Sunday, October 30, 2016

Birthday Notes From an Old Man

My birthday is on Halloween.  And yes, I know that makes sense.

Everything adds up now, doesn't it?

Traditionally, it's the real New Year's Eve.  It's when our ancestors used to look back on the year behind them.  I do this as well.

I'll be 45 years old and I'm going to stop lying about that because I used to say I'm 29, but I'm tired of doing that.  I'm tired of calling so much of my life something else just because it makes me feel better or to avoid the truth of it.

I've been sick these last few days so I've stayed home to binge-watch Grimm.  I didn't like it at first but after binge-watching it for a while, I got sucked in, and now I've watched the first four seasons. That means I'm out of free episodes to watch, Amazon wants to charge me to watch the fifth season, and I can't afford to do that just yet.  Also, Hulu only has the last 5 episodes of the 5th season available for some reason.

It boggles the mind.

But now my fear of abandonment is acting up.  From a tv show.  Yes, I know.  They're going to cancel Grimm after the 6th Season, and even that won't be a full season, just a 13-episode half-season.

I don't do well with people drifting out of my life.  If I get attached, then I expect them to stay there, from now on.  But that's not how life is supposed to be.  People drift in, people drift out.  Fate decides we talk to somebody when we need them and when we're done, Fate removes them from our lives.

I had a great online friend when I was in college named Cyn.  When I met her, she was in college and getting her degree to teach high school biology in Texas.  She was really into fish.  Cyn was in her mid-30's when we met.

I relied upon Cyn for a lot of things and one of them was to keep me alive while depression and psychosis tore me apart.  I was a wreck.  I was so close to the edge that when I look back, I honestly don't understand how I managed to avoid going over.

Cyn yelled at me when I needed it, offered advice and experience, but most of all she was somebody who knew how screwed up I was and yet she was still there for me without flinching.  She didn't run away.  And when you're human wreckage, limping, barely alive, and reaching out for somebody's hand, that lack of flinching means everything.

Cyn was the first person I went to when I had my epiphany about myself.  The moment I realized I was indeed a human being was powerful for me.  For years I thought I was something less than, something different, discarded and worthless.  When I realized I was a human being, it meant something to me.  And when I told her, her response was perfect, "Maybe now you'll give yourself a break and be good to yourself."

Sometimes I wonder what a comic book representation of myself would look like, with all my demons, ghosts, and issues.  What would I look like to an outsider?  Would I be a large infant screaming about a paper cut?  Would I be a spoiled man-child raging for more entitlement?  Or would I be a man being devoured alive by an unknown parasite that whispers in my ear how everything is just fine?  Whatever Cyn saw, she didn't run away, and for that I will always be grateful.

I lost contact with her when I lived in Korea.  I tried to keep up but my life over there went turbo. And once again, she offered me advice I should have taken, because she was right.  Cyn was always right.

People drift in and out of our lives, but family always remains.  I think that's part of the whole reason we're supposed to pair up, make children, and settle down.  It gives us a reason to wake up every morning as we grow older.  In our early years, we live for ourselves, but as we grow older, we live for those we love and who love us.  We live because somebody is counting on us.  We're raising children, or we're in a close relationship with somebody who loves us, and accepts our love for them.

As I said before, I've been sick these past few days.  IBS.  My system's gone schizophrenic and if I eat different foods too often, it locks down, and freaks out.   It's painful, I can't sleep, and it eventually causes a fever along with the dry-heaving and everything else.  After two days of this, I was pretty strung out.

My mom sent me a birthday care package.  Included were some nice Halloween trinkets, some Halloween decorations, a book from my cousin, and a card with a check inside.  The book my cousin sent me was amazing--Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1918 edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and it was in wonderful condition.  A true gem, really.  I called her to say thanks and ended up breaking down.  I had no warning, it just came.

It was the kindness that got me.  I wasn't expecting it even though it was my own mother who loves me and wants the best for me.  While I'm always expecting her to be disappointed in me for some reason, she never is, and sometimes just that alone is powerful enough cut me to the bone.

This month has been rough on me.  She's heard it in my voice during my weekly calls to her and now she thinks I'm at the end of my rope.  This is not what I wanted to convey.  I'm not at the end of my rope.  But I'm finding out a lot of people are worried about me, not just Mom and a few friends.

The problem is, I don't see this as depression.  I see this as a realistic appraisal of my life.  It's all very rational to me.

I'm going to be 45 years old and I have nothing to show for it.  Most folks by now have children, some kind of significant other in their lives, a halfway decent car, and maybe even a house.  I have none of those things.  Just insurmountable debt and a dead-end job I'm pissing away while I physically deteriorate from neglect.  I'm currently at my heaviest, slowest, weakest, I've ever been.  All the warning signs are there for serious health problems coming down the line unless I do something radical and soon.

What I find myself doing now is looking at my life critically and scrutinizing the merits of continued effort with a cost-effective paradigm.  Is it really worth it to continue beating my head against the wall?  What's in it for me?  Best-case scenario--what's the best I could hope for?  What are the realistic outcomes possible based on past performance and current trends?

I'm almost treating myself like a mutual fund and trying to decide if I need to keep riding this wave or if it's time to cut my losses and cash out.  And right now, I cannot find a reason to invest any kind of effort today into a better tomorrow.  The patterns I have seen, and past performance, all indicate there is absolutely no reason for me to even bother.  It's been shit up to this point, and they were supposed to be the best years, so why would I want to invest any kind of time or effort into the downhill slide?

And no, this isn't one of those moments where you need to get on the phone and call somebody to get over here.  It's not like that.  I'm just re-evaluating.

Earlier, I've been framing my life more in terms of mythology.  I've posted a few times about this and if you're curious what I wrote, feel free to check it out here.  The movie Mythic Journeys changed my life.  It forced me to look at my life and what I've been doing in a totally different light.  Instead of what I've accrued, it taught me to look at what I've learned, and how I've been able to use those lessons in my life.

The lessons I learned in the past year were harsh and I haven't implemented much at all.  I have stubbornly refused to change and as a result, I am every bit in the same mess I've been in.  This is all on me, too.  I can't blame poverty or stress.  

I haven't done what I've needed to do because I have no faith the future will be any better regardless of the effort I put in improving it.  I've had all kinds of people tell me that we never know what the future will hold but that's bullshit.  We know exactly what to expect because life just doesn't suddenly improve.  

But here is what I've decided:  I'm going to move forward and work on improvements.  I have begun being more active.  I've been writing again, and last night I found out I've got a short story accepted, plus my brain is coming up with plot bunnies once more.  I'm getting out and about to actually talk to people face-to-face.  

My reasons for doing this are simple:  I want to know at the hour of my death that I didn't give up, that I at least tried, and I didn't leave anything on the table.  Maybe there is somebody out there for me.  Plus, I'm enjoying my ice cream hobby.  I love making ice cream for people.  I sell it sometimes so I can afford to keep making ice cream.  

I've even been making videos about making ice cream.  Weird, I know.  

But no, this journey isn't done yet.  And after the October I've had, it is with morbid curiosity I continue to stick around, because Satan only knows what's gonna happen next.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Woes of a Supernatural Fan.

I dearly love how we can now binge-watch shows.  I remember back in the old days when this was something we just never got a chance to do.  Maybe, if you were lucky, somebody had the series you liked on VHS and they let you borrow it.  You could sit down and watch all the shows at once, if you were lucky enough to have them.

It was a rare thing.  Most of the time, there were shows missing.  Or they weren't in order.  The VHS quality was crap and you often missed entire scenes.  Sometimes there were other shows recorded on top of that tape.

I didn't have Star Trek:  The Next Generation when it first came out.  I was living in the country and the channel that carried it just didn't come on our TV.  Luckily, a friend of mine, Don, had some of the episodes for me to watch.  They were in no particular order, but I devoured them, and that's how I started watching ST:TNG.

It was like that for a few shows.  I wasn't able to finally binge-watch Twin Peaks until I was in Korea and found the whole series it in some hole-in-the-wall video rental store.  I would watch each episode in the dark of a classroom after everybody was gone, freezing my ass off because there wasn't any heat.  It would get downright creepy as the Killer Bob scenes became more and more menacing and I would be alone in that floor of the building.

The first time I was able to binge-watch a show online it was a glorious moment in personal entertainment.  Maybe it was Netflix, maybe it was some pirate site, it doesn't really matter.  What matter is that now we don't have to wait for the next episode or fret over some cliffhanger.  We can just sit down and watch the fucking thing.  It's nice.

Right now, a fellow horror writer and blogger, Rhoda Nightmare, has started binge-watching one of my favorite shows--Supernatural.

I count myself as one of the few people to have actually seen the pilot episode when it first aired all of those years ago.  It was so long ago, I was living with my aunt temporarily.  I had a rare night off from all of the jobs I was working, and I got to watch a show that looked interesting.

I'll admit I liked Supernatural right from the beginning.  My life got weird after that and I wasn't able to keep up with the show.  In fact, I thought it had been cancelled because it was on one of those newer networks full of shows nobody really liked.  Plus, I have this thing where I just assume if I happen to like the show then the networks are going to cancel it.

Supernatural is like a good pizza crust.  It is topped with a wide variety of stories, homages to various monsters, movies, books, short stories, comic books, cartoons, and even songs.  Some of these episodes are Monsters of the Week.  Once in a while, it's not even a monster, it's a really bad human.  And sure, there's the story that runs through the whole season, giving it that soap opera feeling.

I love 4th wall moments and Supernatural has a bunch of those.  It laughs at itself a lot.  One of my favorites was when Sam and Dean were put into a parallel dimension where they were the actors who played themselves.  Hence, they were Jared Padelecki and Jensen Ackles.  It was hilarious.  They made fun of themselves, their trailers, and Jared's wife, who played Ruby on the show at one point.  Genevieve Cortese even played herself, which was funny as hell, while Dean made fun of Sam for marrying a demon.

The point is, the show has some very creative writing sometimes.  Some of the best in-jokes are slipped in here and there.  But then, sometimes, the episodes are gut-punch deep.  One of those is an episode called "Heart" from the 2nd Season.

What makes this episode so difficult is by now we've really begun to feel for the brothers.  We know how rough their lives have been and how hard the consequences are for their actions.  By the 2nd Season, the show began to be an emotional meat grinder for the brothers and "Heart" cranks that up.

The simple version is this:  Sam falls in love with a woman bitten and infected by a werewolf.  She's changing into a werewolf at night and hurting people.   She doesn't want to live like that, she can't be cured, so she asks Sam to kill her.  And despite how badly this hurts, he does.

That's what Supernatural has always been about.  The brothers do what has to be done no matter what.  It's the hallmark of their Code.  It's also what has made the show incredibly gritty at times.  They joke around, they might play, the bad guys have some of the best lines on television, but there are episodes where Sam and Dean Winchester do what needs to be done no matter what the cost to their souls.  And it's probably why the fans have kept this show on the air for so long.

I think how Sam and Dean Winchester are written is almost a case study in how to have to characters commit acts of violence and still be sympathetic.  We see the toll their lives take on them and yet they keep going.

I'm still watching the show into Season Twelve, which says something, because usually those shows jump the shark in half that time.  But no, not Supernatural.  Supernatural hasn't jumped the shark just yet.  But even if they did, I'd still keep watching.  I know me--I'm a fan.  And being a fan means we watch until it's all done and the final credits roll.  

Friday, October 21, 2016

It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Tonight the classic cartoon It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown was on television.  In my mind, this is a stamp of legitimacy on the season, and that means it's okay to have Halloween decorations up. As the old saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day, and somebody who leaves their Halloween decorations out all year is seasonally appropriate for a few weeks out of the year.

I keep my Halloween stuff out all the time.  I like the colors and I like the symbolism, the art, and the decorations.  It's just who I am.

But the holiday of Halloween itself is something far different.  The day, the season, the time of year, has a lot of memories for me.

Halloween is when the depression comes.  It's when the melancholy seems to manifest like a heavy fog over everything.  I used to be really excited about Halloween.  I would have this special giddy feeling when I saw those first Halloween decorations and candy displays.  But in recent years I just haven't felt that way.

Instead, I get this feeling of dread.  I know what's coming.  I know the real horrors that will spring from behind the bushes.  No amount of candy will fix that.  Believe me, I've tried.  Have you seen my pictures?  I've tried to eat away a lot of things in my life and it's never worked.  I mean sure, for a short time, that's why I keep doing it.

Or maybe I don't know a better way.

I've been pro-active about a lot of things this year.  I've faced some very ugly truths and some incredibly dark memories.  I want to enjoy life again.

In the back of my mind, I've seen the final chapter of my life, and I know how this story ends.  So much of my life has been Fate kicking my ass from one corner to the next, never letting me get settled, never allowing me to simply relax when things are good.  And if I get attached, then it gets taken away.  There are rules Fate has set down.

I'm trying to avoid that final chapter I've seen.  Being pro-active has part of those efforts.  I'm not sure what to do about this Halloween's melancholy, but I'm working on a few things.

October has always been about the Pagan interpretation for me.  It's when I take inventory of myself and what I've done right and wrong.  It when I allow myself to be proud of accomplishments.  The new goal I've recently added is to not beat myself up for the things I did wrong or wasn't able to get done.  No more of that.

In a few hours, I'm going to call a guy about a job.  That's how serious I am about change and October is the perfect month for it.

In a weird sort of way, I'm feeling positive.  Sure, it's almost 4:30am and I can't sleep, but it's okay, because in a few hours I'm going to do something to push things forward, and that always feels good.  And really, that's what Halloween is all about--something dies, something is born, and somewhere along the line there's candy.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Legend of the Russian Beer

I guess it's time to write this story and be done with it.

But I'll never be done with it--not really.  Some shit haunts you.  It's like a skidmark that never washes out in our lives and it's just there.  It says we've lived.  We've done something and we were able to make it back and tell others about the journey.

So yeah, it's time to tell this story.  It's not a pretty one.  Most of my stories aren't pretty anyways.  My life has never been pretty.  I've had moments.  Beautiful moments where people have come into my world and brightened it beyond anything I could achieve on my own.  Those are the moments I cherish and keep safely stored in my head.  I re-visit them only on special days so somehow the memory never changes or is corrupted by time.

But this story isn't one of those memories.

Sadly, it's one of those stories that is so ugly, it left that aforementioned skidmark on my brain and maybe even down to my soul.

That day didn't start off like that.  They never do, though, right?

My friend Nickus and I were on an adventure in Madison.  Our adventures always included restaurants we'd never been to, cuisine we'd never experienced, stores we'd never shopped in, and anything else we'd never done before.  Back then, the people at the Asian markets would follow us around the store and wonder just what in the hell these two freaks were doing.

Now, when we show up, the old Asian ladies look up at us and mutter, "Oh, it's these two assholes again."  And then they wait for the durian products to be placed on their checkout counter.  But that's a different story for a different day.

We weren't there for the spectacle of it all.  We didn't go isle to isle and make fun of the food we found.  The cans of freshwater dace, the bags of star anise, the dried mushrooms.  No, we showed respect and a certain degree of knowledge.

We ate that stuff when we could get it, and on some level, knew what we were doing.  Nick had been overseas, too.  He wasn't a stranger to new things and foreign cuisine.  And we were always looking for something new.

Part of our adventures included eating at a restaurant we'd never heard of or seen before.  And the more obscure, the better.  Our last trip included a stop at a dirty hole in the wall I'd never take anybody else to because it was so grimy.  The food was damned good, though.  He and I might visit again, but that was for us, and not somebody afraid of adventures.

This is probably how we got our asses in trouble in the first place--seeking adventure.

Finding world-class booze isn't easy in the Midwest.  You have to go to Chicago for the good stuff.  But we couldn't afford that and didn't have the time, so were in Madison at Woodman's grocery.   That was the closest we had to finding foreign beers, ales, and liquors.  Sure, we could go to some snooty wine boutique but that's not our style.  We listen to Amon Amarth and we don't wear skinny jeans.

Woodman's is decent.  It's employee-owned and the one in Madison carried all kinds of European beers.  Madison is a college town full of enlightened (read:  yuppy/trendy/hipster) people who enjoy variety or were well-traveled and wanted what they found in their journeys.

Nick had spent time in Europe and knew the Europeans beers very well.  I usually relied on his advice because he knows I hate IPAs.  Seriously, beer shouldn't taste like fucking dirt or smell like my grandmother's perfume.  What the fuck is wrong with these hipsters?  How could anybody drink something like that, much less call it "artisanal" or "crafted?"  Crap is crap.

On that trip, I was able to capture some Chimay Blue, a Belgian trappist ale that was super-expensive but well worth the price.  I found it to be heavenly and to this day is my favorite ale of all-time.

The conversations we always had were asking each other back and forth if the other had tried this or that.  Nick's tried a much larger variety of beers than I have so I'm usually asking him about various labels.  And it was in that beer section where we found our poison--the Russian beer.

Woodman's was running a special.  Plastic 40-oz bottles of Russian beer were stacked in the center of the isle.  It was hard not to bump into the two islands of beer and knock over bottles.  There were a couple of varieties, but they were all in Russian, and Nick and I can't read Russian.

But giant bottles Russian beer for $1.99 a bottle?   According the rules of our adventuring, that fits every criteria of being a Great Find.  We struck gold.

So obviously we loaded up and were happy to do so.  Neither of us had tried Russian beer before, nor have we even heard of Russian beer.  Obviously we knew they made the shit, but we'd never found it anywhere, and we were so very curious.

By the way, if you've ever spent time reading horror or watching horror movies, you'll notice a long list of tropes.  Blissfully ignorant indulgence, lack of logical thought, absence of critical thinking.

Nick and I had become the two college girls who took their shirts off in the dark forest for no apparent fuckng reason.  And we were going to pay for it.  You know that's coming, right?  Just wait.

True to any horror trope, there was a final opportunity for us to turn back.  Of all the luck, our checkout girl was Russian.  She was pretty, too.  Blonde hair, blue eyes.  I liked her right off the bat.  She even had a thick accent.  She was so Russian she seemed completely uncomfortable just being alive.

And of course, we asked her about what we were buying because we didn't have a clue.  She even pronounced the names for us even though they were too difficult to remember.  And that's when she said, "This's not so good, I think."  She shook her head slightly as she bagged our bottles.

But did we listen?  No, of course not.  Why would we?  We were having a great day.  We hit the Asian grocery stores and had these massive burritos at a Mexican hole in the wall called La Bamba's. We were away from work, and we were having an adventure.

Oh, what cruel mechanisms our universe has in place for such arrogance!

We got home with our goodies.  Chinese noodles, Korean kimchi, some frozen Indian food from an Indian grocery store that had just opened up.  And our beer.

I dropped Nickus off at his place and went back to mine.  I put the beer in the fridge to cool and a few hours later, I opened up my first bottle.

It didn't smell so good.  It had the faint aroma of battery acid and metallic flakes.   But that's okay, I said to myself.  Let's give it a try.  I'm adventurous, right?  I love new things, right?  This is the backdoor to Hell nobody ever talks about.  In fact, I'm sure right now, at this moment, there is some asshole burning in hell who is pleading with a demon, "But I just wanted to try the Russian beer so I could tell my trendy asshole friends I was more hipster than them!"

It tasted like shit.

I mean, it didn't really taste like beer.  No, I would say it tasted more like the fizzy version of the fluid they use to clean the gunk off of parts in a machine shop.  Somebody carbonated it for better effect, and eventually bottled it, and some jokester asshole thought it would be funny to call it beer.

But I kept drinking.  I got half a glass choked down and something happened--my stomach began to protest.

Let me review really quick here--I'm an adventerous eater, I like spicy food, I've eaten all kinds of weird crap, and this Russian beer was causing a problem.  Not the Korean food.  Not the large burrito.  No, those were all good.  But this Russian beer?  This was kicking my ass.

But I didn't care.  I was adventurous.  And I'm not a sinner who throws away alcohol.  So I kept choking it down.

By the time half a glass was gone, I was sweating.  My stomach was making so much noise I could hear it over the heavy metal music I was listening to.  And it wasn't the "I'm gonna puke" noises or the "Hey, this doesn't match" sounds.  No, it wasn't even the "let's just get through this, shall we?" noises some of the hotter foods I've eaten will cause.

The noises my stomach was making seemed to be saying, "Holy shit on a stick!  What the fuck did this asshole just do to me?  This isn't even food!  Goddammit!  And wait..what's that smell?  Can you smell that?  What the fuck makes a smell like that?  What am I supposed to do with this?  He can't expect me to actually digest this shit, can he?"

I curled into a ball on my bed for a moment but the pain was so excruciating I had to get right back up.  And that's when I realized I needed to warn Nickus.  He couldn't drink this beer--somebody had to stop him.

I dialed his number and a very unhappy Nick picked up the other end.

"Are okay?"

"No, man.  I think this Russian beer doesn't like me."

"That's because it's not Russian beer, Nick--it's wastewater from Chernobyl."

"That makes sense.  I've only had a glass of it and I don't think I can handle any more."

"Me, either.  We're gonna have to share this stuff with our friends."

It's at this time I feel I need to make a note in our defense because Nick and I generally aren't the murderous sort and we certainly don't feel our friends deserve to be executed by Russian beer.  But this Russian beer produced a reaction from our bodies that could never be believed and we needed to share this wonderful sensation with the people we care about most.

Sharing is caring.

Our next trip to Woodman's was to find the Russian clerk.  We weren't mad at her, but we had forgotten how Russians are a group of hardcore motherfuckers who understate terrible things.

This beautiful woman might have said, "This beer, I's not so good."   But what she really meant was, "Holy shit, this is poison from a crashed Soviet nuclear submarine and because NATO has been up our asses over every little thing we do, we had the great idea of putting this toxic brew in plastic bottles, calling it beer, and sending it off to a college town with a cheap sticker price in order to get rid of it while poisoning some of the best and brightest of an entire generation."

But we had forgotten that important bit of international diplomacy.

The shake of her head could best be translated into, "I hope you fuckers don't plan on having children because if by some miracle you survive ingesting this, your genetics will be permanently fucked up and the best you can hope for would be a six-legged, three-headed monstrosity with the strength of a silverback gorilla on a twenty-day meth binge and the intelligence of a four year-old child."

But she wasn't around any longer.  Our best guess was she was only there for a few days as part of her KBG assignment to ensure deployment of this terrible NBC weapon from the diabolical minds of the darkest Soviet laboratories.

What we also noticed was how all of the grass around Woodman's was dead.  Obviously, a bottle must have broken outside somehow and that was the end result.  We figured one bottle took care of at least the three-acre parking lot and with the amount leftover, that was used by the City of Madison on their eyesore homes before being demolished.

But we had to share this with our friends.  We just had to.

Nick's birthday is April 20th.  At his birthday party, we made sure we had a bottle of this toxic brew to share with everybody.  I kept the bottle in my trunk because I didn't want to risk it breaking open in the driver's area or getting on any of my passengers.  I figured if the accident was bad enough to open the trunk and then that bottle, a swift death would be merciful.

Nick had small cups passed out to everybody and all were given just a bit.  About twenty people each had in their hands a small cup of this Russian "beer" and the countdown started.  Then, everybody drank this "beer" in unison while a picture was taken of their reactions.

Nick and I had a great laugh about the whole thing.  And while that day was a few years ago, we all remember it well.  A few of the people present have begun to talk to us again once their ability to speak had come back.  The human body is an amazing thing and it truly is incredible what we can endure.

In retrospect, I'm not angry.  I'm proud.  I feel like I survived something very few people have attempted and lived to talk about.  I'm still looking for that Russian woman who worked at the checkout counter at Woodman's.  If you do happen to see her, approach with caution, as she is far more dangerous than Chuck Norris.  But when you do finally get close enough to speak to her, please tell her I miss her, and would do anything to see her again.