Category Archives: Anxieties

The Likely Lads

Ambrose finally customized his ringtone long after anyone he wanted to talk to started texting exclusively. Consequently, he was beginning to dread the sound of one of his favorite songs, The Libertine’s “What Became of the Likely Lads?” but was too lazy to change it to something appropriately awful, like “Tubthumping” or “We Built This City” or the sound of Pyramid Head dragging his sword across the floor. When the opening guitar riff crashed through the formerly silent living room, Ambrose cringed. Worse, the phone didn’t recognize the number so it was either a telemarketer, pollster, collection agency, or the automated voice of any number of local institutions to remind him of an appointment or due date.

“Hello?” he asked, hoping this would be quick. He was sitting on the couch playing Fallout, procrastinating from doing anything productive now that he was off work. How anyone finds the energy to do things after they become independent adults still baffled him.

“Hi… Ambrose,” said someone hesitantly.

“Yes, this is he,” Ambrose said.

“This is Lyle.”

“Lyle.” Ambrose sat up. “How are you? We haven’t talked in… what? Two years?”

“Yeah… I guess it must have been that long. When did we last talk? Do you remember?”

“It must have been… Yeah, it’s been two years. We talked at Katie’s birthday party.”

“What did we talk about?”

Ambrose wasn’t sure where the conversation was going, but he felt there was probably a punchline at the end. This was typical of Lyle. They had been close in high school, had minimal contact in college, and saw each other sporadically around the holidays when they were both visiting family. In all that time, his sense of humor, bizarre and usually only made him and no one else laugh, had not changed at all. For two weeks when they were juniors, he tried to convince their friends that Ambrose, as a freshman, had tried to orchestrate an elaborate cheating ring in Spanish. He hadn’t. When Ambrose confronted him about it, Lyle admitted that he was just trying to see if he could change people’s memories and then laughed.

“Health insurance, I think. We were both griping about not having dental plans, but that it was a good excuse not to go to the dentist,” Ambrose said.

“Oh yeah. Have you gone, yet?”

“Gone?”

“To the dentist?”

“Kind of a strange place to start catching up,” Ambrose said.

“We’re friends right?” Lyle asked suddenly.

“Well, yes, we’re friends. Are you mad about something?”

“How close of friends are we?”

Ambrose was almost certain, now, that this was a joke he didn’t understand, but asked, “Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine. It’s just that I’ve got this amnesia thing going on.”

“You what?”

“Nothing. Just a joke. It’s been kind of a weird few days. You know what? Forget I called,” Lyle said and hung up.

As seniors, they took Advanced American Literature together with Mr. Badger, who did not at all live up to his name but was famously forgetful. Whenever someone didn’t turn a paper in, he wrote their name down on the board to remind them that they were losing points. Lyle’s name went up on the board every assignment, and every time Lyle would erase his name while Mr. Badger wasn’t looking. He got a passing grade in the class because he convinced Mr. Badger that he’d turned in every essay, but that Mr. Badger had lost them.

Lyle didn’t answer when Ambrose tried to call him back. A few phone calls to old friends confirmed what Ambrose suspected. Lyle was missing. “He called me, too,” Nina, a mutual friend said wearily. “This isn’t the first time this has happened, though. Last year, he disappeared for four days and they found him in a hotel under the name John Dee.”

“Shouldn’t we be doing something?”

“Talk to his family.”

Ambrose walked to the convenience store down the street to buy aspirin. It was almost New Year’s Eve and he didn’t have any plans. He didn’t even know where to look or who to ask to find an interesting party for the evening, which made him feel old.

Somewhere, not far from the store entrance, someone was celebrating early and playing Auld Lang Syne on a piano. Meditating on the words, Ambrose sang under his breath, “Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind…”

“There looks like trouble,” someone said behind him. He turned and saw a man with dirty blond hair and beard wearing a green canvas, WWII trench coat and holding a leather briefcase walking toward him, one hand outstretched. “Ambrose, are you living out here now?”

Ambrose shook hands and smiled, certain that he’d never seen the man in his life.

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Resolutions

Unlike everyone else she knows, Kendal loves resolutions.

She spends 364 days of the year composing them in her head and then writes them down on New Year’s Day. As a rule, they were impossible, things she is certain will never happen. Like buying her dream house on the corner of Summit Avenue, the one that cost more to build than she and her husband would earn in their lifetimes. Or becoming an Olympic Gold Medalist in the high jump, though she’d never been an athlete and there wouldn’t be summer or winter Olympics that year. Or resolving to write an epic trilogy following the exploits of an animate marionette with cut strings searching for the Great Puppeteer in the Sky. “Achieve world peace” had made its appearance on several lists, as had “Win the lottery” and “Become a year younger.”

Despite what many people think, it isn’t an exercise in disappointment or humility. No one actually keeps their resolutions, and so Kendal figures that if she is going to make promises that she can’t keep, they should at least be fabulous and imaginative.

Really, Kendal is a pragmatist. She never makes actual promises to others she can’t fulfill. She serves on committees and boards, coaches sports teams, never takes sick days, and is always on time. She had her life mapped out from the age of 12 and things have gone almost exactly according to plan. New Year’s Resolutions are a sacred breach of character, and one that delighted her.

But in 2014, something odd happened. Her oldest son, then 18, said that instead of living in the dorms he wanted to have a tiny house. He made a compelling economic case to Kendal and her husband and so they decided to help build the small 250 square foot unit over the summer.  Word spread among his friends and the idea caught on, which resulted in a clutch of tiny houses set up as a commune not far from campus. It had taken negotiations with the university and the city, but eventually both came around to the idea that a little village could be a good and educational learning community.

It wasn’t until October that Kendal’s husband pointed out that she had accomplished a resolution. In her long list of fanciful priorities, she’d said, “Build a village.” She found the revelation strangely unsettling. This wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t part of her actual plan. Her resolutions were supposed to be pure abstractions, never to be fulfilled, purely speculative and unattainable. She resolved to be more careful making her list for 2015.

On Sunday, November 1, 2015, Kendal woke an hour before her alarm, seized by inspiration. She does not consider herself a writer, but she literally could not help but sit down at her computer and type furiously. It wasn’t a novel, essay, or play. Instead, it was a long series of rules, commandments, disjointed parables, epic and condensed narratives, and prophecies. She spent the next month unable to do anything else but write, during which time she lost her job and her family began to consider committing her.

Finally, the thing was done. She posted it as a note on Facebook and watched in horror as the comments and likes grew and a community began to form. There are now 2,170 members of a group claiming to belong to a new sect of which she is the prophet.

In 2014, Kendal had listened to a lot of Cake. It seemed harmless to plagiarize a lyric and add it to her resolutions: build a religion.

January 1st, 2016 is just around the corner. Kendal has resolved to have no resolutions this coming year, but the she can’t stop the ideas from forming. Gain two hundred pounds of muscle and two more limbs? Establish a successful anvil delivery service? Master 5D art? She is so used to dreaming up absurd promises that she can’t help herself.

She dreads the New Year. Because, now, everything is possible.

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Republican, Democratic Parties: “Whoa! Let’s not do anything hasty!”

Holding out a calming, but visibly shaking hand, the Republican party addressed the nation saying, “You don’t want to do this. You don’t have to do this!” Less animated, but equally emphatic, the Democratic party added, “Think of all the great times we’ve had together.”

Following the unexpected popularity of self-described democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT) and arch-conservative real estate mogul Donald Trump, both the Democratic and Republican parties are concerned that America might do something reckless. For years, both parties worried that America’s erratic behavior might portend something far more serious, but neither predicted this dramatic turn of events.

“Hindsight is 20/20, I guess,” said the Republican party, glancing nervously over its shoulder and addressing the nation, “Look, America, we can get revenge for the New Deal and the Great Society together! Honest!”

With an imploring look from the Republican party, the Democratic party reluctantly added, “I mean, the minimum wage may not be what it was in 1970, the ACA is a joke compared to what it was supposed to be, key parts of the VRA have been gutted, racial disparities are still appalling fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, respecting women’s basic health and livelihood are still considered politically contentious… but we can change! Think about all the great times we’ve had.”

“Just, walk away from Bernie Sanders,” the Democratic party said. “We’ll get through this together, you and me.”

Noticing America’s enthusiasm beginning to wane, the Republican party shouted, “Put down the Trump! Put the Trump down!”

At press time, the American electorate remained undecided, but swaying against conventional wisdom. The Democratic party, meanwhile, was trying to reason with the nation while the Republican party wordlessly motioned at Congress to disenfranchise a third of the country.

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Democrats Confident America Will Be Reasonable

Democratic strategists are certain that Americans will reason Republicans are responsible if the Supreme Court guts the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare).

“Why bother coming up with a PR campaign?” said a top party spokesperson. “It should be dead obvious to anyone paying attention that if the Supreme Court rules in King vs. Burwell that ‘exchange established by the State’ actually means only people going through the federal exchange can receive subsidies that it’s really the Republicans who took away their cancer treatment payments. I mean, come one!

Dismissing the notion that Republicans could successfully redirect public ire for destroying a program that has given health insurance to 8 million Americans onto the very party that created it, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reed explained, “Americans won’t accept some illogical hogwash from demagogues! They’ll search out the facts and cross reference them through non-partisan sources. Why would we bother stooping to explain to millions of busy, emotionally exhausted people why their lives are a little less miserable because they don’t have to live in terror of bankruptcy because of a broken bone? Obviously they’ll know that the Democratic party is the one looking out for them.”

Minority Whip Dick Durbin laughed when asked if the Democrats have a plan to counter the inevitable and carefully crafted PR campaign Republicans will launch blaming President Obama for destroying ObamaCare. Durbin said, “Who would believe that? Just because a third of Louisiana Republicans blame Obama for Bush’s disastrous response to Katrina, two fifths of Americans think there were WMDs in Iraq,  and a majority oppose the ACA, but approve of its features, doesn’t mean folks can’t read the writing on the wall. At some point you just have to talk to people like adults and trust them to draw their own conclusions.”

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White liberals courageously listening

Author’s Note: If it is in any way unclear, I’m writing this in disgust at my own silence up until now.

#

In the wake of the Charleston, SC, massacre which left nine dead at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, white liberals all across the country are paying close, silent attention to activists of color.

This Wednesday, Dylann Roof sat with church goers for an hour before drawing a gun, making racial threats, and then killing nine people of color in cold blood inspiring impotent disgust among most of America’s white liberals.

“I’ve been reading material from Rev. Denise AndersonBlack Girl Dangerous, the NAACP, and Black Lives Matter nonstop these past couple days,” said Bloomington, MN, resident Audra Johnson. “It’s the least I can do, of course.”

Thousands of white liberals read in reserved, unexpressed revulsion as news broke that Roof wanted to start a race war.  Many quietly bristled as mainstream news sources called Roof “mentally ill” and “a lone wolf” instead of a terrorist motivated by racial hatred endemic in American culture.  Some even considered contacting the media and demanding better, more honest reporting, but felt it wasn’t their place.

“It really disgusts me to hear that the NRA is already blaming the victims, saying that this could have been prevented if they had guns,” Niel Clerks of Aurora, MA, considered telling a coworker he knows to be a proud NRA member, but then thought better of it. “That’s another political issue.  I mean, I could bring up Sandy Hook or Columbine, but that might make things too complicated. I should educate myself more,” Clerks thought to himself with resolve.

Both Pew Research and the Public Religion Research Institute have both found that since the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, and Eric Garner, more white liberal Americans than ever before are silently listening in righteous rage to activists and community leaders pleading for action.

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Trump Plan for Helping Working Americans: $50 per vote

Stating that he has already instituted his policies to help lower and middle class Americans and combat income inequality, Donald Trump paid average citizens to cheer him on as he announced his bid for the presidency.

“For every red-blooded, white American born in these United States, I promise to give you $50 for your support in the 2016 election,” Trump said conspiratorially, adding loudly, “And I will make this nation great again!”

Critics point out that Trump could not pay $50 to every registered voter, but his spokesman said that he does not expect every voter to support him. “We just need enough desperate people for him to be president,” said a member of the campaign team. “Besides, if every registered voter threw in for him, the difference would be negligible. Can you imagine what you would do with $42?”

Walmart has come out in support of Trump’s campaign. “Many of our products are more attainable with Trump’s stimulus plan,” they said in a press release.

Trump closed his announcement speech by saying, “We need to re-brand American. And if you want to know my plan for defeating ISIS, I’ll let you in for a limited-time offer of $25.”

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Prompt: Someone you used to know

A friend of mine recently contacted me to say that he was in acting school and I keep coming up in his subconscious. The context is that there’s an exercise the actors do in which you imagine talking to someone you know well and act it out.

As acting techniques go, that’s on the kinder end of the spectrum. Another friend of mine in college told me about when her teacher made her do a monologue given by Allison in Proof. The character is afraid she’s beginning to exhibit signs of schizophrenia and so my friend’s teacher made her go sit in the corner and scream “Please, God, don’t make me crazy!” For five minutes. I saw her a few hours after this and she was still chain smoking. And they say writers are masochists.

But, I can’t claim the moral high ground. When I directed plays, I used to make my actors shout their lines at each other. Besides the fact that it’s amusing as hell, it actually is very effective in getting people to memorize their parts.

Back to the first friend and his subconscious. The exercise he described sounds a lot like one of my favorite prompts, which I will now share with you.

Ideally, someone else is supposed to read this aloud. It’s almost a form of meditation or therapy, but this will have to do.

Imagine you are in a place you know very well. It’s a place you find comforting and meaningful. Maybe it’s your childhood bedroom, your college Animal House-style living room, a church sanctuary, your old office (assuming you liked that job), or your favorite bar.

You walk in, and you are alone. It’s quiet and peaceful. But, there’s a difference: the walls are covered in pictures. Photos of friends, family, people you associate with a the place you’re in, and people who never set foot there.

One picture, in particular, catches your attention. You walk over and study it. It’s of someone you know very well, but haven’t spoken to for a long time. Suddenly, that person walks through the door.

Write the conversation you have.

#

(Iowa City, the Ivy House. The living room is crammed with furniture buried under layers of junk, jackets, and books. It smells like pizza, dust, and wine. Autumn. The back door opens, closes, and someone walks through the mudroom, kitchen, and library and stands in front of me. It’s Siouxsie Sioux from the Banshees.)

SS: You know, we’ve never actually met. I don’t think this is really in the spirit of the exercise.

Me: (Aside to the audience in the style of Shakespeare or Frank Underwood) In the three years that my friends occupied the Ivy House, about twelve people lived there sporadically. They left all sorts of stuff behind, particularly the guy who occupied my room before I moved in. One thing that he left was this poster. At first it terrified me, but then Stockholm Syndrome kicked in. Three months later, when he came to collect his shit, I hid the poster and have had it with me ever since.

SS: I can hear you.

Me: The People need context.

SS: There’s really no context to explain why I’m here.

Me: Why don’t we talk anymore, Siouxsie?

SS: You graduated college. As imaginary friends go, I had some staying power.

Me: What does that say about my current state?

SS: I’m not going to speculate. So, what do you want to talk about?

Me: … Want to go to Uglies?

SS: Sure.

(Exit all. End scene.)

#

This is a great prompt to exercise writing dialogue. The idea is that if you write a conversation between yourself and someone you know well, the dialogue will sound more natural. That’s the trick to writing dialogue — you have to know your characters and their intentions well enough that they seem to you like old friends.

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New Year’s

On New Year’s Eve, my girlfriend and I went to a comedy performance and party at the Fox Egg Gallery. After the show a handful of us stayed around to help clean up and have a small celebration. Of course, someone started singing “Auld Lang Syne” and one of the performers said, “That song means something very different to me after this godawful year. Fuck old acquaintances.”

The general consensus going around the room was that 2014 was productive and awful. Everyone said that they had accomplished a great deal over the past twelve months, but they had no idea how much they  would have to pay for it. I tend to read (extremely) progressive media and there seems to be tentative optimism that we may see major reforms in social justice and take steps toward addressing climate change. I wonder if it’s not all just wishful thinking at the beginning of the New Year.

For me, 2014 was nothing if not unusual. It’s the first year since I was a freshman in college that I haven’t moved. It’s the first time since graduating that I’ve held the same job for more than a year, and I’m starting to think that I may have found a career. On the other hand, I feel like I haven’t made much personal progress on a lot of fronts, particularly with my writing and community involvement. Sure, I’ve published a few more short stories and now I’m a producer for the Minneapolis Story Club (and, unexpectedly, now a member of some kind of Story Arts), but it’s hard not to feel that I’m running in place. Or maybe this is just a sign that I’m getting older because the jarring life transitions are going to be fewer and farther between.

When I started writing this post, I had this quote stuck in my head from Dorothy Parker, “I hate writing. I love having written.” Consulting Wikipedia for material and to procrastinate, I learned that she was good friends with the great mime Harpo Marx, which felt meaningful to me because I don’t just hate writing, I hate not writing. I enter a vicious circle of uncertainty, because I often want to write about issues that concern me, but I can’t find anything meaningful to say about them. So, I tend to stay quiet, which, for most of issues I care about, is part of the problem.

I often hear people talk about how much they hate the New Year, because it’s just a time for making and breaking promises. I’ve always liked the holiday, even though I have rarely kept my resolutions. Sometimes I think it would be easier just to make a list of all the things I won’t do, because that feels more honest. For instance, I won’t run a marathon, nor will I force myself to do things I loathe “just for the experience.” I will not write what I think other people want to read. I will not be timid. I will not tell myself to play less video games. I will take things less seriously.

That seems reasonable, and a lot better for my mental health.

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Anxiety #1: Writer’s Block

With every sentence there’s that lingering fear that it will be your last.

Is creativity finite? Is there only so much we can use before it’s gone? Or is it a muscle that strains?

What does it mean when you can’t write?

Of course you can write. Pick up the pen. Start typing. Dictate. Commit it to something like a permanent medium.

Then hate it. Tear it up. Rearrange or edit or destroy it. Rarely love it.

There’s no such thing as writer’s block, just the fear of writing shit. And there is so much of it. Not just in the rough drafts and notebooks lining up your bookshelf and cluttering up your hard drive, but in the libraries and bookstores, too. People like it, you think. There’s hope.

But I’m not going to write crap. I’m going to be remembered as a genius. The Sage of Minneapolis. At least I’ll be remembered for not being a hack.

But what’s wrong with being a hack? A good hack probably eats better than a good Serious Writer. There’s always a chance that someone later will read your piles of shit and interpret it as a gold. It happened to Raymond Chandler. Or at least the cultural studies department will create merit.

Again, what’s wrong with being a hack? People want to consume what makes them happy. Willy Wonka seemed okay with what he did, and his products caused diabetes, whereas what you do can, at worst, cost someone a few hours. John Carpenter, Patricia Highsmith, Barbara Kingsolver, Ernest Hemingway. Sure, I could become them, pandering to my audience. Give them what they want and make a living.

Instead, you write an essay with a confused narrator, sliding between first and second person. Is this even an essay?

It’s something. And it’s a couple hundred words of something. Writer’s block = overcome.

Why does this bother you so much?

Because writing is now part of your identity, and it would be stupid not to treat it as something sacred, or a useful body part. Take care of your kidneys.

Someone once told me that when you’re doing a comedy routine you have to treat your audience with contempt. You have to not care if they laugh or not. Transferring the lesson, you have to not care if your readers like your work as long as they read it. Just like Hemingway.

But you really should be writing. Something else. Because this isn’t enough. There’s a notebook filled with story prompts and half filled ideas and you have another notebook with two aborted rough drafts. This isn’t an essay – it’s an excuse not to write something you care about more. But it’s kind of fun.

This is an ending of sorts.

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