Campus sits west of the Chicago river, at the circle interchange of the Kennedy and Eisenhower expressways.  In the 60s UIC wedged its way into and consumed Chicago’s Little Italy, grew tentacles into the near west and south sides.  At one time called Circle Campus after the knot of concrete ramps where the two arteries bisect, it was built similarly of concrete in a style called Brutalism, emulating Soviet public housing, “riot proof,” with double-layer covered walkways akin to parking garages, an open-air amphitheater and massive concrete wheelchair ramps to 2nd floor entries reiterating the circle motif.  A miniature replica of an Eastern Bloc city, and likewise now with crumbling concrete, permanent scaffolding erected to protect students and faculty milling on (and off) grass lined footpaths under trees that replaced the severe web of covered walkways in the 90s.  The circular quad in front of 24-story University Hall underwent a decade-long project (that should’ve taken about a year) to add grassy knolls, flowered borders, and (perhaps a reminder of Brutalism) tile-lined fountains that rarely run because they’re broken.  But I walk campus without envy for Northwestern, University of Chicago, DePaul, or Loyola.  They have tradition, bigger trees, a vine-covered brick building probably called “Old Main.”  We have Brutalism.  It’s where part of me –  a native Californian – lives, has lived for almost 20 years.

To be fair, we abused each other. It was not–as one might use the cliche–a one-way street. The first time we had a big a fight I threw a desklamp against a wall where it shattered and the sparks sifted like fireworks falling in a heated sky till they faded and disappeared. We had just moved in together, into this one bedroom Victorian house on Ralston Street in Reno, Nevada, two houses down from the pizza joint/pub where we worked. My friend from school had left a message on our answering machine, inviting me to her birthday party. My girlfriend insisted that I had fucked this friend, that I was still fucking her. Why else would she invite me to the party, and not explicitly also invite my girlfriend? I was running around, I couldn’t keep my dick in my pants, she should have known I was that kind of guy, why does she always do this, getting herself involved with people like me? My girlfriend wouldn’t let me say anything. In frustration the lamp flew.

A Eulogy

By Kate Axelrod

Essay

I had begun writing about other things these past few weeks. I was writing an essay about my grandmother, whom I love deeply, and whose eyes are beginning to fail her. I was writing about how she loved Anna Karenina and used to read it to her own grandmother, who was blind.  I had also started writing about another client of mine, who suffered, not unlike Henry, from addiction and depression and various other afflictions. But I recently started a new semester of school and a new internship and was having trouble finishing everything. The words were just not coming together easily; the prose felt disjointed and lacked something, some cohesion.

The last time I drove past the apartments on North 5th, their efficient practicality had been scrubbed up a bit. A nice little fence marked the front entrance. The sidewalk that led into the U-shaped courtyard had healthy plants on both sides. The casement windows had been replaced. Someone had finally taken pride in the boxy old place, built in 1948 to provide post-war housing.

Chuck Klosterman’s latest book is The Visible Man. It is told from the point of view of a therapist who is treating a man referred to only as Y___.  Y___ has the ability to make himself unseen by wearing an invisibility cloak. He likes to observe the boring lives of others, sometimes for hours, or even days.  He is obsessed with how others behave in private and visits the therapist to deal with his guilt issues over this quirky and intrusive hobby.

Klosterman has written seven books and is probably best known for the essay collection Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs.  The Visible Man is his second novel.

We sat at a small table in the back of Aub Zam Zam, a bar on Haight Street in San Francisco, for about an hour, shortly before he was scheduled to read at Booksmith across the street.

Shannon Cain’s The Necessity of Certain Behaviors was the winner of the Drue Heinz Literary Prize for 2011, showcasing a collection of short stories that speaks to us about love, need, and irreversible actions. What is necessary, what behaviors do we implore when seeking freedom, family or peace? When you are in love with a man and a woman, how do you decide between the two, amidst puppies and wives and a bed filled with the ghosts of your lovemaking? Would you be willing to deal drugs, to sell a large quantity of pot in order to keep your family intact, to chase that plastic package into a dark river, riddled with fear? A mother caught in a steam room masturbating her way into another world, another life, the one she wishes she had lived, cannot overshadow her own daughter’s questionable love for a teacher, a coach, an older man. Lost in the jungle, one woman finds that her sexuality knows no boundaries, instead captivated by the slick dark flesh of men and women alike, trying hard to leave behind the civilized world, in order to embrace her true self. A queer zoo, Bob Barker, and a AAA travel guide eager to get off the beaten path, round out this body of work, the stories in this slim bound volume heartbreaking, alluring, exotic, and lush.

The pupils dilate. The rush of expectation met and satisfied.

Everyone who’s done coke knows this: the expectation of the rush is as rewarding as the dopamine hit itself. Maybe more.

Last night, I went to a Phish concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion. I’d never been to a Phish show before, and frankly, I expected more hippies. You know, older people with weathered skin and tie-died clothes sitting around nodding slowly as the band plays into the 12th minute of a song, the title of which we have all forgotten because they’ve wandered so far from any recognizable melody. But there were fewer hippies than college kids, and many of those appeared to be frat boys.

The lawn before the show and the bros.

On my way to the Newtown gym two weeks ago I passed a glassy-eyed trio hunkered down in a doorway with a bottle of port.  I didn’t give it much thought, but then when I was leaving the area an hour or so later I got a closer look at them. The men had moved off from the doorway, a couple of toothless harry-high pants the wrong side of fifty, staggering nose to nose, yelling and jabbing their fingers into each others’ emaciated breastbones.

‘You,’ one of them slurred, ‘you got all the fucken women in the world and what I got to know why is how you still want more.’

Slur, sob, bastard, cock, smellsock, blub.

I was wading in pain, raw and unstoppable, and its object, or subject, was a stout woman in sensible shoes sitting in a doorway, between a half-empty plastic bag and a bottle of port. But what I noticed about her were her eyes, red wet slits filled with tears.  I thought about how booze and drugs elevate our terrible human dramas to the cataclysmic and how, half a world away, a tornado in Joplin, Mo, had torn a hundred or more lives apart and I wondered how many of them had been people just like this, this lady who looked like she could be somebody’s mom, possibly was, the kind of mom who likes to sit in doorways sucking on a bottle of port and looking out at the world through crimson slits, and if a tornado ripped through Newtown this minute, how would she meet her end? Would she see it coming? Maybe it already had.

I’d be high all the time if I could get away with it. Who wouldn’t? It makes the sex good and the words flow and you can manage to kill a decade or so, but then you get a glimpse of those red wet eyes, waiting for you at the bottom of the stairs or in a doorway, or reflected from a window, just to remind you of what you can’t see coming. Who knew what tornadoes she’d lived through? So there I was in my gym gear and there she was on the steps in her sensible shoes and dirty blond hair and a rip in her shopping bag, and two old cocks fighting over what was left of her.

Whatever it was, it seemed good enough for the next guy that came around the corner. Maybe he had a few more teeth or longer hair, pants down a bit lower maybe, because she reached around and passed him the bottle, and he took a hit and passed it back and they watched the show for a while like that, mom and her geezer, never exchanging a glance, until until the boys’ finger jabs turned to throat-grabbing and something passed between mom and the guy then because she got to her feet and the geezer grabbed the bottle and they wandered off, still not a word between them, in the opposite direction to the sirens.

It was like they knew what was coming.

Synanon came to life in the fifties. The ultimate temple of soul sacrifice. You laid yourself out to all comers, at Synanon, because this was the new school of drug rehab. But, unlike its twelve step brethren, Synanon did not mature very quickly, it didn’t really develop was until the 70’s.Scientology, itself often branded as a cult, had also become fruitful at the same time, and was selling its own drug program. And like Scientology, the fierce creatures of Synanon formed into a kind of cult. Musicians showed up, and Synanon put them to work, recording albums to promote the rehab. Ask yourself how many drug rehabs issue albums? Now, how many cults do?

Synanon’s self-popularization sang with such perfect pitch that hepcats near its Santa Monica, and Bay Area locations rang the bell, and joined up, before they even realized what they were getting into. Jazz and pop musicians- famed addict and sax man Art Pepper among them- came calling. What’s the plan? Don’t know, don’t care, it works, that’s all. Everyday Joes showed up, too. Synanon didn’t discriminate. They took you in, and gave you the rap. And the rap was tough love. To the extreme.

Synanon emerged, like an ex-pugilist with something to prove, straight out of founder Charles “Chuck” Dederich’s garage in Ocean Park, California. For a while, the program aligned itself closely to the twelve step groups that were gaining their own cult like status in the late 50’s and early 60’s. But only for a while. Eventually Dederich received tax-exempt status for Synanon. After that, the money rolled right in. The garage in Ocean Park gave way to a ranch in the foothills, then another. And then, there was the Santa Monica spot. Right smack dab on the beach.

So what happened? Synanon was built around one person. The group beat to his imperfect cadence. Members slipped out of reach because they were encouraged to relinquish past acquaintances and family members in favor of their new ‘family.’ Yeah, like Manson. Like the Children of God. Like a cult.

Some of the methods were outlandish for the time, but have become mainstream today. Rather than focus on the individual, Synanon sought to encourage group members to ‘test’ other group members, in regards to their sobriety, their faith, and their dedication. In essence, the group member became the therapist. These ‘test’ sessions sometimes turned into shouting matches, but in the end Dederich and the other ‘therapists’ sought to establish closure so the group as a whole, and the individuals therein, could move onward, upward to a new salvation. In some cases it made desperate junkie prostitutes able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, in others, it offered a major rush of egotistical power to people who had never experienced it, and they abused it. As Synanon moved beyond its gestation the twelve step tenets wore thin. Dederich began restructuring them, adding in new rules, new regulations, new regiments, making it up as he went along. One major theme Dederich stressed was that the patient needed to stay in the group, and not leave. To give back, to build a new community. Things got weird. Normally, a visit to the drunk farm ended with some sort of fresh start. Or not. Either way, there was a beginning, middle, and an end. Not so with Synanon. There, you stuck around in perpetuity, finding new ways to make yourself useful for years at a time. Synanon encouraged the beginning and the middle, but never the end. An end presented too difficult a task. Dederich had seen where other rehabs had failed. They all let their clients back out into the real world. And that was their great mistake. Success rates plummeted once addicts were set free. Synanon simply abolished that last act, instead electing to treat addicts over long periods, for seemingly endless terms. If you decided you were ready to leave, a group of your Synanon peers came round to remind you what it was like before you got there. They urged you to stick it out, to let Synanon keep working its magic. If that didn’t work, Chuck would send in the aptly named “punk squad,” which existed, in the words of ex-resident Charlotte (no last name) “for people who need to be tamed.”

Synanon family members began to get frightened when they couldn’t contact their loved ones. Critics of the Synanon ‘method’ arose. Some called it a cult. Most claimed it robbed them of relationships with their family members. All pointed their fingers at Dederich, who made no effort to give a public response.

In the very early part of the 1970’s, the Point Reyes Light, a teeny local paper in a small town north of San Francisco near a Synanon compound, started investigating rumors of staff abuse, and beatings. As the reports of negligence grew, the IRS took note, and began the process to revoke the group’s tax exempt status, saying it was no longer a medical rehabilitation facility, but something else, a way of life. Synanon, feeling like it was on the ropes, did what any cult-ish group would- under Dederich’s order the group declared itself a religion. Enter the church of Synanon.

Suspected of acting in and covering up the murder of a dissenter, the frayed group started to make headlines beyond the Point Reyes Light reach, though the small paper did capitalize on its coverage of the group, even receiving a Pulitzer Prize for its Synanon articles.

Time Magazine featured Synanon in an unfavorable light. The article portrayed Dederich as wife swapping messianic leader. Descriptions of the residents of Synanon referred to them as “smiling people” with “shiny, shaved heads,” who bowed in sync, and chanted like monks.

They listed assets, they mentioned Dederich’s 70’s era $100,000 salary, and quoted him, “A lot of guys could do this thing from an old Ford roadster and sit on an orange crate…I need a $17,000 Cadillac. We are in the people business just exactly as if we were building Chevrolet axles.”

Stranger things were in store. More investigations arose from the constant news coverage. Local police began getting calls from estranged family members. As the scrutiny wore on, Synanon security tightened. The punk squad grew. Paranoia took over. Addicts usually become acclimated to reality if given something else to become addicted to. Synanon added to already compulsive behavior a regimented structure that offered an alternative future to needles plunged into arms, and sucking off johns behind bus stations. While many celebrities had given praise to Synanon in the past (Steve Allen promoted Synanon on TV) the celebrity endorsements dried up in the face of the bad press of the early 70’s.

Since Synanon claimed such definite success, it pointed to the past record of its achievement, to the (past) celebrity endorsements, to the sobriety of its members. Synanon embraced a hive mind, a boot camp philosophy. Somehow, the myth continued to grow. New members arrived daily.

Sci-Fi writer Philip K. Dick battled his own demons. During the 60’s he started using large amounts of speed, taking more and more of the amphetamine to accomplish more and more writing. And of course, addiction rooster tailed in the wake of all that drug taking. Eventually things spun wildly out of control for Dick, who began living with local addicts trading dugs, and comparing notes. As some of his pals began to overdose and die, others sought rehabilitation. Synanon had a campus in nearby Marin. Dick likely experienced some Synanon concepts first hand. He didn’t like what he found. New Path, the rehab in Dick’s loosely autobiographical novel “A Scanner Darkly” is based on Synanon. In another book, the group is actually identified as Synanon by a character, “It’s a fascist therapy that makes the person totally outer directed and dependent on the group.” Critics Rosa Lee Cole and Phil Ritter came under heavier fire than Dick. Ritter was beaten after he left the group. Fifteen-year-old Rosa Lee Cole disappeared from the Synanon foundation’s Oakland center never to be heard from again. A lawyer for another ex- Synanon member was bitten by a rattlesnake, which had been de-rattled, agitated, and stuffed in his mailbox. Somehow the man survived. Each of these stories were reported by the Point Reyes Light, and later investigated by local and federal authorities. Paul Morantz, the lawyer bitten by the snake dedicated his life to debunking Dederich’s myths, writing a book and operating a website condemning all things Syn-Syn-Synanon.

By the time an NBC expose ran, Synanon was claiming to Connie Chung that it was the victim of bad publicity. Very bad publicity. Mostly stemming from the disappearance of a Synanon patient, or member, however they were classifying them, back in the early part of the decade.

Dederich made no bones about the hi-jinks. He admitted wearing costumes, that he was ”big brother big daddy.” The icing on the cake, however, was a clandestinely obtained recording. On it, Synanon’s founder can be heard ranting about lawsuits waged by ex-members and other detractors. “These are real threats, they (lawyers) are draining life’s blood from us and expecting us to play by their silly rules. We will make the rules. I see nothing frightening about it… I am quite willing to break some lawyer’s legs and next break his wife’s legs and threaten to cut their child’s arm off. That is the end of that lawyer. That is a very satisfactory, humane way of transmitting information…. I really do want an ear in a glass of alcohol on my desk” A few months later, Dederich, the man who founded Synanon on the concept of complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol, broken by strain and or megalomania, or both, was found stewed to the gills, and arrested in relation to the attempted murders of Morantz, and Ritter. John Watson, the LA prosecutor assigned to the case described Dederich upon arrest as being, “in a stupor, staring straight ahead with an empty bottle of Chivas Regal.”

But there was something to Synanon, before their tough-love-confrontational-rehabilitation-methodology shifted into its late era thuggish free for all. The program changed lives. It kept irrefutably hopeless addicts clean, long as they stayed under the Synanon roof. Many who had been through the program paid no mind to the bad press. Synanon worked where nothing else would. To this day former members meet online and in person sharing stories of their time as members of Synanon the family. Still, after Dederich’s arrest, and subsequent downfall, it was next to impossible to keep tabs on success stories because Synanon success stories kept their mouths shut, unwilling to invite the odor of the group’s last days into their well fought for sobriety. Can you blame them? Some aspects of Synanon’s ‘no bones about it’ program can’t be argued with. Desperation’s wild horse needs a jockey, and in a lot of cases, that jockey was Synanon. But even the best jockey needs the oversight of a trainer and that was where Synanon failed.

Despite the mounting bad press, or likely, because of Synanon’s previous favored-son status during the mid 60’s media onslaught, other addiction specialists took note. New York’s Daytop Village, the name sometimes referred to as an acronym for Drug Addicts Yielding to Temptation, based their methods on that of Synanon’s primal group therapy model. Whatever. Daytop remained an incredible success in the treatment of hard-core addicts and alcoholics. One of Daytop’s founders spent time at Synanon in the early sixties before Dederich’s megalomaniacal model overwhelmed the rehabilitation process. And Mel Wasserman started his CEDU schools based on his own Synanon experiences, billing them as Therapeutic Boarding Schools. Like Synanon, they failed.

It’s not hard to see why many flocked to the Synanon model. It was damn seductive. A misappropriation on tough love, it looked like you were giving the addict a punch in the face to help them get better, and one time or another we have all wanted to punch the addicts in our lives square on the jaw. They looked like elegant marines as they ran across the beach in front of the Santa Monica headquarters, moving like chiseled gazelles, turning their bodies into temples once again. The group therapy was based on absolute interrogation and complete candor. No one was allowed to have any secrets. “You’re only as sick as your secrets” took on a whole new meaning at Synanon. Secrets were hunted down, and throttled, until even the secret keeper could no longer stomach the idea of dishonesty. But Dederich couldn’t seem to stop fiddling with the more controlling aspects of his therapeutic model. Women and men had to shave their heads. Most referred to Dederich as a kind of God. Vasectomies for men were encouraged. Then enforced. If a couple entered together, they wouldn’t last. Dederich pushed for and gotwife swapping. He sought a more lurid sort of enlightenment.

Dederich wasn’t jailed, but his reign at Synanon was over. The IRS confiscated Synanon’s property after the tax exemption revocation became official. The group ceased to exist, until the Internet.

Now a few pages dedicated to the group exist. Paul Morantz, the lawyer who received the rattlesnake in his mailbox operates one. Former Synanon members operate another- Synanon.com.

Gurus are a constant problem with twelve step programs. Touting guidance for the extreme cases, Gurus almost always end up using sex and money as their puppet strings, while often encouraging members to sever ties with friends and family in case any sense will be lodged into the group member’s mind.

As for Synanon’s physical presence in Santa Monica, the former hotel standing just steps from the Pacific Ocean has once again returned to the resort mentality- rates start at $395. About the same cost for a month stay back in ’78. And the name? In an article published in 1959 by R.D. Fox, Synanon stood for, Sins Anonymous.

chronology_of_water_121_200

Given a choice between grief and nothing, I choose grief.”
—William Faulkner

I wasn’t prepared for this memoir, this baptism by fire that Lidia Yuknavitch pours out onto the pages of The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books). I was aware of the controversy about the exposed breast on the cover, the grey band of paper wrapped around the book to appease those who can’t stand to see such obscenity. I was lured in by the glowing testimonials of authors I know and respect, people like Chuck Palahniuk, Monica Drake, and Chelsea Cain (who writes the introduction), her close-knit group of fellow authors, her workshop, support group, therapy and champions. But no, I wasn’t prepared for her voice—the power, the lyrical passages, and the raw, crippling events that destroyed her youth, but made her the woman she is today: fearless, funny, honest, and kind. By not being prepared, the opening lines hit me hard, and I in fact stopped for a moment, realizing that this was going to be bumpy ride, a dark story, but one that held nothing back. So I took a breath, and I went under:

Blaise liked to joke that he was the free gift with purchase upon the wedding of his mother to the dermatologist with a house on the beach and, even better, a casita that was now exclusively Blaise’s domain. Blaise not so secretly called his new stepfather the pimp. A snide reference to the lucrative pimple popping business that purchased the dermatologist’s silver Porsche, Blaise’s green Karmann Ghia and his mother’s candy apple red convertible Mercedes, along with the beach house. Though recently the dermatologist had moved past pimple popping and onto saving lives. The news that the sun, a nearly inescapable presence in South Florida, caused cancer, created a financial windfall for the dermatologist that was beyond his wildest dreams.

Blaise’s mother was a once upon a time waitress, and her experience in the hospitality industry was now exclusively directed toward her new husband. No matter when I was there to visit Blaise, his mother appeared underdressed. As far as I could tell her wardrobe consisted of terry cloth short-shorts, slip on cork platform sandals, and a variety of tube tops, as if at any moment she might be called upon to have sex quickly.

She also sunbathed topless, taking a long time to lather on the appropriate prescription sunscreen. Flat on her back the double orbs glistened in the sun, a diamond heart pendant nestled snugly in her cleavage, a belly chain draped across her hips, and against her flat stomach, the long manicured fingers of her left hand, weighted by a diamond so large it looked fake, loosely gripped a can of Tab. The outdoor surround sound speakers filtered a never-ending rotation of disco hits featuring the Gloria’s: Estefan and Gaynor and her body vibrated against the chaise lounge, even in the silence between tracks.

To reach Blaise’s casita I had to take the path cutting directly across the pool area to the gravel walkway that led to the entrance, unless I was coming from the beach, which I hardly ever did. It never seemed to matter to his mother that she was on display and soon enough, her nakedness became as invisible as her clothing.

The section of beach the house occupied was a quiet enclave that faced the Gulf of Mexico, near a rocky inlet that led to the inter-coastal waterway. Yet inside Blaise’s four walls you would never know the sun shined or the water lapped at the edges of the sand turning it the shade of wet concrete. In the living room black-out curtains were pressed against the windows and the volume of the stereo was usually cranked high to obliterate the offending music coming from the pool area, erasing any and all sounds of the world outside his door.

Due to the lack of fresh air, there was a slightly chemical smell mixed with something sweet, most likely from the bowls of sugar that covered nearly every surface. Blaise liked to empty the brightly colored paper pixie sticks of candied sugar into bowls and refill the hollow cylinders with drugs. The process consisted of tweezers, a toothpick and a drop of glue to reseal the paper stick, all kept on a silver tray that Blaise put on the table between us while we watched old movies in the afternoon.

They were the perfect decanter, unassuming and easy to transport and Blaise was so casual about it that he always kept a few sticks in his back pocket. Once, during class, our art teacher came up behind Blaise standing at his easel and plucked a stick from his pocket, twirling it between his thumb and forefinger until the colors blended a solid pink, while he waxed nostalgic about penny candy. I held my breath from across the room as Blaise lazily stabbed a brush in the direction of his painting until the Valium filled stick was back in his possession.

Blaise and I were in studio art together that last year of high school, a class reserved for seniors serious about art school, although Blaise mostly spent his time perched on a stool next to me talking while I worked, his painting or drawing abandoned. He was quick witted and made me laugh, his observations about people and life were sharp and wise, or maybe he just said aloud the things other people only thought. While he never produced anything during class I was consistently amazed that on portfolio days Blaise would arrive with a ratty bloated sketchbook filled with curled and torn pages, but on those pages were the most exquisite little pen and ink renderings. It was where I first saw his mother’s sunbathing form, supine on a lounge, the view of the drawing was as if you were kneeling at her feet, her breasts rose in front of her, obliterating all but the tip of her chin and nose.

We were an unlikely duo. I was cautious where Blaise was reckless. I barely took aspirin while Blaise regularly dipped his hand into his stash sifting through self-medicating confetti colored pills and popping them casually, without care to the after effects of his prescription cocktail. He had parties nightly with small carefully curated groups of people, knowing instinctively what personalities mixed together would amuse or anger him. There were plenty of drugs and alcohol and always those damn bowls of sugar. Often to my disgust people licked their fingertips and plunged them wet into the bowls only to retract them and suck the sugar as if it were nectar.

For a time I was his constant, often curled in a corner of the rattan couch covered in a crazy flamingo pattern, my bare legs and feet tucked beneath me, a sketchbook in my lap. It was Blaise who had encouraged me to draw his guests and at first I thought they would think it bizarre, but the higher they were, people seemed flattered by their likeness. And while I was reluctant to let the sketches go, Blaise would occasionally ask me to give one away, his hand circled around my wrist, the pad of his thumb pressed softly as if he were taking my pulse, the corners of his mouth turned down, his eyelids at the stoners salute of half-mast. He would make sure I signed each and every one of them and then he would carefully admonish the recipient to take care of the drawing, that I was going to be famous one day. He would help me tear the sheet from the pad so it wouldn’t rip, and I would watch the ragged broken tooth edge of the paper as it was lifted from my lap and into the greedy hands of one of Blaise’s guests. I tried not to think about it jammed in a pocket, used to wipe snot, or fluttering away lost to the Gulf breeze.

Blaise attracted attention with his casual good looks. While the dermatologist and Blaise’s mother exemplified the waning days of disco, Blaise was like a throwback to a generation of WASP’s bred for the Ivy League. His wardrobe consisted of rumpled khaki pants shredded at the hem, faded Lacoste polo shirts and oversized white cotton button downs. He was unfailingly polite around adults, as if good breeding was his birthright. He charmed my mother, accepted the offer of her wildly uneven health food store meals, and allowed my younger brother to sit behind the wheel of the Karmann Ghia for as long as he wanted, practicing for the day he could drive. The greedy way Blaise looked upon my pedestrian family made my life at home nearly tolerable, but only through his eyes.

I knew my mother suspected Blaise was my boyfriend, but the truth was while we spent afternoons watching movies tucked into the respective corners of his couch and our evenings together as well, he had never so much as made a move to hold my hand. I told myself I was done with high school boys anyhow, even though Blaise hardly qualified as the typical boy. Once, our hands touched the gearshift at the same time and he slid his fingers from underneath mine with a cool indifference that left me shriveled until he turned his lazy smile on me, and made a joke that only I understood.

Christopher was a recurring guest at Blaise’s parties. He spent a lot of time sitting or standing near the couch where I was drawing. He made small talk with Blaise and me, paid attention to what was playing on the turntable, jumping up to change an album or make a suggestion. He made a mix tape for Blaise and sat with his head bowed and his fingers tapping the beat out on his thigh as we listened to it, but was otherwise quiet. I never saw him lick sugar from his fingertips or even accept one of the pixie sticks. He drank, but seemed unaffected by what was going on around him. I understood from the conversation that he had graduated the year before, gone off to Gainesville on a football scholarship, been injured the first month and hadn’t played since. He was atypical for a jock: tall and dark, with sharp cheekbones and a wild tumble of black hair. His exotic good looks added to his appeal and his mystery. I had caught Blaise on more than one occasion studying Christopher when he thought no one was looking. The one time our eyes met Blaise had winked at me and made a gesture as if I should go for it. Stung, I rolled my eyes and turned away. The insincerity on both our parts was palpable.

There was always a point during those nights when the air inside the casita got too close and I would get up and slip outside to the beach to breath. Christopher began to meet me there, at first I thought by coincidence but then I noticed he followed me outside and it was too intentional to brush off, still he was company. We walked along the edge of the water. Our conversations were peppered with talk about the future as if it would never come. Christopher wanted to know where I was applying to school. How I knew Blaise. He wanted to know if I came here every night. What I wanted to be when I grew up. He admitted that he had only accepted the football scholarship because he had no other ideas, no money, no family to back him up. When he got hurt he had the choice to rehab, but his heart wasn’t in it so he left. He was living in his uncle’s trailer on land in Immokalee where the only industry was the prison. He was working construction, trying to make enough money to join a buddy in Texas where the jobs were plentiful and paid well. He thought at one time of taking the test to become a state trooper, which only struck me as odd that he was spending all of his nights inside Blaise’s casita.

One evening I returned inside to find the living room packed with people and Blaise in his bedroom with the door shut. It took several tries on my part to get him to flip the lock. He let me in, re-locked the door and returned to his bed with his arm thrown across his face. The sliding glass doors that faced the beach were curtain-less and wide open, in contrast to the cave of the main room, everything in here was bathed in a silver light from the beach.

“That Indian wants you,” Blaise said, his voice muffled by his arm.

“What are you talking about?” I knew what he meant, but it was so unlike Blaise to ever get this personal, I really wasn’t sure what he expected me to say. I ignored his slam about Christopher’s Seminole heritage, only because I was caught up in the idea that he was jealous.

“He waits for you. Every night. He waits until you get up and he follows you outside.”

“I know.”

“Has he touched you?”

“No.” The fact that anyone would physically desire me was still a new concept. I was slim-hipped and nearly flat-chested, easily going without a bra. If my hair had been shorter I could have passed for a boy, especially from the back. I remember I turned to look at Blaise and was surprised to see him staring at me in the dark. I crawled onto the bed, nearly faint with fear. I didn’t want to be rejected by him, but I was more scared of something else, I just couldn’t name it.

He held out his arm and I curled against the length of him, my face pressed into his shirt. I could feel his heart, or maybe it was my own. My mouth was dry and I couldn’t speak and I remember never feeling more like a child in that moment, more aware of what I hadn’t done yet. When Blaise finally kissed me there was an urgency to touch skin to skin, but nothing else. His brain seemed to want it more than his body and although we managed to make an attempt at pleasing each other, something was missing. Several times he stopped and asked if I thought Christopher would touch me like he was touching me, if Christopher would kiss my ear, my neck, the base of my throat and I didn’t know what to say in response. He was at his most passionate when he wasn’t looking at me, when our positions shifted and we came face to face with our eyes wide open, he looked shocked to see that he was in bed with me.

After that night we avoided each other until Blaise stopped coming to class and eventually school all together. At graduation I waited to hear his name, seven letters of the alphabet in front of me, but was not surprised that he wasn’t there to receive his diploma.

I left for art school in Atlanta. It was a program recommended by my teacher and so I went without a second thought. The dormitory housing was full and I was placed in a high-rise apartment off of Peachtree Street in the heart of the city. Nothing was as I expected. There was a payphone outside the building and I made my weekly collect call home where I said nothing of any consequence because I only called to hear my mother’s voice, and I clung to her recitation of the normalcy of her days as if I never left.

At the end of October, a few days before Halloween, a manila envelope arrived from home. I opened it expecting one of my mother’s goofy packages of newspaper clippings of people I didn’t care about, random photos she’d run across, coupons for things I would never buy. Instead inside there was another envelope addressed to me at my home address.

The envelope had been taped shut with band-aids and I lifted each of them slowly and carefully to avoid the sting as if I was peeling them from tender flesh. I reached inside and slid out a page torn from a sketchbook. The paper felt brittle in my hands and I hesitated to turn it over. When I did I revealed a carefully rendered drawing in fine black ink. I recognized Blaise’s bed and me, curled into the corner, my head on a pillow. I was sleeping on my side with my hand beneath my cheek, the sheets and blankets gathered like the tight fists of roses right before they flower, down around my feet. My knees were bent against my torso, so that hardly any of my body was exposed, just a slight curve of hip and the swell of buttocks, nothing more, just a whisper of what was to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

(a distorted memory)

Disney sign

Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy-the magical portals to the Magic Kingdom.

“This was the American dream, a prayer for the future. But that golden goal was not to be had without cost. The American Way was not gained in a day. It was born in adversity, forged out of conflict.”

Conflict?

Let me tell you about conflict. It’s watching two of the Seven Dwarves kicking the shit out of each other in costume in one of “backstage areas” and hearing one rant, “You gave me herpes!”

Conflict is on one of your days off thinking it would be very funny to drop a hit of acid with your craziest friend and toodle around the park as if you were a civilian…only to find yourself peaking on the “It’s a Small World” ride, which gets stuck, while the song keeps playing over and over, the animatronic dolls representing all the cultures of the world, squeaking, “It’s a small world after all, it’s a small world after all…” while the world does indeed get smaller as the drug comes on harder, a pregnant claustrophobic woman begins to sob, children become dangerously excited-and your lunatic friend rises and begins singing the song at the top of his voice.

Mr. ToadWe were very fortunate not to have been taken away in a net on that one-and when you get expelled from the Magic Kingdom, before you find yourself in lock-up in downtown Anaheim, you get a special debriefing by park security behind closed doors, a prospect that was considerably more hallucinogenic than I could cope with. (The prospect of what this would entail today in our orange alert War on Terror warmed climate doesn’t bear thinking of.)

Remarkably, we escaped the small world and beyond a minor incident on Mr. Toad’s Wild Road (where I found it necessary to physically restrain my friend Steve), I was able to return to my normal duties two days later, although “normal” was always a relative term in the Magical Kingdom.

I worked as a “Cast Member” captaining the Amazon Belle on the Jungle Cruise in Adventureland…and here verbatim is the spiel (which we were taught to refer to as “the preset narrative”) that I’d recite. After you’ve delivered this little speech three times you begin to get the disturbing impression that you’ve been turned into an animatronic character yourself.

Here we go deep into a tropical rainforest. Yeah, it rains 365 days a year here. Over on the other side there’s old Smiley, one of my favorite jungle residents-and also one of the craziest crocs in these parts, folks. Nobody’s seen him move for over thirty years. What a croc!

Hippo

And that there is a Bengal Tiger folks. He weighs over 500 pounds and can jump up to 25 feet from a dead standstill. Oh, look at this, the little headhunters! Watch out folks! And beautiful Schweitzer Falls. Named after that famous African explorer, Dr. Albert Falls. Oh, oh a huge African Bull Elephant. For those of you with short memories, that there is a huge African Bull Elephant.

Hang on now. Hippos! Got to scare them off. Cover your ears. We’re back in headhunter country now. Not a good place to be headed. Those are spears-and those are poison arrows. If any of them hit you folks, you throw them right on back-you’re not allowed to keep any souvenirs. Now let me take this opportunity to point out some of the rare tropical foliage to you. There’s some. And there’s some more over there.

And there’s old Trader Sam, the head trader for the area, folks, but business has been shrinking a little lately. He’s got a special deal going-two of his heads for just one of yours. And folks, you don’t wanna miss this. This might be your only opportunity to see a rare African mallard. Oh, what do you know, we’re returning to civilization. This could well be the most dangerous part of our journey. You have to careful. Not all the animals are in the jungle. Ha, ha.

Yes, this was the American dream, a prayer for the future. Where the Matterhorn rises over Frontierland next to the Enchanted Tiki village. Now a thrilling adventure cruise through dark mysterious caverns where dead men tell no tales. Clear the decks lad! Remember, The American Way was not gained in a day. It was born in adversity and forged out of conflict. Strike your colors you bloomin’ cockroaches! By thunder!

(That bit about the mallard was my improv by the way. You couldn’t always count on the ducks being in position to have them written into the script. Funny about that.)

It is easier to figure out cold fusion than it is to discuss rock and roll journalism without mentioning Mick Wall. He is to music writing what Keith Richards is to the guitar — he didn’t invent it, but he sure as hell made it his own.

Mick Wall began his career writing for a weekly music paper in the late Seventies and a few years later he jumped into a grass roots heavy metal magazine called Kerrang!. He quickly became its most popular writer and now thirty years later, Kerrang! is the biggest music periodical in circulation in the UK, with its own television and radio stations, branded tours, and massive annual awards ceremony.

Like Kerrang!, Mick Wall has also exploded as a force in the arena of rock journalism. He has penned nearly twenty music biographies, tackling a diverse range of subjects from immortal record producer John Peel to the howling tornado that is Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose. Rose was so unsettled by Wall’s book that he called him out by name in the song, “Get in the Ring,” from the Use Your Illusion II album.

I drink too much.

The way I know this is because I often spend Sunday in my living room with the shades drawn, unable to do much more than watch movies and play around on the Internet. Also, my insides hurt.

The problem with stopping is I don’t feel like it. Well, on Sunday I tell myself I’ve had enough, and I abstain until Thursday or Friday, but then one of my buddies calls and says Let’s go, man and by then I’m feeling well enough to start the cycle over again.

I’ve never felt a craving for alcohol, or a thirst, not the way I’ve heard it described. I’m just bored. I didn’t even start drinking until my 30s. When I read literature on alcoholism, it explains how alcoholics have difficulty feeling pleasure because they’re addicted to the dopamine high they get from drinking. Regular activities that normally induce pleasure don’t cut it anymore, not compared to alcohol. But the thing is, I was already bored before I started drinking.

In college I tinkered with screenplays and finished a few, and several years ago I found an agent. He took my newest script and convinced a well-known producer to buy an option on it. I remember the joy I felt when my agent called with the news. Alcohol never made me feel like that. Ever. So I do know I’m at least capable of strong emotions. But it’s not like I get a call like that every week, you know?

One of the things I hate most in the world is fishing. Because of all the waiting you have to do. My screenwriting career is like a fishing trip where I got a bite on the first cast and then spent the next four years staring at a cork. A cork that doesn’t move. That doesn’t even wiggle.

And what do fisherman usually do while they’re waiting for a bite? Why, they drink, of course. Ask any angler and he’ll tell you…drinking is half the point of fishing.

This is my first post on this site and I feel funny writing about something so personal. I tinkered with other ideas but I kept coming back to this. I know it’s a very whiny essay about a problem for which the solution is obvious: stop drinking. But what I wonder is why I should stop. Why should anyone stop doing something they enjoy?

Recently I had been out drinking, and at the end of the night I was far too drunk to drive my car home. I called a cab, but after thirty minutes it still hadn’t showed up, and I fell asleep in my car. Sometime later I heard a knock on my window and saw a cop standing there. I had no idea there was a law where being drunk in your car and having possession of your keys carries the same penalty as actually driving your car under the influence. This seems pretty harsh to me, since the whole idea of DUI laws is to keep drunk drivers off the road. Anyway, my license was suspended, and I ended having to go to a class with a bunch of alcohol and drug offenders. The terrible experience of being in that class is the subject of another essay, but the reason I bring it up now is because one part of the course involved a series of questions the student should ask himself.

Is my work suffering because of my alcohol consumption? Has anyone besides me been adversely affected by my drinking? My family? My friends? What sort of penalties have I faced as a result of my arrest? Et cetera.

In my case, other than the sheer embarrassment of being taken to jail and having to sit in that class, the only penalties were monetary. My family doesn’t know anything about it. I was married once but I’m not anymore, and I don’t have any children, so the only person affected was me.

You could make the argument that my quality of life would be higher if I didn’t drink, or that I would live longer, but I guess what I’m asking is why those things are necessarily better. Almost everyone would agree they are better, but everyone used to believe the Sun orbited the Earth, too. Just because it’s the prevailing opinion doesn’t necessarily make it the right one.

I suppose living a good and honest life should get me to Heaven, but I got sick of listening to my priest and the Pope condemn homosexuality, so I stopped going to Mass. And besides, if you’re looking for examples of healthy living, the Bible isn’t really the place to turn.

Substance abuse of any sort carries consequences. I know this. The thing is, I see abuse around me everywhere. I see people taking painkillers recreationally. I see them addicted to prescription sleeping pills. And if it isn’t drugs, it’s food. If it isn’t food, it’s television. In fact I wonder if television isn’t the most destructive substance of all.

These problems are particularly bad in the United States. Here we are, the land of opportunity, wealthy like few populations on earth, and yet we act as though we’re miserable. More than 70 percent of us are overweight. In 2008 the World Health Organization surveyed legal and illegal drug use in 17 countries and found Americans led the world in marijuana, tobacco, and cocaine use. Interestingly, countries with far less stringent drug laws also experience far less use. Although it turns out our alcohol consumption is fairly mundane compared to plenty of nations in Western Europe.

Quoting statistics about substance abuse doesn’t excuse my own. But it does make me wonder what it is about the United States that makes her citizens so desperate to alter their own perceptions. Why isn’t the real world good enough? What exactly are we looking for?

The drugs are only going to get stronger. One day, reality television and video games are going to overlap, and I have a feeling what emerges will be the strongest drug of all.

Maybe then I won’t be so bored anymore.