Seventy Four and Human

Seventy-four years old, the old man preserves his memories. Laboriously, he types them into the computer. This is easier on his hands than a pen and notepaper, but his arthritic fingers still ache with every hard stab to the keyboard.

When the bell rings, he stops. He is only allowed to write for an hour a day. His doctor daughter has forbidden any more. He occasionally wonders whether her medical advice is sound. Maybe she just doesn’t want him to get very far. Scared of what she might find out about him.

The old man never thinks of himself as one. He hears that seventy is the new fifty, and he would agree if he had the full use of his hands. But he has been degenerating since his early sixties and has never felt more tired in his life. He feels ill, not old.

He thinks of what he has written today. He doesn’t have a method, a system of chronology. He writes the memories as they come. Sometimes they are of his wooden toys and childhood friends. Sometimes they are of his mother’s death when he was working as a guard on a train in his late twenties.

Today he wrote about Luba, his first love. They were twelve and shared a birthday. They met on the streets of Boston, where both their families had ended up after fleeing Europe. They liked the same flavor of ice cream and the same music. They had very different opinions on kissing. Luba wanted to. He didn’t. The last time he saw her was when he graduated high school and she came to the ceremony as a drop-out watching some boy she was dating get his diploma.

This is the sort of thing the old man’s daughter doesn’t want to know, he thinks. She doesn’t want to believe he has ever been anything but hers, first her father and now her charge. She takes care of him and is a good girl, but she has never entirely believed he is human.

He hopes she will read his memories when he dies. He hopes she will understand. He hopes she will remember.

Forty-Two, With Kids

[Disclaimer: I don’t know what’s up with the formatting of this piece. Apologies. I’m not managing to fix it.]

Turn over. Get up. Get out.

Turn over a new leaf. Get up in the morning. Get out of your house.

Do this, do that, be here and there and everywhere. Eyes on the prize. Reach for the stars. Fulfill your dreams.

The usual existential teenage angst. No one tells you that it stays in your head until you’re forty-two and have two kids. But it’s not like those cheap movie antics, where your hero looks in the mirror one day and realizes that he’s wasted his life. That’s not how it happens. No, our hero (in this case it’s me, but it could be anyone in my position) is aware every single day of his life of the simultaneously fast and slow progression of things.

How can things be both slow and fast? In case you’re one of those remarkable people who hasn’t noticed the strange tricks time plays on you as you age, I’ll just point to one activity that I can guarantee works this way in 97% of the cases. Sex. When you’re having sex – assuming you’re not looking at the clock, and if you are, you’re probably not having as much fun as you should be – you can experience seconds as minutes and minutes as seconds and everything gets jumbled up, especially in those final moments, when you feel yourself tightening in and shooting out and flexing and curling in all at the same time.

Not that I have much sex anymore, but that’s how I remember it, and it’s not something you forget.

My children sharpened me. They made me smarter. But that doesn’t prevent me from wanting to cuff them on the back of the head some days. Or telling them they should shut the hell up because I want to relax. This is the sort of thing I think about, and feel guilty over, and repress.

Repression isn’t supposed to be healthy. Maybe that’s why my stomach hurts all the time.

It only occurred to me this morning that I was having a midlife crisis. Not in that apparently fun and conventional way. I don’t have the money to buy a big car to compensate for things I might need to compensate for. I’m not attractive enough to go out and have affairs with younger people. My midlife crisis involved sitting with my kids and watching recordings of TV shows I watched when I was a kid but that have been updated to modern times.

You wouldn’t believe Sesame Street if you tried to watch it today.

Then again, when I found some clips of Sesame Street from the 80s, I couldn’t believe it either. Trippy stuff. Catering to parents on acid and kids who didn’t suffer from epilepsy.

I have a buddy, a correctional officer, meaning a prison guard, who tells me about the kids in his unit. He keeps joking with my boys, telling them he’ll see them at work one day. I don’t think it’s really funny. I want to punch him a lot of the time. Since he doesn’t have kids, I wonder if maybe he really doesn’t get it. If he’s that dumb. He could be.

Part of my midlife crisis is realizing how little patience I have for people. I don’t read anymore. I look at headlines on my cellphone. And I roll my eyes and I know that everything is still screwed up and that the color of everyone’s crap is pretty much the same.

Come to think of it, I wonder whether doctors have started comparing the color of stool samples from contemporary and past patients? They just found some preserved popcorn from Ancient Egypt a while ago. What about some preserved feces? I bet the color changes over time. I bet we’re way grosser today than we were. Although with all the vegans and healthy eaters out there, maybe on average we’re better than we once were.

I think it’s my boys’ fault that I think about this stuff. They’re in that stage where they find everything about the toilet hilarious.

I remember when I was a teenager, I had the consolation that I would be cool one day. I knew it, in my core. In my bones. I was right, too. But now… I’m not sure if I’ll be a good old person. I think I may just be crotchety. Gruff. I’m already saying things like “back when I was a kid.” I’d rather stay in this midlife crisis if it means I don’t turn into that kind of person, who tells kids off for talking too loudly on public transportation. But I’m pretty sure that I have no way of stopping time and going backwards.

Oh, Neil, I’m getting lazy

My writing habits have become abysmal lately. I still write every day, because by this point it just feels weird not to. For a week and a half or so, when I was on holiday and barely touching my computer, I didn’t write except the odd quick email or instant message on my phone. But other than those few days, I don’t think I’ve not written for an extended period of time in about a year now – be it parts of an essay, notes, comments on other people’s posts on the web (more thought-out than they should be, maybe, but still), long emails, or fiction. There’s not a day, anymore, where I don’t think about my writing, the work-in-progress I have going on, or allow ideas and sentences to germinate in my brain for further use. I lose the latter more often than not. Another of my bad habits is my inability to commit to keeping a notebook on my ACTUAL PERSON at all times. I have more than one, as well as pens, in my backpack at all times, and that backpack is with me wherever I go. But it’s not the same. Needing to rummage in a backpack isn’t the same thing as being able to whip a notebook out of my pocket and jot something down. I need to either find jeans with bigger pockets (damn you, girl jeans!), find some way to stuff a notebook into my bra (there’s definitely a business idea waiting to happen there – easily bendable, stuffable notebooks, for any crevice of your body you may want to keep one in) or else just start walking around with a permanent marker and jot things down on my hand. But then, if they’re no good, I won’t be able to wash them off. And I’ll run out of space pretty quickly.

The real answer, of course, is to get back into a more routine writing habit. At least, that’s the answer as far as I’m concerned. Every writer has her or his own ways and means and needs. For me, writing every day for an extended period of time that is for my own purposes – not for schoolwork, in other words, and not out of a feeling of obligation to anyone but me – is the best way to make sure I use the things that float around my head all day.

I Lost, But –

I submitted a story to a contest. I didn’t win. I didn’t get a notable mention. For a few seconds, I felt as if I would never write again. Then I thought that I should change my aspirations for the future. A few minutes later, having climbed into bed and curled up in my black-covered duvet, I felt a little better and just decided to never share my writing with anyone ever again.
When I woke up from my nap, I stopped being ridiculous.
I may not be good enough to win a fiction contest to which only some dozens of people have entered stories. Alright. But two published authors who have taught me have told me that I will get published. That is exhibit A. Exhibit B is the fact that I’m on a forty-five day streak on the website 750words.com – meaning I haven’t missed even one day in the last month and a half of writing three-pages-worth of words. Sure, some days I had to cheat and write parts of essays or schoolwork within that blank white space, but it was still my original writing in there.
Exhibit C is the discover I made a couple months ago – my mental and emotional state deteriorate when I don’t write for a while. I doubted this at first, but it can’t be a coincedance that I started to feel more on top of things once I began to write fiction again. Exhibit D is that people have been reading my blog for months or years now and have seen my writing develop and improve. Exhibit E is the fact that sometimes, once in a while, on a rare day, even I think that I’m a decent writer.
So. Okay. I didn’t win the contest. Maybe the story wasn’t good enough. Maybe others were just much better. Maybe it wasn’t my time, as one of my friends put it. Whatever the reason, I’m not going to give up. I’m only twenty-one, for goodness’ sake. I’m only just finishing up my sophomore year of college. I’m going to freaking Oxford next year.
Anyway, haven’t I known the reality of my choices for years? When I was in second grade, I began to develop the ambition of becoming an actress. I nourished, cherished and worked at my ambition for years. When my father became ill and I retreated from the world to stay at home with him and my mother, I lost my confidence in acting and the mere idea of being in public in such a vulnerable position stopped being even remotely appealing. Instead, I developed my love of writing, a far more private endeavor that nevertheless connects me to people in its own way.
But the point is that since I was about seven years old, my parents warned me that going for a career in an art would be a long, hard slog. They told me that I may not make much or even any money and they reminded me that there are a lot of talented people out there. They didn’t say this to discourage me – they simply wanted me to be aware of the realities of the world. So my seven year old self began to be aware of the fact that I shouldn’t take my future employment for granted.
For fourteen years I’ve been aware that I may work at some sort of drudge-job that I don’t enjoy or that isn’t “ambitious” (whatever that means) in order to support myself while trying to work at what I love. I’ve decided recently that I’m going to get a bar-tending certificate after I finish college; I want to try working night shifts, and I want to be exposed to people, their stories and their lives in a way that few people get to be as fully as bartenders do.
My grandpa wanted me to be a doctor. When I took care of my father while he was sick, he reinforced the idea that I would make an amazing doctor. You know what? I would. I would make a wonderful doctor. I would be empathic and caring, personable and kind.
But I don’t want to be a doctor, and my not wanting to be one would, ultimately, make me hate my job – and that would probably affect my work eventually. I want to be an author. There. I said it. An AUTHOR. I already am a writer, and will be for the rest of my life if it depends on me. But I also want to be an author. I don’t know if I will be. But I’m going to try my damnedest.

750 Words and a Description

Seven hundred and fifty words doesn’t sound like much, but it accumulates over time. There are thirty-one days in March, and I’ve pledged to write seven hundred and fifty words each and every single day of this month. Of course, nothing happens to me if I fail – except that my name gets put on the Wall of Shame on the website 750words.com. The real consequence, though, is that I won’t be writing. And that’s not a good thing for me.
I realized why I felt so disconnected from last night’s reading. There are two primary reasons. One of them, and I know it sounds silly, is that the man who organized the event confuses me and makes me feel very strange. He is a poetry teacher, and as such, I suppose I expect a certain amount of sensitivity and emotion from him. But he’s absolutely blank – he has no expression on his face, he has no tone to his voice, and his body language conveys the boredom and discomfort of a teenage boy. During the reading, he kept checking his phone in order to check the time. At first, I thought it was because he wanted to make sure that everyone was staying within the time limit of six minutes, but now I’m not so sure. I do think that he was genuinely uninterested. Or maybe I’m just being overly sensitive. My eyes kept being drawn to him throughout the evening, and I couldn’t help feeling like there was something wrong with the way he was acting.
The second reason I felt so strange about the evening is that I haven’t been writing nearly as much as I want to be. And that’s not a good feeling. Being so removed from my own, personal, fiction writing made me feel like I was an impostor of sorts when I was up there at the podium, reading a story that I hadn’t even reread in its entirety before deciding to read from it.
It’s odd, but through all the things that have happened to me this school-year, nothing caused me to be quite so moody and aggravated at my therapy appointment as this removed feeling that I had last night. I think that it upset me mostly because I couldn’t figure it out. It took a good half hour of talking through things to figure out why I was so confused and bothered by the event.
Once I did figure it out, though, I felt almost immediately as if a weight was being lifted off my shoulders and out of my chest. So that’s that.
Now, because I feel like it, I’m going to use up the rest of my words for the day in writing a description of something – I won’t know of what until I get going. Well, here goes:

His mind was a strange and crowded place. His childhood seemed constantly to be on the surface. It was the shore from which he began all his journeys, and it was littered with broken bottles, shredded rags and lonely people spread out, each sitting alone and not making eye contact with any of the others.
From the shore, his thoughts would board a variety of vessels. Sometimes they took rides in small, rickety sailboats. Sometimes they walked along an extended gangplank to reach a vast, well-manned barge, complete with minstrels.
On their voyages, the thoughts would encounter islands of differing splendor and population. At first glance, each seemed unique, absolutely one of a kind, but from a bird’s eye view they looked similar, populated by the same kind of people, all containing trees and animals of some sort or other. One of the qualities that all the islands shared was the presence of orphans. Not all the orphans were sad; in fact, some were quite cheerful, but the fact was that there were too many parents who were dead or gone on all of these islands, and although the thoughts sometimes wondered themselves why this was so, the man they belonged to never seemed to dwell on the fact overlong.
Perhaps this was because his thoughts always returned to the shore where he awaited patiently with the others. This shore, too, was populated by ragamuffins, running around with their palms extended, asking for a penny, please sir, just a penny, just so that I can get a roll. When the man asked where their parents were and why they didn’t feed them, the children – some of whom were really quite grown up and could perhaps have found work if it wasn’t for their presence on the isolated shore – looked bemused, as if they’d never even thought of the option of parents.

Thoughts on an Evening

Standing in front of a room full of people who write, I felt small. Or large, as if something in me was leaving my body, expanding beyond it, but not in a transcendental way. Whatever the indescribable feeling was, it only registered after the fact, once I’d sat down again.
I’ve read my work to friends and family before. I’ve read it in a workshop setting. But for some reason tonight felt different. It wasn’t bad, per se. I just felt… judged. Maybe that’s the correct phrase. I felt watched, measured, scaled, as if I was having a suit of clothing made for me – a suit that’s only supposed to fit those people who describe themselves as “writers.”
I thought I was getting better about this. Only the other day, I told my mother, during one of our usual, daily conversations, that I wasn’t feeling very nervous. And I guess that was true – I didn’t shake, when I stood there in front of the twenty five or thirty people who showed up. My voice was clear, I think, and I didn’t stumble on or rush my words. It was simple, and it happened, and then it was over, and there was no climax, no feeling of accomplishment.
Is it the comparison? Is it that I was looking at all the other people who went before me and realizing, as each person stood at the podium, that there are so many talented people here?
I felt this way once at the beginning of this school year. There was an event during the first-year’s orientation week that allowed people to show off their talents, whatever they may be. Some people read poetry, some people sang, some danced, some got together with a bunch of others and put on a hastily-put-together piece of a musical. I sat through that evening this year without once feeling like I was a lowly creature – instead, I appreciated everyone’s strengths and felt proud to be part of a school that encourages us to be as zany and weird as we want to be.
But during my first year, when I attended the same event as a nineteen-year old who wasn’t really ready to leave home yet, I felt awful. I felt like the zit on a toad in a pond full of stagnant, poisonous water. There was nothing I was good at, nothing I would ever be good at, and nothing worth aspiring to because there was simply no chance that I would ever be as good as any of the people I was watching were.
Sure, I was clearly in need of antidepressants then. I’m quite aware of this fact now, and in retrospect, it’s easy to remind myself that not everyone was great, actually, and that many people were frankly quite awful.
When I told my mother the other day that I wasn’t nervous, I also told her that I felt like I was legitimately a writer. I told her that I felt that I had the right to read at once of these things, these showcases, and that I was confidant in my conviction that writing is what I want to do with my life.
It’s still what I want to do. I want to write more than anything in the world. And I do write. That’s one of the things that keep me going – I know that I write and that I miss it desperately when I don’t. I know that I’m committed. I know that I can receive criticism if it’s not cruelly given and that I don’t have an inflated opinion of my own writing and that I have a lot left to learn. Usually I’m secure in this knowledge these days. I feel, most of the time, as though it’s a given that I’m a writer, and I know that other people know this about me – it’s not something I keep hidden anymore, and that’s good too.
So why did tonight feel so strange? I don’t know. I was intimidated by some of the talent that I heard in that room. I was put off by some of the overconfidence that I saw, too, because it’s something that I simply can’t feel connected to. But I enjoyed the evening as a whole. I loved sitting in the midst of a roomful of people who all must think that words are beautiful and have power, or else they wouldn’t have been there, reading their writing for all to hear.
So what is it that feels so strange? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just over-thinking things.

In the Shadow of Days

Judy tried to frown. Standing in front of her mirror, she tried to maker her lips curve down naturally. It didn’t work – her whole mouth would sort of shift into a strange diagonal line and the lips would almost disappear. She pulled the corners of her lips down with the forefinger of each hand and looked at the result. It was ridiculous. Walking back to her typewriter, she pressed the newfangled “delete” button that automatically whited out the previous words she’d written, which had been “I frowned.” She had just realized that there wasn’t really such a thing as frowning, or that at least she herself didn’t know how to do it.

Over the little white squares that hid the falsity, she tapped out a more accurate description, slowly speaking the words aloud and pulling them through her mouth like a piece of gum. “I furr-r-r-rowed my bro-o-ow.” With a loud CLICK, the page juttered up and sideways, the typewriter moving it mechanically so that she could type out the next line.

It was the seventy-second day of her experiment, and a big stack of papers already stood beside the machine. She had another eighteen before she needed to start sending the manuscript out. After that, she’d have another sixty – and not a day more than that – before she had to return to her day-job. Her heart sometimes pounded with adrenaline as she pounded the keys with her two forefingers, the same ones that pulled down her lips in order to check the authenticity of a frown. They were her trusty sidekicks and she often had nightmares about them getting slammed in doors or drawers, or being chopped off by knives. She’d wake up with them stuffed into her mouth, awkwardly, with drool sticking her cheek to the cheap pillow-case.

The light was fading but Judy didn’t turn the light on yet. She tried to save electricity so that her bills wouldn’t give her a heart attack. She kept typing as the sounds of the evening news rose and fell in the apartments around her.