I Filled My Moleskine Journal Today

A couple hours ago I filled up my black moleskine journal (could I be a bigger writer cliché?). The last page has a poem on it. It’ll probably never see the light of day, just like a good 50% of the poems and story snippets that fill my journals.


I’ve been writing in journals and on random scraps of paper since I was in high school. The first poems I wrote were short, usually 3 or 4 stanzas, 4 rhyming lines each. They were terrible. But they fit the college-ruled notebook paper I had at my disposal.

Over the years, I’ve written in numerous journals of various styles: Hard covers, soft, pages of ruled lines, completely blank pages, full- and pocket-sized notebooks, and even receipt paper when no other options afforded themselves to me. Once, when I was a barista, I used the back glass of a pastry display case to write out a stream-of-consciousness character sketch. If I don’t get the words down as they enter my mind, I’ll never capture them again. (I’ve been kept up many nights arguing with myself whether or not I should get up to write down a stray idea.)

There was a time in my life when I was filling up a poetry/random writing journal at least once a year, if not more frequently. In one of the three boxes I own, there is a stack of journals that date back to my freshmen year of college. The growth in my style and talent is pretty dramatic. The differences between my first journal and the most recent could probably be held up as conclusive evidence of evolution. They’re completely separate species.

Going back through a journal is always a revealing way to revisit a period of your life. I’ve never been a diary kind of person. Even with this blog, I rarely write this kind of post, the ‘what happened to me today,’ type. But looking through this most recently completed journal was very strange. A little sad.

This moleskine dates back to my time in Chicago. I must have started it quite recently after I moved there. The first thing I wrote in it was a brief short story that I posted years ago: ‘Ground Zero.’ It’s not a particularly remarkable story, I don’t think I ever seriously tried to get it published. It’s barely an idea. But it’s the leadoff hitter in a journal that traces my years in Chicago, Nashville, and Seattle, as well as most all of New Orleans. That’s a prestigious slot.

In this notebook are the remnants of 4 cities, 3 relationships (and some not-relationships), countless cycles through depression and hypomania. There are poems aplenty, but also short stories, chapters of novels (finished and unfinished), the occasional attempt to write about my day and even notes to ex-girlfriends that have never been read. There’s love in the pages, but also hate; joy and sadness; fear and elation; a man looking back, and a boy looking forward.

I used to be able to trace my evolution from one journal to the next, but with this journal spanning 4 years, it’s a little disconcerting how much has not changed. There are different locations, new names and faces, even contrasting stylistic choices in the way I write. But for all those surface modifications, the narrative in the words and images is so cyclical it’s dizzying. In one reoccurring theme, I giddily pursue the wrong woman, hit rock bottom, climb back up, start anew, do it all over again. Or, I trudge through loneliness in a new year, find friends and acceptance, begin to feel caged and then leave, only to reenter my isolation.

I suppose all lives are like that to some extent. We all have our habits, some healthier than others. Even when we break with old patterns, it’s usually only to create a new one. How many times do we stop and think, “Why am I having this same fight, again?” We’re all Sisyphus pushing that same damn boulder, even when it’s up a different hill.

I like to pride myself on my adaptability, my ability to evolve and grow as a person. And I think I have grown, considerably.

But in many ways, I’m still the same person who left Kansas 8 years ago. I don’t like to admit it, but the proof is in the Moleskine.

My Moleskine

Ah well. Does anyone have an extra journal they could give me?

A Return Trip

In less than a week, I will fly out of Nashville on my way to Seattle.

But before I hit the Emerald City, I’m taking a detour through the Windy City.

As you know, Chicago was my previous city, a city that encompasses all that I love about urban living.  Getting a chance to return for a few days and see old friends has me pretty pumped.  I don’t make return trips often.

In fact, only one other time.  While living in San Francisco, I returned with my girlfriend of the time to Orange County to accompany her at a family funeral.  This is that story.

The Family

The family included a rather deplorable mix of cheaters and liars, and the funeral provided me the opportunity to hear much of their sordid history.  If I confuse some of the details, you’ll have to excuse me, it’s been a few years.

As I recall, my ex-girlfriend’s (let’s call her “Susan,”) father had learned that his mother had had an affair decades ago, but hadn’t confessed it until recently.  Susan’s father was actually the product of this affair, and thus not related to the man he was raised to believe was his father (and only a half-sibling of his brother and sister).  The funeral was for Susan’s great grandfather, the father of the man who raised her father, but who was not in fact his true progenitor.

If that sounds a little confusing, believe me, I know.

I wasn’t close to the family (to say the least), and didn’t want to be there, but Susan wanted me there so I went.

The Father

Now, Susan’s father didn’t like me.  Not from day one.  When he found out she was taking a year off college to move with me to San Francisco, he blew up, storming out to the yard where we were playing horseshoes (?) and cussing me out to my face and essentially disowning his daughter.  This was a 225-lbs man staring down me, a gaunt 145-lbs man.  While at the time I felt angry about his attack, I understand his point of view.  His daughter had only known me a couple of months and had left a long-term boyfriend to be with me, out of the blue.  If I were a father, I’d probably freak out, too.

Lucky for him (and her), I didn’t turn out to be a con artist or a flighty man taking advantage of a susceptible girl.  By the end of our two years together, Susan’s father had to begrudgingly admit I had done right by his girl.  But it made no difference to me, he had already lost any trace of respectability in my eyes.  This is why:

The Recession

While back for the funeral, Susan and I stayed at her family’s house.  This was around Christmas, and even though I don’t celebrate the holiday, I was reluctantly included in their celebration (neither I nor the family really wanted me to be there).  During those few days back, her father took every available opportunity to make snide remarks to me, mostly slight digs at my personality and jobless situation in San Francisco, generally when Susan wasn’t within earshot.

As you may know, my move to San Francisco coincided with the first severe trough of the Great Recession.  It would be nearly 5 months before I landed my job as a supervisor at an independent bookstore.  Up until then, it had never taken me more than 5 weeks to find a job, so by December, I was pretty despondent.  Susan had managed to land a temporary job by this point – something she would have for a little over a month – but our money situation was tight.

To help out with the bills, I had taken to making money however I could, including participating in a mock jury and other research opportunities.  I spent two weeks in a hospital participating in a drug trial.  During the trial, I was given two drugs, one an opiate and another a drug meant to counteract the effects of that opiate.  The idea was to find a drug cocktail that could be given to heroin addicts to help them kick their habit without the severe withdrawal effects.  Unfortunately, it worked.  For two weeks, I spent every sober minute on a single floor of a hospital, most of that time in my one bedroom with the windows blocked so that no sunlight could come in.  If I wanted to see any sun, I had to walk down the hallway to the elevator terminal to look out a picture window that looked out onto a courtyard in the middle of the hospital buildings.  But that was as close as I could get to freedom, because I couldn’t even ride those elevators to another floor.

I was compensated well for my time and the study provided rent through December.  While Susan had to pay upfront, I paid her back in entirety.  I wasn’t happy with the situation, and certainly she wasn’t either, but it was necessary until I could find consistent income.


Back in Orange County:  It was the morning we were to return to San Francisco after the funeral and I was carrying our suitcases out to the car while Susan got ready inside.  Her father was outside in the garage, as he usually was, working on his motorcycle.  He watched me load the bags in the car and then stopped me as I walked back toward the house.

“Finally pulling your weight around here,” he commented in reference to me loading the car.  “It must feel good to be a man again.”

Here it was.  Having not abandoned his daughter or taken her money, he latched onto the next apparent flaw: I wasn’t a real man capable of taking care of my girlfriend, his daughter.

I could accept his distrust of me because it was reasonable (though wrong).  But having this person equate my manhood with my ability to make money was the final straw.  I was sick of dealing with this neanderthal.  I’ve had my manhood questioned plenty of times in my life, and I’ll have it questioned in the future.  The notion that a man is only a man if he is supporting a woman is pervasive in society, even though it’s an archaic, backwards view. 

Let’s set something straight:  If I had been doing nothing but sitting on my couch all day and waiting for her to bring home her wages, there certainly would have been room for judgment.  But I was struggling every day to find work (as a great deal of America is, even still), or any other form of income.  It wasn’t a proud period in my life, but I was not lying down on the job.

Now consider this man:  In a scenario fit for a daytime soap, Susan’s father had found out that he had a long-lost aunt through his mother’s illicit affair.  That aunt had been very wealthy and, upon her passing, had left him a large house in Utah and somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000 in other assets.  Susan’s was not a particularly well-off family, despite the stereotype of Orange County, so a hundred grand represented a considerable sum of money for them. 

What did this man do with that money?  Did he buy his family a larger house?  Did he put aside a hefty sum of it to help his kids pay for college?  Did he put aside savings to support future grandchildren?  Nope.

He bought a stable of run-down cars and a motorcycle and sat them on his front lawn like toys in a playpen.  While his daughter attended college and struggled to pay for it, taking out loans that she’ll be paying off for the rest of her life, he was splurging to have his driveway widened to fit more cars.

This was the man questioning my manhood. 

Well, if manhood is defined by how you care for your family, especially your children, whether that be financially or emotionally, he was a failure.  At times unfaithful to his wife and a reluctant father from the start, circumstances had given him a major opportunity to redeem himself and be a better parent than his mother had been.  Instead, he selfishly indulged his materialistic need for useless possessions, wasting a miraculous opportunity.

I hadn’t even wanted to return to Orange County, let alone see Susan’s family again.  I had put up with this man’s insults and jabs all weekend, but this final display of disrespect was all I could take.

I didn’t speak another word until we were nearly two hours out of Orange County.  Susan recognized I was pissed but I refused to explain the situation until I had put distance between me and her father.  When I did finally confide to her what had transpired, she called him up and bitched him out, but words were irrelevant by this point.

I knew the true heart of that man, and it was nothing I could respect, and nothing I needed to respect me.*

There are moments where you get to see an example of how to live, and you can decide if it’s something worth emulating.  I know, if I am ever a father, I want to be nothing like this man.  He earned his family’s love like an abusive boyfriend, intermixing spurious displays of affection with reprehensible acts of selfishness.

If that is manhood, who needs it?

*The great irony of this story is that a year later, he and his wife were borrowing money from Susan because they were in debt due to a poorly thought out business idea.

Thoughts during an illness.

I’m flu-ish and on medicine and I thought of writing this post while I was unable to sleep last night, so let’s hope it manages to stay coherent.  If not, enjoy the ride.

(Some fitting musical accompaniment for this post.)

Ever since I’ve been on my own, starting with my freshmen year of college, there has been one consistent theme in my life:  a lack of money.  Granted, that’s a pretty common theme for most people (like, ninety percent of the world’s population, actually), but we’re focusing on me today.

In college, I dated a girl who went to college in Chicago while I studied in Kansas.  Having to be apart so much, we decided to live together during the summers while she did internships with newspapers.  First, in Washington D.C. and then, the summer after I graduated, in Charlotte (which is where my 10 Cities Project began).

While I only lived in D.C. for 3 months, in many ways it was the practice run for these yearly moves.  I had to find a job within a short period of time while exploring a city I had never been to before.  (For the record, D.C. is an amazing city.)  While saving up money to make the move, there was a constant fear of not being able to make enough, and then, once I was in D.C., there was the concern that I wasn’t going to be able to find a job and be able to pay my half of the rent.  Well, I made it, but just barely.

And then Charlotte:  Wash, rinse and repeat.  All the same concerns, all the same pressure.  In fact, every year since the year I moved to D.C., I have had to deal with the same series of concerns:

Would I have enough money to make my move?
Would I have enough money once I moved to last until I found a job?
Would unexpected expenses sideline the whole endeavor?

Repeat ad nauseum.

It’s that last concern that is particularly stressful, exactly because it’s all about the unknowns.  While I can’t control how good the job market is going to be in any city I move to, it’s my responsibility to get out there and apply over and over again until something comes of it.

And saving money is, if I’m allowed to boast, my one special skill.  Every year, I must hit my savings goal without being such a tightwad that I miss out on opportunities to enjoy the city I live in, and I’ve been fairly successful.

But there’s no way I can possibly plan for unexpected expenses.  Obviously.

It could be an illness that waylays me for a few days (I’m missing a couple shifts of work because of this current bout).  Maybe it’s the sudden and unforeseen implosion of my laptop.  Maybe it’s the death of someone I know requiring that I fly out for a funeral (thankfully, this hasn’t happened, but it’s conceivable that it could).  Any number of events could pop up out of nowhere and throw a wrench in my plans.  And they have.

For instance:

When I was dating the girl in Chicago, I managed to snag a few pricey speeding tickets while visiting her (in fact, the only speeding tickets I ever received in my life were in route to or from seeing her).  One particular time, while driving home from Chicago late at night, I began feeling woozy and nauseous.  I was zipping down the road, attempting to get home as quickly as possible so I could sleep.  Which is when I passed a cop car that was crawling on the highway.  He nailed my ass going 90 in a 70 (I was actually going faster, but I had managed to hit the brakes).

After that, I was sick for the next couple of weeks.  I assumed it was the flu.

Two weeks later, I was back in Chicago (flying this time) for my girlfriend’s birthday.  I bought her tickets to see a concert (Ben Kweller, with The Unicorns if I remember right, though I was pretty sick so there’s no guarantee I do), at which I spent most of the show in the back hallway, barely able to stay on my feet.  It wasn’t the flu.  It was strep throat.

The next day, having no money and no insurance, the girlfriend and I went to a free clinic in a sketchy part of Chicago (I’m guessing South Chicago, but I can’t honestly remember).  There we waited for approximately 2 hours (maybe longer) before I managed to see someone who confirmed what I already knew, strep.  They gave me a shot of penicillin.  In the ass.

I’m not sure if there is an ideal place to receive a shot of penicillin, but the ass isn’t it.  My right leg went completely numb and I hobbled out of there like Frankenstein’s monster in a cast.

For the next two years, I came down with strep throat at the same time of year, like it was a holiday.  Unlike Chicago, Charlotte and Philly didn’t have free clinics (at least, that I could find).  I had to pay a couple hundred dollars each time for clinic visits and antibiotics.

The point, if I feel like getting to it, is that there are always these kinds of unpredictable costs every year.  I haven’t gotten strep in a few years, but every year there is some random expense that, in the moment, seems like it’s going to ruin everything.

Which makes me wonder, what if those unexpected expenses didn’t pop up?  In a hypothetical world where I didn’t get strep throat, where my computer never crapped out, where any number of financial surprises didn’t appear like a Cheshire Cat, how would my travels have been different?

Would I be sitting on a larger pool of savings right now, or would I just have more stuff?  Assuming I didn’t have to spend that extra couple hundred dollars to have the porcupine removed from my throat, likely I would have bought a few extra CDs, some books and movies,  maybe gotten a few extra drinks with friends.

Would I be better off with more money, more things?

I don’t own much right now.  Other than a little bit of furniture that I’ll leave behind when I move again, all I own are my clothes, a laptop, some kitchen supplies and a couple boxes of books and DVDs.*  I don’t really need any more than that.  Want more?  Sure, but need…

Make no mistake, I’m not grateful for strep throat.  No one who has ever had strep would ever be grateful for that throat holocaust.

But having these extra expenses in my life over the length of my travels has taught me, forcibly, just how minimal a life I can live.

I have a sort of odd fear that someday I’ll achieve enough financial security that I’ll be able to fill my life up with stuff.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to live my whole life stressing over money.  I would love to have a steady enough income that I wouldn’t have to worry about paying my rent or buying groceries.  But, at the same time, I know how security leads to complacency and laziness.

I’d like to think that if I ever get to a place where I’m financially secure, I won’t completely lose the ability to live minimally.  I want to have enough money to take care of myself and my loved ones and to travel and experience the world and art.  But once those basic needs are taken care of (and traveling is a basic need for me), I hope I find better things to do with my money then buying a TV with 3D glasses or sheets with a 500-thread count (both perfectly nice things, I’m sure).

It’s too easy to forget the difference between what we want and what we need.  Sometimes, an unexpected financial crisis helps bring things into focus.

*I realize that in most of the world, owning what I own would practically make me a king.  I have no delusion that I am by any means poor or lacking, not in a global sense.

Ground Zero

Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press

In honor of the publication of Ground Zero, Colin Nolquist phoned his mother for the first time in eight months and had a conversation with her for all of six minutes.  The topic of his novel never came up.

In the book, Nolquist unravels a sprawling seventeen second moment experienced by roughly 3,000 people in one unbroken, ricocheting sentence across 382 pages, beginning with the word “Red” and ending, starkly, with, “breath.”  Hailed as one of the most ambitious, eye-opening works of the new century, Nolquist’s name rapidly joined those literary luminaries who are oft praised but rarely read.  All of this held a tinge of vindication.  Or at least it would have, if his novel had been any good.

At thirty-one, Nolquist drank less than he had in his twenties, ate less, slept less, fucked less.  He no longer smoked.  He entered his mature period with morbid rigor and the rewards of his healthier, saner lifestyle were a published novel, his name in a (frankly, middling) New Yorker review and less frequent panic attacks.  Also, his myopia had deepened.  The qualitative aspects of his life had improved.

And then there was Clarice.  Clarice Dunlop, of the rounded hips and dull red hair, was not a celebrity’s trophy girlfriend, but Nolquist, by no stretch of the imagination, could be called a celebrity.  And she was still prettier than Mali, his previous girlfriend.  Plus, she had sufficient intelligence to appreciate his talent, but not enough to see through his gimmicks.  Within the nebulous purgatory of professional respect that he had fought his way into, knowing that Clarice would never see through “the shroud of his illusion to the rather pedestrian series of ropes and pulleys drawing the flaccid narrative forward” (as one astute critic put it) was a comfort.

It had been Clarice’s idea to drive the ten hours from New York City to D.C. for the first stop of a perfunctory book signing tour in the eastern seaboard’s smallest bookstores.  On the way, they would detour through the heart of Maryland’s bland territory to spend an evening with Clarice’s parents.

“It’s perfect,” she had gushed.  “My parents always say they feel like they barely know you.  And daddy will love your book.”  With no good excuse affording itself, Nolquist implicitly agreed to the rendezvous.  Two hours by highway from the nation’s capital, Clarice guided her three year-old hybrid through the streets of Oceanside, a vainly affluent township with fifteen churches and vibrantly green lawns in front of every house.  It was mid-October and a smattering of houses had Halloween decorations on their doors.  Stultified pumpkins stared out at these visitors with sly grins and passive malice.

Nolquist felt contemptuous of Clarice’s fondness for this town.  The glazed pleasure on her face seemed portent of something sinister behind the neutral colors and welcoming picture windows.  He recognized the inherent cliché in his suburban bigotry, founded on nothing more concrete than his city upbringing.  An aimless story idea was forming, sprouting from every gaudy mailbox and brick walkway, but the plot growing out of the imagery had no climax other than the unformed protagonist’s inevitable surrender.  The fiction evaporated as they drove up onto the Dunlop driveway to find the homeowners waiting on the porch.

“So good to see you,” Mrs. Dunlop gushed with kisses placed affectionately on both Clarice and Nolquist’s cheeks.  “Too long,” she added, shaking her head somberly.  After pulling back from hugging his daughter, Mr. Dunlop draped his left arm firmly around his wife’s shoulders and extended his right to Nolquist, beaming a genuine smile, his handshake firm but receptive.

“Any bags?”

“Just a couple of small ones, daddy.”

“You and mom go inside, we’ll grab them.”  Clarice smiled broadly at Nolquist whose forced attempt to reciprocate left the skin at the edge of his eyes smooth as ironed cotton.  He watched the two women enter the house before following Mr. Dunlop to the trunk of the car.

“Packed light,” Mr. Dunlop noted approvingly while slinging Clarice’s lime duffel bag over his shoulder.

“Yeah, we try to keep as bare as possible when traveling.”  Nolquist lifted his own navy backpack out of the trunk before Mr. Dunlop slammed the lid closed.

“That’s good.  The missus can’t run to the store without a caravan.”  Mr. Dunlop laughed heartily, and Nolquist, sensing an attempt at a laugh would sound insincere and a nod would seem disinterested, split the difference with yet another milquetoast smile.  Mr. Dunlop patted him on the back and walked towards the house.  “Don’t tell her I said that,” he whispered conspiratorially over his shoulder as they entered the house.

“So, tell us about this novel.”  Mrs. Dunlop placed a deliberate emphasis on the word, as if it were a foreign language she was afraid to mispronounce.  They were sitting on plush, plum-colored couches in the living room, sipping sangria while waiting for the brisket to bake.

“Oh, well, you know,” Nolquist demurred.  “Just something I’ve had in the works for some time.”

“It’s absolutely amazing,” Clarice interjected, her hand squeezing Nolquist’s elbow.  “Daddy, you would absolutely love it.  Love it!”

“I’ve heard good things,” Mr. Dunlop addressed Nolquist intently, yet affably.  “Clarice sent me a copy and it’s on the top of my pile.  Next one up,” he added, a merry glint in his eye.

“I’ll certainly be interested in your thoughts, Mr. Dunlop.”  Nolquist nodded at his host, then met Clarice’s cheery gaze.

“Happy to provide them.”  Mr. Dunlop turned to his wife and stated matter-of-factly, “Smells done to me.”

“Oh, it does,” Mrs. Dunlop agreed, slapping her knees as she stood.

“Help your mother, dear,” Mr. Dunlop commanded with gentle authority.

“Yes, daddy.”  The two women exited, daughter behind mother.  Mr. Dunlop waited for the kitchen door to swing shut before speaking.

“It’s interesting, I’ll give you that.”

“It is?”  Nolquist asked, alcohol sloshing to the back of his throat.  “What is?”

“Your book.  You’ve got a fine conceit.”

“Oh, well, thank you.  I didn’t think… You read my-”

“Not sure there’s a point, though.”  Mr. Dunlop leaned forward and set his glass on the oak coffee table between himself and Nolquist.  “Seems pretty flimsy, once you get past that conceit.  A whole lot of style without a story.”

“That’s been… I mean, well, it actually is about a lot of things-”

“And misogynistic.  I found that especially distressing.  The misogyny.”

“Misogyny…?”  Nolquist fidgeted, crossing his legs, uncrossing them, then leaning forward.

“It means you denigrate your female characters.”

“No, I know what it means, but-”

“You don’t denigrate my daughter, do you?”

“Your daughter?  No.  No, I never-”

“The author of that book of yours, I don’t think I like him very much.  It seems to me that he wouldn’t be much of a boyfriend, certainly not a husband.”  Mr. Dunlop gazed past Nolquist’s shoulders, as if addressing a camera.  “No, I don’t think much of him at all.”

“I…”  As Nolquist fumbled for a response, Clarice appeared from the kitchen.

“All ready, men,” she blithely informed, giddy as a little girl.

“Fabulous, dear,” Mr. Dunlop enthused, rising up from the couch and smiling at Nolquist.  “You’ve got two hungry men right here.  Come eat, boy.”  Not waiting for Nolquist to stand, Mr. Dunlop picked up his sparkling red sangria and crossed the room, cradling Clarice’s shoulder.  Nolquist, ashen, followed.

Nolquist and Clarice shared the pink and orange ornamented queen-sized bed that had been hers for all of middle and high school.  Dinner had been a boisterous and talkative event, though Nolquist spoke little.  The brisket, Mrs. Dunlop’s one signature dish, was tender and succulent, if rather too salty for Nolquist’s tastes.  He had thirds.

To Nolquist’s considerable surprise, the Dunlops didn’t bat an eye at the prospect of him sharing a bed with their daughter under their roof.  Clarice, exultant at what she clearly considered a successful pairing of boyfriend and parents, slid under the sheets wearing a cotton, white-with-yellow-flowers nightgown that she rarely wore in New York.  She curled up into a fetal position, her arms squeezing the pillow beneath her head.

Nolquist stood at the side of the bed in tattered boxers and a stained SUNY t-shirt.  He studied Clarice, balled up and comfortable within this utterly unreal dream world, her childlike serenity equally as unnerving as Mr. Dunlop’s aside.  She opened her eyes, peering up at him.

“You coming to bed?”  She asked, her voice lilting and inviting.

“Yeah.”  He lifted up the comforter and lowered himself down next to her.  She let go of the pillow and pulled herself to his body, her breasts and meaty thighs pressed into his stiff form.

“I’m so glad we came here,” she whispered.

“Mhm.  Me, too.”  Nolquist felt her eyes on him, but he didn’t look at her.  He could sense her radiant grin boring into his warm cheek.  Staring up at the white, textured finish of the ceiling, he feigned a yawn and mused out loud, “I should call my mom tomorrow.”