That Darn Cat

Newcastle just got back from the cardiologist, where I just spent a lot of money to get him checked out. They diagnosed him with congestive heart failure. Six years ago. When the doctor called me after the appointment today, it was clear that he was shocked that Newcastle was still alive (the usual survival after a diagnosis like this is a year, two tops), much less in great shape. At sixteen, there is no sign of arthritis, and he sleeps a lot, but he loves to play, with Henry and with the ribbon-on-a-string, he eats really well, he has no problem in the bathroom, and his coat looks like it’s been blown out recently by an expensive stylist named “Grigio.”

There’s something special about this cat, I tell you.

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.

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.  

A Positive Spin

I think I’m making a huge mistake, narratively, in my novel, but I’m not sure I want to fix it. Basically, the law and order principal of my heroine’s high school asks her to trust her (the principal) with the kind of secret that could end the heroine’s life at that school if it gets out. This would be the perfect opportunity for betrayal and creating an impossible social situation and the kind of chaos that my stories thrive on.

But I don’t do that. The principal keeps her word. The secret is safe.

Right now, I severely distrust authority. From the top to the bottom, I don’t believe that authority, in general, has my best interests at heart. I saw my high school principals, in one way or another, betray the students they were supposed to protect. One went to prison for it. And yet I don’t want to teach my heroine the same lesson I learned. Her life is hard enough as it is. I want her to be able to trust someone in power.

As a weaver of plots, I chose the boring path, the overly optimistic one. This isn’t Game of Thrones—this is a YA novel about a teenage witch. Let me have a little light.

Cancel, Check

I’m out of the loop, so I just found out about all of the accusations from women aimed at Warren Ellis.

To say that this is disappointing is an understatement. Warren Ellis is one of my favorite writers of all time–I think the man is a certified genius at creating comics, as well as his second life as a cartoon scriptwriter. I hardly read comics anymore, but I make sure to pick up whatever Mr. Ellis has dropped on the shelf that week, even when it’s a (ugh) Batman book. I recently dropped over $100 to read the entirety of Transmetropolitan, his opus.

To be fair, he hasn’t been accused of doing anything illegal, such as sexual assault. What he’s accused of is, in general, being a creep, and leveraging his status as king-and-queenmaker to royally mess with some very vulnerable young women with aspirations in the comics industry. This is not okay.

Am I surprised by this? Not really. He’s always had the kind of attitude you can imagine a creep displaying. But should he be cancelled? I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to do. This is all fresh to me.

Ugh! Why are men with power the worst?

Desert Flora Through Time and Space

One of my earliest memories is when I was a really, really young child, and I stumbled on my dad watching Doctor Who for the first time. The image seared into my brain was a man with brown, curly hair and a large, red scarf, made up to look like a cactus, stumbling around. Scared the living crap out of me.

Almost forty years later, I’m watching “Meglos” again, and two things occur to me. One is that the model work on the pirates’ spaceship was outstanding, and I have no idea how they did it at that budget.

More importantly, in the eighties, most movie and TV producers would look at a script and say, “Put our lead actor in full cactus makeup? That would be ridiculous! Not on my watch!” But Doctor Who producers read the script and said, “Tom Baker as a cactus? That would be ridiculous! I don’t care what it takes, make it happen!”

And that’s why I will always love Doctor Who best.

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.

An Excerpt

Actual dialogue from meeting my downstairs neighbor for the first time:

HER: … because I grew up in the Southwest.

ME: Where in the Southwest did you grow up?

HER: Well, New Mexico.

ME: Where in New Mexico?

HER: I tell people Albuquerque because that’s a place they’ve heard of, but it’s actually not very close to Albuquerque.

ME: Oh, where’s that? I might have heard of it.

HER: I was born in Gallup.

ME: Oh.

HER: It’s actually—

ME: I was raised in Gallup.

HER: What?!

Looking back, I didn’t ask her enough questions about it, and seeing as I’ve lived here for almost nine months and had only seen her once through the window, I probably won’t get the chance. But hey, pretty wild, right?