the former is not remotely German). The Mandela Effect gets its name from the fact that Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, despite the fact that a large number of people remember seeing his funeral on TV years before that, and if you go to any page on the subject, particularly pages with comments, people are really freaked out about it.

I have a Mandela Effect of my own, in a guy I went to college with who married someone close to me and is friends with most of my friends from back then and has pictures on their Facebook page of concerts that I’ve been to and is someone I should at least know peripherally, but I have no memory of whatsoever. I’ve spoken to my psychiatrist about this, and he agrees that selective editing of my life like this is highly unusual, even for someone with a legendarily lousy memory such as myself. But there it is, a “this-guy” hole in my life.

There are lots of explanations for the Mandela Effect, including alternate realities and the fact that the world actually ended on December 21, 2012, as was predicted by the Mayans, making this is some kind of weird echo/restart. Perhaps we’re all in virtual reality, and they keep rewriting the Matrix. Maybe something went funky with the Hadron collider.

In the end, though, it is simply misremembering things. Memory is one of the most fallible parts of our experiences as humans, and in a world that makes very little sense, our minds will fill in blanks to make things coherent. For example, one of the biggest bits of evidence that people will use for the Mandela Effect is the Berenstain Bears, the children’s book and cartoon series. People will swear up and down in a court of law that it’s Berenstein Bears, and the fact that it’s not is evidence that something’s not right in the world, not that they just remembered it wrong. When you think about it, -stain isn’t very often the end of someone’s surname. It’s usually -stein. People made assumptions, they were wrong, and they dug in their heels and declared that they couldn’t possibly be wrong, so the universe must be broken. I myself thought it was Berenstein until I learned about its place in the Mandela Effect conspiracy, and I just accepted the truth (i.e. it has always, from day one, been Berenstain) like an adult.

The Mandela Effect is kind of fun and a little bit creepy at times, but there is no such thing as alternate dimensions where they’re known as Looney Toons, not Looney Tunes, as they have been since the forties. This conspiracy is just another way that (mostly) Americans can defy the truth that’s in front of our eyes in favor of our “intuition.” This is yet one more reason we’re still in quarantine six months later when listening to the medical experts could have slowed down if not stopped the spread of a deadly virus. It’s the reason our president can gleefully violate the Constitution and other American laws and get away with it.

You’re going to be wrong about things, even things you’re positive you’re right about. It doesn’t make you less of a person. It makes you more of one.

An Honest Profession

A little over two years ago, Kate and I were on a cruise of Alaska, whale-watching, spa-enjoying, and quaint-stuff-shopping. It was the last real thing we did together, and I will always remember it fondly.

In the town of Ketchican, we wandered around and headed back to the boat, but I stopped. We had man hours ago before we had to board, and I wanted to tour Dolly’s House, a museum upstairs from the Red Onion Saloon. Dolly’s House was not only a brothel, but one of the best and most successful in the Alaska territory.

When the tour group gathered in the foyer, the tour guide, in character in her finest risqué Wild West dress and Warby Parker glasses, looked around the crowd and said, “Seeing a lot of familiar faces among the gentlemen.” We looked at each other and laughed at the absurdity that us straight-laced tourists would go to a whorehouse this day and age.

As we went on, our guide was describing some of the complexities of how business was run, and she said, “And they have to follow the first rule of prostitution. Who knows what that is?”

I raised my hand and said, “Get the money first.”

She looked at me, nodded her head, and said, “I knew I’ve seen you here before!”

And that is how I got called out by a fake prostitute.  

Antisocial Studies

If I needed any further proof that I have completely lost my ability to be a normal, social human being functioning in society, I have it.

Today at the pet store, the clerk was delighted by my Doctor Who mask, and he started a conversation with me about it. And I just stood there, staring blankly, like I was in a spelling bee, and they asked me to do Zstylzhemghi. I know I should have answered in depth and asked him some questions, but I had no idea what to say or how to say it. The moment passed, and I knew I had dropped the ball, and that’s been haunting me all day.

I used to be social. While not an extrovert by any means, I used to be friendly and chatty and attentive, and now I’m decidedly not. One of these days, I’m going to need to make more friends, and I can’t if I’m always standing there, like a deer in headlights.

Oh, No, Mr. Build!

When LEGO started to transition from freestyle building to model building, I was resentful. I spent a large fraction of my childhood with my LEGOs, creating worlds from a handful of styles of bricks. My imagination could fill in the rest. I was sad that the next generation of youth was going to have these rigid rules forced on them about what they should be playing with. What was the purpose of a set of blocks if they could only go together a certain way?

My attitude on that changed many, many years later, as a plague wept the nation, and there wasn’t much to do. I decided that I wanted a TARDIS for my LEGO-compatible (but not actually LEGO, let’s be clear on this) action figures to play with, and I remembered that LEGO had made a playset. It’s out of circulation, so I had to pay an obscene amount of money for it, but it arrived in the mail, and I spent an afternoon following the directions, watching as the familiar shapes and colors met with new shapes and colors and formed a TARDIS, a console room, and a pair of Daleks. I had to put it in a display case because Henry the Cat insists on knocking it to the floor whenever he feels not loved enough, so I can’t play with it anymore, but I still have that powerful feeling of accomplishment from converting a pile of modular plastic into something that looks mostly like something I watched on TV for years.

Months later, I’ve been living a routine of writing my book, going to work, watching TV, going on walks, and going to bed, with eating in there someplace. I decided to break out of the cycle and drop another ridiculous sum of money on another LEGO kit, this time just for the joy of building it.

People who suffer from attention-deficit disorder sometimes go through something called “hyperfocus.” I’m pretty sure people who don’t have ADD have experienced it too. It’s when you set yourself on a task, and nothing else matters. Your house could catch fire, but you don’t even care because YOU HAVE TO DO THIS THING. I can get this way with writing, though not lately. Today, though, as I poured the thousand-plus little pieces onto my desk and opened the instruction manual, I was there. I’ve been at it for two-and-a-half hours, and I’m only a third of the way through, and I pried myself away to get a glass of water, go to the bathroom, and pet Henry, who can’t wait for me to finish, so he can knock it off of a shelf.

Me, I don’t want it to ever end.

Cat Nap Fever

Lately, I’ve been feeling … I don’t know if guilty is the right word … about Newcastle, because all he does is sleep. He will aggressively snuggle with me about once or twice a day, he likes to watch the birds sometimes and tries to attack them through the window. He and Henry will wrestle every other day, and occasionally, he will run the length of the apartment and back again. Of course he eats and goes to the bathroom. But that’s all he does.

I shouldn’t be so concerned. He’s sixteen years old. I wouldn’t expect a senior citizen to go running around like his cousin, who is a third his age. I just don’t want him to be napping all the time because he’s depressed. I don’t want him to be wishing he’d stayed in Reston with the other two cats, group snuggling. Is he bummed out that my roommate has been gone for the past two months? Are his needs being met? Is he seeing and smelling enough to stimulate him? Is he happy? And then I remind myself, he’s not a person. He doesn’t think like we do.

This is the part of quarantine where I’m starting to crack up. The rest of the city is acting like the pandemic is over when it’s actually as bad as it’s ever been, if not worse, and instead of relaxing my protective measures, I am solidifying them. Thanks to grocery deliveries, the only reason I leave my apartment now is to go to the drug store (they won’t deliver with my insurance for some reason). With my world having gotten smaller and smaller, and is now only about 800 square feet, this means I may be worrying a little too much about things that aren’t a problem.

I tell you what, though. That cat is one hell of a cute sleeper.

The Sort of Gift

I just awoke to a delightful birthday surprise. In this apartment, our packages come after my bedtime, so the best time to check for them is first thing in the morning. What I found was a box from Kate Schroeder. Apparently, she’d found a photo album that belonged to me, and rather than throw it away, she shipped it over here. I wasn’t sure which photo album this was, but when I opened the box this morning, I found a book full of vintage photos of myself and my family going all the way back to the 1970s. I remember this book from when it was given to me by my parents back when I lived in New York. It was a connection to my past that I’d never really had, and I can’t believe how close I almost came to losing it forever. (I’d honestly thought I had it in my mementos roughneck. Oops!) This was a kind, thoughtful gesture by Kate that I will treasure.

She charged me for postage because she’s Kate, but still, she got it back in my hands.

Lost Friends

I was poking through my laptop this morning, and I found this. Shortly before I left home to begin my new life, our baby Andrew was not doing so hot. I had sat down at a café and written him an obituary the day I thought we were going to put him to sleep, but that day the vet had an idea for a new painkiller that really rejuvenated him. But the vet also said not to bring him back until the last time because he was old and frail. This was about a month before the divorce papers were handed to me. My last request of Kate was that she tell me when Andrew left our world, but the only communication I’ve had with her this past year and a half were about taxes. The fact is, Andrew is most definitely dead, and I don’t know when it happened or how it happened. Did Kate hold him in the vet’s office while he went to sleep forever, or did he just curl up in a sunbeam and never wake up? Andrew was my friend for fourteen years, and it’s past time to memorialize him.

Andrew Fuzzbutt Schroeder

January 2000 to ?

Andrew has never been much of a lap cat, so when, a few months ago, he started crawling on my chest and taking residence, thoroughly dislodging me from whatever I’d been doing, I was thrilled. It’s been brought to my attention, given his health, that he may have been coming to me for comfort. And so that leads to the big conflict—can I enjoy the memories of him cuddling with me, purring away, when it was a symptom of discomfort?

It’s a smaller version of the bigger conflict—can I, in good conscience, fight tooth and nail to keep this cat alive when he’s got a tumor eating him from the inside out, when the only humane thing to do is put him to sleep? It’s me being selfish, and I don’t want to be a selfish person. But how am I supposed to live without him?

I wasn’t there, but I’ve heard a million times the tale of how he was adopted. Kate had gone to the shelter on a mission for a black cat she could name Magik. While standing in front of the cages, she felt something tugging on her leg, and so she looked down to see a little gray fluffball whose name was Andrew. When she didn’t pay sufficient attention to him, he reached through the bars, opened the latch of his cage, and took off. She said, “I’ll take that one.”

One should never adopt smart pets, particularly cats, because they get bored. Andrew cut a path of destruction across the house, and, as an athletic leaper, he could get anywhere he wanted. Kate was forced to give him a middle name so she could yell at him like a parent when he misbehaved (“Andrew Fuzzbutt Schroeder, you stop that!”). And yet he was cute, the cutest in the world, an observation based on strict scientific principles, so one look with his big yellow eyes could disarm your rage. Based on his intelligence and vertical reach, as well as the way he sleeps, Kate has concluded that he’s not really a cat, but rather a dragon disguised as a cat. I’ve seen nothing that contradicts this.

I moved in four years after she found him, and I became primary caretaker of the cats, feeding them and cleaning their litter. Andrew recognized that, and he respected me, but we never bonded like he and Kate did. But I love him all the same. That’s why it’s been so painful watching him studying countertops as if he were going to jump on them, but being too weak or too hurting to make it. He used to be the most gluttonous of the cats, sometimes eating out of the scoop as I distributed the dry food, but lately, I’ve been rejoicing whenever I see him eat.

The fact is, it was time for Andrew to retire (that’s my euphemism; I like it, and I’m keeping it), and no amount of love from me was going to stop that. And so he did.

He was my friend. I’m going to miss him. I’m lucky I have two more little friends to help me through this.