Anniversary 2: Electric Boogaloo

Gina and I were married on January 11, 2016, which was the day before her birthday and the day after we returned from what may be tied with the Dallas Fan Existential Crisis as most angst-filled convention we’ve ever attended. David Bowie had died the day before, which had a little bit to do with it, but we’d reached the ends of our ropes in other ways.

There’s no pretty way to say we were losing our minds living apart, which was one of the judge’s requirements prescribed during my previous divorce. It’s a completely understandable arrangement; I can imagine how less responsible parents might have a series of strangers shacking up with them, and I can further imagine how that could be detrimental to their children, but it still seems a bit nanny state to me.

Gina has always loved the girls, and it is a testament to her huge heart that we’re even together. I’d like to cite my charisma and devastating good looks here, but we all know no amount of game can make up for having two kids from a previous marriage and going through a brutal divorce process. I’ve said it before, but Gina really is the patron saint of stepmothers, and I’m not sure what I’ve done to win this lottery.

The tone of this love letter is already different than some I’ve written in the past, so let me make something clear: I stray from any sort of negativity when I talk about our relationship in public, and I’m absolutely going to hold to that pledge. Not that I have anything to complain about when it comes to Gina, but it really is a death knell when I see some of you folks whining online about something your significant other did. You need to address that shit in private, otherwise it’s emotional abuse, plain and simple. I’ve been guilty of this in past relationships, and every time it pops up on my On This Day app, I cringe.

Furthermore, when I’m writing about celebrations of love, I try to keep it positive. There’s something missing, though, if I act like nothing was ever hard (haha, maybe I should say difficult). Holy shit, guys, it wasn’t just difficult. At times, it was devastating, but it wasn’t because of us. It was baggage, circumstances, and the world. We’ve won such a victory here, but there’s no reward without a struggle. I’ll save the happy sappy shit for our legal anniversary on January 11th or Valentine’s Day. Today, however, a day before April 16th, which was the day we celebrated our marriage publicly with our friends in a mostly-traditional ceremony, it’s time to get real.

The first thing I did when we arrived home on January 10, 2016, was crack a beer and put Space Oddity on full blast. Life was short, and we were going to get married.

This wasn’t some Vegas, Elvis impersonator-associated notion. Gina had survived a harrowing car accident a few weeks before when she totaled her car and escaped with a few bumps and scratches. She only drove home that night because a court order said she had to spend the night under a different roof than my children, otherwise she would have been safe with me. I don’t believe in fate, but if you want to call that a sign, I’m not going to hold it against you.

So, the next day we drove to the Craighead County Courthouse, got our papers, found a Justice of the Peace, got married, Gina moved in, and we lived happily ever after, The End.

Oh wait, something else occurred a month later, and a month after that she showed me a positive pregnancy test. I’ve strained my brain trying to remember which time it happened, but I can’t peg it down. It had to have been early February, and I’m certain it must have been a great time for everyone involved.

I have to tread carefully on this next part, because there were a few days of sitcom, no, rom-com level misunderstanding as we both assumed the other person wasn’t ready for this even though we both were. No one wanted to say the words, but every time we discussed the situation, it was more along the lines of “What are we going to do,” not, “Holy shit this is amazing.” I mean, we had just gotten married, and it was time for stability and relationship building, not cranking out babies, right?

The standoff finally ended one day when she said, “We have to talk,” and I started spilling my guts. We had our Hollywood moment, or something close to it, when we realized we both wanted the same thing and that we were also terrible at communicating sometimes. Conflict resolved, set sail for parenthood (again).

(Willie, if you’re reading this, you were always wanted – though you were a bit of a surprise – but Gina and I were also terrified of upsetting each other. Thank you for being here, and thank you for teaching us how to talk about Important Things.)

Gina and I held a public wedding ceremony at Lake Frierson on the 16th of April that year. Only a handful friends knew we were already legally married, and next to no one knew she was pregnant (although I’m sure they’ve done the math by now). The girls were in attendance, which was wonderful, and I have to say it was the most pleasant wedding I’ve participated in. Third time’s a charm.

I’ve told the tale of how Willie was born, which I hope you’ll read if you haven’t had the chance. I think about it often, and I frequently thank him for being here.

I thank Gina, too, but not enough. I thank you again here, love, for all you do. There’s no way I can repay you, other than being here and loving you and Willie.

As we journey into our second year of marriage and our first year of parenthood together (my fifth, personally, but who’s counting), I cannot pass the day without marking it. Though there’s no traditional precedent for dual anniversaries, I think we’ve earned January 11 and April 16.

I love you, Gina. It’s still an adventure.

Funny Papers

Last night I walked by the humor section at work, as I do at least a dozen times a day, but this time I paused because a Garfield book was out of place. I picked it up, flipped it open, and thumbed through the pages. It was the first collection, where Garfield looks weirdly misshapen through about half the book and slowly morphs into the familiar cat we all love (or love to hate).

When I was a child, I sat in the Trumann Public Library every afternoon after school and read their comic collections from cover to cover. I was also a fan of the Time Life books and the Disney annuals, and sometimes I’d wander into science fiction, but I pretty much stayed in the left-hand corner as you walk in the door, right past the model of Old Ironsides, the USS Constitution. At the time, I didn’t know a Talbot had once steered that ship, but it wouldn’t have meant much to me anyway. Just a handful of years later, I would be on the opposite wall perusing (and I do mean perusing, fuckers, look it up) the works of Stephen King and Michael Crichton, but in elementary school I was more interested in the adventures of a particular orange cat.

Back in the bookstore yesterday, I read strip after strip without much effect until I came to one where Garfield accidentally jumps into a toilet, and here’s the kicker: It was a short, weekday strip which would have been printed in black and white, but there in the book the “SPLOOSH” was lovingly rendered in yellow ink. That, combined with Garfield’s “I hate Mondays” in the last panel really tied it all together.

In my later Cedar Park Elementary years I discovered The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes, of course. I hate to even mention the works of Bill Watterson lest you all collapse in jizzheaps of orgasmic self-satisfaction at being fans of the greatest comic that ever was or shall be. Man, fuck you, Bill. I suffered through the goddamned documentary where a guy travels to libraries and museums to pull out newspapers and prints featuring Watterson’s work and view them with all the awe and wonder of Indy in the map room. Bill is hiding somewhere in the Midwest and burning his oil paintings, the most noble artist. Whatever.

As for The Far Side, it is beyond reproach. I envy the kids these days who get to do book reports on things like Diary of a Wimpy Kid or whatever Raina Telgemeier’s most recent relevant work is. I tried to do a book report on a Larson collection in fifth grade and I got my ass handed to me by one of those teachers who looked and acted 60, but I’m sure she was actually 32. The same crone gave my brother a D for turning in a brilliant short story about three ghosts named Moe, Larry, and Curly, who were, as he put it, “Zestfully Dead.” Sometimes that phrase hits me in the shower and, thirty years later, I have a good chuckle.

As products of 1978, Garfield and I share a special kinship. I could read not long after the 1980s rolled in, to the glee and excitement of all my relatives. This was probably also my downfall, because speed of development doesn’t have too much correlation with the point at which someone peaks, so while Little Bobby Talbot, Boy Genius, would soon become Bob Talbot, Idiot-Man, the general expectation of automatic greatness was set early. Sorry to disappoint you, fam.

The old folks would often sit me on their knee and ask me to read the funny papers, since that seemed both appropriate and challenging enough for a toddler, and I guess I gravitated toward the adventures of Jon Arbuckle and his sassy cat. The dotted-line Family Circus comics always seemed like an adventure, but what the fuck was Mary Worth?

Later, I’d seek out Jim Davis’s fresh takes at the library, and I even got into US Acres for a while when ol’ Jimmy couldn’t keep up with my lust for more original grumpy-cat action. There were other tomes there that I wish I could find online, like a huge, taped-together hardcover on the history of Popeye. I know way too much about that salty sailor and his Thimble Theatre friends, and I have the handful of taxpaying citizens of Trumann, Arkansas, to thank for it.

They also had an even thicker, even more taped-together fat black book on the history of comics in general. It started with the Yellow Kid, and the Katzenjammer Kids, but it also introduced me to other classics like The Spirit, Krazy Kat, and The Red Tornado. I don’t remember the collection’s exact title, and my Google-Fu has failed me so far, but I’m sure someone else out there read this thing. I cherished it, and if I could find a copy online for under $100, it would be mine by tomorrow.

It is something strange to see the lasagna-loving cat I studied so much in my youth bandied about in memes and edits, but I don’t take too much offense. It is a testament to the enduring work of Jim Davis. You don’t see nearly as many Peanuts memes, and the Calvin and Hobbes ones are often saccharine, but if I remember my Žižek properly (he was either quoting Mao or disagreeing with him, but I digress), an ideological battle is won when the enemy starts using your language. Now that religious fundamentalists explain superstition in scientific terms, it is only a matter of time before they’re engulfed by rational thought, which they don’t have to accept, but they’ll still be forced to describe their denial with our words.

It is the negation of negation. When you claim to loathe Garfield or at least be bored by it, yet you continue to describe life and humor with its imagery, it has already penetrated to your core. There’s a strange ennui about the comic, a depth many miss until they remove dialogue boxes or work it into live-action plays or YouTube poops, and for all the complaining about Garfield, almost forty years later you are still complaining about Garfield. Slavoj may not be right about everything, but he’s hit that one square on the nose.

My kids are aware of Garfield, mostly in cartoon form, but they’d rather watch The Real Ghostbusters. Lorenzo Music voices characters in both, so perhaps there’s something about his benzo’d Bill Murray delivery that appeals to children. In any case, I’m glad they at least tolerate a thing that was once so important to me. I suffered through enough dark, tediously boring afternoons of Peanuts cartoons at Granny’s house to know what it’s like to just not feel it. I know some of you have fond memories of good ol’ Chuck, and I don’t seek to shit on them, but to me it was all grey skies and WWI fantasies, screaming beagles and irrelevance. I wanted to watch Sesame Street.

Dat Vince Guaraldi, tho.

I had a ratty, orange, stuffed cat I dragged around the house and yard on adventures. It was my buddy and my constant companion, though the doll now rests in some box, I am sure, in a sequel to Toy Story 3 that doesn’t end in donation or incineration. Consider it, perhaps, an alternate ending 10 minutes into the film where the correct container gets put into the attic. Time to gather dust, roll credits.

I had something you wrote about, Mr. Watterson, and for all the slutty merchandising, maybe I had it because Jim Davis didn’t hide his light under a bushel. Maybe you wrote about something only someone else could provide. Your comics are a history, and they are history, but all the beauty and insight in the world sequestered in your cabin, torched in the woods, do not touch what was striped and sour and droll and mine.

I had a friend, and my friend’s name was Garfield.

You Can Run…

I used to run all over town until I fucked my knees up, then I’d run some more. For all my irresponsible self-injurious behavior, you’d think I would have been doing marathons, but I ate way too much and pushed myself too hard too quickly. Most of my runs were six to eight miles, and I think my longest ever was almost ten miles, which is not even a half marathon.

I’m not going to give myself zero credit here. I peaked in mid-to-late summer when the temperatures were regularly over 90° F. Sometimes I’d weigh myself before and after the run and I’d drop five or six pounds of water weight in a couple of hours. One time it was more like eight. I didn’t know that was possible, but next time someone tries to sell you one of those miracle weight loss contraptions, rest assured they’ve found a way to sweat some water out of you, which you’ll add back next time you take a sip.

I also ran up and down Crowley’s Ridge, through the Craighead Lake Park, and down into town. I’d often cross one of the treacherous overpasses and cruise by Wal-Mart and the Mall at Turtle Creek. This city has few sidewalks, so I’d bolt across parking lots, empty plots, and ditches. I’d return home with swollen knees and go to work barely able to squat, or walk for that matter.

I’d often picture myself talking to Dad, but I never felt any sort of presence other than my own futile straining. I’d try to force it, to dig my nails into something in my brain, but it never clicked. I was alone, myself and the trail or the road, and I did find the elusive runner’s high a handful of times. It felt like I was riding a motorcycle, just elation, cruising, and the world humming past me. There were other moments when I screamed and cursed my way up steep hills, which is difficult to convey without making it sound funny.

These days I look for reasons to avoid cardio. I’m thrilled to no end when I pick up a resistance exercise workbook and part of the intro has been written by some wise dude who proclaims, “Cardio is a gigantic waste of time!” He’s wrong, but I love the comfort of confirmation bias.

If you want to lose weight, eat less and exercise more, of course, but if you want to look good with your clothes off, you gotta lift. You also might want to do a bit of cardio lest your heart violently explode, but that’s up to you. I feel like I get enough being on my feet at the bookstore forty hours a week. Your Mileage May Vary.

Please don’t misread this as your life goals prescribed by your new unsolicited fitness guru. This is my experience and it doesn’t have to match yours. If you have different plans, by all means follow your dreams whether it means running ultramarathons in Arizona or having your living room wall removed by firemen. We all gotta die sometime.

I see lots of you struggling with things, and it’s hard sometimes to do anything other than click sadface when you say your life is being destroyed, or that you hate the way you look, or that you’ve gone in for another surgery. I don’t want you to feel alone, especially when it encompasses your body, because I’ve had all sorts of struggles in that arena. Still, though, when yours include almost dying, repeatedly, I don’t know what there is left for me to say other than, “Holy shit.”

Maybe, “I see you.”

When your struggle is that you are objectively more beautiful than me but you hate yourself, all I can say is, well, I’ve been there. I used to be young and attractive and I hated myself. I still do, inside and out. No one hates Bob Talbot as much as I do, and because of this I know no quantity of compliments will fill that hole. I could have billions of screaming, undulating fans and the moment I went home and it got quiet I’d taste dirt again. I can’t run from the CPU sitting atop this meat machine. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Yesterday I stood at the customer service desk and looked at the Nook sign fifteen feet in front of me. I gazed, unblinking, until my vision got blurry and I thought, “I bet if I stared hard enough I could jump through that O.”

I don’t know what I look like or sound like when I’m trapped there, and I do mean trapped. I feel imprisoned, and I vacillate between strange silence and animated preaching about socialism. Sometimes I’ll come up with a decent shitposty idea and chuckle to myself, then I’ll wonder if I have time to hammer it out on my lunchbreak. On a day like today, when I’ve gotten up early to lift weights and write, I use that precious hour for study.

I hope sadface is enough for you. Sometimes when I see bad news, I want to launch into a screed about the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune but then I realize I’m making it a bit about myself. If I’m lucky, I embarrass myself so badly even thinking about it that I clamp my mouth and my hands shut and go on with my day. I don’t think my message about how that must have been terrible and one time, at band camp, I got a flute stuck in my pussy, is going to help anyone when your entire family just got marched over by the “Spirit of Troy” Marching Band from the University of Southern California.

We all know that’s not my job, though. Half the battle is that you shared a feeling, and the other half is that someone said, “Hey, I hear you,” because these are often situations money can’t fix. Hell, if money will fix it, suck up that pride and fire up a GoFundMe. I’ve given plenty of people I’ve never met a few bucks because someone I do know said it was important to them.

Otherwise, we’re here. I’m here. I hate to say, “We’re all in this together,” because it’s certainly closer to, “Everyone dies alone,” but while we’re breathing, give me a holler. I hope that next time I yell into the void, you throw me a sadface. I’ll return the favor. I can spare the 1.42 calories (not kilocalories) per click.

Hillbilly Eulogy

Yesterday I had a rare day off without the girls. Their mother finally delivered on that trip to Disney World, and they’ll be gone for a week.

I didn’t want to stay cooped up in the house, so Gina, Willie and I went for a drive to scenic Hardy, Arkansas. I haven’t been up that way since the girls and their mother had a harrowing car accident last July, and it was nighttime then. I wouldn’t have paid attention to the sides of the road, anyhow, because I was too busy screaming.

The hills around here have always harbored the remnants of the Old South. When Lee stopped throwing poor misguided individuals into his meat grinder and gave up at Appomattox, my great-great-granddad took his bullet-riddled ass to the house, which was on flat farmland. He was a sergeant in the 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment, and I can’t prove this theory, but back when I was into genealogy it seemed like there was a positive correlation between being a stand-up-and-fight (or run-and-hide) infantryman and knowing when to go home and crush people of color all civilized-like, with institutions and personal discrimination instead of open warfare (except for a bunch of folks wiped out in Oklahoma and Arkansas, but we don’t hear about those much, unfortunately).

The cavalrymen, the bushwhackers, they were usually the ones forming militias, or the Klan, and they took to the swamps and the hills. They stayed in those swamps and hills, as poor people do, and while Trump yells about poor urban (which, along with words like thug, has become one of the various new dog-whistle n-bomb equivalents) citizens (arguably impoverished, at least in part, by the echoes of the very conflict I’m discussing) there are generations of poor rural folk who never left the muddy low ground or the forested high ground to learn the valuable lesson of getting along.

I lost count of the Confederate flags flying at homes, farms, and businesses along the way yesterday, but it was at least a dozen and probably closer to twenty during the just-over-an-hour long drive. One ranch had a tall black iron gate with not only the Confederate battle flag, but the first Confederate national flag and the Bonnie Blue Flag flying above it. Those people aren’t fucking around.

I’m a white descendant of Confederate slave owners, so I’ve tangled with this issue my entire life. I’ll still be grappling with it when caffeine, retail work, and my terrible coping skills seize this old ticker. My Dad was a Heritage not Hate type of guy. If I said, “The Civil War,” he’d say something like, “Which civil war? The American Civil War? That’s what Yankees call it. It’s the War Between the States or as my daddy used to call it, the War of Northern Aggression.

Later in life he told me some of the guys his father ran around with were actual Klan members. I’ve already poked holes in my theory, here, because this is my grandfather we’re talking about, the guy who said black people (and not in language that kind) had brains the size of walnuts, and he certainly wasn’t from them there hills.

Dad was a step removed, though. He was Republican enough that all he saw was green. That’s not to say his ideas weren’t problematic from time to time. If I mentioned Chinese or Japanese people, he’d quickly calculate how many years it had been since they had been, as he said, “Sticking bayonets in our boys,” and holler it at me. (If you don’t know what a holler is, it’s a couple of steps down from a scream or a yell, and there’s joviality implied, usually at someone else’s expense.) He usually didn’t use slurs unless he was quoting someone, but he hung out with guys who did. He was big on decorum, and he thought it was tacky to behave that way.

Though I considered myself a liberal at a young age (or a Democrat as far as I understood, which was very little), I gleefully accepted Civil War related gifts, like a Confederate kepi I got for Christmas when I was eleven or twelve. I still own the damned thing, and I’m not sure why. Somewhere there exists a photo of me dressed as some sort of Neo-Nazi on Halloween fourteen years ago, and I have that hat on in the photo. Prince Harry, eat your heart out.

I’m required to mention how absolutely reprehensible that costume was, but in retrospect, it’s actually a wonder I wasn’t up to much worse. There was a time in high school when the pep band played “Dixie” with glee. It used to be Trumann’s official fight song until it was changed to “Arkansas Fight” somewhere down the line. We still played it, and sometimes a friend and I would bring our Confederate hats and do our best to intimidate the visiting players from rural towns in the Mississippi Delta, the populations of which were mainly African American.

Mom worked in one of those towns, which is why she wasn’t ever keen on this bullshit. I never heard a racial slur pass her lips. She might call someone a motherfucker or, to take a line from Dad, “The sorriest son-of-a-bitch who ever farted through a pair of cotton drawers,” but that just wasn’t her style. If I had any mercy or compassion for anyone in those days, it came from her. Still, I was my father’s son, and my friends weren’t any help.

I’ve been avoiding the word because it isn’t mine. I can’t tell this story without it, though, so if you don’t like to see a white dude type it, this is where we part ways.

There must have been a fistfight a day at Trumann High School, or at least it seemed that way. The short break after lunchtime was usually prime time for fisticuffs. From time to time they broke out in the halls between classes, or in the class itself, but those folks weren’t ever that serious about fucking someone up. If you wanted time to spar, lunch was it. The guys who really wanted you dead scheduled their battles royal after school behind the Methodist Church across the street, which is the church where just about every member of my family was married, including me (the second time).

Occasionally, the conflict would be interracial, and that’s when everyone did the chant: “Fight fight, a nigger and a white, white don’t win, we all jump in!” That last part was a lie, of course. No one ever jumped in. There’d be one kid going like Golden Gloves and one fat larval-stage redneck on the ground. No idiot among us was ready to sign up for an ass-whoopin’.

Stranger yet, when the Klan came to town and held a rally at the corner of Arkansas highways 69 and 463, every teenager and unemployed person in Trumann seemed to be gathered at that spot, and with a 40-50% unemployment rate that was quite a few folks. We were a multicultural crowd, or as much as we could be in 1990s Arkansas, and we’d joined together to jeer those sheeted assholes. A young black man took his shirt off and got ready to defend his title, but the cops intervened and whisked the half-dozen Klan members away. In Trumann, we wouldn’t have any outsiders busting into town and oppressing our black neighbors. We could do that ourselves.

I don’t think the cognitive dissonance of these things struck me until I was selected for Arkansas Boy’s State. If you aren’t familiar, these shindigs are run by the American Legion and they drag kids off to college campuses for a week of conservative indoctrination camp. We learned about government, calisthenics, and how worthless we all were. Our counselor was a large cruel man who said things like, “You boys are supposed to be the cream of the crop, but it looks like some of you done slipped through the cracks.”

It couldn’t have been their intent, but the sheer stress of being hazed by West Point cadets and old Republicans brought us together. It was a treat to gather in the small common television room, and one day when Cheers came on, a guy started singing, which quickly led to us all joining in. If you ever thought those spontaneous film musical numbers were unrealistic, think again. Maybe they’re not as common as Hollywood would like us to think, but even young Arkansas teenagers burst into song if placed under enough pressure.

As luck would have it, one of our first football games back home that fall was against a team full of guys I’d attended camp with. One of them was the drum major of the band across the way, and as the president of the band council it was my job to go over and greet them. I received a hug, which I didn’t expect, and we chatted for a bit before we were forced to return to our stands and cheer on our respective teams. Our band director, who was new that year, told us to get out “Dixie.”

My heart sank. The fellow I’d just embraced was black, as were at least half his classmates, and what we’d been doing finally hit me. “No,” I said. “I can’t.”

Someone went down the stands, I cannot remember who, and relayed my message to the band director. He just looked at me and shrugged. I don’t know what my old director, who’d left the year before, would have done. He was a bit of a drill sergeant, and he probably would have told me to play it or else. The new guy was more passive-aggressive, but the result was the same. We played “Dixie.”

I held my trumpet to my lips and pretended to play. It was probably the weakest rendition we’d ever performed, which wasn’t saying much. Within the months since we’d been abandoned by Mr. Massey we’d fallen from being a national award winning band who often performed college-level music to a mediocre small town shitshow with strictly junior high levels of competency. It was a disaster, which was even more of a disaster now because the first chair trumpet wasn’t playing, and some of the other kids weren’t either.

Thing is, this wasn’t an awakening for me. I was embarrassed about potentially offending that one guy I knew. The realization that we’re wrong comes in fits and starts and setbacks. When a person of color asked me out in high school, I’d considered saying yes, but when I told my best friend he looked at me with big eyes and quietly said, “But, Bob. She’s a nigger.” He didn’t speak that way often, which gave his words more gravity in my teenage mind. I couldn’t do it.

I vacillated between Dad and Mom, right and left, for years. My politics were weird and fuzzy, a basket of contradictions. By the early Aughties I considered myself the master of post-racial irony. I’d prance around wearing swastikas because it was funny, and I’d display irreverence for any racial issue because we’d already had our first black president, Bill Clinton.
It wasn’t until I watched black people die in the streets on television during Hurricane Katrina and witnessed the refugees coming into town on buses that something clicked and made me put that shit to rest forever.

I’m not going to outline the events of the past dozen years, but you and I know there have been enough for anyone even half-paying attention to recognize how absolutely fucked we are as a society. It’s only gotten worse, and my eyes are open. I’ll not claim to be cured or to have seen the light. It doesn’t work like that. I fuck up constantly, online and in real life, and I have to readjust my behavior. I’m the kind of guy who learns from my mistakes and I still have trouble because it isn’t just a bad habit we’re talking about here. It’s defective programming I can’t remove without blowing my brains out, so I’ve had to learn to think around it. Sometimes I have to repeatedly relearn things I’ve learned and forgotten, but it’s part of the process.

So knowing who I am and what I’ve seen, when we drove down that road yesterday I didn’t feel rage. I’ve been there and I’ve dealt with those feelings. I was perhaps a bit embarrassed, but I was mostly sad that America has failed these people. They’ve been used as tools repeatedly and thrown into the brush to rust. I don’t want to rewrite Hillbilly Elegy here. There’s plenty of blame to throw around, and people aren’t ever entirely free of personal accountability, but it would be pretty bootstrappy of me and against everything I believe to say, “Well I did it, why can’t they?”

My mother and other family members and friends did their best to tolerate my ignorance and let me fuck up repeatedly until I figured things out on my own. There’s probably a way to accomplish this before someone reaches their mid-twenties, though. My daughter attends a daycare and a preschool where she is the minority, and I think she’s going to be great in this respect. While, again, she’ll always have to struggle with the complications of being a white person chained to the baggage of history, her own actions will be honorable. I know this, and it is a blessing.

We also never were poor. My classmates called me a rich kid from time to time and I didn’t understand it. Our huge house seemed normal to me then, but the one I live in now is much smaller. It wasn’t until I started visiting my friends houses in my teen years that I realized most people didn’t have a sprawling mid-century modern home. Some of them lived in trailers or the remnants of old Singer shotgun houses. Some of them lived in the housing projects that comprise what seems like a third of the residential areas in town.

My mom struggled and wrecked her credit but she always provided. We probably had way too much, and it’s thanks to her and Dad, as well, who didn’t let us go without anything. If we had to get braces, Dad ponied up. If we needed new shoes, Dad took us to Foot Locker.

F. Scott Fitzgerald put it better in the second line of Gatsby with, “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

But if, if we’re going to go through the mental gymnastics of “You too can be a shitty guy or gal, just the worst, and learn to be less shitty, maybe even tolerable considering your background within the context of American history,” we have to ask ourselves how. The right-wing of the American political clusterfuck has seized on this opportunity to drive a despot into office. For every regretful sign-holding red hat-wearing frowny faced apologetic piece of meme fodder there’s ten or twenty more hiding in the bushes who aren’t sorry, and they’re ready for this shit.

Unless you’re a fellow shitty white dude, I can’t make you do the emotional labor of considering answers. If you want to vote for Democrats and take the classic liberal view that people just haven’t had it explained to them the correct way, have at it. Maybe there’s some weepy corporate propaganda that will turn the rural poor’s lives around. I’m sure that terrible Blind Side bullshit makes some white people feel good enough about charitable acts, or at least it appeals to their business sense. There’s nothing better for your portfolio than cruising Memphis and searching the streets for star football players. I’ll see you kids on Poplar.

I can and do yell all day about how fucking ridiculous this seems, but I cannot focus upon well-meaning slacktivists the level of ire I should reserve for not-so-well-meaning Neo-Confederates. Thing is, and here I go playing my sad white man fiddle, I’m often too tired, too busy, or just plain too sad to give you anything but, “Take it to the pink march,” and block you. I’m not proud of this, but I’m human too. This is my sorta half-assed apology, take it or leave it.

There’s something to that rage, though. It would be too convenient for me to go, “Well, Marx said any social justice effort that gets assimilated by the bourgeois, like John Carpenter’s Thing, and made into a pulsating mutant version of itself, only serves to perpetuate the monstrosity’s life and eat you in the process while convincing you it’s the only way.” At least I think he said that. What’s important is that while I could and often do throw the concerns of moderate activists into the trash heap of opinions where they usually belong, it is crappy for me to revel in this.

It is a special sort of nihilism that says, “Well, your efforts and cause would be legit except you answer to a CEO who makes seven figures so off with you.” It’s not so binary. There are probably some charities that are only 30-40% evil, when you get down to it, and at the end of the day, is that so bad? I give money to children’s hospitals, which seems like one of the best gestures I can make towards the system I despise, but I also acknowledge that the hospital administrator is probably living in a huge house and driving up and down Poplar looking for new football players.

So I’ve been bad lately. I’ve gotten a bit too extreme in my methods, but my point still stands. What, exactly, has the ghost of the American Left done for rural workers? What has it provided them since the days of Joe Hill? Who has spoken to them since Woody Guthrie roamed the land figuratively killing fascists?

The Democrats don’t have answers for the rural poor. The Republicans say they do, but they’ll take that tarnished, broken Craftsman back to Sears and trade it in for a new model as soon as its convenient. I don’t put the onus on you, the oppressed and the downtrodden (if you are that), to shed a tear for Merl at Dixie Auto. I do put it on you to have political goals that support the rights of American laborers everywhere and the dissemination of information about class consciousness. This is a must, a priority, and if your political leaders aren’t doing it, they are not your leaders, they are your owners.

It is not original to suggest the Democrats have made long careers of annihilating or assimilating progressive movements in America. I’ll also not feign ignorance of the American political system and suggest you could vote your way out of this one. I will say, however, there’s ugly in them hills, but it’s ugly I’ve shaken hands with. I’ve hunted with it. I’ve eaten dinner with it and I have, on occasion, loved it.

It’s such a jolly notion, “Bob Talbot is arguing for Neo-Confederates today,” and if that’s how you’d like to wrap it up, I can’t complain much. You’re incorrect, but I can see how you got turned down that road. Back up a bit, and come down the one I’m on, which is down here:

For all my faults, I stand here today a great-great-grandson of slave owners, a grandson of Klan associates, and a son of an often-misguided conservative. I don’t think I’ve beaten the odds, but on paper it looks like something that would end with, “and now I’m president of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

It actually ends with, “I am a guy who fucks up a lot, constantly, but at least I know I do, and I’m working on it every day. I also don’t think it’s cool to treat people like shit based on how they look or where they’re from, and that flag is fucking stupid.”

I’m also an atheist, which isn’t required, and a space communist (arguably a revolutionary brocialist), which pretty much is required (if we want to survive, at least).

Politics won’t ever end hate. There’s a door people have to walk through on their own, a gate, perhaps, attached to a big black wrought iron fence. When I look back down that gravel road, I wonder if it had to be so, and if maybe some folks profited from making the trek so damned long. I can’t ask you to take to the swamps or the hills as a missionary with compassion in your heart. What I can ask, or plead, is that when someone comes stumbling out from under those three flags, maybe point them to a good book or two. If they’ve made it that far, there’s a good chance they’ll step into the clearing.

Fuck Bus

The other day during my less-than-24-hour hiatus/nervous breakdown, I started writing a fictional story based on things I witnessed in high school, then I realized how it was absolutely devoid of any interesting references. A wise man once told me there are really only two compelling stories to be told: Unexceptional person in exceptional circumstances, or vice versa (I tried not to use colons, Cormac, I gave it my all). Everyman can stumble into a spaceship or Wonder Woman can get a job ringing at Target, but that’s why Superman doesn’t work without Clark Kent. That’s why Doctor Who is usually at its best set on Earth with a down-to-earth companion. If everything is fantastical, nothing stands out. Likewise, if everything is run-of-the-mill, prepare for nap time.

It would be a bit Marty Stu of me to declare myself the exceptional guy, and I’m not sure being part of a national-award-winning small town concert band is too huge of an accomplishment, especially since I felt like I phoned that shit in (second chair best chair), so there’s no weird autobiographical twist I can throw at this without fictionalizing the shit out of it. I could fall back on that old standby, “Make everything cool I ever witnessed happen in one weekend, or one day,” which is the crux of every party or road trip movie ever written, but as I’ve said before, I’m not going to lie to you.

That’s why I’m going to tell you about all the sex on the band bus.

I don’t know that it was an inordinate amount of fucking, but I’ve only ever witnessed two other couples screwing in person and, surprise surprise, they were also people who were on that band bus. When Gina and I started watching Mozart in the Jungle (which I highly recommend, by the way) I wondered aloud if the promiscuity depicted was accurate, then I thought back to all the musicians I’ve known and said, “Yes, yes it is.”

I also don’t want to out anyone because I still talk to some of you guys, at least occasionally. I’m going to go ahead and assume that what I witnessed was just the tip of the iceberg, so if I actually saw four acts on a particular trip, that means there were sixteen other undocumented incidents. You can fill me in if you like, your call.

Maybe I’ve oversold this a bit. Two people in a long-term relationship pretending to sleep (you can always tell, they squeeze their eyes shut too tightly) and performing the slowest slow hump ever recorded under a blanket on a Greyhound (look that shit up in your Guinness Book) isn’t enthralling either, but it needs to be placed in context with the environment.

Long road trips were common, and if we were tagging along for anything sports related, we often chuckled about how the cheerleaders and the football players were forced to board separate buses. I say “we,” as if I had some participation in this orgy. Oh no. Bob Talbot was high and dry until the summer after he graduated. I had maybe one make out session in all my high school days and I was dumped immediately for being clingy, which was fine, because unbeknownst to me, she was pregnant. Dat glow, though.

In fact, I had so little game that one time I asked someone out, and they said, “Where?” and I was like, “What?”

She said, “No, you asked me ‘out.’ Like, where? Are we going somewhere?”

“Um, uh, no. I mean let’s go out.”

“Okay, sure, but usually when you ask someone out, there’s a destination involved,” she said, but probably not in words with so many syllables.

“Uh,” I said, falling apart, “I want you to be my girlfriend.”

“Hahahahahahaha!” she said.

On that note, there’s not much of me in this story. I am but Virgil in the Inferno, an observer on this journey through the nine circles of rural Arkansas pre-marital sex. I mean, in those days I masturbated in every shitter I ever laid eyes on, but when you’re 16 and jerkin’ it five or six times a day on average, it’s par for the course.

It was not surprising in those days for my bench buddy to tap me on my shoulder, give me the ol’ wiggly eyebrows, and gesture towards one seat or another where some couple would inevitably be engaging in mutual masturbation under a blanket. Most, but not all of these folks were weirdly religious bible beaters, and while some abstained from fornication (I’ll never forget being dragged to one of their churches and watching one of them raise their hand and weep when the preacher asked for all the proud virgins to testify), most of them found dubious scriptural loopholes or decided to just ask for forgiveness later.

Our band director, who often led prayers before and after football games and contests back when people did such things without fear of reprisal, had to have been ignorant of these goings on. I haven’t spoken to him in years, but I assume the weird conservative memes he posts aren’t indicative of a recently developed outlook. I can’t shit on him too much, because he led us to victory after victory, and while I hated how cruel he could be from time to time, even then I admitted that it may have been a necessary evil. Corralling teenagers for a common purpose is about as easy as herding cats or getting left-wing Americans to agree on political strategy. You have to break a few egos to make a One at contest.

Still, it is perhaps a bit ironic that we were surrounded by Southern Baptists and worse, Pentecostal folk with small, cult-like churches and strange views about “devil music.” Some of the same folks who told me I was going to hell and bullied me into their churches did the band bus blanket mambo in front of me, and maybe it’s punching down to ridicule poor uneducated rural kids who didn’t have proper access to birth control (no struggle but class struggle), but at least I didn’t get anyone teen pregnant with my involuntarily-celibate satanism.

I was a metal teen incel, next on Springer.

Most of these people have gone on to have happy lives, and they love their unplanned kids. I’d never wish to travel back in time and erase them by providing sex segregated buses or gasp better sex education, but I wonder if my ultraconservative ex-band director knows how many potential humans he’s at least somewhat responsible for creating? We’re talking 20+ years of trips at different schools, and I know teenagers haven’t changed much. I can’t comment on the quality of education people currently receive in the Arkansas public school system, but I daren’t suggest it has improved. I’m not suggesting anyone actually got impregnated on a torn vinyl Bird Bus seat while they hurtled down AR 149 to Earle. I’m certain the money shots took place on a Tulot turnroad in a Chevy Citation, but those budding relationships were planted on delightfully long, dark bus rides.

But, dude, if you’re reading this, maybe take some extra precautions. On that note, don’t assume your kids are so devastatingly awkward that, like me, they’ll all self-sabotage the nuclear inferno of their teen libidos. You would be absolutely stunned to know which particular kids were giving and getting head after practice.

It definitely wasn’t me. I was the guy who went home early and wondered if that thing was true about Marilyn Manson having a rib removed. I’ve never been very limber, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Diver Down

I wrote the framework of this ten years ago, when my father was alive. It’s been stowed in the dusty back corner of a Facebook server since then, and while I hate to feed you decade-old rations, it’s something I don’t want to lose.

I’m sure I could have edited the holy hell out of it (which I have done anyhow) and presented it as fresh material and no one would have been the wiser. I want to be honest with you, though, so I’ll tell you it was a skeleton of a thing I’ve dug up and slapped new meat onto. Perhaps this authorial Dr. Frankenstein act will bear a living thing (or at least a loping, undead monstrosity). In any case, it’s been an engaging exercise. If this still seems too clip-show for you, rest assured that what you will read below bears little resemblance to the thing that bubbled up from my archives.

Once, when I was 14 or 15 years old, Blake, Lauren, and I were in our dad’s car in the parking lot of the Indian Mall, and “Touch Me” by The Doors came on the radio. Dad told us they (the proverbial they) wouldn’t play the song on the local stations when he was a younger dude because it was too “vulgar.” That was one of his favorite words. “Quit being vulgar,” he’d say.

At the time, it seemed weird that you couldn’t say, “Touch me, babe,” on the radio. Even now, we play repetitive songs about making love and smoking weed over the work PA to an uncomfortable extent, and I’m no prude. It seems to clash with the atmosphere (on weekdays, a mostly empty store dotted with octogenarians, on weekends, invasion of the Hill Folk), and I’m actually not sure how we get away with it. Some New Yorker in a comfy chair makes the in-store play decisions. I just take the CD player off shuffle (my god how do you people stand it) and press play.

Back in Dad Land, “Touch Me” ended and he put on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors. He had a multidisk CD setup with a big black cartridge you could load disks into. I have Dad to thank for most of my rock music education. I consider Fleetwood Mac elevator music these days, which might be due to repeat trauma caused when my ex insisted we play “Rhiannon” no louder than fifty decibels, but it was rockin’ shit back in the day. I also wouldn’t have realized how often Japanese video game developers ripped off American pop music if I didn’t have entire 1970s albums committed to memory.

In the early 1990s, when the only portable phone was a brick or a clunky bagged number, Dad had an Alltel phone installed in his vehicle. It had a base built into the console and an actual handset with a cord that came out of the cradle. There was also a speaker built into the roof of the vehicle so you could talk hands-free if you wanted to. Along with the CD player, it was a pretty sweet ride, and his company-paid gas card probably encouraged even more car trips than would have been the case without. Sundays were always time to go look at houses whether he was in the market for one or not.

We watched Courtney Love read Kurt Cobain’s suicide note live on Dad’s big screen television. Dad was my current age then, and he’d subscribed to one of those subscription affairs where you got 10 albums a month for a penny (or so they said) so he was familiar with all the hip tunes. He stood there, in front of that 500 pound monstrosity of a machine, and said, “Stupid. That’s so stupid.”

His collection, part of which I own now, was impressive to a long-haired, flannel-shirt-wearing 1990s teen. He had Metallica’s Metallica, Nevermind by Nirvana, and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, that Van Hagar album with the cover I used to think looked like a basketball. Even though I have the bulk of human knowledge at my fingertips now, I still can’t figure out what it is. It looks like pleather.

For a guy I wouldn’t peg as a Van Halen fan (he was more of a Springsteen, Tom Petty type), he sure had a lot of their albums. Even as a kid, I recognized the flag on Diver Down because I’d seen it on our trips to the dive shop. Dad got certified after the divorce, probably in the throes of whatever midlife crisis. He was outdoorsy in his own leisurely way, which usually involved hunting or hiking (more like strolling), but diving was probably the most hardcore athleticism he ever attempted. His diving career culminated in a trip to Cozumel and the production of a souvenir diving video. He’d whip it out from time to time and pop it in the VCR. My favorite part was when he and his buddies harassed a pufferfish until it expanded, which is pretty fucked up in retrospect, but it seemed cool at the time.

Dad was the Arkansas state chairman of Ducks Unlimited for a short time in the 1990s, and he was always involved in some capacity. Sometimes he’d drag us to the various dinners and auctions associated with his station, but as Blake and I entered our teens, Dad felt comfortable enough to leave us alone for a bit.

One evening when Dad was at a banquet, we came up with a game we called Sock War 2000. Our weapons were balled up socks (generally big wool hunting socks) and we threw them at each other while we bolted around the house. If we scored a hit, we acted like we were wounded in the corresponding body part.

We’d been going at it for about an hour and Blake hummed a huge wool sock at me, but he missed and hit one of Dad’s DU prints on the wall, shattering the glass on the picture. We had just started to discuss strategies for hiding the horrible mess when we heard the garage door open. We froze like deer in headlights.

When Dad was presented with our crime against DU memorabilia, he called the balled-up socks “snowballs” and made a good time of everything. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t angry at us, but he giggled a bit more about snowballs and went to bed. I didn’t have a breathalyzer, but we assumed he was at least mildly intoxicated. We harassed him for years after that by using “snowballs” as a non sequitur, which is something else we’d learned from Dad. Any conversation could be improved, it seemed, by throwing in a random reference, and it was all the more effective because he was embarrassed for having obviously driven under the influence.

Sock War 2000 was fought at Dad’s second domicile since the divorce. His first had been a condo downtown that had a cool swimming pool and a giant white paint splotch in the parking lot where someone had dropped a can. My siblings and I always called it pterodactyl shit (or poop around Dad). We had all these weird in-jokes, which usually referred back to an initial silly statement. If one of us thought a local business looked vaguely like the Alamo, we’d yell about the Alamo every time Dad drove past it. If one of us incorrectly identified a large cedar tree in front of a house as Spanish moss, it was “SPANISH MOSS” and giggles every time we turned down that street. Dad would groan, but I know he enjoyed it. We were just like him.

His next and penultimate home was the aforementioned house atop a hill on Aggie Road where we watched MTV and broke all his shit. I’d steal into his room after midnight, while he let loose wall-shaking snores, and rob his porn stash. You kids have it so easy with this Internet business. We used to have to either wait until everyone fell asleep and cruise Skinemax, resort to perusing a well-worn underwear catalog, or commit petty larceny in order to masturbate.

He also owned a big-ass glass table which, along with his big-ass television, was the hallmark of a bachelor who had enough money to have other people move his shit. I never purchase anything I couldn’t potentially transport alone. He loved to cook, but it was our job to set the table, a task we’d usually completed by his third or fourth yell. One time, I mistook a big-ass bottle of wine for apple juice and sat it on that big-ass table, which prompted him to chuckle and say, “Hell, son, are you having wine for breakfast?”

The original stump of my 2007 post ends here abruptly with, “Here’s to you, Dad.” That was supposed to be a toast joke based on the wine story. If we’re talking about alcohol and abrupt ends, it still fits well enough.

In that spirit, there’s no conclusion here except this one.


What I’m For

Yesterday, someone who I will not namedrop because they don’t read my blog said, “I’m starting to wonder what you’re for, Bob. All I ever hear from you is what you’re against.”

There’s a whole goddamned world of things to be against and only one of me, so of course I talk about it all the time. The world is such a beautiful complicated onion of stupid, it’s impossible not to peel back the layers and weep.

I almost wished he’d asked what I believe in, because I could waffle stomp any butt nugget down that drain. I believe in a thing called love, justlistentotherythymofmyheart. I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they posheshh insiiiiiiiiide. I believe I can fly.

What am I for, though?

I don’t know how I found Star Trek: The Next Generation. I want to say that I saw LeVar Burton’s Reading Rainbow episode on the subject, which piqued my interest, but I may have invented this after the fact. Mom has pointed out before, in one of our more tense moments, that I tend to hammer things into my narrative whether they fit there or not. Sometimes I’ve examined memories so much I’ve broken them completely, and there sits a square peg neatly bashed into a round hole. It looks good to me, but it doesn’t quite mesh with reality, whatever that is. For the sake of discussion, we’ll define it as “the situation as the rest of the world perceives it,” or the tyrannical verisimilitude of the masses.

In any case, I was a TNG fan by season three, at least. I had to go back and watch those beardless Riker, no-collar episodes I’d missed, but it was possible to catch syndicated reruns on one of the Memphis stations. I was familiar with the feature films already, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was probably my favorite. It really spoke to me with its 1986 setting. Time travelling by doing a gravity slingshot around the sun seemed absolutely plausible to my adolescent brain, and it was all the more real for being here.

When I was a child, I had a fever dream about falling around a star. The stretching of time seemed incomprehensible, like my mind was trying to compile infinite input. My sister said I had stood up out of bed with a blanket over my head and yelled, “LOOK AT MY CHIN. LOOK AT MY CHIN.” I barely recalled this, but later I thought Stephen King must have experienced something like it before he wrote his short story “The Jaunt” (it’s in Skeleton Crew, which you should read immediately if you haven’t already). If not, then at least he feigned a decent grasp on the madness of forever.

I’d grown up around neighbors and a couple of my mom’s friends who were huge Star Trek fans. Often, I’d hear them lament being born too soon. They’d suggest that maybe us kids would live to see it and, if we were lucky, perhaps our grandchildren would steer great ships amongst the stars.

After the prosperity of the Clinton 1990s, this seemed like a done deal. We had to admit it was getting better, just a little better, all the time (it can’t get no worse¹). It only followed that Al Gore, champion of technology and ecology, would take the reins and usher in a new era of space exploration. Instead, he grew a depression beard, did some PowerPoint presentations on glaciers, and sexually assaulted a massage therapist. In his defense, facing a coup and dealing with the mass denial of climate change can really cause tension around one’s second chakra.

I’ve known my old friend John Weems IV since the early 1980s (maybe the late 1970s), back when we splashed around in the toddler pool at the Trumann Country Club. John’s preferred Star Trek crew is the first one, led by that old space cowboy Captain James Tiberius Kirk, or as you may know him, William Fucking Shatner. This Chris Pine kid does a fine job, but he’s got about half a century to go before he lives up to the legend.

If I’m the chairman of Arkansas Space Communism, John is the founder and CEO of Arkansas Space Nihilism. I consider those two sides of the same coin. I hate to put words in John’s mouth, but I think he’d tell you that while he’d love to travel the galaxy, it’s as much of a pipe dream as thinking your closet might open up to Narnia, or that you’re finally going to get a late letter from Hogwarts (pretty sure they don’t offer Adult Ed, guys), or that Jesus is going to come back (for the first time ever).

Shat had a terrible cold. He let everyone know he was just going to sit there and try not to die. He’s an octogenarian so I’m glad he didn’t cancel. I would have totally understood. To mark the occasion, I dressed like an absolute nutbar.

I don’t know how or where or why we’ll figure all this out, but we’ve been in darker places. Don’t mistake this statement for silver lining. There are plenty of folks cowering under rubble or dying of malaria and to them, it is the darkest place. It is a prison of our making, one from which we could have already sprung. There are issues not as insurmountable as intergalactic travel, or even curing cancer (the catch-all term for a thousand diseases), things we absolutely have the technology for now, and they aren’t achieved because killing is too profitable and saving lives isn’t profitable enough.

American conservatives and liberals, two sides, again, of the coin Two-Face flips to seal our doom, would exploit homeless veterans in an argument against advancement or quote “Whitey on the Moon” and ask how I can be a Space Communist without thinking of the poor. I’d say they’ve been misled on both counts. The machine that bombs hospitals and builds walls has plenty of wealth for carnage and cages, so they could probably spare a pittance for you. Problem is, they don’t give a fuck.

Likewise, we’ve only experienced Space Capitalism, or in the Soviet or Chinese sense, Space State Capitalism (no true Communist!), so I can’t refute Gil Scott-Heron. It is the experience of many that we build billion-dollar machines while humans choke to death in the gutter. Who am I to pitch an idea from a television show while lives hang in the balance?

Whatever our path forward, it has to have something to do with getting off this rock. Whether we end up on asteroid colonies, dug in beneath the surface of Mars, or rocking Heavy Metal style in our cool robot bodies, we have to escape somehow or risk having all our eggs in one basket here, as Space Capitalist Elon Musk has repeatedly pointed out.

While I admire the fuck out of that man’s endeavors, I’m also afraid of what his success will bring. Will we all be able to exploit the freedom of the wide-open solar system? Will we have anarchist enclaves on Titan and hippie communes on Europa? After hearing plans for super-expensive tourist flights around the moon, I’m not so optimistic. We’ll likely face the same pitfalls with a modifier. Space Slavery. Asteroid Miner’s Lung. Interplanetary War. There’s a poetic sequel to be written there, and unfortunately Mr. Scott-Heron isn’t around to do it.

If the Federation could be classified in our terms, it would be Space Communism, and it’s necessary we get the noun correct before we slap a fantastic adjective in front of it. Space Fascism isn’t going to fly unless you’re a fan of Warhammer 40k. Space Capitalism, well. You’ve seen the Alien franchise. I hope you’re familiar with Blade Runner, or the various works of Phillip K. Dick.

If I yell too much about humanity, it’s because it disappoints me. I’ve seen our potential on screens small and large. I’ve read about it in books, fiction and not. Pioneering mathematician women and steely-eyed missile men took us to the stars in reality, while people like Gene Roddenberry took us there in our hearts.

On some hard drive there exists a photo of me standing next to the original Enterprise model from the 1960s television show. Back then, they had it shoved in the back of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum gift shop. They’ve since removed and refurbished the model, but at the time it was almost hidden. When I stumbled upon it by accident, I was overcome by emotion, and it was all I could do to squeeze the flood back into a manly single tear or two. In that place, among experimental jets, space capsules, and the Wright Flyer, I was verklempt over a prop from a cheesy scifi show, but those other things represented our past. This was our future.

Perhaps I am the most virulent virus. More than anything else, I always wanted to be a father. I want my children to fly. Propagation has always seemed important on micro and macro levels. Hell, the fact that a little group of amino acids made little copies of themselves is why I’m writing this. Still, I’m always reminded the monologue Agent Smith delivered when he tortured Morpheus. If we’re nothing more than a complicated disease (I’m going to say probably), maybe it’s best we’re snuffed out on this rock. That’s what I say when I’m in the dark.

But when the Enterprise emerges from a planet’s shadow and glides out into star’s light, I wonder, guys. I wonder.

¹ If you are the special type of fuckhead who wants to grammar Nazi this shit, it’s a Beatles song.

The Brig

Nicholas Courtney died six years ago yesterday. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, it’s okay. It meant absolutely nothing to me at the time, and even if it had, I wouldn’t have noticed. I was too busy occupying a couch in the St. Bernard’s Regional Hospital MICU waiting room.


I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Courtney until Gina introduced me to Doctor Who. Since then, we’ve spent many afternoons and nights plowing through over fifty years of British science fiction, the brilliant and the terrible.

We didn’t cosplay when we first started doing conventions, but it looked like so much fun that we couldn’t resist for long. I went through a number of ideas before I settled on Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (who was played by Nicholas Courtney, of course). I didn’t really think I looked like him, but I don’t look like anyone from the show. I can, however, grow a helluva mustache, and I’ve always had a thing for military garb.

Better yet, he’s British, so I wouldn’t have to worry about any stolen valor bullshit when I put on his uniform. I stopped wearing my olive green jacket years ago because some dude at the Memphis Zoo had marched towards me and shouted, “Where did you serve?”

“Nowhere, man.” I said. I should have sung it. “Nowhere.” It was covered in patches from places I’d been. I pointed at one. “See,” I said, “It’s just a Ron Jon patch,” which was doubly idiotic because I don’t know how to surf.

I’ve been the Brig a few times now, and I have a wall full of photos of Gina and myself standing beside British actors old and young. Once, I didn’t have time to grow a mustache, so I sported this funny fake thing I glued on with spirit gum. It was a sonofabitch to keep on, and I vowed, “Never again.” From now on I’m sprouting my own, and if it’s a week old and mostly eyeliner pencil, so be it.

Convention goers tend to get pretty excited when they recognize me because people don’t often cosplay the Brig. From the reactions I’ve received, I assume I do a decent job. I’ll never forget when Peter Capaldi saw me and shouted, “Brig!” with open arms. That’s endorsement enough.

Part of me wants to draw a connection between Mr. Courtney’s departure from this earth and my father’s a day later. I’m not sure things actually rhyme this way in real life. It wasn’t the same day, just close enough for curiosity, and it’s confirmation bias to draw such conclusions. There are only so many days in the year. After you’ve lived long enough, you’ll certainly pile enough events in one spot to look like a pattern.

Still, I think it might be ironic (I’ll have to run it by Alanis first) that someone I loved, love, passed one day, and the day before (unbeknownst to me) someone who I hadn’t been acquainted with yet had passed away and I’d end up dressing up like him in convention centers years later. When I put it like that, yeah, it’s a complete coincidence. It’s mildly interesting, but not a humdinger.

I’ve invested in a few new costume pieces, and I’ve planned to attend at least a couple more conventions this year. Six years ago today I watched my father stop living. If you haven’t been there, it’s something that sticks with you. I’m not sad today, though. I’m excited about putting on that uniform and walking into the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, Texas. Gina and Willie will be with me, and so will Dad, in a way. He’s not here, because he can’t be, but he’s part of my programming.

Maybe a bit of Nicholas Courtney dwells there, too. Just a smidge. A suggestion. An idea. As long as someone is thinking of you, you aren’t gone. Pretty gone, maybe, but not completely.

Not by a long shot.

Not That 1984

“I wasn’t sure there were still bookstores,” he said. “Poor bastards.”

Sometimes I work the music counter. It’s actually a pretty sweet deal. I get to see the new releases and keep myself current on all the band names so I don’t look like the out-of-touch old man I am when young whippersnappers ask for the Chainsmokers.

One time, back in my longhaired days (the ones before my haired and unhaired days), I’d just pulled into my Pawpaw’s driveway in my Ford Ranger while I blasted Metallica from its shitty factory speakers, which prompted him to say, “You playin’ that Three Dog Night?” Sometimes I’m tempted to say that to youngsters when I hear the unmistakeable tinny sound of eardrums being destroyed point blank. I’m sure they’d be confused if they heard me, but I’d get a kick out of it and that’s all that matters.

Ten years and a lifetime ago, I applied for the position of Music Manager. I was sure my experience bustin’ heads for Sam’s Club would make me a shoo-in. I’d been tossing bargain books around at Ye Olde Books & Caffeine Emporium for a few months and I felt like I’d earned a promotion. Unfortunately, I lost out to a charismatic fellow who’d gotten terminated from his previous job for running a discount scam. We all make mistakes. If I hadn’t gotten caught fudging the payroll to cover someone’s missed lunch break, I’d still be doing 70-80 hours a week for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. between (and during) hangovers.

Ten years ago today.

I was disappointed, but I’m grateful that train was derailed while my brain was still relaying rail to Company Man Land. Yank on your bootstraps hard enough and you’ll find yourself on the ground with leather in your hands. Down low is a great place to start when you’re rebuilding. Foundations are important, and it’s easier to spot assholes from underneath. 

Ultimately, the company downsized that title out of existence, and for the past couple of years I’ve had the honor and privilege of performing the duties I’d so sorely missed out on a decade ago anyway, except without any change in position or pay. 

There was a time when I would have unfurled the red banner and barricaded myself inside the customer service desk if I’d been asked to take on additional responsibilities without due compensation. However, the entanglements of circumstance have only highlighted the impracticality of rebellion. I’ve often wondered how people with so much to lose are able to rush into danger. They must be more courageous than I, or at least a little more irresponsible. Maybe I’ve just learned to pick my battles. A van full of small squishy humans will do that to you. Plus, we’re not fighting fires here. We’re carrying out convoluted corporate orders in a dying industry.

I spent my little days hanging out at the Trumann Public Library, where I was allowed to shelve books and check people out, so it’s no surprise to me that I’ve ended up here. If anything else rhymes with my past, it’s the teenage hours I spent in video stores and music shops. Perhaps something echoes further back, like the memory of Van Halen’s 1984 in the front window of Hot Dog. A cherub smoking a cigarette? I was enthralled. Eddie’s guitar licks still do their thing, and I have to tell you, I’ve never quite trusted anyone who preferred Van Hagar.

All in all, shelving records (it may be on vinyl, kids, but they aren’t vinyls) isn’t a bad way to burn time until the next recession. We’re all poor bastards here at the end of all things. The Glorious Workers’ Revolution can wait until these albums go to that big clearance sale in the sky. They say (the word on the street, book ninja scuttlebutt) the last stickers you receive when you’re going out of business are not red, but white. Every time a register rings, an item gets its wings. I think I can hang in here until I have to shuffle 1984, George’s and Eddie’s, off this mortal coil. After that, who knows? 

Time After Time

My Pretty Pony, by Stephen King, is my favorite story about the passage of time. It’s from his 1989 short story collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes, which is packed with brilliance, and if you haven’t read it you should do so immediately. Much like Weird Al Yankovic when he graces us with a top 40 polka medley, King shines in a brief, snappy format.

There are enough books about the science and philosophy of memory so I’ll not attempt to reinvent the wheel with my layperson’s shenanigans. It’s a muddy, murky thing from my perspective. I do know memory is not something to be trusted without verification, and even that can get skewed when folks put their heads together.

The older I get, the more it seems like now is something I can’t quite get my hands on. It’s nebulous. It runs through my fingers, and while I can consciously say, “It’s now,” it isn’t. It feels like I’m reading a status report about something that just happened. If I don’t concentrate and pay attention, I hurtle forward until my brain hits something with resistance and registers another bounce.

It’s difficult to break out of dualistic language when I describe this. I say, “my brain,” as if that isn’t what’s tapping words into this fine piece of Vietnamese manufacturing. Sorry Descartes, but I don’t think there’s a little man inside my head driving Beef Robot Bob around. That would present the issue of infinitely recursive homunculi, and I might as well nip it in the bud right here and now (Dennett, 1973, 1978, 1986, 1994, 2003, 2014, 2017). I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam (Popeye, 1928).

(Did you know Popeye once accidentally punched a horse to death? He’d planned to just apply some brutal motivation to its face, but they were in the middle of the desert and the poor beast was already about to swoon from heat exhaustion. It hit the ground with Xs for eyes. We’ll, blow me down, indeed.)

I won’t give you any more homework, so believe me when I say I’ve read studies where researchers have carefully exposed people to stimuli, such as a moving light, and produced results that look like precognition. We’re not wizards, Harry. We’re just not registering everything as soon as it happens. There’s a small buffer, but there’s not a part of our brain where the buffering happens. Our brain is the buffer. Maybe we’re always chasing now. Maybe this is a status report about a status report. Maybe I’m a status report.

I’ve written before about the levels of realization we attain as we age. Like when, for example, we realize we’re not going to live forever. If you haven’t read that, I wish you would, but you need to queue up “Dreamer” by Supertramp and crank it when you hit the dead link. They, or their lawyers, persist in reporting Digital Millennium Copyright Act violations to YouTube and it’s really cramping my style. The only remaining accessible version on there is a shitty half-time live rendition, and let me tell you, folks, live music is best experienced live. Supertramp wasn’t present in person when my memories were initially encoded on this rotten old brain. It was the clean, studio sound that studded those thoughts, and I own it on vinyl, on CD, and in my heart. Submit a DMCA request on that shit, I dare you.

There was a time in my adolescence, before puberty kicked into full gear, when things started to make sense. A previously unknown clarity, a realness had arrived. There’s a reason why eunuchs have historically been political powerhouses. I felt like I had a handle on what was actually happening around me before a flood of testosterone wrecked it.

I recall, quite vividly, standing around and talking with my friends for hours about life, about where we’d be in twenty years. I remember saying, “I’m sure none of us will ever speak. I probably won’t even know you.” This wasn’t a controversial statement at the time. Heads nodded in agreement. As it turns out, I was correct.

They say your frontal lobe isn’t done developing until you’re 25. They peg peak reaction time around 18. Peak health is somewhere around eleven years of age. We’re certainly people before that, but perhaps the land between childhood and adulthood is where we first become actual. Formidable. Then, of course, we transform into teenagers and berserker rage our way through life until we emerge a beautiful butterfly, or moth, or some other such horrid thing that only understands pain and THE LIGHT! MUST FLAP TOWARDS THE LIGHT!

Back in the late 1990s I was a longhaired college freshman. Mom had gotten me a job working for Residence Life on campus, and I was lucky enough to be on the crew who removed hundreds of rotten, bodily-fluid-stained foam rubber mattresses from the dorms. We took them down the elevators and threw them down the stairwells all day every day until we were covered in yellow plastic dust and decay. We filled the courtyard with them, piled high like plague corpses, until the dump truck came to take them to the landfill. Even through our flimsy cotton masks, everything smelled like hot piss.

I’d engaged in my usual level of teenage griping until one of my coworkers had had enough. He was an Air Force Gulf War (the first one, kids) veteran, which was 25 years ago, but my god at the time it had only been seven. He’d worked in the back of a cargo plane, and sometimes he’d tell me about flying over the Highway to Hell. You’ve probably seen the photos where the retreating Iraqis got bombed, murdered, and absolutely fucked, fried and fricasseed in their vehicles. He said you could smell them from the air.

I’d whined about our work conditions enough that day, I guess, and he told me to stop thinking. “Turn it off,” he said. “Don’t you know how? Get in the zone.”

So I did. I became one with the mattress. I engaged in zen furniture removal. At the end of one particularly hard day, I stopped and told him, “Wow, that just flew by.”

“See,” he said. “I told you.”

Most things seem to fly now, which comes with age, but it’s everything except what I’d like to fly. The times I’m away from my family seem longest, and while it might only be hours for Gina and Willie, or days with the girls, it’s still too much. An afternoon with the girls feels like minutes. A Christmas with the family, a mere split second. Work might as well be a time lock.

I can’t help but appreciate the view of another Airman, Dunbar from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, who cultivated boredom in order to make life seem longer. If one were bored enough, it might seem like they’ve lived forever. It leaves you with a hell of a decision, though. It’s a thousand years of mattresses, or blink and wake up filthy just in time to die.

There’s probably a happy medium there, some mindful Power of Now bullshit where I press fast forward through the drudgery and hit slo-mo on the joy, but biology demands the opposite. It’s been my nature so far to sleepwalk through fun and savor the pain. Even when I’m self-aware enough to put down my phone and have a good time, my internal news ticker still scrolls, “This is fleeting.”

I met Tom Baker once. He didn’t say much. Gina and I sat with him for a photo and we were probably in the room for less than two minutes. I shook his soft, old man’s hand and said, “We adore you,” because I’d read an interview once where he said, “People often say very nice things to me on the street, which still pleases me a lot. Because when I first became an actor, I wanted to be popular, and then I wanted to be loved, and as the figures went up and up and up I have to admit I wanted to be adored. And they did adore me for a while.”

He also once said, “I adore distilled whippet shit,” so he could have thought I was referring to that. In any case, he seemed a bit surprised to see Americans in Slough, and I wonder if it felt as whirlwindy to him as it does to me. It’s been ages since he was the Doctor. A lifetime, in fact.

When I look up and out at the weird little timeline that always floats ethereally behind my eyes, I mark my beginning, with history stretching out before it. There’s a big line at BC/AD (sorry, atheists, it just sounds better), and back up to where I’ve lived I see the end of the 1970s, the decades, a big mark for the century, and the individual years, of course. I know where I was when I was twelve and full of certainty. The year I graduated high school, 1997, is burned in solid. The Oughties are punctuated by 9/11, war, Bush, and Obama. The Teens, good lord, they’re almost over.

It’s fuzzy out here at the end of time. I see 2030, when Cora graduates high school. It’s an impossible future date, like the title of a science fiction film, but it hurtles toward me. It’s almost here. It’s tomorrow. It’s gone.

I’ve spent too long in this rectangle today. I still have tasks to perform before I’m freed from obligation, and then I’ll return home and take note of what I love, while I can.

It’s not now. It never is. This keystroke is a recent memory. Here’s what was. I adored it, mattresses and all.