“Excuse me, what time do y’all close today?”

We close at eight P.M. tonight.”

“Ok, thank you.”

You’re welcome.


Right about… there…. is where the blood spatter will be. Someone on the internet said to make sure you point the barrel straight up towards the top of your head instead of angled back. Think you’ll be able to remember that? I think so.

Can I help you find something, sir?

“No thank you, I’m just looking.”

Alright, well take your time and let me know if you need help finding anything. Today is $15.00 off any fragrance purchase over $75.00.

“Ok thank you.”


No, that’s not right. It will be much louder.


That’s better. It’s actually really hard to imagine how it will sound in a department store. It will be loud. Really loud. People will fall silent, but it will still take them a few seconds to realize what they just heard, and that they heard it in a place they shouldn’t have. You’ve never seen a person truly panic, have you? No, but it’s just another form of mindless animal behavior, nothing special.

Did you need some help, ma’am?

“Yes, thank you. I’m looking for kids clothes.”

That would be upstairs in the home department. Just up the escalator and to the left.

“Thank you so much.”

You’re welcome.


It’s fast too. Really fast. Not drawn out like in the movies, but over before you realize what the noise was. That’s cool. Bodies fall like potato sacks and land in all sorts of crazy ways, too. There will be a huge pool of blood. If you want the crime scene photos to look elegant, you might want to consider a different method. No, that’s okay. It’s not as though

“Excuse me, do y’all sell Dior?”

“We do, it’s right around the front of this bay.”


“Which one were you looking for?”

“I think it’s called Savage… Saufash… I know I’m probably saying it wrong. It’s the one with Johnny Depp.”


“Sauvage! Yeah.”

“Do you know which one? There are three Sauvage’s, the Eau de Toilette, the Eau de Parfum, and the Parfum.”

“Uh, I just know it’s Sauvage. It’s for my boyfriend. I didn’t know there was more than one. What’s the difference?”

“The EDT is the original. It’s a little bit brighter and has a bergamot top. The EDP is a little bit louder and has the most projection of the three in my opinion. It’s probably our best seller. The parfum is the newest one, came out last winter. It has the highest concentration of oil to alcohol, so it typically lasts longer, but actually tends to be softer than the other two. It’s much denser, and woodsier.”

“I gotcha. So, how much is the small bottle of that one?”

“The parfum?”

“Uh… yeah.”

“The 2 oz is $125.”

“Oh wow. What about the other one?”

“So, the EDP is $95 for that same size, and the EDT is… $76 I think, I’d have to check to be sure.”

“Ok. Do you have any smaller sizes?”

“No ma’am.”

“Ok, well I’m gonna check to make sure which one he wants, and I’ll be back. Thank you for your help.”

“You’re welcome.”


Everyone likes to imagine that their death will be investigated CSI-style. Or that some fringe documentary crew will interview everyone they ever talked to, sift through every piece of information left behind, read every document, open every computer file, and use investigative journalism to piece together the events leading up to their death. Maybe they’ll even talk about your life. How unique and strange it was. How complex and different. How much potential you had. How the world is worse off having lost you. But they won’t. Nobody will. Your family will struggle to sift through your belongings. Everything, especially the beautiful remnants of your life, will be painful to see. Nobody will publish what you wrote. Nobody will ask who you really were. You will become a glorified stereotype of yourself and be reduced to a twenty minute highlight reel in some church auditorium you never even frequented. People you never knew and who never knew you will talk about you and cry and tell your family how sorry they are. That’s not how I want to be remembered. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.

Did you need some help?

“I’m looking for Stetson.”

I’m sorry, we don’t carry it.

“You used to. I bought it here.”

We used to years ago, but we haven’t in a long time. At least not since I’ve been here.

“Do you know where they still sell it?”

I think they carry it at Walgreens.

“Really? Okay, thank you.”

You’re welcome.


Bringing the gun inside won’t be a problem. I’ll just put it in my backpack. But choosing the right spot… that’s hard. It should send a message after all. Otherwise the bathtub would work just as well. What message are you trying to send? I don’t know… how about: “Look at what life is like for some of us.” So you want them to pity you? I guess, but only after I’ve made it clear how much I hate them. How much do you hate them? Only as much as I hate myself. That’s fair, right? Yeah, that’s fair.

Yes ma’am what can I help you with?

“I just need to pay for these things. Can you check me out?”

Yes, of course. Let’s go over here to this register.

“Thank you so much. I’ve been looking for someone to check me out but couldn’t find anyone.”

Yes, we’re pretty short-staffed at the moment.

“I see that.”

Ok, your total comes to eleven dollars and nineteen cents. Will you be using your reward card today?

“No, just a visa.”

Alright, you can go ahead and swipe or insert whenever you’re ready.

“Oh, I don’t need a bag, I can just put them in here.”

Ok, here you go. Have a nice day.

“You too.”


Part of the loud crack that a gunshot makes comes from breaking the sound barrier. That means that the bullet is traveling faster than the sound waves are travelling and will rip through your brain before the *POP* reaches your ears. You’ll never even hear the shot. That’s fine, gunshots are too loud anyway. You won’t get to see what happens next. Is that okay? That’s why I’m picturing it now. Once I like what I see, that’s how I’ll remember it. Right up until the –

“Hi, um… I have a dumb question; do you guys carry Curve by chance? It’s really old.”

We actually do, but only during the holidays.”

“Oh wow, really? That’s awesome!”

Yes, we sell gift sets for $25.00. We usually start getting them early November.

“Well then I’ll just come back then. Thank you!”

Of course.


When humans are confronted with something unknown or unexpected, their brains revert to the most primal mammalian responses: fear and curiosity. Some people’s adrenaline will force the flight reaction when they witness a suicide, but most will just freeze and stare in shock. Stare… like glass-eyed puppets on a shelf. That’s because they’re pathetic insects with tiny brains. Perhaps. But some of them have hearts too. Some of them know you. So what? Some of them will cry. I don’t care about that. Really?

“Hey are you closing tonight?”


“Who all is closing with you, do you know?”

I think it’s just me and Robin and Jade. Are you closing too?

“Hell no, thank God! I’m leaving in… twelve minutes haha. This day has been shit, I tell you. Shit!”

I just got here so hopefully tonight won’t be so bad.

“Oh my god last night was the worst! I had a line ten minutes to close and it was all returns.”

That’s ridiculous.

“I know, and… hang on. Have you seen my phone?”

No. I just got here.

“Oh my god did I lose it again? Call my phone, will you?”


“Wait I found it. Jeez that’s the fourth time today. I gotta get out of here, haha, I am too tired for this.”

Okay, well have a good evening.

“You too, oh and if Stella comes by, I put her foundation in the Laura Mercier counter, okay?”

Okay, I will. Have a good night, Sheryl.

“You too, Markus.”


You know, South Park did an episode once about people shitting themselves when they die. It’s much nicer to refer to it as “postmortem voiding of bowels” or something even more unwieldly, but whatever you choose to call it, it’s one of those things people don’t talk about because it’s true. That memory you give them, that image, it will stay with them for the rest of their lives, you know. That’s the point. Some of them cared about you. And? Well, do you want them to pity you, or become horrified by you? Neither. Do you really think seeing your vacant eyes with the back of your skull blown out and your brains spilling out onto the marble tile will make them feel sorry for you? I said neither! You also might smell like shit. Shut up.

“So what’s your problem?”

What do you mean?

“You’ve been here for almost an hour and haven’t even said hi to me. I’m starting to think we aren’t friends anymore.”

I’ve been busy, Jade, that’s all.

“Really? Because it looked like you were mostly just wandering around like a zombie. I wish I was busy like you!”


“Yeah well it’s been busy in Clinique and I really could’ve used your help.”

Are you by yourself?

“Robin’s about to leave and then I’ll be by myself.”

I thought Robin was closing.

“Shit, she was supposed to but she has a doctor’s appointment or whatever. Lazy bitch.”

Gotcha. You have a customer by the way.

“Goddamn it! See what I mean? I’ll be right with you, ma’am!”

See you later.

“See you later. And quit pacing – you have a customer.”

Yes, sir, did you need some help?

“Yes where are your bathrooms?”

They’re upstairs in the home store.

“Thank you.”

You’re welcome.


So I guess you get to just leave and to hell with everybody else then? How is that any different from getting killed in a car accident? It’s different because they will blame themselves. Fuck that. Anyone who truly knows me will understand exactly why I did it. Okay, but what about the fact that less than three people alive today even know you that well? Then I guess I’ll just be misunderstood. Just as I’ve always been. And you’re okay with that?

“Markus call 205, Markus, 205.”

This is Markus.

“Hey, it’s Miranda. Can you cover Tony’s lunch in fine jewelry?”

What time is he going to lunch?

“You’ll have to check with him. Probably pretty soon though.”


“Have you gone to lunch yet?”

Not yet, I was gonna go around four.

“That’s fine. Just let Tony know. He said he’ll work around your lunch.”

Sounds good.

“Thank you. Bye.”



Of course I’m not okay with it! I’ve always been misunderstood, and always will be. Then how does shocking people change that? It doesn’t! All it does is let me change the narrative… give me control over what people think about me, even though it’s still totally wrong. So you’d rather choose which lie they believe than let them choose? They won’t believe the truth anyway so why not? You’d think at some point I’d get to have the floor! What is it you so badly want them to know? That I’m a good person, damn it! That beyond the razor-wire perimeters of every religious cult there is a lonely desert. Let them know that I deserved to be loved too. To belong somewhere. And to someone. That I was human. Let them know that life isn’t kind to all of us. That while they held hands with the person they loved, and shopped for things they didn’t need, some of us were watching our humanity fade away

“Excuse me, do you work here?”


“I need to speak to a manager, please.”

From which department?

“The store manager, preferably. I have a complaint.”

He’s not in today, but I will call my department manager. It may be a moment before she gets here though, we are very short-staffed today –

“If you aren’t going to help me then I’ll find someone who will!”

Hey Miranda, it’s Markus. I have a customer who wants to speak with a manager. I don’t know she didn’t say –

“Just forget it! You are as useless as everyone else in this rotten store! I am going to complain directly to your corporate office, and I hope everyone here loses their jobs!”

Yeah I’m still here. I have no idea, but I think she left. Yup. Will do. Okay bye.


If you’re going to let that much rage determine your final farewell then how is your motivation any different from that of a terrorist or shooter? Maybe it’s not. Your line of thinking is what drives people to kill innocent people to prove a point. Yeah? So why not take a few of these disgusting vermin with me? Maybe I should kill some of them…since I’m leaving anyway. It would lend some poetic justice to a sad and rotten life, don’t you think?

Do you need some help, ma’am?

“I’d like to return this please.”

Okay, has it been opened?

“No, the sales person I bought if from gave me a sample when I bought it. My sister didn’t like it though, so I’d like to return the bottle.”

Would you like to find another fragrance or would you just like to do a return?

“Just a return, please.”

Alright. It’s going to be $109.00 back onto your card ending in 0425, is that correct?

“That’s correct.”

Alright, you’re all set. Have a nice day.

“Thank you, you too.”


Just because you hate your life doesn’t mean other people should die because of it. I do hate them though. Maybe so, but enough to kill them? It certainly would feel like putting things in order. All those happy people who take for granted all the little essentials I’ve craved my entire life but have never been allowed to enjoy. Things like love, belonging, intimacy, and a home. When you deprive someone of all the things that make them feel human, they start to lose their humanity. Could you really kill strangers though? The happy ones with beautiful lives, sure. What if you guess wrong and their lives are actually terrible? Then I’ll be doing them a favor. Setting aside the moral holes in your little angel of death fantasy, you do know you’d create a panic, right? By the time you made your little stand there would be no one left to watch because everyone would be too busy rushing the exits. It’s not like I can’t

“Is there no one who can check me out? I’ve been all over this store and there isn’t a single open register any –”

Yes ma’am, any of those three behind you could have checked you out but I can get you right here.

“This is just –“

Did you want to keep the hangers?

“Keep them. I remember when this store was –“

Alright, your total is $24.11, just wait for the blue light.

“They really need to hire some more people if –“

Please wait for the blue light before swiping your card.

“Oh. Sorry.”

You can go ahead and swipe now.

“This store has just gone to hell –”

Your receipt is in the bag, have a nice day.


I could lock the gates so they couldn’t get out. Use the hidden emergency stairwells between the top and bottom floors to save time. By the time management realized someone had locked the gates early it would be too late. Hmm. Still, a lot can go wrong in five minutes. And these days lots of people don their squeaky clean “side-pieces” to go shoe-shopping. The last thing I want is to be gunned down by some fat gun-nut who plays Call of Duty and watches Duck Dynasty

“I’m sorry Markus but can you please help me for a minute?”

I’m the only one on the floor, Tony….

“It’s fine. Never mind.”

Are you in fine jewelry?

“Yes, and… I have a customer who wants his watchband adjusted.”

That’s no problem, Tony – I can do that real quick if you watch men’s for me.

“It’s those damn tiny pins, I just can’t that up close, and they know that! I’ve complained to management over and over again, but they just keep putting me over there. Ugh!”

It’s okay, I like doing watch bands. Is he over there now?

“He said he wanted to find a wallet but would be right back.”

Alright I’ll head over there.

“You’re a saint.”


You’d have to be quick though. If you wander around with a drawn gun for too long, inevitably some rabbit-brained cunt will shriek: “HE’S GOT A GUN!” and then they’ll all start running for the exits like spooked wildebeest. I could chase them. Oh yeah – that would be a noble thing to be remembered for: chasing after crazed department store shoppers waving a handgun. You’re right – if I’m going to kill people I’m doing it the right way or not at all: shooting them in the face point blank so I can look into their miserable souls the second they realize they’re about to die. Taking pot shots at flailing shopping bags careening towards giant SUV’s just isn’t very elegant. Touché, but when did this become about execution? I thought

“Hello? I need some help over here. Hello?”


“How much is this ring?”

I’m not sure, but I’ll check. This one here?

“No the one on the right with the emerald. That is an emerald, right?”

I actually don’t work over here so I’m not sure, but it should say on the tag. Yes, it’s an emerald.

“And how much is it?”

Let me check. It is $4699.00. Plus tax.

“Oh that’s not bad. Is it on sale?”

Um, no, ma’am, it doesn’t seem to be.

“Then I don’t want it. What do you have that’s on sale?”

Um, well, I know all the Effy is 30% off this week, and

“Any emerald rings?”

I’m not sure, but we can look over

“Never mind I’ll just come back.”

Alright, have a nice day.


It would be a kind of justice I think. Are you sure? Even if it was, who made you the arbiter of justice? Someone has to do it. You do know that as soon as you pull the trigger, you’ll become an evil person for all of history. Nobody will ever understand or even try to understand your motives, let alone your pain. You’ll be nothing more than the villain in other people’s stories. You won’t be remembered for your words, your intellect, your understanding, your heart, your kindness… no, you’ll be remembered for that one little thing you did at the very end. That thing I did in response to a lifetime of quiet suffering and dehumanization! Yes, and you’ll be hated for it. For what? For the pinprick of suffering I caused? Yes, for the pinprick of suffering you caused. Is that really what you want? Is that a fair trade? To spread your suffering to innocent people so you can wallow in self-pity for a few minutes until the cops shoot you? Maybe it is. But you have nothing to gain! I have nothing to lose – that’s different. So you want to teach them a lesson? Lash out at strangers because there’s nobody to blame for your rotten life? No, that’s not

“Are you the only one working over here?”

Yes, can I help you?

“I hope so because the last person refused to.”

I see. What can I get for you?

“I ordered some earrings about a week ago and still haven’t received them. It says online that you have them here in the store, so I want to just pick them up here.”

I can sell you the earrings here, but I have no access to your online order –

“Well I got them from this stores website!”

I understand that, but since your item has already been shipped there’s no way to change it to pick up in store.

“So what you’re telling me is that you won’t give me my earrings.”

I can sell you the earrings, but –

“No, you aren’t listening to me! I already paid for the earrings! I’m not paying for them twice! I have my online receipt right here – I just want what I paid for!”

I can’t do an exchange without merchandise. I can sell you the earrings and then you can bring in the ones you ordered and return them in the store for a refund –

“Forget it. This is why I never shop here anymore. You just lost a sale because we won’t be coming back.”

Have a nice day.


It’s not about teaching them a lesson. It’s about restoring balance in some cosmic sense. You think you can fix a broken life by killing innocent people? No, but I can at least try to redistribute some of the suffering. You really think that’s fair? Life isn’t just “not fair” – it’s straight up unfair. That’s cute, but I always thought you were the kind of person who rose above that kind of victimhood. I was. You’re still a good person. Even if you wanted to, do you really think you could point a gun at someone and pull the trigger? They’re not human, they’re insects. Maybe so, but they don’t know any better. Your pain is yours, not theirs. It’s not fair to dump it on them just because they’re insects. Besides, shouldn’t you leave on a good note? A good deed? Let them live. Your suffering was caused by others as well, so why not let the pain end with you? I give up, why? Because you’ll find a deeper peace in your last moments if you do.

Are you the gentleman who needed a watchband adjusted?

“I am, but another associate was helping me.”

I can help you with the watch band.

“Oh, perfect. I bought this here yesterday and I thought it fit alright but it’s too loose.”

I can adjust it for you. We do it all the time. Do you have the links with you?

“Yes, I have them right here. Shall I come back tomorrow to pick it up then?”

It won’t take me but a minute to put the links in.

“I appreciate it. The other associate wasn’t sure if you guys had the equipment. I’m glad you came over.”

He doesn’t typically do watch repairs, so I usually do them. Alright, try that on and see how it fits.

“That feels much better. Perfect.”

I put the extra links back in the bag for you.

“Thank you. What do I owe you?”

No charge.

“Well thank you. You have a nice day.”

You too.


Certain schools of moral reasoning suggest that every human, no matter how demented, criminal, or evil they may behave, ultimately seeks good. The suffering they cause can then be understood as an effort to restore justice, balance, or order in some admittedly misguided manner. In their minds, they are good, or at least doing their best to bring about good. This makes them seekers of good. Do you think that what you want to do is good? To share your suffering with innocent people? You know, the Catholics believe that seeking good, even by doing evil, is the same as seeking God. Well, I’m not a Catholic and I don’t believe in God.

Fine jewelry is all yours, Tony.

“Did you get that gentleman’s watch sized?”

I did. He was very happy with it.

“They should just put you back there. You already know the area.”

I would if they’d pay me more.

“Shit they don’t pay anybody around here.”

I know it.

“Did Miranda talk to you about covering my lunch?”

Yeah. When do you want to go?

“I was hoping to go in about an hour.”

That’s fine.

“See you later. And thank you.”

No problem.


Doesn’t my life matter? Even a little? You might be right about killing the innocent, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to leave this hellhole without a final word that won’t be forgotten. Let them know that I was human too. That while they lived a cheerful life with others, I weathered a sickening life alone! That when I most needed someone near me, there was no one. You think they’ll get the message? I don’t… Then what’s the point of all this? This…raging, screaming? You’re just screaming into the void. It’s better than doing nothing! Maybe this is one of those times when “doing” isn’t even  

“Is this where I take returns?”

Excuse me?

“Can I make a return here or do I need to go to another register?”

What are you returning?

“Well, I bought this Effy necklace online a few months ago, and –“

You’ll need to take that to fine jewelry.

“Oh okay. Where’s that?”

It’s the big black counter right over there. Just passed Elizabeth Arden.

“Alright thank you.”

Sure thing.


There isn’t much else I can say if you’re sold on this. I’m not sold on it yet, but I don’t think killing other people would make things better. So what will you do? Go back to your original plan? I guess so.

Can I help you find something, ma’am?

“Oh, no thank you, I’m just browsing.”

Alright, I’m here if you have any questions.

“Actually I’m looking for something for my boyfriend.”

Do you know what he wears now?

“Well, he likes Prada…something. The bottle is red at the bottom.”

Prada Luna Rosa Sport?

“That’s it!”

I actually have it in a gift set, and you’ll even save $15.00 today.

“Great! Well, to be honest I was hoping to get him something different.”

Oh. I can help you find a new fragrance for him. Are you looking for something lighter and clean or something deeper?

“It’s okay, I’ll just come back with him. Thanks for your help.”

You’re welcome.


Bystanders won’t stay for very long. Even those coworkers who cry for you will be quickly led away by managers and police. They might even shut down the store for a few hours while they clean up the mess. Customers will complain to corporate about not being able to redeem their 20% off coupons that day. They will call for blood, and corporate will issue new coupons and all will be well with the world. The entire incident might even get a thirty second segment on the local news channel. They’ll say you were mentally unstable or something for sure. Some junior reporters will dig up decades old dirt on you, to reassure their viewers that suicide can only happen to sick people, and that buying things on Amazon, eating fast-food and watching Tick Tock is still a meaningful way to live. “Sources tell us that the man’s brother had recently died in a tragic accident. It is likely that depression may have contributed to his suicide. Our hearts go out to the family of the deceased. In other news…”

“Can I borrow your keys? I’ll give them right back I promise. Don’t give me that look!”

Yeah well don’t forget to bring them back, Jade. We’re missing like four sets.

“Ugh, I know – I’ll be quick!”


I wonder if I’ll be able to see anything after the bullet goes through my brain. Like what? Like the fluorescent lights… or people. It would only be for a split second I imagine. That probably depends on which part of your brain the bullet destroys. You could research which area of the brain you’d need to avoid hitting so your eyes still worked. It’s not like I can practice my aim beforehand. I just hope I don’t have to taste smoke. My mouth will be filled with smoke from gunpowder, but it’s the burned flesh that I really don’t want to taste. If you want to die more slowly you can do it another way you know. I still want to at least be seen. Do you really need that much drama just to

“Excuse me?”

Yes, how can I help you?

“I called earlier and talked to someone about Opium by YSL.”

Yes, you must be Zoe.

“Oh it was you! So I am in the right place.”

You are. I set aside the bottle for you right over here – one second.

“Thank you so much. This is the only perfume my mom wears.”

You got the last bottle. And it actually comes with a little travel bag too.

“Oh my God she’s going to love that! Thank you so much.”

You total comes to $98.78. You can swipe whenever you’re ready.

“I wish my husband was this easy to shop for.”

Have a nice day, ma’am.

“You too.”


Why don’t you just slit your wrists? Because I want to make sure I do it right. I’m just saying, you seem like you want to take one last look at life. Are you sure you want to die in a crumpled heap of hot gore in a department store isle? It wasn’t my first choice, but it will have the most impact. It’s not as though I can pick –

“Here’s your keys back! Have you gone to lunch yet?”

No, I was thinking of going around four. Who still needs to go?

“Me and Tony and Carol. I’m hungry!”

I just saw you eating candy ten minutes ago! I don’t know how you stay so skinny.

“That was a snack, and now I’m starving again. If you aren’t going until four then I’ll go now.”

What are you gonna get? Taco Bell?

“Shut up! And yes! What are YOU gonna eat? Coffee?”

I never eat at work, you know that. I have to stay skinny so someone will marry me.

“Oh my god just shut up, I wish I was as skinny as you.”

And yet, not a single date in a year, so not skinny enough.

“Just stop. I like your jacket.”

Oh. Thanks. I just… felt like dressing up a little today.

“You ok? You never texted me back and I was getting worried.”

Just tired.

“Tell me about it. Austin woke up at five this morning and wouldn’t let me sleep after that. Hey I found some sweaters I want to buy. When I go to lunch you should help me choose which one looks better on me. Gotta go!”

Ok, bye.


You can’t let her see you like that. I know. I’ll just make sure she doesn’t see it. Hey, so this is going to sound weird but please promise me you won’t come to work tomorrow. But I’m off tomorrow. I know, but I mean like not even to shop. Why not? It doesn’t matter, just promise me you won’t, okay? Ok, I promise. Ha – that wouldn’t work. She’d know something was up. Yeah, but what else can I do? It’s not fair to scar her for life just to make a statement. So then don’t scar her. Don’t scar anyone. Just do it at home. That way you can get out, and nobody has to suffer any extra. Yeah, that’s probably best. It isn’t right to push my pain on others, even if they are disgusting insects. Just think of it as your final good deed. That’s dumb. Your last act of kindness, then. That way people will know that underneath all your suffering, you didn’t really hate them – you loved them. Well, that’s pretty romantic, but I still wouldn’t go that far. It is kind of romantic though, isn’t it? It’s almost beautiful, in a way. Yeah, almost.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t seem to find the men’s shoe department.”

It’s straight ahead, ma’am, just to the right of the exit.

“I must have walked right by it. Cory get over here! – thank you – Cory I’m not calling you again! Sorry – these kids are a handful.”

No worries.

“Oh – do y’all still carry Allen Edmonds?”

We used to ma’am, but stopped carrying them a few years ago, I’m sorry.

“That’s what I told my husband, but he didn’t believe me. Guess he’ll have to settle for Cole Haan.”

We do carry Cole Haan.

“Good! Cory what did I just tell you?”


I guess I could just do it at home in the bathroom. Okay, but someone will still have to pick up every single skull fragment that gets stuck in the drywall. And someone else will have to scoop up every single soggy piece of brain matter that lands on the bathroom floor, too. It will take at least two people to lift the body connected to your dripping head into a body bag. Well, actually, I was thinking about that, and thought I could just tie a trash bag around my head. That way most of the mess would stay in the trash bag and clean-up wouldn’t be so bad. That’s very thoughtful of you. I thought so too. In fact, I was thinking I could even sit on the edge of the bathtub so that my body would fall into the tub. That way, anything that escaped the trash bag would just run into the bathtub. Easy cleanup, and they’ll be in and out in no time! If you’re so concerned about making things easy on the cleanup crew then why not just do it in a field or something?

Are you finding everything okay, sir?

“Yeah, I’m just looking.”

Alright, well let me know if you have any questions.

“I will – hey do you guys still carry Paul Sebastian?”

We do, but only around Christmas.

“So you don’t have any right now?”

That’s correct.

“Any idea when you’ll get more in?”

Probably not until November.

“Okay, thank you.”

You’re welcome.


Wait. If you’re going to kill yourself then nothing matters anymore, right? Not the grand statement, or the message, or the cleanup, nothing. Why bother with all this fantasizing about the perfect suicide? You don’t need to do any of this. Huh? If you really are going to do this then what’s keeping you here? Where? At the workplace you hate! You’re going to die tomorrow anyway, so why not just walk on out the door. You don’t even need to quit. You don’t even need to tell anyone. Let it go. Let everything go. It’s okay to stop fighting. Why are you working when you’re going to die soon? Nothing is keeping you here. Yeah. I could just walk out I guess.

“Markus! Did you hear me, I said BYE!”

Oh, are you leaving?

“Yes! I’ve been trying to tell you I had to leave early today to pick up Austin from daycare!”

Oh. Okay that’s fine.

“You really are somewhere else today. Is everything okay?”

I’m fine. Do you work tomorrow?

“No, I’m off until Thursday.”

Alright, well enjoy your days off.

“I will! Do you work Thursday?”

I do.

“Okay see you Thursday, bye!”

Bye, Jade.



She’s one of the ones who cares about you isn’t she? It doesn’t matter. What will everyone think if you just up and leave? I’m not sure. They’ll say something like: “We just assumed he was feeling sick and went home.” That isn’t very poetic. What else do you want? Some kind of narrative? Not a narrative… just a story that has an end. How about: “He would turn and walk out of the store without a word”? Now you’re just making fun of me. Okay well how about this:

“Someone would ask him where he was going, but he wouldn’t answer. He would get in his car and drive to the Wells Fargo down the street, where he’d empty his bank accounts. It wouldn’t be much, but it would be enough. Then he’d drive to the REI across town, and buy the best hiking pack they had, and all manner of survival and backpacking gear. He’d stop by his apartment to pack. He’d leave the next morning.

There was no need to rush. The only thing left to do was to die, after all. He could afford to buy himself some time. Time for a trip, maybe. A long trip by himself. A journey. A journey to find what he’d lost. Or maybe, what he’d never known he needed. A reason to live. Or at least a reason not to kill himself. The destination didn’t really matter either. When you don’t know what you’re looking for, you can start looking anywhere. But he knew exactly where he’d go.

The beach. But not just any beach. A California beach not far from Camp Horno, California. A beach 2042 miles straight west. According to Google Maps, it would take him quite some time to cross the continent. 3.6 months to the coast on foot. Much longer than the four hours it had taken the plane to get there, that time he had basically been smuggled onto the base so they could hang out for a few days before discharge.

It would be a long walk. His beard would grow out after weeks and weeks of neglect. He would develop a deep tan, and even deeper lines around his eyes from squinting in the sun every day. Fewer and fewer people would engage him in conversation, on the rare occasions he interacted with them that is. They would start to mistake him for a homeless person instead of a traveler. What’s the difference, anyway? By that point he’d have skinny arms and huge calves, like some kind of wild man.

He’d walk for miles and miles. Sometimes he’d hitchhike. Other times he wouldn’t. He’d wander off once in a while, just to see what was there. He’d stop at truck stops and gas stations. At motels and rest stops. He needed to find something. Anything. Maybe he’d find a sweet girl at a 24-hour café who would notice him, weathered, and frazzled and sitting alone. Maybe she’d see in his eyes the crushing emptiness and loneliness that begged to be noticed. Maybe she’d realize that silence was his best attempt at screaming. Then they’d fall in love and live happily ever after. Or maybe he’d stop to chat with some old man fixing a motorcycle behind a dilapidated gas station. The old man wouldn’t say much but would somehow answer the questions he wasn’t asking. Then he’d turn around and walk back, a new man. Or maybe, just maybe, he’d make it all the way to the beach.

The beach. The beach just off of a bright little coastal town called San Clemente, where they’d gotten Bloody Mary’s after staying up all night drinking Jaeger and exploring the desert hills outside of the barracks. They had wanted to go surfing, but didn’t have swimsuits, so they bought some ridiculously expensive ones with sunset colors at the board shop just off the main drag. They rented surf boards and walked nearly a mile to the beach, like a couple of kids who’d never surfed before in their lives.  

He’d never been to any of the states that stood between him and California. If he couldn’t find what he was looking for in six new states, then perhaps his suicide was justifiable after all. First it would be Mississippi, then Arkansas, then Oklahoma. Timothy McVey had lived in Oklahoma. At some point the “South” merges with the “West”, and he suspected it might happen somewhere in the next state, Texas. Maybe there would be a sign that said: “Thank you for visiting the South! Welcome to the West!”. Finally, he’d have to cross the two longest stretches, New Mexico and Arizona. Deserts. He imagined that these deserts would change him the most. Deserts have the power to change anybody, after all.

Then, on some random day, he’d enter California. Is there a billboard welcoming weary travelers to the Golden State? Is there one at Golgotha? The closer he got to San Clemente the less he would need to carry. Perhaps he would pause at a busy intersection to take a long drink from his water canteen. He would take off his heavy pack and use it as a seat and watch the passing cars while he rested his tired legs. Maybe when he got up, he’d leave it laying there as if it had belonged to someone else.

He’d slowly wind his way through the colorful town of San Clemente. At midday, when the sun was hottest, he’d stop at a dingy gas station to buy a six-pack of PBR. He’d only drink three. He’d stopped smoking years ago, but he’d buy a pack of Marlboro Red’s just the same. His lungs missed the soothing fumes. Those fumes that had accompanied countless hours of late night conversation. There would be no conversation this time though, only a trail of smoke. A trail winding down sidewalk after sidewalk, and eventually leading to the beach.

That beach with a short path from street to shore with nowhere to change into your swimming trunks. With big rocks in the sand, and surfers in the waves. He’d ditch his canteen, his jacket, his sleeping bag, his hat, and his shoes. There was nothing left to carry but two beers and two cigarettes. Nothing left to walk on but water and sand. He’d wade out into the shallow foam. The same foam where after an hour of failed surfing attempts, they had stood up and realized that they should have rented wet suits. The sandpaper-like surface of the surf boards had scratched their bare chests and stomachs until it looked like they’d just adopted a family of angry kittens. They’d stared at each other’s bloodied bodies and burst out laughing. But laughing made it hurt even worse, which made them laugh even more. So they gave up trying to surf for the day, dumped their surf boards on the rocks and sat on a sand dune overlooking the horizon. They didn’t say much. They didn’t have to. In that moment, nothing was wrong with the world, and they were brothers. Best friends, with their whole lives ahead of them. And he would walk out into the surf and crack open the last two beers. He’d light up the last two cigarettes and stand smoking, looking into the same sunset that was the only witness to that moment they had shared only five years before. He’d take one last draw on the cigarette as the waves crept up his knee and down the other side. Maybe somehow that moment would take him to where his brother was. Maybe it would just be a good ending to a bad life. Or maybe he didn’t really want to die after all. Maybe he just wanted to live in that memory… and never have to say goodbye. Then he’d pull out the .45 –”

“Sir? Excuse me, sir?”

Can I help you?

“Do you work here?”

Yes, what can I do for you?

“I’m looking for a place to check out – the other line was too long.”

Yeah, I can get you right here.

“Thank you.”

Are you using your rewards card today?

“I am. The sign over there said it was 40% off with the coupon -”

It is. I scanned the coupon already.

“Oh. Thank you.”

Your total comes to $20.20. Would you like a bag?

“Uh, yeah that would be great.”

You’re all set. Have a nice day.

“You too.”

Sleepwalkers and Dreamers

“Kel! Hey Kel! Over here!”

Kel scanned the lounge until she saw me waving, then ambled over at an exaggeratedly slow pace. I wondered if she was pretending not to be excited. When she arrived at the table, I could see I was right. She was hiding a grin. At least I thought she was.

“So?” I offered expectantly, trying to coax out her smile with my own. “How was your first day?”

“It was good!” she beamed. “They told me in training that experiencing identity can be a little jarring, but I barely even noticed.” Kel had always been a bit smug.

“Good for you!” I beamed back. “Did the sensation of time make you queasy or anything?”

She shook her head.

“No, they gave us some kind of injection and said that soon we wouldn’t need it, but that for now it’s best.”

I nodded. Back when I was a fresh intern there were no injections, and “motion sickness” as we called it, was used to eliminate unsuitable specters. But Kel didn’t know that, and I didn’t want to rain on her parade. Not many could handle specter work.

“It’s just a type of sedative” I told her and waved my hand dismissively. “You probably didn’t even need it.”

She smiled at me. Nothing could rain on her parade. I gave her a big grin.

“I want to know all about your first day! How was the interface?”

“Oh my god, so janky!” she laughed. “It was completely sealed… I guess maybe spherical? Anyway, none of the connections were fused, so it was pitch black. All I had were a couple of super primitive sensor modules, and that was pretty much it!”

I leaned back in my chair. New specters rarely appreciate this particular interface. When all you’ve known is the infinite, the finite can seem pretty “janky” I suppose. It certainly is a nice way of expressing deep discomfort and disorientation. I couldn’t help but tease her.

“C’mon Kel, it’s a great interface!” I winked, “I think you’d like it if you just gave it a chance.”

She gave me a weak smile. “I guess I have no choice, huh?”

She looked exhausted, and I didn’t blame her. Her interface was nothing more than a typical cognition-level-three carbon-based mobile organic. Nothing special. But when all you can see is a narrow window, you quickly forget how big you truly are. It’s not just uncomfortable, it’s painful.

“Okay so it was a bit weird but did you at least like your host?”

“Well…” she looked off into the distance. “Hang on – do you care if I get a drink?”

“You certainly earned it, specter!” I turned around in my seat and flagged down a waiter.

“Two martinis please. Gin.” I didn’t usually drink gin, but it was Kel’s favorite and I wanted her to feel like we were all part of the same family.

She squinted at me. “I thought you hated gin.”

“I don’t love it, but we’re family again. We share in each other’s joys and sorrows, and fortunately, gin is a rather mild sorrow that I don’t mind sharing in.”

She didn’t understand but forced smile anyway. That’s okay. In time she would come to know what I meant. I pretended to scan the drink menu but was watching her in my periphery. She was squirming in her chair. Motion sickness. I noticed she was wearing her hair down too. Trying to hide the burn marks on her ears no doubt. I remember my ears took weeks to heal after I started working at the firm. Why did she feel she had to act so tough?  

“So are you going to tell me about your host or what?”

 “Oh yeah!” she perked up again.

“It was male, bipedal, 28 cycles old, adapted to a high-altitude surface biosphere, omnivorous,… and…yeah.”

I stared at her for a moment, but she wouldn’t let me meet her eyes. So it had been bad. What the hosts experience as cycles, specters experience differently. Still, strange things can happen.

“That’s it?” I laughed. “What did it do? What country was it in? Do you even know what planet it was on?” Teasing her would make her feel better – nothing else would after all.

“Duh! Of course I do!” She glared at me. “The planet was Sol 3 and the country was called…Tibet? Yeah, Tibet.”

“I see,” I said, and nodded slowly. I already knew she’d been in Tibet of course. All the new specters start out there after all. Most Tibetans run a type of meta-ware which incidentally employs a practice which attempts to connect with the specter. The firm prefers using these hosts for newbies because the connective state can calm motion sickness. Once interns get the hang of the Tibetans, they will start moving them to other types of hosts.

“So what did your host… do?” I asked carefully.

She looked away. “Nothing much.”

Damn. It was worse than I thought. When a host’s lifetime of stored memory suddenly floods your awareness, you can’t help but get lost in it. It envelops you. It becomes you, and you forget you’re a specter. The connection can’t last forever though. It takes its toll on the host, who must disconnect from the specter every so often. The suffering is intense, and the experiences can seem real, even to a seasoned specter.

“Kel?” I tried to meet her gaze. It was time to drop the act.

“Kel, what happened?”

She shrugged. “Nothing much. We – I mean, it got up, went outside to visit the shrine, and meditated. Then it went to the river and – oh our drinks are here!”

While Kel eagerly sipped her martini, I wondered if I should contact the firm. It was that little slip she’d made, saying “we” instead of “it”. That’s not supposed to happen. A specter should know better. Kel should know better. There was a heaviness to her that was out of place. To carry negative emotions away from a session, no matter what happened during the session, is almost unheard of.


She looked startled. “What?”

“Kel, you know that hosts aren’t alive, don’t you?”

She stared at me for a moment.

“Of course I know that. They’re just shells. So what?”

Something had definitely happened. Something with her host. The hosts have been around as long as we have. You might say we each suffer from a sort of interdependency in which each engenders the other, simply by way of being. And yet, we are still opposites, separated by an infinite chasm – bridged by our infinity, as the firm likes to tout. Still, there’s never any guarantee that things will go smoothly for a specter. The connection to hosts is crude at best. The clamps, the plugs, the melding process… it’s painful for the host, and very disorienting for the specter too. I’d hoped that Kel hadn’t been hurt in the process. But it looked like she had.   

“Kel, what happened?”

“Nothing happened!” She burst out. “I did the session and pulled out my plugs when it was over, the end!”

“You… what did you say?” I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. “What do you mean you pulled out your plugs?”

“Just what I said! After the session ended I unplugged just like everyone else does, what’s the big deal?”

“No Kel, you don’t do anything! Ever! The technicians unplug you and you should have no memory of it whatsoever! Are you saying you unplugged yourself?”

“Yeah, I guess… why does that matter?!” she shrieked.

I could feel the color draining from my face. When specters are in session they have no control over their actual bodies and no way to unplug. The only way that Kel could possibly have unplugged herself would be if…

I stood up.

“Kel show me your back!”

“Wha – no I’m not going to show you my back! Why –“

Before she could say anything else I was behind her. She tried to push me away, but I yanked her off her chair and pulled up her jacket. Blood was streaming from her connection site and had soaked into her jeans. I could smell river water.

I spun her around to face me.

“Kel what the hell happened in there?!”

It was her turn to drop the act now. She burst into tears.

“I don’t know! I don’t know!” she sobbed. “It meditated for a long time, almost all day. It didn’t even eat. And then…” She trailed off.

“And then what? Kel what happened at the river?”

She was crying. I had seen this sort of residual stress before, but never this pronounced.

“Tell me what happened at the river, Kel!”

She was breathing hard but trying to calm herself down.

“It… we walked out onto the ice… we could hear it cracking… and then we just stood there… and waited…” her eyes were slowly tearing up.

Hosts expire all the time. A specter is just as likely to experience a hosts birth as they are a hosts death. But Kel shouldn’t have feelings about it. She shouldn’t have feelings about a host at all.

“Kel, why are you so upset about this?”

“Because!” she blurted out. “Because he wanted to stop! He wanted to stop but he just couldn’t!”

Kel was weeping now but kept talking anyway.

“He fought the expiration…. but…. inside… inside he…”

“He what?” I asked confused.

“He… he… saw me.” She sniffed.

“Kel! The hosts aren’t alive! They’re just machines! They can’t see anything! What do you mean he saw you? Who saw you?”

She was wavering. It was as though there had been a breach. From here to there, or from there to here. Or perhaps both. Why Kel? Why her of all people? I struggled to keep my composure. She didn’t have very long.

“Kel, tell me who saw you? Who?”

She was shaking now.

“It wasn’t really him though… he didn’t see me… I did. I saw myself.”

Those were the last words I wanted to hear. It was as I’d feared. The host hadn’t fought against its expiration.

“You tried to save him, didn’t you? That’s how he saw you.” I couldn’t hold back my own tears.

She didn’t answer. She didn’t need to. She was quietly sobbing.

“You know what this means, don’t you, Kel? That you won’t be able to merge again…?”

She looked at me for a long time. She was fading, but I knew she still recognized me.

“I was… I was you, wasn’t I?”

“Yes, you were.”

“But…” she looked around for a moment.

“Where’s the river… where…?”

“You’re right here, Kel. You’re on the other side.”

“But…who are you?”

I could barely even make her out now. There was nothing left to say.

“I am the void, Kel. And you were once a part of it.”

And she was gone.



Equestrian mists by noble lashes parted
Half-smiles hide dances unfinished
While secret spells collide in keeping
Luna’s tender shade above, and softly
A sigh, dipping through unseen – breaks
And shards choke what these lungs held in reverie

To her though many eyes bend loosely
Hearts that turn on prayers, crush and wilt
When tempered in her royal aura, crimson:
From pain’s eternal basin drawn
For love had sought what sorrow found; still beating
That which daisies wove, fate in embers tried

Soft gestures of tender light below a curious lid
A flickering flame to warm the seer’s stone
Gentle shadows cast aside, bow to Atlas’ curve
Glimpsed when careless tosses hers
His with their faintest tilt belie: Aloft!
Ne’er falls what by love and tears is cradled high

Over cracked stone and floating dune she beckons
The golden winds with her a while to stay
For sweeter are melodies borne on sol’s calmer winds
And deeper are smiles bathed in weary light
Distant gaze returns with gifts from troubled sands beyond:
Words unsaid and serendipitous, to steep the enamored heart

This wavering heart marooned by tempest gales
And desert sails, her grains of sand did count
And in the grieving echoes still no ashen flowers found
Nor rusted crowns: See! Living rivers flowing deep!
And glittering therein and gathered, in this battered soul’s embrace
Athena’s gems in amber clad and phoenix feather-coils

Alas, what fate had stopped in infant deed
No mortal dares in dream betray
For ships that pass in night’s cold sting, to sight
And cheek are lost – and doomed new shores to seek
Yet to her – and her alone, this heart from foreign waves
Reaches still and out, through wisps of air and salt:

What is first lost is not restored by what is second found
Even the radiant garden must in season’s lull her roots repair
Yet at times, in whispered wishes this wilted heart still drowns
And longs for careless footfalls, and carefully hidden smiles
And so to dare as mortals do, and face the threat of fate
This soul in deepest crevice harbors dreams for kinder skies than these:

Twilight skies alight o’er childish grins and somber eyes
These arms, to stretch her canvases were made, and dip
Pen and brush in beauty’s uncorked flask – a balm
To heavy hearts bestowed, in measure with humming timbre strings
Weaving rings round starlit campfires, kitchen tables and lullabies
These tears to hold aloft in tune, and detain the aching waves

And yet the grains in silent mourning drop from heaven’s hallowed glass
Dispersed upon this hour’s dream, this soul and hers; alas
When fluttered lashes close upon this melancholy dream
And carry us o’er Elysian fields to meet new suns and seas
To find the one who glitters deep, and share the sand in which she wakes
There – where all the corners of the world shall meet – this aged soul will wait

Circus Boy


We stood in line for what felt like hours. It wasn’t often that the circus came to our small town, and it seemed like every family in that small town had chosen this particular day to attend. Unfortunately, my family was no exception. I was 12 years old at the time and considered myself far too old and mature to be enjoying something as childish as a circus. My fear of being seen in that line (let alone with my parents and siblings) was an embarrassment that manifested itself both as a surely attitude, and an impatience to get inside.

As we got within a few families of the tent entrance, I could see the ticket-master and a few circus staff members acting as greeters. I had been to circuses before, so this was nothing new. What was different about this greeting party was that one of its members was a small boy, perhaps only two or three years younger than I was.

He was dressed in fancy bright clothes, had a wisp of hair that covered his eyes, and for some reason, in between greeting each guest he would make the weirdest mouth movement I’d ever seen. He would purse his lips and then quickly pinch them over to each side of his mouth. He did this in one smooth back-and-forth motion, almost as if he had a bad itch he was trying to alleviate by crinkling his nose as vigorously and discreetly as possible.

But this odd feature was much less interesting and bothersome then the obvious conundrum at hand: Was this kid part of the staff? A kid with a job? In a circus? Impossible. Not only was this kid shorter than I was, but he was quite obviously younger too, which of course meant that he was indisputably inferior to me.

And yet while I spent most of my time sitting in miserable, friendless classrooms, he got to proudly invite guests into a circus tent! Apparently he was a celebrity in an authority position who probably got paid money too, which basically made him a grown-up. It wasn’t fair, and I felt personally insulted.

This apparent crime against nature, coupled with my deep shame at having to attend a childish circus in the first place (with my parents and siblings no less), made me very sullen, and as we stepped up to get our tickets, I met the boys timid smile with the sternest, most condescending look I could muster. He cowered instantly, stared at his feet, and did that weird lip thing. At least he knew his place in the pecking order.

I felt a little better.

Inside the tent we found our seats, and the circus performance began. The seating we had procured was such that we could see most of the bleachers that curved around the circus ring, and I marveled that the tent was much larger on the inside than it had appeared from the outside. The show was surprisingly good (for a small circus that is). What it lacked in exotic animals and howling motorcycles it made up for with hilarious clown acts, fantastic magic shows, and dizzying trapeze performances.

The darkness of the tent made the light effects all the more brilliant, and every so often a spotlight would stray from the center to pan over the audience revealing waves of amused faces. Despite being unhappy about my attendance, I appreciated the dark interior. That kid door-greeter couldn’t see me in the dark, and certainly couldn’t tell if I laughed or clapped, and as it turned out, the trapeze artists were so skilled in their acrobatic deceptions that I feared more for their lives then for my precious status in the boy dominance hierarchy.

And so, with thoughts of the despised door-greeter (and his obviously undeserved position) momentarily banished by distraction, I gave myself permission to enjoy the show.

And what a show it was!

Each act was better than the last, and after an action-packed clown act ended in firecrackers and laughter, the lights dimmed in preparation for the next act which was sure to outdo its predecessor. The balmy air hung in anticipation…

“If it hadn’t been for Cotton-Eye Joe
I’d been married a long time ago
Where did you come from, where did you go?
Where did you come from, Cotton-Eye Joe?”

Suddenly the darkness was jolted to life by the song Cotton Eye Joe by Rednex blasting out of invisible speakers. A golden spotlight cut through the sawdust to reveal a short cowboy with a wisp of hair covering his eyes, expertly wielding a lasso.


I watched in horror as this kid, sporting an over-sized cowboy hat and chaps, began performing increasingly complex rope tricks to an increasingly enthusiastic audience. With a charisma and stage presence that befit a seasoned actor, he even had the audience clapping along to the heavy techno beat. My nearly forgotten door-greeting nemesis was no ordinary door-greeter: he was a full-fledged circus performer.

I was mortified.

The circus had betrayed me. I tried to ignore the performance, but conspicuously looking away put me at risk of standing out to the rest of the audience. I decided to turn my judgment on his pathetic performance instead.

I scrutinized his every movement looking for mistakes. I counted the seconds between each swing of the lasso as it looped across his boots for signs of fatigue. But I could find nothing to criticize.

What a show-off.

I rolled my eyes and tried to hide the overwhelming sense of stage fright that should have been his and not mine. I did not join in the crowds punctuated claps. Hell no! I kept my arms folded and from my distant bleacher seat, refused to reward him with even a smile of appreciation.

But then something strange happened: the music stopped, but the boy didn’t.

The cowboy lasso routine was apparently longer than the Cotton Eye Joe track that had been selected as its accompaniment. As the last note of the song faded, so did the energy of the tent. The spell broke, and electricity gave way to sudden and eerie silence.

Time seemed to slow as I turned to look at the audience, rows of glowing profiles, each one a blank mask. Silent. Unmoving. I followed their collective stare to the sandpit in which the boy danced, held in motion by the glare of the spotlight, surrounded by a perpetually rising cloud of dust. Not a sound from the bleachers, not even a rustle in the air… nothing but the mechanical slapping of the rope against the sand.

For his sake I held my breath. I could feel the dead weight of the audience pressing down on him… feel the moment stretch further and further… reaching for the curtain of volume that had been lifted and now refused to fall. 

It was torture.


If it hadn’t been for Cotton-Eye Joe
I’d been married a long time ago
Where did you come from, where did you go?
Where did you come from, Cotton-Eye Joe?”

As quickly as it had stopped, Cotton Eye Joe began playing again. Time returned to its normal pace, and the energy returned to the tent, where it eventually climaxed in applause.

Amidst the ovation, I glared at the young cowboy who bowed awkwardly before jogging off-stage, but I couldn’t bring myself to see him as an entitled jerk anymore. Something had changed. I still could not clap for him, but I no longer hated him either.

During what remained of the circus I contemplated this boy. This rope-tricking cowboy with the wisp of hair covering his eyes. I was filled with a sense of remorse and decided (as a feeble act of penance), to give him something truly valuable for his trouble: a smile from a superior, older boy.

Once again, I found myself waiting in line.

The boy stood at the exit, still dressed in his cowboy costume (minus the hat), with a smile and a thank-you for each departing guest. He saw me coming though, and the smile that was meant for me fell just as it had before, and he cowered in the face of a smile that was meant for him. 

But exit lines always move faster than entrance lines, and leave little time for acts of atonement. I resisted the urge to linger, but for my conscience sake, I did indulge in one final look back as I trailed behind my parents towards the parking lot.

There he was, smiling timidly and thanking the guests, and in between each thank-you, the same weird lip thing.

On the ride home, I tried to imitate that weird lip motion, but found that I could only successfully do it to the right side of my mouth. With practice I was able to master both sides, and it would take many more months to break the habit all together.


If Mice Could Sing


…When you said your last goodbye
I died a little bit inside
And I lay in tears in bed all night
Alone without you by my side

But if you loved me
Why’d you leave me?

Take my body…take my body…

All I want is
And all I need is
To find somebody
I’ll find somebody

Like you…like you…

These are the words, sung in the warm, Celtic voice of Clare Stagg that had me wiping away a single tear before glancing down at my phone thinking:

Why the hell am I listening to this garbage?

I appreciate a wide variety of music, a variety that I am always trying to broaden and enhance. I’ve gone through all sorts of phases with music, ranging from death metal to blues, classic rock to ska, punk to choro, and many more.

Phases come and go, but I always return to some of the same favorite genres that just never seem to get old: jazz, classical, and…. one other one.

High-energy trance.


Something a lot of people don’t know about me is my strange affinity for electronic music. (It’s kind of my dirty little secret.)

I’m aware of the images this conjures up:

…thousands of people packed into massive stadiums…. painted faces, flags and glow-sticks waving everywhere… arms swaying to mind-blowing light shows while drowning in beat/MDMA induced euphoria…and all in front of a single DJ on an enormous stage.  

For the record, I’ve never been to a rave or EDM event, but the music (if you can call it that) is something that appeals to me for several reasons:

  • It’s energetic and is highly conducive to maintaining flow-state. This helps me stay in “go-mode” whenever I need to be productive or drive fast (which is always).
  • It’s mathematically structured and therefore cognitively digestible for a machine-brained person like me. It’s almost like Bach, except you can move to it (fyi: you cannot dance to it).
  • It is unparalleled in its ability to draw out positive emotion. Trance is carefully designed to take the listener on an intense emotional rollercoaster ride by gradually building on an uplifting tune, adding deep base lines, pushing the emotion further and further until an accelerating drum beat brings the song to the brink of an almost unbearable climax that finally releases the listener with a return to the deep, heavy beat that is the undercurrent of the whole piece. Then it repeats the process.

I could make trance sound even more sophisticated, but who am I kidding? Trance appeals to the same base primitive emotions that country, hip-hop and pop music appeal to. Trance just does it electronically and with euphoria as its emotional medium.

Did I really just use the word “sophisticated”?


I hope it’s at least somewhat apparent at this point that I basically hate myself for liking this junk. If classical music is like an aged bottle of exquisite wine you found in your grandfathers cellar, then trance is like a line of coke you got from the McDonald’s dishwasher in exchange for a pack of smokes.

But it wasn’t the genre so much as it was the lyrics in Ciaran McAuley’s emotional new hit “All I Want” that made me cringe.



You see, I have a certain dislike for “vocal music”. What I mean by “vocal music”, is any piece of music that has words in it.

(Please excuse me while I get on my soap box for a moment. Ahem.)

Music speaks loudest when it has no voice. This is because music has a voice and a language all its own, one that cuts through the limits of human grammar and vocabulary and touches our emotions directly. Music can tell complicated stories, unite a diverse crowd, and leave grown men in tears for reasons they don’t understand.

It has been said that:

Words, versatile though they are, are simply insufficient in describing the true depths of the human experience.

So humans built machines to speak for us – to work as proxies when words weren’t enough, and wrote a new language that both human and machine could speak.

We call these machines instruments…and we call the language… music.

Music is the message. And that message is only limited and cheapened by the addition of human words. The most heinous violation of musical purity by vocals is that it immediately identifies and separates speaker and audience. Music is communication. It can be a conduit for the expression of feeling, a source of feeling, a combination of the two, or even a complex mixture of the same.

The details depend on more factors than can be listed, so suffice it to say, music is a unique experience. Adding an “ambassador” for the music erases that amazing and unique potential for two-way communication and expression.

Finally, human words add specific meaning, which limits what the music might have said otherwise. Words add cultural and political baggage that can act as a geographical marker and/or a timestamp, thereby destroying a potentially timeless piece.

There simply is no substitute for pure music, music that has no need for specific and petty human meanings.

(Okay. Soap-boxing complete – thank you.)


Yet, despite knowing all this, I still indulge in vocal music from time to time, and it just so happened to be those dumb, bleeding-heart lyrics that got me thinking about human song and its meaning in the broader sense.

I don’t know if maybe I was trying to understand why I liked this music, or if I was trying to justify why it was okay to like it, but I’m going to have to explain another strange feature of my mind for the rest of this to make sense. Please bear with me.

Dirty secret #2:

I have a habit of mentally reframing human behavior in alternate contexts when I encounter something that seems illogical or that I can’t quite wrap my head around.

I accomplish this by replacing the humans with one of two animals: for scenarios involving higher cognitive functions (usually group functions), I imagine rhesus monkeys, and for more basic mammalian behaviors, I imagine mice.

This conceptual thought experiment usually helps me sort out and understand what people are doing and why.

Here are some examples to clarify:

Why would a smart male teenager try so hard to fit in with a group of popular teenagers of vastly lower intelligence? Is this something a beta-male rhesus monkey attempting to discover/gain status in an established social hierarchy might do to gain access to females and mating privileges?

Why would a non-starving person consume copious amounts of junk food when they know it makes them sexually unattractive and shortens their life span? Is this something a mouse with a genetic predisposition to favor rare and valuable nutrients would do when exposed to readily available sources of sugar and fat?

These are admittedly sloppy examples, but they at least illustrate the framework.


So once again the question of music inspired me to attempt a similar thought experiment.

Why would anyone make or listen to this emotionally charged noise when we’ve already invented classical music and jazz (and choro)? And most importantly, what would super-intelligent aliens think if they were cruising by Earth and happened to hear this crap?

To find out, I decided to turn the tables.

Imagine with me if you will (I’ve always wanted to say that), a distant future in which humans are traveling on a spaceship and come across a small planet on which mice have become the dominant species. What would we hear if we directed our microphones towards their planet and listened? What kind of music would they be making?

What if mice could sing?

Well, first of all, although mice are capable of squeaking at frequencies human ears can hear, most of their squeaks extend outside of our hearing range and into the ultrasonic. It would be a lot of high-pitched noise to our ears, so we’d need to adjust the microphones a little to compensate. Second, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to imagine what they would sing about:

Since these mice were small prey animals throughout most of their evolution, they would probably sing about a deep fear of or respect for predators. They would sing about heroes evading cats, snakes, owls and foxes. They would sing about mice who conquered their fears and who ventured out into the great unknown and survived.

They would probably sing about the things that are essential to the longevity of their species (ie: the things that are most dear to them): sexual attraction, offspring, companionship and all of the related emotions like connection, love, longing, and loss.

Mice would likely also sing about the simpler elements that comprise mouse life. Things like safety, food, sleep, shelter, nature, and peace. The things that make a mouse’s life worth living.

Some mice might even sing about the things that make a mouse’s life awful. Things like sickness, disease, starvation, even corruption and exploitation.

Is that too far-fetched? I think if we allow ourselves creative license to imagine this much (based on general mouse social behavior) we could be justified in assuming that mice would sing about the same things that humans sing about.

I guess humans aren’t so strange after all. Given that humans sing, it would be weird if we didn’t sing about the things we sing about.

So that’s one problem solved. I’ll need to be less harsh on vocal music from now on.

I would have ended things there, but the more I played around with this little thought experiment, the more interesting it got.

Back to our imaginary spaceship hovering on the edge of our mouse planet.


If we “zoomed in” our microphones, we might focus on a single mouse’s heartfelt song. A song about tunneling in fields, maybe. A song perhaps for mouse children about the carefree mouse that got snatched up by a hawk. Or maybe a ballad about young mouse love. Maybe even a trance song about a mouse’s broken heart.  

But what would happen if we “zoomed out” our microphones a little?

A loud cacophony of thousands of squeaks and squeals, all in the same regional mouse language or dialect (most likely), accompanied by a confused mesh of all the various musical instruments that mice would no doubt have invented.

We could no doubt pick out all kinds of different songs at this distance. A funeral dirge here, a battle march there. Mouse kindergarten choirs, mouse garage punk bands, and mouse operas. Mouse songs sung in mouse showers, mouse songs sung in mouse streets, mouse songs screamed at the night sky, and mouse songs choked by mouse sobs.

But why stop there?

What if we zoomed out ALL the way? What if we could capture every single song being sung on this tiny mouse planet? What would we hear?

You might say we would get a coarse-grained snapshot of what being a mouse on the mouse planet at that one instant is like. A strange, confused, and truly overwhelming picture of what it is to be a mouse. It would be unfathomable, horrendous and terrible. It would be mesmerizing and humbling. It would be something never heard before:

A frighteningly complex uproar comprised of billions of mouse voices all singing, shouting, screaming, whispering, crying and wailing in a single, tumultuous song. It would be a song that began when the first mouse to develop vocal cords uttered its first squeak, and it would continue without intermission into infinity. An unbroken song.

This song would tell a tangled and garbled story of pain, and suffering, and love, and compassion, and laughing, and crying, and hoping, and dreaming, and eating, and sleeping, and mating, and dying, and living….and living.

Just living.

A story of living.

What we would hear emanating from our little mouse planet… would be a song about living.

An unbroken song of life.

I began to think at this point about how Earth really isn’t all that different from this imaginary “Planet of the Mice”.

We spend so much time living on our own little planet… we forget that living on this planet is literally all we do.

But while we’re doing it, we somehow always find time to sing about it, too.

We write songs. And then we sing them to each other.

The songs that an alien visitor would hear coming from our Earth would be no different than the many squeaks and squeals from that mouse planet we imagined earlier.

A deafening melting together of voices… singing together, crying together, feeling together… in a billion simultaneous and sequential movements to the grandest symphony ever composed…

…our very own unbroken song of life.


At this point I realized something about my silly trance song: it doesn’t speak for all of humanity – it’s just one small voice. That’s all. One small voice among countless others that make up a single snapshot of what it is to be a human on this planet.

After all, is Earth really that different from a mouse planet? And are humans really that different from mice?

What are we really, but lonely, grapefruit-brained mammals stranded on a lost little planet lunging through the universe?

If humans could sing, what would they sing? What do they sing?

I think I may have figured it out…

An unbroken song of life comprised of a billion wailing beings struggling to make sense of their existence…

…a billion voices singing their souls into the void.

I wondered what our song of life sounded like, and wished humans could hear it. I also wondered how we would react to it if we could hear it. 

Would we focus on the many cycles of life and find peace in it? Would the meaninglessness of it all induce feelings of despair? Would we recoil in horror at the unfathomable suffering, or maybe just laugh because no other reaction felt appropriate?

I wonder if we’d even find a word big enough to describe it all with.

Our song of life, that is.

As for me, I have no idea how I would react to the human song. I just hope, as I imagine everyone would, that it wouldn’t shatter the way I currently see life.

Because for me, from my narrow life and even narrower perspective, there is only one word big enough that touches all of the feelings that encompass the human experience in all its wonder and tragedy… and that word is beauty.



Standing alone in the women’s shoe stockroom, with a wall of Steve Madden on one side of me, and a wall of Sam Edelman on the other, I looked down at my phone again. I decided it was okay to listen to these dumb songs after all, and chose a track that I knew would lift my spirits a little…or at least help me run stock faster:

the new release by Zach Zlov, “Regicide” from The Art of Skullduggery.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I think I’ll keep listening to my stupid low-brow trance music, at least for now.

After all, it adds to a certain unfathomable beauty that I know of.


But, and for what it’s worth, I did switch to Mahler’s fifth symphony afterwards to make up for it.

Shoes, Success, and other Ugly Things

“That’s how you know you’ve failed at life – when you’re twenty-four and working at a place like this.”

By the time he’d finished his sentence, I had already rounded the next corner and wasn’t able to pinpoint which teenager had muttered the comment. It might have been the tall blond one with the chiseled jaw, wearing an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt with khaki shorts and Sperry thongs. Or, it could have been the one standing to his left sporting an expensive new haircut, a pale-yellow American Eagle long-sleeved t-shirt and canvas Polo shoes.

But I like to think it was the one sitting on the padded stool, with his over-sized graphic tee and denim shorts. Why? Because he happened to be trying on a pair of solid black, extra-wide New Balance WX608V4 walking shoes – the kind nobody in their right mind would touch unless they were past running age and suffering from collapsed arches…either that or reluctantly complying with some strange high-school PE dress-code.

Since this one seemed closer to high-school age than wise old age, I assumed the latter to be the case.

But it didn’t really matter who said it. And it didn’t really matter that they even threw out a few theories as to why anyone would possibly choose to work at a discount shoe outlet store in a shabby mall. I didn’t catch the first theory; I barely caught “extra spending-money” as I walked by; and I missed any that may have followed.

Perhaps if I’d stuck around a little longer I’d have heard something closer to the truth. Something in the “desperate times call for desperate measures” category.

But I doubt it.

Did I really care what three random teenagers thought about me? Apparently I did, because their comments made me reflect on my situation a little more than I usually do.

When your company cuts your hours down to anywhere from 0 to 8 hours per week, it’s best to find a second job before the rent’s due. And if, say, you could only afford a single day off per week (exam days), then you might find you don’t have much time (or energy) for deep reflection.

But as I watched the trio saunter off towards the register (he really is going to buy those ugly shoes, geez), I couldn’t help but reflect just a little.

What did I imagine my future would look like when I was a pimple-faced, Axe-body-spray-wearing ball of smart-alecky potential?

At twenty-four?

Why, I’d be working on my first graduate degree most likely. But I’d be almost finished. I’d be married to the love of my life of course, and maybe even have rugrats by then. Maybe I’d have authored a book or two. Maybe not. But I’d definitely have some published work in a respected journal, and maybe even a few patents in my name. I’d have mastered the violin by then (maybe not “Hilary Hahn mastered”, but I’d at least be orchestra-ready),and I’d have learned a third language perhaps. Other than that, I’d have digested a small library’s worth of books, and I’d certainly have traveled the world a bit more too. That last part goes without saying.

The details weren’t too important, but that much at least I would have to show for my life at twenty-four.

But none of those things happened. Turns out those little details make all the difference in the world.

I’ll spare you my life’s story. It’s not important. It’s a long and tragic story, just like everyone else’s. But, there is a short narrative I discovered that, though a bit cold, accurately describes my journey thus far. To be precise, it’s a poem – this one: “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” by Portia Nelson:


I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.


I walk down another street.

For what it’s worth, it’s worth reading a second time.

A good friend of mine introduced me to this poem about a year ago. He has a framed portrait of it on his desk at his business. I have it framed in my bathroom. It’s in front of the toilet, right at eye level, so any time someone goes number two, they come face-to-face with profundity.

Seriously though, there is a lot wrapped up in this short poem. The main idea is this:

You may not be entirely responsible for your situation. But once you realize that the only person who can change it is you, you no longer get to call yourself a victim. At that moment, you alone become responsible for either staying where you are, or for getting yourself out.

It’s about accepting the responsibility for your own life.

It’s a proposition that’s both daunting, and empowering. That’s why I like to be reminded of it often. It’s a good lens to view life through, since life is a continuous cycle of falling into holes and climbing back out. Of failing and succeeding.

Time and time again.

And like the sidewalk metaphor, life is full of sudden, unexpected drops and potential falls. You never really know what’s coming, and the scary part is trying to figure out whether you’re making your way out of an old hole, or burrowing into a new one.

Hell, it’s not just scary – on the worst days it can turn into a competitive bluffing game between confidence and doubt! It’s not a very fun game, especially when your future is hanging in the balance. On days like that, even something as simple as the wrong words at just the right time can upset the balance.

How? By giving doubt a voice. It isn’t hard to do. Even a denim-shorts wearing teenager can do it. And when doubt has a voice, it uses it to whisper things like:

“You’re failing – you just don’t know it yet.”

But here’s the thing: I really don’t think I am failing. I say this because I’ve failed before. I know what failure feels like. And if you’ve ever failed then you know what failure feels like too.

Failure feels different for everyone. Everyone’s failure is different after all. And it’s not always about jobs or money either. I was making good money when I was failing.

This is what my hole in the sidewalk was like: It felt like wasted potential, and it always felt like it was someone else’s fault. It tasted like vodka and regret…it smelled like pot and apathy. It usually sounded like grunge-metal or silence, but sometimes it sounded like the muffled sobs of a neglected wife. It was an Xbox controller and a leaky faucet. It was pride in action…it was despair in denial.   

But what about success? What does it feel like to succeed?

Is it a photo-op for a newspaper article with you shaking hands with important people while accepting an award?

No, that’s just a mile-marker for a certain kind of success. I’m talking about what success is made of. I’m talking about the countless tiny steps that lead to success. Can they be measured? Or generalized? Or codified?

I like to believe that they can.

Yes, this is the toilet-seat view of my bathroom.

I think success looks something like this:

overcoming barriers to success.

Anticlimactic, I know, but that’s the conclusion I came to after…stewing for a while. Obviously, you overcome barriers to success in order to achieve success. That’s like saying you have to climb out of a hole in the sidewalk to get out of a hole in the sidewalk.

But this is where I had my aha-moment.

We like to talk about barriers to success as if they were universal. As if everyone faced the same barriers when trying to achieve the same success.

But that just isn’t the case. Just like there are a thousand different ways to fail, there are also a thousand different ways to succeed. Each person’s success looks different, because the obstacles that stand in the way of that success are different for each individual person.

People don’t like to see it this way, but success isn’t really a competition between you and other people: it’s a competition between the version of you that succeeds and the version of you that fails.

I’m using my own life as an example here, but no matter who you are or what your goals are, you will face challenging obstacles that will test your resolve to make those goals happen. Whether or not you are up to those challenges, will determine whether or not you succeed.

So what does success look like up close? It looks like overcoming one’s barriers to success. One unique obstacle at a time.


That’s the realization that I took away from my brief exposure to unsolicited teenage opinion the other day.

Success doesn’t come easily. It comes with barriers to be overcome. Some of these barriers are explicit, like engineering degrees, but most are more subtle and varied. Obstacles like pride for example. What might pride look like?

Pride is an obstacle that can take the form of anything, really. But mostly, it takes the form of that one thing that we’re too good for. That one thing we say we’ll never do.

For me, it was accepting a minimum wage job at a discount shoe outlet store in a shabby mall. Before that, it took the form of living with relatives in a new city. Before that it was working a third-shift factory job to save money for a big move. Before that…

You get the idea.

That teenager (I really should just give him a name. Cliff? Clifford? Yeah, let’s go with that)…Clifford got me thinking about how I got here. In the end, he helped me realize that in spite of how things look on the outside, I’m not failing. I’m pushing through one of the many obstacles that stands between me and success.

And that is what success is all about. It’s what success looks like in real time. It’s what success looks like up close.

I’ll admit I was a little peeved at Clifford at first…and I’ve probably been a little too hard on him. No doubt he hates those ugly 608’s as much as I do.

But those shoes will get him one step closer to his own goal, whether that goal is a passing PE grade, or a more comfortable walk to the park to feed the ducks.

His shoes, much like success, just aren’t very pretty up close. I imagine that watching a bruised and bloodied person scrape and scratch their way out of a huge hole in the sidewalk isn’t a very pretty sight either.

I suppose I should be grateful to Clifford though. His words prompted me to delve into something that deserved delving. And maybe something that was worth sharing, too.

And you know what else?

He thought I looked twenty-four!

Now that’s the kind of honest compliment I’ll take from anybody, anytime.

…even from a New Balance-wearing teenager named Clifford.

What to do with Dirty Wine Glasses

Note: This is an older blog post, originally posted June 14, 2019.

I washed my wine glasses today. That may not sound very exciting, but it is for me because these two wine glasses had been sitting dirty next to my kitchen faucet for over four months. Don’t get me wrong, I do 3-4 loads of dishes a week and keep my kitchen clean, so this was an exception.

The thing a lot of people don’t realize about dishes, is that for single items (like one plate, one fork, one glass, etc) it’s faster and easier to just wash them by hand in between each use without putting them away. Use a glass, set it in the sink, wash said glass the next day right before use, repeat. Simple, efficient.

This I think was the subconscious motivation for my leaving those wine glasses out. It was the first time I’d used them; they are rather nice, you see. They are Waterford crystal and normally cost a small fortune, but I happened to get mine, brand new, for a steal from a good friend. They are tall, clear, and when you clink them together, they ring like bells.

They were designed for special occasions and romantic dinners, and their first use in my care fell into both categories: the first real romantic dinner I’d had in years – the first of many, it turned out, over the next few blissful months.

So, I just didn’t see any point in washing them and putting them away just yet. They would be used again soon, after all. But for some reason they weren’t. Load after load of dishes made their way into and out of the sink, into and out of the dishwasher, into and out of the cupboards. And my fragile, crystal wine glasses just sat and collected concentric white rings of soap residue.

It got to where we hardly noticed them as they sat there. Sat, and waited it seemed. Waited through home-cooked meals and favorite movies. Through slow forest hikes and lazy Saturday outings. Through long walks, longer talks, and our dreamy Florida beach vacation.

I guess my other, less grand wine glasses needed to get used too.

It’s been a little over a month now since the sudden “I just think we’re better as friends” conversation. It’s the reason many don’t bother with nice wine glasses in the first place. Sometimes I think I bother too much.

But I like my silly wine glasses – it’s about putting out your best. Even though your best is fragile…and breaks. I think maybe I left them sitting out because they were unusable, but too valuable to just throw away. I didn’t know what to do with them. So I did nothing with them.

I suppose that over the weeks I began to feel sorry for my poor, dirty wine glasses… sitting there all alone… making church bell chimes whenever I accidentally bumped them. Maybe I felt guilty for withholding the washing they so desperately needed.

Or maybe, after all these weeks, it finally sunk in that they won’t be needed anymore. That they were just getting in the way and needed to go back to their cupboard. Back where they came from. Out of sight, and most importantly, out of mind.

But anything worth having is worth using, and anything worth using is worth taking care of. Honestly, those wine glasses deserve better. They truly are beautiful, and it wasn’t fair to leave them sitting out this long.

Once they are dry, I’ll put them back in the cupboard. Out of sight, on the top shelf, but not out of mind. I want those glasses kept in pristine condition. Not because there won’t be any more romantic dinners…

…but because there will be.

When Things Don’t Get Better

Note: This is an older blog post, originally posted November 19, 2018.

So I showed up to my math class a few minutes early today (don’t tell my boss – I want him to think I have a tardiness problem), and started chatting with the girl seated behind me. As an aside, I’ve discovered something truly wonderful: people have unique stories and are supremely interesting to talk to! Who knew?? Absolutely fascinating.

Anyway, she spoke fluent Spanish, so our conversation shifted towards language and literature. She began telling me about a poem she had selected to write about for one of her English classes. It was a poem outlining reasons not to commit suicide.


We started talking about losing hope and giving up on life and this girl seemed very sharp and engaged in the subject and lamented the teen suicide epidemic, but didn’t offer much in the way of a solution. Ever eager to share my sagely wisdom with a young budding mind, I put on my warmest “oh-you-sweet-summer-child” smile and said:

“Young people just haven’t lived long enough to realize that life is change, that nothing ever stays the same, and that in time, things will get better.”

That’s right. Put that on a glossy motivational poster, slap a kitten on it, and hang it in your locker, because this wise old owl just delivered some solid life’s advice.

“But not always. Things don’t always get better.”

she said.

Those of you who were raised properly will remember getting popped in the mouth for back-talking like that.

“No, you’re wrong” – is what I wanted to tell her. I wanted to tell her about the people I knew who had been to very dark places but had come back from the brink (and even from over the brink) and who were living happy lives now. I wanted to tell her that feelings of despair and hopelessness are normal parts of life, but that they don’t overshadow the happy moments life gives us.

I wanted to tell her these things, but I couldn’t… because…well, she was right. I remembered the people I’d known for whom life didn’t improve.

The people whose hearts got lost in despair and eventually found comfort in darkness. The people who accepted their predicament as their destiny. The people who lived as shells, drowning in drugs and alcohol, and wallowing in bitterness and regret. People like I used to be.

I realized that the answer to this problem wouldn’t fit into an internet meme. Or even a single conversation. Or even a book. But I did have something to tell her. Not some kind of universal truth or anything, just something I’d learned (the hard way) from my own life, and something I was only able to recognize in hindsight:

Sometimes we need saving and it’s okay to clasp an outstretched hand. Even if we can’t expect life to get better, we can get stronger. There may not be many straws left to grasp at, but the idea that we are capable of more, is a straw the carries hope with it. And hope is the only antidote to despair that I know of.

I wanted to tell her that if young people could just believe, not that their situation will magically improve, but that they themselves were capable of changing, becoming better…or even stronger – that they weren’t powerless!……..well, I didn’t really know how to finish that thought.

This all came to me rather suddenly, and since it was getting harder and harder to talk over the professor, I made a few jots in my notebook instead. I had every intention of sharing this sad little piece of unpolished, unfinished, and profoundly inapplicable knowledge with her after class.

However, since our teacher decided to try and scramble my brain by tossing logarithms in with integrals, obligating me to stay after class to inform said professor (for the nth time) that I hate the way the textbook is teaching the material, I forgot.

I saw my young classmate leave the classroom out of the corner of my eye. She had ear-buds in and looked like she had somewhere to be.

This story doesn’t really have a conclusion. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I wish I’d had the chance to tell her that I’d spoken flippantly and arrogantly. It may not deserve a kitten illustration, but it made me think, so I decided to jot, and to share.

Pink Hair and Blue Swords

Note: This is an older blog entry, originally posted August 22, 2018.

This past weekend I went to Concerts on the Dock to read (I know it’s weird but I’m trying to blend in with the local community so, you know). Anyway, I’m perched atop a stool, sipping ginger ale and enjoying my book, when this kid (probably eight or nine) waltzes up and unhesitatingly plants herself on the stool next to mine…and starts spinning. It bears mentioning that although my stool is also capable of spinning, I am not spinning.

Now, as a frequent “public reader”, I am used to being interrupted, so it’s really no big deal. Being the warm gentleman that I am, I take a moment to glance up from my book…and deliver a deliberate 1-second cold stare across the top edge of the page before dropping my eyes and finding my place again. This communications burst catches her mid-spin and I’m worried she’s missed it and won’t understand that even though I’m ignoring her, I really wish she would just leave.

“What book are you reading?”

Dammit. As I insert my bookmark (slowly, for emphasis), I begin to describe the thesis in as few and simple terms as possible.

What follows is a conversation about Harry Potter, someone named Percy Jackson, mythological heroes wielding magic swords, video games, toy swords, real swords and at this point I’m wondering if maybe I should try my stare again. My new friend (her words – not mine) explains that much like many others at Lowe Mill, she too is an aspiring artist. She runs off, but before I even have a chance to sneak a longing look towards my book, she returns with her art supplies. It’s a large kit containing oil pastels, watercolors, colored pencils, felt markers… in short: the works.

Apparently, it’s a hand-me-down from her older brother, and upon close inspection, it’s obvious this kit has seen better days. Several of the colored pencils are worn down to short nubs. The eraser is missing. And what’s left of the watercolors is cracked and crumbling. My new artist friend informs me that she is currently putting together her portfolio and hopes to share studio space with an established artist once she has enough work to put on display. She has apparently already sold drawings to her friends at 25 cents apiece.

You might say I have a soft spot for struggling artists, so when she asks if I’d like to buy art from her, I smile, and say:

“I don’t have any cash, sorry.”

Turns out this one’s pro bono, and I get to choose what she draws me. What a kid. I suggest she draw me something from that dumb fantasy novel she wouldn’t shut up about earlier (I didn’t use those words exactly), and she gets right to work. While she labors over a new creation, I step aside to acquire some cash.

As a new art investor, and her first sponsor, I figure I can do better than 25 cents – after all, it’s important to support local artists, and she really needs new supplies (it’s for her portfolio after all).

After overcoming some minor obstacles along the way (that missing eraser turned out to be a real problem), I am presented with a stunning still-life pencil drawing of a sword with blue sharpie flames. As she removes her newly minted masterpiece from its college-ruled spiral-bound canvas, I surprise her with not one, but three crisp one dollar bills.

“This is for new art supplies”,

I tell her with a smile, but just sternly enough to let her know I’m counting on her to work hard, apply herself, and make her dream of becoming an artist a reality (of course it went without saying that I had purchased her work at twelve times the going rate and expected some return on investment). Well… someday.

“Someday this will be worth lots of money”,

I tell her. We grin at each other. She’s happy. I steal an anticipatory glance towards my book. I’m happy too. We shake hands as up-and-coming professionals and their altruistic supporters often do, and bid one another farewell.


Fast-forward ten minutes.

I’m roused from my book by the swirling of pink hair above a spinning stool. It’s none other than my young artist friend.

“Hey, you’re back”,

I say, but before I can ask her how her portfolio is coming along, she holds up a small zip-lock bag for me to inspect.

“This one’s amethyst, and this one’s rose quartz”,

she says excitedly, and I do my best to match her enthusiasm. A true polymath, this one. She tells me the story of how she just got them from a vendor down the hall. How they sell all different kinds. How they only cost three dollars.

The word “crestfallen” gets thrown around a lot these days.

I hide my disappointment by nodding silently to everything she’s telling me, but I don’t really hear what she’s saying anymore. I’m a fool. This is what I get for thinking with my heart. For doing something kind. This is why you don’t give kids money. Because they don’t understand the value of saving and just end up blowing it on the first shiny piece of junk that catches–

“Want to buy more of my art?”

I look at her expectant face. We both laugh. It’s a strange mix: the mirthless chuckling of a man who’s just been hoodwinked by childhood innocence, and the cautious giggling of a four-and-a-half foot mineralogist who isn’t sure why we’re laughing.

I’m suddenly aware of the odd sight this kid and I are no doubt presenting to bystanders. I tell her that it was nice meeting her and that someone is probably looking for her, and send her on her merry way.

The future is still open to this kid, with all the occupations she would no doubt excel at, from artist… to con-artist. All I know for sure, is that my cold stare needs work. And if anyone is interested in original, local art, I can point you in the right direction.

Riptide – mixed media on paper; original work signed by artist: $3 OBO

Welcome to Nihil Admirari

My name is Henry, but that’s not important.

I am someone who observes from outside. Someone who listens intently, and thinks deeply.

I am usually silent. I don’t like to hear myself speak. But writing is different, so I decided to use this medium to share intermittent thoughts on my reality. They are of little worth, of course, but I found that I needed a place to put them.

This is that place.

It is a place of thoughts and impressions. It is also a deposit for musings and ideas. It is a kind of window. But mostly, and like all things bounded within human knowledge, it is a story. It is a cold story, and a warm story. It is a barbed story, and a broken story. It is fundamentally incomplete.  

Nihil Admirari is my journal. 

Welcome to the mind of an observer.