Farewell to Denis Dutton, Arts & Letters Daily Founder, Editor

author and Arts & Letters Daily founder and editor Denis DuttonI just learned today that the founder of Arts & Letters Daily, Denis Dutton, died December 28. I confess I didn’t know who he was until after I spied “Denis Dutton, founder of ‘Arts & Letters Daily,’ has died” on Boing Boing. But I have been a long-time reader of Arts & Letters Daily.

Until I moved abroad at the beginning of this year, I usually consumed A&L Daily just that, daily, along with my cubanos at my local coffee shop, after I had checked my email and the news headlines. I can’t remember how I discovered A&L at first, but was pleasantly surprised to find it: a website resembling a newspaper broadsheet from a couple centuries ago, with links to interesting, thought-provoking articles covering all aspects of art, culture and politics.

Something other than porn, Matt Drudge, Gawker, and Lolcats. No way!

I never really gave much thought to operated it. By the time I discovered it – apparently Dutton started it in 1998 – it was owned by the Chronicle of Higher Education; I always just assumed it was some eggheads there that operated A&L Daily. Dutton continued to run A&L Daily after the Chronicle purchased it in 2002, hand-picking all the linked content, and writing the headline links and blurbs that appeared on the site – apparently right on up to the moment he died of cancer a few days ago.

I was surprised to learn that A&L Daily – such an astute observer and aggregator of … well, arts and letters, of all things on the Internet, that I was surprised to learn that it was founded and run by a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand who is, or rather was, 24 years my senior. How cool is that? As I naturally ponder age and death at this time of year, it is comforting to learn that age doesn’t have to equal irrelevancy.

But then, as I’m learning from the New Yorker and other sources, Denis Dutton was a pretty hip old guy. As I ponder the future and what I want to do in it, I’ll take his life as an inspiration.

Just last year he published a book that attempts to elucidate a Darwinian theory of art – an apt subject for a professor of philosophy and the curator of Arts & Letters Daily. I think The Art Instinct will be the next book to be added to my Kindle.

Wherever you now dwell, Mr. Dutton, you have my thanks, for entertaining me with A&L Daily, and now for the inspiration. Godspeed.

As for Arts and Letters Daily, his Dutton’s colleagues at the Chronicle of Higher Education have pledged to carry on. While I have faith, of course it won’t be quite the same, I’m sure, without Dutton behind the keyboard.

Two Years Gone: Ruminating on a Father's Death

Vanity by Frans Francken the YoungerSo in less than two hours – if memory serves me – it will be exactly two years since your death. Two years in which so much has changed irrevocably, not the least of which is the fact that you are no longer here.

In some ways your death has been easier for me to accept and deal with than Mom’s; over here in Southeast Asia the ghosts have been largely quiet. They trouble me infrequently, and for that I am grateful. The only thing that haunts my dreams and disturbs my slumber is my usual angst over the usual things, and this, too, is rather rare these days, fortunately.

I’m not sure if this is because in those two years I’ve had the distractions of being laid off, moving half way across the world, and trying on a new career (which was an ill fit, to say the least). Perhaps it’s just because she died first, and I was at least somewhat prepared for what I was in for – as much as anyone ever is for the death of a loved one.

In any event, in spite of all this you are still never far from my thoughts even now. Even now I still sometimes catch myself thinking – for the tiniest and sweetest of instants – that I should call you, because it’s been awhile. This is becoming more rare with the inevitable passage of time, however. Even though it’s like a stab in the heart when I remember that you are dead, I still cherish those moments, in a small, twisted sadomasochistic way, because for that one brief moment it’s as if you are still alive.

And it’s a reminder, however painful, that no, I haven’t forgotten. Some cold comfort, in that.

Not too long ago I dreamed that I was back home in Cincinnati. As I lay in bed, drifting somewhere in that state that’s not quite sleep but not quite waking, I thought I was indeed still in Cincinnati; apparenlty the last two years were the dream. I remember thinking in that dim, somnambulistic state that it had been awhile since I’d gone down to Tennessee to visit, and that I was due for a roadtrip to see you.

Of course, with the thrusting of that knife in my chest I was instantly and fully awake. And you died once more.

It amazes me that even two years later one’s subconscious can still pretend that you are alive and well. But then we always want what we can’t have; our subconscious never lies or bullshits itself.

There is so much I want to tell you – so much about what I’ve gone through and experienced since you died. I’d love to gain the perspective of your years on my experiences living abroad.

It’s strange and amusing, when I think about it – we are (were) so different, you and I. My life’s path has diverged so much from yours, and yet I always still valued your advice, right on up to the end, even when old age had begun to color your thinking (or so I thought, at any rate). Heh, and then I would marvel at your foresight when I didn’t take said advice only to wish that I had.

Such is the bond of parent and child, I guess.

Like Mom’s death, I haven’t really “gotten over” yours – not in the strictest sense of the phrase. I don’t think anyone who truly loves another ever can. Death changes the living as well as the dead; the person that I was up to the moment you died, died with you. Just as the person that I was when Mom was still alive was buried with her.

So, gone but not forgotten, eh? I went back and read the first blog post I made after you died. It was a few weeks after your funeral. These words – culled from that meandering, near-stream-of-consciousness musing — still rings true:

Yeah, that beat-up, retread heart of his, the one that we thought for nearly 30 years would be the death of him, held out until the bitter end, the last of his organs to stop functioning. Even in death, even as his spirit fled his dieing, frail body, Dad had to be a smart ass and have the last word.

A twisted part of me wishes I had that heart – I mean that literally; I would carry it with me always as a sort of talisman, a tribute to the kind of spirit that laughs in the face of long odds; the kind of spirit that flips the bird in the face of adversity.

The kind of spirit that insists on just one more cast of the fishing rod into the water, even though the light of day is fading, we’re cold and miserable, and we haven’t caught one damn fish the whole damn day. The kind of spirit that taught me that you play every down as hard as you possibly can, no matter if there is less than a minute left in the game and your team is down by 50 points. The kind of spirit that taught me to play like it’s the first play of the game, and there is no score, even when it is the last play and we’ve clearly lost.

Win or lose, you play hard; you never play “give-up ball,” for that is the worst sin of all. You play that way every play, or you don’t even walk out on the field; there is no half-assing. I would carry that heart as a testament to the spirit that taught me that, metaphorically, that’s how one should live one’s life.

I suppose I carry that heart metaphorically, if not literally, huh Dad?

And then concluded with:

As for Dad, I’ll just say this, the words that I used to conclude what I said at his funeral.

If, at the end of my days, I can say that I was half the man my father was – just half – my spirit will be able to rest easy, for I will know that by anyone’s measure, I will have done well with my time here. Just half – for my father, William Blackburn Chappell, was that much of a man.

Depression, Banking, Cycling: A Day in the Expat Life

Urban Bicycling NerdToday was one of those days in paradise where I just wanted to take my toys and go home. Tuck my tail between my legs and skulk back across the planet. Today was one of those days where I just wanted to say “fuck it.”

Being prone to depression I’m not unfamiliar with such feelings; fortunately they are few and far between these days. But sometimes they do appear, like an unwelcome visitor whom you just can’t seem to find the courage to tell to go to hell. In retrospect I’m not sure why he chose to visit today — while this day has had its share of frustration, as far as a noob expat life goes it wasn’t terribly frustrating. And it came on the heels of a fun weekend in Sai Gon, so there’s really no reason for me to feel this way.

Lack of sleep? No. It’s true I didn’t get as much sleep as I normally do the night before, but still got about 5 or 6 hours. Sai Gon kept me up a bit, but I wasn’t in party mode, so no, that’s not it. Diet? Granted I skipped breakfast (which for me comes at lunchtime for normal people), and while that is enough to make me cranky or irritable, it’s not enough to make angry and depressed.

So why?

The fact that it’s Christmas time, a time of year that I associate with death and loss? The two-year anniversary of my father’s death is just nine days away (Mom’s, of course, comes in January — but she went into the hospital Dec. 3, if memory servers me). While it’s easy here to ignore the fact that it’s the dreaded Yuletide season, there are reminders though, even here. But Here in Viet Nam these reminders — Xmas muzak, Christmas trees, lights, etc. — are so far out of my normal Midwestern winter holiday context that it just makes me laugh.

So I don’t know.

Such is the nature of depression; it doesn’t need a reason. It’s days like these that I almost think that I should cave in and jump on the anti-depressant bandwagon, but that’s a fundamental line I just can’t bring myself to cross. start messing with brain chemistry and you start messing with who you are — what makes you, you.

Is tinkering with that worth having an even emotional keel? Again, I don’t know. No, that’s not true; obviously I don’t believe so. Maybe not with 100 percent certainty, but no, I don’t believe that it is. Even in my darkest days, I couldn’t bring myself to, despite my therapist’s suggestion to the contrary.

I’m not putting anyone else down for going that route — although I will say that I think the majority of people that use anti-depressants probably don’t need them. But it’s a deeply personal decision that no one else is in a position to judge or to say otherwise what you should or shouldn’t do. It’s jut not an option for me.

Anyway, whether it was the cà phê sữa đá, the bag of CreamO’s cookies, or the lengthy bike ride that has left endorphins and rubbery thighs in its wake, I feel somewhat better now. Just cranky now, I suppose.

Making an Ass out U and Me

Again, I’ve been gazing at my navel and my shoes trying to deconstruct this feeling — not sure why it’s here. Granted my trip to the bank to pay my rent ended up being this epic adventure that took several hours this afternoon. At one point I gave up trying to find this specific bank branch and tried to enlist the help of a cabdriver to take me to *any* Agribank branch, but couldn’t convey what I wanted.

So, it was back out on the bike, and this time I found it with no problems — I was actually quite close the first time, I just didn’t think it could possibly be down a dirt road. I was wrong — you’d think I’d learn not to color my instincts with Western bias by now, but apparently not.

Then the bank guard made a fuss, I’m not sure what about — whether it was the fact that I was parking my bike in the near-empty motorbike lot, or the fact that the bank was close to closing time, or what. This isn’t what set me off; I was in a depressed and angry mood before I set out this morning (morning being normal people’s afternoon of course).

But by this time, I wasn’t up for any hassle that I perceived to be bullshit, so I did what I would normally not do in Southeast Asia, because it usually doesn’t work — scowled angrily and asked in English with what was no doubt an angry voice: “What’s the problem? Why can’t I park here? No one else is here, and the bank is still open!”

I didn’t really think about what I was saying; I reacted instinctively from my gut — which is to say an angry and depressed gut.

This kind of reaction is usually the absolute dumbest thing you can do in this situation — confrontation backfires in Southeast Asia more often than not; culturally it’s just something people rarely do. It’s a loss of face for you and potentially for the person you are pissed at — and a very difficult thing for Western foreigners to grasp. Usually the sort of reaction I exhibited just makes things worse.

Normally in a situation like this I would smile and plead or feign helpless ignorance, if the other person knows no English and I can’t make myself understood with my pidgin Vietnamese. Or just shrug my shoulders and walk/ride away.

In this case, however, it worked. The bank guard backed off and left me alone — except for gesturing to the open side door of the bank. It may have been that he wasn’t trying to tell me not to park my bike, or trying to keep me from walking into the bank 20 minutes before they close — it may have been something else entirely; I don’t know.

Inside the bank, between the copy of my lease, pidgin Vietnamese and pidgin English, the English-to-Vietnamese dictionary on my phone and various hand gestures, I was able to hand over the cash and deposit it into my landlord’s account. Mission accomplished.

After this was done I actually felt rather elated — perseverance and self-reliance for the win. One has to take joy in life where one can find it. Now it was finally time for coffee and relaxing — and stretching my quads.

As I noted before, this wouldn’t normally be something that would make me depressed; it’s just the way things are when you live in a foreign country and haven’t learned much of the language yet (at least in my experience); the simplest tasks can become epic challenges. After a year though, I’m used to that — even expect it, chalk it up to learning, and move on.

While I was searching in vain for the bank, this attitude seemed to escape me for some reason, though. Usually I would have been happy regardless of whether or not I found the bank, as I was out riding around on my bike, and that’s almost always a good thing.

I, Am Not a Clown … I … Am … a Man!

John Hurt in The Elephant Man: he was a man, not an animal.Then, later in the evening something happend to me — twice — that used to happen in Thailand quite often, but fortunately doesn’t happen much here in Viet Nam. Twice I got the “hey foreign clown, entertain us” attitude from the locals.

I don’t think I’m going to elaborate too much just now; I’m going to save this topic for another time — I know I keep promising that; this dovetails into the whole Thailand vs. Viet Nam thing, the why-did-I-leave-Thailand-to-come-back-to-Vietnam subject that everyone always asks about.

But this post is getting long enough, and I have to settle down to work here soon. Let’s just say it’s one thing to be curious; it’s one thing to approach a foreigner and ask to speak English, or just to ask them where they are from and have a brief conversation. Even though It’s not something I would do, being more than a little bit of the misanthropic loner, I understand it and even welcome it, more often than not — I’ve made some great friends here who intially approached me in just that way.

But it’s another thing altogether to have someone jump up, get in your face so that you have to stop walking, and shout an exaggerated and obviously smart-ass “hello!” It’s another thing to have them and their friends laugh uproariously when you respond in kind — albeit stiffly, trying to be polite — because you got the crazy foreigner to respond and impress your friends.

Again, it normally doesn’t bother me, although at first it used to drive me bonkers when I first moved to Suphanburi, Thailand. It just goes with the territory, literally and figuratively. Besides, I realize it’s just ignorance (sometimes mixed with alcohol), not mean-spiritedness, usually.

But this evening, after this exact scenario happened twice in the span of 20 minutes, it really pissed me off — the bicycle-induced endorphins receded and the anger and depression came back. It was hard to walk away, that second time. Really … really … hard to walk away and not cause a scene at best,or do something that everyone involved would regret — me most of all — at worst. But I did.

Such is the life of the expat, I suppose.

Urban Warrior Bike Nerd, Viet Nam Edition: Facemask Protection

Urban Bicycling NerdBeen wondering wtf with regard to that picture above? I’ve been wanting to capture a photo of me in my facemask and helmet to see what I look like when I bicycle around Bien Hoa (the air quality is pretty chunky on the roads between the traffic and industry here).

You may be wondering if that mask actually does any good. I wonder too. You see a lot of Vietnamese people wearing masks when they ride their motorbikes, or are just walking around on a busy street — you see this all over Southeast Asia. All I know is, when I don’t wear my mask, my lungs burn — no joke.

Placebo affect? When I take off my mask in the middle of a ride, or when I get home, I’m immediately assaulted by a zillion smells — smells I didn’t smell with the mask on. So yeah, I’ll stick with the facemask.

I think the majority of the masks people wear do not do much good, at least in terms of particulates. After trying several of the cloth masks people wear here, I invested five bucks, or 100,000 dong — heh — in the industrial-grade mask you see in the photo. It actually provides a decent seal against your mouth and nose, once you get it positioned right. Not the most comfortable thing to wear, but if you fiddle with it long enough, you can get an acceptable fit dialed in.

Editor’s Note:

I actually wrote this a few days ago and decided to wait before posting. Whenever I write something like this, it seems it’s usually best to wait a few days. It’s not self-censorship as it is self-editing; sometimes these kinds of posts about depression or angst just make for crap writing, plain and simple. ‘

There are some posts on here, when I go back and read them, I cringe — not because of the private and personal nature of them, but the writing is just painfully labored. But after a few days, I deemed this one acceptable, so here you go.

Tête-à-Tet, And Various Other Miscellanea

Cafe Sai GonI’ve now been abroad longer than I ever have before, by about two weeks and a few days. No homesickness, per se — the opposite, in fact — although I do miss friends and family, naturally, and I would happily murder a random stranger if I thought it would make a proper burrito spontaneously spawn in my general vicinity. I’ve finished the CELTA successfully, and have partied like a rock star (which is easy to do in Sai Gon) this past week with my fellow CELToids and Tet revelers, both foreign and local. As I write this Tet, as the Chinese or lunar new year is called here in Viet Nam, has more or less wound down — businesses are reopening and the streets, while still not as crowded as normal, are getting busier. And I’ll probably spend a nice, quiet Saturday night tonight reading a book (actually it is now officially over, and I did spend Saturday night at “home” reading).

This is going to be a long, meandering post, as there is much I wish to reflect upon for my own edification. Between meeting so many different people, the borderline insane intensity of the CELTA and the borderline insane intensity of the ensuing celebratory debauchery – I’m too old to be watching the sun come up several days in a row, dammit – I feel the need to unburden my mind and make some sort of linear sense of it all, if that’s possible. I’ve crammed more living into the last six weeks than I’m accustomed to – and I think that’s a good thing (although I probably overdid the debauchery a bit, but what the hell) – but now I need to step back and ponder things.

Plus it’s a good excuse to loaf all afternoon in a café, not that one needs an excuse to do that in Viet Nam, as café culture is flourishing here (thank you French colonialism) even as it fades away elsewhere — kind of ironic, that. In fact, loafing in a café is what I was doing last weekend in the picture above, recovering one steamy afternoon from the second of several post-CELTA all-night revels. What you see on the left is the sublime taste of nirvana that is Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk. When it is served traditionally like this, you have to wait until the coffee stops dripping from the grounds suspended above the glass, and the anticipation is sweet, sweet torture.

But I digress. So since I’ve already brought up Tet, let us start with that. As in much of Asia where there is an historical Chinese influence, this is a major holiday. To put it in context for a Western mind, Tet is more akin to Christmas or Hanukkah than our calendar New Year holiday (although there is a midnight countdown and whatnot) in terms of how it is celebrated; it is a time to spend with loved ones, and many return to their ancestral villages and reconnect with extended family. Shops are closed, often for the week. It is also a time to remember one’s ancestors and family that are no longer here; incense and paper offerings are burned in their honor, as well as that of Buddha. I presume that this is traditionally done in front of or near the family altar, although here in the seedy backpacker ward, where not everyone may have a family altar or may be far from it, one sees offerings being made on the sidewalk and in the street. Even bar girls stop at the stroke of midnight to usher in the New Year with prayers, offerings and incense.

But it is not a somber time; indeed the end of the old year and the beginning of the new is marked with revelry and fireworks. Throughout the week it is not uncommon to see troupes of performers in the streets dancing to the beat of drums in the guise of a Chinese dragon. Homes, shops and even the streets of Sai Gon themselves are adorned with banners and flowers, and in the days leading up to the New Year the parks of District 1 (and I presume elsewhere in the city) are transformed into enormous flower markets. Birds and fish are also available to be bought and then released, as Buddhist custom dictates that purchasing their freedom provides merit and good luck for the New Year (not sure about the (de)merit of those who actually put them in bags/cages, though). Then there is the custom of lucky money; people give gifts of money stuffed into festive red envelopes in return for wishes of good fortune and luck. I gather that traditionally these are given to children, although I saw my share of adults receiving red envelopes as well; in fact I drank at least one round on the first evening of Tet bought with lucky money.

One more thing I might note about Tet — I was warned repeatedly by locals, both expats and Vietnamese, that Ho Chi Minh City would empty out after the initial Tet hoopla (which took place Feb. 14 this year). Some of my fellow newbie expats were worried that we might have a tough time scavenging for food in the ensuing desolation. While from what I understand the outlying districts of Sai Gon did indeed become ghost towns, District 1, which encompasses the backpacker/budget traveler ward and much of the city center, maintained it’s 24/7 buzz. Granted, traffic lessened and many shops were closed, but finding open restaurants and cafés was not a problem, and traffic was even worse in the evenings as streets in the city center would be clogged with people visiting the flower displays or just out and about celebrating. I rode my bike to District 5 and back on Monday (and lived to tell about it once again) and there were still plenty of motorbikes on the road, not to mention buses and the odd car.

I also added a new phrase to my still-minuscule Vietnamese lexicon: chúc mừng năm mới (happy new year). I can now say hello, order phở with lean beef, fried eggs with a baguette (which comes with veggies), bottled water (either small or large), iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk, beer and say thank you – all in Vietnamese. I’m also working on “good night,” and “vegetarian spring rolls” but haven’t cemented them in my head yet.

As is true elsewhere in the world, and as I discovered on my first trip to Japan, showing that you’re making an effort to learn the local tongue instead of resorting to the lingua franca of English inevitably brings a smile and warms up the locals — even some of the hardened hearts one finds in Phạm Ngũ Lão, the street that lends its name to the seedy backpacker district it borders. Phạm Ngũ Lão, incidentally, is named for a noted general from Vietnamese history who lived during Nhà Trần dynasty here centuries ago. I wonder what he would think of this honor; probably mixed feelings at best.

British Grammar is Right … Because It’s British

I Passed, Bizzatches!But enough about Tet. Let’s talk about the CELTA, the reason I came to Vietnam, or at least the immediate reason. After four long, grueling weeks comprising eight-hours a day of class time, and an average of 3 to 4 hours each night outside of class (not to mention more than half the waking hours of the weekends), it is over. I both survived and passed. For the benefit of anyone reading who hasn’t heard me go on about it already, the CELTA is the most widely accepted certification for teaching English as a foreign language. In some countries it is a requirement to teach; in others it is not but often can net one a better job or better pay.

As anyone who has survived will tell you — or the institution offering the class should tell you — this isn’t some fly-by-night, hang-out-on-the-beach, pay-your-money-and-here’s-your-certificate kind of thing. It’s like finals week during college — a quarter/semester in which you took 18 credit hours with no blow-off classes – only it lasts a freakin’ month. Needless to say I fell off the caffeine-free bandwagon repeatedly, and contemplated resorting to the drastic pharmacological methodology I sometimes employed in my college days to get through difficult finals weeks. In the end, however, such measures were not necessary, as I’m older and wiser — well, the latter is debatable, but I’m definitely longer in the tooth (although I certainly didn’t act like it this past week).

So in essence it’s a month-long hell. On the plus side, Cambridge University, which developed and overseas the CELTA programs around the globe, stuffs a lot of practical learning into that month; on the second day you find yourself in front of real students teaching. I now feel like I have some small clue as to what to do when I stand up in front of ESL students, and in the midst of all the practical things I learned, the CELTA exposed me to some interesting theory about how students learn and whatnot. I also discovered that I find linguistics rather fascinating, particularly phonemics – didn’t see that one coming — I’m seriously contemplating getting an MA in this rather than journalism or TEFL (but I’m going to try on this teaching career for a few years first).

The CELTA course is not without its immense frustration, however. More or less by design, it sets you up to fail, or at least flail, during your teaching practice: there is so much information thrown at you so fast you can’t possible absorb it all and use it all effectively in the classroom. But then one quickly discovers one’s strengths and weaknesses this way, and during feedback and a tutorial with one’s instructors you learn/reinforce what you need to know/do. It’s kind of a sink-or-swim/trial-by-fire situation, which is rather stressful, to say the least; if you don’t thrive or can’t at least handle the pressure well, it can be downright brutal at times.

School's Out for Tet ...But as I say, once you get through it, you have some tools in place to do the job. Granted I still have a lot to learn — no substitute for experience — and much of what I learned during the CELTA course will only get cemented with time and practice. But I feel that I now have the foundation that I need to begin teaching English as a foreign language, and can step into a classroom and actually teach, as opposed to being an entertainer – entertainment being a method that many ESL teachers apparently resort to, particularly those like me that come to it from other professional backgrounds.

And I discovered that I like teaching. At least I like teaching Vietnamese students. I suspect that by starting a teaching career in Viet Nam I might be spoiling myself when and if I move on to other countries. I was aware going into this that I might discover teaching wasn’t for me, and that may still prove to be the case in the long run. But I further suspect that If I still want to teach after going through CELTA hell, that I’m in it for the long haul. And as I mentioned above I found some of the theory behind language and teaching endlessly fascinating (but then I am a nerd, loud and proud).

Brothers and Sisters in Arms … or Was that Bondage?

One aspect of the CELTA that surprised me was the camaraderie among my student group. It is really quite remarkable when you think about it: what are the odds that 16 people from disparate backgrounds, ages and countries would all get along so well (with one notable exception, but I’m not going to go into details on that). Indeed, while some got along more than others, and there was some drama on the interpersonal relationship front, on the whole, we all got along surprisingly well. In fact, one of the things we all remarked on at the end of the course was that we would all miss those moving on to other countries or returning to their (current) home countries, and glad that those remaining in Viet Nam for a time would be close at hand.

Even crusty ole’ anti-social me grew fond of nearly everyone on the course to one degree or another, and I suspect that in some cases may have even made life-long friendships. At the very least I hope to keep in touch with everyone as the years pass and we diverge across the globe.

I think there is a larger truth to be known, here too. Sure, part of the bonding of my classmates and I arose simply from the fact that we all went through a stressful situation together. But I think there is perhaps more to it than that. One of the things I’ve always loved about traveling abroad is meeting fellow travelers. I don’t mean the people on a two-week vacation or what have you, but the people that travel long-term or choose to live abroad. One still meets a certain percentage of assholes and assorted tools among this population, but the percentage of really cool people that one meets abroad is much higher than say, the percentage of cool people one meets back home, dramatically so. I’m not sure why this is exactly, but theorize that it has to do with the mindset that drives one to travel long-term or live abroad. I’ve discussed my theory with other travelers and other expats (other expats … God I love the sound of that) and they tend to agree.

High TeaMy CELTA class is a case in point. That’s the beauty of this lifestyle — when and where else could I have made new friends from Poland, South Africa, France, England, Ireland, Australia, Canada, as well as the United States (one from a small town near Houma, LA of all places – Geaux Saints!)? Not to mention my new Vietnamese friends, and other travelers and expats that have been well met. I’ve even met a girl from Nova Scotia who may be an even bigger nerd than me (of course I was too drunk and tired to ask for her number at the end of the night; I’m an ignorant dumbass when it comes to these things). If I hadn’t of taken the CELTA class here in Vietnam, I doubt my paths would ever have crossed with any of these people. Furthermore, if you took 16 random people from around the world ranging in age from early 20s to late 50s who weren’t long-term travelers or expats and who knowingly only had one thing in common to bring them together for a month, would 15 of them become fast friends? I really doubt it.

I don’t miss the CELTA and I’m glad it’s over — ecstatic even, as evidenced by my revelry this past week. But I miss seeing my fellow students every day already, but take solace in the fact that our paths crossed, even for just a little while. For those not remaining in Sai Gon, well met and fare thee well, CELToids; may our paths cross again, and sooner rather than later (I seem to be channeling Tolkien all of a sudden; would that this happen more often).

So Now I’ve Got to Get a Job

Four weeks of intense study (and there were a few moments when I wondered if I would get to the end successfully, but by and large was confident of the outcome) followed by a week of intense celebration and goofing off, with a day trip to the Mekong Delta thrown in. Now it’s time to find a job in my chosen course of study. Yes, it feels like I crammed a whole second college career in the span of five weeks or so, replete with the “year off” for travel and wild oat sowing. Ay carumba.

I plan to stay here in Viet Nam and teach, provided I can find a job in the near future now that Tet is over. I’m reasonably confident that I can, as there is a high demand for ESL teachers here, and the economy has continued to grow here, even as it stagnates in much of the world. But now that I have my CELTA certification, there are so many more jobs in other places that I qualify for now (and I feel that I can actually do) that I admit my wanderlust gets piqued when I look at ESL job boards, and I’m not sure where I may end up. I could return to Japan or China — I could conceivably get a university job in China; there’s an opening advertised right now in my beloved Chengdu — or go someplace I haven’t been to yet but yearn to experience — Thailand or somewhere else in Southeast Asia, South or Central America, or Eastern Europe.

I’m like a kid in a candy store; in that respect this situation also feels like I just graduated from college: for the first in too many years I’m excited about life and the world beckons; the entire globe is my oyster and it’s full of potential pearls waiting for me to discover them.

I Shall Not, I WILL Not Forget

Another unforeseen aspect of this whole experience so far is the fact that for the first time since she died nine years ago, the anniversary of my mother’s death came and went and I didn’t even realize it. It wasn’t until after the course was over that it occurred to me; I think it was watching someone burn an offering for Tet, and it suddenly popped into my head, that the sad and bitter significance of January 19 had escaped me for the first time. It was the second day of the CELTA course, and really the first full day of it; that was our first teaching practice day. To say I was preoccupied would be an understatement.

I have mixed emotions about this. On one hand, I suppose I should be glad. I can still picture my mother in my mind’s eye, whole and healthy; I still have my memories and they haven’t faded much with time. Furthermore, dwelling on the circumstances of her death accomplishes nothing; brooding in the dark can’t change the past or raise the dead. This I well know. Yet I still feel saddened by the fact that the day came and went unmarked by me. As terrible as it was, I don’t want to forget it; I don’t want to forget anything about her, even being mad with grief at her death. I don’t want my mother to become just a series of half-faded memories and snapshot images in my head as time flows on, carrying me farther and farther from the time she was alive. It is inevitable I suppose – the nature of things.

But I shall pound my fists against the wall of inevitability, just as I did in her dieing days, and do what little I can. That is the nature of me, dark and stubborn to the end. Some might say it is perhaps a good thing to temper the elation of the past week with a small undercurrent of sorrow – a balance, of sorts. Perhaps it is living in a Buddhist land, that engenders these thoughts. I wonder.

P.S.: New Roommate

Obligatory Gecko Shot

If you’ve ever perused the blog of a western expat who resides anywhere in Southeast Asia, there is always a post with a shot of a gecko in their room. It’s like a rule to get a long-term visa or something, that one has to post a picture of a gecko. Here in Viet Nam (in Ho Chi Minh City, anyway), these cute little buggers are everywhere. It’s not like you see them all the time, but then it’s not uncommon to see one hanging out on the ceiling of a restaurant or the wall of a bar, scuttling across a rock in the park, or in one’s apartment/hotel room. They eat bugs and they don’t seem to, er, “leave anything behind” so they are welcome as I far as I’m concerned.

Anyway, here is my gecko shot. I think maybe he was gunning for that bug around the corner. Sorry for the crap quality; took it with my camera phone in low light.

And thus concludes the longest blog post by anyone, ever.

The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters

Francisco Goya: Caprichos. El sueño de la razón produce monstruo (the dream of reason brings forth monsters).It’s funny, not in an amusing way, but rather in an odd, “isn’t-it-strange” kind of way, how sometimes they all come flooding back, the ghosts and the memories they bear. A month or two can go by, and there are no dreams, even though it comes up in casual conversation, that death of a loved one.

But they are never far away though. They are always there, lurking just below the surface, that frail veneer of normalcy you present to the world. You know this, because you’ve lived with it for some years now. But sometimes, there are stretches of time when the environment around you, the fates, and your own mind all collude to lull you into a false sense of security; perhaps you even foolishly dare to think that you are “over it,” as if you ever can or will be over it – as if you have a choice in this matter — when deep down you know that can never be. That at best, you’ll adapt, like an amputee adjusting to losing a limb: her life goes on and she learns how to do without, but that phantom pain never quite goes away — indeed, it flares up when she least expects it.

In much the same way, you never know when something will whisk you back into those moments to relive yet again for the gods-only-know-how-many times those awful, terrible moments, the dreadful movie playing behind your eyes in all its vivid, mental Technicolor glory. Sometimes you don’t see it coming; the most tenuous reminders – a smell, an uttered phrase, an object on your dresser – they collude to send you back to those moments unwillingly to live them all again. And sometimes it’s just for the briefest of moments before you can return to your façade; sometimes the ghosts even let you sleep unperturbed.

But then other times the ghosts cavort and play their infernal games until light floods the world once more.

And then there are the times you see it coming, like a slow-motion accident — the character in the television show you’ve been watching is in the hospital, on life support, and the prognosis isn’t good, and you know you shouldn’t be watching this; you know what it is going to bring – you hear the banshee’s wail — yet you cannot help yourself. You go there willingly; no collusion or sudden trickery is necessary. And even though it’s all bullshit, the heavily made-up actor lying on the hospital bed in a studio intensive care; no matter how they present it, you know its utter crap because you’ve seen this all first hand, twice now.

It’s like you’re not really seeing the stupid bullshit on TV, though. Oh no, your mind and your ghosts make sure that instead of seeing the clean, comfortable, participatory lie — the willing suspension of disbelief — instead you’re reliving the visceral  truth of death all over again: you hear the death rattle in lungs filling with fluid … you see the arms swollen and livid because the kidneys have shut down, and the fluids they continuously pump into him have nowhere to go … you hear the unconscious yet desperate gasps for breath … you smell that telltale odor of decay that refutes the hopeful, steady chirps of the monitors … you feel the rapid beating of a raggedy old heart fighting a desperate, losing battle.

And even though the character on television makes a rapid recovery to the ecstatic, happy relief of their loved ones, that’s not the ending you see. No, you hear that last gasp as the lung rattle ceases, the chest rising for the last time. Then once more you lay fingers on rough, dry, aged skin that’s prickly with gray whiskers so that your fingertips can be witness to that patched, retread heart fluttering once or twice more before finally stopping, forever. You watch again as the blood drains away from the face of the one constant left in your life, never to return. The jaw slackens and you try and close it — how many times have you tried to close it? — grasping for even one tiny shred of dignity for this man, because that’s all you can do, even though you know it’s futile – that’s all you have left to give him, after he’s given you so much. But Death won’t permit even that.

And even as you wander out to the nurse’s station to inform them that your hopeless vigil is at an end, you know it’s only just begun: these images are mentally indelible. You know that even if you were to live for a hundred more years, or a thousand more years, that you will take them to your own grave, as brilliant and vivid as the moment they happened — that only when your own heart stops beating and your own jaw slackens for the last time, then and only then will they leave you.

Only when you join them will the ghosts let you sleep untroubled.

So you come back to the present nine months later and sit and listen to Beethoven — Moonlight Sonata and Für Elise, over and over, and that upbeat, happy part in the middle of Für Elise always catches you off guard – because you know sleep will not come this night. You briefly take solace in the fact that no sleep means no dreams. But then your tired mind keeps replaying those images in your head, over and over, like a tongue probing a rotten tooth, or a finger picking at a bloody scab.

Ghosts will have their due, whether you sleep or not.

So you write it all down because words are the only way you know how to temporarily exorcise them, the images and the ghosts — the only way you know how to drive them away, however fleetingly.

On the Road at 3 a.m. with Bobby and Beth

I heart Beth Orton.What is it about the open road at night — nothing but moon and starlight, the hum of tires on lonely asphalt, and the occasional snippet of summer insect song through an open window as I drive along — that soothes my restless soul?

What is it about the humid, warm wind rushing through my hair and over my face as the soft, silky voice of a British siren whispers in my ear through the windy din, that brings peace to my restless heart?

Even with no particular place to go, and the knowledge that I’ll have to turn around and point myself towards “home” eventually, well before the dawn comes — what is it about this suspended, sublime moment of sound and motion that brings solace?

Is motion, even with no destination, a balm for restlessness? Does it hearken back to the comfort of floating in the dark, warm comfort of the womb? Or is there some primordial memory imprinted in my deoxyribonucleic acids that recalls what it was like to constantly be on the move, a nomad whose very life depended on movement? Or does it hearken to something even farther back, some distant recollection etched in the molecules and atoms of my being: that of constantly cruising through dim, newly-formed seas from birth until death, the wind of the highway standing in for the flow of salt water over my bony, smooth flesh?

What is in me, that the only times I seem to feel truly at peace, the only time that I feel truly at home — at peace with myself and the world — is when I’m headed away from it? It hasn’t mattered where home has been, or who might be waiting there — doesn’t matter which side of the continent, rural or urban – it’s always been this way. What is in me that always seems compelled to see what’s over the next hill, or the next horizon — that is sometimes compelled to just leave at a moment’s notice? That only feels content on a bicycle, car, or plane that’s pointed away from where I’ve been?

These are thoughts that flit through my mind as Beth Orton croons to me of love, death, and loss at 3:30 a.m. on a random highway headed west. Central Reservation has to be one of the best road albums ever, but then it’s very name speaks of the road. I eventually stop at a Waffle House in the middle of Nowhere, Indiana, to get something to eat, and there were two gentlemen in there having breakfast before beginning their respective work days. One was a public school janitor; I couldn’t suss out what the other guy did.

I couldn’t help but think that here were to guys, probably with houses and the corresponding mortgages, families, and responsibilities. They couldn’t decide to take off and hit the road on the wrong side of midnight on a weekday, just because they felt like it; just because it felt good to be moving. And here I was, a guy more or less the same age as these two, only marginally employed thanks to the current economy, with no healthcare — but no bills or other responsibilities, who could just take off at a whim.

And I think how I wouldn’t trade places with either of these two guys, how I feel sorry for them, although they don’t seem like they were sorry for themselves (but then who knows what lurks behind their eyes).

Why?

Now, the magic spell of the road is broken as I point the Subaru back toward home (there’s that strange word again). Now my mind races ahead of the car, the voodoo charm of motion having warn off — scattered, smothered, and covered by a chance encounter at a highway restaurant. Now I think of my father, and how sometimes, when I was a kid, seemingly at random (but almost always on a weekend), he would ask if I wanted to go for a car ride — no destination, no particular reason; he just felt like driving. This most often took place when I was a child, but sometimes it would happen even after I had grown into an adult, on up to the months before he died.

Did he feel that restlessness? Did I inherit it from him? Did he ever find himself hurtling down some isolated highway in the small hours before sunrise, the warm, somewhat sultry voice of a woman he’s never met his only companion, and find a brief enlightenment? Did he regret choices that kept him from being unfettered, from being able to take to the road whenever he wished? Did he miss the freedom of his postwar, post-collegiate self, the gleaming red Studebaker taking him whither he will? I recall his stories of those seemingly idyllic days, and I wonder.

Or does it come from my mother? She of the Northern Irish and Scottish blood, the blood of poets, blood that waxes and wanes across centuries, sometimes in thrall, sometimes free — bending but never breaking, sometimes turning the other cheek, sometimes gladly turning to fight (blood that now flows in my veins)? A depression-era child that watched cancer claim her father only a few short years after she was born, did she ever find that the familial ties that brought comfort then only brought chafing and constraints later in life? Mother that kept a copy of Rand’s The Fountainhead buried on her bookshelf amidst family photos, myriad self help books, bibles and dusty old encyclopedias — a copy that she quietly replaced after I took it home to the Great White North to finish reading, having discovered it on my first Christmas home after college.

There was more to her than I ever knew.

Am I more like them than I ever realized? Is my instinctive fear of life’s metaphorical anchors and chains inherited? Did they feel restless in the small hours of the night? What recourse did they have if they did? They were always there when I awoke as a child — was I a tie that binded them?

Sometimes I rue having been an accident, a gynecologist’s miscalculation, having been born so late in their lives. It seems like I barely got to an age — and if there is any blame to bear for this, it lies with me — where I could appreciate my parents as fellow adults, as distinct human beings — and as friends — before age, infirmity, and death claimed them. On one hand, I’m almost ashamed to say that in one sense I feel free now that my father is gone; there is nothing keeping me here now and I’m truly free to wander whither I will (if I only I had that sweet Studebaker). On the other, I’d pay anything — oh, I’d pay dearly and gladly — for more time with both of them, even just a precious hour or two.

I heart Robert Frost, too. Of course there is no one to ask, now, about these existential 3 a.m. questions  — no one to ask when I wander in the dark, why I wander in the dark. Why I only feel at peace when I do. Why it is only motion that ever drives away the vague angst that settled in my gut in my teenage years — as it seemingly does for everyone — and never left me.

But then, does it even matter? Should it matter? Perhaps, sometimes, it is best not to wonder why we wander, why we travel through the woods on a snowy evening, or whether we will be seen by the land owner. Rather, we should simply revel in woods that “are lovely, dark, and deep,” living in that moment, not worrying about the promises to keep and the miles to go before we sleep — there is time enough for that in the still, sterile light of day.

Ole Bobby Frost, he knew a thing or two about angst, restlessness and 3 a.m. There must have been some Irish or Scotts in the woodpile somewhere in his family history, I’ll wager.

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

The Disc Doctor Has Left the Building

And this mortal coil.

Watching all of the fuss over Michael Jackson the past few days, marveling over all of the people mourning his death, holding vigil at his star on Hollywood Boulevard, or wherever those things are kept, I couldn’t help but feel angry. Why are these people crying and carrying on over someone they have never met in real life? Okay, fine, you enjoyed his music, but you didn’t know him, so how can you truly mourn him? Are your emotions that cheap?

I can’t help but think that the multitudes of fans we see on video carrying on over Michael Jackson in the streets of cities all around the world are ones that have never lost someone truly close to them – never had someone they dearly loved taken from them – and that they are fools, one and all. With their crocodile tears they mock everyone past and present that has watched someone they truly know and love die.

Michael Riley

But such is life. For the first time in some months, I dreamed of my father, the other night. I guess Michael Jackson’s death is big news even in the realm of the dead; the ghosts are stirring and agitated.

As if to drive all this home, I learned Friday that my friend Michael Riley had died the day before. I feel compelled to memorialize him here in my own words, because that.s really all I can offer at this point, I suppose. It’s ironic, because I haven’t felt much like writing lately, either creatively, or blogging, or professionally. In fact, as of late, blogging just seems silly. But other than knocking back some beer with some mutual friends and reminiscing, I have nothing else to offer him.

I talked with his closest friend earlier today, and she said something that struck me. She was saddened most by the fact that Michael never struck it big as a DJ, in spite of having the chops and the respect of many people in the radio and music business. That is a sad aspect of Michael Riley’s life, and yet I can’t help but contrast his death with that of Michael Jackson. The only tears shed for Michael Riley will be genuine, and while he may never have got the fame and recognition he deserved, my Michael seems to have largely lived life on his own terms, which seems more than we can say for Jackson. Furthermore, while the music of Michael Jackson, whose fans are legion, touched millions (musical pablum that is; sorry, just have to be honest); I’ll wager that Michael Riley touched more people’s lives in a meaningful way, in ways that someone who lived in the rarefied air of pop superstardom never could.

The Mekon

Just ask the Mekons and many other bands from outside the United States who probably wouldn’t have a fan base here in the Midwest if it weren’t for the efforts of the Disc Doctor – bands you’ve probably never heard of, who made music because they love to do it, because it was their calling – not to feed the hungry maw of the undiscerning masses, lining their pockets and those of their sycophants along the way. The Disc Doctor, as he was known when he spun records, was a bit of a legend around Cincinnati, at least in certain musical circles – circles that actually spread well beyond Cincy, actually.

I only got to know Michael in the last few years of his life, long after he had left the airwaves, but my life has been the richer for it. He used to work at the coffee shop where I frequently hang out at, since moving back to my old hometown. I don’t remember how we eventually got to know one another; I imagine one day I was trying to find out what obscure music was playing in Sitwells, and the inevitable answer that anyone would give was “ask Michael.” At some point Michael determined that I was not just another ignorant hipster douche bag hanging out in an indie coffee shop, and he started bringing me music, giving me homemade compilations that span just about every musical genre you could think of. Aside from his friendship, he turned me onto a lot of music I would not otherwise have discovered, and for that, I will always be grateful. And I am just one of many with similar stories.

I can’t claim that we were super close friends, but we were close enough that we would take road trips to see bands. We were close enough that I happily volunteered to help him move when he needed it, because I knew he couldn’t manage it himself. I only asked that he let me come over some time and let me comb the extensive music collection that wasn’t on CD and let me rip whatever my heart desired. I think he got a kick out of the fact that in spite of our age difference I shared many of his musical predilections. As he used to tell me, “I don’t know about these other kids (anyone 10 or more years younger than him was a kid) but you get it. You know what’s good.”

Of course, I never got around to actually doing that. And now it’s too late. As I wrote this, the last song he played as a radio DJ came to an end. It seemed only fitting today, when I confirmed beyond rumor that he had died, that I listen to a copy of his last radio show that he had given me a couple years back. The last song on it is Sun Ra’s Nuclear War. The lyrics are rather spooky, given the circumstances:

If they push that button
You can kiss yo’ ass goodbye

What you gonna do without yo’ ass?

Indeed, Michael Riley, what are we gonna do? Who else could choose songs from the likes of Muddy Waters, The Stones, Dylan, and Hendrix and mix them up with Alpha & Omega, The Mekons, Patti Smith, Carol King and Bette Midler into one radio show and make it work? You will be sorely missed my friend, and like others that are gone from my life, the world becomes a slightly more dreary place without you in it. I’ll try and take comfort in the fact that our paths crossed for a time; I’m a better man for having known you.

You know, Michael hit just about every genre of pop music you could think of during his final show, including punk – that was the Disc Doctor. While many of the choices were pointed commentary on the politics that led to his leaving his radio station, and the fact that he was leaving the air, they are also eerily poignant in the wake of his death. Among those songs is one from country artist Matraca Berg, River of No Return:

All aboard
The ship is waiting
All aboard, you know I’ve finally learned
That I don’t need no farewell party
I’m just gonna watch my bridges burn

Cause I’m going down the river of no return

Well, I let it go
Yeah, I cried myself an ocean
Now I’m gonna, gonna pack up my dreams and sail away
And my destination is none of your concern

Cause I’m going down, down the river of no return
I’m going down, down the river of no return

A misty grey morning covered for me
As I left, I left you there sleeping
All tangled up in your dreams
And this morning I woke up
And I knew I was free
You may shed a teardrop
But, oh baby, it won’t be for me

So all aboard
The ship is waiting
All aboard, yeah, my ship has finally come in
And I don’t need no farewell party
Just gonna watch those bridges burn

Down, down the river
All the way down, down the river of no return

Goodbye, my friend.

I'm Sorry, Dad

I wrote the following text below the cut (the “read more” link; you’ll get to it eventually) on Thursday afternoon, the evening after I finally cracked. In engineering terminology, my psyche finally suffered a catastrophic malfunction. I’d been waiting for it – had been wondering why it had not happened yet, following Dad’s [tag]death[/tag] four short weeks ago. I’d been wondering if and when it would all become too much. Wednesday night, was the last straw, as it became evident to me that my two oldest siblings decided beyond all doubt that their vanity and personal demons were more important than honoring our father’s wishes.

And I broke – and only by the slimmest thread of self control did I keep from literally breaking everything I own. In the end, I wasn’t psychologically strong enough to do what I believe what my father would have wanted me to do.

And I went to a very dark place inside my soul. A dark, dank little cave that I haven’t visited since the spring of 2001, following my mother’s death; this has been my third visit to that place since December 1999 when, but for a “grave”(heh) miscalculation, it would have become my permanent place of residence. After writing what follows, I felt much better; I guess it enabled me to come to terms with my failure, that and the new cadre of ghosts that joins those my mother’s death left behind to keep me company.

I decided not to post it right away, however; I decided to give it a few days and read it over. For one reason, writing when one is emotional is not necessarily a good thing – sometimes it can be powerful beyond measure in its passion; at other times the force of that passion can completely wreck the writing, tearing it asunder and making it descend into melodrama, even as you put it down on the page. The second reason is because I have mixed feelings about keeping a truly personal blog. On one hand, I’m an intensely private person; I often fit the cliché of the loner. On the other hand, when I look at others’ blogs, the ones I truly enjoy reading, they tend to be of an intensely personal nature; they are the ones in which the authors lay their souls bare (they can write well, too). It’s probably not surprising that the blogs I enjoy the most are by published fiction authors.

So, I suppose if I’m going to keep a [tag]blog[/tag], then it might as well be one that I would actually read, were I on the other side of it (I’ll let you decide if I can write well or not; obviously I believe that I can). Furthermore, despite my private nature, there is something cathartic about publishing your innermost thoughts and feelings on a blog for all the world to read – it lets one bare one’s soul without the embarrassment of sharing that with someone in person. Plus, the reader gets the powerful words and compelling emotion without the drama and tears. If they’re uncomfortable, they can stop reading; if it’s someone I know, they can choose to acknowledge it, or not, as they see fit, when we meet in person.

For a misanthropic, navel-gazing loner who only maintains a handful of good friends, it’s the perfect psychological vent.

Another reason I’m glad I waited is that on Friday – it being early Saturday evening as I write this – bitch-ass Fate decided to deal me a coup de grâce: I got laid off from my job. That kind of helped me put everything in perspective, I think, because in spite of what conventional wisdom would suggest I should feel, I feel relieved. I liked my job, liked my coworkers and my employer, but lately, even before my father died, I had had trouble with motivation – in short, I just couldn’t feel motivated anymore to do something that I didn’t have a passion for. It has been like staying in a relationship with someone because it’s comfortable, not because I’m still madly in love with them. My career had become just a job – a cool job, but just a job nonetheless. I’ve actually felt that way about journalism for several years now, but with all of the shit going on following my father’s death, I was finding it extra difficult to do the job – I just couldn’t find it within me to care – so I think it is for the best, even though the future is now even more uncertain than it was before.

One of my good friend’s favorite quotes is from the movie Hero; the lines in question are spoken by Bernie LaPlant, played by Dustin Hoffman, to his son Joey as he explains his philosophy of life.

“People are always talking about truth. Everybody always knows what the truth is, like it was toilet paper or something and they got a supply in the closet. But what you learn as you get older is there ain’t no truth. All there is is bullshit, pardon my vulgarity here. Layers of it. One layer of bullshit on top of another. And what you do in life like when you get older is – you pick the layer of bullshit you prefer and that’s your bullshit so to speak.”

I suspect my dilemma with regard to my career and everything else right now is that the layer of bullshit I have come to prefer is near the bottom, if not precisely the bottom itself. Maybe I’ve always been that way, and I just took 40 years to figure it out. All I know is, if I don’t wake up and the first thing in my brain isn’t “Hot damn, I can’t wait to do my job today,” then I don’t want to do it at all any more, because, well, it’s bullshit otherwise. Out in California you often hear the phrase “I work to live, rather than live to work,” often to justify some heinously long commute, or to justify some mind-numbing, soul-crushing drudgery in a cubicle farm. I think at this point in my life, I’d rather just “live to live,” because everything else is bullshit, I’ve come to conclude. It’s cliché, but it’s true: one must follow one’s bliss.

Granted, truth is subjective, and so is bullshit. But then, I’m a loner at heart, and now that both my [tag]parents[/tag] are dead, the only person I have to answer to is myself. So, whatever the future holds … it won’t hold a lot of bullshit, as far as I’m concerned. I may end up living in my Subaru down by the river, but damn it, it will be on my own terms, and there won’t be any bullshit involved – I won’t have to be full of shit, convincing myself to do a job that I don’t care about, and that doesn’t matter to me at the end of the day.

If I ever get laid off again, I want it to be a tragedy, because I loved that job, and because I couldn’t wait to do it each and every day I got out of bed. No more bullshit, that’s my motto.

So yeah, whatever self censorship may have taken place in the past here is no more. I’m posting what I want and everyone else can bugger off if they don’t like it, future employers included.

But be prepared, dear gentle reader; what you are about to read, should you chose to continue, isn’t a [tag]fluffy box of kittens[/tag] with a side order of Carebears. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

OK, that was a bit over the top. But it is gut wrenching stuff, if I do say so myself. And lengthy. May want to go take a leak and get something to drink before you click.

Continue reading I'm Sorry, Dad

Grief. It's what's for breakfast!

Ah, Sleep, I miss you. We used to get along so well together. I would turn on the fan and turn off the lights, and you would envelope me in your arms, warm and comforting, and transport me off to peaceful oblivion. But now, like lovers who are no longer in love, your visits to my bed are becoming increasingly rare, and when you do come, our lovemaking is not long and deep, but quick, fleeting, and distracted by strange dreams.

If you actually were a lover, I would have ejected you from my bed already; if you were a human lover, our relationship would clearly be over. But unlike a human lover, I actually can’t live without you.

So please come back, Sleep. I miss you. I need you.

[tag]Grief[/tag], it’s a strange thing. Like a cancer, it can rage through your body unchecked, and then be put into remission for a time, and you think you’re okay, perhaps even cured, though scarred by the experience. And life goes on.

But then it creeps up from inside you again. It wells up from some unknown place, and metastasizes through your being, and you realize that no, there is no quick cure. There is no biopsy followed by a quick surgery. No, this is going to be a long and difficult fight. The historical survival rate may be in your favor, but how long the malady lingers remains to be seen.

After we buried my father on December 23, I was in a mental holding pattern, of sorts. Perhaps it was shell shock. It all happened rather fast. From the time I found out that my father was in the hospital to the time he was in the ground was only two weeks. After it was all over – heh, apparently it’s only just begun – I was surprised at how well I felt, relatively speaking. I was hurting, but I was functioning. Life was going on as before. And I slept.

When my mother died, I literally wallowed in despair. It felt like I was hanging at the edge of a precipice over a black pit of sorrow, and that it was only a matter of time until I lost my grip. More than once I feared for my sanity, the grief was so overwhelming; at the time I consciously decided that some part of us must persist after death in some matter. Believing in this was the only way I could deal with the grief of my mother’s death and not go insane with sorrow; I couldn’t accept the fact that she was just … gone. Forever.

It took months, really more than a year, I suppose, before I put it behind me, at least enough to get on with the business of life and actually find some joy in it. And there were so many sleepless nights. I remember more than once after she died that surely I would never sleep again.

In that week or so following Dad’s burial, I kept waiting for the overwhelming despair to set in. I was waiting to teeter on the brink of madness and despair … and yet I never did. I marveled at myself, and chalked it up to having been through it before. I was amazed every time I woke up and realized that I had slept through the night. I was better equipped to deal with it, I reasoned, having been through it before; I had the tools in my psychological tool box to deal with it all.

But in retrospect, I think I was in a fugue. Between Dad’s [tag]death[/tag], turning 40, the holidays, squabbling siblings, and the accompanying ghost of my mother – like Dad, she went into the hospital shortly before Christmas, but lingered until mid January (and now I’ll have two Christmas ghosts to deal with in the future) – I think some sort of psychological failsafe switch kicked in. My subconscious was like: “Um … yeah … we’re not gonna take this on right now. Nope. Not gonna do it; not even gonna try. We’re just gonna kick back, drink some Guinness – maybe get into the vino, even; eat some pizza, eat some Thai, play some video games, read a book – and deal with all this shit later, mmmkay?” Which is actually just what I did.

But now that the holidays are over, and life returns to the mundane everyday concerns of work, groceries, bills, broken toilets and whatnot, and there is no more avoiding the sad business of settling my father’s estate, grief has come again. I don’t feel like I’m hanging on the brink of despair and madness this time, but I can see it on the other side of the fence bordering the Grim Reaper’s parking lot (boy, I’m just full of metaphors and similes this morning, aren’t I?).

And it’s hard to find the motivation to deal with the business of everyday life, because when I’m so close to that pit I realize that none of it really matters. I admit I find it hard to give a tinker’s damn about my daily copy deadline, or getting paperwork signed, or fixing the handle on the toilet, or figuring out what we’re going to do with my father’s boat when all I can really think about is that he’s dead, he’s gone, and I’ll never be able to talk with him again. I’ll never venture out on the water with him on that boat. That the two constants in my life, my parents, are now both dead and buried, and I’ve got 30 years left, 40 at the outside, give or take a few – if my luck holds out – before I’m daisy-root sniffing myself – that’s one of many colorful expressions my father taught me – so why the hell am I wasting precious time on things that I don’t really care about? Why does anyone?

As Dad himself used to say, if it won’t matter a hundred years from now, it probably doesn’t matter that much right now, does it?

Of course, this begs the question that has always plagued me as an adult – and only seems to get worse as I get older — as to why I never seem to care about the things that everyone else cares about? And what do I care about?

And when, for fucks damn sake, will I sleep more than a few hours in a stretch again?

Aw hell, Dad.

Grief, it’s a strange thing.

Well, I should probably wrap this up, and get to work. … yeah …

'08 Can Bite my Auld Lang Syne

Wow, 2008, you really sucked. Seriously, fuck you ’08, with a hot poker, even. You were on par with 2001 in the level of your suckness. You were actually coming in as okay – not great, but not bad, but then you just had to add that coup de grace there at the end, with my father’s death, huh? Yes, that was a sucktastic grand finale. Awesome. That put you even with ’01.

But there is a bright side – I haven’t made an ass of myself dithering about turning 40 a week ago. And then there is the fact that 2009 cannot suck any worse. Even if the whole Western world continues its meltdown to the point of apocalypse, it still cannot suck worse than 2008; Mom and Dad can’t die again. So good riddance, 2008; you shall not be missed. As for 2009, bring it. Do your worse. I laugh tauntingly and defiantly in the face of your impending adversity from the ramparts of my psychological castle. *in best gravely French accent:* I fart in your general direction.

You know, I’ve tried several times to write about my father’s death here in recent days, but have found I cannot. I’ve tried to recreate what I said at his funeral – he died December 16 – but every time I sit down to do it, my muse has been AFK (she’s pretty smart like that; smarter than I, surely). It is the same issue I had trying to put my mother’s death in perspective through writing; history repeats itself like the cruel mistress she is.

Until today, that is. Real life seems determined to intrude on the self-imposed mental holiday I instituted following my father’s burial December 23, although as far as I’m concerned, it lasts until Monday. But that fucking bastard of a devil is in the details. And my muse has coincidentally decided that her holiday is over. She’s fickle and recalcitrant; her timing rarely proves convenient. But I love her just the same (queue that silly Billy Joel song).

But Mistress Muse doesn’t want me to write about Dad, really, at least not yet; rather she wants me to confront death; specifically, the manner of dieing. The pastor that presided over Dad’s funeral said he was touched by the stories that my siblings and I had told during the ceremony, urging us to record them for posterity. But it’s kind of hard to worry about posterity when you’ve just had the ephemeral nature of existence violently thrust through one’s psyche like a barbed lance. Everything dies; everything fades away eventually, ourselves included. How many sons and daughters have mourned the loss of their parents throughout the ages – how many unique stories have been lost forever with the passage of time? How many will be still, as the years pass? The number is countless.

And why should I worry about posterity and preserving memories of my father and mother when I will be dead myself – in 40 odd years if I’m lucky; sooner if I’m not? I’ll have my memories until then. To lay a claim beyond my years seems kind of silly to me right now. Entropy is the nature of the universe; to try and deny that only seems foolish. Perhaps I’ll write about those memories in the future; perhaps not. But if I do, they will only be for my own edification, nothing more. The older I get, the more Buddhist I get; all that matters is now.

And I wonder how touched the good pastor would be if he knew about the sibling drama that started even before my father was technically dead? But that’s a story I shall not be delving into in this public forum, to be sure. And I’m not pointing any fingers or casting aspersions on anyone; we all react to and deal with death and grieve in our own ways.

Requiem, the Intimate Details of Death, and Death Wishes

In some ways, my father’s death has been much easier to deal with than my mother’s. The small rural hospital he was at let us stay with him in his room in intensive care around the clock, and the nurses were quick to respond to any request or concern we had about his comfort. They would even offer to get us food and coffee. The nurses were first rate, in fact; they made all the difference. Ladies of Rhea County Medical Center, you are the best, and you have my eternal gratitude.

At this point, though, in the waning hours of his life, I believe my father was past caring; at some point between his resuscitation from cardiac arrest a few days before the point that he clinically died, whatever made him Dad had already slipped away; he never really regained consciousness, at least not on this plane of existence. But for those of us left behind, at least for me, it made a huge difference to be able to be there every moment, knowing that he was as comfortable as possible and as dignified as possible, right up until that last heartbeat. Some might think it morbid, but to witness his last breath, the last few pulses of his heart – he was so thin at the end, his pulse in his carotid artery was visible in his neck — the color draining from his face, all this made my father’s death much easier to accept, as difficult and gut wrenching as it was to witness.

Yeah, that beat-up, retread heart of his, the one that we thought for nearly 30 years would be the death of him, held out until the bitter end, the last of his organs to stop functioning. Even in death, even as his spirit fled his dieing, frail body, Dad had to be a smart ass and have the last word.

A twisted part of me wishes I had that heart – I mean that literally; I would carry it with me always as a sort of talisman, a tribute to the kind of spirit that laughs in the face of long odds; the kind of spirit that flips the bird in the face of adversity. The kind of spirit that insists on just one more cast of the fishing rod into the water, even though the light of day is fading, we’re cold and miserable, and we haven’t caught one damn fish the whole damn day. The kind of spirit that taught me that you play every down as hard as you possibly can, no matter if there is less than a minute left in the game and your team is down by 50 points. The kind of spirit that taught me to play like it’s the first play of the game, and there is no score, even when it is the last play and we’ve clearly lost. Win or lose, you play hard; you never play “give-up ball,” for that is the worst sin of all. You play that way every play, or you don’t even walk out on the field; there is no half-assing. I would carry that heart as a testament to the spirit that taught me that, metaphorically, that’s how one should live one’s life.

I suppose I carry that heart metaphorically, if not literally, huh Dad?

My mother, on the other hand, died alone in an intensive care unit. We were only allowed to see her for 10 minutes an hour every hour, and then, only if there was no other activity in the ICU. If someone were being admitted or discharged, or getting their respiratory therapy, too bad; you can wait until next time. And frequently when we visited her, she seemed cold; I remember finding her shivering on more than one occasion, in spite of repeated requests to keep her warm with blankets. And on the rare occasions when she seemed aware of her surroundings, she seemed scared. She couldn’t really communicate, but you don’t need to words to see fear in a loved one’s eyes.

With a few exceptions, the staff just didn’t seem to give a shit about her or us; everyone seemed more concerned about their own personal jurisdictions and covering their own ass. She was a job, and the job was to keep her flesh alive in the clinical sense for as long as possible. I’ll never forget her admitting physician telling us that her oxygen levels were improving, only to learn later from the respiratory therapist that he was giving her a maximum amount of oxygen possible to sustain those levels. That was just one example of several. No one would outright lie, but the truth was often distorted, giving us false hope.

In the end she suffered needlessly for days, and that is the simple, awful truth of the matter. It is something that haunts me still, and I’m sure will continue to, to the end of my own life. I guess there are some things that endure, at least for the span of one’s life, in spite of the passage of time.

Ah, Death, you’ve taken the two people I’ve loved most; you took one of two constants in my life in the beginning of 2001; the other just a few weeks ago. Some might think it odd and morbid, but to me it seems only natural now to contemplate my own mortality. It’s only natural to be lurking in my thoughts throughout New Years revelry and that other nearby holiday that I now refuse to acknowledge henceforth (Mom’s death killed any joy left over in Xmas; Dad’s death dumped the dirt on its coffin). What will the circumstances of my death be?

Just when I think I can’t be any more preoccupied with death, someone ups and dies …

Ashes to (Meteor Pulverized) Ashes …

If the Grim Reaper and/or any Supreme Being(s) are reading this, I have some requests: there is to be absolutely no lingering – let me “die with my boots on,” as the saying goes. Do not let the medical establishment get its clutches on me, no matter how good-intentioned those clutches might be. Unless I can be upright and walking around for it, there should be no delays of the inevitable.

And above all, even if I must linger in pain and torment, please let it be alone. For God’s/Goddess’ sake, let it be alone. No family drama or intrigue (again, not pointing any fingers). No one around to intrude on the intimate details of my body shutting down for good. No bedside vigils. No nurses, aids, doctors, etc., even if they have the best of intentions and are completely sympathetic. Please, let me die alone.

Of course, given my own personal beliefs, I suppose most of these details are up to me; I’m not one to believe in fate or predestination; life is what we make of it (do what makes you happy, as long as you don’t hurt someone else in the process – it’s actually pretty simple). Time to get my Living Will in order. I hope I won’t have to deal with it for a long, long time, naturally, and if I’m lucky, never. My preferred mode of demise at the moment is to be done in by a meteor falling from the sky, just big enough to take me out on my 100th birthday – seriously, how cool of a way to go would that be? Instantaneous, no mess to deal with (other than a small, smoking crater) for those left behind, no funeral bills, and if not eternity, I would at least have a footnote in recorded history for some time to come.

And no, the irony here isn’t lost on me. I eternally regret not being at my mother’s side when she died, and not doing whatever was necessary to make her more comfortable, intensive-care-unit rules and the medical establishment be dammed. And it made it much easier to deal with and accept my father’s death, being there for every intimate, awful detail of his death – that, and the fact that I knew what I was in for, psychologically and emotionally, thanks to Mom. And yet, for myself, I do not want to have anyone present. Seriously G-man/woman, grant me that one request, huh? Yeah? Sooner or later, quick and painless or long, lingering, and agonizing, let me do it alone.

Of course if you’re honoring requests, let’s not let it be for some time to come. I may be a morbid bastard and whatnot, but I haven’t fetishized death to the point that I don’t like being above ground – I do, in-spite of it all. And if you could swing that meteor thing, that would be so totally rad.

As for Dad, I’ll just say this, the words that I used to conclude what I said at his funeral.

If, at the end of my days, I can say that I was half the man my father was – just half – my spirit will be able to rest easy, for I will know that by anyone’s measure, I will have done well with my time here. Just half – for my father, William Blackburn Chappell, was that much of a man.