A Question of What to Write
Saturday sucked. I woke up late. I woke up anxious. I looked at the clock and cursed. Most mornings I can’t sleep in and now when I was supposed to be somewhere, I had. All the enjoyment I could’ve reaped from the subversive complacency of staying under the covers, ignoring the world, was lost to the fact that I was late.
With crusty bits of sleep clinging to my eyes, I scrambled out of bed and rushed through the morning necessities. And then without the proper beginnings, as in no time to get coffee, I ran out the door intent on doing things and being places I had promised people I would.
Unfortunately no one else appeared to know or seemed to care I was late. Traffic was bad. Buses, cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, and an unusual amount of women with kids in strollers blocked every intersection. Gaggles of tourists crowded sidewalks and street corners, pointing and ogling and taking pictures. And yes, I know the Euro is strong, and yes, yes, thanks so much for the needed tourismo cash and all. But isn’t there more to see and do in New York City? And why in hell is the entire EU in my neighborhood on a goddamn Saturday morning?
Without any of the usual screaming or rude hand gesturing on my part, I steered my car through it all, eventually making my way across town to my first destination on time and a little out of breath and full of anxiety. Which wasn’t that easy. I’m not used to dragging my pathetic un-caffeinated ass anywhere first thing in the morning other than down the hill to the café for my usual latte.
Still a bit sleepy, I picked up Barbara and drove to the meeting. We had committed ourselves to setting up the chairs and putting the illusive card table in the corner by the door. Last week when nobody else had raised their hands, we’d both sighed and took on the responsibility. Like good martyrs we’d volunteered to cover for a friend while he was away riding his bicycle across a vast stretch of land most people wouldn’t think twice about circumventing in the biggest arc possible. Yet after I had carried my tenth load of chairs across the large main room and up the stairs to the smaller meeting room in the back, I wondered if maybe he hadn’t got the better end of the deal. Although experiencing massive expanses of dirt with unrelenting sunshine and fresh air while riding a bicycle isn’t my most favorite of pastimes, carrying eighty some odd plastic folding chairs has got to be worse and decidedly less prestigious in the order of things to do.
With all the chairs set up in rows and the meeting about to begin, I ran to the nearest coffee shop and ordered a four shot latte. The woman behind the counter looked at me, shook her head and said, “No, three shots.”
“Excuse me?” I sarcastically asked lifting my hands palms up in the universal expression of “what the fuck?”
“Too strong,” she said. “It won’t taste good, only three shots.”
“Really?” I said. “Couldn’t you let me be the judge of that?”
It would be a gross understatement to say that when I left with my lowly three shot latte I had only a slight resentment toward the woman behind the counter. I’m only too sure had I been some haughty Bulgarian dropping huge amounts of converted Euros, she would’ve happily poisoned me with the offending amount of requested caffeine. And yeah, okay, four shots may be a little over the top and yeah, I’m strung out. But I can quit anytime I want. Really. I can. I just don’t want to. Besides when I try I get this insane frontal lobe headache from lack of caffeine.
But enough of that.
On the way back, I ran into a friend with whom I’d made plans to discuss some of my writing after the meeting. But he said he was stressed out, didn’t feel all that great and asked could we get together another time when he felt better.
“Of course,” I said. “No problem.”
And he said. “Good, I’ll ring you next week.”
An overwhelming sense of anxiety prevailed as I walked up the hill, my three shot latte in hand. Couldn’t be helped, I imagined and mentally crossed that planned activity off my list of things to do as I gulped my drink. The hot liquid scorched the roof of my mouth as I climbed the stairs and took my seat in the rear of the room. For an hour and a half I stared at the back of some unknown person in front me and waited for the meeting to end—my empty stomach making gurgling noises as the acidic coffee churned away, the roof of my mouth peeling from third degree burns.
When the meeting finally adjourned I walked out front and met with the usual suspects. “Are we eating?” someone asked. And like every Saturday for as long as I care to remember, we all went off to breakfast at the café down the street. And as usual the place was crowded and very noisy. Raising my voice I’d tried to order—eggs over easy and home fries—and watched as the waitress blinked. Which caused me to stress she hadn’t gotten my order right. Then I figured it really didn’t matter and turned my attention to the seemingly endless and highly speculative conversation on the upcoming election and the economy. Only no matter where the conversation went, it returned to the same uncomfortable place because really they were all talking about their mortgages, or as in my case lack thereof due to ownership of shit-all, and so I really didn’t have much to contribute. But hearing how my friends’ lives were being affected made me tense and as the minutes slipped away, my anxiety increased until it became a pounding sensation that pulsated through my entire body. And it suddenly occurred to me that I was having a financial orange alert by osmosis.
Remembering some meditation techniques, I started concentrating on my breathing in order to calm my nerves. And while I sat perfectly still and felt the air enter my lungs, I halfheartedly listened to the conversations around me. Across the room an old man sat alone at a small table in the corner and slowly chewed his food while reading the newspaper. A couple in the booth next to him got up and left, a small child running in front of them. Outside the restaurant a bus pulled to a stop. The smell of exhaust blew in through the open front door and invaded my nose as I stared longingly up at what I presumed to be our plates of food on the counter getting cold.
Five minutes later, an eternity worth of breathing, our waitress reappeared and delivered a massive amount of food to our table. With my plate of coagulated eggs and tepid home fires in front of me, I reached for the silverware and began to eat.
“More ice water?” asked the waitress.
“Please,” I murmured through a mouth full of potatoes as I listened to my friends talk.
“Mmmm, that looks good.”
“I should’ve gotten that.”
“I’m craving meat man!”
“My mortgage is killing me.”
“No more talk of money while we’re eating.”
One look at Harvey’s salad and Beth decided she didn’t want her greasy starch laden home fries and scraped them off her plate onto mine. I really shouldn’t eat potatoes; relative of the deadly nightshade, their nasty lectins get deposited in the flesh tissues surrounding bone joints, which causes arthritis. But fuck it. I ate hers anyway, and then I ate mine, a double dose. I should be crippled for weeks.
After breakfast we’re all out front of the restaurant and it was good-bye hugs, and see you laters. Then I drove Barbara home. Parked in front of her house, I looked at the rows of nice single-family houses and wondered if everyone was going to lose their property and if the entire country was going into a depression like 1929. Black and white images of stern looking men in soup lines and in front of dingy New York tenements flashed through my mind as I rubbed my eyes and leaned back in my seat and thought about what I had planned for the rest of the day. For a brief moment I considered going back to the coffee shop, ordering a single shot of espresso, and drinking it in front of the woman behind the counter—thus proclaiming that I’d had my four shot latte and she could go screw herself. Instead I made a u-turn and started to drive to the other side of town. I had promised Anna Lisa I’d meet her at some art show/political benefit where her paintings were being shown.
When I turned off Folsom Street by the elevated freeway I thought I smelled burning plastic. Although I presumed it was coming from somewhere outside, or the car in front of me, I didn’t think much about it. Then that car turned and I still smelled burning plastic, only now it was much stronger. Thinking that wasn’t good, I stopped, got out, and looked underneath the car, worried that a plastic shopping bag had stuck itself to the muffler and was melting away causing the stink. But there was nothing. I opened the hood, peered around, touched a few leads to see if they were hot. The motor was warm, the oil level was a tad low, the radiator was full, everything seemed in place and working. So I got back in and started driving.
All the way out to the Richmond District the car continued to reek. The scorched plastic stench invaded my nostrils and I started to get a headache as my stomach felt a little unsettled. Then visions of my car bursting into flames assaulted my mind as I stressed over the possibilities: a melting tiny fuselage nozzle leaking fuel, a gas line filter ruptured from overheating, a miscellaneous malfunction of fused overheated wires under the dash. Any one the plausible cause of my death in a fireball inferno.
At the intersection of 7th and Geary I realized I was close to the benefit and pulled into the first parking spot I could find. Engine off, I sat with the window open as the burning smell slowly dissipated. As I listened to the passing traffic, my headache increased. I rubbed my temples and wondered if I’d caused myself to become sterile from inhaling the fumes. PCB’s, carbon monoxide, aliphatic hydrocarbons and naphthenes, all that shit could kill you, or at the very least cause brain damage and put a stop to any chromosome-laden sperm production. Not that it really mattered. There hasn’t been any immediate outcry for my sperm or someone wanting to sire my underlings. But who wants to cause themselves undue bodily harm and irreversible alterations to their reproductive organs?
After locking the car, I walked across the street to the fundraiser and went inside and looked for Anna Lisa. Only she wasn’t there and the place was filled with all these political types with agendas in their eyes. And I must have looked like fresh meat because they all wanted to talk to me about whatever political platform they were promoting. But it was a room full of people with similar beliefs and opinions as myself. So I told them all, “I agree with you, I just don’t want to talk to you.” Reluctantly they finally left me alone and I walked around and looked at the art and felt self-conscious and went outside and called Anna Lisa.
“I gotta go, these freakin people are driving me insane.”
“I’m on the bus,” she said. “I’m two minutes away. Can’t you wait?”
I looked in the doorway of the fundraiser. A somewhat cute tree-sitting-anarchist-vegetarian-for-Obama waved at me. I returned her wave, hissed “hurry” into the phone, and then looked at my car and realized I hadn’t put any money in the parking meter. Dodging traffic I crossed the street and stuffed what little change I had into the meter and then paced back and forth as I waited.
“What’s wrong?” asked Anna Lisa as she walked up behind me.
“My car is melting, those people are weird, I gotta go, I’m stressed outta my mind, I can’t deal with this shit right now.”
“Oh. Well okay,” she said as I walked her inside the front door of the benefit. A woman I hadn’t seen earlier rushed up to Anna Lisa and gushed glowingly about her paintings, then talked about some artists I didn’t know. Then she looked me up and down and said, “We’re asking everyone to donate to the cause. You can even do it online,” and pointed to a laptop on a desk just inside the door.
“Melting plastic,” I mumbled. “Gotta go.” Then gave Anna Lisa a quick hug and fled out the door.
Back in my car, the turn signal on, I pulled into traffic. With all the subtlety of a Bush-sponsored financial bailout my anxiety was back and attached to my chest like a frantic weasel. I couldn’t catch my breath as thoughts of the presidential race attacked my brain. Between visions of political talking heads, I stressed over my unfinished list of things to do. I needed mailing labels. I needed stamps. My electric toothbrush was on the fritz. There was no food at home. Maybe I should take what little money I had out of the bank and horde it under my pillow?
Driving along the congested city streets surrounded by useless fast food franchises and scary looking bars, I desperately looked for an office supply store while simultaneously trying to remember where a post office was, or a department store, or a place that sold vegetables. But all I saw were liquor stores and coffee shops and every time I stopped for a traffic signal, the smell of burning plastic enveloped me and all I could think about was the car dying and me stuck out here in the boonies. Or worse, it bursting into flames, my charred body fused to the synthetic fabric covered seats. After passing the fifth futon shop having a gigantic going out of business sale, I finally I gave up and drove home.
When I got to my house I pulled into the garage and held my breath as the burning smell was overpowering. Outside on the street, I breathed the fresh air and closed the garage door hoping the car wouldn’t continue to smolder, then burst into flames during the night. The afternoon sun shone on my face as discarded trash swirled around my feet and I looked around, thinking what a dump my neighborhood was. Then I climbed the stairs, went to my room and jumped in bed, pulled the covers over my head, and fell asleep.
Saturday night sucked. I woke up late. I woke up anxious. I looked at the clock and cursed. It was nine o’clock. I’d been asleep for hours. With my head on the pillow, I stared at the ceiling knowing I had to get up or I’d fall back asleep and then wake up at three in the morning and be awake all night – my Sunday screwed. But I really didn’t want to get up. So instead I continued to stare at the ceiling while thinking of past digressions and people I hadn’t thought of in a long time. Then their faces morphed into Bush and Cheney’s and then I was back with all those grumpy looking men in the soup lines of the Great Depression, which caused my stomach to gurgle. And I thought about food and remembered my breakfast and then I really felt ill. But for some reason that made me think of my writing and I started to think about my book, about what it needed, because it wasn’t working. Something was missing. That something that would pull it all together.
Then an idea came to me and as the thoughts swirled the idea progressed and I began to figure out the narrative my book so desperately needed. Still unwilling to get out of bed, I laid there tangled up in the comforter and thought about how it could work and played with the possibilities. There was a voice in my head and it was exactly the voice I heard when I thought of telling the story to someone else. When this same idea kept coming back and I felt I’d worked it out as far as I could, I got up and scribbled a quick outline on some coffee stained piece of paper I’d rescued from the trash. Feeling a bit smug, I went to the kitchen and scraped together some food, and watched an unremarkable DVD on the television in the living room and then went back to sleep.
Sunday morning I woke up calm. I woke up rested. I looked at the clock and didn’t give a shit what time it was because I knew what I had to do. I had to take it easy. I had to take care of myself – too much anxiety lately. It was messing with my mind and my creativity. I needed to calm down, relax, and come Monday I was going to fix my book.
With that purpose in mind I walked down the hill to get my coffee. At Café Trieste, I said hi to Paul who has been there for years making espresso, and as usual he didn’t say I couldn’t have a four shot latte. He didn’t say shit. He just made the drink, took my money, and then said, “Hi, how ya doing?”
Latte in hand I walked home with the Sunday paper. And then while sitting at my kitchen table I carefully ignored the financial section as well as the front page. Halfway through a ridiculous movie review, I put the paper down and thought about my car and decided I couldn’t deal with it either. It was too much stress to even think about what was melting and I didn’t want to go downstairs to the garage and spend all day under the hood trying to figure it out.
But I did need to do something. I couldn’t just sit around ignoring the news, trying to forget about fucking Bush so I could stop worrying about the economy being destroyed by his cronies. I needed to do something mundane yet healthy to clear my thoughts. The shit these politicians were doing in the name of democracy was not only messing with my writing, it was driving me insane. Which is exactly what they want. This doctrine of fear they’ve been producing to keep the American people agitated enough to accept all their lies was beyond ridiculous. Maybe another color-coded charting system was needed for listening to the media regurgitate the same old tired propaganda they’ve been paid to tell America in order to keep us under the government’s thumb? Like hey, it’s a green level bullshit alert; don’t forget to use your credit cards. And do you really want a Muslim for your next president?
But what was the answer? How was I to keep my sanity while the country was being destroyed? I had already instigated a cognitive change in how I perceived the lies my government told me. And I already knew there was shit-all I could do in the way of immediate relief. Yet I had to do something different, even if it was so small a change that it really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
“I need a new toothbrush,” I said aloud as a sudden a sense of calm spread over my body.
The truth was I’d been stressed about this for a while. My current toothbrush was on its way out; the once finely honed brushing action now reduced to a gentle vibration that sort of rubbed my teeth and caused me anxiety as I wasn’t getting the full tooth brushing experience I knew I should. Convinced I’d found the cause for at least some of my internalized apprehension, I searched the adverts in the Sunday paper and came across a huge twenty percent off sale for the exact toothbrush I wanted.
“Providence,” I mumbled and searched my pockets for my credit card.
Monday morning I woke up rested. I woke up feeling I had a purpose. I looked at the clock and asked myself why I had one by my bed. I never really needed it and I actually fucking hated it being there. In the bathroom I stared at myself in the mirror and wondered if people really saw me as I saw myself. Turning on my new toothbrush I felt the bristles vigorously messaging my gum, the plaque miraculously disappearing, the teeth becoming pearly white. And somewhat cheerfully I hummed along with the motor’s purr.
On my way down the hill I noticed the sky was a brilliant blue against the gray fog that hovered on the hills and thought what a beautiful place it is that I live in. When I got to the café I said hi to the artist guy in the leather hat, and tired to avoid the weirdo with Tourette’s. Then I thanked Paul when he handed me my latte and left.
Finally home, latte in hand, I sat down at my computer.
“Okay,” I said. “I know what to write.” And then stared at the large flat screen as it glowed in my face. Outside a bus drove by shaking the house. A couple of parrots yacked as they flew overhead. A woman speaking Cantonese yelled to someone in the alley. The smell of fresh coffee wafted up my nose as a low rumble of sound coming from the neighbor’s TV in the room above me echoed in my mind.
At that moment, for some unexplainable reason my brain screeched to a halt and a small voice not unlike the voice of the narrator I’d hope to write said, “I give you nothing.” Then my head started to ache.
An overwhelming sense of defeat overtook me as I sat there. Pushing aside my latte, I leaned my elbow on the desk and scratched my chin. Was it possible my mind had finally unraveled? I really wanted to work on my book. I really wanted to try out the idea I had for the narration. But instead I just sat there and wondered if it was better to stay at the computer and force some mediocre writing out? Or was it better to throw up my hands in disgust and move on to something unimportant like doing shit-all nothing?
I didn’t know the answer, but I tried to tough it out, and wrote two pages of crap. Only it felt like my heart wasn’t into it. But something said, “Do it, you have to keep writing.” Only what I’d written wasn’t anything I’d ever want to admit to writing. And then as usual the self loathing that accompanies these moments of defeat came rolling through me and I worried if I was a fraud, that everything I’d ever written was a fluke and that I really didn’t have any talent and the truth was that I was just an unproductive loser.
Sitting at my desk, I stared at what I’d just written and asked myself what was worse: churning out some forced worthless crap and then beating myself up over it being crap, and then having to go through the ensuing self-inflicted mental barrage of the usual drivel? I can’t write, I’m a fraud, I suck, the last good shit I wrote was a fluke and being an unproductive loser is who I really am. Or not write at all and then beat myself up with the usual drivel? I’ll never write again because I can’t write, I’m a fraud, I suck, that last good shit was a fluke and being an unproductive loser is who I really am.
Ah, the choices.
Sort of anti-climactic of me to have figured out what my book needed and then be floundering in the doing. Maybe I’m just too close? I thought. Maybe I need to take an extended break? Maybe I need a hobby? You know, something to take my mind off the creative process and give myself a bit of breathing room. Maybe something mundane and simple like golf. I could putter around the fairways and wear argyle sweaters, and polyester slacks in vibrant colors. Maybe a whole “Fat Elvis” era jump suit/super hero costume while driving golf carts to the clubhouse and drinking frosty cold ones at the “nineteenth hole.”
Or maybe I need a ghostwriter? One that plays golf, wears polyester and could write for me dressed as Elvis and then tell me to my face that I’m useless, a loser, can’t write, or play golf.
It is always good to get a second opinion.
After saving my writing, I closed the computer and went to make myself some food. Then the phone calls started. Friends wondering if I’d seen the news, the stock market a floundering mess because Congress had refused to bail out the financial sector. Wall Street screaming that Marx was right and it was time for Socialism. Bush proclaiming it the fault of the Democrats influenced by foreign investors. Cheney silent as usual as he waited for his farewell bonus from the American people.
Hanging up the phone, I resisted the urge to check the Internet and jump right in with the rest of America as the fear factor was once again being turned up a notch. There was fuck-all I could do at this point and wrapping myself in anxiety wasn’t going to help. Somehow I knew the universe was going to right itself, even if that meant 1929 was back again for a replay.
Somewhere in the middle of my plate of rice and beans, I stopped thinking about the economy and remembered my writing and thought maybe I was being a little too hard on myself. Maybe it just wasn’t time to write and instead I should focus on the good in my life and worry about finishing the book when it comes, after all this morning’s brushing experience had been nothing short of amazing. Afterward I felt those little areas, the one’s between the teeth, deep in the gums, and I knew that I had been shorting myself on preventive dentistry maintenance, and I was a tad overjoyed at the prospect of future gum stimulation and shiny oh so white teeth.
Perhaps that is what I should write about?
“The Oral-B Vitality Precision Clean rechargeable electric toothbrush reduces up to 2X more plaque than a regular manual toothbrush which can cause gingivitis. It uses Advanced Cleaning Technology to surround each tooth and removes plaque for a clean feeling and healthy gums. Superior stain removal versus a regular manual brush means teeth are naturally whitened.
“Precision Clean brush head moves 7,600 times per minute, surrounding each tooth, for thorough cleaning that can help prevent gingivitis.
“And you can even interchange Oral-B Dual Clean or Pro White brush heads on your Precision Clean toothbrush handle.
“Plus, now you can enjoy a choice of limited edition Vitality handle colors to match your décor.
• Helps you brush for 2 minutes
• Reduces up to 2X times more plaque than a regular manual toothbrush, helping to prevent gingivitis
• Interdental tips penetrate hard-to-reach areas
• Indicator® bristles let you know when to replace your brush head
• Ergonomic handle and rubberized grip for comfort and control
• Two-minute timer pulsates to signal recommended brushing time”**
Yes, the simple pleasures in life…
Obama-Biden 2008. What the hell else we gonna do?
** lifted without permission from the Oral B website. (http://www.seizeoralbpower.com/us/mypowerchallenge/products/vitalityPrecision.asp)
A revision of this essay was published as “Barack and the Art of Dental Hygiene,” in AUDEMUS, Volume 1, Issue 2, 13-21 (2009)