Bring the Pain

I stopped writing toward the end of 2014. I’d spent a decade-plus of writing in every square inch of my free time hoping that this would lead to being able to write in my Paid Time. That never happened and it appeared unlikely to ever happen. Each year my free time shriveled up a little bit more and each year it grew more exhausting to cram as much writing into a smaller and smaller space in the hope of achieving my poorly defined personal goal of Making It As A Writer.

I’d felt this way many times before. In fact I’d churned through emotional boom/bust cycles about writing so often that you could set your calendar to them. The difference this time was that I’d acquired some physical ailments that made writing literally quite painful. Namely: spinal stenosis. You might know it as the same thing that knocked David Wright out for most of last season. Peep this article if you wanna learn what he has to do to make playing baseball tolerable. It’s a laugh riot.

It’s a condition with a wide range of severity and symptoms. Normally it emerges later in life; Mr. Wright and I are two of the lucky ones to acquire it at a relatively early age. For me it emerged after I finally made a serious commitment to get healthy and lost a bunch of weight. My excess flab was apparently the only thing holding my spinal cord in place.

Without going into all the gory details suffice to say that in my case sitting still for sustained periods of time—such as the amount of time necessary to get any meaningful writing done—hurt like hell.  My Paid Time already required me to be sedentary for long stretches and that was barely tolerable. To then come home and sit still some more to write was torture.

At first I knew next to nothing about the condition and figured there was something that could be done about it. I actually went to the doctor (a unicorn-rare event for me) and sought orthopedic treatment that included physical therapy meant to strengthen other muscles and thus take pressure off my ailing spine. I asked the doctor how long it would take for the pain to go away and she informed me that I should not consider this something to treat but something to manage. She said it in the same tone a rental car clerk would use to tell you they were out of compacts even though her answer basically boiled down to You’ll be cured of this when you drop dead.

Here’s the thing about chronic pain: It really hurts all the time. It’s all you can talk about because it’s all you can think about. It colors your view of the universe. I never noticed how many doctors offices were strewn about the streets of Manhattan until I spent several months visiting them and shoving myself into MRI tubes until I glowed in the dark. Then suddenly I saw them everywhere. The city was jammed with tony clinics and shady pain relief basements and everything in between. I’d never realized how many of us were in pain.

Pain pulls you into a bubble where you can see and hear what’s going on in the Non-Pain world you left behind but when you try to communicate the people outside the bubble hear your words as muffled and indistinct. They may want to understand you. They may sympathize with your situation and offer moral support. But sympathy doesn’t translate to understanding and it certainly doesn’t translate into relief.

Pain renders you almost incapable of relating to people who are not in pain. A few months into treatment I went to a pool party with family friends. There were people there in my age bracket and I should have been conversing with them about politics and mortgages and so forth. Instead I  gravitated toward the older folks. People of my parents’ generation.  Because when I told them I had a spinal issue they would nod in recognition and compare notes on various painkillers. These are your people now, I told myself.

That’s another thing I found out once I entered my World Of Pain: Painkillers work really well. I can definitely see why those things are so popular.

My mother suffered from similar problems at the same time as me and we often discussed Pain as a concept. The point she made over and over again was: No one cares about your pain. Everyone thinks they have pain and to an extent everyone does. Life is pain, as the Dread Pirate Roberts said. But the all-consuming mindset that grips you when you have pain that will not go away no matter what you do is almost impossible to convey to someone who does not share that experience. You might as well try to describe a washing machine to a dog.

I found the physical barriers to writing too high and too wide. If I did dare to write I thought I could only write about pain and it would come across as complaining to those not in pain. I felt preemptively resentful toward an entire world that wouldn’t Get It. I’d always been an angry person but I don’t think I’d ever been so bitter and I didn’t want to share that bitterness if I could help it. And no one was waiting with baited breath for my latest words anyway.

So I stopped.

A year passed. Daily PT helped improve my pain a few slivers but sitting for long stretches remained a trial at best. Other medical issues emerged that are too scary/pathetic to recount here. Morrissey wishes he could write a song half as sad as my visit to the orthopedist—not the one mentioned earlier, a different one, because I know lots of orthopedists now—who instructed me in the halting technique of “how you have to climb stairs now.”) In the interregnum my feelings about Writing In General hadn’t improved at all. If anything they had soured even more.

And yet at the very end of 2015 I wanted to write again. For years I’d had an idea in my head for a novella-length story. I’d made several aborted attempts to write this story in the past but never got farther than a few disconnected fragments. The main character was clear enough in my head that I knew these pieces didn’t work but I wasn’t sure why. The story needed something I couldn’t name but also knew I couldn’t provide. Now I could. The thing this character and this story was missing was some true understanding of Pain.

I worked as much as I could stand every day and churned out pages faster than I thought possible and somehow finished a draft in a crazy short amount of time. Then I immediately jumped onto a few other short story ideas that had also bounced around my head for years looking for that missing something to spark them. I wrote more words during this concentrated period than I have at any other time in my life. Not despite the pain but because of it.

These stories are still in search of a good home. I don’t hold out much hope for any of them ever seeing the light of day. (The rejection notices piling up in my inbox indicate this strongly.) But it’s all there and it’s all real and if anyone wants it they know where to find me.

On the non-fiction tip I wrote a few things on Medium in recent months when the mood struck me and I wasn’t quite committed to restarting this site just yet. I didn’t want to reopen Scratchbomb after a year of darkness only to abandon it a few months hence if my mind took another cruel turn. But I think I’m ready to venture forth again on the web in this space if nowhere else. I doubt I’ll be contributing around the interwebs as I did in days of yore because I can’t commit to doing things in my free time the way I once did (See: above). But again: If anyone wants me I’m easy to find.

I cycle through feelings about The World and my place therein. Half the time I think everything is pointless.  The other half I think everything is pointless but I gotta do stuff anyway. I’m doing my best to ride out the former feeling the best I can and produce as much as I can when the latter strikes. Sometimes my best is terrible. It happens.

I think of this idea as Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus via Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown will never kick the football and never win a baseball game and never get a valentine and even Charlie Brown seems to know this. He always greets his inevitable failures not with shock but with resignation.

Yet he tries anyway because what else is Charlie Brown going to do? That’s not hope but that’s not despair either. It’s closer to acceptance.

Jeff Bezos Makes the Trains Run on Time

This week brought a post by Matt Yglesias at Vox in which he says, more or less, it’s a good thing that Amazon is bringing the publishing industry to its knees. I’ve made my position on Amazon clear, but even beyond my baseline antipathy toward the online shopping giant, Yglesias’s post disturbed me. It exemplified the most troubling attitudes of the Silicon Valley Thinkfluencers who are supposedly leading us to a glorious digital utopia.

The thrust of Yglesias’s pro-Amazon argument is that the publishing industry is full of inefficient corporate dinosaurs. By this reasoning, Amazon’s dominance of the bookselling market has done nothing more than expose that industry’s soft underbelly. Now that any person can make an ebook and sell it on Amazon themselves, he says, publishers are “superfluous” and “don’t contribute anything of value.”

Yglesias’s main objections to the publishing industry seem to be over questions of efficiency. He believes publishers should put their money into software/hardware development and marketing, and not into author’s advances. They should stop publishing print books, which cost way too much to produce and ship. They should charge rock-bottom prices for their ebooks because these cost very little to produce.

The culture of digital innovators lies somewhere between Ayn Rand and Logan’s Run. For them, the Invisible Hand Of The Market dictates the path on the evolutionary cladogram of business. Follow it or die. The implication of Yglesias’s post is that publishers’ failure to take any of the steps he prescribes is proof enough of their obsolescence, a sign their extinction is not only inevitable but deserved.

The problem is, publishing can’t follow Amazon’s example, even if it wanted to. The industry was founded around a far different core than the company that aims to bury it.

It is true enough that most publishing houses now are owned by conglomerate behemoths indistinguishable in their size and structure from the GE’s and Viacoms of the world. It is true that publishing houses, like any branch of the culture industry, produce as much malnourished dreck as any fast food chain. But this bloated exterior is wrapped around a nucleus that actually wants to produce quality.

At their core, publishing houses are charged with the long, laborious process of enabling  the creation of art. This process is almost like developing prospects in baseball: It resists being rushed, is rife with the potential for failure, and doesn’t always prove lucrative even when good “product” is produced. An editor could spend years working on just one book with an author, believe with all his/her heart and soul that it is The Great American Novel, and release it into the wild, only to watch it go over like a lead balloon. Publishing is the opposite of efficient.

It is telling that nowhere in Yglesias’s piece do considerations of literature or art come up. The word editor is mentioned once, and then only for Yglesias to suggest a big-time author like George R.R. Martin could hire a freelance one if he wished to self-publish. In other words, editors should join his vision of the 21st century and be set adrift on the rocky seas of The Gig Economy.

Efficiency is Amazon’s religion. Amazon’s enormous success rose from its ability to bring you the things you want when you want them. Amazon has zero stakes in the content of your package, except to see that it gets to you as scheduled. This credo drives all on-demand internet businesses. Netflix, Seamless, Uber, Airbnb, and all their imitators operate on the same idea. None of them “make” the service they provide (except possibly Netflix and its “original shows,” at best a gray area). These businesses simply ensure that the service is provided.

What Amazon and its kin also have in common is that their efficiency comes from relying on all the dirty work and high costs to be carried out by traditional businesses. Amazon has never tried to create books any more than it’s tried to make t-shirts or dumbbells or coffee tables or any of the other billion things they sell. The considerable costs involved in creation—R&D, editing, advertising—are borne by others. Once someone else pays those costs to produce something, Amazon steps in to offer it at wholesale prices.

Amazon is praised for its logistical wizardry, but even this “efficiency” comes at the expense of others. It farms out fulfillment to third-party contractors (and washes its hands when said contractors abuse workers).  The burden of its deliveries, in man-hours and stress, is placed on other organizations both private (UPS) and public (US Postal Service).

Think back to when Netflix was new and still primarily a DVD-rental service. The problem and cost of processing all these oddly-shaped red envelopes fell on the Post Office, while Netflix shrugged and said Good luck with that. The old, inefficient Postal Service gets constant threats of bankruptcy. Netflix gets Emmy nominations. That is the world created by our glorious digital innovators, in a nutshell.

Maybe if it publishing were run in a more efficient manner, as Yglesias prescribes, it would produce more and better art. Perhaps it wouldn’t. In either case, Amazon wouldn’t care. If a book is crappy, it means no more to Amazon than if a chair or a HDMI cable or anything else it sells is crappy. The bad review will reflect on the product, not Amazon. If the industry collapses and all we’re left with is a hellscape of self-published One Direction fanfic and Benghazi conspiracy screeds, Amazon would roll merrily along.

I don’t expect a retailer to be overly concerned with quality, whether that retailer is Amazon or Sears. But I would like someone to be concerned with it. What Yglesias seems to advocate is a universe in which Amazon is not simply a seller of books, but the model for making them. Why? Because their model works. And in the mindset of the innovator worshipers, anything that works is inherently good. Why it works, how it works, and who it works for is irrelevant.

It’s this rallying behind a corporation like Amazon for the sheer fact that it “works” that troubles me the most. In the universe where efficiency trumps all, anyone that stands between you and the thing you want is evil. Anyone that gets that thing to you slightly faster is good. Anything that takes time to produce is to be consigned to the scrapheap of history. Anything instantly deliverable is to be celebrated, no matter how rotten it is, because it’s here now.

The prevailing thought Ygelsias is espousing is the one that drives digital business in the 21st century: Stop being so sentimental. Someone was gonna come along and do this. Why not get behind the guy who did it the best?

Thinking like this was once condemned as fascist. Now it’s celebrated as Thought Leading. But at least our latest thought leaders make the drones run on  time. And with free shipping, too.

Scores Settled

When I was in high school I wrote music. When I was in high school I did a lot of things. I used to write stories and write sketches and draw cartoons and draw comic books and play trumpet and play bass. I was not encouraged to do any of these things. I didn’t go to an artsy school and I don’t come from artsy people. I simply wanted to do many things and didn’t understand people who said it was important to pick one thing and stick with it. Who could be satisfied doing just one thing with their life?

Continue reading Scores Settled

Maspeth Avenue, 6:05pm

A mom and grandmother push an angry infant in a stroller. A two-year-old girl with dirty blonde curls flails at her restraints. She arches her back trying to snap herself loose and expels primal howls of want.  If you had no visual and only heard her screams you would think the girl was either being murdered or was committing a murder. She doesn’t care that she looks and sounds crazy. Kids have to learn how to be sane.

I am a half a block away from the trio when the screams first catch my attention. I am walking the opposite direction. We will soon overtake each other. Once I spot them I feel my steps quicken. The little girl is a magnet of anger and id.

I have been where they are many times. Every parent thinks s/he can win a battle of wills with a two-year-old and every parent is proven wrong. You want to demonstrate you will not give a child what she wants just because she wants it. You want to instill some idea of patience and propriety. And then one day you’re out in public with your kid and she loses her mind over something trivial and suddenly your larger point is subsumed by the need for a few precious moments of peace.

The grandmother silently acquiesces to the little girl’s shrieking pleas. She reaches into a bag slung over the back of the stroller to produce the prize that will restore order to her universe.  What the girl wants is a tiny toy gun. Assembled in garish plastic of purple and yellow and green. Shaped like a 1950s idea of a Martian weapon. It is a gun all the same.

The moment the little girl has the gun in her hands she points it at the only living thing in her line of sight. That thing is me. I am five or six feet away when she aims the gun at me and looks down the barrel and jabs it in my general direction. She doesn’t say bang bang but the motion has the same effect. After each “shot” she jerks the gun back and sets it up again as if reacting to recoil.

She adjusts her aim as I get closer and continues to “fire” at me even as I draw parallel to her stroller. The mom and grandmother are relieved the scene she caused is over and say nothing.

I pass them by and continue on my way. The little girl continues on hers being chauffeured toward new targets.

This Season on “Complicated Antihero”

HBO’s critically acclaimed series COMPLICATED ANTIHERO returns for another season of gritty, uncompromising drama.

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO wakes up in a seedy motel room next to a stripper who is totally naked and nude but still asleep. The end table is strewn with empty fifths of Jack and overturned pill bottles. He sits up in bed and places his weary head in his heads while we hear Metallica’s cover of “Turn the Page.”

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO

You try to be a good man. But what is a good man? What is good? What is right and what is wrong? What is “is”? Does anything mean something anymore? Not from where I’m sitting.

CUT TO: COMPLICATED ANTIHERO pouring wet concrete down a snitch’s throat.

* * *

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO is at his EX-WIFE’s house. She smokes and looks on disapprovingly while he watches his  SON play with blocks. He has a look of paternal pride mixed with an immutable element of sadness and also wears a badass leather jacket.

EX-WIFE

You wanna be a father to him now, after all this time? You’re gonna teach him right from wrong? (sardonic laughter) You ain’t no father.

COMPLICATED ANTI-HERO

You think you know what a father is? You think anybody knows what a father is? You think anybody knows anything?

CUT TO: COMPLICATED ANTIHERO running over the mayor with a tank.

* * *

Police interrogation room. COMPLICATED ANTIHERO sits handcuffed to a desk and his face is a little beat up but not so much we can’t see his eyes still burn with righteous indignation over all the world’s injustice. His nemesis, DETECTIVE WISNIEWSKI, gets right in his face.

DETECTIVE WISNIEWSKI

You might beat this rap, scumbag, but mark my words, I will take you down if I have to do it all by myself. Because YOU represent everything that’s wrong with this world. We used to have RULES. We used to have RIGHT and WRONG. We used to have CLEARLY DEFINED BORDERS BETWEEN THINGS.

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO lets out a wan laugh.

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO

Did we?

CUT TO: COMPLICATED ANTIHERO whipping everyone in a subway car with a bike chain lit on fire.

* * *

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO sits in a confessional, his hands clasped in prayer and clutching a rosary.

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO

I used to have faith, Father. I used to believe in things like right and wrong. But I don’t see them in this world no more.

PRIEST

I wish I could tell you otherwise, my son. But I’m afraid I don’t see them in this world either.

A single tear runs down COMPLICATED ANTIHERO’s cheek, lit by the slightest hint of moonlight creeping through a latticed window. It also lights up his stubble and makes it look great.

CUT TO: COMPLICATED ANTIHERO forcing some dude to eat an anvil.

* * *

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO genuflects at his FATHER’s hospital bed. There’s tubes up his father’s nose  because he’s gonna die of some cancer thing.  COMPLICATED ANTIHERO grasps his father’s wizened hands in his own and chokes back the tears welling in his throat.

COMPLICATED ANTI-HERO

You never cared for me, Pop! You never taught me right from wrong! You never taught me nothin’!

DYING FATHER

I taught you the most important lesson of all, son. There ain’t no right and wrong in this world.

DOCTOR

So, let’s see how our patient is doing…

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO pistol-whips DOCTOR with crash cart.

* * *

 A dream sequence. COMPLICATED ANTIHERO watches helplessly as a bird pecks away at his hands, eating the flesh all the way to the bone. The bird flies away.

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO wakes up, in a different motel room next to a different totally naked nude stripper. He sits at the edge of the bed and rests his head in his hands.

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO

What does it mean? What does anything mean?

CUT TO: COMPLICATED ANTIHERO throwing a flaming school bus at an orphanage.

A potentially explosive collection of verbal irritants