I am, for the first time in a very long time, not living under perpetual fear. It’s kind of a rush. One of the many changes brought about by the last six months, when I stepped off the plane in Trat, Thailand and found myself in a rehab center. I’d intended to stay for a month – 28 days – but found myself there for a total of 12 weeks. I had my last drink before I went into rehab six months ago. This is the longest I’ve gone without a drink since I was 15 years old.
None of this world have been possible if it hadn’t been for Mama Jane, my unofficially adoptive New York atheist Jewish mother who lives in Hong Kong, and her husband, Frank. They’re the ones who sent me to rehab, flew me there, paid for everything. I literally owe them my life: In the months before I left for rehab, the depressions had become so severe, and had gone on for so long, that I had decided to kill myself. Suicide. Not because I wanted to die, just because I wanted some relief, and I didn’t see any other way to get it. I decided, “I’m either going to kill myself or go to rehab, and I can always kill myself after rehab, so…”
I have no idea who Stephen Covey is, but goddamn if he doesn’t have a good quote on him: “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage – pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically – to say ‘no’ to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.”
I don’t care much for sobriety itself. I miss whiskey. I miss craft beers and pairing wines with food. I miss weed. I miss magic mushrooms and LSD. I miss cocaine. I miss the bursts of euphoria, the chemical drips in the back of my throat, the burn of liquor and the way it warms my guts, the roughness of hash smoke, the taste of really good weed, the excitement of waiting for a pure MDMA gel cap to reach my blood stream and take me on a helluva journey with a couple of good friends. I don’t much care for abstinence. I don’t like the word”recovery.” I miss getting shitfaced. I miss getting high.
But here’s the bigger”yes” that’s burning inside: I get music, poetry, unadulterated experience, clarity, full access to the entire range of human emotion, the ability to connect with other human beings instead of just being drunk in their vicinity. I get self respect, self love, courage instead of chemical fearlessness, pride, self honesty, a chance at real, lasting happiness instead of the frenetic bursts of euphoria that punctuated my depressions. I get a chance to live instead of just continuing to survive.
Staying sober? Staying clean? That’s the price of admission. That’s the ticket that gets me access to all these other things that I want more than I want a drink, a joint, a pill, a line. And if it turns out that I can’t make this work, if I find out that all I really want after all is to get shitfaced and let loose at every opportunity, and if I find out that I can’t be happy and sober at the same time – well, I can always go back to being a drunk blues singer who bellows sloppy whiskey songs into microphones from dive bar stages, takes whatever drugs he can get his hands on without going too far out of his way, stays so soused that he never really gets a hangover, and drinks himself into an early grave. But I have to find out if I can make this work. That bigger “yes” that’s burning inside.
And I can’t escape this strong suspicion that this is going to continue to be one helluva ride.
Because there is so much to do, time stretches and compresses. Moments are longer, simple tasks taking much more time than they ought. Days and weeks are shorter, leaving me with the feeling that I haven’t done enough. Not enough has been accomplished. Shouldn’t I have done more?
Five and a half weeks left until I drive up to Chicago and board a plane to Hong Kong. The earthbag office we’ve been working on for the last year is still unfinished. We’ve shoveled countless tonnes of dirt into sandbags, moved hundreds of sandbags to the building site, laid endless feet of barbed wire between the rows of bags, and the end is finally in sight. The last week has been spent with the green Makita chainsaw that I’ve grown to love so well. It’s familiar, feels like my chainsaw. We have a relationship, me and the Makita. It tells me how to cut, follows my lead. We work together. It’s more than a tool, now. It’s a friend.
I’d hoped to have the building done by now so that I could focus on the firewood. The family’s 45-acre plot has around 20 wooded acres and, in the woods, there are plenty of dead and damaged trees to fell, chainsaw into firewood lengths, and haul to the over-sized shed (I call it a barn, though I know it’s not). We’ll borrow our neighbor’s gas-powered wood splitter (25 tonnes of pressure in a single point at the end – the wood will split), then stack the firewood, leaving it to dry a little more for the last few weeks before it gets very cold and moisture no longer evaporates. It’s not enough time, but it’ll have to do.
The weather is already changing. This morning, the outdoor thermostat read 44 degrees (6.5 Celcius), cold enough to bring by good winter jacket back from its purgatory in my closet. My breath is visible. I can barely tell when to stop exhaling: when does the smoke end and the fog begin?
Because there’s so little time, and because time stretches, I’ve become progressively more confused about the days. Is today Tuesday? Friday? Sunday? It could be anything. Only the tasks matter. Firewood, and the earthbag office. Writing takes a back seat.
Today is Saturday, which makes this week’s Fiction Friday a day late. Not that I mind. The week has been full of progress, visible results: chainsaw-milled lumber fills the garage with a fresh pine scent (which smells nothing like the air fresheners, hallelujah) and I’ve started practicing writing more honestly to prepare for writing my four months in Hong Kong. Of course, I haven’t written a lick of fiction for the last week.
There is, however, another installment of World War Clown ready to be read.
After the break…
Time has passed quickly. Time passes quickly. Anticipation, however, puts the future so far out of reach that my return to Hong Kong seems impossibly far away.
There’s so much to do before my departure, and I’m lovin’ it, feeling like a McDonald’s television advertisement for saying that I’m lovin’ it, and losing myself in the balancing act, tottering between anticipation and enjoying the time I have left in rural Indiana, where there’s real peace and quiet (never mind the insect orchestra screeching through the night, and the neighbor’s heavy excavation and farming machinery, and the offroading course a couple miles down the creek, and the sound of gunfire as deer season begins, and the sound of passing pickup trucks, and the Tom Waits grumbling of the 64cc Makita chainsaw that seems to dance through downed wood rather than simply cut).
I remind myself that, in not all too long, I’ll be back in a city, listening to passing cars and the ticking of pedestrian crossing lights, bathed in the light of neon signs and street lamps, feeling the pulse of the city that I thought I knew so well. I never explored much past the bars and waterfront, of course, because that’s where you find yourself when you’re a drunk with delusions of literary grandeur. The bars, the clubs, the 7-11′s – and, during my seven year career as a kid show clown, the chandeliered ballrooms of Hong Kong’s countless private, members only yacht and country clubs, rubbing shoulders with the rich.
Six weeks in the country. Rural Indiana, land of the Hoosiers (as in, “Hoosier Daddy?” or “Hoosier favorite football team?”), has been good to me. I’ve learned what neighbors are: part of a holy trinity of relationships, along with friends and family. The Buntons (Bill, who is a drunk) and the Reinharts (German Baptists, who are like the Amish but with mobile phones and heavy machinery) have become more than neighbors. They’re family friends.
The next six weeks will be spent in the woods, chainsaw running, stockpiling firewood to keep the family warm while I’m away. Once we’ve stockpiled enough wood, we’ll borrow a pickup truck to haul the wood to the shed. Then, we’ll borrow Bill’s big ol’ gas powered wood splitter.
Six weeks of living out in the country, removed from “civilization” – though folk out here seem a damn sight more civilized than the city folk I’ve met. There are exceptions, of course, but folk out here seem better, more alive, and less inclined to find themselves consumed with 21st century depression (not to mention the all-permeating presence of urban malaise).
I’ll miss it out here, just as I’ve missed the city. Not that I believe that one or the other is a greener pasture. They’re just different, and speak to me in different ways.
(Writing updates after the break.)
I often enjoy more lighthearted reading material. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Murakami and King and so on, but there’s nothing like a good pun fest. Bad jokes written well make for some of my favorite reading – and, hell, as fun as it is to read, it’s even more fun to write.
The biggest motivation in writing Zen Motherfuckers was the driving force of irreverence. There’s nothing so sacred that it can’t be mocked.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a healthy respect for holy places, holy moments – moments of peak experience. I’ve had more than my fair share of holy moments, even in the midst of the most mundane experiences. Washing dishes, sipping hot coffee (even made from big red tubs of pre-ground Folgers, even from truck stop fast food joints), smoking cigarettes, knocking back a glass of decent booze (less often these days), shoveling delicious food into my mouth and down my gullet (anything from ramen to a slab of slow roasted pork belly served on squash risotto), long walks down Logan Square streets in the middle of the night – and the list goes on. On drugs, off drugs. Drunk on bargain scotch and stone-cold sober. Natural highs can come at any time and in any situation.
But, then, there’s irreverence. The drive to mock everything. Satire? Maybe. Comedy? I suppose. Fucking with everything? Absolutely.
I write best when I keep these three reasons in mind:
Fuck with myself.
Fuck with my characters.
Fuck with my readers.
With that in mind, here’s the first installment of World War Clown, a piece of prose written for the sole purpose of spewing long strings of bad puns. Expect the next installment sometime in the middle of next week.
In the middle of my decade of drunkenness, I took a break from booze to become a bona fide stoner, smoking about a bullet of hash every day. There was still booze, bottle after bottle of bargain scotch, beer can pyramids that towered in the middle of the single room in the dingy shack that had once been a pig sty; and there were other drugs, too. Pills, mostly. Ecstasy.
Sure, I was a mess. I was nineteen, had shaggy hair, no regular girlfriend, was interesting in little but writing poetry and smoking as much pot as I could get my hands on, had lesbian porn playing on repeat on the computer monitor, which teetered precariously on that old, beat up computer desk a friend and I found next to a dumpster, soaked from several nights’ rain, and did occasional magic shows at children’s birthday parties to bring in a little cash.
There were people over all the time. My pig sty was a haven, a ferry ride removed from the bustle of Hong Kong Island, where we’d smoke pot in joints and pipes and bongs, drink as much cheap booze as we could get our hands on, listen to music as loud as we wanted, and engage in that haughty pseudo-intellectualism common to stoners and college kids.
We ate pretty well, we thought. There were restaurants down in the village where we could get a fix of greasy food – stoner staples, like burgers, pizza, fish & chips – and there were little grocery stores with cheap ingredients. Fried feasts of pork chops and thin-cut steak and marinated chicken breast and sausages, pots of soup, Pringles cans, pots of rice (topped with soy sauce or ketchup if we were lazy, and we often were) – god dammit, but we ate.
Then the gas ran out.
Monkey and my little kid sister were over. (In deference to the kid, Futurama played on the monitor instead of the usual lesbian porn.) We’d been smoking pot, were giggling hysterically, barely moving from the couch. The stove sputtered with little blue flames and died. We giggled, staring at a pot full of udon noodles, wondering how the hell we were going to heat it up.
I glanced at the shower. A flash of inspiration. The solution to our problem.
I cooked the noodles in shower water. They weren’t very good.
I’ll be returning to Hong Kong on November 8th. Eight weeks, minus two days. I’m excited, yes, and a little nervous. It’s been a year and a half, and I’ve grown a great deal since I left, kicked the decade long bottle-a-day drinking habit while in rural Indiana, and I have enough faith in myself that I’m not worried about the drink regaining the upper hand – but I’m still nervous. I’ll be better when I land, I’m sure. The moment I step off the plane, out of the airport terminal and into the humid swamp of Hong Kong’s pollution, I’ll be fine. But, until I get there, I’m allowing myself a little apprehension.
The next eight weeks will be busy. The family needs firewood for the winter – we heat exclusively with firewood – and there are writing projects to finish. Tonight, I’ll be finishing the first editing run of Zen Motherfuckers. After this first pass is over, I’m planning another three, ending with the most difficult edits. The Roadkill / Rapture Boys is puttering along at 500-2,000 words per day. There are short stories to write (eight more before my departure, including this one).
The time, I’m sure, will pass quickly. There’s so much to do in such a finite time. Soon enough, I’ll be in Hong Kong. I have another writing project planned for when I’m there: a travelogue, revisiting the city where I grew up, visiting the places at which I used to be a drunk, only without the oceans of alcohol. The person I used to be – drunk, angry, depressed Jaron – knew the city well, or thought he did. The person I am now? I have no idea what I’m getting into. There are places to see, people to meet, experiences to be gained.
Oh, and I have a working title: Hong Kong Sober
Catchy, isn’t it?
Now, introducing the next short story, Comfortable Strangers on the Early Morning Chicago Train. A true story, not quite abiding by the spirit of Fiction Friday, but it’s a story, and I’m kind of in the mood for this one.
I’ve finally added categories to the blog! About damn time. As much as I enjoy the occasional acronym, filing everything under “ZMF” was getting a little dull. I mean, hell, the least I could do is spell it out: Zen Motherfuckers. (Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it just?)
I’m sure I’ll add more categories later (like “Book Review” and something a little more succinct than “Other Peoples’ Awesome Fiction, Go Check It Out Now, Because It Really Fucking Rocks”), but, for now, three new categories are enough. “News/Updates,” which will cover (surprise, surprise) news and updates, “Writing-Novel,” in which I’ll post the occasional excerpt from Zen Motherfuckers and The Roadkill / Rapture Boys, and “Short Story,” in which (shocking, I know) I’ll post short stories. Fairly straight forward, right? Right.
Now, without further ado, a short story for you guys. This one was written a while back. I asked Robin de Graff for a writing prompt. He gave me “dichotemy.” Checking in at 1,614 words. . .