A Dead Tree Doesn’t Mind If You Call It an Octopus

A few weeks ago, I met a bonafide woodland octopus in the Hocking Hills, just around a bend in the trail, in Clear Creek MetroPark.

And, in a welcome change, this octopus I met was a nice guy.

It’s not far-fetched that I met an affable cephalopod in Clear Creek MetroPark. I once saw this exercise in basic cable CGI on the Discovery Channel that speculated upon evolution in the distant future. Long after we’re gone and all our flesh and accomplishments are tomorrow’s fossil fuels, intelligence will re-emerge when a band of tree-dwelling octopi hurl tiny wooden spears at a giant land nautilus with murder in its eyes. They will be adorable.

Much more adorable than people.

People have been problematic of late.

But I really clicked with this octopus. At one point during our conversation, I acknowledged his upcoming mastery of simple tool-making (—and then… the world!). I gestured a broad swoop to woods around us and proclaimed, “Someday all this will be yours!”

Without missing a beat, he responded: “What? The curtains?” 

Even though his English accent could use some work, we cracked ourselves up. It’s great when you meet someone, and you don’t have to slow-walk them thru your go-to pop culture references, especially something as basic as Monty Python & The Holy Grail.

It’s simple contact like this that I miss.

I was walking alone in the woods because simple contact has been nearly impossible for the past year or so. No one expects to get sexually assaulted. I’m a fifty-year old guy of ample girth —and it happened on a Tuesday, in my kitchen. I had recently relocated to Columbus, and the perpetrator was the first person I had connected with here. Continue reading

I really appreciate an Airbnb host who provides incandescent bulbs in the bathroom.

It’s the little things that for the briefest glimmers make you feel like you matter. All it takes is a second or two of forethought on the part of a stranger, and the world is not implacably aligned against you, or worse yet, completely indifferent… That is, until you die in the least dignified manner possible because you just know that’s going to happen because that little touch made you normal for a second. That is just the universe’s calculus.

The place I stayed in Louisville last week had a few of those touches: there were not TOO many rules; a white noise machine canceled out traffic noise; the “art” on the walls was actual art and didn’t consist of shiplapped words like “family,” “laugh,” or “wine;” among the hardback books with the jackets removed to make them more Instagrammable was a copy of David Rakoff’s Don’t Get Too Comfortable, the title of which is pretty cheeky for an Airbnb. They knew me.

But there was one touch in that charming cottage convenient to Bardstown Road that made me feel human at the moment I was sure I was shuffling off this mortal coil in the least dignified manner. My pants were down around my ankles. I was in the middle of the worst food poisoning I’ve had this century. But when I looked up…

They put incandescent bulbs above the bathroom mirror!

Look, I get it. You’re a busy Airbnb host. You have a lot book jackets to remove and fake epiphytes to arrange. You can’t be wasting your time swapping out 60 watt Soft-Whites. I can’t imagine what it must be like to get a message in the middle of night because some bachelorette party down from Cincy for the weekend can’t use that one light in the corner of the living room. You don’t respond right away, so they start rewiring your eclectic bungalow for 220. Who needs that? Just throw in a bunch of compact fluorescents, and be done with it.

Staying at my Grandma’s place in Wisconsin began to get problematic as I started my teens. The light in the only bathroom consisted of a pair of fluorescent tubes, one on either side of the mirror. They would flicker to life, and you would flicker to death. It was like a monster transformation montage in a cheap horror flick from 1952. Every single blackhead and whitehead, greenhead and yellowhead pulsated under those cool-white, unforgiving lumens. I was as ugly as all those Young Life a-holes at my school told me I was. I lived under the assumption that “Faggot Face” referred to some inherent deformity so troubling to others that it could only be spat out while punching my head from behind to emphasize the “Face.” The punch really drove the point home, and it was hilarious for them.

But I could get thru the abuse somewhat because, when I returned to my home with it’s proper incandescent bathroom lighting, in the master bath, I could look in the mirror and see a kid who wasn’t half bad. Yeah, I’m slightly asymmetrical, my eyes aren’t a real color, and my lips are weird. Not THAT weird; it’s more of the angle my mouth opens to make smiles —too much horizontal, not enough vertical. But at least my complexion wasn’t a shitshow. I had the the occasional zit to pop —about one real humdinger every six weeks. Those were kinda fun, a satisfying Before/After.

There really was never any reason to call me Crater/Mayonnaise Face. Anyways, Faggot Face had alliteration. Everyone likes alliteration.

However, that fluorescent glow left me feeling exposed, bus ride home exposed. I wasn’t alone; my cousin Susan and I used to complain about it every time I was up in Wisconsin. The only thing that made the bathroom mirror bearable was to flick it on and off really fast so they would get stuck in that limbo where they don’t go on all the way: It cuts the brightness in half, and you can stare at pulsating gas tubes until you don’t care about your ugly, ugly face anymore. I was reminded every visit that doing so wasn’t good for the lights.

Thankfully, since I gained control of my own illumination strategy, I have been blessed with a pretty good complexion. I credit it to sunscreen, hydration, not smoking, and, in the immortal words of the gender-f*ck performer Dina Martina when asked about her youthful look, “Slow, steady weight gain!” She said that to a crowd of bears in Provincetown. It killed.

Beards are very forgiving.

Everything was going great, at least in terms of being able to pop into most bathrooms and convince yourself you don’t look that bad, are not THAT bad a person. I mean, you wouldn’t expect uplift from the bathroom at a gas station or an Arby’s. I understand the need for fluorescent tubes in an institutional setting, but for the longest time I could be assured of good lighting in pretty much any bathroom in which I was the sole occupant. Even my bathroom in the mental hospital where I spent the better part of 1999 had incandescent bulbs above the mirror. And a previous occupant had used a diamond ring or something in an attempt to X out their reflection, which is hardcore self-erasure. A flattering warm light can overcome even that.

But then the planet began to spiral into the sun, getting hotter and hotter. Sacrifices would have to be made. Won’t somebody think of the children?!? 

It was decided that we should all replace our incandescents with little spirals of plastic, glass, shame, and mercury.

Almost overnight, self-affirmation disappeared from decent restaurants, shops, even hotels. The harsh coiled light eventually came to guest bathrooms in the private homes of boring people who always have the heat on too high. When I’m bored, stuck, and hot, I need affirmation every six minutes.

Affirmation has now been replaced with an accusatory klieg. Look at how absolutely wrong you are! You can’t hide!

I was hoping this few days down in Louisville would help me reacclimatize to being around people, especially in a queer capacity. For months and months, especially since I began to actively confront it, the trauma from getting sexually assaulted has rendered most social spaces extremely frightening.

Could I duck into the bathroom to chill and collect? No, all I see in that fluorescent harshness is a non-entity who’s only good for providing basic friction to idiots. The flickering, little microbursts of darkness and glare won’t let my brain calm down. It was best just not to go out. 

But maybe a few days in a fun town with my friend Damian, with no chance of that creep showing up, could help me feel human. I could go back to doing things I did before the assault —like just hang with a friend with no expectations. I got in just before dinner on a Tuesday. We had some Canes chicken fingers. Damian’s one of those people who never eats at chains; he would rather bob for questionably-sourced falafel balls in a bodega fryer than step foot in a chain. I love nothing better than seeing him walking his food on a tray. It was real nice of him to do that for me. 

After dinner, we won trivia at Chill Bar. Nothing makes me feel more human than regurgitating factiods at a rapid clip. For the first time in months, I didn’t feel ugly and useless.

Before I headed back to the very conveniently located Airbnb, I asked around about late night munchies. The trivia host suggested a place called The Back Door. Damian practically barked, “Back Door sucks!” I should have listened, but I was drunk with power after watching him eat the Canes. I was also drunk.

I got a few boneless wings and a quesadilla (with a plastic ramekin of guac). Nothing major. I ate about half of it in front of the TV and went to bed. Put the rest in the fridge. 

During the night my intestinal track was replaced with a very gassy crazed weasel. I spent the next twenty-four hours trying to drive it out the nearest available exit —high, low, both. When I wasn’t writhing around on the oh-we’ll-just-use-it-in-the-Airbnb mattress, I was in the bathroom.

Whenever I came up for air, I would splash my face, swish some water around in my mouth, and then check the mirror. The first time I looked I braced myself. Every room in the Airbnb had very harsh compact fluorescents. One of the first things I did when I checked in was toss t-shirts over the lampshades to cut down on the glare. I was sure the bathroom was no different. I would see every broken blood vessel, every bad decision, everything that made me wrong in full contrast.

But when I looked, I didn’t recoil. Yes, I still looked like crap, but I was warm, soft crap. And I could look at my crap face with “soft” eyes, drift away, and relax. The flickeringflickeringflickering wasn’t resetting my brain ten thousand times every second. I could be somewhere else than that Airbnb bathroom.

As a bonus, the bulbs were on a dimmer switch. One of the first useful things I was told after I came out was to get dimmer switches. Dimmers only work on proper incandescents. Those other bulbs stutter as they move between levels. How is that romantic? If anything’s going to be stuttering between levels during romance, it’s going to be me.

Between the dimmer switch and the flecked antique glass in the mirror, I could imagine that I was no longer suffering food poisoning. I could now be ill from some vague 19th century malady. Instead of looking forward to weeks of friends tittering from hearing that I got sick from “eating at The Back Door, now I could look forward to a fainting couch and some nice laudanum.

I’m not broken, just weird. Incandescents let you be weird.

Ever since the assault, I’ve been searching for justice. Rather, I’ve been searching for JUSTICE, some grand gesture on the part of the universe that tells me that I have value as something more than convenient friction for some loser to relieve his brokenness upon. Certainly I would be treated to an entire room turning on their heals to point at him, shaking their heads, then casting him out to wail and gnash his teeth. But he’s really well-liked in “the community” so………….

But I can’t be the one cast out. I need to stay around. I am not worthless. 

Maybe the best way to get justice —or at least justice-adjacent —is to pay attention to the small little fragments of niceness that drift down like the aftermath of sorority pillow fight. These are the hearty , but not too hearty, hugs; the passive-aggressive yet friendly acquiescences to eat fast food; the just letting you sit quietly for moment; the letting me change lanes while I was driving in my car; the incandescent bulbs in the bathroom.

The best thing about these is that people can do them for you, and they don’t even have to know you’re broken. These small justices are for you because you’re a person.

Nothing like a little justice to make you think you look good.

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The mirror in question. You can hardly see the burst blood vessels.

A lesson in karma from the Morlocks

This past weekend I had a major breakthrough in the burgeoning field of PTSD management: I went out on Saturday night like a normal person.

I saw the loser who sexually assaulted me in the flesh in the same room for the first time since I confronted him.

It went well.

I have a lot to say and write about that interaction. There was both vodka and learnings. Stay tuned.

I’ve been going back over the thousands and thousands of words I’ve written but haven’t posted because much of it consists of fragmented jeremiads, poor formatting, and using “fucking” as a placeholder. One of the aspects of Saturday I’m focusing on is my developing sense of justice and its proper scale.

Back in the last week of July, I wrote several pages exploring the relationship between sexual trauma and justice. It never went anywhere because it just devolved into way too many words about the Categorical Imperative. I TA’d Contemporary Moral Issues for two years; I can do Kant. 

But in those pages from late July, I found this snippet:

Maybe he’s walking down the sidewalk, and a grate opens up underneath him. He plummets down a metal chute — with exposed rivets —at an angle about twice that of the giant slide at the State Fair. Steep enough to frighten and disorient, but not too steep where he’ll land with a pain-ending THUD at the bottom. I think I need the pain to continue.

It’s a perfectly fine paragraph. Could be tweaked in a few places, but I think it captures the capricious nature of justice, and the imagining the loser getting slide burn seems right. I hit save and haven’t looked at it since July.

However, considering how my late AUGUST went….

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I try to comfort myself that, despite a constant worry about the wages of my sin and how I’m bound for Hell, it actually was the Morlocks who were summoning me. Maybe they needed recommendations for good Eloi in town. But, the Morlocks know all the good Eloi places; that’s there whole thing.

Instead… Continue reading

A sheer leotard and a sexy bug: Experiencing Ric Ocasek.

Ric Ocasek’s death this past weekend hit me kinda hard. At this point I’m pretty inured to the musical icons I grew up with dying. Prince. Tom Petty. Heck, I even choked up a bit when I saw that Eddie Money passed away a few days prior. “Shakin’” will always be one of those songs that I scream along with when I’m alone and cannot be shamed for my awful, awful voice.

When I heard that Ric was gone, I needed to sit out on the porch for a while and be quiet. Then I put on Candy-O.

Ric was gut punch. 

For me music is an even more of a memory trigger than an aisle of Yankee Candle scents. And the deepest of those memories have a visual component:

–Sometimes it’s a movie I’ve conjured up in my head based on the lyrics. I do a harrowing Edmund Fitzgerald.

–Sometimes I imagine I’m up there performing a song. Usually that song is “Caribbean Queen.”

–Sometimes it’s the layout of the room where I listened to that song. Whenever I see ice glazing the trees, I’m back in our family room on Long Island during the ice storm of 1973 —the ice storm in The Ice Storm. The power was out for days; my dad was out off town on business; my mom was low on smokes. We huddled in sleeping bags and blankets in front of the fireplace. Our only entertainment was a very sturdy, pretty huge transistor radio clad in avocado green pleather. WABC 77 had this thing where they would play a particular song twice in a row, declaring it a “WABC repeat repeat RE-PEAT!” before starting it over. WABC’s chosen song, again and again, while the world froze? “Top of the World” by The Carpenters.

But so many of the musical memories lodged in my brain are tied to the promotional ephemera put out to promote the work. Album covers, videos, even those carnival prize mirrors —I stole three of them from my job at the Zoo Amusement Park: Mick Jagger’s lips, Pink Floyd’s Wall, and a psychedelic nightmare left over from REO Speedwagon’s “Riding the Storm Out” days. They fit perfectly one atop the other on the side of my stereo cabinet.

My intense memories of Ric Ocasek and The Cars stem from this non-musical side of music.

I will get thru the obvious one first. I lost my virginity on a Friday the 13th in front of the wooden altar of a 25” console television playing MTV and the video for “You Might Think.” It won the very first MTV award for best video. In it, Ric cute-stalks a model who looks like his famous model wife but is not his famous model wife thru an oversaturated fluorescent world set against a black background. Video effect follows video effect until Ric turns into a bug. Continue reading

Panic with purpose; or, that man is clearly trying to slip me a Quaalude!

Part 3 of… “Being vulnerable in the face of sexual assault (when you’re pretty sure it was your vulnerability that got you assaulted)”

This past Friday, I had what can only be described as a “beneficial panic attack.”

I had to flee a location. That alone was not unusual. Since I confronted the loser who sexually assaulted me this past May, I have fled more rooms than I have entered. Yes, it’s a paradox that violates all rules of space/time. I know that. I’m not here to explain quantum mechanics to anyone, but I live in a constant state of Schrödinger’s Panic Attack. Every room can contain a variable that will trigger me OR it may not. It’s completely random; I can never be sure until I open the box. And I never stop opening boxes.

PTSD messes with your sense of space and time. I’m told it’s the amygdala.

Entering new rooms has pretty much devolved into the same multi-point kabuki of driving around the block, breathing exercises, looking for exits, etc. Over and over again.

Once that is all done. I can how scan the horizon like a meerkat looking for that single point of information that I can extrapolate into a dire threat to my person.

Extrapolating from single points of information is what gives each panic attack it’s own nuances, it’s own notes. When you extrapolate from a single point, you can go anywhere. Literally. That’s how geometry works. Each panic is different, which is why each one imprints itself on the palimpsest of my PTSD brain. “Indelible on the hippocampus,” as the wise woman said. Continue reading

Yes! And I would like to stop talking about sexual assault now. Please?

Part Two of series that’ll be as long as I need it to be:

“Being vulnerable in the face of sexual assault (when you’re pretty sure it was your vulnerability that got you assaulted)”

Now that I’ve moved past the etymological implications and diversions of the word “vulnerable,” I need to get busy being vulnerable. Seems like the best way to be vulnerable would be to interact with people.

Of course, it was a “people” that assaulted me. There will have to be some work to do before I can go back to feeling my standard annoyance in crowds rather than dread.

Fear has a way of flattening. Going to a bar or a party is like one of those tactical ranges you see in cop shows. Two-dimensional cut-outs pop into view, and you have to decide RIGHT THEN AND THERE whether or not the old lady with the grocery bags is packing heat. Except I have to peer into the cut-out’s mind and figure out whether or not they’re not going to listen to me if I say no —either that night, or a few months down the road. I shouldn’t have to go all Minority Report just to grab a beer and be around people.

But not all people are that smirking loser, although sometimes it seems all people are smirking-loser-adjacent. Since I confronted what happened, it’s been very easy, too easy, to recall all his behaviors as threatening. Then it’s a quick step to concluding that every action by every person is a threat.

But, there must be literally dozens of people in Greater Columbus who are not him. And nothing like him. If not, I’m screwed anyways. Continue reading

25 days of joy, constraint, & my holiday brain: Day nine.

I got the window seat at the coffee shop on a snowy day…

Bite me, Mrs. Murphy!

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Instead of doing what I “should” be doing, I’m looking at snow.

It’s a wintry vindication.

Being able to stare at snow in lieu of work is one of my most cherished activities. It’s been that way since the first day it snowed outside of Mrs. Murphy’s fifth grade class at Malibu Elementary in Virginia Beach.

That helmet-haired, pinchy-faced woman was probably the most damaging teacher I’ve ever had. Continue reading

25 days of joy, constraint, & my holiday brain: Day eight.

This shirt has fucking pockets!

This shirt has fucking pockets!

This shirt has fucking pockets!

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Yes! This fucking shirt!

The one I got last night at the fucking Von Maur’s in the fucking mall. Six dollars!

My six-dollar, originally 78, plaid, heavy twill shirt has pockets!

All it took was a mindless act. Just putting away my earbuds. Sometimes, it’s the simplest acts which unlock the most.

I was walking into Franklin Park Conservatory, the giant municipal biodome. My sister had gifted me a membership. I would’ve been happy enough with the admission and 10% off in the gift shop. But I had a new shirt that the gentleman at Von Maur’s assured me looked as good as a six dollar shirt can look on someone. Continue reading

25 days of joy, constraint, & my holiday brain: Day seven.

Having the whole hot tub, swimming pool, and/or ocean to myself.

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The pool at the Belvedere.

Kate Winslet was right. At the end of Titanic there clearly wasn’t enough room on that headboard for both her AND Leonardo DiCaprio. Jack had to die so Rose could experience the joy of being in the water alone.

There is nothing better than floating alone. When I’m in the ocean, I like to face away from the beach so I can’t see anyone else. Then I pretend I’m Rose, just floating alone, not a care in the world. And somehow still clutching a big ass diamond.

A couple of Sundays ago I spent an afternoon in Columbus, Indiana to soak up that sweet, sweet modernism. I spent the night at the Hotel Indigo downtown. They had an indoor pool and hot tub. Since this was a Sunday night in December, the hotel was practically empty. 

I had the whole pool area to myself —I was nothing but moist, pruny bliss for around 90 minutes.

I could crank up my music, line dancing to Donnie Iris’ “Ah, Leah!” from the 3’ section to the 4’8” section and back. And forth. Again and again. Above the water and below. I am a graceful nymph when unconstrained by most of the gravity.

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Then I took to the hot tub. It was spiral, a fibonacci of pleasure. The unique layout allowed me to contort myself in front on the jets in manners both therapeutic and profane. No one want’s to see a middle-aged man releasing his psoas muscle with the jets.

Then back to the pool to dance to the sixteen-minute version of Santa Esmeralda’s disco classic “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”

Then back to the hot tub. My coccyx could use some work.

Then pretending to float dead to “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins.

I lifted my head out of the water only to see a mother and a father with their toddler. The parents let out a sigh of relief at not having to explain the dead body to the front desk. The little girl was ready to leap in with her puffy pink winter coat. “Come on in. The water’s fine!” I crooned. The girl accelerated he pace to the edge. 

“We’ll wait until after breakfast tomorrow.” They took their daughter away from the happy man in the pool.

One of the best things about solitary pool bliss is that many times your very alone-ness engenders further bliss…

This past August I took a long weekend on Fire Island. I stayed at The Belvedere: A Guest House for Men. The hotel is gay man’s 1950s fever dream, all decaying Roman statues and oil-paintings of young men doing calisthenics.

As is often the case in places with “…for Men” in their names, the entire hotel was clothing optional. Because I’m just soooo blindingly pretty, I optioned clothes upon my body. Why drive men crazy with something they can’t have?

I’m very claustrophobic; I don’t like people pawing at my body; it makes the walls close in. People think just because you’re staying at the gayest hotel in the second gayest town on Fire Island, you’re a sample cart at Costco. “Please try the Nervous Irish Sausage. It’s only $8.99 on the end cap.”

I actually had to shriek, “This is not a negotiation!” at one gentleman. He assured me that I didn’t understand that entering the hot tub, even when it’s empty, was tantamount to me consenting for an inner thigh massage. “It’ll loosen you up.”

Thank you… happy being tight.

Therefore, I was in heaven the one night I had the whole area to myself from 11pm to 12:30am. It was a salt-water pool. Something about the extra buoyancy gave me the confidence to remove my trunks. Nothing ruins being naked than other people seeing you naked.

The Belvedere had a classic disco Sirius station playing in the pool area. How often in life does one have both room to twirl AND the option to do so naked?

The upside of being the only male in the pool “for Men” is that when someone comes down to the pool, looking for thigh massaging opportunities, they cannot handle your bliss. The see a solitary dumpy —yet blindingly pretty —middle-aged guy frolicking to a 12” of M’s “Pop Muzik,” and they’re kinda weirded out. Most folks do not find the vision of me frolicking sexy, and for that I am glad.

So they leave.

You know you’re properly alone when your solitude makes intruders uncomfortable.

 

25 days of joy, constraint, & my holiday brain: Day six.

When the cat fails at something…

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There is an old Far Side cartoon captioned “Nature scenes we rarely see.” In it, a six-point buck leaping over a fallen log gets his antlers ensnared in a low branch. The panel cuts right through the anthropocentric need to view animals and nature in general as this perfect ballet existing for our edification and pleasure.

That is nonsense. Animals are just folks in funny suits trying to get from point A to point B with the least amount of mistakes. And just like I have driven all the way to gym with my iPhone on the roof of my car, animals mess up all the time.

To the untrained eye, my tortie cat Kim is perfection. [All cats are perfection, unlike those slobbering suck-ups without the good sense to retract their claws on wood floors, the dogs.] First of all, she’s quite beautiful with artistically asymmetrical tortie markings punctuated by deep green eyes. However, it takes her a good thirty seconds to get her face together before perfection. During this time, she is how I am 90% of the time. Thirty seconds of bonding over our imperfections.

Then there’s the elegance. She’s like a prima ballerina, but with a tail for extra stabilization. But…

She spent the first 18 months of her life in a tiny cage at the vet’s office. Consequently, she can hardly jump. She needs to commando herself onto the bed, jumping onto the side of the bed and pulling herself up, paw over paw. Not only is this amusing, it also serves to remind that I can overcome obstacles too —once I stop laughing at the cat.

Last night, when we were fighting on the destroyed Crate and Barrel ottoman that serves as her Octagon, she fell off. This was not one of her calculated leaps off the ottoman to re-gather herself on the floor before lunging teeth-first into my forearm. This was a mistake. Looking into her eyes as she realized she was going to go down, I hope I was able to offer her solace as all certainty collapsed around her. I could see time slowing down for her, like how a car accident seems to take and hour to play out. I expected her to give up on the game/ultraviolence. But all it took her to collect her certainty was fifteen seconds under the bed. I wish I could get my shit together with fifteen seconds in a tight space.

After Labor Day, I returned from my sister’s lake cottage with two wicker plant stands. I placed them in the middle of the dining room. About five minutes later, when Kim was feeling her Cheerios and turbo-ing thru the house, she ran full speed into one of the stands. It went about two feet in the other directions while she went a foot back. Then she retreated into the previous room… and bolted thru the dining room, steering clear of the offending wicker. After she was sure she could make it thru, she returned to rub her face all over the plant stand. Accept your defeats; regroup; win; literally rub face in it.

When an animal messes up, I am closer to being one with creation.

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