Poetry

The Mustache Will Stay

Why do I need to do this
I say to myself as I move the razor
over cheeks flecked with stubble,
my shallow neckbeard
evaporating under the heat of the blades.

I am not
“professional,”
nor do I see people
as often as I used to.
I run my fingers through longish
lank hair,
and I admit
I do look a little better
with a clean face.

And when I pull
my hair back a bit,
I see how a haircut would look,
and it’s not bad.
It fits
the standards of the day: short,
simple, and clean.

Okay, you got me:
I feel a little better
after cleaning up a bit.
I push myself into the outline they made.
My outside looks enough to fool them.
My thoughts, though … I won’t cut those to fit.

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Poetry

When

For Xavier Javier Lopez. For Uziyah Garcia. For Nevaeh Bravo. For Amerie Jo Garza. For Maite Yuleana Rodriguez. For Makenna Lee Elrod. For Eliana “Ellie” Garcia. For Tess Marie Mata. For Annabell Guadalupe Rodriguez. For Rojelio Torres. For Alithia Ramirez. For Jayce Carmelo Luevanos. For Jailah Nicole Silguero. For Maranda Mathis. For Eliahana “Elijah” Cruz Torres. For Jose Flores Jr. For Alexandria “Lexi” Rubio. For Jacklyn Jaylen Cazares. For Layla Salazar. For Eva Mireles. For Irma Garcia. For their families and friends. For everyone who has lost a loved one to violence. These words are not enough.

When I was 10, I
saw a Pokemon card for the first time.
When I was 10, Ocarina of Time
was still pretty new, and I know
I played it a lot.
When I was 10, I conspired with my brothers
to lump all our money together
after a family trip to Chili’s
so we could afford Banjo-Kazooie.
When I was 10, I wrote
a poem about an owl, a tiny thing,
because my teacher thought I’d enjoy writing.
She was right about the art, though I
was too shy to enter the student writing workshop,
so I sat alone at a table outside
and read a Redwall book instead.
When I was 10, I imagined
a dozen different worlds,
filled with animals and people and
animal people
and fantasy beings I hadn’t read about yet.

I could not have imagined a world
where nineteen children
were cut down by torrents of gunfire.
Where two teachers threw themselves
where the cops did not dare to go.
Yet this is our world.
It doesn’t have to be.
We should only be allowed to build things
a 10-year-old can imagine.
Peaceful. Loving. Laugh-filled.

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rambling

A Brief Lesson on Limits

Yes, we’ve all heard or read this one before: know your limits. In other words, don’t push yourself too hard. I’m sure we’ve all been hearing and reading about another phenomenon that has become a buzzword: burnout. I’m not here to wax poetic about burnout (though I should probably get back to posting poetry at some point in the near future), but I will say that I don’t think I have very large limits. I get to my limits quickly and easily. This is both good and bad. The awful work culture of the U.S. has never been my thing, and my lower breaking point means I haven’t been through the wringer in as harrowing a way as many folks; I’m a firm believer that too much time in the capitalist meat grinder tricks people into enjoying their destruction, or at least, pretending they enjoy it. Fuck, I said I wouldn’t wax poetic. I should stop now. But, as the title implies, this should be a brief lesson on limits.

Total tonal shift: DoorDash is dangerous if you’re one person. In the beginning of the pandemic, I managed to avoid DoorDashing for myself because my brother, saint that he is, went to the grocery store and kept our supplies coming in. I didn’t download any of the delivery apps ’cause if I wanted food to be brought to my door, I got old-school and channeled my inner Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (trademark, hashtag, whatever) by ordering pizza. And that worked, for a long while. It even worked in the midst of my COVID-19 infection. Both my brother and I suffered the virus in the middle of January, and even during my 10-day quarantine, I didn’t use DoorDash for myself; once again, my brother came to my rescue and just ordered food for both of us. Was I using DoorDash by proxy? Eh, I guess so. But anyway, my point is, I didn’t even get into DoorDash until we were nearly two years into this pandemic mess.

But oh lord, when I finally embraced DoorDash, I embraced it wholeheartedly. I opted into the monthly fee (mistake number one). Now, every time I go to order food, I get that reminder that I have to spend at least $12 before my delivery fee is waived. Now, if I was some kind of gourmand or a DoorDash expert, I’d take full advantage of this and order all kinds of shit to save for later. But I’m neither of the aforementioned beings: I’m just a dude who’s too lazy to drive down the street to McDonald’s. The McDonald’s mention is important, and I’ll tell you why. No, I’m not sponsored by McDonald’s, though I eat there enough to be. McDonald’s is the great representative of fast food the world over; if the U.S. wants to get its foot in the door anywhere, it need only deploy the two M’s: the military, and McDonald’s. Neither one of these entities is good for the world, but I came here to talk about DoorDash and (a lack of) limits. I’ll leave the military for another brief rant.

Anyway, back to the big yellow M. The first time I used DoorDash, I actually ordered Cheesecake Factory for myself and some of my tabletop buddies, and I don’t think I had opted into the monthly fees yet. Those came later, post-quarantine, after I’d recovered from COVID and I found myself even more unwilling to leave the house. I didn’t want to go anywhere, but I still wanted food. Could I have groceries delivered to my door? Sure, that’s one way to solve a problem, but like, I’m not great at buying groceries. There was a time when I worked in a grocery store and that made my grocery life so much easier: I’d make a list of shit we needed and I’d buy it on my way out the door, after a shift or whatever. I probably should have been more clever and bought my groceries while I was on the clock, but hey, I was a lot more brainwashed then. So I decided not to order groceries for myself. Instead, I asked DoorDash to do what I didn’t want to do: drive down to the nearest fast food joint and grab greasy crap so I could shove it down my gullet.

Damn it, I said this would be brief. I lied. Seeing as how I just wanted one fast food meal at a time, I’d open up the app and look at my options. On nearly all of the options available to me, a little reminder hung below the card for each “restaurant”: “Spend $12 or more for free delivery.” I put that last part in quotes though I didn’t actually check the app’s verbiage; the fact remains, every fast food joint offers the free delivery, IF you cave and buy twelve bucks’ worth of fast food (how much can one buck eat?). Do you know how much fast food one skinny-ish dude needs to be sated? Like, nine bucks’ worth, maybe, if you’re going for a combo. If you’re going for value menu shit, you can get by with like, six or seven bucks’ worth of fast food. Some places offer what they call “deluxe” combos. Everyone should convert “deluxe” into “baconified” in their heads, ’cause that’s usually what a deluxe fast food combo offers: bacon, and more bacon if you’re into that. Today, I ordered almost thirteen bucks’ worth ($13!) of McDonald’s, because I don’t want to pay the delivery fee and I’m stubborn and damn it, I can still eat that much fast food. But Ronald Christ McDonald, eating that much fast food is neither fun nor healthy. Let me break it down this way: the Big Mac Combo, which is likely the most popular combo meal offered by McDonald’s, only costs about $8.99 or something. We’ll round up to nine bucks ($9!). On a day where I’m really hungry, a Big Mac Combo (trademark, hashtag, whatever ((I know the hashtag should go before the phrase, I’m just being willfully obtuse at this point))) would be a whole dinner for me and I’d be happy. Full. Fulfilled.

But gods damn it, I have to spend more than nine bucks to waive the delivery fee.

So what do I do? Well, I’ve done a few things to get around this dilemma. Solution number one: buy 20 McNuggets. Now, I don’t advise this solution unless you have friends/family members/roommates to whom you may offer many nuggets. ’cause eating a whole combo meal AND THEN trying to shove McNuggets into your throat is not a recipe for a good time. So only attempt solution number one if you have assistance. I went for solution number two today: I ordered another burger, believing I would save it for later, after I’d digested my Big Mac Meal and started feeling peckish. Big spoiler: I did not save that extra burger for later, and here’s why. I ate the Big Mac. I ate all the fries. I forgot to mention earlier that when I go for fast food combos, I opt for the large size or the local equivalent, ’cause I’m a fool. So I ate all those fucking fries. And as I finished the mondo mound of fries, I could feel my stomach expanding. It could barely fit all that shit in there, and it didn’t want me to put any other food into it. But y’see, I’d been thinking about my options. There were, as far as I could tell, three of them.

Option one: put the extra burger in the fridge and eat it later.

Option two: eat the burger now. Do it, coward.

Option three: toss that shit.

I didn’t like option three at all, ’cause I only bought the extra burger to avoid paying the delivery fee. I’d be tossing, like, four bucks ($4!) into the trash! So I couldn’t stomach (ha) option three. Option one sounded ideal, until I reminded myself that a cold burger isn’t great, and a reheated burger might even be worse. So that left me with option two, an option which mine stomach didst protest. Yet I didn’t want to waste a perfectly good bad burger. So I … I ate the damn thing.

My stomach bulged even more than it had already, and as I write this I can feel the food baby melting. Or dissolving. Whatever the fuck happens to food in one’s stomach. Now, I realize that I am a fool because I opted into this dilemma: I choose to pay that monthly fee. The only thing the monthly fee actually gets you is the sweet delivery fee avoidance, but that avoidance comes at a price. The extra money it takes to spend more than $12 (twelve bucks!). I’m pretty sure most delivery fees come out to like, four or five bucks (4 or $5?! How does one write that with numbers and symbols?), and typically, I gotta shell out about three or four bucks to waive the fee. So I don’t even think my solution is that cost-effective.

I can imagine that for families who all share one DoorDash account and typically order food together, the monthly service is great and they easily avoid delivery fees ’cause they buy food for multiple people at once. For me, a single, lonely, still-sorta-scrawny guy, it’s hard to order twelve bucks’ ($12!) worth of food. I can manage it most of the time, but my wallet isn’t happy. My body isn’t happy either; I’ve eaten more fast food over the last three months than I ate in the like, two years prior to that. Maybe it’s not that bad, I could be hyperbolizing here, but the point still stands: I’m eating too much fast food. I’m spending too much money on a service that I honestly don’t need.

I think my problems go way deeper than my newfound DoorDash addiction, but for now, I’ll apologize for not being brief at all. The title will still stand, though, a testament to good intentions and poor execution.

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Riffing on Music

I’m old enough to recall the last gasping breaths of cassette tapes. Maybe they were more like, the last creaky attempts to reel the tapes back in? Either way, music on cassettes lay dying as newfangled CD technology struggled to be born. Flash forward about 25 years and my stories of finding new music for myself usually start with “Spotify showed me … ” or “I was listening to a song on YouTube, and … ” The algorithms are probably designed to feel sort of organic, as in, I can trace the branches back to the trunk and the roots of my musical tastes, moving backward from the seemingly random song that’s playing now to the band or artist who was similar to an artist who was similar to my current ear worm. And it shouldn’t have taken me so long to figure out that algorithms are designed, intentionally, to mimic a more “natural” flow of information from one person to another. Today I woke up thinking about music, and the ways my consumption of it have changed, and these are my initial responses to the questions I’ve been asking myself. Before I ramble too long about the present, however, I should probably hop into my personal music history.

The first music cassette I ever owned was a Chumbawamba tape that I got for, you guessed it, “Tubthumping.” In a twist made more amusing in retrospect, I don’t think I ever actively listened to another cassette. For a slightly entertaining modification to the pervasive 1990s ear worm, replace every “[alcoholic beverage]” with “whiskey drink.” So the song now goes “He takes a whiskey drink, he drinks a [whiskey drink], he drinks a [whiskey drink], he drinks a [whiskey drink].” It’s all whiskey now. To take this game even further, replace “good times” and “best times” with “whiskey drink”; now the chorus concludes “He sings the songs that remind him of the [whiskey drink], he sings the songs that remind him of the [whiskey drink, whiskey drink].”

I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve started singing “Tubthumping” to myself only to get caught up in endless flights of whiskey drinks. This is the way my brain has altered thanks to early internet staples such as FunnyJunk and YTMND, and the glorious DIY era of early YouTube. Lines, limericks, images, everything gets thrown in the blender that is my mind and turned into some weird variation of YouTube-poopified reality. Have I strayed too far from music? Let’s get back to music.

I grew up listening to mainstream radio in the 90s, and thanks to my mom being in tune with the times, I knew the legend of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana; I listened to a lot of Bush, and eventually, my teenage brain looked into Pearl Jam. At some point in this essay I’ll wax poetic about the importance of nuanced, evolving takes on music, musicians, bands, et cetera, but at the time, Pearl Jam was my obsession. I was single-minded about them; I started with Ten and, thanks to one of the first internet forums in which I participated, I learned Pearl Jam’s whole discography and methodically bought each and every CD they’d released to that point (that point being 2003, the year I was a freshman in high school). I seemed destined to get into grunge and long-haired rocker shit. I was a child of the 90s, after all. When I was a pre-teen, I asked my parents for a CD player; I probably should have mentioned this sooner, but the story is flowing from me in the way that it wants to. This CD player could also tune into the radio, so I’d switch from bombarding my ears with Eddie Vedder and company to consuming all the popular crap on the local “alternative” station. While a half-step from mainstream is hardly alternative, radio stations gotta stay afloat somehow, I suppose; I recall hearing a lot of bands on the radio for the first time, from Audioslave to The Killers to Interpol and, to my ever-changing appraisal, Coheed and Cambria.

I listened to the first Audioslave album for a while, usually on the bus ride to school in the morning; my first girlfriend didn’t like Audioslave, and she didn’t like Pearl Jam, but we sorta liked each other and that’s what mattered at the time. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure my brain only has enough attention for things that are right in front of me, and anything beyond the present bubble of time is sorta relegated to the shadow realm of “non-existent to me.” So like, while I should have known that current bands like Audioslave and The Killers would keep releasing new music, I only listened to their first albums and let things sit like that for a long time. To be honest, Hot Fuss has been stuck in my head, off and on, for … almost twenty years? Oh shit. I listened to it a ton, then put it away for a handful of years until one night when I decided to deep-clean my room. And for some reason, the best music for getting into a cleaning mindset was that first Killers’ album. Maybe because by that time, it had become an almost mindless, comfort listen for me. So I sank into its familiar hooks and melodies, sang along when I felt like it, and cleaned the shit out of my room. Antics by Interpol was treated sorta the same in that I was way into it for a short while, like, a whole summer, then I put it away for good. Every now and then the chorus of an early Interpol song will emerge from my mind and my mouth, but for the most part, I don’t listen to them anymore.

Some of you may be wondering “Are you just a music opportunist?” And that’s a valid question. In my teenage years, I think I was; I listened to the radio until one song or another really hit me the right way, then I’d seek out the particular album on which that song lives, and I’d give that album and that band a chance. A lot of that stuff was “one album and done”; for what it’s worth, I heard so much about The Beatles when I was young that when my parents burned one disc of some kinda “Greatest Hits” compilation, I listened to like all 25 of those songs for months and got them stuck in my head. Then I stopped looking into The Beatles. I only needed the bangers; everything else was just so much white noise to me. (Lol, The Beatles and white noise, Elvis stealing black musicians’ sounds and styles, oh god so much music is theft. I’m not an expert on this subject so I’ll stop now.) Anyway, I picked up and abandoned bands and artists all the time. Some stayed: my older stepsister started listening to a bunch of Queen when I was 14 or 15, and I became obsessed with Queen. Then there’s Coheed. Oh god, there’s Coheed.

One weekend I heard a really interesting song on the local “alternative” radio station: it was called “A Favor House Atlantic” by a band named Coheed and Cambria, and according to the DJ, Coheed’s music was based on a comic book written by the lead singer of the band. It was so many cool nerdy things at once: prog rock, writing, a comic book story. I had to hear the whole album. To my chagrin, this album wasn’t Coheed’s first musical creation; it was called In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3. 3? THREE?! There are two other albums I need to hear?! I learned fairly fast that there was actually just one other album I needed to hear, The Second Stage Turbine Blade; the first part of the story and thus, the “first” album, hadn’t been completely written yet. “Good writer man,” you may be saying, “are you telling us that you finally went beyond a band’s current discography?” I mean, yes; I used to be obsessed with Pearl Jam, remember? But truly, Coheed and Cambria was probably the second band that made me pay attention to their whole output. To be transparent, I don’t always listen to the lyrics of a song, as in, I’ll pick up the words and sing along and get really into the feeling of a song but I won’t think too much about what the actual words are saying. And well, Coheed is a band that puts a whole fucking narrative into each song. Since each song covers a part of a whole comic book narrative, each song tells a story. My teenage brain wasn’t preoccupied with those details though; my teenage brain was like “Whoa, this dude sings in a high pitch and it sounds awesome!” So when the end of one song goes “Pull the trigger and the nightmare stops” repeatedly, I didn’t stop and go “Damn, that’s dark.” I just kept singing it. To be fair to myself, I grew up with stories of Kurt Cobain and sang a whole lot of “Yeah I swear that I don’t have a gun.” The darker aspects of existence, the sadness that can consume a person, I think I lived with feelings similar to them without actually confronting them.

So for a long time, I just accepted Coheed’s lyrics, and sang them as best as I could, and just kinda loved each song’s vibe. I thought In Keeping Secrets was fucking rad, but Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness came out when I was a senior in high school. This album. Fucking. Shredded. In many ways, I think it was the most proggy of the band’s stuff to that point, and Jesus, it was dark. Darker than pulling the trigger and stopping the nightmare. This album, according to hearsay and eventually the lead singer’s own admission, was his response to a real-life failed romantic relationship. He took that breakup hard. And, as it turns out, the protagonist was based on the lead singer, and the in-comic-book-universe writer of the comic book was based on the lead singer, and the respective women connected to each of these fictional dudes was based on the lead singer’s girlfriend-now-ex, and … the story hardly makes sense through hearsay, but like, he did some fucked up stuff through this album. At the time, I thought that like, the mingling of the real world with the fictional world and the use of fiction as a method to cope with grief was really cool and interesting, so I just accepted that general vibe and didn’t think too hard about the lyrics. Until one day, just a few years ago, when I was driving a co-worker to a public event shortly before COVID kept us all inside.

This co-worker and I did our best to share pieces of our lives with each other, and when we had to drive an hour to a place, then another hour back home, we naturally turned to music to help smooth out the experience. I’m not picky; I’ll give almost any music a chance. One weekend, however, she asked me to play something I enjoyed. Well, Coheed was always ready to return to my brain, and I really liked the mix of storytelling and real-world personal events, so I … played Good Apollo Volume One. And I sang along. And like, the whole album is about the fictional writer planning to kill off his protagonist’s love interest to force himself to get over his breakup, which is the actual writer’s way of coming to terms with the real breakup, and no matter how I try to spin this, this dude is using imagined violence to do away with a woman who gives him trouble. It’s not good. Imagine suffering a breakup and concluding “I just need to kill at least one person to make myself feel better.” I totally understand that it’s fiction, and no real people were physically harmed through the music, but uh … mentally and emotionally, I think it’s all different. The lead singer/actual writer imagined killing a fictional character based heavily on his actual ex. He sang some twisted lyrics that are, according to his explicit admission, inspired by this breakup. A lot of imagined violence against women. And I was singing through that imagination. In a car. With my co-worker.

I don’t know if she felt unsafe, but she definitely told me that she didn’t like the music. So I turned off that album and handed her the aux. Her reaction finally got me thinking: how far should we all read into fiction, especially when the writer himself states that it’s heavily based on real life? Should we be concerned when artists display and/or describe violence that is, at least in part, inspired by real-world pain? I believe that art is a useful response to pain and trauma, but something about Coheed and Cambria cutting so close to the bone is unsettling. I think that the lead singer, Claudio, even spoke out eventually and said that if he could do one thing differently, he would change a lot of that album. I believe it’s due to the speed with which he reacted: they broke up, he was hurt, and he put all that pain directly into the album. It made it violent and dark, darker than their other stuff, and their stuff is pretty dark. A lot of murder and vengeance and bloody conspiracy. But this, this felt more personal. Maybe that’s why it’s unsettling: personal grievances turned into fictional violence feel way too close to real violence.

No matter how I look at that particular album, the follow-up just seemed lackluster in comparison. Which is a shame, given the impetus behind the first volume. It’s possible that my time with Coheed was just done; I listened to the “final” album of the story, and when they finally looped back and wrote the “first” part of the story and released that album, I didn’t even listen to it. I think that this is an organic way to approach music: we figure out what we like about it, we stick with that, and when a song or an album doesn’t hit us right, we either throw it out immediately or we listen until it grows on us. Or we listen a few times to verify that it won’t grow on us, then we abandon it.

People tried to get me to hop back on a few musical trains. A woman I dated for a long time loves The Killers, and she gave me all the albums I’d ignored since Hot Fuss came out. I listened to them a while in preparation for a concert, then stopped listening altogether. I’ll go back to Hot Fuss every now and again, but I sorta leave The Killers alone now. A former friend was even more obsessed with Coheed than I was, and every now and then he’d try to get me to listen to their newer stuff; I’d express polite interest, then put Coheed away for good. Shit, I forgot to even mention the Fall Out Boy times; in high school I loved Fall Out Boy, and that love lasted a good few years. At some point, I stopped listening to them too. I remember, back in the MySpace days, one person’s profile stated something like “I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know.” At the time, it seemed like the epitome of arrogance, and in a way it is, but the general truth remains: some people consume so much information and knowledge that it overflows and leaks out. I feel like my history with music is this way, with me picking up on random bands for a while, then discarding them when I want to experience something else. Details get left behind.

Where once I tried to remember every person who showed me that one band and how many other people I shared that band with, now all I have to do is recall whether I found new stuff through YouTube, Spotify, or maybe an Instagram story. Which incorporates Spotify, usually. The algorithm has come along and replaced human interaction, in many ways. I don’t need to talk with people about the music I like to hear what they have to say or if they have suggestions for my next listen; instead, I listen to someone on Spotify, and the algorithm does all the connecting of dots for me. A few years ago, when the “lo-fi hip-hop beats to study/relax to” joke first started, I actually really enjoyed that playlist. And that playlist connected to a lot of other YouTube playlists that were actually pretty good! I found a bunch of future-funk and synthwave that way. My word, the retrowave playlists are everywhere on YouTube these days. But thanks to YouTube, I found a bunch of electronica-adjacent artists, and now that I have Spotify, I can sink down weird chip-tuney rabbit holes. My ears have never been more curious, or more tired.

Don’t get me wrong, I like talking about music with real people. But with COVID running rampant and everyone staying inside, the algorithm might be the next best thing. I say this as I’m fully aware that all this data is used to figure out what I like, what products to which I’ll respond, and which tactics will convince me to part with my money. Damn it, big tech is too powerful. In a way though, sharing intimate details of how I found such-and-such band and what they mean to me, that’s a lot. Not every stranger wants to hear that shit. Not every person wants to know my musical history. Not many would care. So uh, if you read this whole thing out of curiosity, thank you. It started with an idea, and I didn’t exactly refine it the way I thought I would. It became a rambling exploration of some of my past. We all have different ways of tracing our forming, and this is but one part of my formation. Maybe one day we can all swap stories organically; for now, it’s algorithms and random encounters. To the tune of a great ear worm from the 90s, “He takes a whiskey drink, he drinks a whiskey drink, he drinks a whiskey drink, he drinks a whiskey drink; he sings the songs that remind him of the whiskey drink, he sings the songs that remind him of the whiskey drink (whiskey drink).” Happy whiskey drink, everyone.

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Reminding Myself to Make Waves

(Author’s Note: I actually looked up the film I describe here, and I got a few details wrong. Aaron Eckhart plays a married man who learns his wife is cheating on him, and he mentors a kid, and he and the kid and one of his new friends go on a quest to … fix his life? My memories are hazy at best, so I got some of the film’s synopsis wrong. Oops. The general gist is still the same: dude tries to fix his life.)

I remember browsing video stores when I was younger. When I was around 17 or 18 years old, I recall wandering a local Blockbuster and scanning the shelves to see if any combination of actors, titles, and cover images caught my attention. At the time, I’d recently watched Thank You For Smoking, a satire that examined the life of a cigarette lobbyist played by Aaron Eckhart. I suppose I could pinpoint the year I perused the shelves of this now-gone Blockbuster, given I recall a few specific details, but the particular year doesn’t quite matter; what matters is that I was relatively young, approaching the end of high school and the possibility of college, one more crucial step toward “adulthood.” This general vibe of progression will make more sense when I describe why I recall Aaron Eckhart.

Thanks to Thank You For Smoking, I’d become something of an Aaron Eckhart fan. I’d see his face or hear his voice somewhere and I’d lean in, intrigued. So that day in the Blockbuster, my eyes scanned the shelves until they hit upon some rom-com-dramedy sort of deal starring, well, Mr. Eckhart himself. There were a few other folks on the cover, a pretty young woman and some other people, but Aaron Eckhart played the protagonist. The synopsis on the back went something like this: 35-year-old dude played by Aaron Eckhart works a dead-end job and he’s super sad about it. His friends/co-workers help him refresh his life and get a new lease on excitement, or something. All I remember is that this character was in his mid-30s, and he was not happy. Why, dear writer, are you recalling this film at this point in your life? Good question, reader. I’m in my 30s and I’m not happy. I guess I could have defaulted to the contemplative early-to-mid-oughts Zach Braff stuff, but for some reason, that never stuck with me. My criteria make no sense, I know; films I watched all the way through, like Garden State and The Last Kiss, didn’t come to mind when I started to think about my life spiraling to an eerie standstill in my 30s, but the vague premise of a movie starring Aaron Eckhart that I didn’t even rent or watch suddenly becomes all-consuming.

It might have something to do with the way I remember reacting to this back-of-the-box synopsis. As an aging teenager, I thought my spirit was enough to defend me from any sort of stagnation, that I would never allow myself to become an adult with a dead soul or a dying sense of adventure. That I wouldn’t be stuck in habits tailored to solitude and introversion, sitting in my room for hours at a time and talking with no one, afraid that my thoughts and feelings would be invalidated by some heartless logician or know-it-all asshole. I think I actually went through a “know-it-all asshole” phase, whereby I caused folks to use adjectives like “pretentious” and nouns like “hipster” to describe me. I had particular tastes, and back then I wasn’t afraid to speak of them. Teenage me scoffed at the idea of being 35 and needing a soft reset.

Now, I desperately crave a soft reset. I’m 33 and I’ve attended two weddings in the past year, despite a legitimate personal fear of COVID. I actually suffered COVID in January, and went through another quarantine two weeks ago because my roommate went to Coachella and caught it there. I didn’t get COVID again, but I still locked myself in my room and really enjoyed myself, for a time. A few of my friends have earnest discussions with their spouses about the “right time” to have children. Everyone, it seems, is getting one advanced degree or another. Everyone is working toward a promotion of some sort. Everyone is moving, not in the “I’m leaving one home for another” sense, but in the “my life is dynamic and I change” sense. And I know that, even though I maintain connections and have a decent group of friends, I haven’t grown in quite some time.

All the personality tests say that I’m the sort of person who thinks through their feelings. I think this is what most of my writing is about: I put my feelings through the colander of my brain and see what the words say once I sift them. The overall sense I get from wordifying my latest feelings is, I’m really sad and I’m really tired but I need to do something to get moving again. Last weekend I did something I hadn’t done in a long time: I went on a road trip. “Great,” you may be thinking, “that’s a good way to break the monotony!” But here’s the thing: two of the three days of this endeavor were spent driving, and I wasn’t the driver. One day to drive to the location of a wedding, another day for the wedding itself, and the third day for driving home. I didn’t drive, my brother did; I didn’t arrange the AirBnB, my brother did; I didn’t really do anything, my brother did all the hard work.

Those personality tests say there’s another thing I do: I act like a child so that others will take care of me. That’s right, I’m a 33-year-old man who infantilizes himself to trick people into doing stuff for him. I don’t do it on purpose, not all the time; indeed, as a person who’s too self-aware, I tend to just narrate my thoughts, so if I’m doing something I’m not familiar with, I’ll say that out loud. And whoa, suddenly people are there to help, to give encouragement, to make sure I do it right. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just trying to get everyone in on something, like a team effort or what-have-you. A collective endeavor. Some folks argue that a person needs to do everything for themselves, and those folks will get red in the face as they espouse the virtues of individuality. Don’t get me wrong, it’s clear that I need to make some choices for myself and do certain things on my own to improve my life, but I think the “FrEeDoM” crowd misses the importance of community. Teamwork is a beautiful thing, and when people work well together, collaboration is refreshing and enjoyable. Too many of our social ills stem from this idea that it’s up to individuals to address their own shortcomings, as though the systems and institutions we’ve allowed to proliferate aren’t exploitative and responsible for most of our troubles. But I’m veering into a whole other territory of subjects with which I don’t intend to grapple here!

My point is, I have some strange way of avoiding responsibilities, and my self-diagnosis is that I need to try new things and be braver with my words. I fantasize too often and end up regretting my lack of real-world actions. At the wedding I attended over the weekend, I was one of the “young” guests, young meaning somewhere in the neighborhood of folks under 40. My parents and relatives, obviously, all had partners of some sort, and even the other young folks were paired with their respective people. I met one guest who made it clear that she was single, and like a drop of mustard to a clean t-shirt, I was drawn to her. She was incredibly gregarious, she was self-aware, she was funny, she was pretty, and I have a problem whereby I turn any new female I meet into a potential match in my brain. I imagine scenarios that see us getting together. Like I said, I have a problem; I’m incredibly lonely and I badly want to connect with someone.

Anyway, things seemed to be going well. She said things like “You’re a delight” and, after I said I really should go to the dance floor, she replied “Oh, there are plenty of girls who’d love to dance with you!” I realize she may have just sensed my overwhelming insecurity and she was bolstering my confidence any way she could; I also realized, in retrospect, that I should have been more direct. Fantasy fights reality, right? In my fantasy, she and I wind up dancing together. In reality, I thanked her for the compliments and left the opening as a gaping hole in the realm of possibility. I could have said “Hey, would you like to dance with me?” and seen where things went. At the end of the night, when my brother said he’d start the car, I said I’d make my goodbyes and meet him in a few minutes. I wanted to establish some kind of connection, but how? In this instance, I had little to no agency; my brother was my ride, all weekend, and while I could have resorted to Uber or a cab, I didn’t want to force a situation into existence. So, when this particular woman said “So, is this the end-all be-all?” I said “It doesn’t have to be!,” which probably should have meant more than “I’ll get your phone number” or “I’ll add you on social media.” But that’s where my tired mind went: I didn’t want to take a chance and say, like, “Do you wanna grab food somewhere?” So I took the coward’s way out: I got her number, I texted her as though we lived in the same city, and everything ground to a halt. ’cause we don’t live in the same city, or even the same state; we are now separate from each other, and any intense interest I may have felt is now forced to be snuffed out.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about that random Aaron Eckhart film where he’s 35 and desperate for a soft reset of his life. I’m 33 and I need to make some changes, for my health. Physically, I’m soft; mentally, I’m tired; emotionally, I’m sad. While I don’t want to become a creep, I’d like to have the ability to take more chances with relational connections; that night at the wedding, I would have liked to have my own car so I could ask questions like “Do you wanna get out of here?” I think, under all this desperation, there’s a desire to be braver. I was once told that I’m “afraid of women.” And those interactions (more like, my lack of actions) at the wedding prove that statement true. I didn’t ask this woman to dance, I didn’t ask if she wanted to go on an adventure, and the worst thing that could’ve happened was I heard “No, thanks.” Rejection is better than nothing and silence. I’m 33, I’m working a job that doesn’t fulfill me, and I haven’t done all that much to move forward. Maybe I’m being hard on myself, but I’m sad and I want to make my daydreams into reality. I want to dance, and say my thoughts out loud. I think I’ll look up that movie now, and actually watch it. Maybe it sucks. Maybe it’s just ok. Maybe it’ll speak to me because I find its subject matter relatable. All in all, I won’t know unless I give it a chance.

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Poetry

Refraction

The stranger wraps her arms around me,

and I respond in kind,

a slow embrace

whereby my right arm wraps around her waist,

longing and resisting

(is this the Creep Factor?)

as warmth suffuses my skin.

Everyone but me

has someone,

okay I’m exaggerating,

there are at least a handful of single people here,

so I daydream we’re dancing

two hours from now,

a few drinks in and excitable,

and somehow we head to a hotel,

and we hold each other even closer than before,

still strangers but enjoying every second of it.

Instead, I leave when my ride leaves,

and I awkwardly ask for the stranger’s number.

We exchange two texts

and my guardian angel turns to their colleague and says:

See how the very light bends to miss him.

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Poetry

A Rant I Wrote a While Ago

Medicine and treatment should be free.

School is work and students should be paid for their labor.

Housing should be free.

Politics should have an age limit. If we live under the illusion that retirement starts at 65, then 65 is the final year for a politician to make decisions.

The concept of retirement is exploitative. People shouldn’t have to work themselves to the bone for 40+ years just to enjoy their old age.

Travel should be free.

I know I said that students should get paid, but at the same time, learning should be free.

Food should be free.

Everything should be free.

I hate capitalism.

Palestine should be free.

Within the confines of capitalism, any labor should be compensated.

Every Monday is a construct.

We should make Monday a day with no emails. No phone calls. No text messages.

If capitalism keeps going, then everyone should be tasked with dreaming up their ideal life. Then, everyone is given a million dollars when they turn 18. We watch what happens.

A million dollars isn’t even enough to create an ideal life these days, if you factor in housing, transport, food, et cetera.

So everyone should get a billion dollars when they turn 18.

Hoo damn.

Cars shouldn’t exist. We need better public transportation.

I lost track of most of the things I wanted to write.

I hate capitalism.

Capitalism is destructive.

Capitalism is exploitative.

Capitalism is patriarchal, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, spiteful, and selfish.

Capitalism kills families.

Capitalism kills women.

Capitalism kills children.

Capitalism kills black folks.

Capitalism kills gay folks.

Capitalism kills trans folks.

Capitalism kills refugees.

Capitalism kills artists.

Capitalism kills joy.

Capitalism kills love.

Capitalism kills.

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Poetry

Salem, 2022

Maybe she cursed me,
I say
in masterful avoidance,
as though I don’t
dodge women,
like I didn’t delete
my dating apps,
it’s almost like I
won’t accept responsibility
for being alone.

I boot up the game again,
look at the log
(315 hours played).
No, it can’t be me.

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