Imaginary Value

mckay's

 

I make frequent visits to Nashville. I love it there. It’s a city with culture and great food and amazing music, and you can make a life for yourself there without spending a fortune. Country music isn’t quite as omnipresent there as popular belief would have you think, thanks to Jack White and the rising popularity of indie folk. Money matters, of course, but you can get by with spending very little of it.

There’s a store there I visit called McKay’s. It’s a gigantic used media warehouse, and with spare change you can walk out with an armload of books and music and vintage video games. You can find rare collectibles for absurdly low figures, and half my Stephen King collection came from the “Free Bins” by the door, where they dump excess product they don’t have the room to stock and sell.

This business model works because of the unbelievable volume of transactions there. The building is a hive of genre enthusiasts, scavenging for out-of-print paperbacks and classic games for discontinued consoles. The registers are manned by disaffected teenagers, attracted by the store’s off-beat inventory, and disillusioned with its obvious function as a place of business.

I almost feel bad for them, these kids who want to work with old books but not with customers or POS systems. I imagine they feel that they are being ground away by the constant flow of bawdy bargain hunters, and when you consider the fact that money is an imaginary concept, it’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for them.

Money is so strange. Its value is completely arbitrary. People are uncomfortable with admitting it, but its value, its amount, its existence hinges entirely on what we choose. Money is solely an idea. Economists know this, but your average person depends on a line of thought in which money exists in definite and finite amounts. Your average person can drown in too much thought.

I wander the aisles of McKay’s, packed so tight you imagine the nails holding the shelves together will start to creak at any moment. I see these hundreds of thousands of printed ideas and I think: how much value is there here?

For a completely imaginary concept, money binds us in exceptionally heavy chains. Why then do we focus so heavily on it, when so many other ideas would set us free?

The teenagers behind the counter think they are better than pushing buttons on registers. The folks piling used hard covers on the counters believe themselves better than those allowing them access to the words printed on the pages. Too often we fall into the trap of basing value on a system of antagonism, of how much we can debase or deprive the other. We fail to see the devaluing effects of that behavior. We are too greedy to notice we’re losing money, losing value, by overlooking the richness of holding one another up.

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Mist

trees in the fog

 

I’m smoking on the front porch. It’s cold out and misty, and the mist seems to give the chill a quality like needles. The porch is a barren concrete slab adorned only with the aluminum folding chair I’m sitting in and a mason jar I flick my ashes and old butts into. I can feel the skin on my arms goosebump beneath the terrycloth shirt I’m wearing. Steam rises from a vent in the crawl space, and against the neighbor’s porch light it shines and wavers, an effervescent belly dancer.

“I want you to know I haven’t forgotten about the assistanceship,” my old adviser told me earlier. He stopped by my job to pick up a coffee and recognized me. We’ve only ever communicated by email the last three years. I tell him I’m grateful and I mean it. The university doesn’t strictly require work experience for their graduate program, but with so many applying you don’t stand a chance of acceptance if you don’t read the phrase de facto between the lines.

Just a few weeks earlier, he and three other former profs of mine filled out an emailed index, telling the university how much of an asset they believed I could be. The university emailed confirmations to me, letting me know each response had been received. The trick now is to ensure my file doesn’t become a small tomb in the registrar’s office. Indolence sounds a lot like the burr of a coffee grinder to me.

The professor I’ve been emailing at the university tells me she’s excited at the idea of me joining her program, though she isn’t shy about admitting that my rather sparse work experience worries her. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life in college, up until and during graduation. My GPA shows it, as does my four-years-and-running coffee making career afterward. I’ve kept up with my habit of emailing researchers whose work interests me, including the professor at the university I desperately want to attend. Thus I at least have a show of interest on my side, despite the flaky decade in my rear-view mirror.

At home, above my desk, there’s a plank of framed cork board adorned with applications for programs and scholarships I either never completed or never mailed off. I look at it whenever I need an existential kick in the ass for motivation.

When I got home earlier I checked my email. One story was accepted, to a popular podcast that can’t afford to pay its contributors. Another, one I’m much more proud of, was rejected by a professional magazine, on the grounds that the characters weren’t likable enough. No comments regarding quality are made. The submission guidelines encourage writers to be bold, but I’ve noticed that every purchased story follows the same general structure. Out of spite, I resubmit it, entirely unaltered, and then go outside for a smoke.

The woman I love has called me a couple times today, but I was working so all she could do was leave voicemails. One tells me she’s driving down to visit family, and wants to see me. The other tells me she just misses me, and wants to talk. I hit the callback button. Her phone rings four or five times, and my call goes to voice mail.

“Hey, it’s me,” I say inanely. What else do you say to those who know you better than you know yourself? If I’d told her my name just now it would’ve felt like a white lie. “I just wanted to tell ya I’m excited for your visit. I don’t have any plans, so shoot me a text whenever you can. Love you. Talk to you soon.”

The plans I’d already made are wiped away from my mind. I hang up and take a drag on my cigarette. I think of the school my adviser mentioned, out in Arizona, which he says has a marvelous student aid program. Arizona is a bit of a hike for someone whose parents may, at any time, need a ride to the hospital.

The muffled grunt of an engine wafts over from…somewhere. Streetlights bleed into the mist. I huff out a last mouthful of smoke and drop the butt into the Mason jar. I stand and stretch. The paperwork I’ve been avoiding will become concrete as soon as I step inside. The neighboring houses fade gently down the road. If it weren’t for the trees, this mist would go on forever.

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Perception Bias

eye

 

While I would never describe my father as straight-laced, in most ways he’s your typical retired, former nine-to-five working dad. He was the primary breadwinner of the family, and worked nearly three decades as a special education teacher. My father wore ties and slacks, brought his lunch to work to save money, and read Russian novels like The Brothers Karamazov to relax. He’s a man who can answer virtually every question on Jeopardy while balancing his modest but respectable investment portfolio.

But on his days off from work, my dad typically wore an old leather biker’s jacket sporting pewter skulls and crossbones across the shoulders. He has long hair he lets down on the weekends. He once partied with the Moody Blues, and accidentally helped police catch a fugitive. I say accidentally because, at the time, he was unaware of the fact that the man who tried to start a bar fight with him was in the process of being chased by the cops.

My dad was thirty-one when I was born. I’m twenty-eight, and though I still feel young, I have also begun to feel the weight of the life I’ve lived thus far. I have memories spanning decades now, and I’ve noticed that I will draw knowledge gained from past experiences whenever I deal with new problems in my life.

I’m twenty-eight. My dad was thirty-one when I was born. He’d experienced an entire lifetime before I was even a conscious idea for him.

He’d settled down into the role of grad student and educator by the time I was born. I’ve only known him as the man who wore ties to work and taught me to spell, who bought flowers for my mother, and made restaurant reservations for two on their anniversary, who still routinely admonishes me for smoking. I see little more than shadows of the entity who existed before the man I know as Dad.

Once, while I smoked a cigarette, and after the usual lecture about how I needed to break my habit early, my father told me that he still has trouble seeing himself as a man with a pension and a stock portfolio. He said he never could get used to imagining himself as the guy in slacks and bifocals, who goes to work five days a week. I call the man he derides Dad. I cannot imagine him as anyone other than who he expressly says cannot be him.

 

***

 

I once had a manager who vocally prided herself on being willing to help whenever her employees needed her. She and I got along well, as did most of the other workers under her supervision. Generally, I viewed her as someone who stood by those who could use her help.

Then I watched as she systemically bullied a new hire one summer. She made this poor girl’s life a living hell for the four hours a day she worked. She would berate her for being unable to prepare orders she’d never been shown how to make. She snapped at her for mistakes she hadn’t actually made. She took sharp tones at every opportunity.

The girl stuck with the job longer than I would’ve thought. She was a seasonal worker, and when summer rolled to a close she found work elsewhere. All she left behind was a new light on a woman I’d previously respected.

 

***

 

People have acted shocked over various aspects of my personality that I consider mundane. I smoke, which horrifies many upon discovery. Some are surprised when I shatter their assumptions that I can play an instrument. My atheism surprises my church-going friends. My church attendance surprises my atheist friends. I’m so quiet about my personal life that most people only find out about dates I’ve had years after the relationship has come to a close. People tell me they can see me teaching philosophy at a university, or living like a hermit deep in the forest. A frankly astonishing number of my friends thought for several years that I worked as a librarian. I still don’t quite understand why.

I smoke cigarettes. I read scientific journals and tabloids. I watch public broadcasting and documentaries and cartoons and occasionally porn. I’m a scattershot being, as anyone ever can be.

 

***

 

Chronic anxiety doesn’t quite get the exposure clinical depression does, but the physical and psychological symptoms can be nearly as debilitating. When my meds don’t work, and an anxiety attack hits me, I’ll notice my heartbeat skyrockets for no reason. My arms and legs will shake, go cold, and then go numb. My chest will tighten and my breath will hitch, and then there won’t be a single task on Earth that will not seem insurmountable. Unlike with panic attacks, this can last for days.

Very basic, generic meds keep these symptoms manageable, thankfully with zero noticeable side-effects. The very few who have seen me when I openly acknowledged I was having an anxiety attack reacted with the kind of love and acceptance that made me feel brave enough to admit what was happening. They understand when I just want to stay in for the night, or when I just can’t bring myself to answer the phone. These moments are very rare, but they happen.

Few people know that chronic anxiety can also help you act like an absolute bastard. It would be childish of me to blame the anxiety for my personal petulance. The attacks may exacerbate your personal frustrations, but they don’t cause them.

As small as the number of people who have witnessed me experiencing an anxiety attack is, the number who have seen the effects they have on my mood is even smaller. There is no real excuse for hurting others, because ultimately you can choose to fume in silence. But there have been times when I chose to fume vocally, to people I loved, and every time after things were never quite the same.

I generally think of myself as a kind person. Experience tells me I’m not alone in that perception. But in the moments when I was needlessly cruel, the things I said were spoken in my voice.

 

***

 

I date about as often as anyone, which is to say there are brief moments when my general awkwardness doesn’t cause women to think of me as some kind of freakishly overgrown man-child.

I’ve been in love once so far, to someone who thankfully felt the same way. Even more fortunately, we felt the same way at the same time, for years on end. Can ya beat those odds?

The way I saw her and the way she saw herself contrasted sharply. She would criticize missteps of hers that I didn’t think had any significance. She would feel embarrassed over work she’d done that would blow me away. She’s intelligent and funny and made me feel more comfortable around her than I’ve ever felt around anyone, family included. She worried, and still does when we see each other, that she irritates me. She’ll always be my best and closest friend.

We think of ourselves as single beings, but we multiply with every new set of eyes we come across.

 

***

 

When I got my degree, my mother and sister took turns snapping photos with their phones. In one, I’m standing beside my dad. Black gown, ponytail, a beard and mustache My dad has since compared it to his own college graduation photo from the late seventies, and the similarities are admittedly kind of startling.

I look like the man my father used to see himself as. My dad looks like the man I’ve always known him to be. He smiles affably, leaning on his cane, his ball cap keeping the glare of the sun off his glasses. The person I trust more than anyone in the world would call the man in that photo a stranger.

We live through our own eyes. We soar through the eyes of others.

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Break

Break

 

We’re smoking and laughing, and I’m surprised that I’m staying awake despite the fact that I’m going on hour forty-three of being awake. The woman I have a crush on is bumming smokes from the pack I leave between us on the thin plastic table. I’m chain smoking, a habit that’s becoming more regular every time I drink. The drinking’s becoming more regular too.

The day started warm but ended cold. December only ever remembers it’s a winter month at night when you’re this far south. My fingers brush against the woman’s as we both reach for a cigarette. We laugh over the shared addiction, then all four of us laugh over how we’re all lighting up at the same time. Misery loves company as much as it loves cliché.

It happens when I light up. The little flame seems so bright it practically sparkles. My neck has felt stiff since I got here but like an idiot I ignored it. If I’m lucky it’s just a migraine.

Then my legs lock, and I realize I haven’t lit my cigarette yet. The flame is so bright I feel like the image of my friends is burning away. I take a quick puff and light my smoke halfway before tucking the lighter in my pocket.

My legs lock up. I have to clench my teeth before they’re loose enough to bend at the knee, and before things get bad I mumble something about grabbing another pack from my car. The three of them nod and drink and keep talking. The woman I have a crush on gives me a quick look of concern, but that could just be me worrying that they’ll notice.

I get in the car and drop into the passenger seat, and as I lock the door my body seizes and I curl into a ball. The intense aggravation I felt as I walked has blown into full-scale fury, and I tuck my head between my knees to fight off the urge to scream.

I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket, and like an idiot I look to see who it is. A girl I used to love has texted me: “I miss you.” In two minutes the message will melt my heart, but right now I want to pull the phone apart in my hands. She saw me like this once. She lies, but doesn’t mean to. She could only miss something fixable.

I fight off the urge to roll out a pill and crush it in my teeth. It’s a short-term solution with long-term consequences of growing intensity. I’m doing good. I breathe and tighten myself. My legs and back are screaming from exertion but I stay still. If I rock the car they’ll see, and if they see they’ll know.

I’ve only dug my nails into my scalp. I haven’t left any marks. I take deep breaths, and my flushed skin now feels like ice. The adrenaline that roared through me makes me shake a little. That’s okay. It’s chilly. I’m supposed to shake a little.

The urge to be alone is still there. The urge to turn everyone away and just drive off will last until dawn. But it wasn’t that bad this time. The regular pills did their work. I didn’t hear whispers this time.

I calm down, grab another pack of smokes, and walk back to the garage. I send a text to another state: “I miss you too.” The woman I have a crush on smiles as I sit back down. I light another cigarette and listen to a joke one of our friends makes. I laugh even though I just want to yell.

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Fear and Feeling

Hallway

Recently I learned that there is a secret room in the basement of the building I work in. Though this will sound like absolute bullshit, the room is dark, covered in fading wallpaper, and is filled with broken dolls and torn teddy bears. And, naturally, some of those items are nailed to the wall.

There’s also a sink and bathroom that has seen recent and regular use. I’m not always a nice person, so I made sure to tell all of this to the girl who replaced me for the evening shift before I left. She’s told me before that she’s heard humming and moving below the floor, and this new tidbit of info caused her to give me a petrified look before I almost literally skipped out the door.

We love scary stories because they take our fears and transplant them outside the realm of everyday occurrence. We feel scared when we think we’re alone with a ghost. We are terrified when a human being comes at us with a knife. The things monsters might do lie in imagined, ethereal possibility, but we see our own actions every day.

As a teenager, I loved sneaking into cemeteries late at night. The local graveyard is huge, and I could burn hours just wandering around. I remember a scary moment as I sat beneath a tree, beside an old tomb that had been broken open long ago by falling branches. There was heat lightning in the sky, and something seemed to be scratching and muttering from inside the concrete hole. I was spooked, but I did not literally hide the way I did when I thought I heard living human voices, trailing along a set of railroad tracks, laughing and growing nearer…

There’s a psychiatric hospital in a nearby town that is largely closed down. I used to sneak into the larger buildings with an old girlfriend. We dropped dry ice in mildewed bathtubs filled with water, we looked through old x-rays, we studied forgotten maps leading to patients’ graves outside. Most of those graves seemed to be unmarked. Friends of ours loved to spin stories about ghosts still wandering the collapsing halls, and old patients who still lived in tunnels beneath the hospital grounds.

We need ghosts and monsters because metaphor absolves us of the sin of oversight. We thrill to scary urban legends about serial killers, because otherwise we would be left to sympathize with the old man muttering to himself in the cold. We tell stories of voodoo queens, because it hurts us less to fear an old woman who sleeps outside than it would to feel for her. We ask each other if we believe in ghosts, when our own indulgence compels us to never notice them.

***

Images taken from “Abandoned: A Look Inside Central State Hospital of Milledgeville, Georgia,” by Monica Waller. Follow this link to purchase her work.

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Presumed Assumption

An admittedly weird quirk of mine is to judge others based on the level of assumption and presumption they live their life by. This is admittedly difficult, as we all carry long-term assumptions, regardless of how substantiated they are. It’s a deep part of our evolutionary behavior; those who carried the most assumptions in our hunter-gatherer days tended to be the ones who avoided disease and predation. But as society grew more complex, and continues to do so, assumption is little more than defective behavior. To live your life in a state of presumption is to live it with an extra set of eyes you inexplicably keep closed.

There’s no real rhyme to how I level judgment, which is okay because my judgment is of zero consequence anyhow. Presumptions as to my level of competency can be hot buttons for me. I try not to, but I lose a little respect for managers who assume I’ve widely misunderstood a simple concept based on a small mistake, likely one made simply because I did not have time to finish a chore before leaving for the day. I keep quiet when men think I’ve said “ma’am” instead of “man,” usually only pointing out their idiocy if they begin to give me shit based on their mistake.

There are assumptions made out of fear, though, and those are a little harder to hold against people. I had one woman break up with me because she assumed that if we broke up we wouldn’t be friends any longer. How do you get mad over something that innocent? Another broke things off because she thought she was angering me. I don’t know why she thought this, but when it came to light I thought to myself We throw away our years based on assumption.

We avoid jobs we assume we can’t do. We ignore degrees we assume we can’t master. We keep our heads down because we assume the light of day is too bright to behold. Loves are missed because we assume the other person isn’t interested. We are safe, we are adventurous, we fail, because we presume things should be the way we make them be.

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