Most often, almost every night, I dream I’m still living in California, either alone or with fantasy family—an imagined aunt and uncle. Either way, I live in a big house with a private library that I, of course, collected myself. There’s always some crisis back in New Jersey as the dream unfolds. The crisis is always vaguely family related—my mother or one of the babies—and I’m always filled with a deep sense of dread and urgency as I spend hours of perceived dream time anxiously trying to pack 10,000 books into a small rental car for an emergency cross country road trip. Leaving the books is never an option. In fact, for some reason that is unspoken but perfectly logical in this dream world, I can’t go anywhere without my entire private library in tow. It almost feels like a physical handicap, or a mental disability to my dream self. And, so, I spend the whole dream standing in a book cluttered driveway, sweating in the hot sun, trying to plan the impossible. I keep getting more and more anxious. Frightened. Desperate. I know that every minute I fail to do something is another minute I won’t be there for my family, but I don’t even know where to start. How do I even begin to do this? Sometimes I wake up crying, clutching my chest and coughing, my mouth cotton ball dry. But only sometimes.
for all my many students
For most of my writing life, I’ve usually just wandered through the world paying attention, listening, writing in my journals every night. So when I started blogging, that was the mode of writing I naturally fell into—literary journalism, I’ve come to call it. And of course, it wasn’t too long before friends and family members started getting angry about this or that thing I’d written, or the way I’d portrayed them, or the way they perceived I’d portrayed them. It’s gotten messy—angry phone calls, screaming matches, and, most recently, cold shoulders and passive aggression. Some people preface every conversation with, “And you’re not allowed to write about this.” Others have cut me off because they don’t trust me not to write about them. It’s exhausting.
So today I’m trying to write fiction, using an experience I’ve had often as a forty-two year old professor of ten years, and imaging a thirty-five year old fictional me living through a fictional version of that situation.
But just for fun, I’ve decided to imagine my thirty-five year old character being much more confiden, much more ethically loose, and much much better looking than I’ve ever been.
Isn’t fiction fun? Here’s the beginning of a draft of a short story, as yet untitled, that I may or may not finish. Enjoy!
It always starts the same. I’m invited to a party by a friend of a colleague, and some aunt or uncle or older cousin finds out I’m an English professor, a professional writer, and their 18-22 year old daughter is really struggling in a college writing class. Could I please help her? They’ll pay me well.
And then they call her over, the lovely young daughter, and she’s always gorgeous, oftentimes in tiny sun dresses—Summer parties—one time in a formal evening gown, no kidding, this afternoon in a tastefully small white bikini: good taste, I thought, and a natural grace, so comfortable with her muscle toned body.
“Clara, this is Jacob.” her mother, beaming, introduced us. Dad sat silent.. “He’s a professor! He can help you with your writing problems.”
When we shook hands she looked at me with eyes her parents never noticed. Their daughter would be working with a private professor, they were busy imagining behind those goofy smiles. They held hands gently on top of the glass patio table while Clara shook my hand with enthusiasm bordering on satire.
“It’s nice to meet you, Professor Jacob,” she said, smiling and staring into my eyes.
“Just Jacob is fine,” I responded, smiling, going along with her the handshake, her oblivious parents still gazing at each other with pride.
“Jacob, like in The Bible,” Clara added, slowing down the handshake to a serious pace, a firmer grip. “Always trying to climb that ladder to Heaven, huh?”
She winked and laughed a little. I didn’t say anything in reply. I just smiled until the silence got awkward, our hands still locked in the shaking. Mom was already prattling on about something else. Dad still sat gazing and silent.
“Well, I’m not a fan of Biblical names, Jake,” Clara said, finally breaking the silence. She let go of my hand, and folded her arms to playfully ponder this social problem.
“How about I just call you Professor,” she declared, a playful eureka moment, “I like that much better.”
The first letter—a bill, really—reminded me that I only have a few more weeks to pay the outrageous minimum payment due on just one of my student loans.
Two other letters were to inform me that economic deferments had been approved on two other loans—one ending in October of 2014, the other in the middle of next January.
The fourth and the fifth letters were duplicates explaining that if I have multiple loans with them—which I do—the Department of Education may group some of my loans together into something they’re calling a “Payment Group.” And if, the duplicate letters continue, I would like all of my loans grouped together into one monthly statement—imagine that!—I should call them right away and let them know.
I assume they say “right away” because Sallie Mae is itching to finally to stop wasting $2 in postage, every damn month, sending me handfuls of contradictory and/or duplicate letters.
Incredible. I mean, thank goodness the smart people are in charge. Bless, America!
The Car Accident Story, Part 2
He didn’t believe me, the trial lawyer who took on my car accident case, when I said I make my living as a literary blogger. At least he didn’t take the making a living part seriously. That’s what I suspected from his body language and the smug grinning look on his face. My suspicions were confirmed after the first arbitration with the defendants car insurance company.
“Just so you know,” my new attorney cautioned, pulling me aside in the parking garage immediately after the meeting, “this was the first step in a process that they could drag out for a few years, so…”
“Well, I expected as much,” I responded, thinking that was his final point. Then he suddenly got stern with me.
“Don’t interrupt me when I’m talking,” he snapped. “Learn to let me finish.”
I waited. He continued.
“I was going to say that, until we get this case settled, you should really cut it out with this fucking blogging shit.”
I don’t think anyone ever screamed at that lawyer the way I screamed at him that morning.
first posted on April 16, 2010
Someone gave my nine-year-old nephew an M1 helmet to play with. The M1 was the combat helmet used by the United States military from World War II to 1985. The M1 was also the helmet my father wore in Vietnam.
I text messaged an outraged protest to my sister. “You should throw that helmet in the garbage. Better yet, you and your son should destroy it together. You should burn it.”
My sister responded, “Is this about our father? I don’t have a father. He’s an asshole.”
My father was an asshole: that’s true. But it wasn’t his fault. He suffered–and still does–from shell shock and survivor’s guilt. Almost his entire platoon was wiped out in a firefight. Only he and two others made it home. He was shot in the leg. He was awarded a purple heart and a bronze star for bravery with valor.
When I was a little boy, he always thought he was still in the jungle. He often heard helicopters. He used to sit in the yard and watch the trees—probably scanning for snipers. His eyes were always startled. His wide pupils were fixed in paranoid attention.
And when it rained in the summer, say a late New Jersey August, and the environment became more jungle-like, my father would claw at his chest in panic. Summers were violent in my house.
“No!” I was typing furiously into my iPhone. “This is not just about our father. This is about the war I’ve been studying and speaking out against my entire life. This is about the war that destroyed our family. And I just think that.”
She cut me off with a brief text: “Are you ok? Do you need to talk?”
I suffer from clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder because of the abusive parenting of my war-crazed father. As a result, my family thinks I’m made of porcelain. They check on me. They worry I’m “getting sick again.” When I call my mother to say hello, she always answers with, “What’s wrong?”
I know they do this out of love, but it isn’t very loving. It’s insulting and hurtful.
It hurts me because they have no idea who I am. It’s apparent they’re mostly ignorant of my values.
They don’t know that I’ve written for New Jersey Peace Action, or that I’ve marched on Washington. They especially don’t know that I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for over ten years. I took formal Tibetan Bodhisattva vows. I considered becoming a monk.
My family doesn’t know what Buddhism is, or what Bodhisattva vows are, or how significant these decisions were to me. They don’t know I have vowed to work for peace always. They don’t know I have made a deep philosophical commitment to education. I feel it’s my human responsibility to help dispel the suffering of ignorance. They don’t take me seriously. To them, I’m crazy Charlie. And until now, I’ve just tolerated it.
But that helmet is a line for me. That helmet offends me as a second survivor of the Vietnam War and as a war scholar. I’ve studied the state lies behind wars. I’ve studied the psychological aftermath, the creative catharsis, the poems of the wars I lived with—hot and cold. I’ve written against war.
As a child, I was physically beaten by war. I tried to grieve this with my disabled father when I was in my twenties. He took me to the VA hospital for lunch once. I listened to the few horror stories he was willing to tell. We cried together—a little. I told him I wanted to mourn with him, that I wanted to grieve the theft of both our childhoods. He didn’t understand. I moved to explain, but then—out of the corner of my eye—I saw a man whose face was bleached pure white and burned by chemical weapons. I just looked up from my coffee and saw him. He had no lips. He had no eyelids. He had no hair. His face—his entire head—was a giant white scar. He looked like a dying vampire. I was startled.
When he caught me staring—I couldn’t help but stare—he ran from the cafeteria in shame. I sobbed on my father’s shoulder. I was shocked and ashamed of myself. My father awkwardly soothed me. He told me to never support a war. I haven’t.
I wonder how that disfigured man would feel if he saw my nephew wearing that helmet—the same helmet he was wearing when he lost his face?
I know it makes me feel alone. Living with a psychologically shattered veteran taught my sister nothing about war, it seems. She will focus on denying the tragic American legacy of my family—the damage that a war did to all of us—while her son carries on the old lie of war glory.
I can’t play along. I learned from the war poets—Wilfred Owen, Randall Jarrell, Bruce Weigl—there is nothing fun or playful, sexy or glamorous, or glorifying about war.
I know that war is always the sacrifice of the poor, in the name of the self-aggrandized arguments of the rich. And I know viscerally that war sends shockwaves of trauma through a family—through several generations of a family. War trauma is cross-generational. I am living proof of this, as are my sister and my mom. Yet, they put an M1 helmet on that child’s head.
So many have forgotten the government deceit and the shredded minds. The capture of Saigon by the Vietnamese ended America’s war in April 1975. By that time, the Pentagon Papers had been leaked, and everyone was reading the volumes of officially documented lies behind the Vietnam War. Thirty-five years later, to the month, the peace movement struggles on, and so many have forgotten.
War is patriotic again. Military video games are cool. My nine-year-old nephew is forced into a public school uniform. And my country is bogged down in two new wars. The drum beats on. The horror.
My parents divorced when I was ten. My father disappeared soon after. Twenty-seven years later, war is still a cancer in my family. The horror.
I feel like an exile and an orphan.
One writer I knew for several years, a fellow student from my PhD program, said she wasn’t like me. She needed to craft her stories for years, until they were just right, before she could share them with the world.
“No writer can be expected to produce something of high quality every single week,” she scoffed—and I was a fucking moron for even asking, she added with her body language.
Another writer, this one with his very own literary agent, at first balked at the idea of producing 1,000 words per week, and then bailed on writing the weekly guest blog post after the first installment gained hundreds of retweets. Eventually he published his “best work” on another website, one with no social media buttons.
Even the novice writer to whom I made a similar offer—a weekly guest blog post—drifted back and forth between trying to write for me and tying to deal with her abusive ex(ish)-boyfriend.
Soon, I became her free phone, chat, and text therapist. Before long she was calling me, drunk and sobbing, at 4 o’clock in the morning. Finally, I just stopped answering the phone when she called.
I’m just too busy writing. Sorry. Please get some help.
In the five plus years that I’ve been writing for this website, steadily gathering my audience, I’ve offered to share my growing stage with every person I’ve ever known who self-identified as a writer. And in that time, I’ve encountered an impressive array of excuses for not contributing work to njpoet.com, but they really only come in two flavors.
1.) Some writers are just too scared to really try writing for the purpose of gathering readers. Thoughts of not being “good enough, yet,” get them stuck in a rut of preparing, constantly getting ready for writing; or they craft and re-draft and revise their poems and stories until the text finally dies, until it can’t possibly be published anywhere.
I empathize with these writers. I really do. I used to be just like them, but trying to help them has never worked, ever. Trying to help them has only robbed me of my own reading and writing time, and then neither of us is writing.
2.) Other writer friends, well, they just have no respect for what I do. They have no respect for blogging, for social media, and they especially loathe Twitter. These writers spend their time mailing out submissions to offline literary journals. They build impressive publication lists full of titles only university libraries own, and usually only the dusty paperback versions. Then these culturally approved literary geniuses use these lists of dead achievements to attract the corporations, to get their 600 page novels published, to promote the books themselves and keep almost none of the profits. Maybe.
To these writer friends I usually say, finally, after months of pointless debating, “Fine. Fuck you, then. You go do that, if that’s what you want. Whatever. I’ll just write for my readers more often. No problem.”
It’s gotten beyond frustrating, and I’ve had more than enough, to be perfectly honest. My five year search for regular guest bloggers is finally over.
Luz will be so very happy.
From now on—on this website, anyway—I’ll be writing solo, unless, of course, some hungry young writers can manage to change my mind.
The woman who would become my first wife was in the process of moving from California to New Jersey, so Sang decided we had to drop acid one last time before she completely domesticated me. He was like that.
We each swallowed three tabs on a Friday evening, chased it with rum and Coke, and tripped balls through two days of friends coming and going, long stretches of just really listening to music or really watching a movie, and even longer stretches of intense conversation.
Conversation was the basis of our entire friendship, to be perfectly honest. So when we dropped acid, we just kept talking and talking until we ran out of things to talk about—usually some time around 11AM on Sunday morning.
We’d just sit there, silent, smoking cigarettes and drinking cold water, both of us physically exhausted, our minds still lit up from the drug.
This last time, however, Sang spoke.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this for a living,” he said, staring at the curling cigarette smoke that would kill him in twelve years.
I laughed. I laughed out loud. I cackled.
“I don’t think tripping on acid will become a career path anytime soon, man.”
He giggled along with me, his usual convulsive laughter, but quickly moved to correct me.
“Haha! You asshole! No! Hahaha! Not the acid part,” he rolled on the couch, spitting out spurts of smokey laughter. “I meant the conversation part. Hahaha!”
He started coughing from the laughter, from the smoke, cleared his throat a few times and continued.
“Imagine if people paid us to read, follow the news, discuss political issues, and write really great literature about all of it,” he smiled, impish, lighting another cigarette. “Wouldn’t that be fucking awesome?”
And just like that, back in 1998—poof—everything that is this ongoing #njpoet project was born in the back of my mind. True story. That’s really how this whole thing got started. Sometimes drugs can do some good things, after all. So very sorry, mom. It happens.
I wish people would stop assuming they can spew their bigotry around me just because I’m a straight white male, and I wish I could say it was just other straight white males who are guilty of this bullshit. Sadly, I’ve had to sit through more than one hate speech about Muslims or homosexuals from men and women of color.
Sometimes I hear angry calls for mass deportation or suppression of civil rights. Sometimes I hear enraged calls for violence. I usually listen closely, my arms folded, my head slightly shaking, stunned, until I’m given a chance to talk.
“My problem with your opinion,” I told one Puerto Rican man who referred to Muslims as nothing but animals, “is that when you’re not around other white people say the same thing to me about you.”
No response. He just ignored me and started ranting again. Unbelievable. 9/11 seriously fucked up my country.
Everything that could possibly go wrong with a commute. My car traveled at the pace of a leisurely walk to the train station—to pick up Luz—past three accidents and about half a dozen motorists pulled over for by state troopers.
Plus the two major highway merges en route to the station were jammed with cars whose drivers seemingly had no idea what the yield sign meant. Every car tried to squeeze in front of every other until the highway was completely jammed up. A parking lot. Then Luz sent a text saying her train was running very late. Commuter Hell.
We just arrived home, a few minutes before 9 o’clock, about an hour before Luz must go to bed, after a slow, sticky, fume-filled crawl back up the hill to our apartment. Just awful.