Off the Old Block

There are a series of short stories I really love, by famed mystery writer Lawrence Block, and they’re all about a character named Keller. The stories were published all over the place, and they’re self-contained, but there’s a specific order to them, and with the collection I own and have owned since slightly after I moved to New York, you can follow the story. I remember I first encountered the character in an issue of Playboy (there IS stuff in there that aren’t nude pictures, honest!), and he stuck with me that I was stunned to find out that there was a whole book of his stories.

Keller is a regular lonely guy in New York who has maybe too much spare time. He watches movies, goes on long walks in Central Park, sees a therapist, and he takes up stamp-collecting at one point. Every once in a while, maybe once a month, he gets a phone call, he takes a train to Upstate New York, talks to his boss, and flies out somewhere in the United States, and murders someone. He’s not an action-movie hitman by any means. He very rarely uses a gun, he’s not a martial artist, he’s not insane, and he doesn’t kill only “bad people.” He just very efficiently figures out how to get into someone’s comfort zone and exterminate them, no questions asked.

As someone who had been raised on Tarantino movies and a lot of the crime dramas from the nineties, it was very easy for me to put aside the horrible job this character has and get to know him personally. Maybe it was that compartmentalizing I’m pretty good at. Either way, I didn’t think much about it. He’s an introvert with a rich inner life, like me, only instead of fixing spreadsheets, he killed people, and I was able to identify with him.

Around the time I got the book, I was dating a wonderful artist in Brooklyn, and she was interested in whatever I was interested in, so she watched all my favorite movies and read all my favorite books, yet she has a very low violence threshold. She really wrestled with the book because she liked Keller, but what he did was monstrous, and she struggled to reconcile that.

I’m rereading the book, trying to inspire myself to write my next novel, now that I’ve finished the one I put aside to write my screenplay, as well as the one I put aside to write the one I put aside for the screenplay, and I’m remembering something that pissed this girlfriend off about the book more than any of the murders did. In one story, Keller gets a dog, and in a subsequent story, he later gets a dog-walker. Then, in another story, he and the dog-walker hook up. One story after that, Keller gets an assignment and takes care of it, going through all the motions, until the very end, where he tells someone she left him, and she took the dog.

This infuriated my girlfriend. Why did he take twenty-five pages to acknowledge that his relationship had ended? Why was he not thinking about it and mourning it that whole week he was out of town and killing someone? Why did he not talk to anyone about it? And yet for me, this seemed to be the natural thing. This is before “compartmentalizing” became a word that people used, but what was wrong with filing grief away? There was an unexpected loss in your life, and you might as well start moving forward as soon as you can instead of dwelling on it. It’s how I handled my breakup with her, and boy did that cause problems post-relationship (she is the one ex who will never talk to me ever again—all of the others, even with their grievances, acknowledge me). It’s also how I handled my divorce. The grief spilled out sometimes, mostly because of the far-reaching financial ramifications, but mostly it was tucked away where it wouldn’t interfere with me.

I am willing to acknowledge that my muted reaction to the divorce probably had to do with the truckloads of lithium I’m on, but there was no excuse for how I reacted in 2002. (Which was twenty years ago. Jesus.) I also know that I almost had a friend break up with me last year, and I did not compartmentalize at all. I yelled, I screamed, I begged, so I’m not incapable of feeling grief. Men are taught not to feel emotions other than anger, so I wonder how much of that had to do with Keller’s reaction to that breakup, as well as mine. I haven’t lost anyone close to me in years—what’s going to be my reaction when it inevitably happens?

I haven’t made it to the offending story yet; Keller has just met the dog-walker, and they are just friendly right now. I haven’t read this book in over twenty years, so I wonder how I’m going to see it. Will I identify with Keller’s stiff upper lip, or will I be angry at him like she was, all that time ago.

The Muffled Man

A friend recently made a post about how she feels out-of-sorts with her bipolar meds. She’s not depressed, but that’s really the only way to describe her mood, “not depressed.” She has no motivation to do anything. It got me thinking about my experiences.

I’m on a ludicrous amount of lithium, and the side effect of that is that I’m pretty numb all the time. In fact, I feel exactly like my friend. I tell people I’m happy, but I’m using the word “happy” as a synonym for “content.” My life is good, I type, stretching out my hands and arms because my cat is sleeping between myself and the keyboard, but I’m not happy. I don’t even know what happiness feels like. I had an incredible time last month at my work conference, but it didn’t really affect me long-term. Likewise, I have moments of disappointment (my dating life) or despair (that really bad review I got), but never any actual pain. I’m like a Nerf ball: you can put a dent in me, but I’m back to my old shape in moments.

What’s the alternative? Well, I’m bipolar 2, which means I’m depressed most of the time. Depression, with a capital D, is brutal. It’s not just a mental affliction, but a physical one. When I had a bad depressive episode after Robin Williams died, my joints hurt, and I couldn’t walk without pain. Depression turns you into a selfish asshole who sucks the joy out of everything. Nobody knows what to do with you. And when I’m not depressed, I’m manic. Here’s the reason a lot of bipolars will stop taking their medication. Being manic feels like you do after you’ve had a couple of drinks. You’re lucid, better looking, funnier, more charming, and a royal douchebag. Whenever I had a manic episode, it climaxed in some intense behavior, and I would crash instantly into the lowest depression imaginable. What triggers my manic episodes? Unadulterated joy. No wonder I want to be numb all the time. It’s just safer.

What keeps me from becoming a zombie who sits in front of his iPad watching Netflix all day is that I have found the thing or things that bring me joy, and I hold onto it for dear life. I have Doctor Who, as I proved when I spent hundreds of dollars on merchandise in December. Seventeen-foot scarfs and a complete set of Doctors isn’t enough to give me something to feel. My real anchor, which you must have guessed by now, is writing. Making up stories, making up people, and currently, crafting a screenplay (I call if “crafting” because there is a science to drafting a screenplay; i.e. you can’t just make it up as you go along) are the first things I do in the morning, and I can’t wait to go to bed the night before to see what I will cook up tomorrow.  

I’ve lived my entire life like this, and five years ago I finally found the cocktail that works. The side effect is that I’m kind of toned down. I can tell you now that it is 100 percent worth it.

All fourteen Doctors, or the world’s largest doo-wop group?

An Autopsy of my Nostalgia 

I finished my typing project. I was only going to do 2002-2004, but I kept going backward, all the way to April 1999. I typed up a total of 162 entries, and there were only about a dozen between 1999 and 2001.  It turned out to cover almost my entire life in New York, give or take a few months here and there, and what a journey it was.  

Things I learned. 

1) I was really smug at times, and it was kind of hilarious, like watching a fourteen-year-old in his dad’s suit. 

2) My life in New York wasn’t some solid stretch of time. I went through several different phases where I was a different person throughout: a fish-out-of-water, a lonely single guy, a boyfriend, a rock ‘n’ roll bar fiend, and those all break down into subcategories.  
 

3) I had no idea how good I had it, particularly during that party guy stretch at the end. I had a solid, diverse group of friends, a city that was wide open with possibilities, and a comic book to illustrate. And I was so unhappy. It just goes to show that you don’t appreciate it until you don’t have it anymore.  

4) There are some friends who were real rock stars in that period of my life, some of whom are on Facebook, some of whom actually log into Facebook every once in a while, and one who is not on Facebook or really anywhere on the internet (I tracked down his email address a week ago and sent him a note, but he hasn’t responded, so that’s one door that’s thoroughly closed). If you’re one of these rock stars, you will likely be hearing from me soon; please don’t mind me, I’m feeling nostalgia.  

I don’t want to say I peaked twenty-three to seventeen years ago. As I mentioned above, I was pretty unhappy through all of it, looking for romance and not being satisfied when I found it. During my marriage, I traveled the world and properly treated the mental illnesses that plagued me, becoming a much happier person overall. I never want to go back there again. However, New York was a vibrant, exciting time in my life, and, as I approach retirement and the weeks kind of bleed into each other, I don’t think I’ll ever have that much fun again. What’s nice about these updates I’ve found is that I go into such detail that I am finding about dinner parties that I have no memory of, as well as the discovery that I went on TWO dates with that unusual girl I met at another party, not just the one, and just how much of a jerk one of my ex-friends could be.  

This was also a nice break from writing novels, which I’ve been doing nonstop for four years, and a little bit of inspiration for my next one. If I had to grade this little project, I give it an A+.  

A Gift of Platinum and China

I struggled for a year about what I should do for the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The most obvious thing to do would be to go to New York and be there for it, but I really can’t. It’s not because of money or finding a place to stay or anything but because it’s not my New York. My New York is trapped in amber from 1998 to 2004 when subway fares were $1.50 and the Freedom Tower hadn’t even been conceived yet. My New York doesn’t exist anymore, just like the Jeremiah of 2001 doesn’t exist anymore either, and that is a mixed blessing. I thought of myself as a New Yorker for years after I moved on, but not anymore. I’ve lived in the greater DC area for thirteen years (minus the two-and-a-half I lived in Qatar), far longer than I lived in New York, or even New Mexico, which I consider my home (I won’t be going back there either). I made the decision I would stay home for the anniversary of the day the world ended.

New York has always been a city in flux, so it’s not only unrecognizable from 2001, but it’s also unrecognizable from 2014, the last time I was there. I think that really showed itself in the weeks following September 11, 2001. The Twin Towers had dominated the skyline for decades, looking like, as Donald Westlake described them, an upside-down pair of trousers. Suddenly, it was gone, and all that was left was wreckage that was still recognizable as the World Trade Center. After we finished running away, screaming, and when the dust settled, we had to return to our lives. There was an updated subway map on September 17. By September 24, I was back to work a block and a half from a smoking crater, having to take a ferry there from Hoboken because the PATH train went directly into the World Trade Center. We got used to the Towers’ absence really quickly, and life went on.

Except life didn’t. I was in a relationship at the time that was irreparably damaged by the events of that day and limped along for another five months out of sheer inertia before falling down and dying. The problem was she was shaken to her core by the attack, and she needed comfort. I was unable to give it because I had shut down my emotions to get me through that day, and they didn’t come back on for a long time. It didn’t help that I was drunk and high constantly for the two weeks following the incident. Not dealing with it was how I chose to deal with it.

As a sidebar, I met someone who would become one of my most fondly remembered friends as a result of that day. At the end of the month, someone threw a party for all the September birthdays that didn’t get celebrated that year, and I met this really cool young woman and wanted to be her friend right away. She was celebrating because 9/11 gave her the kick in the pants she needed to divorce her terrible spouse. As with everything, there were good side effects.

The vaccine-denying, election-overturning, polarized hate-fest that is modern America has a lot of roots in this day. There are a lot of milestones on the road to where we are now—the nomination of Ronald Reagan for president in 1980, the ascension of Newt Gingrich to Speaker of the House in 1995, and so on. However, as a result of being president on one of the worst days in American history, George W. Bush, who was well on his way to becoming a one-term president, became a two-term president, and the Republican Party really got the hang of hateful polarizing tribalism. Rudy Guiliani would have been a footnote in history had he not stood on the rubble and started barking orders. Do you remember flag pins? Do you remember what would happen to you politically if you didn’t wear one?

On the twentieth-anniversary year, we finally left Afghanistan, the country we destroyed in retaliation for the attack. When we first invaded in 2002, the Taliban was in control. In 2021, the Taliban is in control. As much dread as I feel for the people stuck there under this oppressive regime, I can’t help but shake my head and wonder what the fucking point of all of it was.

Osama bin Laden has been quoted saying he wanted to bankrupt the United States, not conquer it. People who were watching American troops loot Saddam’s palace a year and a half later were thinking, “U! S! A! We won! Take that, bin Laden!” But we have gone trillions in debt occupying countries and not actually helping anything. All of the precious freedoms President Bush said “they” hated were being signed away by the PATRIOT Act and other bits of legislation. Dick Cheney’s company Halliburton robbed the off-the-books budget and didn’t even pretend they weren’t doing it. Osama bin Laden wasn’t a stupid man. He accomplished his mission.

September 11 is a formative chapter in my life as a young man. I’m not a young man anymore. In the 2000 election, George W. Bush and Al Gore fought like gladiators over prescription-drug benefits for seniors. The summer of 2001, the most front-page headlines were about Gary Condit, a U.S. Representative who was suspected of killing his aide. America has not been young for a long time, but in 2000, 2001, the stakes seemed a little lower. We can’t go back to those days again. I can’t go back to those days again. I could go to New York, but it will be as foreign to me as San Francisco was when I went this summer. It would be like going back after a while to that coffee shop you frequented until you left the neighborhood, and the barista who knew you by name doesn’t recognize you anymore. In fact, we’re going to let Pearl Jam play us out with a little number from 1993, “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.”

I seem to recognize your face
Haunting, familiar yet
I can’t seem to place it.
Cannot find a candle of thought to light your name
Lifetimes are catching up with me

Fat Load of Good

You can’t tell because I don’t put pictures of myself online, I put on an incredible amount of weight since the divorce. It all came down to diet, I just ate garbage, and a lot of it, three meals a day. I was actually pretty active, taking a 2.5-mile-or-more walk six days a week. That’s where the problem started. I started getting a burning pain in my legs as I went longer distances. It got worse and worse, until finally, in January, I couldn’t just suck it up anymore, and I called a doctor. They told me it was a vascular issue related to obesity, and I immediately got rid of all the garbage and tried to eat better. I’m pretty sure I lost weight in this period, but I hadn’t weighed myself since 2018, so I have no way of knowing.

In April, I physically went to the doctor, and she told me that my ideal weight shouldn’t be my age plus 200 pounds, so I downloaded a calorie-counting app and hired a weight loss coach. This was mid-April. I’m happy to say that I’ve lost 20 pounds in the past two-and-a-half months, but I’m still quite fat—I can’t see the difference in the mirror yet. However, I’m within spitting distance of my weight goal (when I hit that goal, I will set another, but for now, I just want to be 200 pounds again), and for the first time in a really long time, I feel like I don’t have to look like this forever, and I can’t begin to tell you how good that feels. I have felt repulsive for a long time, but oddly at peace about it, accepting that this was the way it was going to be forever.

The reason I’m sharing this today is that the last day of the month is weigh-in day, and the scale gave me the great news that, despite some slip-ups, I’ve lost eight pounds in June. I honestly can’t believe the kind of shit I used to eat, but that’s behind me. I’m feeling lighter and ready to go.

All Alone in the Moonlight

It was Saturday morning, early, and I was enjoying a latte from a cafe called Wine and Butter in Lincoln Park (not to be confused with Linkin Park). I like to write in public places because the crowds energize me, and, at 7:30 a.m., there are runners and dog-walkers, and the day was already quite beautiful.

The thing I don’t like about the pandemic is that I can’t see the expressions on people’s faces as they do their thing. That’s part of where the energy comes from. But I can watch their body language, and I look up from my notebook periodically to see who’s around.

A woman walked toward me, not wearing a mask. This part of D.C. is practically religious about wearing them, so she was out of place. But when she steered in my direction, I became a little nervous. I wasn’t wearing a mask because I was sipping my latte, and by the time she stood just a couple of feet from me, I hadn’t had time to put mine back on.

I thought she was going to ask me for money, despite being well-dressed. She said, “Hi!” I said, “Hi!” And then she just stood there, watching me, this smirk on her face. And finally she went, “Really?” and she stomped off, adding, “Damn!”

I think I was supposed to know this woman. I think that she was saying hi to someone she knew, and he had no clue who she was. I am mortified by this. Was it someone from The Container Store? Was it someone from my day job? Did I just blow off someone who I liked, and who liked me?

That’s what I’ve been doing most of the day: trying to figure out who this woman is. I’m pretty sure I made a huge mistake, guys.

The Write Decision

Okay, so this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to do it. I’m going to dip my toe into the pool of self-publishing. Based on everything I’ve read over the course of the day, I will have the most success if I start out with a series of three or four, which I have. The first step I’m going to take is to pull these books out of the mothballs and give them a serious edit. Step two will be getting covers for all four volumes. The tricky part of step two is that, I shopped around, and a cover is going to cost me between $250 and $300 each. I have enough money to afford this. But it’s a serious investment, and that is making me really cagey. Step three is getting people who will read for free, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Basically, going through traditional channels has gotten me nowhere (but I do plan to start back up on that), so I need to take matters into my own hands.  

Cooped up and Crazy

Day 15 of quarantine, and I’ve snapped. I thought that, as a rabid introvert, this would be great, but I’m barely keeping it together.

Part of it is physical. It’s a seven-minute walk at top speed to get to the office from the Metro in the morning, and Order Processing is an active, demanding job, and over the course of two days, all of that is gone. Walks around the cemetery aren’t filling in the gap.

Mostly it’s time. What am I supposed to do with all of it? I thought I’d write more with tons of it, but I’m actually writing less. When I worked, I wrote for an hour first thing in the mornings, on the trains when I found a seat, and in the hour between jobs. I still write for an hour in the morning, but that’s it. The rest of my time I spend trying unsuccessfully to think of things to write and watching TV. When time isn’t precious, I tend to waste more of it.

This is going to go on for a while, so what I need is some way to apply the pressure that I’m used to, or just to use the time productively, or to accept and forgive myself if I’m not productive. These are strange times.

Taking a Bow

I had a chilling thought that came unbidden in my head, and I can’t shake it. It’s telling me I should kill myself. I’m having a hard time shaking it because I don’t think it’s wrong. I’m not saying this because I’m depressed, but because of the logic of it. It breaks down to two reasons.

First, I won’t be missed much. The fact is, I’m not a priority in anyone’s life. I’m not feeling sorry for myself when I point this out. My relationships suffered under my marriage, and died when I moved to Qatar, and by the time I felt good enough get them back, everyone has moved on. They’ve got partners and children and friendships that didn’t disappear for five years, and no one has time for me. And that’s okay. It is what it is. I’m not upset about it. I’m doing fine.

And that brings me to my second reason. I’m fine. Everything is fine. I haven’t been this good in ten years. If I’m going to pull the plug, now’s the time to do it, before the other side of middle age and the depths our government and society are going to fall. I don’t have a lot to look forward to, but this moment is perfect. Logically, it makes sense.

I’m not going to commit suicide. It would kill my parents, and it would royally screw over my roommate, even if I slipped her all of the money in my bank account before I did it. Plus, she’d be the one who found me, and I don’t want to do that to anyone.

But there’s that voice in my head, telling me it’s a brilliant idea. Its logic, though, can’t get past the fact that I’m never going to do that.

Crushin’ It

Confession time: I kind of have a crush. It’s no one you know, and it’s not someone I see often, but it’s a thing. I just know that whenever they wave me over to come talk to them, I want to impress them and follow them around all the time like Newcastle follows me around, telling them, “What you’re doing? Keep doing that.”  

This person is younger than me, so their language and priorities are different than mine, and that is endlessly fascinating to me. They’ve got an energy I can barely keep up with, but I want to try. I’m old enough and wise enough to know that this could not sustain itself much more than the encounters I have with them as it is. I don’t want a relationship with this person. Hell, I don’t have anything in common with them, but they still make my heart go all aflutter. When I’m around them, I feel more confident, more interesting, more fun, more special. They give me something to look forward to and daydream about, and a reason to sigh wistfully.  

It’s interesting having a crush when you have no sexual desire, but it’s actually way better. My feelings aren’t limited to wanting to see them naked or kiss them (they would probably snuggle like a pro, though, if I’m speculating). They don’t have to be “cute” for me to be into them. I’m interested in their personality, in what makes them what they are.  

If I’m being honest with myself, this is about the most impersonal relationship I can have with anyone, and that’s just the way I am now. I don’t want to make any time and energy commitments, and the last thing I need is a romance of any sort. A crush like this is a way to tick some boxes of my social needs without having to tick the boxes I don’t want.  

This doesn’t happen to me very often, so I prize it when it does, and I have no idea how long it’s going to last. I just know that I’m really enjoying it, and that’s absolutely perfect for this moment.